Advocates attack removal of climate change from Government's draft transport policy

Simeon Brown.
Simeon Brown. Photo credit: Newshub

Paul Winton does not mince his words: "The 60s have called Simeon Brown and they want their transport plan back."

Winton is a trustee of All Aboard Aotearoa, a coalition of advocacy groups fighting for a more sustainable transport system.

He said the government's new draft policy statement on land transport, released on Monday, was a disgrace.

"This is a transport plan that wouldn't have been out of place in 1955 in Los Angeles," he told Morning Report.

"... back in the days, when they thought that building roads and suburbs as far as the eyes could see was something that would drive the economy and drive better lives for people. But 60 years later, we know that is not the case."

Under the government's draft statement, climate change is no longer a 'strategic priority'.

That means, if implemented, the New Zealand Transport Agency Waka Kotahi and other decision-makers would not be required to consider emissions when making transport investment decisions.

This is a U-turn from the previous government's position in the 2021 GPS, currently in effect.

That statement identifies four priorities, including transitioning to a low carbon transport system.

'A lot more traffic and a lot more emissions'

Transport policy statements are 10-year plans for the sector, issued every three years.

Franks Ogilvie lawyer Brigitte Morten said it was an opportunity for the government to lay out its investment strategy, including how it wanted to allocate funds collected from fuel taxes, road user charges, vehicle licensing and more.

"The statements do exactly what they say on the box," she said.

"Essentially they're a top-down approach laying out what the priorities are. Then everyone has to fall in line behind it."

This takes place through Waka Kotahi's National Land Transport Programme, which sets out in detail how the government's agenda will be met, or regional transport plans, which are developed by local authorities, and are also required to comply.

In the context of climate change, that means decision-makers must consider the emissions impact of an investment decision if the government lists climate change as a strategic priority.

Under this draft policy the new government would not be preventing the consideration, Morten said.

But it would not be required, and the strategic priorities that have been identified, which include economic growth, increased maintenance and safety, would take precedence.

"This means if a decision-maker is looking at something that is particularly environmental, but also something that would enhance safety, they will have to look at that safety element first," she said.

The change would be most evident through funding decisions, Morten added.

"If a regional authority prioritises something that's not the strategic direction, there's a possibility they may have more trouble getting that funded through central government than they would have last year under a different set of priorities."

University of Auckland senior lecturer in urban planning Tim Welch said it was hard to see how this approach aligned with New Zealand's emissions reduction ambitions, with the activities identified in the draft plan already likely to exceed the targets set by the previous government.

The draft policy statement does acknowledge that it does not align with New Zealand's emissions reduction plan, but states that the government is working on a second emissions plan, due by the end of the year.

To Welch, the government's priorities are clear: "What [this draft] means is a lot more road building, a lot more traffic and a lot more emissions."

Missing the bigger picture

All Aboard Aotearoa, which is comprised of organisations like Greenpeace, Lawyers for Climate Action and the Citizens' Climate Lobby, has relied on the climate change priority in the 2021 policy statement to bring court proceedings against Waka Kotahi and Auckland Council.

They have argued, albeit not entirely successfully, that these decision-making bodies failed to take the climate change priority into account.

One of those cases regarded the Mill Road corridor project in Auckland, set to cost a $1.3 billion.

The case was dropped when the previous government decided not to pursue the project.

But it may rear its head again, with the proposal listed as a road of national significance in the new draft policy statement.

Winton would not rule out further litigation down the line if this draft entered into force.

"The wires are running hot with the various legal activists at the moment looking at how they can curtail this destructive approach to transport planning," he said.

In addition to setting out broad, strategic priorities, the government's policy statement also identifies certain "activity classes" that it wants to fund and how it plans to fund them.

The previous government used these to direct capital to pedestrian corridors and cycleways, as well as public transport services.

But this new draft appears to pull that right back.

"Investment in walking and cycling should only take place where there is either clear benefit or increasing economic growth or clear benefit for improving safety and demonstrated volumes of pedestrians and cyclists already exist," the draft said.

According to Winton, this flies completely in the face of what is needed to reduce New Zealanders' reliance on cars.

"We know from around the world that the things that shift people to alternative and sustainable modes of transport is having those modes available," he said.

"The biggest driver to adopting cycling as a means of getting around is being able to do it without fear of being hit by a car."

As for public transport services, the draft suggests a renewed emphasis on 'farebox recovery'.

"Six years ago, public transport users would pay around 40 percent of the cost of operating the public transport system, but that's dropped to 13 percent. We're saying that needs to be rebalanced," Simeon Brown told Morning Report on 5 March.

Welch said this sort of approach, which relied on traditional cost-benefit analyses, would often miss the wider picture.

"When we talk about the cost of using a certain type of transport, we often talk about what's coming directly out of the government's pocket," he said.

"But that misses the bigger potential savings, like a reduction in pollution that could decrease the likelihood of someone needing a health intervention for their respiratory issue."

The draft policy statement is open for consultation until 2 April.