Cost and recycling are the key problems in transitioning Kiwis out of their old cars and into low-emissions vehicles. Solutions are being worked through, but they are complex and expensive. By Jane Clifton.
When 70s rock star Neil Young eulogised the beat-up old car of his skint youth in the song Long May You Run, he could never have envisaged how much more complicated pensioning off one's old wheels was to become.
New Zealand, for instance, is about to embark on a vehicular version of "bring out your dead!": the nation's old dungers are to be assessed for a bounty on their bonnets.
The Government is considering a counterweight to its controversial Clean Car Rebate on electric vehicles (EVs), by giving owners of cars with high-emission internal-combustion engines (ICEs) a cash payment for handing them over to be scrapped.
Discussions will start shortly with transport and other officials, the motor industry and those in the scrap and recycling business to draw up what promises to be a complicated two-pronged policy. It would encourage people to surrender their high-emission vehicles – chiefly older cars – in return for a cash payment that would be required to go towards a replacement, low-emissions vehicle. And it would consign the surrendered vehicles to a sustainable disposal programme.
The latter process is expected to take a lot longer to devise and implement than the former, as car-part repurposing is a fiendishly complicated matter.
Getting the old cars off the road, wherever they are stashed in the meantime, is the priority goal. For the Government, it's both an emissions issue and, as Transport Minister Michael Wood recently told a Motor Trade Association (MTA) meeting, an equity issue. Wood is painfully aware that, in Treasury-speak, the Clean Car Rebate as it stands is socially regressive. Polling has indicated many people are more concerned about the fees than the rebates.
The politics of a cash-back scheme, which would this time target the poor and not the well-off, would be a useful balm for Labour, and be difficult for the Opposition to criticise. Wood has reaffirmed to the Listener that he is very receptive to the idea.
Pairing the Clean Car Rebate with a kill-fee on high-emissions vehicles – typically older, cheaper cars – would be socially progressive and could have a quicker effect on emissions than the heavily sandbagged conversion to EVs.
This is because it would almost certainly have to include low-emissions ICE vehicles as a replacement option. Even with the introduction of the "feebate" scheme, both EVs and plug-in hybrids are likely to remain too expensive for most households until many more hit the second-hand market. At present, EVs are undersupplied worldwide, and this country is not a particularly high priority given our small population and right-hand-drive requirements.
Another strong argument to encourage the uptake of lower-emissions ICE vehicles in the interim is the uncertain pipeline for electric utes and other grunty work vehicles.
That, at least, is the case being made by the MTA. It is already exchanging information with officials about how to de-carbonise the country's car fleet more quickly. It devised the scrap-fee proposal after doing market research into attitudes to EVs and finding most motorists felt financially disempowered. A typical focus group comment was: "I can't see myself in one in the next 10 years," says MTA advocacy and strategy manager Greig Epps.
It's not that they're against them, says Epps, "but they simply can't afford them". The research also found little support for the existing feebate scheme.
Other surveys have highlighted consumer concern about the finite life and environmental impact of EV batteries, despite the determined efforts being made to address both issues. The idea of a bounty stemmed partly from a focus-group member who noted that the Government had been prepared to pay people to hand over their high-powered guns.
The MTA's research indicates $2000-$2500 a car would be a tempting price point, calculated on the assumption that a 15-year-old car can be had for about $3500. Incentives have been tried before, in the late 2000s. Unsurprisingly, offers of a couple of hundred dollars' worth of bus tickets and a prize draw for a fuel-efficient used car didn't get impressive results.
Epps says discussions so far indicate the Government's advisers are now thinking more positively about the idea.
Nevertheless, the scheme raises thorny questions, both technical and political. One is where the money would come from. The existing feebate scheme is intended to be self-funded, thanks to the extra impost on high-emission vehicles, although that could change if the Government bows to pressure to exempt heavy-duty vehicles needed for work such as farming. Ultimately, the scrap fee could be met by profits from car recycling, but they could take years to materialise, if ever.
Another key decision is at what threshold the qualifying emissions levels should be set, both for the vehicle to be scrapped and its replacement.
A particular conundrum is what to do with still-viable spare parts from old cars. Epps says there's an argument for simply scrapping them, as they merely extend our emissions problem. The only case for preserving them is that they could extend the life of low-emissions ICE cars while we wait for EVs to become the norm.
Downstream from those decisions will be a daunting list of recycling issues, given the multiplicity of materials involved. Officials and private businesses have already put nearly 10 years' work into tyre recycling, although some promising solutions have emerged. One of the most notable is Golden Bay Cement's plans to use up to three million old tyres each year to help make cement at its factory near Whangārei.
Other "product stewardship" schemes are being developed for particularly problematic materials. Epps says it's a long process, for which technology and methodology in many cases have not yet been invented.
Car bumpers, which used to be made of steel and chrome, are now typically made of many different compounds. Cars also contain treated-glass components, plastics, metals, chemicals and fluids, all of which would require separate processing – provided ways can be found to collect them efficiently.
The economics of pulling apart cars and transporting their bits is challenging enough, Epps says. New Zealand's small, sparse population makes economies of scale difficult, and rural and provincial areas could be disadvantaged in any emergent scrapping sector unless the right logistics can be worked out.
"But it's a conversation we're keen to start, because there will be people out there with new ideas, and business opportunities will flow from this," says Epps. "There are factories and workshops that may be able to be repurposed for this reprocessing."
The non-petrol-headed will wonder why we don't just strip out the engine and other surplus innards and bung in batteries, thus prolonging the life of at least our later-model ICEs. For one thing, batteries are scarce globally and likely to remain so for a while yet.
The technical reasons conversion isn't economically feasible are complex, but hinge chiefly on the sophisticated computer-governance systems on which EV batteries depend. Knowledgeable amateurs can do it, but it's a painstaking, skilled job. Having a car professionally converted is so far (just) viable only for classic cars with a sky-high value.
The MTA's more immediate campaign will be to educate motorists about how to make whatever ICE car they have more fuel-efficient. This includes regular servicing. "Of course, we would say we want people to spend a couple of hundred dollars with our members getting a service more often," says Epps. "But there's an environmental benefit and an overall cost saving. Less petrol needed means lower emissions."
There are also cost-free things people can do to reduce fuel consumption, such as keeping tyres properly inflated, reducing loads, driving smoothly and going easy on the air conditioning.