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Changes since the 1997 report

The 1997 report, The State of New Zealand’s Environment 1997, concluded that:

Limited air and stormwater studies show that at times, carbon monoxide levels in some urban traffic corridors exceed the New Zealand Ambient Air Guidelines, and transport is also responsible for some of the extensive heavy metal contamination of some harbours and estuarine areas. Transport also contributes 40 percent of New Zealand’s CO2 emissions. …

Apart from banning lead in petrol, systematic measures do not currently exist to deal with the environmental impacts of transport services. The Vehicle Fleet Emissions Control Strategy is investigating appropriate measures to control transport noise and emissions to air and water. (Ministry for the Environment, 1997, chapter 10.)

Since the 1997 report, transportation in New Zealand has remained heavily weighted towards road transport, although other modes of transport (rail, sea, and air) also move people and goods.

Rate of car ownership

The average New Zealander owns 0.7 vehicles, the fifth highest rate of vehicle ownership among OECD countries. This increase reflects the increasing affordability of vehicles since 1997. The removal of import tariffs in 1998 made it cheaper to import cars, and led to a boom in the sale of imported used vehicles in New Zealand, along with a corresponding decline in the sale of new vehicles (Statistics New Zealand, 1998).

The increasing affordability of vehicles has meant half of all New Zealand households now own more than one vehicle. The 2003–2004 Household Travel Survey found that the average number of vehicles per household had increased by nearly 13 per cent (from 1.6 to 1.8 vehicles per household) since the 1997–1998 survey (Ministry of Transport, 2004).

Average age of used imported vehicles

In 2006, the average age of a used imported vehicle entering New Zealand was 8.2 years (Ministry of Transport, 2007).

The high number of used vehicles entering the country has contributed to the increasing age of New Zealand’s vehicle fleet: in 2006, the average age of light vehicles in the New Zealand fleet was 12.4 years, up from 11.9 years in 2000.

Vehicle engine size

Reflecting global trends, the size of our vehicles has increased since 1997, with the average engine size of vehicles in the light fleet now more than 2.2 litres, having increased from just over 2.0 litres in 2000. This change partly reflects the fact that New Zealand is a ‘technology taker’, which means we have to import our vehicles. It also reflects lower vehicle prices. As the average price of vehicles has fallen, we have been able to afford to buy larger vehicles.

Vehicle kilometres travelled

Also reflecting global trends, on average, we are driving our vehicles much further today than we did in the past. Between 1980 and 2000, total annual vehicle kilometres travelled in New Zealand more than doubled. In part, this increase reflects the growing number of vehicles on our roads. It also reflects our increasing mobility as our lifestyles change.

Technological changes

The trends discussed above often have a negative effect on the environment and human health. Since 1997, we have learnt much more about these effects and the extent of air pollution in New Zealand caused by vehicle emissions.

In the past 10 years there have been some improvements. New vehicles are less polluting of the air than they were 10 years ago, because engine technologies have improved in response to more stringent health and environmental standards. New engine technologies have also improved vehicle fuel economy over the past 10 years. However, some of these gains have been offset by consumers choosing larger and more powerful vehicles.

Technology to control exhaust emissions has developed significantly in recent years. New Zealand introduced vehicle exhaust emissions regulations in 2003 (requiring all vehicles to be built to recognised emissions standards) and 2006 (requiring a visible exhaust smoke test at the warrant of fitness or certificate of fitness check).

The quality of the fuels we use in New Zealand, and the impact these have on air pollution, has also improved since 1997. The sulphur content of diesel fuel has been significantly reduced. Since 2001, the sulphur content of diesel fuel has been reduced 60-fold, with further reductions expected by 2009. Reducing the sulphur content of diesel ensures the fuel is suitable for use in the newer, low-emission diesel vehicles New Zealand is importing.

We are continuing to experience changes in the fuels we use in our vehicles, with the uptake of biofuels (renewable transport fuels) and an increasing number of hybrid vehicles on our roads.

Encouraging the use of biofuels is expected to bring several benefits for our environment and health. Biofuels have already shown their potential to reduce greenhouse gas and particulate emissions and to reduce New Zealand’s dependence on imported transport fuels.

International pressures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport are likely to encourage efforts in New Zealand and other countries to improve fuel efficiency and increase the use of biofuels. As an importer of vehicles and transport fuels, New Zealand will reap health and environmental benefits from improved fuel efficiency and greater use of biofuels.

Transport planning

Since 1997, transport planning has increasingly recognised the impact of transport on the environment. Greater effort has been put into encouraging the use of public transport, walking, and cycling; designing urban spaces to minimise the need for motorised forms of transport; and encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Reducing New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector will continue to be a challenge. In part, the challenge arises from the scale of the issue; transport is one of our major contributors to emissions. Given the average, and increasing, age of the vehicles we import, it may be some time before we see the results of global action to reduce emissions in our vehicle fleet.

These issues will continue to remain a focus for transport planners into the future. In addition, New Zealand is likely to be able to capitalise on international and onshore opportunities for developing and using biofuels and other alternative transport fuels, for example, using electricity to power cars.