Kurt Iveson, University of SydneyThis week, the NSW government announced almost A$500 million towards boosting the uptake of electric vehicles. In its new electric vehicle strategy, the government will waive stamp duty for cars under $78,000, develop more charging infrastructure, offer rebates to 25,000 drivers, and more.
Given the transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, it’s a good thing Australian governments are starting to plan for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs).
But transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.
So, let’s look at these problems in more detail, and why public transport really is the best way forward.
Mounting disadvantage and health issues
EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.
But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.
Let’s start with a few of the social issues. This includes the huge amount of space devoted to car driving and parking in our neighbourhoods. This can crowd out other forms of land use, including other more sustainable forms of mobility such as walking and cycling.
There are the financial and mental health costs of congestion, as well, with Australian city workers spending, on average, 66 minutes getting to and from work each day. Injuries and fatalities on roads are also increasing, and inactivity and isolation associated with driving can impact our physical health.
Car-dependent cities also contribute to disadvantage for people who don’t have access to cars, and uneven financial vulnerability associated with the high costs of car ownership and use.
Indeed, some of these problems could be made worse — for instance, subsidies for EVs could end up favouring wealthier people who can afford new cars.
Mining for resources
A mass global uptake of EVs will generate major environmental problems, too. Most concerning of these is the use of finite mineral resources required for their construction, and the environmental and labour conditions of their extraction.
This was recently highlighted in a recent report by the International Energy Agency. As the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol said, there’s a
looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.
Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper are key ingredients required to make EVs.
As the report noted, EVs use double the amount of copper than conventional vehicles. EVs also require considerable amounts of lithium, cobalt and graphite that are hardly required at all for conventional vehicles. And it expects demand for lithium to grow 40-fold between 2020 and 2040, driven by EV production to meet climate targets.
There is considerable discussion of Australia’s natural advantage as a supplier of some of these minerals, as we have large reserves of lithium and rare-earth metals beneath parts of the continent.
But before governments and mining bodies rush to exploit these reserves, they need to ensure much more is done to avoid the injustices perpetrated against Traditional Owners and their lands and heritage. The recent appalling destruction at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto’s iron ore operation is just one example of this.
The conditions of extracting these critical minerals in other parts of the world are dire. There’s the oppressive working conditions in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the conflict over Indigenous rights in Chile’s lithium mining areas, and environmental destruction associated with mining rare earth minerals in China.
Broadening ideas about transport
To focus on these problems is not to suggest the new policies on electric vehicles are unimportant, or that they don’t stand to have some positive environmental impact.
The point is private EVs are not a solution to the combined challenges of reducing our urban environmental footprints and making better cities for all, and they have their own problems.
Instead, we should develop a good mass public transport system with extensive and frequent coverage. Alongside urban development with a more even distribution of jobs, services and opportunities, investing in better public transport could reduce car dependence in our cities.
This would have a range of environmental and social benefits: making more space available for people instead of machines, extending the benefits of mobility to people who can’t or don’t drive, and reducing demand for finite minerals.
Even fossil-fuelled public transport has fewer emissions than conventional car travel. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the most fuel-efficient buses and trains generate less than half the carbon emissions per passenger kilometre of fuel-efficient cars. Of course, public transport powered by renewables will be even better.
But as things stand, we are far from having such a city. The benefits of good public transport and public services are unevenly distributed across our cities.
In Sydney, for example, there are significant investments in new public transport infrastructure in some parts of the city, such as Metro West and the recently completed North West Metro. There are welcome commitments to reduce emissions in that sector, too.
But we’re a long way from planning new developments and redevelopments to make public transport a viable alternative to cars. The lack of public transport infrastructure in newly constructed, master-planned estates on Sydney’s urban fringe is the most glaring example.
Ultimately, it’s important that a transition to electric vehicles doesn’t dominate the discussion we need to have about urban transport.
Our challenge is to simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of different forms of transport, while also thinking much more broadly about the sustainability and justice of the system of mobility that’s so central to daily life in our cities.
John Stone, The University of Melbourne; Iain Lawrie, The University of Melbourne, and Nat Manawadu, The University of MelbourneAs part of efforts to decarbonise urban transport, Australian states and the ACT have announced various zero-emission bus trials and targets for replacing diesel buses. These trials are designed to help resolve some of the complex technical and contractual issues facing bus operators and public transport agencies.
It is important to remember the vital role of buses, and public transport more generally, in decarbonising the transport sector — Australia’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. We fear this point has been lost in recent climate advocacy highlighting the slow pace of the transition to green propulsion for private cars in Australia.
Our research aims to learn more about the obstacles to an effective transition to zero-emission buses. We are engaging mainly with groups connected with the trial announced by the Victorian Department of Transport in late 2020, but the issues are similar across Australia.
Why can’t we rely on electric cars?
Even if Australia’s transition to green-electric cars is successful, the climate benefits will be less than we need. The carbon costs of manufacturing replacements for Australia’s 20 million-strong vehicle fleet will be equivalent to around 20 years’ emissions from Australia’s dirtiest brown coal generator at Yallourn. And tonnes of concrete and bitumen will continue to be laid for new toll roads and car parks.
A city of electric vehicles will also perpetuate the fatal burdens of car dependence: urban sprawl, inequitable access to the riches of city life, suppression of cycling and walking, and a host of health risks ranging from physical inactivity to air pollution. Even if exhausts were cleaner, recent UK research shows a significant proportion of damaging particulates come from worn tyres and brake linings.
To protect the climate and to make city life safer, fairer and healthier, we need policies that take cars off the roads, regardless of how they are fuelled.
Bus services are under-utilised — we can fix that
The technical complexities of the transition to zero-emission buses could, if we are not careful, lead governments to lose sight of this bigger picture. Buses can help reduce demand for car travel, but only if they operate as effective links in a seamless public transport network.
In Melbourne, for example, many buses run almost empty. Routes are convoluted and services infrequent. It would be a travesty to invest millions in moving to greener buses without improving services in ways that increase patronage.
We can use internationally proven techniques to restructure the network so buses provide practical and convenient alternatives to the car. We can then attract a new generation of riders who currently think that “buses are not for me”. This is achievable within current Australian urban densities.
What other challenges must be overcome?
The first technical challenge is to decide between electric battery and hydrogen power. Most governments are leaning towards batteries. This is largely because the technology and its support systems are more evolved.
However, not all battery buses are created equal. One configuration might work well for a bus that will operate on short routes and can easily return to base to recharge. A bus that will operate on longer or steeper routes might need a different set-up. Operators will need to understand these trade-offs before they order new vehicles.
As established supply chains and cost structures for fossil fuels become obsolete, operators will also need to come to grips with the intricacies of Australia’s electricity market. At the same time, the power industry is grappling with new forecasts for demand and the infrastructure required for secure supply. Added to this, there are fears of a repeat of the “gold-plating” by private energy providers and distributors that has plagued the industry in recent years.
The change of power source also creates new challenges for fleet managers. If the transition takes several years, how will an operator manage the changing demands on depot space for refuelling and maintenance? Are depots in the right locations for new patterns of refuelling and deployment? How will the workforce gain the new skills they will need?
Issues won’t be resolved overnight
These issues and other technical questions can certainly be resolved. However, the institutional framework in which this must occur makes it hard to imagine it can be done quickly.
In Melbourne, buses operate under more than 15 different contracts, some with multinationals and others with tiny family businesses. These contracts vary in their provisions for determining routes and frequencies, for fleet and depot ownership, and for rollover or re-tendering. This complexity is a historical legacy compounded by decades of political and bureaucratic inertia.
The challenge for governments is to find a path to introducing zero-emission buses and reforming bus networks that deals with the technical uncertainties and the allocation of cost and risk in a fragmented market. The arrival of new commercial players — offering combined bus procurement, operation, charging infrastructure and energy supply — makes the market all the more complex. Nevertheless, success is crucial for the climate and for the health of our cities.
John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning, The University of Melbourne; Iain Lawrie, PhD Candidate and Sessional Lecturer in Planning, The University of Melbourne, and Nat Manawadu, Research Assistant, Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne
Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityIn 2007 Malcolm Turnbull turned off an industry’s life support without blinking.
The industry made light bulbs, of the traditional kind; so energy-inefficient they lost most of it as heat.
“A normal light bulb is too hot to hold — that heat is wasted, and globally represents millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that needn’t have been emitted,” he explained.
From February 2009 it became illegal to import the traditional pear-shaped globes, while from November that year it became illegal to sell them.
Globally, electric lighting generated emissions equal to 70% of those from cars. Australia’s switch cut emissions by an estimated 4 million tonnes per year.
Turnbull was able to do it because Australia no longer made light globes.
There was no domestic industry — and no jobs — to protect.
Australia stopped making cars in 2017. The thousands of workers who used to assemble cars in Australia no longer have those jobs.
Which means there’s no car industry to protect.
We have the opportunity to do to traditionally-powered cars what we did to incandescent light bulbs.
And the need. We’ve all but committed ourselves to net-zero emissions by 2050.
In a landmark report released last Tuesday, the International Energy Agency said the path to net-zero by 2050 was narrow and extremely challenging, requiring governments to “take action this year and every year after so that the goal does not slip out of reach”.
Many of the 400 or so milestones it set out are indeed challenging for Australia, among them no new coal mines or mine expansions from this year, and the closure of almost all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations by the end of this decade.
But one of the milestones ought to be easy.
It’s no new sales of internal combustion cars by 2035.
The rest of the world is racing ahead
As a step along the way, the agency wants two-thirds of all new cars sold to be petrol-free by 2030. Australia, with no vehicle production industry to care about, ought to get there sooner.
Norway has promised no new petrol car sales by 2025; Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Israel by 2030; and California and the United Kingdom by 2035,
a target the UK has brought forward from 2040.
In addition, the European Union is imposing manufacturer-specific emissions targets, which will force each one to either sell a greater proportion of non-petrol vehicles or make the ones they do sell much more efficient.
Manufacturers are getting in early. Honda says it will sell only electric and hybrid vehicles in Europe starting in 2022, three years earlier than previously planned. Volvo says 50% of its worldwide sales will be fully electric by 2025 and the rest hybrids.
Like the transitions to colour TV, automatic car windows, automatic transmissions and transistor radios, the shift will be one way. When production lines are retooled, there will be no turning back.
Moving quickly would do more than help Prime Minister Scott Morrison produce a credible roadmap to take to Glasgow climate talks in November.
It would enable us to avoid becoming a dumping ground for the dirtier, more polluting vehicles that can’t be sold elsewhere while the changeover is underway.
Switching soon would save us money
And it would save the government money. It has just committed to pay up to A$2 billion to keep Australia’s two remaining oil refineries open until 2027.
Most of Australia’s petrol is imported, much of it from Singapore, meaning little would be lost if Australia’s refineries closed.
The Australian-produced fuel is dirtier than the imported fuel, something the Australian government promised to fix this month by paying Australia’s plants to make the ultra-low sulphur petrol the rest of the world switched to years ago.
If a ban on imports of petrol-powered cars wouldn’t much hurt Australia’s reluctant refiners, it might hurt petrol stations, but not much.
Australia’s service stations are in large measure retail convenience stores. They try to maximise “basket size”. Ampol plans to turn the petrol side of the business into a recharge and refuelling network for electric and hydrogen vehicles.
Mechanics would lose jobs
The much-larger industry at risk from a switch to electric vehicles is car maintenance. The Bureau of Statistics counts 352,200 automotive and engineering trades workers, almost all of them male and full time.
That a switch to low-maintenance electric vehicles would shrink their industry is unfortunate for them, but inevitable. Propping up their industry by delaying the transition would only encourage more young people into jobs with limited futures.
When Australia switched from valve to transistor-operated TV sets in the 1970s, an army of “television repair men” was thrown out of business, along with their vans and two-way radios.
Most of them stayed in the workforce doing things we needed.
To have kept using sets requiring maintenance just to have kept them in work would have been an insult to them and us.
And while Australia’s switch away from incandescent globes was problematic (many of us liked the yellowish glow we’d become used to) the switch to electric cars is looking positively joyous.
This week Crikey pointed to a video in which the Queensland MP Bob Katter gets his first taste of a Tesla as it accelerates from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in just over three seconds.
“Yeehaw!” he yells. “This is so exciting.”
Australians usually embrace the future. At times we’ve been ahead of it.
Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University