Labour’s clean energy proposals are well-intentioned but will they work in time? David Williams reports

Winning slowly is the same as losing when it comes to climate change, American environmentalist and author Bill McKibben declared three years ago.

“If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win,” McKibben wrote in a Rolling Stone article. “That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced.”

Yesterday, while on the election campaign, the Labour Party promised to decarbonise public transport, ban new lower-temperature coal-fired boilers, and slightly bump up research spending on agricultural greenhouse gases. The announcement included a proposed $70 million handout to wean large businesses off fossil fuels, and earmarked $50 million to help the uptake of low- or zero-emission buses. Labour will also mandate fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles.

This came a day after National Party leader Judith Collins ribbed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for making scant progress on her Government’s promise to make the public service’s 15,000-strong light vehicle fleet emissions-free.

“Transport emissions, especially, have been the growth area of our greenhouse gas emissions over the last 30 years,” says James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington. The country’s latest greenhouse gas inventory, to 2018, says road transport emissions have increased 102 percent, or almost 7600 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (kt CO2e), since 1990. That nudged our energy sector up to 41 percent of our gross emissions, or 32,000 kt CO2e.

Renwick says transport emissions are carbon dioxide, “and that’s the really important gas we need to get to zero by 2050”. “Tackling transport emissions is really important, so it’s great to see the proposal to go to completely renewable public transport, put money into public transport, bring in fuel efficiency standards.

“Any move that gets the vehicle fleet towards totally renewable is a good thing in my opinion, and the faster the better.”

Climate change is an urgent problem – an emergency, Renwick says – and the country has international targets to meet.

Under the Paris climate agreement, New Zealand agreed in 2016 (under a National Government) to reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In an update this year, the Government pledged to reduce biogenic methane by 10 percent below 2017 levels by 2030.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, says global carbon pollution has to drop by 45 percent on 2010 levels by 2030 – just 10 years – to keep temperature increases within safe levels, and the world has to be at “net zero” by 2050.

“The test, as far as the climate is concerned, is whether it actually leads to discernible emissions reductions in the lifetime of this Government.” – Dave Frame

So, will Labour’s policies reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough? Are they trying to win too slowly?

Renwick gets a little coy. He’s optimistic they’ll speed things up but it would be hard to say, for sure, if they alone would meet the 2030 goals.

Reducing emissions isn’t linear, he explains. Once a country starts it can make rapid progress.

“Time’s absolutely of the essence. These announcements are certainly in the right direction and if they were enacted they would be quite a step forward for New Zealand.”

Dave Frame, the director of the University of Victoria’s Climate Change Research Institute, isn’t so kind.

Sure, the policy package is promising and sensible, he says, but he’s scathing that long overdue emissions standards won’t apply to the majority of vehicles in what is the oldest car fleet in the developed world. “The test, as far as the climate is concerned, is whether it actually leads to discernible emissions reductions in the lifetime of this Government.”

Notably, Labour’s promise that only zero-emissions buses can be purchased applies beyond 2025 – after the next election. And decarbonisation of the public transport bus fleet would only happen 10 years after that.

Frame says the Ardern government has a tendency of pushing policy implementation into the future. In a statement that seems optimistic about Collins’ longevity as National Party leader, he says: “There’s more than a hint that Jacinda wants to write cheques she expects Judith to honour. It remains to be seen whether Judith thinks this is a good deal.”

(National’s electric vehicle policy seems easily achievable, while its decade-long, $31 billion transport spend-up included building a four-lane expressway linking Whangārei, Auckland Tauranga, and Hamilton.)

Who else doesn’t think Labour is pushing hard enough? Its coalition partner, the Green Party. A press statement yesterday said the Greens welcomed Labour’s climate commitments but “will push for more action to match the scale of the crisis”.

In its ambitious transport policy announcement last month, the Greens pledged to spend billions on intercity rail and urban cycleways, while vowing to ban, at some stage, the import of new fossil fuel cars vans and utes.

Co-leader James Shaw tells Newsroom transport is the big worry. “The emissions just keep going up because we’ve basically fallen in love with Ford Rangers, as a country.”

(It’s estimated there are 22,000 electric vehicles in the country, out of a light vehicle fleet of about five million.)

Despite polls suggesting the Greens are hovering on the MMP cut line of 5 percent, assuming it doesn’t win an electorate seat, Shaw seems supremely confident his party will get back into Parliament in this election, and Labour might not be able to rule alone. He says transport, farming and clean energy “are the three big priority areas that we’re going to be taking into the negotiations”. “But we will be talking to Labour about what we can do to move on [energy efficient] buildings.”

Shaw laughs when asked how ambitious the next Government has to be to reach our Paris agreement target. “Very. Very ambitious.”

The face of public transport is changing. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Public transport in our big cities is changing already – and a future Government’s policy will, no doubt, have a bearing on how quickly that happens.

In Auckland there are already two electric buses, and another, with a hydrogen fuel cell, is being trialled. Eight new e-buses will start operating on Waiheke Island next month, with a further 21 will arrive for the airport and city link routes by February.

Auckland Transport has already committed to buy only zero-emissions buses from 2025. Wellington, meanwhile, already has 11 e-buses, and is adding another 98.

The bus operator in Canterbury is the regional council, ECan. Councillor Phil Clearwater, the transport portfolio lead, says central government support is crucial to the council’s transition to zero-emissions public transport.

“We are not currently re-examining our plans based on election campaign signals. However, if in future this transitions to more government funding available to accelerate our move to a zero-emission fleet, we will then be able to factor that in.”

Canterbury’s new bus contracts start next month. Within the first year, public transport emission are estimated to reduce by 14 percent, as 25 new electric buses and 39 new low-emission Euro 6 buses are introduced. An additional 28 new vehicles will be staggered over the next two years, with more replacements in the following three years.

Clearwater says there was a deliberate decision to retain some existing buses to keep costs down, and to see how electric buses perform. ECan’s public transport plan says it will move to a zero-emissions fleet “as fast as practicable”.

“The indicative transition timeframe shown is by 2030, however that is – as it says – indicative, and will depend on funding and other influencing factors at the time investment decision are made,” Clearwater says.

Most of New Zealand’s 2600 public transport buses are in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Labour’s policy factsheet says they produce, in total, about 155,000 tonnes CO2e tonnes a year, which, it’s estimated, would increase by up to 45 percent without any change. (Diesel bus pollution in the air can also cause health problems.)

Entrada Travel Group operates InterCity and Skip buses, as well as a variety of tourist coach brands, including GreatSights, Gray Line and AwesomeNZ.

The company’s chief executive John Thorburn says it runs modern, low-emission diesel buses. “But we are closely monitoring the advances in the range of alternative fuels, including hydrogen power.”

Buses might emit a small proportion of the country’s overall transport emissions, but the hope is a huge investment in public transport, as well as safe cycleways and walkways, will shake commuters out of their cars.

For the climate’s sake it’ll have to. Private vehicles make up almost 70 percent of the nation’s household emissions.

Time to think about energy broadly

A focus on transport – the users of energy, the “demand side”, rather than the generators – is a welcome relief for Marc England, the chief executive of electricity generation and retail company Genesis Energy.

His company runs the coal-and-gas-fired Huntly power station, which provides baseload electricity, and is a crucial backup in a dry year for our national power system, which is largely reliant on hydro-electric dams.

“We believe that there’s too much focus, sometimes, on electricity, and not enough focus on how do we decarbonise energy more broadly,” England says. He points out electricity generation, depending on the year, only makes up about four percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, while transport is 21 percent and manufacturing, including coal-fired power plants, makes up eight percent.

Why would the country push for 100 percent renewable electricity – a Labour election promise by 2030 – when, England argues, a low-cost, reliable and relatively low-emission electricity system “is the key to unlocking a lower carbon country”?

“We’re supportive of seeing some policies around the demand side, because we’ve been arguing that electrifying transport and industrial heat processes, particularly, could take 30-to-40 percent of New Zealand’s emissions out over time. And so that should be where we focus our minds, focus our engineering efforts.”

Labour believes there are good gains from banning smaller coal-fired boilers.

Roughly 60 percent of industrial processes and heating, known was “process heat”, use fossil fuels, and generated 8.3 million tonnes of emissions in 2016, Labour’s fact sheet says. Coal might be cheap and plentiful but it’s also a climate nightmare – making up just 11 percent of fuel production in process heat but generating a quarter of emissions.

Conversions are already happening. The Government’s state sector clean-energy drive is slowly picking off boilers at schools, universities and hospitals. Dairy and meat companies, like Synlait and Alliance, have committed to not installing new coal boilers, and promised to replace their existing ones.

What of the country’s two biggest coal users?

The Glenbrook steel mill uses about 800,000 tonnes of coal a year. Its Australian owner, listed company BlueScope, doesn’t comment on political matters during an election.

The next-biggest coal-user is dairy giant Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest firm.

Its Te Awamutu plant is switching from coal to wood pellets, cutting the company’s coal use by almost 10 percent, saving more than 84,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year.

Fonterra’s director of global sustainability, Carolyn Mortland, says its goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, and net zero from manufacturing by 2050 – echoing the Paris agreement target. (On methane emissions from its cows, the company’s “investing in a number of potential solutions to this challenge”, she says.)

Finding alternative energy supplies that stack up environmentally and economically is challenging, particularly in the South Island, Mortland says.

“At the peak of the season, Fonterra needs to process more than 80 million litres of milk that it collects each day – and this requires a reliable source of energy,” she says. “Moving to renewable energy takes significant investment in new infrastructure and energy sources.”

More than half of Australia’s electricity generation last year came from coal. Photo: Getty Images

Fonterra gets little sympathy from Cindy Baxter, of anti-coal group Coal Action Network. “The world needs to get off coal by 2030, certainly developed countries do,” she says.

Baxter applauds Labour’s policy, but believes the phase-out of coal boilers isn’t happening fast enough. Part of the problem, she says, is the free allocation of carbon units to big polluters, like Fonterra and BlueScope, under the Emissions Trading Scheme. (The argument is they won’t be as competitive internationally if they’re slugged with big costs for their pollution.)

“I’d like to see an end to taxpayers subsidising these companies for their emissions from coal,” Baxter says. “That would actually spend a much stronger signal through to those companies that they have to stop burning coal. This is the 21st century – we shouldn’t be burning coal.”

In the last financial year, Genesis, which runs Huntly power station, made direct carbon equivalent emissions of 2.7 million tonnes. The latest annual report says it has removed 1.8 million tonnes of carbon from its electricity generation over the last 10 years, and intends to remove a further one million tonnes over the next decade.

Its plan is to offset Huntly, basically, by building or contracting new renewable generation. The first case is the almost-finished $277 million Waipipi wind farm, a partnership with Tilt Renewables. Genesis will buy all of Waipipi’s electricity.

Chief executive England that’ll “displace” about 450 gigawatt hours (one billion watt hours of energy) of current thermal baseload at Huntly. Genesis will try to find similar displacement for a further 2200GWh over next five-plus years, through contracting, building, and working with other companies.

The power company’s declared it wants to cease coal-use at Huntly, in normal market conditions, by 2025, and end coal use at the power station altogether by 2030. But this pledge might be made more difficult by another climate policy – the Government’s ban on new exploration for oil and gas.

“We’re reasonably confident the 2025 limit is possible,” England says. “We have concerns about 2030, partly because there may not be enough gas in New Zealand at the time – we need enough gas in order to remove coal.”

Meanwhile, around the world the climate warms, fuelling out-of-control bushfires, shrinking the extent of Arctic sea ice, and causing the icesheets in Greenland and the Antarctic to melt at increasingly rapid rates.

“That’s the problem with climate change,” US author Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone in 2017. “It won’t stand still.”

“Ask the citizens of Houston if Hurricane Harvey would meet them halfway. Ask the people of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, or Kiribati, or Tokelau, how compromising is the rising sea?” – James Shaw

Weeks before McKibben’s piece appeared, New Zealand’s freshly minted Climate Change Minister, Shaw, appeared at a United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany.

Politicians often seek compromises, the Green Party co-leader told conference-goers, but you can’t negotiate with the climate. “Ask the citizens of Houston if Hurricane Harvey would meet them halfway. Ask the people of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, or Kiribati, or Tokelau, how compromising is the rising sea?”

New Zealand was committed to having “net zero” emissions by 2050, Shaw said in 2017, and the nation wanted to join other high-ambition countries to lead the worldwide fight against climate change. “Our commitment to this has to be total.”

Yet the coalition government, which included the New Zealand First party, wasn’t totally committed, leaving some, no doubt, slightly bewildered, wondering if the Bonn bombast was mostly bluster.

Yes, the Labour-led coalition should get credit for installing the country’s high-level climate legal architecture – the Zero Carbon Act, establishing the Climate Change Commission, and “fixing” the emissions trading scheme.

But when it came to painful policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions – bending the curve, in coronavirus parlance – there seemed to be a buck each way. Billions spent on public transport, yes, but billions for roads, too. No firm plan emerged for light rail in Auckland.

Promises of transformation without practical follow-through, while our emissions stay stubbornly high. Remember, you can’t win slowly.

Shaw tells Newsroom there’s a lag between when policies are implemented and when emissions drop. “I’m not sure they will drop in that [next Parliamentary] term,” he says. “But if you don’t make the decision, then it’ll never show up.”

Like climate scientist Renwick mentioned earlier, the advice from countries which have been successful at cutting emissions – the United Kingdom’s net emissions have dropped by 42 percent since 1990 – is once emissions growth is decoupled from eocnomic growth, the reductions tend to snowball.

“The UK said that the transition for them has been way faster and cheaper than even their most optimistic modelling,” Shaw says. “So it’s a matter of momentum.”

Renwick, who was so optimistic earlier about Labour’s clean energy policy announcement, says the current Government’s taken huge strides by setting up a Climate Commission and passing the Zero Carbon Act. Now the real work begins.

“We really need to start seeing emissions reducing from now. In the coming three years, should the Labour Party be forming a Government, that’s what I would love to see, certainly. If we don’t see a reduction in emissions over the next three-year term, then things are starting to look pretty dire, actually.”

How do we suddenly make climate action happen fast? McKibben writes in the Rolling Stone: “That’s where politics comes in.”

New Zealand First took great delight in being the current Government’s handbrake. If the Greens and Labour form a coalition after the election, many environmentally minded supporters will look to the junior partner, surely, to become some sort of climate policy accelerator.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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