Australians Love Their Fuel Cars

Australians Love Their Fuel Cars
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In several speeches of late, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted with a straight face that Australia is doing its bit on climate change. The claim was swiftly and thoroughly debunked. The truth is the Morrison government is piggybacking on the efforts of others, to varying degrees of success.

We saw it in electricity generation, where the federal government has rejected a string of schemes to reduce emissions. Nonetheless the electricity sector is getting cleaner as ageing coal-fired power stations are replaced by renewables. This outcome owes nothing to federal government action. It reflects state government policies and the residual effects of the previous Labor government’s Renewable Energy Target, and public pressure that forced banks and insurance companies to stop supporting fossil fuels.

In the transport sector, after decades of inaction, the government rejected recommendations from the Climate Change Authority to impose fuel efficiency standards on passenger vehicles, leaving Australia as the only OECD country without such standards. It has similarly derided action to promote the use of electric vehicles.

Instead, the Coalition is relying on the hope that carbon dioxide emission rates of Australia’s new passenger vehicle fleet will reduce over time without any effort by governments, because vehicle emissions legislation overseas, where Australia’s cars are made, is delivering technological improvements. Official projections state that some, but not all, of this improvement will flow through to Australia.

Unfortunately, this assumption is not reliable. New research shows that for the first time, fuel efficiency in Australia is getting worse, not better. In the absence of positive action from governments, transport emissions will continue to grow, and even accelerate.

Department of Environment and Energy, CC BY

A nation of car lovers, and carbon belchers

Total road travel in Australia rose from 181 billion km in 2000 to 255 billion km in 2018 – a 41% increase.

Total CO₂ emissions from road transport increased by 31% between 2000 and 2017, rising from 16% of total emissions in 2000 to 22% in 2017. With no action, transport emissions are projected to reach 111 million tonnes of CO₂ by 2030.

Emissions have grown more slowly than kilometres travelled, which suggests that improvements in fuel efficiency have partially mitigated the effect of increased travel. Reducing emissions from transport will require a stronger decline in emissions intensity (CO₂ emissions per kilometre travelled) from our vehicles. Under current policies, this will not happen.

Our assumptions are all wrong

A recent analysis by Transport Energy/Emission Research (TER) found the actual emissions intensity of new Australian passenger vehicles has stabilised and likely increased in recent years.

This finding directly contradicts projections that emissions intensity will fall without government intervention.

The chart below shows the average fleet emission rates officially reported in Europe, the US and Japan, and based on laboratory tests. When compared to these jurisdictions, Australia’s new passenger vehicles have significantly higher average CO₂ emission rates, and thus fuel consumption, than other countries, but all show a decline.

Official new private vehicle fleet average CO₂ emission rates 2000-17

Real-World CO2 Emissions Performance of the Australian New Passenger Vehicle Fleet 2008-2018, TER

Unfortunately, real-world emissions and fuel consumption deviate substantially – and increasingly – from laboratory tests that are used to produce the officially reported CO₂ figures. This discrepancy is often referred to as “the gap”. So in reality, the reduction in CO₂ emission rates is not as large as official laboratory results suggest.

There are multiple reasons for this gap, such as the laboratory test protocol itself, and strategies used by car manufacturers -and allowed by the test – to achieve lower emissions in laboratory conditions.

TER corrected the official Australian figures to reflect real world emissions. It found that carbon emission intensity stopped declining around 2014 and is now increasing. This suggests that, for the first time, fuel efficiency is no longer improving and is actually getting worse.

Official vs real-world CO₂ emission rates for Australia’s new private vehicle fleet

Real-World CO2 Emissions Performance of the Australian New Passenger Vehicle Fleet 2008-2018, TER

The upshot is that total CO₂ emissions from road transport are increasing, and will accelerate in the future.

The TER study identified the likely reasons for this: increased sales of heavy vehicles, such as four-wheel drives, and diesel cars. The latter may have a reputation for fuel efficiency, but they still emit, on average, about 10% more CO₂ than petrol cars. Australian diesel cars are, on average, about 40% heavier than petrol cars, and have 15% higher engine capacity.

The road ahead

The worsening picture in road transport emissions will increasingly drag down Australia’s efforts to meet its modest climate goals set in Paris – even with the accounting tricks the government plans to deploy to reduce the task. Of course it also means Australia is far less likely to make the much sharper emissions reductions needed by all nations to stabilise the global climate.

What can be done about this? The most obvious first step is to implement mandatory fuel efficiency or vehicle emission standards. This policy, fundamental in other countries, would significantly lower weekly fuel costs for vehicle owners.

The federal government must adjust policy settings to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles. AAP

Second, a rapid shift to electric cars will help, and increasingly so as the electricity supply transitions to renewables. Deep emission cuts are then possible.

The third is to provide better information about actual emissions. This could be achieved by restoring the large testing programs conducted in Australia up to 2008, involving hundreds of Australian vehicles over different real-world Australian test cycles which generated large databases of raw measurements.

For the moment, Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions strategy seems to be: do nothing, rely on the work of industry, state governments and other nations, and hope that nobody notices. But climate change is not going away. Dodging it now will only increase the costs we accumulate in the long run.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland and Robin Smit, Adjunct professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


  • There’s still a problem with electric cars and it’s highlighted by the type of vehicles being bought. As evidenced by the article we buy a lot of 4WDs and large vehicles. Until there is a bunch of electric alternatives to the Hilux, Landcruiser and similar people are going to continue buying them.

    And even if there are electric Hiluxes people still won’t buy them until the recharge station “grid” reaches a certain point. Heck, they may not even do so until you have recharge stations on places like Frazer Island, Cape York and Kakadu.

    And to be honest, I’d be kinda reluctant to use an electric 4WD. I’ve done creek crossing where the water was lapping over the bonnet. With a diesel and a snorkel you can do that. Not sure how reliable an electric car will be in that scenario.

    On a slightly different but related point, does transport include heavy transport? Trains, semi trailers, shipping etc? Or just cars? Because I’d imagine shipping and other heavy transport must produce a vast amount of emissions.

  • Australian’s travel long distances regularly. Especially in Perth we don’t spread east west very far (because of the granite hills) so people sprawl up the coasts. I see that it really comes down to making other methods of transport like public transport and cycling the best options for people to make. Right now a 20km commute on a bus there and back can easily take three hours a day (even 4) costing $10 a day or alternatively drive there costing about $6 in fuel and other car expenses, and taking a total of 40mins. It this were a better cheaper option I’d imagine we could really knock those CO2 values down. I don’t want a system that taxes rural/semi-rural people or forces them to upgrade all their vehicles. unfortunately most people think with their wallets, but a good example of making this work for the environment is LED lighting it’s the best financial option for most cases and reduces lighting energy by 6 times.

  • I mean the range of electric cars is slim to none right now and cost and arm and a leg to buy.

    Until we see a range on par with current cars the comparison is meaningless. It would be like writing an article proclaiming “People still love their iPhone 10” even though the 11 has only just come out.

    • The range of a typical electric city car is close to 300km, and there are plenty with over 400km of real range, like the Kia e-Niro, Hyundai Kona and, of course, most Teslas. The biggest issue isn’t range, which has been shown to be a complete non-issue for 95% of all car travel, the real issue is the total lack of support to purchase EVs.

      Most developed countries have incentives of one form or another to buy EVs, such as reduced rego, rebates etc, but not Australia, we couldn’t possibly do something so forward thinking as try and wean ourselves off the fuels that kill thousands of us every year.

      Even without incentives, TCO of EVs is pretty close to fossil stinkers, as EVs cost about on third as much per km to run and maintenance costs are almost non-existent as there’s simply nothing that needs regular maintenance except tyres every few years. Another year or two and TCO will be better than fossil cars and there will be no reason to justify buying anything other than EVs. And yes, there is a range of heavy SUVs, utes etc on the way, there will be plenty of choice in the next year or two.

      • A couple things to consider. When you buy a new car you’re creating a whole bunch of other pollution, not just the day to day “driving around” pollution. If you have a decent quality car already the environmental cost of building a new car to replace that “old petrol burner” is really high. It’s going to take years, if not decades to offset the damage you do to the environment just to make the car.

        In addition people tend to think of electric cars as zero-emission. They’re not, they just move the emissions to another point. Until we have zero-emissions power generation you’re still generating carbon by using your car. It’s just being done by that coal-fired power station. Maybe less that the emissions created by burning fuel, but still non-zero.

        Not saying, electric or low emission isn’t a good way to go for new cars. But people need to look at the whole picture, not just day to day emissions.

        I do however, agree with you on incentives on low emission cars and ultimately (in the future, not now) penalties for using petrol/diesel vehicles. I think it’s possible to also penalise/subsidise based on locality. So a farmer in remote Australia can still buy and use affordable diesel vehicles while a city dweller is encouraged to use electric.

        My take, would be to start with subsidies and in say 10 – 20 years start to bring in penalties. By penalties I mean things like increased tax of fuel, increased rego costs, not actual fines. I think that lines up with the generational change in vehicles and will probably also line up with the rise of self-driving vehicles. It needs to be a gradual process of attrition rather than a sudden deadline.

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