Here at The Fifth Estate we’re keeping an eye on New Zealand. It’s started to become a standout regional leader on climate action, especially with its legislated net zero emissions target by 2050. 

And that’s reason enough to take the opportunity to have a conversation with  new head of Arup’s New Zealand office, Mayurie Gunatilaka, a transport and infrastructure expert with a personal interest in sustainable development.

Gunatilaka describes herself as a “global child who has made New Zealand home”, born in Sri Lanka, growing up in Africa (Zambia) then living in Japan and now New Zealand.

In her new role, she hopes to mesh Arup’s outstanding global expertise, including in sustainable development, with what she calls New Zealand’s “Maoridom”, referring to the values and culture of the whole Maori culture.

“I could see that opportunity to take that global talent base and combine it to build a truly local team in New Zealand.”

Before joining the 60-person team at Arup New Zealand, Gunatilaka worked for the country’s main transport agency, the Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).

Here she held a nation-shaping role leading teams responsible for long-term strategic transport planning for land transport. 

She told The Fifth Estate that the high level strategic role involved zooming out on transport decision-making to consider all the different levers in play, including regulation, finance and digital interventions, to help manage safety, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and other transport issues.

“It’s important to consider other levers instead of rushing down the street with more hard infrastructure. 

“There’s always a place for infrastructure, but you should look at all the options on the table.”

Agriculture may be the largest source of emissions (“Your coal is our dairy”, NZ Greenpeace executive director Dr Russel Norman told The Fifth Estate not so long ago) but transport emissions, especially from private vehicles, are another major source of emissions in New Zealand.

As such, reducing emissions was central to the strategic land transport planning work, with reducing reliance on single occupancy car-based transport key.

When it comes to reducing emissions in line with the government’s net zero targets, Gunatilaka says there is a “massive transport piece” and business-as-usual won’t cut it.

“The way we’ve planned to go forward isn’t enough.”

She says that like most cities in the APAC region, New Zealand’s public transport needs “quite a lot of investment”. At Arup, she’ll get the opportunity to get a bit closer to the action, with the firm working on the big City Rail Link project that will significantly bolster the city’s existing rail system, and another highly confidential light rail project.

Another major project for the firm is Auckland’s Central Interceptor, which involves boring a giant wastewater pipe underneath the city.

The firm is also involved in the government’s exploration of New Zealand’s green hydrogen potential. 

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