NZ’s enduring carbon blind spot

Are we so worried about methane and agriculture we don’t even think about carbon from vehicles? Critics of the Zero Carbon Act are right to decry its failure to sufficiently limit agriculture and methane. But why is transport the fastest-growing source of our alarmingly increasing emissions?

It’s one thing to crow about the fact that our emission targets are now enshrined in law, but quite another to reconcile these targets with the number of cars we import.

This August we imported 11,604 used vehicles from Japan alone. Auckland is said to acquire 800 more cars every week. Five makes of diesel-powered SUVs are the most popular vehicles overall.

We have a history of ignoring what comes out of car exhausts. Here’s the Ministry’s incredible admission in the foreword to their Clean Car Standard and 'feebate' initiative:

“New Zealand is one of only three developed countries that has no regulations or meaningful incentives to influence the fuel efficiency of light vehicles entering our country. As a result, the vehicles supplied to New Zealand are among the most fuel inefficient and polluting of any OECD country...

“If our cars were as fuel-efficient as (those) entering the European Union, we would pay on average $794 less per year at the pump.”

The 'feebate' scheme, for which we have Associate Minister of Transport Julie-Anne Genter to thank, has been a long time coming and won’t be in force until 2021. It will lower the cost of electric vehicles, hybrids and lower emission cars, while adding fees onto the cost of high-emissions vehicles like SUVs.

It has nothing to say about where we are allowed to drive our old petrol and diesel cars.

Of course we needn’t have waited for the ZCA to follow the examples of European cities that restrict vehicle entry into city centres according to exhaust emissions that conform to specific European standards.

These standards have been increasingly tightened since they were first applied to the whole of Europe in 1992. Some travel advisory sites advise travellers to check when planning an itinerary to avoid fines.

It’s one thing to crow about the fact that our emission targets are now enshrined in law, but quite another to reconcile these targets with the number of cars we import.

London, which has had a congestion charge for the CBD since 2003, tightened restrictions in April this year by introducing an Ultra Low Emission Zone. The case for congestion charging was simple: to reduce traffic in the city and generate funds to reinvest in public transport. The result has been co-benefits of reduced levels of CO2 and nitrous oxide and an improvement in air quality.

Earlier this month, Bristol city voted to ban all diesel cars from entering the city between 7am and 3pm.

In France, several cities, including Paris, Lyon, Annecy and Strasbourg, have a system called the Crit’Air. Vehicles must display a coloured, numbered sticker on their windscreens signalling their emissions. Anyone found breaking the rules can be fined $150 and risk being towed. Foreign registered cars are not exempt.

Paris has a graduated scale which will see all diesel vehicles banned from July 2024 and culminate in a total ban on all petrol or diesel vehicles by 2030. Only electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be allowed inside the Paris peripherique or circular road that delineates the city centre.

We did have a scheme here that restricted when, rather than where, you could drive. It ran for less than a year from July 1979 as a response to the so-called oil shock, when supplies were felt to be threatened. People were required to select a day they wouldn’t use their cars and were issued with a sticker for their windscreens to indicate the day chosen. The open-road speed limit was also reduced to 80kph.

It quickly became clear that the scheme wasn’t working. While some people organised their lives so they could comply, too many others flouted it by applying for exemptions or buying a second car.

Number plate recognition technology has transformed the enforcement of such rules. We use it, for example, in Auckland for payment on the section of the northern motorway that goes through the Puhoi tunnel.

Councils don’t need the authority of a government bill to act to reduce emissions by keeping the dirtiest ones out of CBDs. Such actions would be appropriate to the climate emergency our children will face. It’s hard to believe restrictions would be resented after the demonstrations of frustration and anxiety displayed by thousands of young people a couple of months ago.

At this stage - with how many years before certain tipping points are reached - the efforts of individuals are not enough. We need to make changes as a community in a structure of support.

Three writers have recently expressed cogent reactions to the Zero Carbon Bill. Greenpeace’s Amanda Larsson despairs that the political process thwarted the implementation of meaningful change.

Simon Upton warns that, if the Act is to be effective, we must expect disruptions to our comfortable way of life. It’s not just vehicles but outboard motors, power tools and “a ton of stuff”, he says, that will need to become emissions-free.

Rod Oram is worried by National’s prevarications.

Clearly, this is not a time to relax - despite the weariness in many people who believe they have done all they can to change the way they run their lives. Will this Act provide the support people are looking for to embark on the next stage of change?

Because change needs to go a step further. It needs to shape our lives at a structural level. I fear there’s a risk of the ZCA becoming a backstop for action - or non-action. We need somehow to go beyond it, maybe even to act in spite of the Act.

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