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Sunday, January 23, 2011

NZ Survey - Elected Local Councillors Ill-informed on Peak Oil

Becky Wardell at the University of Canterbury has surveyed technical transport staff and elected officials in three representative local councils in New Zealand – (rural, a provincial city and Auckland) to determine what influences them and what their attitudes are to peak oil.

She found that the majority of elected officials had either minor or no concerns about peak oil and only 27% had a major level of concern about peak oil. The level of concern about peak oil amongst technical transport staff was much higher than elected officials, with 65% of them considering peak oil to be of major concern.

Those who have a lower level of concern generally consider that alternative fuels and new technologies will mitigate any effects of peak oil in the future.

“This belief could be a major reason why planning for peak oil is not prioritised. The differences in attitude towards peak oil and beliefs about alternative fuels and new technologies expressed amongst elected officials results in a lack of clear consensus about the level of planning needed for peak oil.”

The author also analysed council planning documents and confirmed that the major concerns of technical staff about peak oil are not being directly translated into policy. Dunedin has just released its Peak Vulnerability study. It will be interesting to see if any concrete policy changes emerge in Dunedin to mitigate peak oil and whether any other councils follow Dunedin's lead ?

Here is her more detailed breakdown of knowledge of, and attitude towards Peak Oil by transport policy makers:

• Technology or another energy source will mitigate any peak oil problems 50%
• We live in a car dominated society which makes it hard to change travel behaviour 39%
• Peak oil is hard to plan for because it is too far away and there are no tangible effects
• Currently 30%
• The council is too small to plan for peak oil, there are other more pressing issues 7%
• The debate about the timing of peak oil provides little certainty for planners 22%
• The market will respond to mitigate any problems 20%
• It will need to take a crisis before we start planning for peak oil 17%
• People will adjust to rising fuel prices and any shortages in supply 15%
• Peak oil will not be a problem in the future 15%
• Technology or alternative fuels will not be able to mitigate peak oil problems 9%
• There is plenty of oil available for transport 4%
• Elected official: thinks the majority of tech staff not concerned about peak oil 9%
• Tech staff: thinks the majority of elected officials are not concerned about peak oil 28%
• Elected official: thinks the majority of elected officials are not concerned about peak oil 17%

Lack of Funding and Direction from Central Government

A lack of funding from Central government was a dominant theme to emerge from the research. The majority of respondents considered the amount of investment in sustainable transport to be inadequate in their city and that much of the responsibility for investment lies with the Central government. It is also clear from the results that not only is Central government influential through funding but also in terms of the strategic direction transport policy takes at the local and regional level.

We Plan for Natural Disasters but not for Peak Oil
“The likelihood of some key emergency events in New Zealand has been estimated as follows (adapted from Department of Internal Affairs, 2008):
• 15% chance of a major earthquake in Wellington in the next 50 years;
• 20% chance of a major earthquake on South Island alpine fault in the next 20 years; and
• 4% chance of a volcanic eruption in Auckland in the next 50 years. An eruption in Auckland could trigger as much as a 14% decline in GDP for New Zealand.

Despite the relatively low probability of such major natural disaster events occurring, planning and procedures are in place to help to prepare for and mitigate against the effects of a natural disaster, including a comprehensive National Civil Defence Emergency Management Plan (Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, 2009) and public education campaigns.

Obviously peak oil impacts are not seen to be directly life-threatening, as a natural disaster would be, however, some predict the impacts of a worst case peak oil scenario to be widespread and severe, and on a much wider scale compared with a localised natural disaster.

Possible reasons for such comprehensive planning for low probability events include the fact that planning for a civil defence emergency does not require people to significantly change their lifestyles or habits, nor does it threaten major business interests or the economy. If we compare this to peak oil or climate change, it is much more difficult for policy makers to develop and introduce policy that plans for such events, because such policy involves a major shift from the status quo and current thinking and often poses a threat to major business interests and the economy.”

What Will it take to Change Attitudes?
“In order to be effective in changing the status quo, a peak oil movement would need to be on the same scale as those movements against nuclear weapons, smoking and drink driving. In order to gain the support of the public such a movement would require robust scientific evidence to back it, some sense of urgency to act (in the form of major fuel price rises or shortages), and an influential ‘champion’ to bring it into the media spotlight. Unfortunately the current conditions (disputable scientific evidence, a lack of urgency and a lack of influential supporters) do not encourage a social movement on such a large scale.

Ultimately, what is needed as part of this social movement is a major shift in how society conceptualises prosperity in terms of the dominance of the economic growth paradigm. As long as economic growth is linked with prosperity, is coupled with fossil fuel consumption, and is the ultimate goal of governments and society, it will be very difficult to implement planning for an era in which fossil fuels are in very short supply.”

INFLUENCES ON TRANSPORT POLICY MAKERS AND THEIR ATTITUDES TOWARDS PEAK OIL - A thesis for the Degree of Masters of Engineering in Transport - 2010


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