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Why electric vehicles aren’t the only way forward in transport decarbonisation

Electric vehicles have been heralded as the transport sector’s greatest chance at decarbonisation, but is Australia putting too many eggs in the EV basket?

The decarbonisation of industry has long been seen as a crucial part of Australia’s sustainable future but, as it stands, that future is now.

Electric vehicles, whether that be in heavy vehicle industry, public and personal transportation, or light vehicle commercial operations are seen as the spearhead of this move forward into more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices, but after that spear tip, what comes next?

Hydrogen is being floated as a potential long-term sustainable fuel option all over the globe, however with American company Hyzon recently announcing its intention to pull out of the Australia/New Zealand and European markets, it’s clear that is not yet an immediate solution to this complex decarbonisation question.

Then there is the discussion around the implementation of low carbon liquid biofuels – a discussion the federal government recently opened up with the commencement of a formal consultation process on the industry which is set to cost $18.5 million from the wider $22.7 billion Future Made in Australia scheme.

While there is progression on these other decarbonisation alternatives, the uptake of electric vehicles – the flag bearing technology in this space – in Australia has been slow, and a recent Climateworks Centre report indicated the need for a diverse approach to eventual decarbonisation of the transport sector.

VIEW DECARBONISING AUSTRALIA’S TRANSPORT SECTOR: DIVERSE SOLUTIONS FOR A CREDIBLE EMISSIONS REDUCTION PLAN HERE

Climateworks Centre Senior Project Manager (Transport) Lily Rau is the lead author of the report and says the widened approach to decarbonising the transport industry needs to not only be maintained, but even further broadened.

“As transport emissions continue to ramp up now is the time to be diversifying solutions, rather than placing our eggs in the one EV basket,” Rau told ATN.

“Transitioning to zero-emission vehicles is an indispensable part of reducing transport emissions, true, but Australia doesn’t have to wait until there is an EV in every driveway to turn things around for transport emissions.

“The shift starts with using the existing transport networks and services more efficiently. The benefit of using what we have more efficiently means there is less need to build additional infrastructure.

“Transitioning the existing vehicle fleet is a critical step, but it only forms part of what is needed. There are other opportunities that also need to be unlocked to create more ways to successfully keep emissions reductions on track.”

Climateworks’ report utilised the internationally recognised Paris Agreement’s target of limiting a maximum global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels before reaching net zero emissions globally by 2050.

Former Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, signed the treaty in 2016, which signalled Australia’s intent to be bound to and reach these goals.

Since then, EV uptake – both in personal use and industrial use – has been slower than anticipated in the country, however it seems to be slowly but surely gathering strong momentum. Rau says the diversification of solutions, while necessary, does not mean Australia should lose focus of its EV goals.

“1.5°C is the globally held standard for credible climate action and our best chance at a safe and prosperous world,” Rau continues.

“For Australia, aligning with 1.5°C will take a step change in emissions reduction ambition for the economy as a whole and in the transport sector.

“The New Vehicle Efficiency Standard (NVES) was passed by parliament in May 2024, and the rate of light vehicle uptake is likely to improve once it is implemented.

“However, our analysis estimates the NVES would not sufficiently reduce light vehicle emissions to align with a 1.5°C trajectory in its current form.

“Expanding the focus of transport decarbonisation to reduce travel and use more sustainable modes doesn’t mean we lose track of EV goals.

“Australia has everything to gain from pushing hard on ZE light vehicle uptake, as solutions already exist.”

Image: Supplied – Climateworks Centre

There has been at least one specific instance of a huge win in ZE light vehicle uptake within Australia’s transport industry in recent days, with the announcement ANC had received funding to implement 112 new battery electric vehicles in its last mile delivery sector.

ANC has been operating as a delivery service in Australia for over 100 years and counts some of Australia’s biggest retail brands as clients, including Bunnings Warehouse, JB HI FI and IKEA.

ANC CEO Joe Sofra labelled the $12.8 million investment as a “vote of confidence” in the company’s decarbonisation plan, which includes the statement “the future of last mile delivery is electric”.

Until then, though, Rau believes a diverse approach across the entire industry will help Australia not only meet its net zero targets, but also change the face of the transport industry for good.

Image: Supplied – Climateworks Centre

“In 2050 transport will make up nearly a quarter of electricity demand, which means the transport sector can have a big impact on overall demand,” Rau says.

“In our ‘Technology Only’ scenarios, electricity demand will increase from ~7 TWh (terawatt hours, a unit that represents one trillion watt hours) to ~221 TWh by 2050.

“This includes electricity for charging all types of vehicles, powering rail systems and generating hydrogen.

“In contrast, ‘Diverse Solutions’ sees a nine per cent lower electricity demand by 2050.

“Nine per cent is 20 TWh less which is significant. It’s nearly three times the electricity used by the transport sector today.

“Good transport planning and decarbonisation planning go hand in hand. Solutions that increase transport choice, reduce congestion and make travel more efficient and convenient are also solutions that reduce emissions.”

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