We need to go to war – against our cars

In this well-constructed report, Roger Brooking uses an eco-global criminological lens to explore the problem of our greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicle use. His findings are nothing short of startling!

This report focuses on the environmental harm caused by road transport emissions in New Zealand. Using an eco-global criminology perspective, it points out that these emissions contribute to greenhouse gas emissions around the world (now over 400 parts per million) and analyses the devastating impact this is having on the climate and the environment, including in New Zealand.

According to StatsNZ (2016), the most damaging greenhouse gas emissions emitted in New Zealand are carbon dioxide (43.8%), methane (42.8%) and nitrous oxide (11.6%). Combining the global warming potential of these gases into one formulation, the Ministry for the Environment reports that in 2017, the country emitted 80.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) – an increase of 23% on emissions in 1990. Even though our emissions are increasing, New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions make up only 0.17% of the world’s total emissions (Greenhouse Gas Inventory, April 2019).  Our tiny contribution seems to underlie the National Party’s approach to climate change which is to not take the issue too seriously and avoid “shutting down businesses here, only for them to go offshore to less environmentally friendly places” (National Party website, n.d.).

There’s another perspective on these statistics which is far more concerning. Although our total emissions are small, New Zealand emits 18 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person every year (Fyers, 2018).  Per capita, that makes New Zealanders the 21st biggest contributor to global warming. Out of 43 developed countries with international commitments on climate change (Annex I countries), this makes us the seventh biggest contributor per person (Ministry for the Environment, 2017).

Almost half (48%) of New Zealand’s emissions come from the agricultural sector; 41% comes from the energy sector and roughly half of that is emitted by vehicles on our roads (Ministry of Transport, 2019).  The concern is that emissions from the transport sector are growing dramatically – increasing by 93.4% between 1990 and 2017. For individual New Zealanders, the cars we drive emit more greenhouse gases than any other product or service we consume.

Cars in New Zealand

As at 31 July, 2019, there were 3,433,533 cars registered in New Zealand and 751,186 vans/trucks/utilities (NZTA, 2019). This is a total 4,184,719 vehicles – approximately one for every New Zealander – and the number rises every year.  A significant percentage (67%) of all new cars sold in New Zealand are Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) or other utility vehicles known as ‘Utes’ (Maetzig, 2019).  SUVs are predominately four-wheel drive vehicles based on truck designs with reinforced bodywork and large wheels intended for off road terrain.  Their size and bulk mean they require bigger engines than ‘normal’ cars with the result that, on average, SUVs emit 14% more CO2 than equivalent hatchback models (Todts, 2019). Unfortunately, successful marketing strategies have turned these monsters into must-have status symbols, even in our cities.

Of the four million vehicles registered in New Zealand, nearly 800,000 are diesel powered – made up of 650,000 light vehicles (mostly vans, light trucks and four-wheel-drive’s) and 145,000 heavy vehicles (trucks and buses). Diesels are ‘lean-burning’, meaning they use less fuel and emit slightly less carbon dioxide. Although replacing petrol cars with diesels does result in lower CO₂ emissions, diesel engines emit four times more nitrogen oxides than petrol cars (Khan, 2017). This includes nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) which is toxic to human health, nitrous oxide (N₂O) which is a greenhouse gas and nitric oxide (NO) which reacts with oxygen to form more NO₂. Long-term exposure to nitric oxide significantly increases the risk of respiratory problems.

In most western countries, these emissions are regulated – although manufacturers have managed to circumnavigate regulations and nearly 80% of new diesel cars still pollute above legal limits (Gabbatis, 2018). In New Zealand, the Land Transport Rule: Vehicle Exhaust Emissions is supposed to regulate emissions of substances which are “directly harmful to human health”. However, New Zealand does not bother to test vehicles for their compliance with this rule (Barton, 2015) and is one of just three developed countries without fuel efficiency standards – along with Australia and Russia (McCulloch, 2019). According to the Ministry of Transport (2019), our imports are “among the most fuel-inefficient and polluting of any OECD country” (p. 3).

Supporting this perception, a study in 2007 found that our vehicles emit three times the amount of hydrocarbons and twice the amount of carbon monoxide as the same cars in the United States (Taylor, 2007). Another survey found that 16% of New Zealand’s petrol cars, and 7% of our diesels would not pass European or North American emission standards. If these standards were enforced in New Zealand, approximately half a million petrol driven cars and 56,000 diesels would be taken off the road.

Perhaps of greater concern is that out of over four million vehicles on our roads, in July 2019 only 15,453 of them were electric or hybrid (Williscroft, 2018).  This means that EVs comprise only 0.36% of the total fleet. Highlighting the problem, out of 15,000 public service vehicles, only 0.5% are electric and the government recently abandoned its target for government vehicles to be emissions-free by mid-2025 (Daalder, 2019).

Although hybrids burn petrol and produce some greenhouse gases, the extent to which electric vehicles reduce carbon emissions depends almost entirely on the electricity source used to recharge their batteries. In countries where EVs are recharged with electricity produced by burning fossil fuels, there is little, if any, reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. However, in countries like New Zealand, where up to 85% of electricity comes from renewable sources (StatsNZ, 2019), EV’s “will produce up to six times less carbon emissions over their lifetimes than a petrol car” (Jumpelt, 2017). For countries like New Zealand, EVs offer an effective strategy for reaching national greenhouse gas targets.

The Harm

New Zealand’s tiny contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions makes it difficult to identify specific harms stemming solely from our transport sector. However, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) says 400 New Zealanders a year die from illnesses related to airborne pollutants (Taylor, 2007). In addition, in 2012 the Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand (HAPINZ) report found that harmful emissions from vehicles have a social cost of $934 million annually (Kushel et al, 2012). These victims, and the associated social harm, are the direct result of New Zealand’s failure to implement and enforce meaningful emissions standards.  

CO2 emissions from New Zealand’s vehicle fleet also contribute to total global greenhouse gases. In combination with emissions from agriculture and other industrial sources in New Zealand, our emissions have already contributed to one degree of global warming and to a climate crisis – which has already had an impact on New Zealand and will continue to have direct consequences for hundreds of years.  Seen through the lens of eco-global criminology, the harm caused by emissions from the New Zealand transport sector is diffuse, exacerbated by emissions from other sources, transnational in its impact, and transfers to future generations. This approach focuses on the depth and breadth of the harm caused by global warming from all sources, described by White and Heckenberg (2014) as “the lawful but awful”. This is a system level approach, “worldwide in its scale and perspective” (p. 26), encompassing the global and transnational nature of damage done to the environment and to the ecosystems, animals and humans within it. Eco-global criminology is also concerned with intergenerational equity – taking into account that catastrophic damage will also be passed on to future generations.

New Zealand is vulnerable to this international problem. The Ministry for the Environment (2019) says that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, by 2,100, New Zealanders will experience higher temperatures and hotter summers. According to Morton (2019), by 2040 the average fire season will increase in length by about 70%, and more areas of the country will be at risk from fires, which already cost around $67 million a year.

New Zealanders will also be at increased risk of heat stress, to which the elderly are especially vulnerable. The Royal Society reports (2017) that if emissions continue at current levels, by 2,100 many places in New Zealand will experience more than 80 days a year above 25 °C, instead of the current 20 to 40 days. By 2043, a quarter of New Zealanders are projected to be 65 and over, so heat-related deaths are likely to rise.

As weather patterns change, New Zealand will experience heavier rainfall and more frequent extreme weather events.  Overflowing rivers and flash flooding are likely to overwhelm existing drainage systems.  As droughts become more intense, river flows will decrease. Global warming has already shrunk the volume of New Zealand’s glaciers by one third (Morton, 2019). Water shortages will force farmers to adapt their land use to suit the demands of the new climate.

Around the world, food prices will go up, perhaps dramatically. A study from Columbia University found that as a result of droughts in grain producing areas, between 2006 and 2008, the average world price for rice rose 217%; the rise for wheat was 136% and 125% for corn (Mazhirov, 2011).  By 2050, crop yields are predicted to drop by 20% along with a decline in nutritional content (Spratt & Dunlop, 2019). In New Zealand, malnutrition is already putting twice as many children in hospital as 10 years ago as rising food prices consume a greater percentage of household incomes (Johnston, 2017). Other studies indicate that food scarcity is fueling political instability and causing civil unrest in some areas of the world (Harvey, 2011). All of this will have a significant impact on the New Zealand’s economic stability – which depends on a healthy environment conducive to growing crops and livestock.

Sea levels will continue to rise causing erosion, coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The Ministry for the Environment says by 2060 storms and high tides, which produce extreme coastal water levels, will happen every year instead of once every 100 years. Climate scientist, Tim Naish, from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) says: “We are a coastal nation so we are going to get whacked by sea-level rise… which comes with massive disruption and social and economic issues” (cited in Blundell, 2018).

In the Bay of Plenty, some properties have already been declared “unlivable” due to the risk of severe flooding. The Hutt City Council has issued a report which, based on current projections, says large parts of Petone including Seaview, Alicetown and Moera could be under water before the end of the century (Boyack, 2018). In fact, twelve of New Zealand’s fifteen largest towns and cities are coastal and 65% of our communities and infrastructure are within five kilometres of the sea (Storey et al, n.d.).  Some coastal homeowners will be forced to abandon their properties after a single, large-scale deluge while others will move away after a series of smaller flooding events.

The longer we delay, the more expensive it will become for local and central government to implement adaptive measures and maintain existing infrastructure. The Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) says houses and buildings in vulnerable areas will become uninsurable (Blundell, 2018). A report released by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) says over $5 billion in local government infrastructure is at risk of damage from a one metre sea level rise – which is virtually guaranteed by 2,100 (Stepanova, 2019). However, this assessment does not include the exposure of private dwellings, businesses or central government assets. The ICNZ claims full exposure for a one metre rise in sea level is likely to be closer to $40 billion. In the worst-case scenario, by the end of the century, over 260,000 buildings in coastal areas of New Zealand could be destroyed with projected losses of around $84 billion (Gibson, 2018).

As the crisis evolves, New Zealand is likely to come under intense pressure from climate migrants (Christian, 2019). If the planet warms by two degrees, small island countries in the Pacific will be inundated by rising seas. Currently, 180,000 people living in low-lying islands like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are threatened. Many will try to move to New Zealand. University of Auckland researcher Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath says Pacific islanders forced to relocate will be at higher risk of developing mental health problems after losing their homes, their culture and the stress of climate-induced migration (Morton, 2019).

Migrants may even come from Australia. Even if the average global temperature rises only two degrees, by 2,100 temperatures in Australia are expected to rise by over five degrees (Milman, 2015) making many cities in Australia ‘virtually uninhabitable’ (Brook, 2017).  According to the ND-GAIN Country Index, New Zealand is considered the 15th least vulnerable country in the world to the consequences of the climate crisis (Gibson, 2017) and we are already seen as a ‘bolthole’ by wealthy Americans in the event of climate catastrophe (Gates, 2017). As one of the few habitable areas left on the planet, we “would likely become overcrowded, under constant threat of flood and cyclone…” (McManus, 2019).

This analysis is based on global warming of two degrees Celsius. More extreme projections suggest that by 2050, 75 million people from the wider Asia-Pacific region will be forced to shift (Morton, 2019).  Refugees from failed states and countries fighting resource wars could compete for climate migrant status in New Zealand. The New Zealand Defence Force is already predicting an increase in the number of humanitarian and disaster relief operations it will need to attend in the Pacific due to climate change (Kirk, 2019). This may leave New Zealand unable to monitor boats filled with climate refugees heading in our direction or prevent foreign vessels from poaching our fish stocks (Christian, 2019).

Some climate scientists predict the world is actually on track for warming of somewhere between 3C and 4C by 2,100 (Vince, 2019). Even at current warming of 1C, in May 2019, atmospheric CO2 had already reached 415 parts per million (Shieber, 2019). Dr Georgia Grant from Victoria University, says the last time we had 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was three million years ago, and at that time sea levels were 25 metres higher than today. She says: “If you stay at two degrees (of warming) for long enough, you will melt enough ice to raise the sea level by 25 metres. It will take thousands of years to get to 25 metres, but we’ve started that process with the warming we’ve already done” (cited in Khurana, 2019).  If we get to four degrees of warming, that’s been described as “the stuff of nightmares and yet that’s where we’re heading” (Vince, 2019).

Identifying those affected

In the long run, absolutely everyone will be affected by global warming one way or another. However, different countries and different groups in society will be victimized in different ways.  A Royal Society report (2017), The Human Health Impacts of Climate Change for New Zealand, argues that the most vulnerable sectors of society are children, the elderly, those suffering with disabilities or chronic disease, and those on low-incomes. Also at risk are individuals and groups who work in primary industries or who experience housing and economic inequalities, especially if their housing is in areas vulnerable to flooding or sea level rise.  A report from the Ministry for the Environment (2017), Adapting to Climate Change in New Zealand, identified Māori as among the most vulnerable groups due to their “significant reliance on the environment as a cultural, social and economic resource”.  Māori also tend to be involved in primary industries, and live in communities near the coast.

As the crisis escalates, more and more New Zealanders are likely to experience mental health problems. In 2018, the American Psychological Association issued a report which said that “gradual, long-term changes in climate can (bring to the) surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion”. The New Zealand Psychological Society reports similar findings. It says clients are already presenting with “a lot of helplessness, a lot of anxiety and some depression” brought about by climate change (Angeloni, 2019).

Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg (2019), has graphically highlighted that children – her generation and those after her – will suffer the most. The Archbishop of Wellington, Cardinal John Dew agrees, noting that “Many decision-makers in the governments, businesses, community organisations and churches of the world won’t be alive to experience the impact of climate change. But today’s school students will be.” Indeed, some teenagers are wondering “whether or not they will have a planet on which to live out their lives” (Dew, 2019).

Identifying the perpetrators

Given the scale of this impending catastrophe, and given it is caused by human beings, it is natural to want to hold the perpetrators to account. Due to the complex, multiple factors contributing to the crisis, identifying offenders is not easy. However, in a series called The Polluters, the Guardian names the twenty largest corporations responsible for one third of all carbon emissions (Taylor & Watts, 2019) and identifies the world’s top three asset managers which oversee $300 billion’s worth of fossil fuel investments (Greenfield, 2019).  Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, believes these investments will raise the temperature of the planet by over 4C (cited in Partington, 2019).  Since environmental crimes have yet to be made crimes against humanity, taking legal action against these transnational corporations is inherently difficult.

Rather than addressing actual breaches of environmental or criminal law, eco-global criminology provides a more systemic analysis.  From this perspective, the focus is not so much on the transnational corporations doing the polluting, but on the capitalist system which enables and promotes big business. White and Heckenberg (2014) argue “there is a close link between capitalism as a system and environmental degradation and transformation” (p. 31). The authors note that in capitalist societies, the state and big business usually have common interests and that “the strategies that nation states use to deal with environmental concerns are contingent upon the class interests associated with political power” (p. 34). So although the biggest fossil fuel polluters can be identified, the eco-global approach suggests it is incessant consumer demand, fueled by big business and facilitated by state actors, that is actually responsible for the problem.

In New Zealand, the seven biggest emitters are Fonterra, Z Energy, Air New Zealand, Methanex, Marsden Point Oil Refinery, BP, and Exxon Mobil. These companies put out around 54.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year, more than two thirds of New Zealand’s total emissions (MacManus & Nadkarni, 2019).  Five of them are directly involved in the transport sector, six if we include Air New Zealand. These fossil fuel companies continue to thrive because New Zealand consumers demand their products; and because the predominant political ideology supports endless economic growth and discourages the State from reigning in large corporations or imposing restrictions on their emissions.

Individual consumers

Eco-global criminology therefore offers a legitimate way of analyzing the climate crisis, but provides little in the way of solutions. Indeed, tackling the failings of the capitalist system is probably more difficult than holding individual corporations to account. The reality is that despite multiple international treaties and conferences focused on global warming in the last 30 years, there has been a distinct lack of progress at reducing carbon emissions.  An alternative approach is to persuade individual consumers, as part of the system that created the problem, to change their purchasing behaviour.  Monbiot (2019) even argues that the fossil fuel conglomerates have managed a “public relations masterstroke” by blaming the climate crisis on individual consumers.

This brings us back to cars. In 2018, New Zealanders bought a total of 161,519 new cars – the highest number ever in one year (Linklater, 2019).[1] Of all these new cars, about 3,600 were hybrids or fully electric. In other words, only 2.2% of new cars sold in New Zealand are electrified in any way.

Two main issues contribute to the slow uptake of EVs.  The first is price. EVs tend to be more expensive than conventional cars (Drive Electric, n.d.). The second is the lack of publicly available charging stations.  Currently there are little more than 100 fast charging stations countrywide which power up an EV battery to 80% of capacity in less than half an hour (Linklater, 2019). Excluding Teslas, which are expensive, the range of most (fully) electric vehicles is less than 200 km and in New Zealand, charging stations are often that far apart. According to the UK Department of Transport, widespread lack of chargers is actually the main barrier to increased adoption of EVs (Tricoire & Starace, 2018). 

Despite the initial upfront cost of an EV, a petrol driven car is on average four times more expensive to run (Hayter, 2019). Whereas traditional cars might average 22 miles to the gallon (depending on engine size), four of the top 10 high-mileage hybrids get better than 50 mpg (Gorzelany, 2018). The top performer is the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid which achieves 58 miles per gallon. Drive Electric (n.d.) says the average car in New Zealand travels 12,500 kilometres a year costing about $2,500 (in a petrol driven car). For an EV, the cost would be about $500, a saving of $2,000 a year.

EV motors are also expected to last longer than internal combustion engine cars. Henrik Moller from New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard (cited in Hayter, 2019) says that a fully electric EV vehicle should last up to 800,000 km or more because there is no mechanical wear in the engine and minimal vibration. This increases the potential cost savings even further. 

The role of Government

A third reason the uptake of EVs has been slow is because successive Governments have failed to provide financial incentives to potential purchasers – which brings us back to the systemic nature of the problem. None of the factors contributing to global warming operates in isolation. They are all interconnected and any attempt to change individual consumer behaviour also requires significant intervention by Government.

In response, in August 2019, the current Government announced an additional $4.5 million to fund EV infrastructure adding another 140 new chargers to the national network (Hayward, 2019). In July 2019, Associate Transport Minister, Julie-Anne Genter, announced a proposal to introduce a Clean Car Standard to promote fuel efficiency and a Clean Car Discount to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles (cited in McCulloch, 2019). Known as a ‘feebate’ scheme, this would involve a range of fees or penalties on large petrol and diesel engine vehicles which would then be used to provide subsidies or rebates to consumers purchasing electric vehicles.

Under the scheme, high polluting vehicles imported into the country would incur a penalty of up to $3,000. New, or near new EVs, would be discounted by up to $8,000. If it goes ahead, the scheme will apply to all new and used vehicles coming into the country but would not apply to the four million cars already on our roads. New fuel efficiency standards will also be introduced, requiring importers to gradually reduce emissions of the vehicles they bring in. Julie-Anne Genter said “The policies would help make electric, hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles a realistic option for more New Zealanders by reducing their upfront cost” (cited in McCulloch, 9 July 2019).

It is entirely unclear whether the feebate scheme will significantly change purchasing behaviour.  Treasury is highly critical of the scheme, warning it will have an “infinitesimal effect on carbon emissions over two decades” (McCulloch, 2019). This is based on Transport Ministry projections that the scheme will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 1.6 million tonnes over 20 years. The Government’s plans also ignore the entire second-hand car market in New Zealand which makes up 75% of all cars sold (McCulloch, 2019).

Prior to the feebate scheme, the government had been considering a move to ban the import of all petrol and diesel vehicles entirely from 2035 (Daalder, 2019). This plan was supported by the Ministry of Transport which pointed out that France, the United Kingdom, Norway, Holland and Germany have all called for new cars to be emission-free by dates which vary between 2025 and 2040. New Zealand’s proposed end date of 2035 would have been a significant step in the right direction. If the Government had gone ahead with this proposal, the Ministry’s cost-benefit analysis found this would reduce emissions by 27 million tonnes over 30 years. The plan was rejected because of concerns that those on low-incomes wouldn’t be able to afford to buy electric vehicles. In 2019, the Government also abandoned its plan to replace all 15,000 cars in the Government and public service with EVs by 2025 (Daalder, 2019).

If the Ministry of Transport’s criticisms of the feebate scheme are accurate, current government strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector will make virtually no difference. It seems clear the government needs to adopt a far more aggressive policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand’s vehicle fleet, and needs to lead the way by replacing the public service fleet with EVs. Another possible strategy is for city councils to ban all cars, except EVs, from central city areas. As at January 2019, fifteen major cities around the world have made moves to ban cars using a variety of different strategies (Bendix, 2019). In the Spanish city of Pontevedra, where all cars are banned, there has been a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions (Burgen, 2018).


Worldwide, transportation contributes to 14% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Although New Zealand contributes very little to this total, an eco-global analysis shows we need to take far more radical action in order to reduce our contribution to the problem. The lack of decisive action so far demonstrates that in a capitalist economy with competing political demands, changing individual consumers’ behaviour is just as difficult as holding multinational corporations to account or changing the capitalist system itself.

Eco-global criminology makes it clear that systemic level solutions involving central and local government, big business, and individual consumers are required to address every aspect of the climate crisis.  Unless governments and city councils understand their critical role in this process and treat global warming as an existential threat, greenhouse gas emissions will continue unabated. McKibben (2016) and Stiglitz (2019) argue that the solution is to go onto a war footing – and treat climate change as the enemy justifying any intervention that is necessary to win the war.


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[1]  The top selling vehicle was the Ford Ranger, which looks and operates more like a small truck and on average emits 2.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year (AA, 2019).

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