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Australia lagging behind on electric vehicles and climate action

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Scott Morrison's Government needs to fully embrace a future of electric vehicles (image by Dan Jensen)

The Federal Government’s electric vehicle policy was released two years ago, but they still cannot bring themselves to call it that, writes Dr Graeme McLeay.

IT WAS RELEASED as the Future Fuels Strategy and if anyone is in doubt as to whether the Government takes decarbonisation of the economy or climate change seriously, they need look no further than this paper. It argues for minimal change and largely ignores the broader issues of public transport, noxious tailpipe emissions and the urgency of the climate crisis.

Health is barely mentioned.

The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in 2015 and in 2016 the Government released its 'Better Fuels for Cleaner Air' discussion paper which says:

There are proven links between pollutants found in vehicle emissions and a range of human health problems (both short and long term). Air pollutants can have a significant impact on the cardiorespiratory system. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and allergies, are especially vulnerable to air pollutants.

 

The effects on human health can include reduced lung function, ischemic heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and lung cancer. The cost of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution in Australia in 2010 has been estimated to be up to $7.8 billion.

Presented with this information, the Ministerial Forum, which, it seems, has gone missing. It has done nothing beyond a slight tweaking of fuel standards later this decade.

Most urban air pollution is caused by transport and while pollution controls and engine technology have improved, a growing population and increasing traffic congestion is reversing any gains made in air quality. Standards for air quality are set by the National Environment Protection Council and are under review.

An article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health reported last year that many people living near main roads are exposed to much higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than official background levels. There is a clear correlation between NO2, a respiratory irritant, and asthma — particularly in children whose small airways make them more vulnerable.

The Future Fuels Strategy discussion paper makes much of individual choice and looks to better inform motorists through the Green Vehicle Guide, but the question must be asked: does your right to drive any vehicle you chose infringe my right to clean air and a safer climate?

One of the most popular vehicles on the market which can be seen most evenings advertised on television is a diesel which meets Euro five standards for noxious emissions, standards which are years behind European and U.S. standards and are at the bottom of the OECD. The same vehicle emits around 200 gms of CO2 per kilometre, or around 3.7 tonnes for every 20,000 km.

“Tradies” and others who have a real need of such vehicles must not be penalised, yet there must be some incentives applied in legislation to favour less polluting vehicles.

The Future Fuels Strategy discussion paper claims that the cost of emissions abatement in subsidising battery electric vehicles is not value for money. Transport experts, such as Jake Whitehead of The University of Queensland, have pointed out the errors in this assessment.

Importantly, the paper fails to account for the emissions from extraction, transport and refining of petroleum, known as scope three emissions, thereby underestimating these emissions by 20 per cent.

There is little consideration of an electricity grid rapidly evolving towards cleaner energy in all states, and the huge uptake of rooftop solar, both of which will work synergistically with electric vehicles to lower emissions and benefit the consumer.

The discussion paper points to the uptake of hybrid vehicles, suggesting these will satisfy demand and enable consumers to adapt to new technology and the Minister for Emissions Reduction and Energy, Angus Taylor, has expressed a clear preference for these cars.

This is little more than an argument for the status quo, and while all low emission vehicles are desirable, for real impact on emissions complete electrification of transport is needed.

Many of the major car manufacturers are going straight to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and range anxiety is becoming a thing of the past, with fast chargers and BEVs with a range of more than 500 kilometres on a single charge entering the market.

With billions now being spent on road infrastructure, the funding of a vital transition to electrified transport proposed in this paper seems miniscule and little more than a fig leaf to ward off criticism of the Government’s lack of action on the climate emergency.

With the Biden Administration pledging to continue subsidies for electric vehicles and provide extensive charging infrastructure, and Europe and the UK committed to action, Australia is again a laggard.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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