He Pou a Rangi the Climate Change Commission has released Inaia tonu nei, its advice to the government on the first three emissions budgets and its emissions reduction plan for 2022 to 2025.
Among other decisions, the advice calls for nearly all cars imported by 2035 to be electric vehicles (EVs).
This has not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following either the local debate or international trends. The question was always more one of ‘when’ and with how much force. As an action, it bows to the inevitable while nodding to the practical.
Inevitable, because transport makes up 33% of total long-lived gas emissions in New Zealand, with more than two-thirds of that coming from light vehicles, i.e. cars, utes, vans and SUVs. New Zealand can’t make meaningful progress towards its decarbonization goals while leaving a third of the problem unchallenged and unaddressed.
Practical, because substituting EVs for petrol- and diesel-powered cars is a ‘ready now’ option. Even if swift improvements are achieved in public transport patronage and the provision of safe and attractive routes for walking and cycling to work and school, a significant share of trips will still be done – will still need to be done – by car.
The advice does not over-state the role of electrification in the short-term. It recognises behaviour change – fewer car trips – as the necessary short-term adjustment, buying time for car importing habits to shift over to electric vehicles over the medium-term, with urban redesign locking in a new pattern of urban movement over the longer-term.
EVs are not without their own problems. The environmental risks they pose, both those upfront with the sourcing of the necessary materials and those downstream, once it’s time to finally dispose of their old batteries, cannot be ignored forever. Yet, in fact, the advice takes a mature approach to this aspect of the challenge by ‘book-ending’ the need to move over to electric vehicles with its emphases on behaviour change and urban redesign, both being actions to reduce the total demand for car travel and, potentially, car ownership.
Whether an individual, a household, or a fleet, not everyone is going to be able to swap their cars for their EV, or hybrid, equivalent straight away. This is where behaviour change comes in.
There is a good chance that pricing incentives will be brought in to encourage that behaviour change – urban cordon, low-emissions zone or congestion charges. It is also likely that corridor space will be taken away from cars (and trucks) to be dedicated to bikes, buses, and possibly multi-occupant cars (so called HOV or T3 lanes, for example). These constraints will fall on all cars, whether or not they are EVs.
The question for each of us, then, will be what represents the best option for any given trip we might be contemplating? Digging a bit deeper, it also begs the question, how would we know?
At the individual person and trip level, there are already apps out there – and no doubt more to come – that can help us think about these things. For fleets, though, it gets trickier because the vehicles are there to do specific jobs that help the business make money or deliver public services. In these situations, it pays to have ways of understanding how we are actually using our vehicles. What do we drive them for? How we drive them? Which of the uses are appropriate? What are the operational parameters our vehicles actually work within when about their proper jobs? Which vehicles – how many, of what types – do we actually need to do the jobs that actually need a personal car?
It’s not all on the light fleet, and the advice also takes account of the need to decarbonize the heavy transport sector as well. These questions can also be asked of our heavy vehicles. And answering them can make it easier to decide when and how to switch to an EV, or other alternatives, – light or heavy – and quite possibly save money at that time and in the run-up to it.