Personal vehicles contribute a significant chunk of New Zealand's emissions. In 2016, transport-related emissions accounted for just under 44 per cent of Auckland’s total emissions. Between 2007 and 2017, total emissions from the on-road transport sector grew about 9 per cent. Photo by Josh Young on Unsplash

This month, New Zealand’s Auckland Council adopted a unique plan for tackling climate change centred on cutting transport emissions, retrofitting buildings and transitioning to a clean energy system.

Similar to the majority of action plans rapidly emerging as the stakes of climate change progress faster than predicted, it will take a monumental shift in thinking and a hefty financial commitment from both the council and central government.

It sets out a roadmap to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, and has taken the extra step with an ambitious interim reduction target of 50 per cent by 2030.

What makes it unique, however, is the deeply integrated te ao Maori – the Maori – perspective, which Auckland Council’s chief sustainability officer Alec Tang says is integral to shrinking their footprint.

“Te ao Maori has a very holistic view of the world and a very different climate perspective on how we might get there,” Tang says.

Climate change is already having a big impact on New Zealand. Over the last decade, drought, extreme heat events and coastal inundation have became more acute, and is expected to disproportionately affect the country’s most vulnerable.

Auckland Council’s chief sustainability officer Alec Tang.

For the indigenous Polynesian population of New Zealand, the Maori people, much of their history and culture centres on the coast.

Core cultural practices are at risk as flooding and a rise in sea levels compromise sacred sites and land holdings, and for too many, resources are already scarce.

While acknowledging the Maori people as the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the plan also recognises they hold many of the solutions to adapting to it.

Achieving net zero by 2050

In 2016, 43.6 per cent of Auckland’s total emissions came from the transport sector, the most by far. Stationary energy produced 26.6 per cent, and industrial processes produced 20.2 per cent.

The plan details eight areas that require action, outlining goals, priorities and roles in delivery. These areas include transport, food, the built environment and the natural environment, the economy and energy.

And while the plan includes some concrete targets – 19,350 hectares of new forest by 2050, retrofitting all existing buildings to a high standard of energy efficiency by 2050, and transitioning 100 per cent of Auckland’s bus fleet to zero emissions by 2050 – Tang says it is “more an indicator of the scale of change needed”.

“In [the plan], we say our industrial emissions need to reduce by 65-odd per cent, our transport emissions need to reduce by a similar measure, waste effectively plateaus but actually is about a 25 per cent reduction on business as usual, so we have more of a roadmap to outline what we need to do to achieve a reduction in each of the eight areas.”

Tang says the biggest thing will be getting people behind the plan.

“Central government understand they have a really big role to play in reducing transport emissions and businesses understand they will have to change the way they work in order to prepare for climate change.

“All those different actors, and this is the point of getting a plan out publicly, need to recognise the scale of change required, to make sure everyone understands the different roles we need them to play.”

By 2030, the council aims to have almost completely transitioned to renewable energy, reduced the kilometres travelled by private vehicles to 12 per cent through bolstering public transport and cycle infrastructure, and reduced methane emissions from livestock by 10 per cent.

Even with ambitious action across all sectors, however, there is likely to be residual emissions of about six per cent in 2050, the plan states.

“To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, it is likely that additional strategies and new technologies will be required, as well as carbon sequestration, to address these remaining emissions,” the plan states.

“This is an issue shared by other C40 cities, who have also identified residual emissions in 2050 in their climate action plans and recognise that additional strategies and technologies will be required.”

Targeting the biggest emitter: transport

Personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming. And while transport emissions should be falling with technology advancements, policy inertia has left the environment worse off.

In 2016, transport-related emissions accounted for just under 44 per cent of Auckland’s total emissions. Between 2007 and 2017, total emissions from the on-road transport sector grew about 9 per cent.

Auckland Council’s lead transport advisor, Ryan Falconer.

“A big part of reducing the emissions in this sector is looking at our fleet, and that is where central government has to take primary leadership because [the council] doesn’t control regulation on vehicle fleet entry,” the council’s lead transport advisor, Ryan Falconer, says.

“Based on the most recent data we have, on-road transport accounts for about 38 per cent of our total emissions.

“When I look at what we can do in terms of climate response, I like to think of council as being a leader.

“Our primary role as council is advocating to central government to look at regulatory change and the like to effect that.”

The plan recognises a comprehensive approach is needed to reduce emissions in the transport sector, involving actions that:

  • Reduce distances travelled by motor vehicles through measures such as compact land use, remote working, and pricing;
  • Shift passenger, commercial and freight movements to lower carbon alternatives; and
  • Improve the energy efficiency of motor vehicles through technology including improved fuel efficiency and electrification.

“Much broader effort is needed beyond investing in transport infrastructure and services to achieve significant reductions in emissions, and this effort needs leadership from central government,” the plan states.

“For example, transitioning our vehicle fleets to lower carbon and more fuel-efficient alternatives is a critical part of our climate response.

“Additionally, bold, targeted transport pricing reforms are needed to reduce private motorised travel and facilitate shifts to alternative modes. However, equity concerns will need to be addressed as part of any pricing schemes.”

Rising to the challenge

If global emissions remain unchecked, New Zealand’s sea levels are projected to rise a metre by the end of this century, 20 per cent of Auckland’s birds would disappear, and net greenhouse gas emissions would increase by around 19 per cent by 2050.

Auckland Council first committed to significant emissions reductions in 2012 and like many government bodies is seizing the moment to jumpstart an economic rebuild after the pandemic-forced shutdown.

“We have seen quite significant constraints as a result of Covid-19, much revenue lost for various different reasons… and we are also conscious that Covid will carry on and could generate bigger impacts,” Tang says.

“On the flip side of that we have seen significant opportunities – here in Auckland we saw less traffic on our streets, more people walking and cycling, the natural environment recovering.

“People have seen what a different city could look like so there is definitely an opportunity to accelerate action.”

Significant challenges lie ahead in generating collective community action and delivering impactful communication to ensure support for the budgetary changes needed, Tang says.

“We’ve landed the plan, and now there is a whole bunch of action central government, businesses, and we as council need to do that is going to require changes.

“Ultimately there is going to be investment required and a shift in priorities, and without the public support of that financial change we are just not going to get there.”

He says the challenge is not only about finding new capital but also redirecting existing capital to create climate positive change.

“We got a glimpse of some of the virtuous outcomes of moving around and using our city in a different way (during the Covid-19 shutdown), but it would take time to emulate that using more sustainable and more virtuous measurements than a catastrophic economic level of duress, which the vast majority of people would say is not something we can tolerate, to achieve those virtuous outcomes,” adds Falconer.

“The challenge is now to work out how to do that using the infrastructure we already have in a way that also doesn’t compromise our communities and our economies.”

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