The public sector drum is beating for stronger policies to tackle New Zealand’s problematic transport emissions, including financial incentives for electric cars.

But a get out of jail card – using international carbon credits – is being readied, as the cuts promised by 2030 are expected to be too deep, too costly and, quite likely, too disruptive to be politically palatable.

About 20 percent of the country’s total emissions come from transport, the biggest problem child as the country grapples with how to meet its Paris Agreement climate commitments of a 30 percent reduction on 2005 levels.

Since 1990, transport emissions have increased 90 percent, and they’re still going up. Over the same period, agriculture, the largest emitting sector, has gone up 17 percent.

The Ministry of Transport’s (Te Manatū Waka) briefing to new minister Michael Wood suggests significant emissions reductions won’t happen without road emissions coming down. Meaningful reductions are urgent – and “harder measures” will need to start biting “over the next three years”, the document said.

The Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority (Te Tari Tiaki Pūngao), perhaps best known for its large-scale home insulation programme and energy efficiency ratings, has firm ideas about how to make the biggest gains in the “priority sector” of transport.

It wants the Government to concentrate on light vehicles, by “significantly increasing uptake of low/zero emission vehicles” through “financial incentives to overcome the barrier of higher purchase prices”, and adopting a “robust” vehicle fuel efficiency standard. (In broad terms, they are both Labour Party policies.)

EECA is working with the Business Ministry (MBIE, Hīkina Whakatutuki), and Ministry of Transport on a proposal to overhaul its low-emission vehicle contestable fund. Since it was launched in 2016, it has spent $27 million on 163 projects, matched by $55 million from applicants.

A pivot is needed to areas of greatest impact, EECA said, including the Government taking a more active role in the placement of public EV chargers, their specifications, and promoting greater competition. The uptake of larger, low-emission commercial vehicles should also be encouraged.

(In May 2016, then Transport Minister Simon Bridges announced a range of measures, including the fund and an exemption from road-user charges, to try and get about 64,000 electric vehicles on our roads by the end of 2021. Last month, the country’s EV fleet, including hybrids, had grown to 23,599. A 2019 analysis by the Transport Ministry said only 14 in 1000 light vehicles were petrol/diesel hybrids, while four in 1000 were fully electric.)

Charging stations, like this one in Northland, are springing up all over New Zealand. Photo: Nikki Mandow

The EECA briefing said without a decent fuel efficiency standard, New Zealand “will remain a ‘dumping ground’ for both new and older, higher-emitting cars that cannot be sold in other jurisdictions” that do impose such standards.

(Similar sentiments have been expressed by Toyota New Zealand’s boss.)

Pre-election, Labour promised to increase funding for EECA’s low emission vehicle fund, and ensure only zero-emissions buses for public transport could be bought beyond 2025.

EECA’s other work includes creating a so-called “green hydrogen roadmap”, although there are reservations about the technology’s efficacy, and the authority’s part of a cross-government biofuels working group. Agencies agree it would help to move more freight by rail and ship.

If the last coalition Government had followed through on its policy ideas, the country would be further ahead on its climate reduction goals. Both a vehicle emissions standard and a ‘feebate’ scheme, penalising gas-guzzlers to subsidise electric vehicles, were shot down by NZ First. Last year, Newsroom revealed officials had suggested the Government ban the import of fossil fuel vehicles.

The new Labour-alone Government has pledged the public sector will be carbon neutral by 2025, but that will hardly shift the rudder for transport when it only has about 15,500 vehicles (including 78 electric ones).

Building better cities

A swag of agencies – including NZ Transport Agency (Waka Kotahi), the Transport Ministry, Ministry for the Environment (Manatū mō te Taiao), and Climate Change Commission (He Pou a Rangi) – are working on complementary measures to get people out of their cars. They include more frequent public transport, and investments in walking and cycling infrastructure. Better planned and designed cities would mean fewer people need to get in a car in the first place. The trick will be to ensure low-income families aren’t unfairly penalised.

While the government’s foreign affairs arm is positioning New Zealand as a “global leader” on climate change, our poor record is giving other governments, privately at least, some pause.

Only real action, on a huge scale, can help repair that gap between rhetoric and reality.

However, Foreign Affairs & Trade (Manatū Aorere) said this country’s emission reduction targets were developed “with the use of carbon markets in mind”. That means instead of emission reductions, which might be painful for our two biggest exports, tourism and agriculture, international carbon units might be bought as an offset.   

MFAT’s briefing to the Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, said: “Meeting our 2030 target through domestic action alone would be costly and difficult.”

More will be known early in the New Year, when a draft transport emissions action plan is expected to land.

In early 2021, the Climate Change Commission will consult the public on the shape of climate action in New Zealand. It’ll set emissions budgets, propose an emissions reduction plan, and tackle the thorny issue of biogenic methane. The country’s Paris Agreement target, known as a nationally determined contribution, is also being assessed to ensure it’s consistent with Parliament’s ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

What the Government does with the commission’s advice, and whether policies begin to reduce transport emissions, will determine whether it’s serious about climate change or more interested in a game of offsets and propping up international carbon markets.

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

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