Decarbinising Land Transport Banner (1)

The daily commute has taken on a whole new meaning in these pandemic times, but it's set to be unrecognisable by the end of the decade. 

Parliament declared a climate emergency in December 2020 and committed the Government to taking urgent action to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions (other than biogenic methane) to zero by 2050. 

The transport sector currently accounts for around 20% of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions, with most coming from road transport and 67% of those coming from the light vehicle fleet.  Transport emissions need to "fall quickly, and significantly" to achieve this ambitious target.[i]

The Climate Change Commission Final Advice delivered on 31 May 2021 paints a stark picture of the magnitude of transformation required to the land transport system and identifies two crucial areas of focus for the transport sector:

  • Transformation of the vehicle fleet - phase out imports of internal combustion engine light vehicles by the early 2030s, accelerate uptake of electric and zero-emissions cars, buses and trucks
  • Reduce reliance on cars and demand for travel - by supporting and substantially increasing funding for walking, cycling and public transport, including by smart urban development, and increased working from home.

The Commission's advice will inform the Government's first three emissions budgets and the mandatory Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) that will establish the policy framework required to meet the budgets.  The ERP was originally due in December 2021 but has been delayed to May 2022 to align it with the Government's traditional budget announcement and to give stakeholders time to engage when COVID-19 alert levels allow.  The delay is disappointing given the forthcoming COP26 Climate Summit in November.

While we wait for the ERP, however, we do have visibility of various Government workstreams that are feeding into it, including the Ministry of Transport's Hikina te Kohupara - Kia mauri ora ai te iwi - Transport Emissions: Pathways to Net-zero by 2050, released in May 2021 for public discussion.  The three key themes of Hikina te Kohupara build on the work of the Climate Change Commission:

  • Avoid emissions by changing the way we travel - shaping our towns and cities to make it easier, safer and more attractive for people to access what they need by public transport, walking and cycling
  • Shift to cleaner vehicles - decarbonise the light vehicle fleet, stimulate demand for and increase supply of clean vehicles and investigate biofuels
  • Improve the efficiency of supply chains - rail electrification, switch some freight movements from road to rail and coastal shipping.

Electrification of the vehicle fleet, together with the integration of transport with land use planning, are critical strategies given the scale of the challenge we face and the limited time available.  We've already seen substantial funding committed to electric vehicle (EV) subsidies, and the ERP will no doubt include a range of further regulatory and financial incentives to accelerate EV uptake as fast as possible.  But integration of transport with land use planning will require a longer term horizon, and much of what is possible will be shaped by the new legislative framework expected to emerge from the reform of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

The transport-land use integration challenge

The Government's ambitious reform programme aims to deliver three new statutes by late 2022 to implement the paradigm shift signalled by the Resource Management Review Panel (panel) that reported in 2020.[ii]

The panel recommended a new system for environmental protection and resource management which focuses on delivery of outcomes through setting targets and non-negotiable limits to enhance, protect, restore and improve the natural and built environment.

Three core pieces of legislation will replace the RMA.  Drafting of the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) is well advanced, with an early purpose and principles Exposure Draft released for comment in early 2021.  The Strategic Planning Act (SPA) and a new Climate Adaptation Act (CAA) are following closely behind. 

The NBA will provide for land use and set environmental limits and outcomes which then guide the development of regional spatial strategies under the SPA, while the CAA is proposed to specifically respond to the complex issues associated with managed retreat and funding of adaptation measures.

Where does a low-carbon land transport system fit into this new framework?  The NBA Exposure Draft provides an early glimpse. 

The panel recommended that emissions reduction outcomes be included in the NBA purpose and principles, to ensure the promotion of land and resource use activities that will mitigate emissions or sequester carbon. 

The NBA Exposure Draft at section 8 would deliver on that direct recommendation, as well as seeking urban form outcomes that support emissions reduction:

8. To assist in achieving the purpose of the Act, the national planning framework and all plans must promote the following environmental outcomes:

(j) greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and there is an increase in the removal of those gases from the atmosphere

(k) urban areas that are well functioning and responsive to growth and other changes, including by —

    (i) enabling a range of economic, social, and cultural activities; and

    (ii) ensuring a resilient urban form with good transport links within and beyond the urban area.

Other provisions enable the proposed new national planning framework (NPF) to prescribe environmental limits and require it to include provisions "directing" the outcomes listed in section 8.  The NPF can direct that provisions be given effect to through consolidated plans (replacing the current regional and district plans) or through new regional spatial strategies.  In some cases, the NPF may provide for provisions to have direct legal effect without being incorporated into a plan or a regional spatial strategy.[iii]

If these provisions survive the final drafting process, they will give the Minister for the Environment (who develops the NPF) extensive powers to mandate urgent, far reaching land use and emissions control regulation. 

The key challenge is that, while the land transport system is dynamic, evolving in response to performance deficiencies and changing policy drivers, that evolution is the product of complex, lengthy processes that will not yield easily without further legislative change.

Whether for roads or climate friendly modes such as shared use paths and rapid transit corridors, planning for land transport infrastructure commences with a Treasury-mandated business case process.  These business cases identify network needs and build the case for investment by setting investment objectives, identifying constraints, developing corridor options, undertaking multi criteria analyses, and ultimately selecting preferred alignments.  Climate change resilience and low-emissions outcomes can be infused into this process, and there are signs that these factors are already influencing investment decisions.

The investment decision making process occurs within the planning and funding cycle set up by the Land Transport Management Act 2003 (LTMA), with national and regional land transport plan processes identifying long term priority funding requirements.  Compelling business cases can wait years to have funding confirmed for identified priorities before moving into an implementation phase.  Those priorities have already started to shift in the wake of clear commitments to low carbon transition, but amendments to the LTMA may also be required to give greater impetus in the short to medium term.

The introduction of spatial planning under the SPA should also assist with transport and land use integration. 

Spatial planning as a concept seeks to make strategic, integrated decisions about a region's development. 

Spatial planning is vision driven, not issues driven, and focuses on the 'where of things' rather than providing a development control rule book.  For example, it will identify the broad pattern of existing and future urban development, areas that should be protected from development, areas that are subject to constraints (eg due to natural values or cultural importance), indicative future infrastructure corridors and opportunities to make better use of existing infrastructure networks.  The regional spatial strategies developed under the SPA will be an important means of identifying climate change mitigation measures at a strategic level.

Each region is expected to undertake spatial planning (the process) and develop a regional spatial strategy (the output).  Regional spatial strategies will be required to have a 30 year outlook, informed by longer term data as appropriate, such as 100 year projections for climate change, and will also need to give effect to the environmental outcomes set out in section 8 (or its ultimate equivalent) of the NBA. 

For land transport infrastructure, the benefit of a spatial planning lies not so much in where infrastructure corridors or locations are indicatively shown, but in the process of building consensus around the need for them and their strategic importance. 

Once everything is 'on the board', the key players are then able to agree relative priorities, and the work of integrating land transport networks for all modes with smart urban growth can begin in earnest. 

This has never been more important; as we gather momentum towards a zero net carbon future, business case processes will need to ensure timely delivery of inputs to regional spatial plans, and infrastructure providers will need to lead and anticipate, rather than respond to, changing community priorities.

Meanwhile, how to assess emissions in a consenting process?

With its main focus on the vehicle fleet and land use/transport integration, the Climate Change Commission did not recommend any measures to influence emissions that are enabled by infrastructure.  Until recently, the RMA expressly prevented decision makers from considering the impacts on climate change of any greenhouse gas emissions generated by proposals seeking consent.  That situation has now changed: the RMA has been amended so that, from 31 December 2021, the prohibition will no longer apply.[iv]   The removal of section 104E will create some uncertainty regarding the methodology of assessment to be applied to potential emissions for the purpose of obtaining consents or designations for land transport projects.  The transition over time to a low emissions vehicle fleet, and EVs in particular, poses some complex challenges for effects assessment associated with enabled or induced carbon.

With its key role in prioritising investment in, and delivery of, transport infrastructure under the Government Policy Statement for Land Transport 2021, Waka Kotahi is developing a methodology for measuring construction, operational, enabled and end of life carbon emissions from the land transport system.  Based on international best practice, the methodology is part of a broader workstream on emissions profiling within Toitu Te Taiao, the Waka Kotahi Sustainability Action Plan[v]:

“Once fully implemented, this methodology will be critical in helping us baseline our current land transport emissions, support our understanding of the transport contribution required to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and assist infrastructure decision making to achieve required emissions reduction outcomes.”

This is already being used to guide Waka Kotahi project delivery and will be critical to preparing for the next phase of transition to a low carbon land transport system with completion of the RMA reform process.

The Climate Change Commission believes we are well equipped to face the challenge[vi]:

“We have demonstrated there are multiple ways to achieve our recommended emissions budgets.  We have tested their sensitivity using a series of possible paths outlining different rates of technology and behaviour change to 2035.  These show the budgets are flexible and resilient to unexpected change.”

“Our analysis shows the transition can begin in earnest. The technology and tools the country needs to get there exist today - Aotearoa does not need to rely on future technologies. The evidence has shown the transition is affordable, brings many other benefits, and opens up new economic opportunities. Our consultation demonstrated that the transition has broad support from people across Aotearoa.”

The land transport system has a critical role to play in our transition to a low emissions, net-zero carbon future. 

The impending reform of the statutory framework used to plan for, authorise and deliver transport projects has the potential to deliver real momentum to that transition.


[i] Hikina te Kohupara – Kia mauri ora ai te iwi: Transport Emissions: Pathways to Net-zero by 2050 May 2021, Ministry of Transport

[ii] Resource Management Review Panel New Directions for Resource Management in New Zealand (Ministry for the Environment, June 2020)

[iii] NBA Exposure Draft, section 15

[iv] Namely sections 70A and 104E will be repealed

[v] Evaluating whole-of-life infrastructure carbon emissions, Hume, Marquardt & Lindberg, paper to Transportation 2021 Conference, May 2021

[vi] Climate Change Commission Final Report, Executive Summary