Look over there! Climate change

The cynical motives behind the headline-grabbing free bus proposal

A motion to trial fare-free public transport is being considered by ECan, which could be a really good step towards getting the city moving and reducing our dependence on private vehicles. But perhaps more interesting than the motion is who is putting it forward

Environment Canterbury’s (ECan) 14 councillors were sacked in 2010, after a damning report accused them of “substandard” handling of the region’s water resources.

But now two National Party-aligned councillors, John Sunckell and Megan Hands, are leading the charge on investigating a two-year free bus trial, in an effort to combat the climate crisis.

Other ECan councillors have expressed concern about the motives of the pair, saying neither expressed support for a flat $2 fare review in Long-Term Plan (LTP) discussions just two weeks earlier.

The motives of the two councillors have been questioned but they seem pretty clear to me. This story frames them as “Blue-Greens”, this nonsensical idea that National have tried to astroturf into existence as they know that they are weak on the environment. While the idea might seem to come out of left-field, it is transparently cynical politics. Both Sunckell and Hands are representing farming voices (even though Hands, who lives in Darfield, is actually one of the councillors for the urban Christchurch West seat*). The problem for National is that they need to be seen to be doing something to combat climate change - and our abysmal water quality - without upsetting their farming base. So what do you do? Blame townies.

The key plank of this proposal is that focuses on the carbon emissions caused by transport in Christchurch city. Transport emissions are bad; the sprawling city is bad; our lack of serious mass transit options is bad (though it is laughable that Hands is trying to reduce transport emissions now when less than a year ago she was championing National’s abhorrent policy to make State Highway 1 four lanes the whole way from Christchurch to Ashburton).

But as bad as townies driving their SUVs to the school pick up is, it’s nothing compared to the emissions profile of agriculture. Canterbury contributes 20% of New Zealand’s total agricultural carbon emissions, just ahead of Waikato. More alarmingly, the Canterbury region saw the biggest increase in emissions in the 10 years to 2018, according to Stats NZ. Our agricultural emissions are almost 7 times what our household emissions are, as you can see from the following graph.

Hands has tried this before. Last year she released a statement (with the disappointing People’s Choice councillor Nicole Marshall) that tried to shovel water quality issues onto townies. As with climate emissions, while personal decisions are important, the onus here is on the government and ECan to bring legislation into force that will clean up our waterways and reduce our agricultural emissions. Farmers won’t like it, but they contribute a disproportionate amount, and will therefore shoulder a larger cost of the clean-up. So called “Blue-Green” Nats are trying everything to defend their constituents, but they can’t avoid their responsibility forever.

*Update: An earlier version of this piece said that Hands lives in Rangitata, the seat she ran for at the 2020 election. This was incorrect. Hands lives in Darfield, which is not in the Rangitata seat that she ran in, nor is it in the Christchurch West region that she represents either.

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