I’m a former clean energy guy, so you’ll forgive my hard-to-shake obsession with turbines and panels. But the way people move from one place to another is inextricably linked with the world of electrons.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce emissions from transport (alongside things like walkability, cycling and reduced plane travel) is converting machines that run on the combustion of fossil fuels to machines that run on electricity generated by zero emissions sources like wind and solar.
Sounds simple, right? It isn’t, but it’s definitely urgent. One surprising thing I’ve discovered reading and researching more about this is how deep the well of potential decarbonisation is, and how badly it has been forgotten in Australia. The fruit here hangs lower than I ever realised.
Australia’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) releases annual projections of the trajectory of emissions, and the 2019 release was telling in how it outlined the climate harm set to be caused by Australia’s modes of transport in the coming decade:
Tellingly, there is a stark difference between electricity and transport. Between the 2016 projections and the 2019 projections, electricity emissions have become far more optimistic, because the ‘renewable energy target’ has done most of the heavy lifting in injecting momentum into the replacement of fossil fuels with zero carbon sources:
In transport, there has been almost no change at all:
What’s needed – badly – is a plan to create the RET-effect wthin the transport sector.
What’s the plan?
At the 2019 federal election, both major parties laid out plans for transport. The Labor party detailed a well-reviewed policy to get 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030 and an emissions standard of 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre. The Liberal party had no climate policy for transport; instead opting to attack their opposition.
There were ludicrous memes, outright lies, discredited Youtube videos and a range of weird media pile-ons, all covered here in The Driven. It is worth reading in full, just to get a true, detailed feel for how strange and silly it all was.
— Angus Taylor MP (@AngusTaylorMP) April 6, 2019
Unfortunately, the political party the single-digit age of maturity in its policy platform won that election. As I wrote previously in RenewEconomy, the process since that election has moved from treading water to swimming backwards. As part of the government’s ‘Climate Solutions Package’, an electric vehicle strategy was promised.
The only other sign of life in the Coalition’s ambition to reduce emissions in the transport sector is a discussion paper released in anticipation of an eventual “technology roadmap”, where funding for fossil fuels and hydrogen is presented as an alternative to the setting of climate targets. “Battery, hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles” make it onto a very long shortlist of “priority technologies” in that document.
Whoever wrote that comes incredibly close to understanding how the government has actively discouraged a transition to clean transport when they write “the latest engine and hybrid technologies (energy management technologies and electric vehicles, among others) are not reaching the Australian market in significant volumes”, but fail to explore why.
And to add to the lack of ambition, it says “In the short term, hybrid vehicles and improved components/lightweighting offer the most potential for abatement”, carving out a continued role for fossil fuels even as fully electric replacements have reached commercial maturity.
It includes this diagram, almost impossible to decipher, placing battery electric vehicles high up in cost relative to options like “driver aids and feedback”:
Like the Coalition’s climate policy in general, the transport elements of the tech roadmap do not feature any quantification of emissions reductions are required to ensure Australia remains compliant with a global two degree target. This means that the presumably-upcoming ‘Electric Vehicle Strategy’ has a very large amount of heavy lifting to do, after more than one year of a policy abyss for transport.
What needs to be done?
There has been much good work on what’s required for the deployment of electric vehicles within the task of decarbonising transport in Australia, but the most recent would be the April 2020 report from ClimateWorks Australia, ‘Decarbonisation Futures’. It posits that Australia’s new electric cars will need to be 50% of new car sales and 15% of the total fleet by the year 2030, to adhere to a 2 degree C pathway. By 2050, this ought to be up around 90%:
That study explicitly highlights that technology alone is insufficient to bring about this change. There must be change in policy, businesses and individuals too. “Policy action can assist the transition, encouraging rapid uptake through investment, incentives, regulation, and infrastructure (such as constructing charging stations to enable electric vehicle uptake)”, write ClimateWorks, in their report. It’s hard to envisage change fast enough without this.
But the Coalition has remained nervously silent about electric vehicles since the weird and embarrassing debates of the 2019 federal election. It is going to have to face its past if it has any hope of coming near its Paris targets.
Ketan Joshi has been at the forefront of clean energy for eight years, starting out as a data analyst working in wind energy, and expanding that knowledge base to community engagement, climate science and new energy technology. He writes for The Driven’s parent site, RenewEconomy, and has also written for the Guardian, The Monthly, ABC News and has penned several hundred blog posts digging into climate and energy issues, building a position as a respected and analytical energy commentator in Australia. He’s spoken at the Ethics Centre IQ2 debates on the need for urgent decarbonisation, he’s served as an subject matter expert on national television, and has a wide following on social media around energy and climate.