Analysis: A plan released by Wellington City Council to reduce emissions in Wellington won’t even come halfway to meeting the city’s own targets, Marc Daalder reports

Last year, Wellington City Council (WCC) announced a bold new series of targets to guide its path towards net zero emissions by 2050. The centrepiece was a pledge to reduce emissions by 43 percent (from 2001 levels) by the end of the decade and then continue to progressively reduce emissions from there.

More than a year later, on August 6, the council launched its implementation plan, a roadmap on how to actually achieve the 2030 target. No press release accompanied the debut of the plan – perhaps because it promises only a 14 percent reduction by 2030, able to be increased to 24 percent if central government curbs the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity and fosters greater uptake of electric vehicles.

Even with the aid of central government, however, WCC expects Wellington will emit 200,000 more tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in 2030 than it has promised.

The road to 57

In 2030, WCC wants Wellington to emit just 599,347 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – or 57 percent of the 1.05 million tonnes emitted in 2001.

That’s in net terms, which means it takes into account the ways in which forests and other plant life can sequester carbon.

Already, some progress towards that goal has been made. Over the 18 years between 2001 and 2019, emissions fell by 6.2 percent. That’s way off-track for a 2020 target of a 10 percent reduction and still means the city will have to emit some 287,000 fewer tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2030 than it did last year.

How will it accomplish that?

The Climate Change Implementation Plan lays out the measures available to local and central government to reach that target. It relies heavy on big ticket items with big emissions reduction returns, like the Let’s Get Wellington Moving transport overhaul. That, for example, would take care of up to 25,000 tonnes of GHGs a year by 2030.

Many of the options available to Wellington City Council are transport focused, in part because transport makes up more than half of the city’s emissions. A plan to introduce around 840 car shares to the city – and an assumption that each car share will lead to six private vehicles being taken off the road – would reduce emissions by another 15,600 tonnes.

Overall, the document outlines enough local government policies to reduce emissions by another 7.6 percent, on top of the 6.2 percent that the city has achieved since 2001.

If central government steps in, even more possibilities open up. The implementation plan only counts on two actions from central government – to ensure that at least 93 percent of electricity is produced emissions-free (removing 57,000 tonnes) and to increase EV uptake such that electric vehicles make up 22.17 percent of the fleet (removing 42,960 tonnes).

That would represent another 10 percent in reductions from 2001 levels, but the EV uptake issue in particular might be difficult to achieve. The Ministry of Transport, for example, only expects EVs to make up 9.41 percent of the fleet by 2030 in its base case scenario and the Government has not flagged any policies to significantly increase uptake.

Making up the gap

Out of the 43 percent target, the combination of historical reductions and local and central government measures would account for a 24 percent reduction, leaving 19 percent unaccounted for.

Some of that gap could be closed with other measures the council is looking at, the plan notes. It says another 4 percent, for example, could be addressed through remote working. Despite this, however, the Greater Wellington Regional Council announced a $75,000 campaign to bring people back to the CBD after the country returned to Level 1 in September.

Mayor Andy Foster similarly called on people to return to the city centre in September.

“Now let’s have all our people back in town – our business community and their employees need us all doing that!” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Major emitters in the city are also not addressed at all by the plan.

Despite its focus on transport and despite the airport making up 11 percent of Wellington’s emissions, the plan makes no mention of reducing air travel emissions. The plan is similarly silent on marine transport emissions, which are responsible for 7 percent of the greenhouse gases that Wellington emits in an average year.

Tamatha Paul, a Wellington City councillor representing the central city who holds the city’s climate change portfolio, said engagement with other stakeholders like the airport and CentrePort would be needed to reduce emissions in the city.

“That remainder of the 43 percent is a result of other parties and their contributions to our emissions that need to be addressed. We get to that city-wide reduction target by having good relationships with other stakeholders within the city who contribute to that emissions profile as well,” she said.

However, Rhiannon Mackie, a Wellington-area climate activist and an organiser of the September 2019 School Strike 4 Climate, said that wasn’t enough.

“As a young person in Wellington, it’s really disappointing to see that, while they have these amazing targets, in reality their plans for action are lacking in their ability to meet those targets,” she said.

“While all greenhouse gas emission reduction is good, we need to see so much more than a 14 to 24 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 if we want to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming or 2 degrees of warming. Not doing so, in my eyes, is unacceptable because that’s going to dramatically impact my future and the lives of future generations.”

Paul agreed, saying that failing to meet the target would be a failure of political leadership.

“We have to hit that 43 percent. I don’t think there’s any other way around it,” she said.

“I think it would be extremely disappointing if the capital city of New Zealand can’t hit that target as well. We’re supposed to be leading in that space and if we can’t hit that, then that’s going to be a national disappointment.”

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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