Cuba is often branded as the “land that time forgot” or the “Jurassic Park for cars” – a country where you can reportedly find Soviet-era Ladas on the streets, along with ageing Austins and wing-finned luxury American sedans of the 1950s.
That moniker was achieved by the closed-door policy of Castro’s communist regime, and economic sanctions, which effectively closed the door to new models and technology.
But what chance does Australia have of becoming a similar living museum – of petrol and diesel cars – self imposed by political inertia as the rest of the world passes it by in the rush to take up electric vehicles?
Don’t laugh. Cry. It’s a real possibility.
As Mark Butler, Labor’s spokesman for climate change, notes, Australia is about the only OECD country in the world that has no emissions or fuel standards on its cars.
That means, as the Climate Change Authority pointed out in a report that has sat on the Coalition government’s desks for four years, that Australians are paying about $7,000 more than they need to over the life of their cars.
Worse, the same right wing that has fought against climate action, a carbon price, renewable energy, and latterly battery storage, is now targeting EVs, just as the technology is emerging to challenge existing models and technologies.
Australia ranks a distant last among western countries in the uptake of EVs, and as a new report from The Australia Institute notes, its emissions from cars, particularly diesel, are soaring. (See table above).
Even visitors to developing countries like Sri Lanka are stunned by the range and availability of EVs. In Australia, however, the take-up is just 0.2 per cent, a tenth of what it is in nations like the US, UK and Europe, and one-hundredth of leading countries like Norway.
The fear now is that the transition to EVs, rather like the efforts on emissions and energy, will become another political football.
Any number of reports – from the NRMA, the Climate Change Authority, The Australia Institute, Climateworks, and the newly formed Australian Electric Vehicle Council – have pointed to the need and benefit of a smart policy on vehicle emissions, and EVs themselves.
The federal Coalition government – through the likes of environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg – has raised the issue, noting the global trends. But tentative steps have been slapped down by conservative media and internal dissent from MPs fearing a “carbon tax on wheels.”
And it is set to become yet another major difference between the major parties as they enter the next federal election campaign.
When RenewEconomy sat down on Tuesday for an interview with Butler, he was carrying around a big dossier on EV reports, analysis and policy proposals in his briefcase, as he helps put together Labor’s policy position.
“I hope not”, Butler says when asked if Australia – already a dumping ground for vehicles that cannot be sold in other markets due to their poor fuel and emissions standards – could emerge as latter-day Cuba, a living museum of the internal combustion engine.
“Sometimes I listen to the likes of Barnaby Joyce and other Coalition MPs who say things like they would rather die in a ditch on the side of road rather than see EVs come into Australia.
“I wonder what they see as the future of transport in this country being.”
Butler, in that interview with RenewEconomy that you can listen to on our podcast channel here, notes that there has been the “most extraordinary shift in consciousness about EVs over last three years.
“Everyone who watches this space understand how far behind the curve Australia is,” Butler says.
“The technology change in the last couple of years has been extraordinary. You see the big global car makers shift all their R&D dollars from petrol to electric vehicles … it just gives the sense this could change very quickly.
“The real risk is that while the car industry goes through this transition, if we continue to pull cardigans over the head, as Barnaby Joyce and others would have us do, Australia will not have access to the newest model.”
Butler says Labor is planning its own major policy on EVs heading into the coming federal election, but says – despite that dossier in his briefcase – the party has yet to come to a landing point.
“We’ve made it clear that we want an ambitious transport policy to take to the next federal election that recognises that the car industry has shifted … we want to make sure that consumers in Australia have access to new models.”
Butler notes that in South Australia, which is effectively majority powered by renewable energy, transport has now emerged as the largest source of emissions.
This same changing emissions profile has driven the ACT government to switch its focus from electricity to transport – now that its 100 per cent renewable energy target is all but met – to ensure road transport profits from the clean power generated by wind and solar.
Butler says the shift to EVs will be the “most significant change in land transport since the shift from the horse and carriage. “
He also points to the emergence of automation, and research by the likes of UBS, which suggests the number of car sales around the world will collapse by half as shared “robo-vehicles” emerge.
“This will profoundly change a whole range of things,” Butler says, pointing to reduced accidents, deaths and injuries, improvement in the quality of people’s lives, and the impact on cities.
What, for instance, would become of the parking lots and subterranean car parks in a world with shared vehicles? But he also points to the need to manage this transition, and ensure that the different needs of regional Australia are also taken into account.
“The cities have particular dynamics in them. Regional Australia has quite unique dynamics. We need to have transport technology that continues to meet the needs of regional Australia.”
The big fear, however, is that transport will move more and more to the front line of the climate wars.
“I struggle to explain the reaction that some from the hard right in the Coalition give to developments in transport …. They tend … to grasp on to technology developments and see as them some sort of Leftist conspiracy.”