Thursday, February 21, 2008

Report on the environment - how shallow is it?

So what about the "Environment New Zealand 2007" report? Is it a piece of robust well researched analysis that is balanced, or does it contain some of its own spin? Well it is lengthy, so as I said before I've read the transport section - since environmentalists have a particular dedication to that sector - to see what it says.
Most of the chapter on transport contains a lot of statistics, which themselves are quite interesting. Nothing too surprising there, as increases in wealth parallel increases in car ownership, the size of cars owned (which also reflects demographics of baby boomer families wanting larger vehicles) and kilometres driven. This all is a good thing, as it means more people have access to flexible transport options. It also shows that only 5% of trips to work are by public transport, with twice as many people working at home. Funny how the ones taking the most environmentally friendly option don't get subsidised for it (neither do the 6% who walk to work).
However, in with all the stats come some less evidence based claims:
1. “Public transport generally provides a lower-cost and more environmentally friendly transport choice than using a private car.”
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How? If it is lower cost, then people will use it and pay a fare to recover the fixed and marginal costs of public transport. However, they don’t. In fact 95% don’t find it “lower cost” if you include value of time and comfort. Moreover, it is hardly lower cost when it requires subsidies of between 50% and 70% in many cases. When did you last get a subsidy to drive your car to work? Of course there are externalities, but this claim doesn't say that.
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2. The environmentally friendly claim is made again “Public transport offers benefits to the environment in the form of less air pollution, lower fuel consumption, and less traffic congestion compared with private transport.”
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Really? For starters it is a messy statement, triple counting one benefit. Lower fuel consumption isn't an environmental benefit, but the cause of less air pollution, and congestion is about delays, not pollution. So we are talking about air pollution only. Secondly, the government's own Surface Transport Costs and Charges study changes the view on this...
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That states that an average bus in Auckland at the AM peak emits over 18x the emissions of the average car. Now according to that study, the average car typically has occupancy levels of around 1.4, with buses have average occupancy of around 18 people, which means that cars - on average- emit less pollution per passenger carried than buses on average in Auckland. Now trains ARE cleaner, but they have a bigger problem - train fares are only 30-50% of the cost of running the trains, and it is damned expensive replacing them and building their corridors (which don't get well used).
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So the claim that public transport IS better for the environment is questionable. The truth is that it depends on it being well patronised, and funnily enough commercially run services tend to be more than subsidised ones, because subsidised ones don't HAVE to make money from fares alone.
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In fact the Surface Transport Costs and Charges study does expose some of the favourite Green Party myths about transport in New Zealand:
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1. On a per person basis the same pollution is created by 3 people travelling in a car on a long distance trip as is every person travelling on a bus or a train. So the average family holiday by car is more environmentally friendly than the average family holiday by bus or train.
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2. The environmental costs of long haul freight, for the primarily rural movements analysed, are similar in magnitude between trucks and trains. On top of that "Current charges (mainly RUC) are in most cases greater than the level of marginal provider/external costs (principally accident externalities and marginal road wear)." So in short, trucks already more than cover the costs they impose in most cases.
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3. ACC charges significantly over recover the costs of accidents attributable to cars (112%), trucks (587%) and buses (345%), but under recover costs from motor cycle users (18%). So it is nonsense to claim the costs of road accidents are not paid for by road users, except one group.
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Yes there are problems, congestion is by far the biggest "unpaid "cost, but this is because of poor management of networks and bad investment decisions. Most environmental costs comprise air pollution (which is getting better) and are on local roads (due to slow speeds and exposure to people).
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It simply isn't as bad as is made out

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