Cars & Cows, a New Zealand problem

Last week students across the country marched in the School Strike 4 Climate protest for climate change and global warming [1]. News media are taking up related topics and electric vehicles (EVs) is a popular one [2]. This is understandable, after all about a quarter of NZ’s greenhouse gases are produced by vehicles. At the same time it raises questions because 75% of NZ’s greenhouse gases are from manufacturing, construction and dairy industries among others [3]. So, is the adoption of electric vehicles about moving to a zero carbon economy or about acquiring new things that look nice and are fashionable? In this blog post I argue that in reality it is a bit about the former but a bit more about the latter too.

The holy cows

Diary exports stand at about $19 billion a year [4] and meat exports add about another $5 billion [5] to NZ’s gross domestic product (GDP). Methane from livestock forms a bigger component of NZ’s greenhouse gases than CO2 from vehicles and this makes meeting NZ’s climate goal objectives complicated. It would be absurd to suggest reducing cattle numbers to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and solely targeting reduction in combustion engine vehicles to meet climate objectives would be equally absurd.

The holy electric vehicles

The EVs industry is at its inception, the new electric cars cost about the same as a deposit on a house. The EV industry isn’t regulated enough to benefit consumers. For example, a Tesla charging station is not able to charge other EVS by design. Building separate charging stations for different EVs beats the purpose of owning “clean EVs”. A proposed scheme to rebate up to $8000 for a brand-new electric car and up to $2600 for an imported used EV [6] suggests that the electric vehicles are just as holy as the holy cows. To put this in to context recall that $10000 is the most an individual could get in the First Home Grant. Comparing the price of a new EV and a median house price in Christchurch this amounts to about 8% financial help for an EV buyer (who are likely to be wealthier) vs a 2% financial help for first time home buyers. This is at a time when everyone is talking about home ownership and house prices and house shortages are considered a present national problem and over leveraged investors could pose problems for the country’s banks. While the cows can be justified their holy status based on how much they contribute to NZ economy the same status for EVs is perplexing.

Concluding remarks

If all vehicles on NZ roads switched to electric (and electric vehicles were carbon zero) then NZ CO2 emissions will half (greenhouse gas emissions will reduce by a quarter), the total world emission will drop by 0.0001%. NZ’s response to climate change is a moral one not a practical one. Even though Kiwis produce more greenhouse gases per capita than the average world citizen, our small size makes our emissions negligible. Our cities are not clogged by smog from cars, and CO2 emissions from vehicles are not a health emergency in NZ. The government could fund research and incentivise businesses that work on clean technologies that could be used to fight global warming. This will help create jobs and at the same time the government could point to it to placate the United Nations and other international organisations to whom NZ has made commitments. Such an approach would truly help save the world. Subsidising EVs only helps Elon Musk and company get richer without reaching NZ climate objectives.

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