In the light of COP26 in Glasgow, what’s the story behind New Zealand’s faltering approach to emissions reductions? And what’s the link to the slow-moving transport debate in Wellington and suburban expansion in Auckland? Ralph Chapman explains.

Comment: The awkward positioning of New Zealand at the Glasgow COP26 has a number of causes.

One is New Zealand’s stance on methane emissions. The farming sector and the Government have failed to develop a credible way forward, despite more than 20 years of government-funded research.

Instead the sector relies on increasingly sophisticated explanations about the global warming potential of short-lived agricultural gases, explanations which have some merit but to say the least are not well accepted by most countries. Moreover, the world is getting increasingly desperate for the cooling effect that reducing methane emissions can offer.


Another reason New Zealand is struggling to present a convincing position lies in our transport sector. Road transport emissions have roughly doubled since 1990. Our big car sales have rocketed away.

The Government has at last introduced some sound policies – such as the clean car discount – but not without resistance from the car lobby and farmers, and the policies have yet to have much effect.

Meanwhile, the Climate Change Commission and others don’t see these policies as enough. The Government tells us to hang on until May next year, when they will release their emissions reduction plan. While the Ministry of Transport’s draft plans (Hikina Te Kohupara) look good so far, will they start to bite early enough?

Some signs are reassuring. Ministers like Transport Minister Michael Wood are keen to move forward on mass transit in our big cities. Environment Minister David Parker and Housing Minister Megan Woods have pushed through the National Policy Statement on Urban Development to accelerate urban intensification. And Woods and National have agreed to put differences aside to support streamlined consenting of three-storey housing in our major cities.

Yet we need to see faster action on the ground, and implementation requires the ongoing goodwill of cautious people in government agencies.

The delays are partly at the local level. Isabella Cawthron of Talk Wellington made a strong point in a Dominion Post column on November 1. She argued that the general Wellington public has clearly and repeatedly supported more and better walking and cycling options, and densification of Wellington to provide more housing in the city, among other things.

But Wellington decision-makers appear to have been spooked about getting on with it by a few noisy people and some overly cautious officers, and have constantly sought reassurance that they’re heading in the right direction. The transport planning debate in Wellington remains slow-moving.

In Auckland, one of the most teeth-gritting examples is ongoing greenfields development on the edges of the metropolitan area.

Here, Waka Kotahi (NZTA), Auckland Council and developers are locked in to swathes of suburban expansion which will never be environmentally sustainable. They will generate carbon emissions beyond any possible moment when we should be at zero carbon.

Matt Lowry, writing in Greater Auckland, notes that “30-40 percent of Auckland’s growth is expected to occur in ‘greenfield’ areas” in coming years. That means hundreds of hectares of Drury-type developments, serviced by relentless highway building funded by Waka Kotahi, and the promise of unacceptable ongoing emissions.

Associated problems are well pinpointed by urban developer Mark Todd of Ockham: “The numbers are numbing – a thousand hectares a year, a hundred thousand trees… Wetlands are drained, waterways piped. In their place, dozens of new suburbs you’ve probably never heard of.”

Similarly in Wellington. On October 30, Ethan Te Ora and Kate Green asked in the Dominion Post, “Can a greenfield development be truly green?”. The answer is “No”.

The age of greenfield development has to be over. Much lower emissions are generated by urban development which involves mid-rise apartments and townhouses in areas where trips can either be avoided or are shorter, and where modes such as e-bikes or scooters can whisk you around without a tonne and a-half of metal to park.

In the debate about cities and transport, we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we can actually live more happily, healthily and sustainably without cars. Or at least without individual cars on an everyday basis.

There is an alternative vision of car-free urban life, and millions of people in prosperous countries overseas already live such a life. It’s not that electric vehicles (EVs) are bad, but just that they are still motor vehicles, and they create a lot of carbon in their production, shipping, battery recycling and disposal.

Our research at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington has pointed out just how much – in essence, it’s hard to save more than 50 percent of your emissions by switching from a fossil vehicle to an electric one.  

But the wider point is that a vision of “compact city living” with everyday access to jobs, study and amenities (shopping, recreation etc.) achieved by walking, cycling or e-biking, scootering and occasional car sharing, is a very attractive prospect. And research we’ve done has made it clear that a lot of policy experts actually prefer the policies and measures that can bring this vision to life, as a way of decarbonising that is more attractive than a vision based on working with EVs.

In short, there is an alternative way of moving around and living for the vast majority of New Zealanders – those of us in towns and cities – that can help New Zealand live up to the commitments it is making at Glasgow.

It’s essentially a car-free vision. But it will require a deep change in the way we think about our towns and cities, changing the sort of housing we are prepared to live in, and how we get around.

For current car owners, it will be a fundamental change in lifestyle.

Associate Professor Ralph Chapman is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

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