Yesterday the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their latest take on how Planet Earth is looking. To anyone who cares about what the planet will be like in a few years, it’s scary reading. It’s quite long and technical, but fortunately one of the lead authors, Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward, is based right here in Christchurch, and in this Radio NZ interview summarises it all in 3 neat sentences;
“The report is unequivocal, the climate is changing now.
“These changes are already affecting human well-being through extreme weather events and sea level rise, and risking far-reaching losses including coral reefs and Arctic sea ice.
“And the report is very clear: We’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of making commitments to cut greenhouse gasses to achieve that Paris agreement.”
This made me think about what we could do in Christchurch if hypothetically, we decided that we do actually want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Ministry for the Environment states that transport makes up 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions, so that’s a good place to start.
To get people to stop doing things that emit greenhouse gases, we need to ensure the economic incentives are such that they willingly choose not to. It’s a failure of our economic setup that up till now we’ve never required people to pay the true price of emitting greenhouse gases. Put another way, we’ve been subsidising people to emit greenhouse gases. It should be no surprise then that people have chosen to emit more than is economically optimal. To stop these damaging subsidies, we could:
- Allow everyone who doesn’t mind walking and cycling, to freely do it. The research tells us (Koorey, 2016) there are huge numbers of people who want to walk and bike more, but currently don’t because we haven’t provided them with safe infrastructure. The number of primary age kids walking/biking to school was around 60% in 1990, and dropped to 22% by 2007. It’s tempting to blame the parents for this, but really it’s just a rational response to the infrastructure that we’ve provided them. I think safe, attractive infrastructure might look like decent footpaths, lots more safe places to cross roads, sub-fatal vehicle speeds on most urban streets (20-30km/h), separated cycleways on busier/faster streets, and more walkable neighbourhoods (higher density and connectivity).
- Allow people who want to use public transport to do so more easily (better services). And switch to emissions-free buses/trains (which incidentally is proposed in Ecan’s latest plan).
- Add a levy on to fossil fuels to account for the environmental damage. In theory the Emissions Trading Scheme is meant to do this, but my limited understanding of it is that it’s not really working. Maybe tweaking the ETS would be enough. Eric Crampton briefly talks about it here.
- Stop subsidising roading projects. For most roading projects money from the NLTF (essentially fuel excise) only covers about 50% of the cost, the rest is paid for out of your rates. Exceptions are State Highways (where the NLTF covers 100%) and some cycling and public transport projects. Using people’s rates to subsidise roading projects that are primarily for motorists, results in more people driving than otherwise would if it was fully user-pays. Fuel excise should cover 100% of the cost of roading projects, without dipping into rates money.
- Stop subsidising parking. We are especially bad at this in Christchurch. We increase rates so we can build expensive car parking buildings, which we then give away for free to motorists. Again, this results in any rational person driving more than they otherwise would. Same goes for free/cheap on-street parking, and for minimum parking requirements (forcing shops and housing developers to pay for motorists’ parking). Parking should be paid for 100% by those using it.
- Stop subsidising motorists’ increased health costs. We know that someone who chooses to drive to work everyday costs us an extra $115,000 in healthcare costs over the course of their lifetimes than if they biked (NZTA EEM, page 5-521). This is mainly treatment for obesity related diseases. But currently this extra cost of driving isn’t built into its price. Again this results in people driving more than they otherwise would. Cigarettes are taxed to cover the healthcare costs they inflict on their users. Maybe a similar concept could be extended to driving, which we know causes just as serious health issues. More education around the health risks of a car-oriented lifestyle would go a long way too.
- Potentially we could subsidise people to use electric cars as the Minister for Climate Change has suggested, although personally I don’t think this is the right approach – removing the subsidies for petrol/diesel cars is a more efficient way to achieve the same thing.
Doing these could conceivably cut our transport greenhouse gas emissions by something like 80%, based on the mode shares of other cities around the world who have already implemented these.
Although a lot of these would be complex to change from a legislative point of view, none are difficult at all from a technological/engineering perspective, and many wouldn’t have any financial costs (if anything they would cost us less than the current arrangements). If reducing greenhouse gases is genuinely something we think is worthwhile doing then we need to be looking into these, and with some urgency.
Do you think we should reduce our transportation greenhouse gas emissions in Christchurch?