The Climate Change Commission’s draft advice on how to decarbonise New Zealand’s economy is refreshing, particularly as it calls on the government to start phasing out fossil fuels instead of relying on offsets and carbon trading.

Until now, New Zealand has relied heavily on its Emissions Trading Scheme, but the evidence is clear that it has failed to reduce emissions. The commission’s package includes carbon budgets out to 2035 and detailed pathways to achieve them across all sectors of the economy.

For the transport sector, which is responsible for half of New Zealand’s energy-related emissions, the commission suggests a sweeping set of changes to electrify the country’s car fleet and to replace imported fuels with local renewable electricity.

It’s exciting to see a national-level plan that actually cuts emissions. But it raises two questions: is it feasible, and is it the best or only option?

Transforming the transport sector

Land transport was always going to be squarely in the commission’s sights. Its emissions have doubled since 1990, and, unlike agriculture, it’s not a protected export industry.

Carbon dioxide emissions from road transport

In kt CO₂-e, including from cars (62.7%), motorcycles (0.6%) and light (25.6%) and heavy-duty trucks (10.9%)

The commission calls for cuts in transport emissions of 47% by 2035, achieved by:

  • a rapid shift to electric vehicles, with the market share for light vehicles rising from 2% today to 50% in 2027
  • an end to imports of pure petrol or diesel cars by 2032, and a similar but later transition for trucks
  • the development of an integrated national transport network that reduces travel by private car
  • changes to urban planning leading to 7% less travel per person
  • the development of policies to increase walking, cycling, and public transport by 25%, 95% and 120% respectively by 2030
  • scaling up low-carbon fuels, such as biofuels, to 3% of all liquid fuels by 2035
  • some decarbonisation of the rail network, lifting rail’s share of freight from 16% to 20%, and more coastal shipping.

To achieve this rapid electrification, New Zealand would need to produce more renewable electricity. Only one large wind farm, the 840 GWh/year Turitea wind farm near Palmerston North, is currently under construction.

In the commission’s proposed scenarios, New Zealand would need another renewable electricity plant like this every year from now on. At the moment, New Zealand has only 690 MW of wind turbines, and no utility-scale solar generation. The industry would need to scale up considerably.

Other live issues are the planned 2024 closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, which would make a lot of renewable electricity available, and the NZ Battery pumped-hydro project.