To address climate change, we need to phase out the burning of fossil fuels. The largest share of fossil fuels is burnt in cars and trucks. So it seems clear that fossil-fuelled vehicles need to stop being designed, made, imported, and driven. But anyone who has visited a road or seen a car ad recently knows that that isn’t happening, or, if it is, it’s happening so imperceptibly slowly as to hardly make a difference.
In New Zealand the situation is particularly acute, as we are now very, very far down the path towards a system dominated by urban sprawl and private cars, with little regulation of either. Road transport emissions doubled between 1990 and 2018. In the US they rose 30% in the same period, and in the UK, just 6%, which campaigners still point out is woefully insufficient.
Soon we will start to take steps to turn this ship around. It may or may not be quick, it may or not be easy. But it’s probably not going to be both quick and easy. As plans start to crystallise, there is certain to be a lot of back-and-forth between different factions.
Let’s take a look at the protagonists.
In the green corner: the climate advocates.
There are hundreds of advocacy groups, but a good example is 1.5 Project, led by Paul Winton. He points out that to fulfil our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we need to cut emissions 60% by 2030. Many sectors (such as the dairy industry, which creates huge emissions burning coal and gas to dry milk into milk powder) already have transition plans in place, and, in any event, are valuable and productive industries. So he concludes that road transport has to be virtually emission-free by 2030.
His and similar voices are being heard. For example, Auckland and Wellington councils have set made climate goals that require road transport emissions to at least halve by 2030. But targets like this are very, very difficult to achieve. They would mean essentially no new fossil-fuelled vehicles entering the fleet, starting immediately. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands are being imported every year, and people are buying them.
Passing to the red corner: the Labour government
The Government has a plan already prepared: the Clean Car Standard. It was developed and widely discussed in 2019 and taken into the 2020 election. It’s a fuel efficiency standard for new (or newly imported) vehicles, something that almost all developed countries have had for years, and that New Zealand would have had too in 2009, had not the incoming government of John Key blocked it. (You can read the official reasons in the cabinet papers; even in 2009 they must have seemed somewhat flimsy, and of course they have not stood the test of time.)
In the Standard as originally designed, the average fuel efficiency of all vehicles (of each importer) must meet a certain target that gets progressively more stringent. This was set at 161 gCO2/km in 2022, falling to 105 gCO2/km by 2025. The Standard was predicted to cut emissions by 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year (about 13% of road transport emissions) by 2030, for a net savings of $2.4 billion.
Per person, 1990
Per person, 2018
135 gCO2/km 20261
81 gCO2/km 20252
105 gCO2/km 20253
Road transport emissions compared. 1For cars and light trucks (i.e. utes) combined; Obama target was 117g. 2EU target for cars only. Target 125g for light trucks. 3Proposed in the Clean Car Standard for cars and light trucks. Current new light vehicles average 180 gCO2/km. 4For the entire current fleet including heavy trucks.