Progress slow on Wellington and Auckland’s carbon emissions

A Victoria University of Wellington-led study suggests that despite strong goals adopted by Wellington and Auckland, the cities still have a way to go in reducing carbon emissions from transport.

Published recently in the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, the research analysed local government policies, commitments to cut carbon emissions, and the gap between policy aspirations and outcomes.  

Lead author Victoria’s Associate Professor Ralph Chapman says there is an urgent need to cut carbon emissions sharply, especially in light of the Paris Agreement.

He says Auckland and most Wellington councils are taking action, but “could do better” in transport and urban development policy efforts.

“Transportation was New Zealand’s fastest-growing sector in terms of carbon emissions over the last two decades—road transport emissions grew 71 percent between 1990 and 2014.

“We found that Wellington and Auckland’s policies are generally pushing in the right direction. Carbon emissions per capita in the Wellington region, for example, are starting to decline. Auckland’s are stable.”

“However, progress in both cities has been modest, to date, and neither city’s emissions are falling significantly.

“This is despite some housing intensification, which can cut emissions by shortening journeys. The proportion of commuting trips made by car is only gradually diminishing, while the share of walking and cycling is only marginally increasing.”

The researchers focused on possible explanations for the slow progress.

“We found that there is a significant gap between councils’ stated goals, on the one hand, and the measures they actually adopted, on the other,” says Associate Professor Chapman.

“In addition, the ‘business as usual’ policies of central government are dampening the will and ability of these cities to adopt more sustainable policies.”

The research suggests Wellington and Auckland are likely to miss their mitigation targets unless a more multi-level, coordinated and progressive approach to carbon mitigation is implemented.

“It’s clear that there have been a number of missed opportunities for cutting emissions at central government level. City goals and actions contrast with mitigation inaction by central government. City mitigation performance will likely be modest until the central government’s stance changes,” says Associate Professor Chapman.

“There is nevertheless a good case, and clear opportunities, for Auckland and Wellington to act more strongly to cut their emissions.”

Associate Professor Chapman worked with other researchers from the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities—the University of Otago Wellington’s Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and Victoria University students Kate Whitwell and Alyssa Thomas.

The project was part of a Resilient Urban Futures research programme funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Future research includes examining how New Zealand’s approach to transport investment appraisal could be improved, and a cost-benefit analysis of investing in cycling and walking.