• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

We like big vehicles and we cannot lie

The most popular new vehicle sold here in 2018. Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

It would take a psychologist to explain New Zealanders’ love for utes and SUVs. But it’s not the only reason people are revved up over the Government’s attempt to reduce our oversized carbon footprint.

The proposal to impose fees on new, higher-emission vehicles to subsidise the cost of lower-emission vehicles illustrates the difficulty of finding solutions, even when most people agree on the problems.

The Government has two targets with its emissions-related “feebate”. The first is curbing New Zealand’s increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. Statistics show the country’s share of these emissions is small, but our gross emissions per person are high. Blame it on all those hills, but we are once again forced to confront the gap between the perception of ourselves as green and the evidence that we’re heavy users of natural resources, including fossil fuels. Emissions related to agriculture remain the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases, but energy use – including vehicle emissions – is a close second, and it’s growing faster than those from farms.

With an efficient emissions scheme and properly functioning vehicle market, the Government should not need to nudge people towards buying certain vehicles. After all, the more fuel you use, the more you pay, so what should it matter to the Government what you drive? However, exponentially increasing the fuel tax would raise the cost of living for everyone, whereas only the wealthy could fly or go on road trips. Environmentally, that might be a good thing. Politically, it would be a disaster.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The second, related, problem the Government is trying to address is how to shift to a lower-emissions fleet nationally. For various reasons, the market signals that suggest people would prefer to drive vehicles that are cheaper to run and have lower emissions are not the only factors at play. Kiwis have an ongoing appetite for SUVs and utes. The most popular new vehicle sold here last year was the Ford Ranger, followed by the Toyota Hilux. Since the purchases cannot all have been by farmers and tradies, it might take a psychologist to explain our need to dominate the road, not to mention the supermarket car park. We cannot lie. Kiwis like big vehicles.

The Government’s proposal was met with an immediate outcry from green lobbyists that it was too little and, in particular, the suggested $3000 impost on gas guzzlers was too light. Those who use such vehicles for work or who drive rough country roads beg to differ. Yet again, there is in this policy a whiff of pandering to urban liberals at the expense of workers in the provinces.

There is further criticism that the move doesn’t apply to second-hand vehicles, which comprise the lion’s share of vehicle sales each year, but if the scheme works as hoped and encourages importation of electric and hybrid vehicles, they will soon filter down. However, it seems highly unlikely they will do so quickly enough to meet the Government’s target of 64,000 electric vehicles by 2021, especially as this policy does not kick in until then. Even if electric vehicles pour into the country, what will become of the older-model petrol and diesel vehicles? There is something decidedly ungreen about junking vehicles that are still usable.

The most likely reason for the Government tending to timidity is because the infrastructure to service a bigger electric fleet is not yet in place, and the Government is keeping one eye on its re-election chances. People who are already committed to the environmental cause would happily go further, faster. But for those smarting at the new fuel tax and resenting paying for plastic bin liners as their private stash of supermarket bags dwindles, the nudge may already feel like a shove.

Finding the balance between greater environmental protection and people’s freedom to make their own choices is tricky. Air New Zealand has been mocked for doing away with water bottles on some flights. The environmental cost of flying has nothing to do with plastic bottles and everything to do with its huge carbon-dioxide emissions. But who is to blame for the emissions – the airline or the thousands of passengers choosing to fly further, faster and more frequently than ever before?

Modern lifestyles have, collectively, led us to our present environmental mess. In addressing that, this Government must act fairly. Yet action now is better than waiting for a crisis to leave us with no choices at all.

This editorial was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.