by Rob Lewis

When I recklessly quit my job as a strategy manager for the Energy Saving Trust to cycle-tour the world with my wife, New Zealand was first on my list of countries to visit. I had heard so much about its stunning landscapes, its ‘clean and green’ image as a haven of organic food and sustainable living, and its reputation as a mecca for outdoor pursuits. I was keen to experience it for myself and what better way than under my own steam on my trusted steel-frame Pearson touring bicycle. And it was a dream, as this quote from our travel blog attests:

I know we are biased, but it is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that cycling is the best way to experience New Zealand. It is difficult to articulate exactly what makes it so… The pace of cycling means you see so much that flashes past too fast by car – like when the road bends back on itself you get momentary glimpses of hidden waterfalls or tiny inlets tucked out of view and kept secret from motorists. I never realised how much there was to see right on the roadside from the flowers in bloom to the copious amount of roadkill that sprout out of the roadside like tufts of carpet. Travelling through this beautiful country by bike has become this amazing sensory experience. It is not just perspective and pace that allows us to see things that otherwise can’t be seen, but what you can hear, smell and feel – like the lupins in bloom that the fragrant scent of honey, to the sound of the Tui with its eccentric birdsong that sounds a little bit like R2D2 or the sound of rushing water giving rise to our anticipation of a wonderful watery view round the next bend. This is a slightly rose tinted description as an equally common sound is that of trucks, campervans, cars and motorbikes…

So, twelve weeks, and 3000km, later (with the saddle sores to prove it), did my preconceptions match the reality?

How green is a Kiwi?

Well, in many respects, New Zealand lives up to its reputation of being clean and green. The air and water quality are excellent, the landscapes are lush, and the climate (warm, with plenty of rainfall and sunshine) is perfect for growing great-tasting fruit and vegetables.

Certain aspects of a typical New Zealander’s lifestyle are also pretty green. For example, growing your own is very popular, as are composting and recycling. And when it comes to clean energy, New Zealand does better than most – 31 percent is from renewable energy sources, largely hydro and geothermal.  Yet a closer examination of the Kiwi lifestyle reveals that there are inconsistencies…

Firstly, the Kiwis love their cars and have become hugely dependent on them. The two main contributing factors to this are an extremely limited public transport system (even in urban areas) and a very dispersed population. Sustainable town planning seems to have been rejected, and cities largely follow the American model; large roads, big houses and gardens, and mass sprawl. Even when you take New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, the car rules. It has a land area larger than that of Greater London but with a tenth of the people.

This low population density means people have no choice but to travel further, even to buy a newspaper and a loaf of bread. In the absence of any comprehensive train or bus service most people simply jump in their cars. It’s a similar story when it comes to travelling between cities: flying is by far the most popular option. Very few Kiwis I met had ever taken the train or bus.

In addition, there are the leaky, uninsulated houses; building regulations are even slacker than in the UK. Interestingly, whilst I was there, a story appeared in the news about ‘leaky house syndrome’, in which homes built in the 1990s and early 2000s were found to have very poor levels of airtightness, leading to both an inefficient use of energy and the onset of decay. (Perhaps the Energy Saving Trust could open up a new office there!)

Furthermore, despite a plentiful supply of wind and sun, these renewable energy sources are largely untapped. New Zealand has largely resisted building wind farms, which are considered as unsightly, and there are few incentives for homeowners and businesses to install renewables. Cycling through the country I couldn’t help becoming aware of the deforestation that has occurred over the last 100 years, threatening and wiping out much of the native wildlife.

And here’s another thing worth mentioning. Despite their love of cycling, particularly mountain biking, cycling is still largely seen only as a recreational activity; most people load their bikes onto their trailer and drive to where they want to cycle.

The popularity of two wheels does not extend to using the bicycle as a method of transport, and we noticed real hostility towards us. There is no hard shoulder on most of the roads, so cars would sometimes have to wait for the other side of the road to be clear before passing us; this often led to impatient and vigorous bouts of hooting and, occasionally, some life-threatening driving manoeuvres.

So: how green is a Kiwi? Well with a carbon footprint roughly equivalent to the average person in the UK (over 9 tonnes) the answer is, not very.

Yet that doesn’t tell the full story. New Zealanders have a connection with the environment that is missing in many Western countries; they love to go camping and walking and be surrounded by nature. There is a strong awareness of environmental issues among the populace, even if this appreciation of the natural environment has not yet translated into action on energy use and climate change.

And therein lies the rub: perhaps only when the invisible becomes visible by impacting our surroundings will sustainability messages really hit home. In the meantime, some financial incentives for people to insulate their homes and install renewables, coupled with a better public transport system, would certainly go a long way.

Next stop: Asia!