By Lynley Hargreaves 21/06/2016

One of the striking things for University of Waikato law Professor Barry Barton, while working on the Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy for New Zealand, was how often his scientific colleagues had to tell him they didn’t have necessary data on New Zealand’s carbon emissions options. Without that information, we don’t know where the good opportunities are. An expert in laws that change behaviour, Professor Barton says we need policy measures which actually tell you how much carbon they’ll save and, in the case of transport, make changes across the whole fleet.

What is the biggest finding of the Royal Society of New Zealand report?

Professor Barry Barton
Professor Barry Barton

One of the big findings of the report is that everywhere we look there are huge gaps in publicly available data about possible emissions reductions. We do some reporting but those numbers map very weakly into sectors – we don’t know enough to know where the best opportunities lie. I was struck when working on the report by how often science colleagues would say: “I would love to be able to produce that information for the report but it’s not available”. If we had this information about sectoral emissions options, we could have a useful public debate about what we can do.

The United Kingdom has very good carbon budgets gathering the necessary information for a fixed period and working out how the country is doing in order to meet its carbon targets. While New Zealand does prepare reports under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) rules, these clump a lot of types of energy use together without breaking it out into heavy transport etc. Those types of information are important, so that we can start thinking about ways to change to behaviour.

Is lack of knowledge the main problem?

There also needs to be a better relationship between the targets and the measures we put in place. New Zealand’s INDC, the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, was emphasised by Government last year to be an emissions target for international negotiations only, and how we reached that target was domestic policy and would be thought through at a later date. In other fields those two things would have had to be linked much more strongly. People in government departments are usually pushed to say whether proposed measures will be effective to reach their objectives. Or if you introduce new RMA (Resource Management Act) rules in your district plan, you have to go through a process of justifying them.

When the Government announced the INDC last year it made various suggestions about what the total target would be. But it only left a few weeks for consultation, and talked about it entirely in terms of cost. There was no talk at all about the benefits such as increasing the amounts of insulation in houses, where there are huge health benefits. In transport, if you introduce measures for fuel efficiency, at the same time you’re leaving a lot of money in peoples pockets. Measures like that are cost-effective.

Another example is the recent policy announcements on electric vehicles by the Minister of Energy and Transport Simon Bridges, which presented no picture of how many tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent would be subtracted from New Zealand emissions if we met the targets he talks about. I find that very striking.

Is an electric vehicles policy needed?

Yes it is, and we need to go further than the government has so far. Transport is just one segment of our emissions. It’s not the biggest by any means, but it is relatively fast growing and it is one that we can do something about. But we need a tool that will improve the efficiency of our entire vehicle fleet. Not all cars and trucks have the same efficiency and that fuel efficiency – how many litres of fuel you have to buy to travel a given distance – is the same as how much carbon dioxide that it emits. What could we do to encourage people to buy the more efficient cars? Most countries have some regulation to discourage people buying cars that are less efficient. We’re not talking about some weird novelty here; the United States has had standards in place for 30-40 years. It’s the same in Canada and the EU. But we don’t have fuel efficiency standards in New Zealand.

A ‘feebate’ is something that would produce an improvement in efficiency. When a car is brought in its fuel efficiency is determined and the dealer will get a rebate if it is very efficient. This is financed by a fee on gas guzzlers, which you can still import. The best example of the feebate internationally is in France where the rebate goes up to about 6000 euros. One of the advantages of a feebate is that it would suit New Zealand’s small importers – systems in some other countries are aimed more at car manufacturers, which each have to work out the average emissions across their fleet. It would be difficult to do for a small dealer. But the main point of the feebate is that it doesn’t entirely focus on electric vehicles; it reduces the cost for all efficient cars, including electric vehicles, and benefits the type of vehicle fleet we have overall.

Do you have hope that a feebate will be implemented?

If we don’t do something about the fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet overall then we’re missing an obvious way to tackle emissions. It would make a lot of other things we do pointless. We have to remember that electric vehicles have quite a way to go in New Zealand – we do not expect to see huge numbers soon; the average age of our fleet is 14 years old and the heavy vehicle fleet is not likely to see a switch towards electric vehicles. The minister’s announcement is that he would like electric vehicle purchases to double each year. If that happened we’d have 64,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand by 2021. But that’s still only 64,000 out of 3.3 million.

If you’re thinking about transport emissions there’s a whole host of other questions. The catchphrase is avoid, shift, improve. Can you avoid journeys by better urban planning? Can you shift people to public transport or active transport like bicycle? And if you can’t do either of these, then what can you do to improve the vehicle fleet? That work is taking place. The emphasis on public transport in Auckland is causing uptake there. We’re seeing a huge resurgence in cycling in part due to improved cycle lanes; infrastructure seems to be key. The debate in Auckland about the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan is also quite important in affecting spread and densification of our settlement pattern. Decisions like that have really long consequences for transport use.

What is your background working on this?

My expertise is in how laws can be written in ways that actually change human behaviour. I’ve come into this on a background on upstream energy and law, but more and more I find myself in the downstream side: how we use energy for transport, how we build our houses and how we use energy in industry. There is an argument about the supply side – should we mine coal, are we giving too many tax breaks to oil producers? In my mind it’s how we use it that matters more; the way we use energy goes right through society, and changing the way we use energy changes just about everything.

To learn about how New Zealand can take action on climate change, see the Taking Action section of the  Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.