Caution needed on climate change policy for heavy transport
Posted: 11-Feb-2021 |


Many of us are taking time to digest the Climate Change Commission’s draft report that was released almost two weeks ago.

The report lays out our nation’s challenges clearly – we all agree with the absolute need to reduce our emissions over the next few decades. The commission should be congratulated for holding to its clarity and purpose.

For the heavy transport industry however, things aren’t that clear. Our industry cannot accept the development of policy on a wing and a prayer. We can’t proceed into a future where the technology that powers our vehicles is imagined, rather than real. Policy should be about the possible, not the probable and frankly, too much is unknown about the kinds of future energy that will power heavy vehicles.

I was pleased the commission acknowledged that the vast majority of the freight task will remain on the road. Road currently has 93 percent of the freight task in New Zealand because it meets the challenges of our particular market.

The path the commission has recommended includes a modal shift of freight from road to rail and coastal shipping. However, their assumptions are that around only four percent of freight tonne kilometres can switch by 2030. That is a far more realistic position than what we hear from many political commentators and anti-road lobbyists and is backed up by the obvious time the commission has spent understanding New Zealand’s freight system and the practical reasons why road transport is the dominant freight mode.

I was also impressed with the commission’s acknowledgement that in the push for the decarbonisation of transport, medium and heavy trucks will be slower to electrify than our light vehicle fleet. Commissioners obviously recognise that current battery technology does not provide the range to deal with long-haul road transport. Their recommendation is that of the heavy vehicles imported in 2030, 15 percent of medium trucks and eight percent of heavy trucks would be electric. By 2035, this would increase to a much more ambitious 84 percent and 69 percent respectively.

The commission accepts that they can’t predict what the eventual solution for powering heavy transport will be. That won’t stop some others though, and we must guard against people who think they can lock in a solution for us so far in advance.

Richard Prebble, in an excellent column in the NZ Herald this week, noted that it was impossible to plan 35 years out in such a fast-changing world. He asked us to imagine going back to the 1980s in a pre-internet world, then asking us to think ahead to 2021 to conceive our economy of today. Impossible. 

He also made an excellent point that we must guard against central planning our emissions reduction; where the Government will have a say in how and where we live, and in all facets of our lives.

There are people who wish to use the real and justified concern around climate change to exert political and economic control. Capitalism has always adapted and it will continue to do so to get the best results via a market and allowing people to choose. That, alongside appropriate Government regulation is the best way forward. 

So, beware of the so-called “futurists” in this discussion. They are sometimes political ideologues dressed up to look funky, but with an underlying agenda of control. “A world order as we dictate it,” is their goal. We can all be futurists by considering our lives and businesses and how we adapt to change and new technology in our daily lives to improve the condition of our planet, much like human beings have done for our time on this earth. 

Our focus must be high level; a focus on reducing our emissions as a country and as a world – net zero by 2050. That is the end goal here. Not more social engineering by walking and cycleways, or a massive reductive in private car ownership.

The means to the end we seek have not totally revealed themselves for the heavy transport industry. We must assist road transport businesses to be more sustainable and efficient in their business practices and preparing for the technology – whether it be hydrogen, electric, or some as yet unknown energy source.

I will blog again on our submission to the commission’s report. This is an ongoing discussion that will require operator and wider industry input indefinitely, so it’s important everyone starts considering their businesses part in the decarbonisation path. 


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