Legal challenge to emissions-boosting Auckland transport plan begins

LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff
Michael Eaglen, co-founder of EV Maritime, is designing electric ferries to run on Auckland commuter routes (video published June 2021).

Auckland’s 10-year transport plan – which could boost carbon emissions by 6% – was based on incorrect advice and should be declared unlawful, the High Court has been told.

A coalition of six climate change action groups, called All Aboard Aotearoa, is arguing in a judicial review that the city’s 10-year Regional Land Transport Plan (RLTP) is unlawful as it fails to deliver the goals in other policies and plans, to halve carbon emissions by 2030.

Transport emissions in Auckland have to fall by 64% to deliver that overall goal, but the projects and spending under the $37 billion RLTP, signed off in 2021, would raise emissions by 6%.

Auckland Transport, its Regional Land Transport Committee and the council rejected the argument and said the RLTP is not the only lever to reduce emissions, and that it meets statutory requirements.

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The plan covers much but not all transport spending, and is reviewed three-yearly, with the latest plan mostly funding projects flagged pre-2018, before the 2019 declaration of an Auckland climate emergency.

All Aboard has contested the view of Auckland Transport (AT) that reallocating road space to other modes would increase emissions because it could slow or prolong carbon-emitting car travel.

The group’s lawyer, Davey Salmon QC, told the court in opening submissions that forecast emission impacts used in preparing the RLTP used a transport model unsuitable for emissions calculations.

He said the group’s expert witnesses rejected the evidence from AT’s General Manager of Investment, Planning and Policy, Hamish Bunn, that changing the mix of infrastructure would have little impact on the resulting emissions.

Salmon said case law showed that incorrect advice used in decision-making disqualified the decision to sign-off the RLTP.

$4.5b is being spent building twin rail tunnels under Auckland’s city centre, as part of the City Rail Link.
City Rail Link/Supplied
$4.5b is being spent building twin rail tunnels under Auckland’s city centre, as part of the City Rail Link.

He also told the court that while the council’s planning committee had endorsed the RLTP after being advised that change was not possible, AT’s board which had the final sign-off, had been told changes could be made.

All Aboard said the RLTP had failed to comply with the government’s policy statement on transport (GPS), which had climate change as one of four priorities.

It pointed out that the GPS called for investment decisions that support the “rapid transition to a low-carbon transport system, and contribute to a resilient transport sector that reduces harmful emissions”.

“The RLTP is so contrary to the intent of the GPS as to be unlawful,” Salmon told the court.

The launch of an electric bus fleet in 2021 will be followed by 152 similar buses in the coming years in Auckland.
Todd Niall/Stuff
The launch of an electric bus fleet in 2021 will be followed by 152 similar buses in the coming years in Auckland.

All Aboard said not only did the RLTP’s investment fail to reduce emissions from 2016 levels, the most recent data showed transport emissions were still rising – up by about 11% between 2009 and 2018.

Salmon pointed out the range of government and council policies and commitments on climate change and emissions reduction, including Auckland’s own climate action plan.

“Auckland Transport failed to apply a proper climate lens in selecting projects and programmes for the investment programme, and there was no priority given to climate outcomes,” the group said.

Salmon argued the RLTP had a “wrong starting pointing” with 93% of spending deemed to be “committed” projects that could not be revisited.

All Aboard Aotearoa wants a bigger investment to shift trips out of cars and onto other modes.
CHRIS MCKEEN/Stuff
All Aboard Aotearoa wants a bigger investment to shift trips out of cars and onto other modes.

He said decision-makers had been given no advice about possible costs and damages if some roading projects did not proceed.

Salmon told the court that the RLTP had treated climate change as “just a consideration touchstone – that’s an untenable proposition”.

All Aboard has asked the court to declare unlawful the decisions by the committee and the board of the council’s agency, and to draw up a new RLTP more in line with climate change policy.

In opening its argument at the end of Tuesday, the lawyer for Auckland Transport, the council, and the city’s Regional Transport Committee said All Aboard had only quoted selected extracts from the RLTP.