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New Zealand needs to decarbonise transport to get on track with climate goals

The best way to reduce carbon emissions from the transport sector in New Zealand is to switch to alternative fuels and decarbonise the electricity grid. Personal behaviour change will have an impact, but not enough, a new study has found.

According to the chief executive of Infrastructure New Zealand Stephen Selwood, a new report from thinkstep has found that activities such as car sharing, teleworking, home deliveries and using more public transport will save around 15 per cent of carbon emission compared to the near 90 per cent reductions needed to meet climate targets.

“Many people think that enabling alternatives to the car is the best way to reduce carbon emissions in New Zealand,” Selwood said.

But thinkstep’s report calculates that a shift to electric, biofuel and hydrogen-powered vehicles has potential to reduce carbon emissions from consumption by up to 88 per cent by 2050. The Creating a positive drive: Decarbonisation of New Zealand’s transport sector by 2050 was launched on Thursday.

A shift to electric, biofuel and hydrogen-powered vehicles “has the potential to reduce carbon emissions from consumption by up to 88 per cent by 2050,” the report says.

In order to achieve this shift, renewable energy generation would have to double in capacity, and the country would have to see the conversion of five per cent of agricultural land to the production of biofuels.

Encouraging ride-sharing and the use of public transport would have benefits that are more achievable in a short space of time than a complete switch to zero emission transport, but they would only change a small proportion, up to 29 per cent, of total journeys,  the report says.

Everything helps

The government could encourage people to share rides by establishing carpool lanes, and create a pricing model to encourage electric vehicles.

Transport scenarios for New Zealand in the report for 2050 relative to 2015 (savings include domestic greenhouse gas emissions only)

“The role of government and business, as we see it, is to make these low-carbon choices easy and convenient,” says the report.

“While we still depend on fossil fuels, ride-sharing has the potential to be a quick win for New Zealand on climate change,” Dr Jeff Vickers, technical director of thinkstep and lead author of the report said.

“It reduces carbon emissions and road congestion immediately, and the carbon story gets even better as we move to electric vehicles. This is something that could happen virtually overnight, as all you need is a smartphone.”

A year ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set out a plan for New Zealand to transition its electricity grid to renewables by 2035. Between 50 to 60 per cent is already delivered by hydroelectric power. Ms Ardern’s long-term goal is for New Zealand to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Currently, according to climate action tracker website, New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution target under the Paris Agreement of a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 is rated as “insufficient”. In other words, it is not consistent with holding warming to below 2°C, let alone limiting it to 1.5°C, as required, and is instead consistent with warming between 2°C and 3°C.

Part of the reason is that transport contributed 19 per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted in New Zealand in 2015. A reduction in transport emissions by 90 per cent would reduce New Zealand’s total gross GHG emissions by 17 per cent.

But the road to decarbonising transport is harder than that. “When considering the carbon footprint of products and services that New Zealanders consume – rather than including those that are destined for offshore markets – transport’s contribution jumps to over 40 per cent,” Dr Vickers said.

The government is currently considering a Zero Carbon Bill. The target of net zero emissions by 2050 is supported by 91 per cent of respondents to a consultation for the bill, while even more, 96 per cent, support the establishment of an independent watchdog, a Climate Change Commission, like the UK’s.

The government realises that it’s cheaper to take action sooner rather than later.

Light commercial and heavy vehicles are assumed in the report to run on hydrogen in the future, yielding a 64 per cent drop in emissions using today’s electricity grid, or 91 per cent for a fully renewable grid.

In this future, biofuels would be used to power ships and planes because of their higher energy density. But biofuels have their own social and environmental impacts: air pollution, displacing crops, and a reduction of biodiversity.

See the full report here.

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