Boris Johnson’s pledge last week that the UK government would lead a “green industrial revolution” seemed, to those dispirited by Australia’s broken climate politics, to be a message from another planet, not another hemisphere.
The Conservatives promised £12bn (A$21.8bn) for a 10-point plan to combat the climate crisis, including building enough offshore windfarms to run every home in Britain, installing 600,000 efficient heat pumps a year to replace dirty old heaters, and developing new small nuclear reactors.
The headline-grabber was confirmation that the UK would accelerate the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) by banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, a decade earlier than previously planned. Johnson promised £2.4bn (A$4.3bn) for grants to lower the cost of EVs, install charging infrastructure across the country and boost the battery manufacturing industry.
Rhapsodising in the Financial Times, the UK prime minister said now was the time to plan for “a green recovery” that would turn the UK into “the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth”. He suggested the plan could spur massive private investment and support 250,000 jobs.
“Imagine Britain when a green industrial revolution has helped to level up the country,” he wrote. “Green and growth can go hand-in-hand. So let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programs of job creation we have known.”
Reaction in Britain was mixed, with some critics saying it didn’t go far enough. While the government was praised for sending an important signal ahead of the country hosting a major international climate conference in Glasgow next year, the Labour opposition described it as “deeply, deeply disappointing” for its lack of ambition. Analyses found it was not enough to put the country on a path to decarbonisation, as Johnson had promised.
Both the ambition and the critical response were light years from the political debate in Australia, where the major parties argue fossil fuel industries will continue for decades and climate action remains primarily framed in terms of the short-term cost.
This contrast is not new. British emissions fell 29% while the economy grew strongly over the past decade, while in Australia they dropped 10% and only a tick more than 2% since the Coalition was elected in 2013.
But the divide is particularly stark on transport and the shift to electric vehicles.
Only 0.6% of new cars sold in Australia are electric. This compares with between 5% and 8% in many comparable countries and about 60% in Norway, a small market that went hard early in backing the technology.
There are only about 20,000 EVs on Australian roads. Federal and state governments have begun rolling out plug-in charging infrastructure but unlike other nations – such as the US, which offers a capped US$7,500 (A$10,270) tax rebate on EV purchases – there are few incentives to encourage greater uptake of the cars themselves.
Meanwhile, national transport emissions have risen 17% since 2005, the year against which the government’s international climate commitment is measured.
Dr Jake Whitehead, from the University of Queensland’s Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation, says Australia’s policy record on EVs is poor and risks falling further behind unless changes are made soon.
Otherwise, he says, manufacturers will increasingly direct new models to countries with more advanced EV markets. He notes India – like Australia and the UK, a right-hand-side drive country – also has a 2030 target for ending the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles.
“We have to recognise this transition is happening. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Whitehead says.
“A 2030 [ban] target would probably be impossible in Australia at this point, but at some point in the 2030s we will have to get there. Otherwise, we’re increasingly running the risk that we’ll be in a group of countries that will receive older technology that is less efficient and has lower safety standards because other markets will have moved on.”
The Coalition government has made a series of promises to reduce emissions from the national car-fleet but, as a damning global climate transparency report pointed out last week, is yet to follow through.
Back in 2015, the government said it would introduce vehicle emissions standards to cut emissions by 100m tonnes between 2020 and 2030. The inevitably of a shift in this direction was highlighted in a January 2018 opinion piece by the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who was then the minister for energy and the environment. He compared the rise of EVs to the iPhone and predicted people who mocked the technology would one day be using it.
A ministerial forum advising the government on the issue proposed a vehicle emissions standard based on a US template that would have required light car emissions to be reduced to an average of 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre travelled – much less than what most of us currently drive. Evidence was presented to suggest it would add $13.9bn to the economy, but the idea was dropped following resistance within the Coalition and from the auto industry.
By February 2019, the government was promising a national electric vehicle strategy. The ambition was relatively modest: it would reduce emissions by 2030 by up to 10m tonnes, less than 2% of the national total. Industry leaders were told to expect a discussion paper on the strategy in late 2019.
A year on, nothing has been released. A recent Senate estimates hearing was told the plan for a standalone strategy had been dropped. EVs will instead be included in a $74.5m “future fuels” commitment that also takes in hydrogen and biofuels. A consultation paper is promised before the end of the year.
Behyad Jafari, the chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council, said departmental officials had worked on an EV strategy, but it had not been released by the minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor. “It seems like the minister wasn’t really engaging with the plan, or his office wasn’t really responding to the department,” Jafari says. “It clearly wasn’t a priority.”
Some in the industry believe the government backed itself into a corner in last year’s election campaign when Scott Morrison opportunistically accused then opposition leader Bill Shorten for wanting to “end the weekend” via a Labor promise of a non-binding target of 50% of new cars being electric by 2030.
The auto-industry is disappointed the government ignored the findings of an inquiry led by former independent senator Tim Storer early last year, which suggested what a fully costed and budget-neutral EV policy might look like. It suggested a reduction in taxes, stamp duty and vehicle registration charges, and found federal car fleets could be turned 50% electric by 2025 for only $5m.
Australia’s relatively few EV support programs vary between jurisdictions. The ACT is the most generous, offering zero interest loans of up to 15,000 for an EV purchase, stamp duty exemptions and two years of free registration.
The ACT and Tasmania have both set a target of government car fleets going 100% electric. The latter is considered a vital step in creating a secondhand market, given these fleets are regularly turned over.
Nationally, the Morrison government has issued grants and loans through its clean energy agencies, mostly for charging infrastructure. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency last week announced a $8.25m trial with energy company AGL using EVs as a battery plugged into the electricity grid – a model that experts believe could revolutionise energy storage.
But EVs were not included among five low-emissions priority technologies announced by the government in September, despite Taylor suggesting in June they would be a focus.
In response to questions from Guardian Australia, a spokesman for Taylor said the government believed in backing a range of technologies, “not picking one winner”. “Australians should be able to choose which type of car they drive and the Morrison government will support them in this decision,” he said.
While the federal government says its approach to EVs will follow its “technology, not taxes” mantra on emissions reduction policy, some states are proposing new road user charges that will increase the cost of driving clean cars.
Both the South Australian Liberal government and, following an announcement on Saturday, the Victorian Labor government plan to introduce a per kilometre tax on EVs from next year. The NSW government discussed a similar proposal but has rejected it for now.
Jafari says if they go ahead these plans would make Australia the first place to make using the developing technology more expensive, rather than trying to bring down the price. “We would absolutely become a laughing stock for telling people not to buy electric vehicles,” he says.
Trent Zimmerman, a moderate federal Liberal MP representing North Sydney, agrees now is not the time. “I think introducing road user charges for electric vehicles any time in this decade would be a mistake,” he says.
Most analysts believe EVs will be equivalent in price to petrol or diesel models within five years, and likely cheaper once lower running and maintenance costs are factored in. Chinese manufacturer MG this month launched the lowest price EV on the Australian market – a $40,990 SUV crossover that is nearly $10,000 cheaper than its nearest rival, the Nissan Leaf.
But Whitehead says there are already several examples of auto-makers ignoring Australia with new models in favour of more mature markets. For example, Korean manufacturer Kia dropped plans to introduce new EV models here, instead focusing on countries with more ambitious policy support. He says it is a sign of what lies ahead.
“We need a clear target and a clear set of policies to get us there,” Whitehead says. “If Australia continues down this pathway of non-existent policy we will be left behind, and we’ll all suffer for that.”