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Kāinga Ora’s new director of sustainability Alec Tang. (Photo: Justin Latif)
Kāinga Ora’s new director of sustainability Alec Tang. (Photo: Justin Latif)

PoliticsJune 15, 2021

The cycling civil servant who’s not afraid to get good and mad on Twitter

Kāinga Ora’s new director of sustainability Alec Tang. (Photo: Justin Latif)
Kāinga Ora’s new director of sustainability Alec Tang. (Photo: Justin Latif)

The battle to get New Zealand to carbon neutrality is being fought in the backrooms of power and more publicly, on social media. Justin Latif spoke with Kāinga Ora’s new director of sustainability, Alec Tang, about how he’s leading the charge in both arenas. 

Outspoken senior civil servants are few and far between, but for Alec Tang, Kainga Ora’s new director of sustainability, his public role and climate activism go hand in hand. 

Look no further than his Twitter account. He regularly broadcasts video of his wheel-to-wheel battles with inattentive bus drivers and impatient SUV drivers to his thousands of followers, along with stunning photos from his cycling commutes, plus details of his ongoing work to promote the merits of low traffic neighbourhoods and cycleways. 

It might seem unusual for a government staffer to be so open about his views, but he sees it very much as part of his role. 

“People say to me I need to be impartial, but I’m also a sustainability professional, so I need to be providing what I believe is the best advice, narrative, and logic for why we need to move in this direction.”

Being so public about his views on cyclists and drivers doesn’t come without some blowback.

“I do get a bit of flak which does get to me a bit,” he says. “I don’t get as much personal abuse when talking about sustainability, compared to when talking about getting hit on my bike, which tends to get quite personal. People threaten to run me down which you just have to pass off.

And he says he can’t help noticing the racial undertone to some of the responses. “There’s a lot of comments like, ‘do you even live here?’ But other people do get a whole lot more [abuse] than me so it puts perspective on what I get.”

His criticism of bus drivers has also drawn some friendly fire from fellow public servants at Auckland Transport, but he says if he can’t raise these issues, then who will?

“I said, I’m also someone trying to get to work in the morning, regardless of where I work; I’m trying to navigate the city. From a safety perspective, who is responsible?”

Takeout kid to climate advocate 

The British-born son of a Chinese takeaway restaurant chef and a medical laboratory scientist, Tang’s own passion for the environment didn’t start until university, which also led him eventually to New Zealand. 

“I did a paper on the indigenous Aboriginal perspectives on water and that really opened my eyes to a different way to view the world. I then did my masters over here with the Hauraki Māori Trust Board and that really cemented things.”

While playing club rugby he met his wife and after a short stint back in the United Kingdom, the couple returned to Auckland to raise their family. 

The key to change

As the former chief sustainability officer for Auckland Council, Tang is well-placed to assess Auckland’s preparedness for potential ecological disaster in light of the Climate Change Commission’s recent report.

The report provides an essential framework for the work New Zealand needs to undertake to get to carbon zero, but more analysis on reshaping New Zealand’s economy is necessary, Tang says.

“There’s a whole heap of bandaids that need to be stuck on the current system that we’ve got, which begs the question: should we be trying to repair our current economic system or should we be actually trying to change it?

“The report is a great starting point to have a really good conversation around what we should be doing and how fast we should be doing things, but it doesn’t look at the systemic changes we need.”

He says organisations like Auckland Council and Kāinga Ora need to embrace their leadership roles in supporting communities to make the difficult shifts necessary, rather than just focusing on the building of roads, pipes and houses. 

“Equitable transitions aren’t going to magically materialise,” he says. “It is going to require concerted effort from people making policy decisions on how to help and support those least able to make this transition. 

It’s no longer good enough to “leave business to business”, Tang says, noting that many communities need help shifting their economies as carbon-guzzling industries become obsolete. “If no one else is doing this stuff, then we need to step into that space.”

One example he points to is transport. “Historically Kāinga Ora has just been about house building, but if you look at our mandate it is also about building communities, and so part of that is having really robust conversations with Auckland Transport and NZTA to make sure, whether it’s public transport or general accessibility, that walking and cycling is being included.”

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