Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Climate change: The necessary transition

If New Zealand is to meet its long-term emissions goal of net zero emissions by 2050, we need to drive an enormous technological shift towards a decarbonised economy. Banning pointless oil exploration is a necessary part of that on the production end. What about the consumption end? Writing in Stuff, Thomas Anderson and Jonathan Boston suggest an obvious measure: banning fossil fuelled cars:

Of such measures, perhaps the most effective would be a ban on the sale of all new or imported used vehicles with internal combustion engines. Such a ban could take effect, say, from 2030. Many developed and developing countries have already introduced or are seriously contemplating such bans (see the accompanying table). New Zealand should follow suit.

As it stands, our transport sector accounts for around 18 per cent of annual gross greenhouse gas emissions and over a third of carbon-dioxide emissions. Emissions from road vehicles make up over 90 per cent of our total transport emissions. Hence, a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel vehicles would, in due course, considerably reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, New Zealand is ideally placed to accelerate the switch to a low-carbon transportation system. Given current technologies, this implies relying heavily on electric vehicles (EVs).

About 85 per cent of our stationary energy comes from renewable sources and this percentage continues to increase. Accordingly, EVs can be recharged in New Zealand with a very low carbon footprint.

Several other countries have already adopted such bans, with varying target dates, and its easy to see why: if you want to drive technological change, then putting a use-by date on outdated technology is an easy way to do it. That's what we did with analog TV and cellphone networks. Of course, cars are more expensive than those, but that's just a question of lead-in time. And on that front, twelve years before an import ban seems like plenty of time to adapt. It'll take longer for the tail of existing fossil-fuelled cars to shrink, and they'll never completely disappear - there will always be antiques and museum pieces, just like the old Model T Fords or 50's gas-guzzlers you still sometimes see on the roads. But it will push the shift we need to make, and with enough time for infrastructure networks to prepare and adapt. And by having a long lead time, it uses the usual upgrade cycle to our advantage, minimising the costs of the transition.

I don't expect the government to announce this sort of measure in a hurry - it needs serious policy work on the implementation details. But I'm hoping they'll announce it in a year or two. The longer they wait, the further back it pushes the necessary transition, and the more we pollute. And that's something we can't afford to do.