SUSTAINABILITY Pick Any Shade of Green

Over the past few months I, like every other New Zealander, have been watching the price of fuel increase each time I fill up the family car. Earlier this year I was in the United Kingdom at Sustainability Leadership Forum and I was amazed at the price they were paying even before this latest round of fuel hikes. However, knowing that someone else is paying more doesn’t make us feel any better.
The cost of energy is one which affects all of us – at work and at home. We notice when the gas or electricity bill comes in higher than the previous month and we certainly notice when we are paying nearly $100 for tank of petrol. Energy hardly featured in the election campaign but we need it to be key plank of the Government’s policy.
Last month the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development published report looking at potential options for New Zealand’s long-term energy supply out to 2050 and asked the incoming Government to select one of them (or combination thereof) so that we have clear strategy for providing the increase in energy which is going to be needed – even assuming we double our efforts at energy efficiency.
It was not great surprise to find that nine out of 10 New Zealanders do not believe that the Government has long-term strategy but it does give clear message to our political leaders that they address this – and soon. As an ex Minister myself I understand that governments have to be driven by three- or perhaps six-year electoral cycles, but this is one area where short-term policy will fail us all.
We expect energy suppliers to invest in power plants which have an expected lifetime of 50 to 75 years but without any security that long-term strategy is in place which will assure them return on that investment. So I urge this Government to take the bull by the horns and provide us with plan which accepts that there will need to be trade-offs between the competing priorities of security of supply, affordability and environmental protection, but makes sure we keep our options open.
It’s all very well thinking about 2050, but what about providing us with some options now?
There are already choices which we can and should be making. When you are replacing your company fleet or your family car, will you be choosing gas guzzler or will you make the switch to one of the low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles?
We have now bought Honda Civic hybrid car for the Business Council and my colleagues variously drive the Toyota Prius hybrid and smaller cars such as the Honda Jazz. You might mutter: “you would, wouldn’t you?” because it’s badge of honour for someone working to promote sustainability. That’s partly true. However, as fuel prices spiral ever upwards, it’s making good business sense at around six litres per 100 kilometres. Most vehicles use twice that amount.
Getting more businesses to buy low-emission, fuel-efficient cars is something that the Business Council has been working on and we have published paper on how this can be achieved. The main reasons people give for not selecting such vehicles are limited selection, less speed, lack of environmental concern and higher capital costs (perceived or actual).
The car companies need to provide wider range of models and indeed in the United States it is now possible to buy hybrid sport utility vehicles.
This is an area where the Government can intervene now to encourage uptake by providing incentives to companies that introduce this new technology into their fleets.
There are number of ways they can do this such as reducing Fringe Benefit Tax on fuel-efficient vehicles or providing rebates to users. The Government itself could take lead by publicly undertaking to replace central and local fleet vehicles with fuel-efficient vehicles.
Whilst these measures don’t immediately provide an answer for personal car users, there are other ways we could address this. We could, for example, allow those driving fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles to use bus/carpool lanes. And ultimately we would all benefit because as companies upgrade their fleets every two to five years, ex-business vehicles would filter down to smaller businesses and the public. We could also encourage the importation of used cars that are fuel efficient and low emission.
We have one of the highest car ownership rates in the world at staggering 2.6 million vehicles for four million people but we have one of the oldest vehicle profiles with the average age of car being over 11 years. Transport makes up over 18 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions – hardly surprising since we are driving around in old vehicles with old technology.
If this Government wants to make short-term, three-year cycle difference which helps reduce energy usage and fuel costs and will clean our air while reducing emissions, getting more of us to drive low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles is an easy hit. Maybe there will be time when you can buy any car you like as long as it’s “green”.

Peter Neilson is chief executive of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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