Australia’s surging diesel emissions from cars and utes cancel out wind and solar gains

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Growing use of diesel in utes and cars has offset nearly all the recent emissions gains from wind and solar in the main grid.

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Surging emissions from the growing use of larger diesel engines in cars and utes have almost completely offset the reductions achieved over the last seven years from wind and solar installations in the electricity grid, according to a new report.

The monthly National Energy Audit, put together by energy expert Hugh Saddler on behalf of The Australia Institute, says emissions from the burning of diesel have surged by 21.7 million tonnes from 2011 to 2018  – mostly as the result of a doubling of the use of diesel engines in light commercial vehicles such as utes and a tripling of their use in passenger vehicles.

This has almost completed eroded the decrease in emissions in the electricity sector in the same period – 22.1 million tonnes, which has been driven by the growing penetration of wind and solar at homes and businesses and in the grid.

Saddler warns that unless the diesel issue is addressed, transport emissions could overtake emissions in national electricity market within a few years.

“Focusing purely on reducing electricity emissions while failing to recognise the importance of transport emissions is taking two steps forward, one step back,” he says.

“In the 1990s diesel vehicles were viewed as better for the environment but technologies have evolved and many markets, particularly in Europe, are now moving away from diesel to cleaner alternatives through electric vehicle strategies and tightening fuel efficiency standards.

“The average diesel vehicle owner travels further than a petrol vehicle owner, and many of diesel engines have gotten larger, easily undoing the benefit of diesel as a lower CO2 polluting fuel than petrol.

“While governments have taken an active role to improve the fuel efficiency of heavy road freight vehicles …. they have done almost nothing to encourage or require increased fuel efficiency from passenger and light commercial vehicles. It should therefore be no surprise that emissions from both passenger and light commercial vehicles have grown very rapidly.”

The Coalition has been in government for more than six years, and while it has mooted measures to tighten fuel efficiency standards – Australia is the practically the only western economy not to have them for passenger vehicles – the idea was shouted down by the far right and the Murdoch media.

The Coalition government then joined the far right and the Murdoch media is shouting down Labor’s vehicle emissions policy, including its target to reach half of all new car sales being electric by 2030, even though its own emissions assumptions dialled in a similar transition.

The Coalition is due to unveil its electric vehicle policy next year, but it was interesting to note that Transport Minister Michael McCormack managed to make a 20 minute speech to an autonomous driving conference last week without ever once mentioning electric vehicles.

(McCormack’s seat of Riverina is based around Wagga Wagga and the city’s mayor last month was forced to drive the council’s new Hyundai Ioniq eletric vehicle to Sydney and back, just to show it could be done after complaints from right wing councillors and the local Murdoch media).

State governments have done little, although the ACT is now focusing on transport after reaching its target of 100 per cent renewables for its electricity supply, NSW has announced a plan to make all 8,000 buses in Sydney battery electric, and some governments have been investing in fast-charging infrastructure.

Saddler says diesel emissions have jumped because the number of utes has increased from 34 per cent in 2008 to 66 per cent in 2018, and the share of diesel fuelled passenger vehicles increased from 4.3% to 12.8% over the same period.

Diesel fuelled vehicles also travell further each year than petrol fuelled vehicles. “This is unsurprising, because one of the main factors encouraging vehicle owners choose diesel in preference to petrol fuelled vehicles is the lower fuel cost,” he says.

But there are signs that the diesel use is flattening out. Saddler is not sure of the reasons here but it could be linked to the plunge in sale of new cars, particularly passenger vehicles, over the last 18 months, which have fallen 18 per cent.

Analysts suggest there is a growing trend for car owners to hold off on new purchases until affordable electric options become available. More models are now coming into the market, and within 18 months, the first electric utes are also expected to be available.

“The average fuel consumption by light vehicles in Australia is higher than in almost all other countries and also, unlike most other comparable countries, Australia has no fuel efficiency or emissions performance standards which would require new vehicles to achieve lower fuel efficiency performance,” Saddler writes

“It is past time that the government’s refusal to give serious attention to road transport emissions received the same level of public scrutiny as its failure to seriously engage with the electricity supply system transition.”

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