Industry is part of the problem, but it’s also part of the solution – By Chris Baker

Industry is part of the problem, but it’s also part of the solution – By Chris Baker

Posted on 4 November 2019

Op-Ed to FTD Magazine NZ

Ford or Holden? It’s long been a burning question on this side of the world. And now, in terms of public interest, we can add to that: truck or train, SUV or electric vehicle?

Growing international consciousness around climate change has been evidenced by recent events, with campaigners turning out in vast numbers – not least for the recent march to the New Zealand Parliament. 

Straterra welcomes any efforts to seek solutions for the challenges presented by climate change, including alternative options for transport. And we can understand why these protestors want to protest, because all evidence suggests the general public is not significantly changing travelling behaviour or vehicle purchasing habits.

Kiwis remain heavily reliant on private vehicles. Data on Kiwis’ commuting habits from the 2018 Census, recently released by Statistics New Zealand, shows that 57.8% of all employed New Zealanders over the age of 15 drive a private car, van or truck to work – that’s 1,412,994 vehicles, plus 274,905 company vehicles. Only 103,194 take the bus and 48,777 the train.

And there’s more: 128,223 students or pupils drive a car, truck or van to their education facility, a further 449,604 pupils/students are passengers; 113,400 take the school bus, 85,152 the public bus and 21,864 the train.  


Despite headlines heralding the electric vehicle (EV) revolution, EV purchases are being heavily outstripped by the popularity of SUVs. A recent Financial Times article set out, encouragingly, that EV numbers are growing internationally, with about 5.1 million EVs on the road by the end of 2018. The International Energy Agency estimates EV sales could reach about 23 million a year.

However, the article notes the growth of EVs is being exceeded by the more rapid growth in popularity of SUVs – which currently account for 45% of new car sales in the US, 42% in China and 23% in India.

Just as campaigners are turning out in their millions, demand is growing for vehicles less efficient than the traditional saloon car and which are rarely an essential for urban living. The article notes that some SUVs are hybrids, but most “remain dependent on internal combustion engines”. 


Industry is heavily targeted by campaigners and protestors on environmental issues, but the data above shows that the problem arises from demand, not supply. Many industries are putting significant effort and resources into mitigating the impact of their activities. 

The logistics industry is currently preparing for the introduction of the sulphur surcharge, due to be rolled out by the International Maritime Organisation from 1 January. Currently, all modern commercial ships run on a range of fossil fuels collectively known as bunker fuel. These fuels have a high sulphur content which is harmful to the environment. All vessels operating anywhere in the world will be required to reduce their sulphur oxide emissions by using fuel oil with a maximum sulphur content of just 0.5%.

Coal producers in New Zealand are not living in a bubble either. They operate under ‘demand’ contracts, supplying coal to businesses that need it to be competitive. This includes dairy, steel, tomatoes, electricity (as a backup for when the lakes aren’t full, or sun and wind are absent) and government institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals in the South Island, where funding for alternatives has not been made available. 


Tourism is frequently suggested as an alternative to employment in coal production in regions such as the West Coast. However, the tourism sector is also a major contributor to New Zealand’s carbon footprint, and average wages in mining are far higher than in tourism. 

Research published in 2018 by Nature Climate Change journal found tourism’s global footprint accounts for around 8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s estimated international tourists flying to New Zealand were responsible for around 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 in 2008. This year that’s expected to climb to around 6 million tonnes.

Air New Zealand is responsible for emitting 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually. That’s the equivalent of around 4% of New Zealand’s total GHG emissions. By comparison, emissions from coal burned in New Zealand in 2017 were 3.3 million tonnes. 

This isn’t intended as a criticism of our national carrier or the tourism and transport industries, but it does put coal emissions into perspective. New Zealand can’t do without tourism, we can’t do without the logistics industry, we can’t survive economically without our agriculture sector – a sector that, with current technology, needs to use coal to be competitive internationally.


Data from the Ministry for the Environment shows New Zealand road emissions per capita have almost doubled since 1990 – and, when adjusted for population growth, have increased by a third. If New Zealanders returned to using vehicles as much as they individually did in 1990, the annual emissions savings would be more than all New Zealand’s annual coal emissions.

Industry is part of the problem, but it’s also part of the solution. Minerals are needed for EVs, solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other technology the world needs to transition to a lower carbon economy. 

To reach that goal, there needs to be better public understanding of the realities and complexities of how that can be achieved without sacrificing living standards in the developed world and, more importantly, for those who are still working to rise above the poverty zone.