What role will local government have in New Zealand’s progress towards a low carbon economy? In this article I reflect on some of the points raised in the Productivity Commission’s Low-emissions economy report and suggest some ways councils may contribute to this fantastic goal.

As Murray Sherwin (the Chair of the Productivity Commission) says in his foreword to the report: “Being asked to advise on how New Zealand can best make the transition to a low emissions economy, while at the same time continuing to grow incomes and wellbeing, is perhaps the most profound and far-reaching mandate the Commission could be tasked with.”

Forestry expansion

From the Low-emissions economy report
The overall levels of additional forest by 2050 ranges from 1.5 to 2.2 million hectares.

Local government implications

  • Councils will have an interest in (and may have some influence over) what proportion of forestry development in their region will be native bush and plantation forestry.
  • Councils will need to manage the effects of more plantation harvesting in terms of soil and water quality, and potential threats to nearby properties during heavy rainfall events.
  • There is potential for councils to benefit from new forestry planting as the price for emission units rises from $25 (in November 2018) to between $75 and $250 by 2050.

Horticulture expansion

From the Low-emissions economy report
The area of land used for horticulture may remain stable at 0.5 million, double to 1 million hectares or triple to 1.5 million hectares by 2050. However, there are significant barriers to changing over to horticulture including:

  • uncertainty about hidden costs
  • limited availability of skilled labour
  • marketing and distribution logistics
  • access to financial support.

Local government implications

  • If horticulture is a good option for landowners in a region, there may be a local government role to help overcome the significant barriers to landowners making this change, for example through assistance from land management advisers or via economic development agency initiatives.
  • Water quality may improve as a result of fewer stock being present in a catchment, but there may be new demand for water to be allocated for irrigation associated with horticulture.

Uptake of electric vehicles

From the Low-emissions economy report
Medium-sized electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to cost about the same as a fossil fuel vehicle by the mid-2020s.

Since EVs are also much cheaper to run — the equivalent to paying 30 cents a litre for petrol in today’s prices — and have lower maintenance costs, EVs would significantly undercut fossil-fuel vehicles on total cost of mobility. However, even with rapid growth in EV sales, the transition will take decades as many of us buy second hand cars.

Local government implications
Councils have the following options to consider:

  • using bylaw powers to allow EVs to travel in special vehicle lanes (of most relevance to the larger cities)
  • involvement in establishing EV fast charging stations to reduce ‘range anxiety’ (including in residential areas where households lack off-street parking, which is being trialled in Wellington)
  • purchase of electric fleet vehicles
  • actively promoting uptake of EVs through information campaigns.

Need for new renewable electricity generation

From the Low-emissions economy report
Electricity generation will need to increase by between 45% and 63% by 2050. This growth in demand is likely to be met through geothermal, wind and solar energy sources.

Local government implications
If large scale wind or solar renewable energy generation is occurring in a district or region, there are likely to be consenting issues to consider and potential impacts for neighbours to be mitigated.

There may also be potential for renewable energy generation activities to occur on council-owned land.

Rising fossil fuel prices

From the Low-emissions economy report
Fossil fuel prices are likely to increase. Rising emissions prices will play a role, but changes in oil price and exchange rates could have much larger effects.

Local government implications
Issues to consider include:

  • the effect of fossil fuel price increases for the economic prosperity of a region, and how economic development agencies or advisers can assist with the transition to other energy sources
  • the impacts of fossil fuel price increases associated with the operation of a council’s existing infrastructure.

Active and public transport

From the Low-emissions economy report
An increase in public transport trips by 30%, cycling trips by 30% and walking trips by 100% over the next 20 years would only achieve a 1% reduction in light passenger emissions.

Local government implications
Based on the statistics above, emissions reductions are not a strong reason for investing in mode shifts. Councils are better to focus on the other benefits of public and active transport, including improving road safety and accessibility, relieving congestion, and achieving gains in productivity.

Ride-sharing/vehicle sharing

From the Low-emissions economy report
Ride- and car-sharing services and other technologies that enable ‘mobility-as-a-service’ have the potential to reduce vehicle ownership, travel demand and emissions.

The Government has given funding to two car-sharing projects through the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund,: $500 000 to Yoogo — a fleet in Christchurch with 100 battery EVs; and $500 000 to Mevo — a fleet in Wellington with 50 battery EVs.

In addition, in 2017 NZTA (jointly with public and private partners) launched two pilot mobile applications for Queenstown and Auckland to connect individuals with different modes of mobility.

Local government implications
Councils may have a role in promoting ‘mobility-as-a-service’ options such as Yoogo and Mevo. If these types of services become mainstream, they will also have implications for parking requirements and inner city land use in the long term.

Supporting the transition to a low-emissions economy

From the Low-emissions economy report
The ability of individuals to acquire new skills over their lifetimes is likely to take on greater importance, not just because of the economic changes resulting from climate change but wider technological advancements, such as automation. However, the current education and training system is not well set up to meet the needs of people seeking mid-career retraining.

Local government implications
Councils may choose to be involved in partnerships with local training organisations (either directly or through arm’s length economic development agencies) to ensure relevant retraining options are available in their communities.

You can access a more detailed summary of the Productivity Commission’s report here.