Analysis: Auckland’s new climate plan calls for two in five of the passenger cars in the city to be electric by 2030. Is that possible? Marc Daalder reports

As part of a bold plan to halve the entire city’s emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, Auckland Council has committed to ensuring 40 percent of Aucklanders’ cars were electric by the end of the decade.

That’s a robust goal, particularly considering the Ministry of Transport (MoT) expects the nationwide fleet to be just 10 percent electric by the same date. Modelling by transport consultancy firm MRCagney and 1point5, a non-profit policy shop dedicated to reducing emissions in line with halting warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, estimates that without further intervention there will be 1.6 million cars on Auckland’s roads by 2030.

That means some 640,000 vehicles will need to be electric. Since the average light vehicle in New Zealand is 14 years old, purchases being made today are already locking in non-electric vehicles for 2030.

That’s a massive undertaking. Is it possible?

Climate plan ambitious and specific

Auckland’s plan – officially Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Action Framework – puts the city in line with other major international cities and a handful of countries that have pledged to reduce emissions in line with a scenario where global temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average.

That means it is bolder than New Zealand’s national emissions reductions target, under the Paris Agreement, which Ministry for the Environment officials said is not consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. However, the country’s nationwide goal under the Zero Carbon Act is to play its part in reaching the 1.5 degrees goal and Auckland’s response is a part of that.

The ambition here is clear when the top-line number emerges: As with global emissions, Auckland’s must halve in the next 10 years.

Unlike New Zealand’s national targets, which set a total number of emissions to be reduced but don’t outline how to get there, Auckland’s climate plan is based on a modelled scenario that provides a roadmap for slashing greenhouse gases.

The contributions will come from nearly every sector, including construction, transport, energy, waste, agriculture and industry.

For example, all new buildings in Auckland will have to operate on net-zero emissions. Older buildings will be retrofitted – by 2030, half of Auckland’s extant buildings will need to be upgraded to a high standard of energy efficiency. Three-quarters of gas heaters in residential and commercial buildings will have to be swapped out for electric ones over the next decade.

On energy, the city wants to reach 94 percent renewable generation by 2030, which would mean all coal- and half of gas-fired generation would have to be replaced. One fifth of buildings would be installed with solar panels by 2030 and industrial process heat would go 22 percent renewable by the same date.

The city’s waste would be reduced by nearly a third, with another 30 percent of paper and plastic waste being recycled, 30 percent of wood waste incinerated to produce energy and 30 percent of food waste composted, all by 2030.

On agriculture, the city’s limited livestock would have to reduce methane emissions by 10 percent and 15,480 new hectares of forest will be planted.

Cutting cars

But the real challenge comes from transport, which will have to make up more than two-thirds of the city’s emissions reductions by the end of the decade.

Much of this will have to come from taking gas-guzzling, carbon-belching cars off the roads. The headline transport action is to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) by private vehicles by 12 percent, through remote working, shorter drives and increased use of public and active transport.

That commitment comes despite projections from the Ministry of Transport that, at least for the country as a whole, VKT is only expected to rise through to 2055, the latest year for which estimations are available. 

In order to incentivise the reduction in VKT, Auckland will need to increase public transport’s share of daily travel to 24.5 percent, from 7.8 percent, in just 10 years. Cycling will need to become seven times more popular, up to 7 percent from 0.9 percent and walking will have to rise from 4.1 percent to 6 percent.

The city’s freight fleet will need to move electric as well, with two in five freight trucks being electric vehicles by 2030. Another 8 percent of road freight will need to move to rail and the remaining half of the fleet will have to become 15 percent more fuel efficient over the decade.

Similar requirements will be placed on the city’s light passenger fleet. Of the cars that remain fossil fuel-powered, there will need to be an 18 percent increase in fuel efficiency.

The greatest challenge, however, will be replacing two in every five passenger cars in Auckland with an electric vehicle over the next decade. By 2050, that number would need to rise to four in five – a much more achievable goal over the next 30 years. But cycling 40 percent of the fleet to EVs in just 10 years – is that even possible?

Market and policy

Paul Winton, the founder of 1point5 and the person who first modelled what would be needed to actually make a dent in Auckland’s transport emissions, is cautiously hopeful.

Some of the change needed to electrify Auckland’s fleet will come from market incentives alone. In part, that’s the effect of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a price on emissions and therefore makes fuel more expensive. Globally, the price of emissions-intensive products like petrol is likely to rise as countries strive to create an international carbon market as well.

As fuel prices rise, the costs of electric vehicles are also expected to decrease with the improvement of technology and the price incentives of manufacturing at scale. By 2025, automobile industry experts estimate, EVs will reach price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles – and that doesn’t even take into account the savings customers get from never having to buy petrol again.

“By 2025, if you’re buying an internal combustion car, you’re buying a car that’s more expensive to buy, to run, it smells funny, it’ll cost more to fix, it has less miles in it and it’s bad for emissions. Only dumb people buy internal combustion cars new in 2025,” he said.

However, it can’t all come from the market, Winton acknowledges.

“To what extent is there need for more than just market forces to come into play and I would say, quite some. I think there’s an important role for central and local governments in making that happen,” he said.

“That target will only be reached if we have some sort of serious intervention by government, business, whoever else can help us do that,” said Richard Hills, a councillor for Auckland’s North Shore ward and the chair of the council’s Environment and Climate Change Committee.

That is borne out by Ministry of Transport statistics as well.

The Vehicle Fleet Emissions Model is an MoT operation that projects the ways the country’s vehicle fleet will change over the next 35 years. As it stands, the base case scenario for EV uptake indicates that just one in 10 light passenger vehicles nationwide will be electric by 2030.

That’s a quarter of what Auckland needs by the same date. Even under the most optimistic market forces scenario, just 23.17 percent of the country’s light fleet will be electric by the end of the decade. In order to shift the needle, some form of intervention is needed.

What could be done?

Hills said Auckland Council supported the Government’s feebate scheme when it was proposed, but that came more from a recognition that any policy to incentivise EV uptake was desirable, not a specific thought that the feebate was an ideal policy.

Under the scheme, high-emitting vehicles would cost a little more money than they usually would and that added fee would be redistributed as a rebate towards purchases on electric vehicles.

The project was attacked by the National Party almost from its inception – although then-climate change spokesperson Todd Muller and transport spokesperson Chris Bishop had previously and since spoken favourably of a subsidy on EVs, even in the form of a feebate. In January, New Zealand First axed the scheme in Cabinet.

Given other policies, such as a plan to exempt electric vehicles purchased as company cars for employees from being subject to the Fringe Benefit Tax (double-cab utes are also effectively exempted) or an ambitious proposal to ban the import of fossil fuel vehicles by 2035 (something the UK’s Boris Johnson has done), have been similarly scrapped, it is unclear whether EV policy will be forthcoming in time.

“I feel very anxious that we can’t achieve a pathway without everyone playing their part. It’s great to have the Government passing the Zero Carbon Act and having fairly bipartisan support on that but I still don’t see great moves within Government in the action, in the doing,” Hills said.

Nonetheless, Hills is insistent that the plan cannot be achieved without central government support. Even so, he acknowledges, there are also levers that Auckland Council can pull.

“I’ve had a lot of requests for more public charging stations,” he said.

“Auckland Transport are working with Vector at the moment to, if we get a massive ramp-up of electric vehicles and buses, how will that work across the grid? We’ve also got to reduce our own fleet by a couple hundred cars in general and then try and switch out as many as fast as possible to electric.

“Emissions standards for vehicles and some sort of a mechanism that accelerates the adoption of EVs, like the Fringe Benefit Tax or accelerated depreciation or a feebate/rebate – there’s dozens of models of how to do that at a central government level. But you also have a carrot and stick at local government,” Winton said.

“Auckland Transport and Auckland Council as examples both have significant power to influence that. You have high-occupancy lanes which can be EV-preferential. You have parking which can be EV-preferential.”

Winton says any suggestion that EV policy – and, more broadly, any policy targeting emissions – is too complex or unpopular to advance shouldn’t be taken seriously. Auckland’s plan is ambitious, he says, but it is also what is needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Already the world is, on average, 1.1 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial era.

“Many of the targets across our climate plan are ambitious because that’s actually what it will take to halve our emissions by 2030,” Hills said.

“I think it’s landmark that we’re in this position and everyone sort of agrees finally, but I do worry that time is running out and people are thinking we can just put some things in place in 2028. The longer we wait, the harder it is going to be.”

We don’t have the time to stall on policy for political gain, Winton said.

“We will need extra support by central and local government and all of those actors have power. We should not accept them saying they can’t do anything. We should not accept them just pointing to politicians,” he said.

“Auckland Transport, Council, Ministry of Transport and NZTA all have very significant influence in this place and they should start using it.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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