A total of 6718 electric vehicles were sold in Australia in 2019. That’s three times as many as in 2018, but it’s still small beer. More than a million fossil-fueled light vehicles (including SUVs and utes) were sold in the same period.
The sales figures were published in the wake of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that sales of petrol or diesel cars will be banned in the UK by 2035. The UK’s isn’t the only right-of-centre government to see the benefits of going electric — in 2016, New Zealand’s Conservative party introduced a wide-ranging program to encourage drivers to get off fossil fuels.
If Australia wants to head in the same direction, we can learn from what others have done.
The main argument for electric vehicles is often about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But even leaving those aside, there are plenty of reasons to move away from oil as an energy source for transport, among them energy security, better health outcomes, and spending less money on petrol imports.
Australians have been slow to adopt electric cars, however. Our previous research indicates the top two reasons are the fear of not being able to find a fast recharger on long trips (“range anxiety”), and the higher purchase price of electric cars.
Range anxiety should be on the decline. Fast rechargers are beginning to be installed on major routes and higher capacity batteries are increasing vehicle range. In any case, the average distance travelled by Australians is just 34.5km per day.
Prices for electric vehicles are also on the way down. Bloomberg has predicted that larger electric and fossil-fueled cars will cost about the same in Europe as soon as 2022.
Even when upfront costs for electric vehicles are higher, ongoing costs are generally much lower. An average Australian car travels 12,600 kilometres in a year, consuming 1360.8 litres of fuel at a cost of about A$2,000 (assuming fuel costs $1.50 per litre). For a typical electric car, the same amount of travel would cost $250 if recharging using off-peak electricity (assuming it costs 11 cents per kilowatt hour), or $567 if recharging with more expensive electricity (at 25 cents per kilowatt hour).
In 2016, New Zealand’s Conservative transport minister Simon Bridges introduced a suite of policies to encourage electric, especially for passenger vehicles. Since then, electric vehicle sales have been doubling every 12 months.
In 2019, 6545 light electric vehicles were brought into New Zealand and registered for the first time. That’s not far off Australia’s tally, but in a population of 5 million compared to Australia’s 25 million.
So what did the Conservatives do to encourage motorists to go electric? They took advice from the experts and introduced a multi-faceted group of measures.
These included: exemption from the Road User Charge, worth about $600 per year; government procurement programs; installing a public recharging network; investment in a five-year promotional campaign including TV ads, online information and “ride and drive” events. They also established a leadership group across business and government and a funding scheme to encourage organisations to go electric.
In NZ they have just about thought of everything, even ensuring there is a facility to recycle old batteries.
But possibly the most important factor has been that the government has enabled imports of high-quality secondhand electric cars from Japan. In 2019 they accounted for more than half of electric vehicle sales (4155 used compared to 2390 new).
This measure enables motorists with lower budgets to buy electric vehicles. Our unpublished research shows electric vehicles have been especially popular with multicar families who use their EVs as much as possible as it’s so much cheaper than using petrol or diesel. When those happy customers tell their friends and family about how much better it is to drive electric, it’s an important feedback loop that helps people overcome their fear of change.
Maybe it’s time Australia took a “Leaf” out of the Kiwi book and got on board with some sensible policies and legislation to speed up the transition to electric cars.
In 2017 and 2018 I walked the equivalent of 28 marathons in the scorching Western Australian outback. Why, you ask? To assess how some of Australia’s largest lizard species interact with restored mines.
As part of my PhD research, I hiked in often extreme heat on a mine site in WA’s sparsely populated Mid West region. My fieldwork was both physically and mentally demanding, as I spent many hours each day walking through the bush looking for signs of monitor lizards.
Being in a remote location and mostly alone, I had plenty of time to ponder the wisdom of my career choice, particularly on days when temperatures exceeded 40℃ and not even the lizards ventured from their homes.
Pushing through these mental challenges was difficult at times, but my work has provided me with some of my most rewarding experiences. And what I discovered may be crucial for restoring habitats destroyed by mining.
Habitat loss is a leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. Although mining typically has a smaller environmental footprint than other major industries such as agriculture or urbanisation, roughly 75% of active mines are on land with high conservation value.
There are around 60,000 abandoned mines in Australia, but very few of them have been officially closed. How to restore them is a growing public policy problem.
Recovering biodiversity can be an exceptionally challenging task. Animals are vital to healthy ecosystems, yet little is understood about how animals respond to restored landscapes.
In particular, reptiles are often overlooked in assessments of restoration progress, despite playing key roles in Australian ecosystems.
I wanted to know whether restored habitats properly support the return of animals, or whether animals are only using these areas opportunistically or, worse still, avoiding them completely.
To study how reptiles behave in restored mining areas, I hand-caught and tracked a young adult perentie. The perentie is Australia’s largest lizard species, growing to around 2.5m in length, and is an apex predator in arid parts of the country.
I tracked the lizard for three weeks to determine whether it was using the restored area, before the tracker fell off during mating.
Previous methods of tracking assume the animal used all locations equally. But I used a new method that measures both the frequency with which animals visit particular places, and the amount of time they spend there. This provided a valuable opportunity to assess how effective restoration efforts have been in getting animals to return.
My research, published this week in the Australian Journal of Zoology, shows that while the perentie did visit the restored mine, it was very selective about which areas it visited, and avoided some places entirely. The lizard went on short foraging trips in the restored mine area, but regularly returned to refuge areas such as hollow logs.
This is because hot, open landscapes with minimal refuges present high risks for reptiles, which rely on an abundance of coverage to regulate their body temperature and to avoid predators. Such costs may make these areas unfavourable to reptiles and limit their return to restored landscapes.
In comparison, undisturbed vegetation supported longer foraging trips and slower movement, without the need to return to a refuge area. Unfortunately, areas undergoing restoration often require exceptionally long time-periods for vegetation to resemble the pre-disturbed landscape.
Restored landscapes often lack key resources necessary for the survival of reptiles. As vegetation can require a long time to reestablish, returning fauna refuges like hollow logs and fauna refuge piles (composed of mounds of sand, logs, and branches) could be crucial to aiding in the return of animal populations.
My research team and I have called for animals to be considered to a greater extent in assessments of restoration success. In the face of increasing rates of habitat destruction, we need to understand how animals respond to habitat change and restoration.
Failing to do so risks leaving a legacy of unsustainable ecosystems and a lack of biodiversity.
Australia’s recent bushfires have razed over ten million hectares, and killed at least a billion animals. It’s likely countless more will die in the aftermath, as many species face starvation as the landscape slowly regenerates.
Even before the bushfires hit, we were working on supplementary food to help recover the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum. They are seriously threatened by climate change, historic habitat destruction and more frequent intense fires.
Just months ago we landed on a recipe for Bogong Bikkies, nutritionally suitable baked biscuits that have the consistency of an ANZAC biscuit, taste a bit like a nutty gym protein bar and smell a little like Cheds crackers.
We never imagined our work would be needed so quickly – or urgently – but now our Bogong Bikkies are being deployed across the boulder fields of NSW, providing vital supplementary food to native species such as pygmy-possums, native bush rats and dusky antechinus.
Mountain pygmy-possums are the only Australian marsupial that hibernate every winter under snow, making it essential they build fat reserves before their long winter sleep. The main food source during their spring/summer breeding season is the migratory bogong moth.
However in 2017 and 2018 the billions of expected bogong moths largely failed to arrive, leaving many females underweight and unable to produce enough milk for their young. Due to a lack of food, 50-95% of females in monitored Victorian locations lost their entire litters.
In response, Zoos Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary proposed creating a new supplementary food that could be used in the wild to support possums and their young until moth numbers recover.
Ten years ago, we analysed bogong moths to determine the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals required for a suitable breeding diet for possums in our captive breeding program.
While we have a successful diet for the possums in our care that includes nuts, insects, vegetables and a specially developed “bogong moth substitute”, the blend has the consistency of a soft caramel (or bogong moth abdomen) – not suitable for feeding in the wild. We needed a shelf-stable, long-lasting, nutritionally suitable food that could feed remote wild populations.
Throughout 2019, using our existing analyses of bogong moths, we worked with world experts in veterinary nutrition to develop Bogong Bikkies – nutritionally suitable baked biscuits for mountain pygmy-possums, and other species that live alongside them. We collaborated with Australian wildlife diet experts, Wombaroo, to have our new product commercially developed.
We then trialled the bikkies with the possums in our care at Healesville Sanctuary, so we could monitor whether the food was palatable or caused any health issues. It was a huge success. The possums liked the food, but happily ate other food too. This was exactly what we wanted: something that was completely safe and would be readily accepted, but not chosen over natural food sources.
Once satisfied our captive trials were a success, we had to find the best way to deliver food safely to possums in boulder fields in the wild. This meant buying or making 12 different feeder prototypes. Our local hardware store knew us all by name! We tested four feeders, most of which were designed and built on-site, and chose the most successful three for trials in the wild.
Working with Parks Victoria and the Victorian Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Team, we tested these three feeders at 20 stations deep in the Alpine National Park, monitored with remote infrared cameras.
Over the last few months, Zoos Victoria and Parks Victoria staff have been refilling feeders, changing camera batteries and analysing hundreds of thousands of images and videos. After months of work, watching wild mountain pygmy-possums, native bush rats and dusky antechinus visiting our feeders and eating the food was a triumph.
Halfway through our research, some of the worst bushfires ever seen in Australia left habitats destroyed and our precious wildlife dead or starving. Victoria mountain pygmy-possum populations have so far not been directly impacted by fires this season, but the populations of northern Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, were hard hit.
While the habitat was destroyed, we hoped some possums had survived deep in the boulder fields, as they have with previous fires. But surviving the initial fire is no help, if their environment and food sources have been so devastated that they can’t gain enough weight to hibernate before winter’s snow.
Within days of the January fires, we had packaged up our most successful feeder type, examples of our cooked bikkies, our best recipe and 30kg of Bogong Bikkie mix, and rushed it urgently to our NSW partners.
Teams from the NSW government’s Saving Our Species and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service have now built and deployed 62 feeders and water stations in six boulder fields, baked batches of bikkies and started emergency feeding.
We’re thankful to have the food developed and research ready to assist. It is important to note, though, that such supplementary feeding is very intensive, and only appropriate for native species facing emergency situations, such as catastrophic fires.
If these bushfires teach us nothing else, it is the value of preparation, hard work and early funding to develop a range of conservation tools.
While we should all hope for the best, we must plan for the worst.
This article was co-authored Dr Kim Miller, Life Sciences Manager, Conservation and Research, at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria, and Dr Leanne Wicker, Senior Veterinarian at Healesville Sanctuary, Zoos Victoria. The authors acknowledge Dr Linda Broome and the team from Biodiversity and Conservation (South East Branch) of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment for their work protecting the Mountain Pygmy-possum.
This article was corrected to clarify the impact on the mountain pymy-possum populations of northern Kosciuszko National Park.
Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne and Naomi Ezra Davis, Environmental Scientist – Fauna, Parks Victoria; Honorary Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne