16 Aug 2019

Low carbon transport: a challenge worth tackling?

Posted in: Reducing emissions

Low carbon transport: a challenge worth tackling?

When it comes to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, one sector doesn’t get much air-time but is seeing some major emissions increases…  transport.

Transport currently contributes around 20 per cent towards New Zealand’s total emissions. It is the fastest growing sector as a proportion of our overall emissions profile and has increased by around 70 per cent since 1990. This number reflects the 1.5 million vehicle growth in our national fleet during the same time.

New Zealand has committed to limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees as set out by the Paris Agreement, and the Zero Carbon Bill is currently going through Parliament to formalise this goal in legislation. We face a major challenge to reduce our emissions to net zero by 2050. While there is currently no specific emissions reduction target for the transport sector, there is no doubt that it is a critical component in this effort.

The heavy transport sector makes up around 25 percent of transport’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Electric, hydrogen and hybrid heavy vehicles are not yet prevalent in the market due to the complexities of applying those technologies to road freight. But it can’t be a reason to fail to take action.

Heavy Transport

“Emissions reduction in heavy transport involves adopting a mix of solutions,” says the Sustainable Business Council’s Climate and Resources Manager, Kate Alcock. “Some are already available, such as switching from running vehicles on fossil fuels with biodiesel, improving fuel efficiency, and better utilising heavy vehicle fleets.”

Kate also says that medium to longer term solutions can include a commitment to phase out importing fossil fuel vehicles by a certain date, adopting electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles, and shifting to cleaner modes of heavy transport.

“In addition, the Road Freight Lab, which is a World Business Council for Sustainable Development programme, identified better use of delivery windows, sharing assets and load optimisation as having high potential to reduce emissions”, she says.

Recently, the Sustainable Business Council and the Climate Leaders Coalition held a workshop to explore the pathway to zero emissions for freight transport. The team worked to a scenario in which New Zealand’s heavy transport emissions were reduced from the current 3.8 million tonnes of CO₂e, to 1.7 million tonnes by 2030 and zero tonnes by 2050.

“The goal of the workshop was to focus on one solution and put it into practice,” Alcock explained. “Group members voted to scope a project that would develop a shared financing model for research into the viability of low emissions solutions. This could be piloted and used by the group.” Shared financing makes it more inclusive, helping industry members of all sizes participate in the research and development of low emissions solutions right from the beginning.

Looking at our light vehicle emissions, the Government’s recent announcement of a proposed ‘feebate’ scheme differentiates between low and high emission vehicles in policy and promotes the uptake of EV’s and hybrids by effectively reducing the prices of low emission vehicles and increasing the price of high-emissions vehicles. The scheme has been criticised both for not going far enough, and for failing to acknowledge that some may have limited choice in what they drive, either through the demands of their job or the relatively higher cost of EVs. Any solution needs to balance the cost of inaction against ensuring that it is a just transition to a zero carbon economy.

Electric vehicles

However, the reality is New Zealand is lagging behind comparable countries without regulations or direct incentives to encourage fuel efficient light vehicles entering the country. Our vehicle fleet is one of the least efficient in the OECD.

As individuals and families, we can work on reducing our transport emissions without necessarily purchasing an electric, hybrid or hydrogen-powered vehicle. More frequent use of public transport, carpooling with neighbours and friends, taking advantage of walking and cycling opportunities and greater use of remote working technologies can all make a significant difference to our footprint.

It may feel like 2050 is a long way off. However, the large capital investment decisions the transport industry makes now will have far reaching implications for our individual and collective emissions future. We need to commit to low emissions choices now.