Climate Commission Report & Vehicle Industry

The Climate Change Commission released their report this week. In this blog post we examine Chapter 14 of the report titled “Policy direction for transport”. We restrict our review to recommendation 17 (Improve mobility options and reduce emissions) and 18 (Accelerate emissions reductions from the light vehicle fleet) within that chapter. We could cover the remainder of that chapter pertaining to transport vehicles at a later time.

The Climate Change Commission report was released this week. The report lays out the commission’s recommendations on how to limit the total emissions (CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases) produced within each 5 year period from now to 2050, to a set target that they call a budget. The reason for limiting the emissions Aotearoa produces is to meet NZ’s commitment to the 2015-2016 Paris agreement on climate change. That agreement wants countries to pursue efforts to limit the rise in temperature from pre-industrial times (1850-1900) to 1.5 ℃. For context, we are already 1 ℃ above pre-industrial levels and only an increase of 0.5 ℃ remains. However, the agreement wants the long-term rise in average global temperature to strictly remain within 2 ℃ of pre-industrial levels, if the voluntary pursued efforts fail.
The report is 418 pages long, but can be read relatively quickly as the pages resemble more a presentation slide than a page from a book.

The report as it relates to the vehicle industry

Bearing in mind some facts about greenhouse gases can help us understand the report, so let’s recap some of them. CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for 100s of years, whereas methane from cow farts breaks into CO2 and water after remaining in the atmosphere for about 9-12 years, see [1] and [2]. A side note: unfortunately methane is about 28 times more effective than CO2 at trapping infrared radiation and any trapped radiation increases temperature because light whether visible or not carries energy.

The commission argues that the long-lived gas emissions (which are mostly composed of CO2 from vehicles but also include nitrous oxide from agriculture/dairy industry) comprising about 33% of the total emissions, is critical to NZ reaching its climate change targets. Here we list some parts of the texts in Recommendation 17 and afterwards we comment on them.

  1. Reducing the reliance on cars (or light vehicles) and supporting people to walk, cycle and use public transport. Government needs to support this change with clear targets, plans to meet those targets, and substantial increases to funding.
  2. Rapidly adopting electric vehicles (EVs). Ambitious policies are needed to address supply and cost constraints, and bring more EVs into the country. Aotearoa should import more efficient vehicles until EVs are widely available and affordable.
  3. Avoid: reducing the need to travel and/or the time or distance travelled by car, while improving or maintaining accessibility.
  4. Shift: changing how New Zealanders move. For example, shifting from cars to lower-emissions types of travel such as public transport, cycling and walking.
  5. In the short term, emissions savings are possible through supporting behaviour change, including reducing travel or car use. Over the next 15 years, the largest opportunity comes from electrifying the light vehicle fleet. Policies will be needed to overcome barriers and support this.
  6. Aotearoa has high rates of vehicle ownership and high rates of travel per person compared to other developed countries. Travel by light vehicles, such as cars, utes, vans and SUVs must be reduced as a priority, with light vehicles accounting for over 70% of transport emissions in 2019.
  7. Increasing the use of low-emissions public transport, shared transport, and encouraging walking and cycling will be important for reducing reliance on light vehicles. However, decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and services have often made these travel choices slower, less reliable, and ultimately less attractive than travelling by private vehicle.
  8. Designing compact communities with infrastructure that enables easy access to alternative transport. Changing the way cities and towns are planned can support rapid/frequent transit, shorter trips between home, work and leisure, and safe, healthy and attractive urban environments that encourage more walking and cycling. This is discussed further in Chapter 13: Policy direction that cuts across sectors, Section 13.6 on urban form.
  9. Greater use of active types of travel promotes physical activity, which improves health and reduces deaths from diseases of inactivity – including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression. Low physical activity was estimated to contribute to about 1,400 deaths in Aotearoa in 2015. This compares to about 300 people per year who die in road crashes, which justifies a large amount of road investment.
  10. Setting targets and implementing plans to substantially increase walking, cycling, public transport and shared transport use to displace vehicle use.
  11. Encouraging higher rates of working from home and flexible work arrangements to reduce travel demand and associated emissions.

After reading the above one maybe inclined to argue that the commission has had a tough task in putting forward realistic recommendations in some instances. We noted that the 418 pages report uses the word “realistic” 7 times and “ambitious” 95 times. Relying on people to walk and bike more is repeated a few times. Point 9 explains that walking and biking is good for health and can decrease death, all true but those were known for a long time and haven’t changed people. Some European countries have great cycling cultures, families bike together, people bike to work. I personally enjoy biking and would love to see people do the same here, but find it unrealistic. There have been quite a few changes to streets taking place in Christchurch, cycle walks are being built. I have rarely seen anyone use the bike lanes but I do see people on electric scooters use them. Point 8 about designing compact communities needs more clarification, could it mean more apartment complexes and will Kiwis readily live in them?

Moving on to Recommendation 18, we now list selected text from it.

  1. In the future other very low-emissions vehicles such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or low-emissions fuels such as drop-in biofuels, may become available.
  2. An EV used in Aotearoa emits about 60% fewer emissions over its full life cycle than an equivalent petrol vehicle. This is the case even when accounting for emissions from raw material extraction, manufacture, and shipping. This figure will improve as Aotearoa phases out fossil fuels in electricity generation and as global efforts decrease emissions from EV supply chains.
  3. If Aotearoa is to achieve a low-emissions vehicle fleet by 2050, all light vehicles entering the country must be low emissions by 2035.
  4. A ban on the import or manufacture of ICE vehicles at some point in the early 2030s would help set a clear timeframe for the phase out of ICE vehicles. This would send a strong signal to manufacturers about the future requirements of our fleet. It could also remove the risk of Aotearoa becoming a dumping ground for ICE vehicles.
  5. Access to EVs is important in the context of an equitable transition. The high upfront costs of EVs create a significant barrier for low-income households who struggle to access capital for major one-off purchases like an EV. We heard this concern clearly reflected through consultation, and particularly from Iwi/Māori.
  6. High costs could be a particular barrier if Aotearoa faces increased competition from other nations for the limited supply of used EVs. Leasing, financing, and car share schemes targeted at lowincome communities should be considered to help address this. Policies to support EV adoption by government and businesses could also be designed in a way that encourages fast rotation of their fleets, which in turn could support a domestic second-hand market.
  7. Until EVs reach price parity with ICE vehicles, conventional hybrids are likely to play an important role in increasing fleet efficiency. They will also provide affordable travel options for low- and middleincome households that are reliant on private car use for their mobility.

About point 1, so far the vehicle manufacturers have settled on EVs and not hydrogen powered ones to keep themselves profitable in the future. Z Energy’s biodiesel plant was shut down in 2020 when fuel prices dropped and the plant was no longer profitable, the government refused to help keep the plant open. Point 2 could be misleading if an EV lifetime is only a half of, say, a reliable toyota corolla. Points 3 and 4 are clear about the ban on import of fossil fueled cars by early 2030s but this is in contrast to relying on hope for people walking and biking more in the previous recommendations. Points 5 and 6 seem to suggest that poor people should be encouraged to borrow money to buy and rent EVs, since financing has historically been provided by businesses including loan sharks and not governments. Point 7 acknowledges that hybrids are more realistic.

I am sure the commission has had access to good scientists and advice and that their job was not easy. Here I have deliberately picked out objectionable material from their report, but it does not mean the entire report is faulty. The commission’s job was clearly made more difficult because the dairy industry remains off limit because of its importance to NZ economy and the commission has had to rely on reducing the approximately 25% emissions that come from CO2 as much as possible to meet net emissions targets. Solving the entirety of a problem while being limited to solutions that can only address a quarter of the underlying root causes is a tought ask for anyone.

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