In August last year, the Wellington City Council declared a climate emergency, and released a blueprint outlining intentions and objectives to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. With a 30 year horizon, it was hard to get past the irony of the program name “Te Atakura, First to Zero.” Hopefully, by then, Wellington will not be first to zero, as many cities will have reached that goal much earlier. But it was a start, and intentions were clearly laid out.

There was therefore a lot of anticipation about the implementation plan, meant to articulate how we planned to achieve these targets. But despite the climate emergency, there hasn’t yet been much sign of urgency.

It wasn’t till one year later (on August 6 2020), that the implementation plan was released, without any media announcement. So it was mostly unnoticed, which might have been intentional – the document is 55 pages long and its lack of ambition is shocking when considering what’s at stake. It’s empty of real actions that could change the course of Wellington’s greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the city does its part to mitigate climate change.

What should we have been able to expect from the implementation plan? There should be binding, bold and clearly aligned actions for the council to deliver, with requirements and delivery strongly linked. According to this document, most of the emissions are coming from transport, so this is where the strongest actions should have been found. Alas, the plan is full of “advocating” with plenty of “investigating opportunities”. In other words, the strategy relies on “best efforts” and “best intentions”.

On page 12, it states:

“… Transportation: At 53% of the city’s emissions, we need a rapid reduction in fossil fuel vehicles in favour of public transport, electric vehicles, shared mobility, cycling, walking and remote working. Aviation and marine account for almost 20% of this sector, but have limited immediately available solutions; therefore a move away fossil fuel road vehicles will need to be the biggest challenge of this decade.”

The airport’s emissions, which amount to 20% of Wellington transport emissions (25% of ALL emissions according to other reports) are left unaddressed. For the remaining 80%, the only substantial actions are more cycleways, and rapid transit which as we sadly know won’t see daylight for at least another 10 years and are far from under the Council’s control.

The implementation plan sees great opportunities in switching to electric vehicles which will be achieved by:

“… advocating to central Government for regulatory and policy changes for EVs and renewable electricity generation”

To say this is underwhelming is a euphemism: the Council is not committing to do anything but watch and advocate, debate and identify opportunities. Yet, countless cities have already set a firm timeframe to ban fossil-fuel from CBD streets in 2030, some by 2025.

This implementation plan was the perfect opportunity for Wellington to issue a similar statement, as suggested by Councillor Tamatha Paul:

“… Auckland City have committed to being fossil-fuel free CBD streets by 2030. I want us to declare the same thing.”

The implementation plan was the precise moment to declare exactly that, followed by a by-law to make it certain. Additionally, since EVs are the answer to less emissions, the council could have committed to make the new tunnel dedicated to EVs only, should the tunnel come before rapid transit. This is a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, the plan outlines one very sensible measure on page 18:

“Incentivising city-wide remote working – has the potential to reduce city-wide emissions …”

Yet this has been contradicted by some councillors who have called for the exact opposite after the lockdown, to “save the CBD” (suburban businesses, you’re on your own!) The Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency is even spending $75,000 to attract people back into the CBD. As does the mayor, who is calling for people to come back into the CBD:

“GREAT to be down to Covid Level One. Now let’s have all our people back in town – our business community and their employees need us all doing that! …”

Of course, the elephants in the room are the big contributors to the GHG emissions: aviation and marine activities. Here, while 92% of the public says emissions must be reduced “no matter what” (page 15), the Council decides … to do nothing, despite the 92 per cent, and despite the very real threat of climate change. This is behaviour commonly known as “procrastination’ that has led to the climate debacle we are in, a crisis so severe that experts estimate its economic cost will be 5 to 6 times the cost of COVID-19.

As suggested several times, the only way forward, if Wellington is serious about reducing its GHG, is to put a sinking cap on emissions from these big polluters. While not stopping people from flying, it would force the industry to adapt to the pollution it is responsible for. The Council should create a framework to contain the emission of its two biggest polluters, located in the middle of the city.

This is a timely reminder that, while the city has been trying to bring down its emissions, the airport’s have gone up by a staggering 45% since 2001, and will increase even more if the expansion plan goes ahead. In a time of climate emergency, the Council could commit to not issuing resource consents for the Airport’s expansion. Upon arrival of clean planes , the growth could resume, with strict conditions that emissions don’t increase.

Even with its core operations (“The Council itself”, page 36), the Council fails to set ambitious actions. It starts with a 2030 goal to convert its transport fleet to electric (page 39):

“Alongside identifying opportunities to reduce the size of the Council’s vehicle fleet, a December 2030 timeframe has been proposed to replace all Council owned fossil fuel driven cars, SUVs, vans and utes with zero emission electric replacements. Electrifying the fleet has the potential to reduce our corporate transport carbon emissions …”

While this is laudable (but note the “identifying opportunities” part), why did it stop there. There should be a change to the procurement process for subcontractors, setting up a minimum share of electrified tools, trucks and machinery to be eligible to work for the Council. A gradual increase over the years (20% minimum by 2025, 40% by 2027, etc) would give a firm indication to the industry it is time to undertake the transition, beyond the narrow perimeter of the Council owned fleet.

Finally, the implementation plan is not supported by reliable numbers. It starts, on page 12, by confusing the efforts that will be required, by which decade:

“… Council has committed to ensuring Wellington is a net zero emission city by 2050, with a commitment to making the most significant cuts (43% [from 2001]) in the next 10 years.”

The problem is that a couple of lines below, a table shows that Wellington has already reduced emissions by 10% in 2020 from 2001. With a reduction target of 43% by 2030 from 2001, the reduction between 2020 and 2030 is of 33 points. In the same table, the reduction target between 2040 and 2050 is of 32 points (from 68% to 100%). So, in this plan, the reduction efforts will be steep (33 points) between now and 2030, then relax a little (25 points), then steep again (32 points)! These numbers contradict the story that the commitment will be more significant in the first 10 years – 32 points (or a 43% reduction compared to 2001) is what’s needed to get to zero in 2050.

On page 18, the plan sums up all the 28 actions it has listed and concludes it has the potential to reduce emissions by … 14%! In other words, the implementation plan, with all its advocating, recognizes it will fail:

“This plan includes 28 committed and recommended actions with associated GHG reductions that can be measured. These actions are estimated to result in an 80,043 tCO2e reduction per annum, or a 14% reduction, in city-wide emissions from 2001 levels at 2030”

So the actions are not only unambitious and weak, but also they are insufficient to reach the targets the 2019 blueprint has set out … How can we, as a city, can be satisfied with that?

Overall, the implementation plan is a missed opportunity. It reiterates some lukewarm targets, set a year ago, and does not contain any new meaningful actions to significantly curb emissions in Wellington. It leaves the market to act on its own, and it hopes that Central Government will do the hard work, which makes the City Council a simple observer, with plenty of advocating to do.

Can Councillors and the Mayor say they are truly satisfied with it? Do they think it really lays mechanisms to curb the city’s emissions “no matter what”? Is there something more coming (another document?) which will gives confidence that climate change will not be left to luck in Wellington? Everyone knows that “economic urgency” is not enough to justify lack of action, so why is this plan so pale?

Over the last couple of months two important developments occurred regarding the proposed Wellington Airport Runway Extension:

  • Its $90m co-funding by Council found its way into the LTP – despite significant opposition against it, but with some very important caveats
  • Nature has shown us on several occasions just how insane the proposal is to put such vulnerable infrastructure into the Cook Strait.

In addition, WIAL met with the directly affected residents of Moa Point to update them about the work they’re doing in relation to the airport extension. We will discuss these two points in separate blogs, so let’s have a look at how the Long-Term Plan consultation went first…

Despite being touted as a great success by its proponents, with apparently only a ‘noisy minority’ of people opposing the $90m for the runway extension that was ring-fenced in the LTP, this really doesn’t stack up on closer scrutiny.

Strathmore Park blog has written about this extensively, eg here, here and here, but it was clear during consultation that both the Council and WIAL got quite rattled once submitters started asking some difficult questions. The WIAL CEO went as far as swearing – twice! – during his oral submission when he commented on the report by NZIER reviewing EY’s economic impact statement  that they prepared for BARNZ, the Board of Airline Representatives. However, upon reading the EY report’s full page of caveats it becomes very clear that the content cannot be relied upon as a fair representation of the truth, not that that stopped Justin Lester from insisting that ‘the numbers are sound’.

When the Councillors were asked if they had actually seen any plans or designs so far for the $90m of ratepayer money they were willing to put forward, they looked on rather blankly. It is a sad indictment that you even have to ask a public official if they would pay a builder millions up-front for building their house without having seen any designs or plans, but as we suspected, the answer to that question was a resounding ‘no’.

However, despite all of this, and the fact that the submission process may well have violated Section 93B under the Local Government Act as well as there being questions about whether the Mayor and Deputy Mayor fulfilled their own code of conduct in relation to giving at least the appearance of open-mindedness and independence during a public consultation process, the majority of Councillors signed off this mad plan to ring-fence almost $100m of our money for this ‘white elephant’ (according to John Key).

On a very positive note, however, our and many other submitters’ strong objections did lead to some extremely important caveats and amendments being included. The LTP now says that the Council will make a final decision on this project and whether to commit funding to construction once:

  • WIAL has obtained resource consent for the project
  • The Council has received and considered a cost-benefit analysis and business case from WIAL
    • that will be independently reviewed.

Other key considerations that the Council has said will need to be considered before it makes its final decision relate to:

  • The resilience of a runway extension to weather and climate change
  • The proposed investment vehicle and any revenue agreement
  • Satisfactory airline commitments
  • Funding arrangements for construction and confirmed construction costs
  • The governance and management structure to oversee construction.

The Council has also said it will undertake further public consultation before making a final decision on whether to commit funding to construct the runway extension.

It is our expectation that it won’t ever get that far as the business case simply won’t stack up, but at least we now have some protections in place to stop the Council from just gifting a private company several million dollars more on top of what ratepayers have already given without setting out some clear requirements first. By the way – to this date, it seems not a single report (other than the EY statement) or progress update has been received by Councillors from WIAL for the almost $3m they gifted the airport for undertaking the resource consent application (back in May 2013 and then again in December 2014), which may be a breach of contract.

Presumably, the Mayor would have received updates during board meetings in her role as Director but it does not seem as if this information flowed on to the rest of the Council. This again raises the potential conflict of interest of the Mayor who sometimes seems to take her position as a WIAL Director more seriously than her mandate to the city and its ratepayers. Why has no one wondered about this lack of progress or at least started asking some hard questions before signing off the money in the draft LTP?

All this makes it clear that it is really important to make sure that the Council will stick to what it has approved in the LTP in relation to the runway extension instead of rolling over again and doing WIAL’s bidding based on no more than one-sided, overly optimistic and inadequate information and PR spin. It is also really important that all, but especially the most severely affected residents, have a fair say during this process which to date has been intransparent and inadequate. So far, the involvement and conduct of the Council has not led us to believe that they are overly interested in due diligence but we hope that the new caveats will ensure that we are protected against pushing ahead with a project where the main benefit seems to go largely to the airport company, but the main costs, risks and impacts sit squarely on the ratepayers and residents.

How can we sign off to pay for half if we don’t know how much it will really cost?

Open Blog by Guardians of the Bays

In light of the looming Long Term Plan submissions due today Friday, April 17, our citizens group the Guardians of the Bays have kept delving deeper into the various questions we would have liked answered before the Council decides to sign us up to huge generational debt, rate hikes and asset sales.

A large chunk of these hikes (33%, or $90m of the WCC share in the proposed LTP increase, with another $60m coming from other regional councils) seems to benefit a private company (Infratil who owns the 66% of the airport shares not owned by the Council), who admits the extension is ‘not economic’ and thus not worth putting their 2/3 share of the money into. In fact, a recent article suggests that the commercial value of the extension is worth only $50m over the next 40 years and that the airport would need $50m a year in taxes alone from the airlines to pay for it!

With the Mayors in the whole Wellington Region now coming out (without going through proper Council consultation processes) in support to pay at least half ($150 million) of the proposed extension, it is an issue not just for the Eastern Bay residents, but for all of Wellington. The Council claims it will get a ‘mandate’ if the projects are approved for inclusion in the Long Term Plan. However, we dispute this so-called ‘mandate’ as it is based on a whole set of ‘overly optimistic’ assumptions or incomplete evidence.

To recap the main questions we would have liked answers to (see our first blog):

  • What is the actual cost going to be?
  • Who will pay for this?
  • Which airline has committed to fly here long-haul?
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve – why do we need another long-haul airport in New Zealand?
  • How is the long-term economic viability of this project assessed and how likely is it to succeed?
  • What are the specific risks of this project?

We have received lots of support for raising these questions from the public, as well as some ad hominen attacks by people unwilling to engage transparently in an open debate. Alas, so far, not a single of these questions has been addressed in a comprehensive way by the Council or Airport. Yet we are meant to sign off on a Long Term Plan which will hike rates by almost 50% in the next ten years and come up with $700m in what Councillor Helene Ritchie so rightly calls ‘badly-costed slush funds’.

So, let’s concentrate on the important question of ‘What will the actual cost be?’. We could not, despite some digging, find out exactly when this number first reared its ugly head, but it has been around at least since 2011. It stayed the same for extensions between 100-500m, to the North and the South, using road fill, or taking down the Miramar Hill, or even with highly sophisticated Japanese steel pylons. The magic number doesn’t seem to waiver, although in the last two weeks it has inexplicably blown out to $350m (for an extra 50m runway, which was suddenly thrown into the mix).

Now this raises one of the biggest red flags to us – we are not economists but we know how precise you have to be in your costings in order to get Treasury sign-off for large budgets (and rightfully so, seeing it is taxpayer money). In the world of the Council, however, such precision and clarity does not seem to be required before committing large amounts of ratepayer money both in terms of rate hikes and loans, with associated interest. This for a project which has, as BARNZ (the association representing the 20 major international airlines in New Zealand) called it ‘overstated the benefits whilst overlooking the costs’. Even the Chamber of Commerce, Fran Wilde, and National Government Ministers (all normally big fans of large, controversial infrastructure projects) – from John Key, to Simon Bridges and Steven Joyce – have said they would need to see a clear and valid business case and the commitment of at least one long-haul airline to actually fly here before agreeing to a funding package. Otherwise, Wellington rate payers will be left with, what John Key describes as, a ‘White Elephant’.

In fact, there is a suspicion that the $300m number came from a back of the envelope calculation based loosely on how much it costs to build a meter of motorway ($1m for 1m). Contrast this with Hong Kong Airport, also built on reclaimed land into the sea, where each 1m costs more like $5m. If both the Council and the Airport stick to this number – hoping to sign us up to this endeavour so when cost blow-outs invariably occur we’ll be told ‘it’s too late, we can’t stop now’ – who do you think will be paying for the increased costs? The figure has already suddenly increased to $350m without an explanation, so how do we know that the intention wasn’t always to expand it to 500m but the Council and Airport knew that ratepayers would balk at the half a billion dollar, or higher price tag?

If we are basing the cost on how much a meter of motorway would be, maybe we should cost it on a motorway such as this which would be more appropriate for the Cook Strait?

The region’s elected officials are asking us to blindly sign off on $150 million dollars when the chances that this runway will cost ‘only’ $300m are close to nil – as it will be built into the extremely wild and hydroactive Cook Strait, involving significant reclamation to depths of more than 12m. Each, increasingly frequent southerly storm will wash away large parts of any clean fill dumped there (most likely along the marine reserve, and the Lyall Bay surf beach). A ‘massive breakwater’ to be built around the extension (not currently shown in any of the mocked up photos) would be an extremely difficult engineering feat, cause significant, irreversable damage to large parts of the South Coast and would very likely double the costs.

Treasury would never sign off on a business case where so little robust analysis has gone into what is a major infrastructure investment. Let’s not be chumps and give them our hard-earned rate money to wash out into the Cook Strait, before a comprehensive, independently peer-reviewed business case has been developed. If you would like to make a submission against this, or at least asking for answers to some of these questions before signing us up to a $90 million, and likely much higher, debt for a white elephant, put in your online submission here or email it to: longtermplan@wcc.govt.nz

Deadline is this TODAY. If you have any further questions or comments, please email us at guardiansofthebays@gmail.com

We are the Guardians of the Bays, a group of concerned Wellington residents. We formed this group in 2013 to counteract the seemingly gung-ho approach of the Wellington City Council (WCC) and the Wellington International Airport Limited (WIAL) regarding the long-touted extension of the airport runway – either to the North into Evens Bay, or, more likely again to the South into Moa Point/Lyall Bay.

We are concerned that very important questions about the economic viability of the proposed extension have not been answered. Even though some of us are already detrimentally and disproportionally affected by the airport and its actions, we are not anti-airport or anti-progress, instead, we are concerned that very important questions about the economic viability of this project do not seem to be asked or answered by the proponents of the extension – foremost the Mayor, the WCC, and the Chamber of Commerce.

In a series of blog posts we will attempt to take a closer look at these questions and demand answers from WCC and WIAL before they move forward relentlessly with this multi-million dollar project. In short, the most concerning questions are:

What is the actual cost going to be?

  • $300m has been touted for at least a decade, despite wildly differing conditions and construction challenges to the North and the South, with seemingly the same costing for both dumped clean-fill and highly sophisticated Japanese steel pillars. What is the ACTUAL likely cost?

Who will actually pay for this?

  • The airport made it clear that it is ‘not economic’ to put their money where their mouth is. The National Government has already indicated it is not good for NZ Inc. The WCC has indicated a 50% (!) rate rises over 10 years in their LTP which will partly pay for this runway. The other part will most likely be from selling assets, e.g. on our waterfront. It seems as though Wellington rate payers will be footing most of the cost despite only owning one third of the airport.

Which airline has actually said they will fly here long-haul?

  • Despite having spent $1.6m since 2006 in a ‘Long Haul Attraction Fund’, there is no airline that has said it would move its operations to fly long haul from Wellington. Air New Zealand has indicated it will actively compete with anyone flying long-haul (as their major hub is Auckland).

Why do we need another long-haul airport in New Zealand?

  • There are two major hubs in the region – Auckland and Sydney, both of which are currently aggressively expanding their international runways. Christchurch, with no curfew and a much longer runway, only manages one long-haul flight to Singapore each day. Any visitor increases from new routes are already coming through Auckland, we will draw business from existing routes.

What is the actual economic viability of this project long-term?

  • A best-case scenario of $389-$684m by 2060 doesn’t sound great once the actual costs of the project, especially to residents in long-term rate hikes, interest and loss of income from assets including the South Coast, is taken into account. It is at best, a minute gain in 40 years and at worst, a massive loss.

What are the actual risks of this project?

  • They are innumerable and yet we never hear a word about the risks from the proponents. Some are: the fact that the airport sits on reclaimed land and an actual fault-line, has been hit by several tsunamis in the past, has to shut down regularly in (increasing in frequency and extremity) Southerly storms, risks from rising sea levels and associated insurance costs, not filling flights due to competition from major airlines and regional international hubs, hikes on domestic ticket prices to offset losses, losses of the economic viability of the South Coast including recreational, tourism, cray fisheries, the sewerage plant operation, the marine reserve etc

These obvious questions have not received any clear answers to date, despite this extension having been touted for more than 10 years now. If the champions of this project cannot give, after ten years, clear answers around the actual costs, impacts, risks and viability of such a large project, we should be rightfully concerned as residents of this great city. We will delve into more detail into each of these questions in future blogs.

We urge you to submit your views on this issue to the Council here.

If you have any comments, queries or would like to join our group, please contact us at guardiansofthebays@gmail.com