The Grattan Institute’s paper “Towards net zero: Practical policies to reduce transport emissions” includes sensible suggestions for transitioning Australia’s car fleet to electric vehicles.
They include immediately setting mandatory emissions standards which tighten to zero by 2035; reducing the upfront cost of electric cars by removing duties and taxes; and ensuring charging infrastructure is plentiful.
But the report’s claim that focussing almost solely on electric cars is the best way to get the required reductions in transport emissions doesn’t stack up. It only mentions switching to public and active transport in passing, to say:
“These behaviour changes alone cannot be expected to get the sector close to net zero by 2050; a doubling of public transport use would still leave a huge number of cars on the roads, while also requiring major investment in public transport infrastructure.”
This reflects a common strawman argument: public transport can’t cater to every trip, so we must focus on cars.
The report rightly notes the objective isn’t just net zero by 2050, it’s staying within the “carbon budget” the world can emit while limiting warming to 1.5°C.
Australia cannot just emit recklessly for the next few decades then make rapid cuts at the last minute – we must make significant cuts early, saving the carbon budget for the long tail of sectors that are harder to clean up.
Inexplicably, this last-minute dash is implicitly what Grattan recommends: prepare in the 2020s, then rapidly transition the fleet from 2035.
Even if Australian governments instantly adopted all Grattan’s policies, and even if their optimism about a rapid transition plays out, we would still burn through too much of our carbon budget in the 2020s.
Such a narrow focus on a long-shot policy is too reckless.
Cars will always handle much of our transport task, and transitioning our car fleet to zero-emissions is necessary and urgent; no serious transport advocate suggests otherwise. But to significantly increase mode share on public transport is absolutely achievable: it’s happened before.
Despite a lack of strategic focus (and megaprojects like Melbourne Metro yet to come online) PTV statistics show that Metro train patronage more than doubled from 1999 to 2019, and tram patronage rose 70% in the same period. Even just repeating this in the next 20 years would slash transport emissions, buying precious time to transition the car fleet.
Would incorporating public transport into our emissions reduction plan require huge investment in infrastructure, as Grattan claim?
Not necessarily: the biggest gains are to be had from upgrading service levels on existing infrastructure.
Well over half Melbourne’s CBD workers already arrive by public transport, thanks to our strong radial train and tram networks, and to increase this further would indeed be expensive. But public transport’s mode share is much lower for off-peak travel, and out in the suburbs – because service levels are much poorer.
With minimal investment in infrastructure or rolling stock, the government could quickly increase off-peak train frequencies to run every 10 minutes during the day on most lines.
With some investment in new buses, and paint for bus lanes, the government could revolutionise Melbourne’s cross-town bus network to provide high-quality tram-like service patterns, so millions of Melburnians could leave the car at home for many trips. These measures aren’t just cheap, they’re quick to implement, using existing assets.
Active transport measures – footpaths and bike lanes – are even cheaper and quicker to implement, and are increasingly important as working from home has renewed focus on short trips to local shops and services. We could gain significant mode share for walking and cycling over the coming decades while spending a fraction of our roads budget.
It’s not just a low cost to government, it’s the cheaper option for households – even when EVs reach price parity with ICEVs, they’ll represent a huge expense to buy, register and maintain, compared to public transport fares or the humble treadly. It’s regressive to continue locking lower-income suburbs into car-dependence.
Then there’s the environmental costs of building EVs. They may have no tailpipe emissions, but mining, shipping, processing and manufacturing them from raw materials, then shipping the finished product to Australia, burns a lot of carbon.
These emissions are significant: in a petrol car they may account for up to half the vehicle’s lifetime emissions.
We cannot just outsource the emissions of our policy decisions offshore. The carbon cost of a bus, that will move exponentially more person-kilometres in its lifetime, is clearly preferable.
It’s true that net zero by 2050 is impossible without a strong electric car policy, and we should all get behind the measures Grattan has proposed.
But it’s also true that holding the world to 1.5°C of warming is impossible without improving our public and active transport networks. We absolutely can, and must, do both at the same time.
Ben Lever is a transport and climate activist, and the Convener of the Ballarat Branch of the Public Transport Users Association.