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The government was quick to deride Labor’s latest action plan on climate change, particularly its electric vehicle target. Meanwhile, experts, including the NRMA, say the policy didn’t go far enough and that Australia risks falling woefully behind on motoring technology. By Mike Seccombe.

Labor’s climate change and EV plan

When the garrulous king of right-wing radio, 2GB’s Alan Jones, had Scott Morrison on his show on Wednesday morning, he was not much interested in talking about the previous night’s budget.

Jones told the prime minister he was sorry to “take the air out of your tyres”, but the fact was his listeners were not all that interested either. All they were talking about, Jones said, was “the most important economic statement of the week”, which was not the budget, but Labor’s climate policy announcement on Monday.

Although ScoMo tried hard to steer the conversation back to the budget, he mostly failed. They were almost nine minutes in before he even got to mention tax cuts. Jones kept circling back to climate policy.

The shock jock was particularly outraged at Labor’s target of lifting the share of electric vehicles from the current 0.2 per cent of new car sales to 50 per cent by 2030. He required Morrison to agree with his assessment that Labor’s plan was “an economic suicide note”, and to promise he would continue to prosecute the case against it throughout the election campaign.

Morrison, of course, complied.

“Well, it is [an economic suicide note],” he said. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“Frankly, they want to tell you what car to drive. This will put up the price of everything. So whatever you’re driving, Bill Shorten doesn’t think you should,” said the prime minister.

This was simply untrue. Nothing in Labor’s rather modest target mandates the sorts of cars people should drive.

What the Labor policy does – and what Morrison, Jones and a host of other right-wing politicians and media urgers refuse to do – is acknowledge the reality of what is happening elsewhere in the world. As Mark Butler, shadow minister for climate change and energy, says: “This is not something in which Australia has a choice.”

He’s absolutely right. The future choices of this country’s car buyers will not be driven by any Australian government. They will be driven by decisions taken by governments in other parts of the world, and by the globalised vehicle industry.

And this global shift away from internal combustion engines is happening extremely rapidly, says Peter Khoury, spokesman for the NRMA.

“Just in the past couple of years, a number of countries that build the cars we drive have put in place bans on petrol and diesel cars, starting anywhere from 2030 to 2040, depending on the country. So have some of the big market countries.”

He ticks off a partial list: “England, France, Germany, China, India…”

The nature of the restrictions varies. Britain, for example, will allow hybrid vehicle sales after 2030, but aims for zero emissions by 2050. Other countries are tougher. But these are minor differences. The big picture is that the internal combustion engine is on the way out.

Also on the fast-growing list of nations that have stamped a use-by date on fossil fuel cars are Norway (2025), Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Ireland and the Netherlands (all 2030). And most ambitious of all is the Central American republic of Costa Rica, which will ban sales of all new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2021 (it already gets 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables, and is one of the few countries on track to meet the Paris climate accord targets).

The list grows even longer if one counts the subnational bans. Paris, for example, will ban all diesel engines from 2025 and petrol from 2030. A host of other cities in Europe and the United States have either banned diesel and/or petrol vehicles, or plan to do so within about a decade. A number of US states, notably two big ones, New York and California, have committed to zero vehicle emissions by 2050, if not sooner.

So Labor’s target of 50 per cent fossil-fuel-free vehicle sales by 2030 is comparatively modest. The only political party committed to a complete ban on internal combustion engines by that date is the Greens. It is an indicator of how far behind the game Australia is in addressing climate issues that the Greens’ policy is widely considered radical in Australia, but in fact aligns with what much of the world already is doing.

The NRMA, not usually considered a hotbed of radicalism, also advocates a ban on petrol cars by 2025 or 2030.

“We really have no option,” says Khoury. “The biggest markets are banning petrol and diesel, and car manufacturers are going to have to fall in line.

“We don’t build cars anymore. The fact that we import all our vehicles means we need to prepare ourselves for a day when we won’t be able to buy them [petrol and diesel models] anymore.”

Volvo leads the pack. From this year it will make only electric and hybrid vehicles. But others are not far behind. Toyota already has stopped putting diesel engines in all its passenger cars. All the large manufacturers, Khoury says, are increasingly directing the research and development into low- or zero-emissions vehicles.

Yet Australia is woefully unprepared for this shift. There are fewer than 800 charging stations for electric vehicles in the country and no co-ordinated plan under the current federal government to provide the necessary infrastructure.

The NRMA is building a fast-charging network in New South Wales. Some state and territory governments, most notably the Labor–Green government of the ACT, have coherent policies to build more. Some local governments have provided some charging infrastructure, as have some carmakers, such as Tesla.

“But the infrastructure is a bit all over the place,” says Khoury. “Some jurisdictions are doing more than others. The ACT has introduced a raft of measures, among them ensuring that charging stations are built in new dwellings, so people will be able to charge their cars at home at night, which is good. But we need a national approach, and we need to take it more seriously.”

Evan Thornley emphasises the same point. Thornley, a self-described serial entrepreneur, was formerly the chief executive of the Australian arm of an early attempt at establishing a global charging network, named Better Place, which fell over in 2013. He knows the pitfalls. Time is of the essence, he says.

“The constraints on electric vehicles are not the vehicles. It’s the charge network.

“One thing governments are meant to be good at, need to be good at, is getting infrastructure built, either directly or by designing a market that will make it viable for the private sector to deliver,” says Thornley.

“The choice of petrol vehicles is going to be less and less, and pretty quickly. If we don’t have a viable charge network – which will take decades to build – we are going to be in a really bad place.”

A place such as Cuba, suggested Butler on ABC Radio Melbourne on Monday. He painted a word picture of Australia as a nation of automotive museum pieces, bypassed by technology and left “tuning up our 2007 Commodores”, because of a conservative “ideological obsession” against electric vehicles.

He was exaggerating for humorous effect, but there is more than a grain of truth in there. Australia is being left behind.

The government’s lack of action on the necessary infrastructure already is limiting Australians’ vehicle choices. Toyota, for example, markets six hybrid models in Australia, none of them are plug-ins, and there are no plans to introduce fully electric vehicles.

“Significant investment in EV [electric vehicle] charging infrastructure and solutions to power supply issues in Australia are required before the mass introduction and adoption of EVs in the market can become a reality,” the company said in a statement to The Saturday Paper.

Even when it comes to conventional vehicles, Australia is being increasingly left behind.

“We have the lowest-quality fuel in the OECD, which restricts which internal combustion engines can be brought to Australia,” says Tony Weber, chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

With annual new vehicle sales of about 1.2 million a year, Australia makes up a little over 1 per cent of the global market.

“And the largest-selling vehicle sells less than 50,000 units a year. So it’s difficult to justify the R&D costs of developing engines unique to the low-quality fuel in Australia,” he says, and cites an example.

“The Mazda 3 is sold here with a two-litre engine. In the UK exactly the same engine from exactly the same factory is sold. But because of Australia’s low-quality fuel, they down-tune the engine for Australia. The outcome is it has worse fuel economy, worse CO2 emissions and lower power output. It’s a lose-lose-lose for the Australian consumer.”

Another industry insider reinforces the point: “Companies are giving Australia less advanced engines. Australia’s poor fuel quality increasingly limits the choice of powertrains that we can bring into this country.”

Labor’s policy announcement made no mention of the need to clean up Australia’s fuel supplies – a significant omission. It did, however, commit to the phased introduction of new standards for greenhouse gas emissions from cars, from the current 192 grams of CO2 per kilometre, to 105 by 2025, which is in line with the US, and as recommended by Australia’s Climate Change Authority (though still less ambitious than the European target).

Labor promises 50 per cent of new government passenger vehicles will be EVs, and also to allow business buyers a 20 per cent deduction on any new EV valued at more than $20,000.

Plus, it has committed to requiring all new federal-funded road upgrades to include charging infrastructure, and to “work with states to ensure new and refurbished commercial and residential developments include electric vehicle charging capacity”.

The current government, in contrast, continues to defend old technology. At a press conference on Monday, the energy minister, Angus Taylor, attacked Labor’s emissions targets on the basis that Australia’s vehicle fleet did not currently meet them.

“The most popular car in Australia, the Toyota HiLux, is nowhere near that … I don’t know what tradies are going to do under Labor’s policies because there is no car that can do what they need to do that they can drive,” Taylor said.

That’s true, but also beside the point, as Peter Khoury pointed out to another publication, because electric utilities already were in development and would almost certainly be available in time to meet tightened emissions standards, given the rapid pace of change.

The other point the government argues is that electric vehicles are now more expensive than traditional vehicles. It claims Labor’s target would increase the average cost of a car by almost $5000.

But the cost is falling fast, and will likely be close to parity within a few years, says Khoury. And in any case, the savings on operating costs more than make up for the purchase cost.

According to the NRMA, a car can go as far on 33 cents worth of electricity as on $1.50 worth of fossil fuel.

Of course, that doesn’t help address climate change much, if the source of that electricity is a power plant burning fossil fuel, which is why the shift to electric vehicles must happen in tandem with a shift to renewable electricity, says Oliver Yates.

Yates is the son of a Liberal MP and was himself a long-time party member, but quit the party in disgust at its failure to address climate change. He is now running as an independent against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. Most relevantly he is the former chief executive of the government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

“If we don’t want to destroy the environment and ourselves, we have to set a clear path and do these things together,” he says.

Bringing more renewables into the electricity grid is the necessary precursor to reforming the transport sector.

“You have to do that first. Then your car driving becomes cleaner, your homes become cleaner. You have to go for electrification,” says Yates.

Is it complicated? Yes. Will there be costs? Yes.

But much of the developed world is doing it, and the costs are nowhere near as great as the Coalition government, the fossil fuel industry and right-wing media claquers claim.

Yates dismisses the economic modelling the government relies on to support its argument that climate change action is prohibitively expensive. The modelling work is carried out by the fossil fuel lobby’s favourite modeller, Brian Fisher’s BA Economics.

Yates has carried out a detailed analysis of it, the details of which we need not go into. Bottom line, he says, is that it relies on a series of wildly cost-inflated assumptions. “It doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he says.

Then there are the claims made in the Murdoch media, which is running a ferocious scare campaign against the Labor climate policy.

To cite but one particular example: Sky News presenter, columnist for The Australian and former Liberal Party staffer Chris Kenny this week used a column to lament that Labor’s electric vehicle target would ruin his family’s annual Christmas drive to Adelaide.

“With the airconditioner on full bore in the December heat perhaps we’ll be able to cover 250 or 300 kilometres at a time. With a succession of three-hour stops for recharging and extra stopovers in Narrandera and Balranald we might make it across in four days,” Kenny wrote.

Clearly, the man either does not know that fast-charging technology can power up a car in just 15 minutes, or simply hoped to mislead gullible readers.

“Yes,” said one senior Labor staffer, referring to the Murdoch campaign, “it’s outrageous. We can only try to ignore it.”

What else can they do? As The New York Times elaborated in a detailed series – on the basis of 150 interviews over six months on three continents – this week: “Mr. Murdoch and his feuding sons [Lachlan and James] turned their media outlets into right-wing political influence machines that have destabilized democracy in North America, Europe and Australia.”

It further noted: “In Australia, Lachlan expressed disdain for efforts to fight climate change.”

In trying to understand why this country has been so slow to act on climate change, the dominance of the Murdoch media is without doubt a major factor, along with the efforts of the powerful fossil fuel lobby.

And yet, multiple polls tell us the Australian electorate overwhelmingly favours stronger action.

Rebecca Huntley, director at Vox Populi Research, is regularly surprised at how aware members of her focus groups are that Australia has fallen behind the rest of the world.

“It is interesting to me how often people say, ‘Well, they’re doing this in China’, or ‘This is what’s happening in India’, or ‘Uganda has completely banned plastic bags.’

“People get that lots of initiatives are happening elsewhere, and [wonder] why are we falling behind? Whenever the environment comes up, it is rare for someone not to say: ‘This happened overseas, why can’t we do it here?’ ” says Huntley.

It is not just concern about the environment and climate change she detects. “It plays interestingly into concepts of patriotism and national pride, that Australia has in the past been at the forefront of reform in a host of areas and now we’re not,” she says.

In her assessment, the government’s intractable resistance to climate change action simply reinforces people’s belief that Australia is at risk of becoming a can’t-do nation because it has a won’t-do government.

Thus, the vitriolic opposition of the right-wing commentators – such as News Corp, such as Alan Jones – will probably do the Labor Party no harm at the election. It might well help, because it highlights a significant difference between the parties.

And if that is the case, then perhaps Jones was right to tell Morrison that Monday’s climate announcement was more significant than the budget.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "All torque, not enough action". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.