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How to fix: Transport emissions

New Zealand’s second-biggest climate challenge is how we get around. This is what we could do about it.

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Here’s a surprise: the country choking on the worst vehicle emissions in the developed world is… Luxembourg, 2586 square kilometres of western Europe, ringed by Belgium, France and Germany.

Every day, more than 200,000 commuters drive across borders from those neighbours, jamming roads into Luxembourg City. As a result, transport emissions represent more than half of all the country’s climate liability. Behind Luxembourg come a few more likely suspects: the United States, Canada and Australia. Fifth-worst is Aotearoa, which is only a surprise if you didn’t already know that decades of pork-barrel road-building and car-centric planning have created a dependence on motor vehicles practically unmatched:

At 86 per cent, our car ownership rate is one of the highest in the world. There are now 4.4 million vehicles in the country, and around 80 per cent of them are private cars.

Consider too, that lax vehicle emission standards have left Aotearoa—one of only three developed countries without regulations—a dumping ground for old, wheezing diesel utes and SUVs, and they’re among the most fuel-inefficient in any OECD country. The average New Zealand light vehicle is 14.5 years old—much older than those in the United States (12.1 years), Australia (10.6) or Canada (9.6). Thanks to a national obsession with size, we still import nearly as many 10-15 year old diesel utes and SUVs as we do plug-in hybrids.

That means vehicles entering our fleet are generally dirtier than elsewhere, with an average emissions output of 171 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled. In Europe, that figure is just 107.8 grams.

All that exhaust smoke means our transport emissions have doubled since 1990. Compare that with the rate of emissions increase across other sectors—just 24 per cent. Gases from transport make up nearly 20 per cent of our emissions total—the second-most polluting category after agriculture—and fully half of the average household’s carbon emissions. Something has to change, says the Climate Change Commission, and fast, because even the most optimistic modelling shows that transport is set to miss our Paris Agreement target. The commission has called for cuts in transport emissions of 47 per cent by 2035, but we’re still heading in the wrong direction, so that the task gets bigger every year.

The commission wants to see cycling kilometres and public transport use roughly doubled. Both will first require crowbarring New Zealanders out of their cars, and inevitably, that means making car travel more expensive. Rather than across-the-board fuel surcharges, which would penalise low-income earners, Victoria University’s Climate Change Research Institute favours an emissions levy, linked to the international carbon price and based on each car’s carbon dioxide emissions. Testing at warrant of fitness time would place your car in a certain bracket, and you’d pay a surcharge based on that, which might just prompt you to trade your SUV in for something smaller.

We have options. There are legitimate alternatives to business as usual that result in lower emissions. Each will make a difference to our future—some more than others—but all changes will compound. We can model the effect of each change to both passenger and freight transport to anticipate the cumulative impact, but the message is clear—no single alternative is a silver bullet. We need all of them, and urgently.

The result? Ford expects to sell 1000 new Rangers a month for the rest of the year. Exactly the same thing happened in France, which introduced a similar scheme back in 2008. But sales of low-emission vehicles also skyrocketed: in just eight months, average carbon dioxide emissions from new cars fell by nine per cent. Twenty-one of the 27 European Union member states now enforce emissions taxes on private cars. As a result, seven out of the EU’s top ten selling cars in January were EVs, and one was a PHEV.

This wasn’t the result of half measures: last year, the French government upped the ante dramatically, offering subsidies of up to $10,000 to coax people into electric and fuel-cell vehicles. And it didn’t stop at cars: it also offered assistance for light commercial EVs, and electric motorcycles and trikes. Beneficiaries can apply for a $330 grant towards an e-bike.

At the same time, the government went after heavy utes, sports cars and SUVs, applying a chokehold that tightens with each passing year. The “malus écologique” is an environmental tax on any vehicle emitting more than more than 184 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. It’s staggered according to output, so that big emitters, like Land Rover’s Discovery and the BMW X7, attract a whopping penalty of $50,000—and that will increase in 2022.

Many European countries—including Luxembourg—have taken things a step further by offering bigger subsidies for EVs if owners surrender their old fossil fuel cars for scrap—up to $23,300 in France.

Clearly, incentives work—60 per cent of all Porsches sold in Europe are now EVs—but only when they mean business, and it’s debatable whether adding $3000 to the cost of a Hilux here in Aotearoa will achieve much at all. Meanwhile, at time of writing, a new Nissan Leaf starts at $61,990 in New Zealand. The feebate shaves $8625 off that, bringing the tab down to $53,365. You can still buy a new petrol Honda Civic for $33,000.

New Zealand’s new Clean Car Import Standard does impose a target of 105 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre by 2025 (already met by Japan and the EU), but importers won concessions that will blunt the gains: the target only has to be met by averaging the sum of the emissions from a manufacturer’s entire range, meaning they can effectively offset sales of SUVs and utes by providing EVs as well. What’s more, they can bank wins from one year against missing the target the next. They also got overshoot penalities halved, to $50 per vehicle, per gram of carbon dioxide, and a separate target for utes.

Nevertheless, says the Climate Change Commission, our cars simply must be decarbonised, but there are so many of them that the cost of switching them all to electric lies well beyond our collective means. According to a Victoria University working paper, fully decarbonising private transport by 2030 would require 4.7 million EVs. The bill? Well over $230 billion if bought new, leaving aside the massive investment that would demand in renewable electricity generation. So we’re going to have to shrink the fleet first. But if they’re going to give up their cars, New Zealanders need access to affordable, convenient public transport instead, and we haven’t exactly been diligent about that, either. In 2020, rail carried 28 million passengers—exactly the same number as it carried in 1920.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t access public transport even if they want to, because it doesn’t exist for them. As the Climate Change Commission points out, they live in greenfield developments far from town centres, that were granted consent with no incumbent responsibility to provide, or even consider, access to public transport. And as more roads are built, that sprawl continues. But as fuel prices rise, as they inevitably will, more and more New Zealanders will succumb to fuel poverty, leaving them stranded from jobs and social contact, which doesn’t sound much like the government’s “just transition”.

Then there’s all the stuff we buy, which is overwhelmingly delivered in New Zealand by trucks. Our heavy transport fleet is one of the oldest in the OECD, with an average truck age of 18. This fleet belches around a quarter of all our transport emissions, despite only travelling six per cent of all vehicle kilometres, because practically all our trucks still burn fossil fuels. The problem, says the industry, is that the batteries required to power an electric truck are a prohibitive weight penalty, eating into valuable payload. (Research from Sweden has since shown that in fact, electric trucks could carry fewer or smaller batteries if there were enough fast chargers for them.)

Trucks generally follow regular routes, and drivers must make mandated rest stops anyway, so fast chargers make sense in that respect, but represent a massive investment in infrastructure. There’s another, easier option, and trucking firms in Australia are starting to run with it: rather than waiting up to an hour to recharge a truck’s batteries, they simply swap them for charged ones at designated stations along the way. That means, of course, that all trucks must use the same battery—so truck manufacturers have agreed on a standard. New electric trucks from Scania and Volvo can travel 250 kilometres on a charge, making them ideal for shorter-haul services, like the critical Auckland-Waikato-Bay of Plenty freight triangle.

For longer-haul routes, some argue the answer lies not in batteries at all, but hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen trucks use the same basic drivetrain as electric ones, but have nearly twice the range. They can be re-fuelled 15 times quicker than an electric truck, and the fuel cell occupies only a fifth of the cargo space monopolised by batteries, which means a fuel cell truck can carry pretty much the same load as its diesel counterpart.

Building a national network of hydrogen fuelling stations is a big job, but Taranaki company Hiringa Energy has already made a start. It means to have 100 hydrogen fuelling stations around the country by 2030, supplied by a green hydrogen production plant at Kapuni, which it will share with venture partner Ballance Agri-Nutrients (Ballance will use the hydrogen to make fertiliser, phasing out natural gas). Construction on the first of eight refuelling stations is set to begin next year, and Hiringa has plans for a further 16 beginning 2024.

Still, trucks are hard on roads, and road freight volumes continue to climb, driving a money-go-round of road spending and maintenance. If only there were an alternative network that could carry huge volumes of freight without that attrition, while at the same time slashing our carbon emissions…

The Mare Britannicum is loaded by container cranes and straddle lifters at Port Chalmers Container Terminal. Sea freight is one of the most carbon-efficient means of transport, particularly over long distances, but like rail, it also requires road transport to reach its final destination.

Tonne-for-tonne, rail uses about a quarter of the energy of heavy trucking. According to KiwiRail’s 2021 Value of Rail report, trains currently do the work of 24,000 trucks, saving 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions as they go. Despite that, rail currently shifts just 16 per cent of the country’s freight, because truck transport remains faster, and more convenient.

But rail has to run this race with a colossal handicap—decades of policy bias, asset stripping, neglected maintenance and short-term investment. More than 1500 kilometres of track has been lost. If we’re to decarbonise freight, we need a revitalised rail network that’s cheaper and more convenient for producers. And to make it so, trains have to be faster.

Trucks have gotten larger and heavier, but they can never travel any faster than they do right now. Trains, on the other hand, could be carrying much greater payloads at faster speeds, if it weren’t for our dilapidated track network. Much of that network hasn’t changed since the golden age of steam, with profit-killing curves and cambers actually designed to stop trains picking up too much speed. Any renaissance for rail relies heavily on a massive investment in the tracks themselves, and that’s already begun. This year, the government’s rail plan gave KiwiRail more than a billion dollars to start levelling—or rather, straightening out—the playing field. Network and rolling stock improvements would let trains into the lucrative time-critical freight market, and allow them to carry heavier payloads to boot.

KiwiRail has invested heavily in electrifying commuter routes into Auckland and Wellington, but expanding that electric rail network further, along freight routes, would cut time-wasting locomotive changes while slashing emissions. There is room, too, for freight charges to fully reflect the toll of transport on the climate. If we calibrated those charges according to transport mode, rail would become more competitive overnight.

If we’re to hit our Paris target, we need to slash transport emissions across every mode. With sufficient political courage, some of those cuts could be made quickly: we could axe the fringe benefits perk on double-cab utes tomorrow, for instance. We could impose congestion charges, eliminate free car parking, and prioritise unfettered right of way for buses and bicycles in commuter traffic. New road projects or housing developments could be consented conditional only upon the provision of walking, cycling and public transport facilities.

Other, deeper cuts can only come with systemic change, encouraged by unflinching policy.

Our mania for new roads and motorways, and straightening out the old ones, hands the road transport industry a competitive advantage over rail, practically guaranteeing that most of our freight will continue to be shifted by the most carbon-intensive mode.

It enjoys the dominance it holds today in part thanks to skewed policy—it’s time to skew it back again, for the sake of the planet.

And we could be like Luxembourg, which in 2020 took one look at those world-leading transport emissions and made all its public transport free. Because faint hearts never won fair transitions.

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