• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

The feebate failure shows EV action must come from the people

As Winston Peters obstructs a scheme designed to encourage take-up of electric and hybrid vehicles, we’ll have to look elsewhere for leadership on electric vehicles.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s apparent inability to stand up to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is looking not just embarrassing for her but perhaps costly for the country. Effective action on housing, child poverty and the environment were the standout promises of Labour’s campaign in the last election. The pledge to be “transformational” is now not only a broken promise but an increasingly deep disappointment. On top of the Government’s well-known failure with KiwiBuild, new figures show family poverty to be grudgingly intransigent. Sadly, the Government’s struggle to make headway is now not only in housing and poverty, but also in the environment.

With scientists warning the world has just 10 years to avert catastrophic global warming, the urgency for political parties to agree on workable measures is greater than ever. Yet for each step forward, such as the net-zero carbon legislation, there is another going back.

The latest backward step is the indefinite delay of the proposed feebate scheme designed to hasten and encourage take-up of electric and hybrid vehicles.

New Zealand is one of only two OECD countries to do nothing to regulate vehicle pollution and, thanks to petty political wrangling, we’ll be staying with Australia in the slow lane a while longer.

The scheme is not yet in ideal shape, but agreements were in place to neutralise the potential unfairness – and therefore the political risk – of making petrol and diesel cars pricier. The technical fishhooks could well have been straightened out through the select-committee process. In response to criticism from National and others, the Government had early on agreed to exempt farmers and those who depend on powerful, load-towing vehicles not yet available other than in diesel or petrol form. However, NZ First has now stalled the policy.

The Greens’ response has been to make their frustration public, thus depleting any remaining goodwill between them and NZ First. Labour has once again been left looking ineffectual in the face of coalition rivalry, and Ardern ineffective in preventing Peters from running the show.

As for the National Party, whose leader and transport spokesperson both drive EVs and which has an increasingly influential blue-green wing, it has yet to propose an alternative way to encourage New Zealanders to make the switch to electric vehicles.

It’s fair to say both National and NZ First still have valid concerns about the proposed scheme’s effect on rural and provincial New Zealand, but it’s also true they could be “grandfathered” until suitable green vehicles emerge.

The Treasury argues the Emissions Trading Scheme would be a better way to drive our fleet conversion. But the scheme is complex, controversial and largely incomprehensible to most. The feebate’s transfer mechanism has the virtues of simplicity and comparative ease of implementation.

One can also argue that a compulsion to switch to electric vehicles – which are by no means free from environmental problems – will hasten the research and development required to improve them.

The limited, and often overstated, range of EVs, the paucity of charging facilities and sluggish supply of vehicles into New Zealand’s small market are all problems, with or without a feebate. Questions also abound over the sustainability of the EV batteries’ mineral-dependent manufacture and short life. And how do we greenly repurpose the redundant global fossil-fuel car fleet?

These issues need, and are receiving, urgent global attention.

Meanwhile, our most effective response to the greenhouse-emissions problem is a widespread conversion to EVs as soon as practicable.

Sure, the scheme was never perfect, yet perfect is not always the aim. Many people want to make the switch from petrol- and diesel-driven engines, and this scheme may perhaps have been less politically untenable than NZ First and National seem to presume.

In the face of the changes New Zealand must make to reduce environmental degradation, the feebate scheme is minor. However, as a signal of political commitment to move in the right direction, it is vital.

Those who can afford to switch to electric or hybrid vehicles, and who can see the value to New Zealand, should do so, knowing that environmental protection is too important to leave to political vagaries. They should be applauded, along with all Kiwis who consciously keep their transport emissions down. Leadership on this will have to come from the people.

This editorial  was first published in the March 7, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.