While Transport Minister Michael Wood has hailed new investment in Auckland’s transport network as “turning around transport emissions rising in Auckland”, the programme will actually lead to increased emissions over the next decade when examined in isolation.

That’s because it fails to keep up with expected population growth.

The investment of an extra $3 billion for active and public transport builds on $28 billion in local and central government spending announced for the city in 2018, called the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) 2021-2031. While the older plan would have seen emissions from transport in Auckland rise 9 percent by 2031, the new cash for green initiatives pushes that increase down to 6 percent. On a per capita basis, emissions will indeed fall 13 percent – but emissions reduction targets are based on total emissions, not per capita.

“For the first time we’re turning around transport emissions rising in Auckland. The ATAP 2021-31 package alone would result of around 13 percent decrease in emissions per capita when compared with the previous package, and is projected to increase public transport trips by 91 percent,” Wood said.

He also touted the project’s potential to prevent 3.3 million tonnes of emissions in Auckland, when combined with other green transport policies already announced by the Government, like the Clean Car Standard and electrifying public buses.

In addition to averting some, but not all, new emissions – public transport, walking and cycling are expected to absorb two thirds of increased trip demand over the next decade – the new package and existing policies are expected to reduce emissions over the period 2022 to 2031 by between one and two million tonnes from expected levels.

As it stands, Auckland’s transport system results in about 2.8 million tonnes of emissions every year. Modelling from MRCagney and advocacy group 1point5 has found that could rise to 3.5 million tonnes by 2030.

Auckland Council has pledged to halve emissions in the city by 2030 from current levels, but the modelling from 1point5 indicated that transport emissions would likely need to see deeper cuts to offset shallower reductions from agriculture, the Glenbrook Steel Mill and the glass sector. That means reducing emissions by between 1.4 million tonnes (for a 50 percent cut) and 1.96 million tonnes (for the more ambitious target).

In fact, the figures cited in the ATAP package fall well short of meeting even Auckland’s own climate change plan. On public transport, for example, Auckland’s plan commits to a 214 percent increase in public transport mode share by 2030, from 7.8 percent today to 24.5 percent by the end of the decade. While ATAP doesn’t give a holistic figure for mode shift in public transport, it says public transport’s mode share will increase from 12 to 20 percent at morning peaks and from 5 to 10 percent between peaks.

Transport changes required in Auckland’s climate change plan.

Auckland’s climate plan would also see cycling’s mode share increase more than seven times, from 0.9 percent to 7 percent by 2030.

Paul Winton, the founder of 1point5, spoke to Newsroom about his modelling in May last year. He said the big public transport initiatives funded in the original $28 billion package wouldn’t do much to actually reduce emissions below present levels.

“The punchline was, those public transport things may make a useful contribution to taking the top off growth but really don’t touch the size of what we have today. All of those things that we’re doing at the moment don’t move the dial,” he said.

City Rail Link, airport to Botany rapid transit, Isthmus Crosstown light rail, northwestern light rail, city to airport light rail and the Eastern Busway (AMETI) would, combined, reduce emissions by 164,000 tonnes – just 7.5 percent of the reductions needed to reach even the softer target from the 2030 baseline.

Increasing public transport use is similarly ineffectual. Even if 2.5 times as many people ride public transport to work (compared to the 1.9 times as many that Wood touted at the announcement on Friday), 238,000 tonnes will be carved off, or about 11.4 percent of the way to the easier target.

Although Wood and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff caveated the impact on emissions in their announcement of the upgraded plan, they still claimed it would have major benefits for the climate.

“By itself, ATAP does not solve all of Auckland’s transport problems but it will allow us to make inroads into the increasingly serious problems of carbon emissions, traffic congestion and housing shortages,” Goff said.

“This is a good first step, but we know we have to do more,” Wood added.

How much more?

Fundamentally, the way to reduce transport emissions is to get cars off the roads or stop them from emitting. That means fewer rides, more people in each car and more clean or even electric vehicles.

Even a 10 percent reduction in the number of trips taken in Auckland would cut emissions by 351,000 tonnes. Halving rides would nearly halve emissions entirely, cutting emissions by 1.7 million tonnes.

But the new transport plan expects per capita vehicle travel to fall by just 5.4 percent. It’s unclear how much that translates to in actual terms.

To truly move the needle, Winton said, Auckland’s cycling levels need to reach those of Copenhagen – where 62 percent of the population cycles to work, school or university. Such a change – Winton calls it a 12 times increase in cycling – would cut emissions by a whopping 375,000 tonnes, or 17.2 percent of the needed reductions to halve transport emissions by 2030.

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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