We, Kiwis have a love affair with cars, especially gas guzzlers. During the past few years we have been replacing our older hatchbacks with bigger, carbon emitting SUVs and utes, as both work vehicles and family cars, but that approach might be about to change.
The Climate Change Commission has, over the past couple of months, been receiving and digesting submissions on its draft plan for getting New Zealand's carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Its final report is due by the end of next week and some of its recommendations could become government policy by the end of the year.
The draft report's focus has been about actions in the next 15 years, identifying that transport emissions need to be cut by 47 per cent by 2035. It suggests a complete ban on importing internal combustion vehicles by 2032, although hybrids would still be allowed, and that by 2037 half of all new cars and motorbikes will need to be electric.
The report also identifies that petrol, diesel and aviation fuel will need to contain an increasing proportion of biofuel.
On the face of it, with New Zealand importing all of its hydrocarbon fuels and having 83 per cent of our electricity produced from renewable sources, it seems a pretty smart pathway to take from an environmental point of view.
But life is never that straight forward and the practicalities of those targets is the basis for this column.
New Zealand imports around 250,000 cars per year, about 115,000 are new cars predominately from Japan, Korea and Thailand and 135,000 used cars almost exclusively from Japan.
The average age of our fleet is around 15 years, which has increased by four years during the past decade.
This average age is nearly twice that of the UK and significantly older than Australia's 10 years, mainly because of our high import rates of used cars. We drive our high emitting cars for longer than comparative countries, and a complete ban on importing these cars within 10 years is a big ask.
New Zealand currently has only 32,000 electric vehicles - that's half the 64,000 decreed by the previous Minister of Transport five years ago.
We are a small right hand drive market along with Australia, at the bottom end of the South Pacific, in a world dominated by left hand drive cars. Australia is in no rush to embrace EVs because 80 per cent of the power used to run them are produced by carbon based power sources.
So, even though the world production of electric vehicles is ramping up, New Zealand is an insignificant, unusual dimension of the world market and the reality of being able to ban internal combustion engines within 10 years is likely to be impossible.
There is no doubt that our cars are serious greenhouse gas emitters but these cars currently provide our best transport option. Public transport, walking and cycling are not serious transport alternatives for most Kiwis.
Electric vehicles, though, are very much part of our future. They have been expensive until now, but the main component of that, the battery, is rapidly decreasing in price and increasing in range and charge capability, such that they will become a much more attractive option as a work vehicle or for a family road trip.
Even though EVs have huge potential in the climate change question, we should not assume that overall electric cars have a close to zero carbon footprint.
We need to consider the life cycle of these vehicles for a fair comparison and emissions that take place in the manufacturing, use and recycling phases.
Electric vehicle manufacturing has about 30 per cent higher emissions than fossil fuel vehicles mainly because of the high CO2 cost of the lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt oxide battery.
In the recycling phase of dismantling, vehicle recycling, battery recycling and material recovery the estimated emissions, based on a study in China, are about 1.8 tonnes for a fossil fuel car and 2.4 tonnes for an EV, the difference mainly due to the emissions for battery recycling.
Overall in New Zealand, EVs perform about 62 per cent better than fossil cars in carbon footprint terms.
The questions remains though, about who pays. EVs still need roads and fossil fuel excise tax currently pays for those.
Who pays for the extra electricity to run a country of EVs and who provides that, when everyone refuels their EV overnight?
Who pays for the development and maintenance of the existing and future infrastructure to move an EV nation around - and what about the biofuels, who develops and pays for those?
Interesting strategic questions in interesting times!
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.