• Climate hub
  • 7 Oct 2021
  • 4 min read

Have we reached peak car?

By Amy Hamilton Chadwick

Love affair with cars seems to be on the decline

Fewer cars are being manufactured, people are driving less, working from home is gaining popularity and even the number of trucks on our road may have reached a peak. Could this be a turning point for New Zealand’s carbon emissions?

Although it’s hard to believe when you’re stuck in traffic, the total number of cars being manufactured worldwide has been dropping for the past four years. It peaked in 2017 when around 97.3 million cars were made, dropping 1.1% to around 95.6 million cars in 2018, and then down by another 5.2% in 2019 to 91.7 million cars.

In 2020, the industry was thrown into chaos by not only covid-19 lockdowns, but also a major silicon chip shortage that hasn’t yet eased. As a result, only 77.6 million cars were produced last year, down 16%.

Driving is on the decline

New Zealanders have been driving slightly less each year, on average, for at least the past five years – a trend that’s also been seen in countries like Australia, Japan and Germany. Prior to 2008, driving had been growing steadily, but a huge rise in the price of fuel caused that growth to slow, says Professor Susan Krumdieck, who has been studying global energy transition engineering for over 20 years.

And price isn’t the only factor that has caused people to drive less. Improved public transport in our cities and more walkable neighbourhoods make it easier to get around without a car. Younger people aren’t as enthusiastic about driving as previous generations; we have an ageing population and we know that senior drivers travel fewer kilometres than other drivers. In addition, e-scooters and e-bikes have grown in popularity so fast that New Zealand is on a path to import more ebikes than cars within the next few years.

Flexible working models could be here to stay

The pandemic has permanently altered our view on working from home. It’s not for everybody, or for every business, but a million Kiwis worked from home during the 2020 lockdown, and it’s likely that some of them will want more flexibility to work from home more often in the future. A new model of hybrid work, combining work from home and time at the office, will mean less travelling.

And when Kiwis do go to work, we seem keen to take public transport. After the 2020 lockdowns, New Zealanders returned to trains and buses at rates far higher than expected, leading the developed world.

Fewer vehicles will reduce emissions

If we have reached peak car, this is positive news for our efforts to decarbonise Aotearoa.

Moving people and products around New Zealand accounts for almost half (47%) of our carbon dioxide emissions, with road vehicle emissions making up over 90% of that (air travel is responsible for roughly 9%). By transforming transport in Aotearoa, we could make an enormous dent in our emissions and put ourselves significantly further along the track towards zero net carbon by 2050.

“Over the past 30 years the amount of fuel used for freight has grown much faster than the value of the freight moved,” says Krumdieck. “New Zealand needs to know that the trucks currently in New Zealand are sufficient for the long-haul transition; the trend starts reversing now.”

She says that switching freight from trucks to rail would be an excellent solution: “We need to get rail up and running because it can serve New Zealand – the country was built around rail. We can connect all our communities to our ports and national parks with rail; it’s well suited to our hilly nation.”

Freedom – but at too high a price?

Owning and driving your own car provides you with a high degree of autonomy and freedom, and many Kiwis won’t want to give that up. But that freedom comes at a price, both financial and environmental. It’s much costlier these days to buy, insure and maintain a car; plus we now understand the carbon cost of running an internal combustion engine.

With so many appealing, affordable alternatives, it’s perhaps no surprise that people are turning away from cars – and this could be just the boost we need to put New Zealand on track to a carbon neutral future.

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