Let’s get practical about climate change

While politicians and celebrities gnash their teeth and shout to anyone who will listen that we are in the middle of a climate change “crisis” or “emergency”, a lot of others are looking at practical and workable solutions to stop the mercury rising.

None more so than those at the local government level, where they actually mop up after a real crisis or emergency, including those caused by dramatic weather patterns or natural disasters which generally impact at a local, rather than national, level.

So, it was interesting this week to present at and be part of a panel discussion at the Road Controlling Authorities Forum in Wellington, looking at the impacts of climate change in relation to transport.

Without question the freight and logistics sector will face increasing pressure from both government and our customers to reduce emissions. But we possibly aren’t as bad as people think.

The energy sector accounts for about 40 percent of New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, with transport fuels about 17 percent of that total. About five to seven percent of emissions come from the heavy transport industry.

Road freight transport intersects with those controlling roads on the climate change front in areas such as delays due to extreme weather and storm events; infrastructure condition deteriorating faster with extreme heat or excessive rain; and bad roads causing delays and increasing safety risks such as, more road works, driver fatigue, and additional time-costs for end consumers.

In a real crisis or emergency, local and central government will be more reliant on roads than other parts of the transport network. With increased coastal inundation, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, many rail lines are quickly out of commission. Roads also suffer, as quite a lot of our main highways are vulnerable to such events, but there are usually alternate routes and events are localised, so other parts of New Zealand can supply an affected area, by road.

New Zealand is leading the way in looking at mitigating climate change and we support the principles of the Zero Carbon Bill, currently being considered by the Environment Select Committee.

But we  think that addressing climate change is more than focusing on net zero emissions by 2050. It is also looking at making our infrastructure network resilient and planning for events along the way.

On the emissions front, road freight is a sector that quickly adopts technology efficiencies. Noxious emissions from trucks have been slashed by 98 percent in the past 20 years, through use of technology. European emission standards are applied to much of the heavy vehicle fleet to reduce levels of harmful exhaust emissions, currently Euro Standard 6, which requires an additive to be used in fuelling heavy diesel trucks.

While there are electric options for car drivers, any real alternative fuel vehicle at the heavy truck level is still some way off. In the rush to remove reliance on fossil fuels, we need alternative energy sources in place. And we need to look at the whole picture, for example, the batteries that power green vehicles have been linked to human rights abuses in the mining of lithium and cobalt.

Our industry is keen to find solutions in New Zealand – we are known for our problem-solving and innovation, so let’s lead the way here if we can.

TIL Logistics has partnered with New Plymouth-based Hiringa Energy to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology for its transport vehicle fleet and they hope to begin their first hydrogen vehicle trials in 2020.

It will be interesting to see the results of the trials both here with Hiringa and overseas, where similar research and development is underway, as to whether hydrogen fuel cells and the complex infrastructure that comes along with that technology can displace the battery-based electric motor as the clean alternative for heavy transport.

I recently visited Tranzurban, in Wellington, and using their own ingenuity they have built the first full electric double-decker buses in the world, made up from components they have sourced and put together in a unique way.

There’s still a long way to go, but our industry is poised to take a bigger role in the movement to combat climate change in a global sense. At the same time, individual companies are looking at their sustainability obligations to meet their customers’ expectations and be good global citizens. And when the real crisis, catastrophe, or disaster happens, we’ll be there delivering the goods.

Please note: Being uncomfortable with changing the meaning of the words crisis and emergency does not make me a climate change denier.

– Nick Leggett – CEO, Road Transport Forum

Where the rubber hits the road

One of the best parts of my job is getting out and about to speak to the people running freight companies and finding out what’s going on where the rubber hits the road. Yesterday, with the National Road Carriers chief executive David Aitken, I was able to spend time talking to five Auckland-based companies about opportunities and issues, and there were many recurring themes that line up with what the Road Transport Forum is advocating for on the industry’s behalf.

We saw a tremendous commitment to health and safety and looking after staff. Technology that detects driver fatigue is definitely life-saving and even those who weren’t so keen on it in the first place, have experienced its benefits first-hand. This technology alerts drivers who may close their eyes due to fatigue by shaking their seat, an alarm noise, and an alert to their company so someone can check they are OK. Even the best of drivers can experience fatigue, so it makes sense to invest in solutions like this.

One of the companies we visited, Mainstream, is bringing some creative thinking to health and safety and instead of the traditional high-visibility vests, they have designed their own high-vis shirts. They are made from recycled plastic, so get the environmental tick, and model a rugby league shirt because Mainstream also sponsors the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns rugby league teams. The photo is me and Mainstream managing director Greg Haliday with one of the shirts.

Yesterday, we saw good companies, employing plenty of people and looking after their employees, and running businesses that keep New Zealand moving. If you look around you, pretty much everything that makes your everyday life tick over came to you via a truck.

So, it is disappointing to hear about some of the issues that are rooted in the anti-road ideology of the current Government. Resoundingly we heard:

  • Infrastructure – the state of some roads is unsafe due to lack of spending on upkeep, poor design and the wrong surface for the environment, and change of use (what were country roads in Auckland now major thoroughfares due to urban sprawl) – this is coming from people who have been using these roads day-after-day, year-after-year
  • Road user charges (RUC) and fuel taxes are increasing, but less is being spent on roads that need to be upgraded/improved/built and in fact, vital major roading projects have been de-funded
  • Money that should be used on roads is being siphoned off for political gain on cycle ways and rail – while rail is part of the transport network, those that use it say it is slow, expensive, unreliable, and up to 50 percent of the time, late
  • Getting the right staff – who pass pre-employment drug testing – requires better immigration pathways so drivers from countries such as the Philippines can be guaranteed a long-term career and a settled lifestyle
  • The emphasis on road safety needs to be broader than speed – professional drivers see distraction as the biggest threat to them eg. car drivers on mobile phones, and they see little policing of that and the other big threats, alcohol and drug abuse
  • Legalising recreational marijuana use and the impact that will have on safety sensitive businesses such as road transport, given the lack of any regulatory regime for road safety behind that.

The romantic notions this Government has around rail is a real concern. Rail can never match the efficiency and speed of road freight. It can’t deliver door-to-door. It’s not suitable for essential goods that must be transported within tight time frames, such as medicines and fresh food. Yet the Government plans to pour billions and billions of dollars into a rail infrastructure that is well past its use-by date. This is at the expense of roads, that all New Zealanders use to get where they need to go and receive all the goods they need to live. It makes no sense at all.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Road safety solutions need wider focus

There has been much debate this week about lowering speed limits on roads throughout New Zealand. In talking about the economic impact of such a move, there seems to be some belief that this means not caring about the deaths and injuries on New Zealand roads. Quite the opposite is true – at the Road Transport Forum we want to ensure a safe workplace for truck drivers, a workplace that has a positive impact on their well being, and a workplace that allows them to go home to their families at the end of their work shift. For much of that shift, their workplace is the road.

In New Zealand, debate on significant issues has taken an ugly turn. If you don’t agree chapter and verse with the Green anti-road/anti-motor vehicle movement, all manner of insults come your way, often in shouting capital letters. You are a “car fascist” or part of a “pro-death lobby”, to name just the tip of the iceberg of insults, many personal. This is frankly, ridiculous, and not healthy. It does not allow for progress, or good policy making. And if these people looked up, they would see that much of what they rely on to go about their everyday life travels to them by trucks.

Good policy and law making requires thorough and robust research relevant to the New Zealand context; a look at all contributing factors to a problem and matching the best options to those; stakeholder and public engagement; listening; and accepting opinions and advice that might be contrary to your own. Unfortunately, we are seeing less of this and more reactionary moves with unintended consequences.

To wake up on Wednesday morning and read that the Government wants to crack down on the road toll by dropping speed limits across the country is concerning. The statistics presented don’t give the full picture of what’s happening on New Zealand roads. A desktop mapping tool has been used to determine “safety” of roads. This data needs checking in the real world to make sure that what it is proposing makes sense. If decision-making rests on these maps, we are in trouble.

Of course, safety has to be the number one priority on our roads. But speed isn’t the cause of 75 percent of accidents, according to Government statistics. Let’s focus on the most dangerous 10 percent of roads, as well as all the other causes of accidents, to find the best ways to improve road safety.

To be very clear, the contributing factors to our road toll that need to be considered before hasty decisions are made include:

  • Speed
  • Road conditions and infrastructure
  • Vehicles – age and condition
  • Driver behaviour – including breaking the law by not wearing seat belts, using mobile phones, using drugs and alcohol with resulting impairment, driving without a licence, etc
  • Technology – improvements in vehicle safety; better road surfacing and infrastructure
  • Education, training and licensing
  • Enforcement – more laws and rules require more enforcement

It is concerning to see speed being the sole focus at the expense of what we believe is another critical factor in ensuring road safety – road conditions and infrastructure. This does not mean driving to the conditions. This means the conditions of the road are so poor, the road becomes dangerous even for the most sensible and unimpaired drivers. It means that no matter how well engineered a vehicle is, it hasn’t been engineered for the conditions on some New Zealand roads. It means those roads need to be brought up to a safe standard.

This does not mean the trimmings of median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening – which the Government is spending $1.4 billion on over three years – will magically make these roads safe. To quote truck driver Antony Alexander in the June issue of New Zealand Trucking magazine: “No driver ever said: ‘A rumble strip and bright white line makes me feel so much safer’.”

The New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) Speed Management Guide, was a 10-year plan to target five percent of the highest risk roads, now all of a sudden that scope has been increased to 10 percent of roads over three years. The focus was not supposed to be on speed alone, major roads were to be upgraded to make them safe at higher speeds, but we have seen very little of that happening. In fact, in the past couple of years we have seen a de-funding of the roading budget.

In a press release yesterday the Selwyn District Council signalled NZTA funding cuts on local roading improvements could put motorists at risk.

“Vital projects which we were planning to improve the safety and efficiency of roading network, particularly our roads feeding into the Christchurch Southern Motorway, have been halted unexpectedly due to a shortfall in national transport funding. This puts our residents and other motorists at risk on main roads that are in desperate need of safety upgrades,” the Council said.

This is the big picture we should be discussing. New Zealand has 53,425km of sealed roads that are essential to our way of life and that we all share, not matter what mode of transport we choose. Can we grow up New Zealand and have a fruitful discussion about how we use these roads safely, an issue which is clearly on many people’s minds?

  • Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Strong economy good for wellbeing

It would be a heartless person who didn’t commend the Government for the commitment it showed to New Zealand’s most disadvantaged people in announcing its Wellbeing Budget yesterday.

It would be good to get to the bottom of why this country needs to spend so much on mental health care and why many of our young people don’t seem to have much hope. When you look at the Scandinavian countries that always score so highly on global “happiness” surveys, it seems that at least one factor contributing to a nation’s wellbeing is a strong economy that offers hope of a good, balanced lifestyle. Yesterday’s budget was not one that will transform our economy.

As a trading nation that is moving goods around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, road transport is the lifeblood of our economy. Currently trucks transport around 90 percent of New Zealand’s total freight by weight, with seven percent going by rail and the rest by air and coastal shipping. Your food, clothes, furniture, cars, whiteware and appliances, office products, technology, and pretty much everything else, has travelled via truck at some point to get to you.

So, it is concerning to see so much money being pumped into rail – $1.41 billion allocated to KiwiRail over the next two years in yesterday’s budget – without an equivalent investment in roads. And it was disappointing to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her Budget speech at Parliament yesterday shout, “If you want to talk about safety on our roads, get freight off it and get it on to rail.” Incidentally, we would like to see the evidence behind this call. Also, how will the big investment in rail take freight off trucks specifically? The truth is that there is a lot of money going into rail that will probably not shift the freight task in any measurable direction away from roading.

This push to revive a rail freight network that has essentially failed in the past and as a consequence, has become run-down, at the expense of the already functioning road freight network, doesn’t feel visionary. If ever, it will be a long time before there is any evidence of more freight being moved by rail and fewer heavy trucks on the road. In the meantime, road conditions will worsen without investment and that will impact road safety and the economy. It all feels fine when we have a strong economy, but we require the Government to be investing now in modes that will carry and build our nation when things slow.

With the budget also pouring more money into forestry, it seems extraordinary that the Government hasn’t considered what happens to all those trees when they are harvested. They go off shore, to boost our export earnings, and they get from the forest via logging trucks – heavy vehicles that need good roads.

Anyone who spent budget night in Wellington’s wild weather trying to get home to the suburbs out of the city, by car and public transport – a two-hour journey for many that would normally be 20-40 minutes – will be aware of how lacking in resilience our infrastructure is. They might have spent some of that time grid-locked on both State Highway 1 and 2 contemplating the value of maybe some budget dollars going to securing our economy and productivity with good, resilient infrastructure.

As politicians were in the Beehive clinking their glasses of pinot noir and congratulating themselves on their citizens’ wellbeing, on the dark, wet, windy streets beyond their windows it felt like the economy was slowing even more and its vitality – our extensive roading network that needs to be resilient in a country plagued by natural disasters – was being ignored. The budget didn’t feel very strategic, or like there was big-picture future planning; more like doling out money to the pet projects of coalition partners.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum