Analysis: New Zealand is playing catch-up in a global race to cut vehicle emissions

There’s only one pump in the country where you can buy locally-produced biodiesel. It’s at a truckstop on Highbrook Drive in a commercial estate in East Tamaki, between a carparking building, a car manufacturer’s head office, and a building site. This is fossil fuel country. Let’s just say, it’s a long way from the nearest train station.

The pump is the bigger size designed for trucks, and I needed to borrow a Z Energy fuel card; they’re not yet making it easy to fill up with biofuel.

These speedbumps need to be removed, and removed fast. In perhaps the most high-powered press conference in the history of New Zealand’s (admittedly under-powered) progress towards mitigating climate change, the Prime Minister on Thursday announced a tranche of law changes to speed up the cuts to transport emissions.

What will it take for your household and business to get rid of your petrol or diesel vehicles? Click here to comment.

She was joined at the Z Energy biofuel plant in south Auckland by the fuel company’s chief executive Mike Bennetts, as well as Air NZ chief executive Greg Foran, Green Party co-leader and climate change minister James Shaw, and transport minister Michael Wood.

Cue a slew of expressions of support from transport organisations that, frankly, haven’t been seen as the good guys in mitigating the climate crisis. “We’ve long said that we want to be at the heart of the climate change solution – working on that commitment is what gets the Z team up in the morning,” said Bennetts. (Disclaimer: it was his fuel card I borrowed; in the interests of journalistic integrity I’ve promised to reimburse the $5 I put on it, or donate the money to charity!)

“We flew the world’s first commercial aviation test flight powered by a sustainable second-generation biofuel in 2008,” said Foran, “and today’s announcement brings us a step closer to making commercial flights powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuels a reality.”

“To transition to a resilient, zero-carbon economy we need a range of initiatives from both manufacturers and government,” said Toyota NZ chief executive Neeraj Lala. “Toyota is playing its role to deliver increasingly lower emitting vehicles.”

Auckland Transport chair Adrienne Young-Cooper, whose organisation is responsible for the diesel buses that alone contribute a massive 2 percent of Auckland’s emissions, said: “We are no longer talking about climate change being something for future generations to tackle. It is real, it is here, and we must address it now.”

But to be fair to these companies, they’re all working desperately hard and desperately fast to transition their businesses, as their chief financial officers warn they face an existential challenge. It used to be described in leadership jargon as a “burning platform”, but I don’t think fuel companies are keen on that metaphor.

Suffice to say, New Zealand faces the same challenge, but hasn’t been working with anywhere near the same urgency. We are one of only three developed countries without a legislated clean car standard. Russia and Australia are the other two, but Australia’s car industry has implemented its own standard.

Two of the countries from which we import second-hand cars because, like us, they drive on the left, are the UK and Japan. Both countries have announced they will phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles, in 2030 and 2035 respectively. Already, their car industries are looking for somewhere to dump their unsaleable, dirty old diesels – and settling on New Zealand.

Japan reduced the CO2 emissions of its new car fleet to 105g/km in 2014; Europe hit that mark last year. Our so-called big hairy audacious goal is 2025, still four years away.

All this is to say, New Zealand is a long way behind in the global race to reduce transport emissions. But now, belatedly, the Government is hitting the gas. And even the Prime Minister admitted yesterday that it was no coincidence her announcement came three days ahead of the Climate Change Commission’s big, market sensitive advice to set the country’s emissions budget and new improved Paris Accord goals.

“The Commission’s advice is likely to ask a lot of all of us and require action in all sectors,” she said. “Today’s announcement is a good step towards what needs to be done.”

But, questioned by Newsroom, both she and climate change minister James Shaw equivocated on his previous assurance that he was “absolutely committed” to follow the Climate Change Commission’s advice.

“We wouldn’t have established the climate commission if we didn’t want to pay heed to what they’re telling us,” Ardern said, “But I do need to make sure that I first receive that advice, make sure we have that decision-making across all Government ministers.” Then she stepped into a chauffeured BMW to depart the biofuel plant.

Shaw said there would be options and sector-by-sector negotiations. “You can go harder on different sectors then, when a sector pushes back and says, we want you to go softer on our sector, the questions is, where do you make it up? So there will be those kind of decisions within the overall emissions budget.” Then he stepped into another BMW.

So what had she announced?

  1. The government will pass a law mandating a lower-emitting biofuel blend across the transport sector. It has not yet agreed with fuel companies what percentage biofuels will be required but given only one of New Zealand’s gas companies has a biofuel manufacturing facility, and that a small one making biodiesel from waste cow and lamb tallow, it seems clear that most of the biofuel will have to be imported.
  2. It will pass Clean Car Import Standard legislation this year to cut emissions and fuel costs – but there is no hint yet of a UK or Japan-style ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles. There will be a glaring exemption for military and agricultural vehicles – every tractor, harvester, mower, topper and bailer in the country. The 3 million tonnes in CO2-equivalent reductions is also equivalent to just 1 percent of the country’s projected transport emissions through to 2040.
  3. It will provide $50m funding to councils so by 2025 all new public transport buses are zero emissions, with the intent that the entire public transport bus fleet is decarbonised by 2035. (Auckland Transport, which runs the country’s biggest bus fleet, revealed to Newsroom this month that it plans to get rid of the last of its 1300-plus diesel buses by 2030).
  4. An incentive scheme like the previous feebate proposal, to help New Zealanders into electric and hybrid cars, is being actively considered by Cabinet.

That last is a good example of just how slow and painful has been New Zealand’s progress towards cutting emissions. Of course, the previous prime ministers John Key and Bill English famously rejected any suggestion New Zealand should be a leader in the case to mitigate climate change, instead proposing to be a “fast follower”. In reality, we have been a slow follower.

In 2017, both Labour and the Greens promised a “feebate” scheme that would place a levy on purchasing high-emitting vehicles like double cab utes, and a corresponding discount on EVs, hybrids and other low-emitting vehicles. But National opposed it and then NZ First applied its notorious handbrake on that, as well as a Clean Car Standard. A frustrated Labour seemingly gave up, and didn’t even take a feebate scheme to voters in the 2020 – it was only the Greens that continued pushing for a clear car discount scheme.

So it’s taken a long time for any government to get even to the point that transport minister Michael Wood did yesterday, when he promised the Government would “consider options for an incentive scheme” to help Kiwis switch to clean cars. That’s a belated but significant step forward.

Because, topping up my diesel SUV with biodiesel, I knew (like most of us do) that it wasn’t a big enough step in the right direction. For most of us, we want to change, we know we have to change, but hybrids or electric vehicles still seem unaffordable.

My Mitsubishi SUV, and Jacinda Ardern’s BMW sedan. and those big trucks waiting to fill up at the truckstop in East Tamaki – it’s likely they’ll all be on New Zealand’s roads for many years yet. Kiwis run their cars into the ground – the average age of the country’s light vehicle fleet is 14 and a half years. 

We just don’t have that much time to cut our emissions – as the Climate Change Commission will brutally and unequivocally spell out this weekend.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

Leave a comment