Last year, I made some predictions about the long-delayed ‘future fuels’ strategy that Australia’s federal Energy and Environment Minister Angus Taylor was set to release at some point in, well, the future.
First, that Taylor would rely heavily on presenting his plan as enabling “choice” for consumers, trying to create a distinction between his policies and what he would present as ‘interventionist’ style policies. Second, that the plan would follow the structure of every climate policy so far, in that it either tinkers around the edges, or actively worsens the problems by locking in fossil infrastructure, or both.
We should, first of all, set a benchmark for what this policy is trying to do.
We can have a look at what Australia’s transport emissions have done, including the impacts of Covid19, and compare that to what Climate Action Tracker estimates is the required emissions reductions to get to 1.5°C of warming (Scott Morrison’s “preferred” net zero by 2050) – a 20% reduction of transport emissions, compared to the 2005 baseline of 80 megatonnes of CO2-e.
That’s a hard limit of 66 MTCO2-e by 2030 and a gap between the projections that adds up to 208 MTCO2-e over the next 10 years.
We’ve been waiting for the Future Fuels report for months, but the future is now – today in fact. Taylor has released a discussion paper for the plan, in all its glory. No, it does not fill the gap. It does – would you believe – frame the entire project as one in which Taylor is granting the gift of Freedom to Australia’s citizens. I told you so.
It also argues strongly in favour of locking in fossil fuel infrastructure, by leaning on hybrids as the preferred technology – slowing down the transition away from fossil fuels as much as possible and, likely, worsening Australia’s problems.
Angus Taylor, if you recall, isn’t a friend of the electric vehicle. In 2019, he tweeted a video claiming that a Nissan Leaf had run out of battery – turns out the footage was faked. And there’s this classic:
— Angus Taylor MP (@AngusTaylorMP) April 6, 2019
So just how bad is the damage?
Hybrids as a lifeline for a dying fossil industry
The report goes hard on hybrids – vehicles that use a combination of a battery and a fossil fuel engine – as the best option for Australia to decarbonise its vehicle fleet.
“Hybrids also have immediate emissions reduction benefits, even over battery electric vehicles, across parts of Australia. Currently, driving a hybrid in many Australian states has a lower emissions intensity profile than driving a battery electric vehicle (see Attachment A). In New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, consumers will have a lower emissions impact driving a hybrid over a battery electric vehicle. Only in South Australia and Tasmania does driving a battery electric vehicle have a significantly lower emissions impact than a hybrid.”
Attachment A is a chart highlighting the fact that if you plug an EV into a very dirty grid, that electricity is associated with very high emissions. This bit really makes my head spin.
To make the argument that grid is too dirty while the government actively tries to make the grid dirtier – worsening emissions intensity by building either new coal or new gas-fired power stations, and blocking and delaying the growth of zero emissions alternatives – is truly galling.
Australia’s grid emissions would be far, far lower had Angus Taylor and his government not spent the better part of a decade railing against renewables. And now he is now citing his government’s own failure to decarbonise the grid as a reason to buy a party fossil fuelled car instead of a future-ready one.
The authors have used an average predicted emissions intensity of the grid between 2021 to 2025. This is sourced from the Department of Environment’s 2020 projections, and the 2021 ‘Green Vehicle Guide‘, for the ‘grams per kilometre’ of the Nissan Leaf.
My first question is, of course, why did they pick the next four years, when purchasing a car is a decade-long decision? Replicating their chart, but expanding it outwards for a decade, we can immediately see why: the decarbonisation of the grid means that EVs beat out the hybrid they’ve chosen in the NEM and Australia by 2026, in most states by 2028 and in all states bar Queensland by 2030:
Oddly enough, Taylor’s modelling includes ‘scope 3’ emissions in this grid intensity. That’s the emissions associated with transporting coal and gas to power stations, etc. While it’s nice Taylor is acknowledging the sheer climate harm from fossil fuels, it is not normally included in grid intensity calculations like this, and if we only use the emissions from burning fuels to generate power, the chart looks like this:
Yep – every single jurisdiction in Australia is cleaner for EVs from 2028, including Queensland. Every new hybrid will still be puttering along when, across the entire country, it becomes far cleaner to charge an EV.
The deception is worse than this, really. The 2020 projections assume a ‘middle’ scenario that is actually quite pessimistic about renewable energy growth. In reality, it is turning out that the grid’s true ‘middle’ scenario is one of much faster growth in renewable energy, and rapid falls in emissions intensity. “We are headed for step change”, said the Energy Security Board’s Kerry Schott.
This is a reference to AEMO’s 2020 Integrated System Plan (ISP), which includes a range of scenarios for the NEM’s emissions intensity, and ‘step change’ is the fastest. And we can see, if we use that ‘step change’ scenario, which seems likely, the NEM emissions intensity of a Nissan Leaf falls below the Corolla hybrid within four years (including a Scope 3 multiplier, just to play by their rules):
The decarbonisation of grids and the electrification of transport, homes and industry need to occur in tandem. In pretending that one is static to argue against the other, Taylor is badly fumbling the climate task before him by intentionally obscuring the changes happening in the grid.
Of course, this is a perfect analogue to the old argument held by Taylor that the best way to reduce emissions on the grid was to build lots more gas, rather than building lots more renewables. Hybrids are the ‘gas’ of the transport sector – the ‘transition’ fuel/car – so it makes sense they’re the centrepiece of his transport strategy.
Recreating the renewable attacks of the 2010s
There is an obvious reason why any actual, transparent modelling of emissions in Australia’s transport sector is excluded from this report. ‘Choice’ is mentioned 19 times, climate is mentioned twice (once in a hyperlink). The goal here is to make this into an argument, not about climate but about clumsy modelling of ‘costs of abatement’.
There is plenty of cost modelling in the report, too much to go into here. But the narrative is extremely familiar: EVs are far too expensive, and subsidising them would be a sin against the Free Market, and Choice. This is, of course, precisely what Angus Taylor said about renewable energy – before the world’s subsidy schemes resulted in mass deployment, which then caused a drop in the price of the machines.
“It’s clear this is an expensive way to reduce emissions”, Taylor said about renewable energy, in 2014, in the video above. “Bridging the total cost of ownership gap over the 10-year lifespan of a battery electric vehicle purchased today would be high and cost around $195-747 per tonne,” says Taylor’s department, in the Future Fuels discussion paper. Rhymes perfectly.
As RenewEconomy wrote a full eight years ago:
“One of the Liberal Party’s star recruits, Angus Taylor, from the consulting firm Port Jackson partners, has issued a detailed report recommending that the RET be diluted because of the ‘high cost’ of abatement from wind farms, and even suggests that gas-fired generation be included in the RET.”
Taylor compares decarbonising using EVs to the government’s ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’ cost of abatement, which he says is much lower, and concludes the only way forward is to simply sit back and wait for the cost of EVs to fall. The report cites the government’s own 2020 projections that EVs will be at a market share of 26% by 2030; presumably as some sort of reassurance that technology and the free market mean everything will just kind of fall into place.
What does that translate to, in terms of the number of EVs on the road? Almost nothing. This is why the 2020 projections just show a straight line upwards – new EVs seep into the system incredibly slowly without government intervention:
The goal here is to go as slow as possible – extending the final decades of the fossil fuel and petrochemical companies as long as possible. Producing long discussion papers and plans, creating diagrams, ‘investigating’ innovations and holding roundtables all serve as replacements for taking action to protect Australians from the harm of fossil fuels.
While Taylor denies any government assistance for ordinary citizens wanting to purchase an EV, big businesses and commonwealth fleets will see immediate and large-scale government intervention. It’s marketed as a “fleet first” strategy, based on the cost calculations in the report. This gives plenty of ‘choice’ to business and politicians, but ensures citizens remain locked out of decarbonisation – obviously, the bulk of emissions are with citizens and private cars, so this is topsy turvy. There is a smattering of reasonable programs like investigations into grid charging and support for charging networks in there too. But these enabling technologies are presented as if they’re the main show.
What is clear is that transport emissions don’t fall without aggressive government action. In Norway, where I live, it has taken a range of ambitious government policies to ensure EVs are price-matched with fossil cars – not just for “fleets”, but for everyone. By pricing in the social, environmental and health impacts of fossil burning cars, it has actually created choice. In cities, like Oslo, a range of initiatives are also allowing people to choose not to drive, including new bike lanes, better walkability and safer streets through car free zones. I have the freedom to not breathe in substances that kill me. That’s actual freedom.
The UK’s 2030 ban on fossil engines is there for a reason: it makes the flow of EVs into the stock much, much faster. Akshat Rathi from Bloomberg NEF recently wrote that “without the ban or other incentives, EVs would make up 42% of U.K.’s new car market in 2030 and 56% in 2035….simply relying on market forces would mean the country blows past its climate goal,” adding that 13 other countries having set clear fossil car bans dates. The free market won’t, on its own, reduce emissions as much as is needed to align with climate goals. You need to push.
Angus Taylor has done exactly what was predicted here. The gap between projected emissions and the target remains. He has framed any real effort to reduce emissions as an attack on freedom. The continued worsening of air pollution deaths and sickness, climate impacts, the massive risks of relying on an imported fuel that’s subject to major disruption, and the sheer inefficiency and wastefulness of fossil cars – these are all presented as the spoils of ‘freedom’. It’s a carbon copy of his anti-renewable campaign from the 2010s; framing EVs as ‘expensive abatement’ and arguing half-effort can take us all the way.
It’s another notch of failure on what’s gearing up to be one of the worst years in Australia’s climate policy history. How embarrassing.