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As the UK plans to phase out petrol cars, is Australia being left behind? | Environment

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It is only a matter of time until every Australian car is all-electric. But while other countries are speeding up the transition, with plans to ban petrol cars within a couple of decades, Australia is stuck debating even modest cuts to vehicle emissions, let alone policies to encourage zero-emissions cars.

But as the UK, France, India and other countries move quickly towards getting all petrol cars off the roads, could Australia’s fleet be caught up in the winds of change?

According to Michael Bradley, chief executive of the Australian Automobile Association, Australia should be cautious in embracing all-electric cars.

“All the signs point to electric vehicles making up a significant proportion of the global fleet but in Australia we have some unique challenges,” he tells the Guardian. He says the distances Australians travel and the reliance of our electricity grid on coal means electric cars are neither convenient for consumers, nor a solution to climate change.

The rise of electric cars

Recently, Stanford University economist Tony Seba made headlines with modelling suggesting no petrol or diesel cars would be sold anywhere in the world by 2025. He argued that once the shift starts – which it already has – “internal combustion engine vehicles will enter a vicious cycle of increasing costs”. He argued the combination of automation and electrification would turn the industry upside down, increasing safety, lowering maintenance and insurance costs, and leading to a world where few people owned cars, with most relying on robot electric cars hailed with apps such as Uber.

But other more conservative projections also see the transition happening quickly, if not so suddenly.

Projections by the Australian Energy Market Operator suggest as many as 45% of new cars will be electric by 2036. Other projections from the CSIRO, ANU, the Department of Environment and Energy and others put the number at between 15% and 100%.

According to Behyad Jafari, chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Association, the one thing that’s clear is that even the more optimistic projections need to be ramped up year after year.

“We saw this with the uptake of rooftop solar panels too,” says Jafari. “The people who came closest with their projections but still fell short were Greenpeace – they were laughed at for their projections.”

But Jafari says the moves in the UK, France, India and elsewhere will drive changes in the automotive industry that will affect Australia regardless of policy settings here.

Jafari said moves in the UK, which is one of the few other right-hand drive markets in the world, will have a strong impact.

“As a major right-hand drive market, auto manufacturers, particularly those based in Europe and the US do their product planning based on the needs of the UK market first, and then off the back of that they look at which models they will bring to Australia,” says Jafari.

“With the UK moving away [from internal combustion engines] by 2040, that sends a signal starting today that the investments and the advancements in technology are required.”

But so far, Australia is trailing the world with its take-up. In 2016 there were 1,369 electric vehicles sold – just 0.1% of the sales – a drop from the 2015 figure of 1,771. Fewer than half of those cars were all-electric, with the rest being plug-in hybrids.

Driver anxiety

Globally, one of the biggest concerns consumers have about electric cars is the distance they can travel between charges – and the availability of public charging stations. The concern has been labelled “range anxiety”.

Bradley says it’s a real problem in Australia. “It’s an issue for Australia given our vehicle use and how it’s different to what it is in other countries,” he says.

Since Australia is a vast continent, with large distances between cities, and with a lot of people commuting to work, electric cars might not be able to go the distance Bradley says.

But Jafari says while range is something that is of great concern to consumers, it’s mostly a misplaced worry. “People are tricked by thinking that because we have a large country that we drive long distances. In fact we fly long distances and drive relatively short ones,” he says.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics seems to support Jafari’s argument. In 2016, the majority of drivers drove less than 30km per day. And 99% of drivers drove less than 160km a day – a distance some electric cars could do on half a charge and one all would easily achieve on one charge.

Bradley says those figures don’t account for what people do on weekends – when they might drive out of town. For those drives, he said, people would need to charge along the way. And again, given Australia’s vast size, charging infrastructure is expensive to deploy.

Technology available today would seem to satisfy most consumer needs, however. A Tesla Model S can drive 426 km on one charge, meaning it could easily drive between Sydney and Canberra on a single charge.

And with just two quick charges of less than 30 minutes along the way, it could drive from Sydney to Melbourne.

Installing fast-charging stations along highways will alleviate range-anxiety, and that’s what has started to happen.

This week the Queensland government launched its planned “electric super highway”, which will be a 1,600km stretch dotted with super-fast charging stations along the way. When completed in just six months time, electric vehicle owners will be able to drive from far north Queensland to the border of NSW without being more than 100km from a charging station.

Proposed charging stations in Queensland

Jafari says he’s not concerned about public charging infrastructure since he thinks businesses will jump in and build that as soon as there’s confidence in the electric car market growing in Australia.

He says the key thing that will shift the take-up of electric cars in Australia will be the availability of models under $60,000 and closer to the $25,000 range. That will be more likely as more such models are made for the UK market, but how fast it happens will depend on Australian policies such as the controversial emissions standards.

Environmental motives

Many consumers who are considering electric cars have environmental concerns at the front of their minds.

When it comes to air quality concerns, there’s no question electric cars are the best option. “Obviously electric vehicles are a clear winner on that front,” says Bradley.

But Bradley says in the Australian context, when it comes to climate change and emissions of CO2, electric cars are not a solution. “Driving an electric car on Australia’s grid at the moment is dirtier than driving a comparable petrol car.”

Australia’s electricity grid relies heavily on coal, making it highly emissions intensive.

According to the Australian government’s Green Vehicle Guide, a Tesla Model S, for example, might put out zero emissions, but it produces about 185g of CO2 per kilometre when the lifecycle of its fuel (in this case electricity) is considered.

But Jafari argues that’s not a fair comparison, since a Tesla Model S is a performance car – with acceleration similar to some of the fastest sports cars on the market.

In addition, Jafari says there are a multitude of ways of charging electric vehicles with electricity from renewable sources.

Queensland’s electric highway will be powered with renewable energy, for example, and most public charging stations purchase green energy. AGL has also launched a $1 a day car charging plan for home charging, which is sourced from emissions-free sources.

“The energy industry is decarbonising and, without a shift towards electrification of vehicles, leaves the benefits of that on the table – we’ll produce more green energy but leave our cars powered by fossil fuels,” Jafari says.

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