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A shift to coastal shipping and rail could cut NZ’s freight transport emissions – why aren’t we doing it?

Public Policy / opinion
A shift to coastal shipping and rail could cut NZ’s freight transport emissions – why aren’t we doing it?

By Patricio Gallardo*

According to a recent study, coastal shipping produces a fifth of the carbon emissions (well-to-wheel) of road freight. Rail also performed well, with about a quarter of trucking emissions.

Despite this, trucking accounts for nearly 80% of New Zealand’s heavy goods transport, and a 94.5% share of the total emissions from heavy freight transport.

The dominance of trucking follows the expansion of the road network, which enables trucks to move relatively fast, travel to hard-to-reach locations and adjust routes to meet the flexibility required for just-in-time deliveries.

New Zealand's main road network
The road network enables trucks to carry freight fast to most parts of the country. Transport Dashboard, CC BY-ND.

But despite its advantages, trucking is associated with external costs, including higher carbon emissions than other modes of transportation.

This study represents the most comprehensive comparison of freight emissions for different carriers to date for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Before we evaluate decarbonisation pathways, we need to have a solid understanding of the freight system. To this end, we have created a transport dashboard to visualise the carbon footprint of freight movements within New Zealand.

The maps show where trucks deliver most freight (left) and where rail transports most goods (in million tonnes).
These maps show where trucks (left) and rail (right) deliver most freight (in million tonnes). Transport dashboard, CC BY-ND.

With decarbonisation commitments firmly locked into legislation, we have hard deadlines to cut emissions. Failure to do so will represent a risk to New Zealand’s economy and likely require taxpayer money to buy expensive international carbon offsets.

We need to reconsider how we operate

A shift to less energy-intensive freight transport modes like coastal shipping and rail represents a possible pathway to reducing fossil-fuel dependency.

But despite the benefits of sea and rail transport, it remains unclear how to achieve the shift to new infrastructure and technologies. A key requirement is access to an efficient multi-modal network that integrates ports, inland terminals, distribution hubs, roads and railways.

This map shows the sea routes out of Lyttelton harbour.
Lyttelton harbour is one of the starting points for freight shipping to other parts of New Zealand. Transport Dashboard, CC BY-ND.

We can achieve economies of scale by transporting larger volumes of goods, which would lead to cheaper costs per unit. As the European Commission noted:

The challenge is to ensure structural change to enable rail to compete effectively and take a significantly greater proportion of medium and long-distance freight.

Our research was focused on creating a detailed understanding of New Zealand’s current heavy-freight system. Emissions reporting extended beyond the direct combustion of fuels and accounted for vehicle-embedded emissions. We also consolidated data from multiple sources, which helped with calculating energy demand and direct and indirect emissions for every freight mode.

For example, we found the majority of a truck’s lifetime emissions (almost 80%) come from the fuel it consumes. This is why it’s important to prioritise operational aspects and switch to non-fossil propulsion technologies.

Where to from here

It will take considerable investment to expand or upgrade transport networks and optimise freight corridors in terms of energy use and emissions. Beyond our research, we’ll need complementary work to investigate the technical and economic feasibility of non-fossil propulsion technologies.

We’ll have to take a holistic approach to map feasibility hurdles (technical challenges, material needs, system architecture and integration) that must be overcome.

The ultimate goal is to decrease fossil fuel demand and emissions while ensuring long-term economic and trading resilience.

Equally crucial is the participation and support from stakeholders. Freight transport is a complex system characterised by multiple interests (policy makers, shippers, freight forwarders, port and rail representatives) with sometimes conflicting views. Strategic planning also needs to acknowledge consumer preferences and their impacts on energy use.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) elaborates on this:

Drawing on diverse knowledges and cultural values, meaningful participation and inclusive engagement processes—including Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and scientific knowledge—facilitates climate resilient development, builds capacity and allows locally appropriate and socially acceptable solutions.

Beyond the focus on emissions cuts, we need to engineer freight systems with a high capacity to adapt, so they can sustain trade and wellbeing while operating at much lower energy levels. The notion of adaptation also has to extend further than the current focus on physical protection against extreme weather events.

The tools and technologies to decarbonise freight transportation in New Zealand are available now. The problem lies in their integration and the understanding of the trade-offs at stake. Freight transport emissions can be reduced through cost-effective investments in multi-modal infrastructure and alternative propulsion technologies.

However, it is essential for future initiatives to operate within the biophysical limits of our planet, as emphasised in the IPCC’s report:

Technological innovation can have trade-offs such as new and greater environmental impacts, social inequalities, overdependence on foreign knowledge and providers, distributional impacts and rebound effects, requiring appropriate governance and policies to enhance potential and reduce trade-offs.The Conversation

*Patricio Gallardo, Researcher in Transition Engineering, University of Canterbury. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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No mention that this research was funded by Swire Shipping.


Something to do with the dominance of the roading industry perhaps? 

The cost of repairing one pothole in this country must be huge - safety plans, road cones, stop go people - and 6 months later the ok given - another 3 and the job starts.

Can't charge for this on a coastal shipping route.


Railways would be the easiest modes to electrify , hence why they have been electrified for over 100 years worldwide.

But what they really need is straightening to compete with road time wise. many alignments have not changed since the 1870's , designed for low powered steam engines. most focus has been on making the ROW suitable for heavier , longer trains , following the American model. not suitable for NZ conditions , where the distances are short , so time is the biggest deterrent to more rail use. 


And maybe some resilience when the rail carriages need to get between the north and south islands.


This should be alleviated somewhat when the new interislander ferries come in 2025 with much larger rail-carrying capacity. This should, in theory, make rail a more appealing option for freight.