Cycling action is essential to our climate goals

Cycling action is essential to our climate goals

Robert McLachlan

The heart of Aotearoa’s climate action is the system of carbon budgets and emission reduction plans. We are now halfway through the first budget period, which runs from 2022 to 2025. Planning is well underway for the second (2026-2030) and third (2031-2035) budgets. Decisions about the kinds of infrastructure to build can have effects lasting for generations, making long-range planning essential. This is particularly the case for transport, which makes up 40 percent of CO2 emissions, and has to be reduced essentially to zero by 2050.

The first budget may not seem particularly ambitious. Even with the effects of Covid and faster EV uptake than expected, we are only just on track to achieve it. Any deficit has to be carried over into the next budget period. Transport was called on to make cuts of 1.8 Mt CO2 over the period, or 3%, by shifting car trips to walking, cycling, and public transport, and electrification:

Why reducing transport emissions is important

Transport is one of our largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for 17 per cent of Aotearoa New Zealand’s gross emissions.

More sustainable transport options can also reduce the cost of transport and reliance on global fossil fuel markets.

Key actions

    • Reduce reliance on cars and support people to walk, cycle and use public transport including by:
      • improving the reach, frequency and quality of public transport and making it more affordable for low-income New Zealanders
      • increasing support for walking and cycling, including initiatives to increase the use of e-bikes
      • ensuring safer streets and well-planned urban areas.
    • Rapidly adopt low-emissions vehicles including by:
      • continuing to incentivise the uptake of low- and zero-emissions vehicles through the Clean Vehicle Discount scheme and consider the future of the road user charge exemption for light electric vehicles beyond 2024
      • increasing access to low- and zero-emissions vehicles for low-income households by supporting social leasing schemes and trialling an equity-oriented vehicle scrap-and-replace scheme
      • improving EV-charging infrastructure across Aotearoa to ensure that all New Zealanders can charge when they need to.
    • Begin work now to decarbonise heavy transport and freight including by:
      • providing funding to support the freight sector to purchase zero- and low-emissions trucks
      • requiring only zero-emissions public transport buses to be purchased by 2025
      • supporting the uptake of low-carbon liquid fuels by implementing a sustainable aviation fuel mandate and a sustainable biofuels obligation.

Source: MfE, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first emissions reduction plan

Our track record on emissions shows that while Huntly power station and Fonterra’s milk-drying plants may get more media attention, oil is the main story.


The real work starts in the second and third budget periods, for which the groundwork needs to be laid now.


The recently-issued advice from the Climate Change Commission for 2026-2030 is to continue on the present path. Total savings of 36.7 Mt CO2e have to be found over the period, with transport contributing 8.1 Mt. Of this, the two largest single items are 2.6 Mt from EVs (assuming the market share of EVs for light vehicles reaches 67% by 2030) and 2.2 Mt from mode shift: walking, cycling, and public transport.

(Other items in the advice are improving efficiency and electrification of trucks, shifting freight from trucks to rail and coastal shipping, and introducing low-carbon liquid fuels. In contrast, building more renewable electricity – which is aligned with National Party policy – and eliminating baseload coal and gas-fired electricity contributes just 3.3 Mt of the 36.7 Mt total savings.)

We don’t yet know all the details of the new Government’s plans for transport and climate. Two key documents will be the revised GPS on transport and their draft emissions reduction plan, expected early in 2024 However, on 16 December Transport Minister Simeon Brown stopped new work on cycling, walking, and public transport:


In a letter to local authorities, Brown said he told the NZ Transport Authority Waka Kotahi (NZTA) to halt work on cycling and walking initiatives.

I understand that some local authorities have been developing programmes with NZTA and other stakeholders to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) by the light vehicle fleet, using funding from the Climate Emergency Response Fund,” he wrote.

I have given notice to NZTA to end its work on these programmes, and to not commit any further funding to local authorities (beyond existing contractual obligations) to develop these programmes. Thank you for your understanding as we work through these changes.”

VKT programmes are designed to reduce reliance on cars, and support people to walk, cycle and use public transport.

Brown was not available for an interview, but in a statement said the cycling and walking initiatives were a waste of time and money.


National Party policy prior to the election was to rely on the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) as the primary tool to cut emissions. However, it appear that no modelling has been done on whether or how this would work. The arguments against it are many:


  • It would require a very high carbon price. Even $250/tonne (the current price is $75) would add only 35 cents/litre to petrol, less than the fluctuations we have already seen in recent years, with marginal effect on emissions

  • It would require the public, councils, and industries to have confidence that the price would go high and stay high indefinitely, and for them to support this and to adapt their decisions accordingly.

  • It would require greater coverage than at present, with an end to free allocation to industry and to exemptions for some gases like nitrous oxides and methane.


There is overwhelming international evidence and experience that a hybrid approach – both a price on carbon and complementary measures such as direct government investment – is needed for the rapid and sweeping system changes that we need. Last year David Hall and I wrote an article for Policy Quarterly (“Why emissions pricing can’t do it alone”) on exactly this point.

Cycleways need central planning and provision; they need a complete network to work effectively. In this they are the same as roads, but central planning for roads and the roading network is accepted unquestioningly. We are starting to see positive impacts from the network effect as cycleways in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland begin to connect with each other. That we’ve done this despite having one of the the most car-dominated transport systems in the world counts for something. (The fleet has increased from 4.4 million to 4.8 million motor vehicles since 2019.)


We’ve also put in place a long-term system for dealing with climate change, one of the most intransigent and all-encompassing challenges ever faced. It was inevitable that some people wouldn’t agree with some parts of the plan. But following those arguments through means finding a balance: lower emissions cuts in one area and you need to make them up elsewhere. It was also inevitable that the checks and balances built into the Zero Carbon Act would be tested in time. Now we will find out if they are up to the task.



The passage you provided highlights the critical role of carbon budgets and emission reduction plans in Aotearoa New Zealand's climate action. The focus is on the transport sector, which accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions. The first budget period (2022-2025) set a target, and the second (2026-2030) and third (2031-2035) budgets are being planned. Cincinnati pool demolition company

More sustainable transport options can also reduce the cost of transport, move walls and reliance on global fossil fuel markets.



It would require greater coverage than at present, with an end to free allocation to industry and to exemptions for some gases like nitrous oxides and methane.