Wellington Scoop

Making the grade on climate change

Fresh from the Wellington City Council’s declaration of a climate change and ecological emergency, there’s a new sense of urgency in getting to grips with the city’s emissions. So a quick tour around the WCC’s strategy is in order, to see whether we’re actually going to make that much-needed goal of being zero carbon by 2050. Spoiler alert: not on the current WCC trajectory.

The source of all wisdom on things climate change is WCC’s Te Atakura – First to Zero document, billed as “Wellington’s blueprint for a Zero Carbon Capital”. It deals with all the important aspects of the climate change emergency – the reality of the issue, the need to take urgent action and the dire consequences if we fail to do so. Dealing with sea level rise alone, the document points out that $1 billion in WCC assets and $7 billion in private sector assets (some 25% of the city’s rating base) will be drowned by a 1.4m sea level rise, which is on the cards for the end of this century if we don’t do something urgently about our emissions.

The document is chock-full of interesting graphs and statistics, taking stock of Wellington’s emissions and their sources. Our big challenges as a city are in both transport and buildings – which won’t surprise any long-term readers of wellington.scoop. And there’s a concrete commitment to concrete reductions targets – 10% by 2020 (that’s next year, remember), 43% by 2030, 68% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.

But then it all proceeds to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Leading off with the elephant in the room, the plan for reducing transport emissions seems like an exercise in magical thinking. The report points out that a full 58% of the city’s emissions come from transport, so making early and effective inroads into the carbon we use to move around the city and the region is crucial. The problem is, the main solution provided is that long-running transport boondoggle, Let’s Get Wellington Moving – which doesn’t seem to have the slightest chance of dramatically cutting emissions any time in the coming decade.

For all the strengths and weaknesses of LGWM, the projects that are going to be first cab off the rank are the minor improvements that will make some changes, but which won’t make a big dent in our emissions profile. The killer app – light rail or its equivalent – won’t come on-stream until the 2030s, even if the $6.4 billion in funding required for the whole package can be found tomorrow. That’s the challenge that comes from the time needed to approve, fund, procure and build the network … it’s just not a trivial job. And in the meantime, where are the emissions savings going to come from? Remember, by 2030 (which seems like the earliest believable date for the light rail system to be running), our transport emissions need to have already fallen by 43%.

Of course, this is probably the point at which we should highlight that piece of breathtaking environmental vandalism perpetrated by the Greater Wellington Regional Council – the dismantling of the trolley bus system. Thanks to that and the bustastrophe, there’s no doubt that our public transport emissions have directly increased (more diesel buses) and indirectly increased (more people moving from public transport to cars). It’s difficult to be too scathing about the wanton stupidity of getting rid of a zero-carbon transport option and replacing it with some extra fossil fuels in order to (maybe) save a couple of bucks, then adding insult to injury by messing up the entire network. It does make you wonder which planet the GWRC councillors think they’re living on – clearly not one where the climate is warming by the day.

In Te Atakura – First to Zero, there’s a clear goal of reducing our emissions by 10% by (let’s be kind) the end of next year. Thanks to the direct efforts of GWRC, this looks unattainable in the transport space. And thanks to the plodding pace of LGWM, which has taken a full five years to get as far as mere concept plans, the longer-term goals look equally fanciful.

Plus there’s the hoary old chestnut of the runway extension, which – despite the shouting of “emergency!” from across the planet – is still on the cards. There’s no doubt that having more and longer flights into Wellington is entirely and completely incompatible with a 100% reduction in emissions, even despite the hand-waving around magical alternative fuels and fantastical efficiency gains. Justin Lester is going to need to put a bullet in this 1990s idea sharp-ish if he wants to avoid the inevitable calls of hypocrisy from the campaign trail.

Then there’s the challenge of Wellington’s buildings, accounting for around 25% (depending on how it’s counted) of our city-wide emissions. The report correctly identifies densification as the solution, and draws a direct line between emissions reductions and the 80,000 new people the WCC wishes to accommodate in the CBD. The plan makes good sense from both a building efficiency and a transport perspective.

But once again, the problem is in the timing. As it stands, Wellington’s apartment market is a torrid battleground between huge earthquake strengthening costs and rapidly-increasing insurance premiums. Some apartment owners in the CBD could be facing the prospect that their largest investment in life is effectively worthless, having been pincered between hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs that were imposed with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, and the inability to get insurance unless the strengthening is undertaken. In that environment, who on earth would spend money on a CBD apartment? And the effects have the potential to blight the market for years to come, to the detriment of the Council’s laudable goal to have more of us living in the city and walking to work.

These are structural problems that – to be fair – aren’t necessarily under the control of the WCC, but which make the ambitions of the Zero Carbon Capital look rather like a pipe-dream.

What is under the control of the Council, however, is the entirely leisurely approach that seems to be taken to even getting the plan in place. Despite the imperatives of climate change action being committed to way back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit – a full 27 years ago – the Council is still just chatting about its Te Atakura – First to Zero plan. We’ve been consulted. Then the plan gets incorporated into the Council’s next Long Term Plan … in 2021. Then something happens. Maybe. Frankly, it all feels like too much hui and not enough do-i.

The Council was right to classify our current situation as an emergency – and good on them for doing so. But there are times when mere words will not suffice, and decisive action is required. That time is now.

WCC zero carbon capital site: https://www.zerocarboncapital.nz/
LGWM priorities: https://getwellymoving.co.nz/the-plan/the-way-forward/
WCC climate emergency declaration: http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=119756


  1. Mequil, 2. July 2019, 12:22

    The reduction in CO2 emissions will come primarily from the private vehicle fleet, NOT from public transport. It’s almost impossible, no matter how good the public transport is, to move the dial on modeshare. If you assume that public transport usage is 15% and road usage 75%, is it easier to double the share of public transport usage from 15% to 30%, or is it easier for the average fuel use of the private fleet to fall by 12.5% – which is going to happen with the adoption of electric cars etc over the long term. Both will have the same impact on CO2.
    Don’t kid yourself that public transport is the answer to CO2 – it’s not. You are better to support the adoption of new private vehicle technology (subsidies, charging infrastructure, roads that work).

  2. Jane C, 2. July 2019, 14:55

    Don’t kid yourself Mequil, reducing private cars’ CO2 is not going to change the climate as the climate is not impacted by private vehicles’ CO2 emissions. There is no need to reduce Co2. Pollution yes, but not Co2. Recycling is great but not related to Co2. [abridged]

  3. Benny, 3. July 2019, 1:28

    @Jane C, you seem to live in denial land. We know transport (and thus mostly cars) is responsible for a third of greenhouse emissions worldwide, which CO2 is part of. CO2 that is extracted from fossil fuel, buried in the ground millions of years ago, in such way that has allowed life to emerge as we know it today. Releasing this CO2 in the atmosphere breaks this balance and is the origin of the crisis we are now facing. To say CO2 is not the problem is incorrect and irresponsible.

  4. Barney B., 3. July 2019, 9:43

    Benny – Climate change is obscuring the real problem. Too many people on the planet.

  5. David Mackenzie, 3. July 2019, 9:44

    It makes me furious that the WCC can declare an emergency, then carry on the leisurely bureaucratic procedures which do not alleviate the declared emergency by one iota.
    Efficient public transport can definitely be a contributing factor to reducing harmful emissions.
    The important thing is to act decisively and with commitment now, as whatever the costs of actions to solve the problem are, they will certainly be smaller than the costs of the unmitigated problems.

  6. Tom Croskery, 3. July 2019, 11:10

    It is fairly evident through history that a liberal democracy type system is incapable of dealing with any form of significant crisis. Most major crises over the past 100 years or so have essentially seen typical government processes suspended and an authoritarian approach taken in some form or another. It may well come to that, as WCC, GWRC and also central govt have all demonstrated they are incapable of dealing with this issue, but at what cost?

  7. Harry Welsford, 3. July 2019, 11:57

    I don’t see a liberal democracy type system Tom, I see the start of fascism.

  8. Alf the Aspirational Apteryx, 3. July 2019, 16:28

    @ Harry Welsford: sadly I have to agree with you. There is hysteria in the air and anyone who questions the new orthodoxies is labelled a “denier” or “alt-Right”.

  9. Kerry, 3. July 2019, 22:03

    Other cities can reduce carbon emissions from transport very effectively, so why not Wellington?
    Zurich, recommended by Paul Mees as a model for Wellington, has five times more passenger-trips per head of population, and a quarter of the subsidy, with far fewer cars in the central area.
    Wellington could do the same, at a far lower cost than ever-more roads. It is the cheap route to effective transport and low carbon emissions.

  10. Neil Douglas, 3. July 2019, 23:59

    One thing that Zurich has that Wellington had are trolley buses! Zurich’s are articulated. Some investment say $200 million and we could have had a similar system running here in Wellington. According to the World Bank – Zurich’s cost recovery is 68% which compares with 50% in Wellington.

  11. Keith Flinders, 4. July 2019, 1:37

    NZ Bus still have in their Wellington fleet 68 Euro 3 buses dating back to 2003. This in spite of the GWRC telling me last year that all Euro 3 buses would be replaced by Christmas 2018.

    15 older Euro 3 buses were withdrawn but six 2003 ones added. Still no action by the GWRC in getting the 50 in storage trolley buses converted to battery operation.

    A national disgrace that the capital city of NZ went to an almost 100% diesel public bus fleet and hasn’t matched or improved on the electric fleet we had in operation 2 years ago.

  12. Steve Doole, 4. July 2019, 4:53

    Kerry is correct. Other places can do it – why not Wellington?

    The WCC could lead by rapidly replacing its own vehicles that have combustion engines, and the GWRC could rapidly replace diesel bus fleets.
    Councils could chose from several options to reduce car use in the city this year, if the government agrees:
    – charging for workplace parking spaces, as does Nottingham City in England, partially to fund its tram, and as an incentive for employers to manage their workplace parking. Employers, rather than employees, are responsible for paying any charge.
    – charging for vehicle movements at busy times. London’s congestion charge applies most of the day. Singapore also has a charge for vehicles crossing a cordon. This could be easily applied in Wellington which has simple state highways to cities and suburbs north. Paris operates exclusion of some vehicles on bad pollution days with a simple number plate system – Even numbers one day, Odd numbers the next day.
    – charging for vehicle combustion engines idling for more than a minute. In May the Times suggested that the UK government is considering increasing the penalty to £80 ($160) to reduce pollution from exhausts.

    These techniques are used now overseas. Another that could apply to any NZ city is
    – charging for parking overnight in all public space, including any part of road reserves, that is, only vehicles parked on private property would be exempt. Yes, parking wardens would be active at night to the top of Wellington’s roads. Yes, this might mean councils would keep track of how many vehicles could reasonably be parked on some properties.

  13. AgentGerko, 8. July 2019, 18:38

    The Regional Council is a joke amongst transport people. How on earth could you dismantle a modern electric transport system, replace it with diesel buses and then bleat about emissions. Not only a modern electric transport system but one which was an attraction that brought transport people from around the world. Idiotic!