Friday, July 13, 2018

Climate change: Getting rid of petrol cars

What does the government's target of zero net emissions by 2050 mean in practice? James Shaw states the obvious: no more petrol cars:

If New Zealand is to meet its zero carbon pledge, nearly all the country's cars will have to be zero-emission by 2050, Climate Change Minister James Shaw says.

As of June, roughly 8700 plug-in cars are on the road of a total fleet of more than four million.

Mr Shaw said achieving the country's commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050 was reliant on significantly boosting the uptake of plug-in vehicles.

"We can't get to the zero-emissions carbon goal without switching over the ground vehicle fleet to electrics. You just can't get there," he said.

"We think that means about 95 percent of vehicles in the year 2050 will be zero-emissions vehicles."

Which is obvious if you think about it. Road transport was responsible for 13.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2016 - 17.3% of our national total. And if we are to reach zero emissions, those emissions need to be eliminated or offset. Some of that can be done by mode-shifting - getting people out of cars and into electric-powered trains and buses in our major centres. But the car is unlikely to die, so that means getting people to use cars which don't ruin the climate. And on current technological trends, that looks like a massive switch to electric vehicles.

The good news is that its possible. Electric vehicles are a tiny chunk of the fleet at the moment - there are less than 9,000 on the road. But thirty years is a long time for technological change, and New Zealand imports more than 250,000 cars a year. There's about 3.4 million cars registered, and the entire fleet will turn over multiple times before 2050. And while electric vehicles are expensive at present, the price will drop as they become standard, and we'll see greater numbers showing up on the used market (which is where NZ gets about half its cars).

As for how to push that change, rather than ending up a dumping ground for the rest of the world's discarded dirty cars when they switch to electric, the obvious policy is to set a long-term cutoff date on the sale or import of petrol cars. Overseas, dates have been set between 2025 (for Norway) and 2040 (for the dirty UK), with 2030 as the average. For New Zealand, I'd suggest no later than 2035, giving plenty of time for petrol cars to age out of the fleet. The followup policy is to have a cutoff date for registering petrol cars, 5 - 10 years after the import ban, which would restrict them to historical display use only. Because by that stage they should all be in museums, or driven only by obsessive engineers who like tinkering with and restoring dead technology, like Model-T Fords and 1957 Chevys today.

It sounds hard, but remember that it took only thirty years for the petrol car to completely replace horses in city streets. We've got that much time, and the technological shift required is smaller. We can do this. The trick is to make sure that it happens sooner rather than later, and not just leave it to the market.