Simon Wilson: Hooray for Auckland Councils billion-dollar climate plan


“My grandkids,” said Auckland mayor Phil Goff when he announced his new annual budget proposals today, “are going to say, ‘Grandpa, what did you do when you had the chance?'”

Yeah, it’s a cliche. But it’s also a fair question to ask a mayor. When it comes to making a difference, they get more chances than most. Although they also have to persuade the rest of us to go along with them.

Goff’s answer to his grandchildren is a proposal to raise $600 million from ratepayers through a new Climate Action Targeted Rate, which will attract another $400m from Government, through existing transport funding arrangements. A billion over 10 years, to tackle the climate crisis.

Only two and a half weeks ago the Glasgow climate conference ended in disappointment. The delegates managed to agree that, yes, fossil fuels are a problem, and yes, the developing world needs major financial help to avoid making the climate crisis worse, and yes, we are living now on dangerously borrowed time.

They even, in many ways, identified the extent of the changes we need to make within the next 10 years – which means now – to avoid catastrophe.

But their governments failed to commit. There was progress, but not enough.

Thank heavens, then, for cities. It’s a worldwide phenomenon: cities are going where nations fear to tread. They’re not going to solve the climate crisis on their own, but cities are where most people live and they’re going to make a difference.

Paris is implementing an emissions reduction plan that’s far better than France’s. London is ahead of Britain overall, Berlin is ahead of Germany and any number of American cities lead the way for the US as a whole.

And so it is, or soon could be, with Auckland. The council declared a climate emergency in 2019. Unanimously. It adopted a climate action plan called Te-Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri last year, which aims to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. That’s not just for council, but for the whole city, and that decision was unanimous too.

But as Goff said today, Auckland’s emissions are “not remotely” tracking in line with those commitments. Words are fine things, as any number of impassioned world leaders demonstrated in Glasgow.

Now, Goff has proposed that Auckland put some serious money towards the good intent. For the median household, he says, it will cost an extra $1.10 a week.

It’s a test of those previously unanimous councillors, who will vote next week on whether to put the idea up for public consultation. And if they do, it will be a test of citizens: do we want to tackle the climate crisis with more than fine words?

The proposal is significant for more than the money it commits. There’s a framework. Funded projects must actually have the ability to reduce emissions. They must also have a regional benefit, rather than being hyper-local, they must be ready for a fast start, and they must address equity.

So there will be 10 more frequent bus routes, meaning 170,000 more people will find themselves living within half a kilometre of a decent bus service. Other routes will be made more frequent, which Goff says will improve bus services for half a million Aucklanders.

Some 15,000 more “mature” native trees – two metres or taller – will be planted on streets that currently are not well served by greenery, and 4000 more will be planted in “tiny forests” and “remnant forests” in urban areas. The focus of this will be in the south.

There will be six or seven electric ferries and $228m more committed to cycling and walking.

The buses, trees and ferries are a pretty big deal. Not so the cycling and walking: the funding will produce a mere 5km or so more infrastructure for those modes per year.

Goff says the transport plans should be seen in the context of the Government’s likely introduction of congestion charging, and council plans for higher parking fees. He argues that those things – which mean charging vehicle users more to drive – are acceptable if there are viable alternatives, citywide. The new rate is designed to help with that.

The equity goal is vital. We’ve learned about this from Covid: when there’s a crisis, unless equity is front and centre of the response, it will be the biggest casualty. That’s going to be even more true as the climate collapses than it has been for the pandemic.

So the new rate, especially the spending on buses and trees, has to make transformative changes in the south and west of the city.

This will require a commitment from Auckland Transport that hasn’t always been evident. Goff says AT is “absolutely committed” to the new plan. Good to know.

And good there’s now a plan to make the commitments real. This is not our “move over Paris” moment, but it’s a decent nudge.

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