The Morrison government has ruled out subsidies to encourage people to buy electric or hybrid vehicles, and assumes they will be adopted at a pace that would lead to greenhouse gas emissions from transport increasing over the next decade.
A “future fuels strategy” discussion paper released on Friday is largely consistent with a leaked draft in December. It does not include policies to make it more affordable to buy electric vehicles (EVs) or a phase-out date for the sale of new fossil fuel cars, as some other countries have announced.
The government said its focus would be installing EV charging and hydrogen car refuelling stations where needed, encouraging businesses that wanted to include more low-emissions cars in their fleets and giving Australians “access to the right information to help them make informed choices’’.
The paper notes the government’s emissions projections in December forecast that battery EVs would make up 26% of new car sales by 2030.
The projections report found that pace of adoption would be associated with a 6% increase in transport emissions over the decade to 2030, a time in which the government is committed to cutting emissions and scientists and some global leaders, including US president Joe Biden, are urging much deeper cuts than currently planned.
The emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said the government’s policy was based on the principle people should be empowered to make decisions about new technologies. “Australians should be able to choose the type of car they drive,” he said.
The policy was sharply criticised by advocates and analysts who argue a rapid uptake of EVs is necessary for Australia to play its part in combating the climate crisis.
Richie Merzian, the climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute, said: “This is a climate policy that will ensure emissions continue to rise.”
The Electric Vehicle Council said the discussion paper was a “flaccid, do-nothing document” that would prevent Australians getting access to the range of EVs available in other countries.
The council’s chief executive, Behyad Jafari, compared Australia’s approach with what he said were accelerating incentive programs for EVs in other countries. He cited the British Conservative government’s allocation of more than $1bn in subsidies for EV buyers and charging stations as it attempts to phase out new fossil fuel cars by 2030.
He said a rapid transition to EVs would lead to cleaner air, cut emissions and free the country from “our insecure dependence on foreign oil imports”.
“Global leaders from Biden to Boris [Johnson] are rushing to accelerate their transition to electric vehicles, but Angus Taylor reckons he knows something they don’t,” Jafari said.
EVs make up only 0.6% of new car sales in Australia, less than nearly all comparable countries, and it is one of few nations without emissions or fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars.
The government announced plans for a national EV strategy in February 2019, before the last federal election. That was replaced last year with a broader approach that also covers hydrogen fuel-cell and biofuel powered vehicles.
It has rejected introducing fuel efficiency standards, which would involve setting a target to lower the average emissions from the national vehicle fleet, despite a departmental analysis in December 2016 finding the benefits in savings on fuel and reduced emissions would outweigh the costs under all scenarios examined.
Taylor said on Friday modelling had showed a fuel efficiency standard of 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre, which Labor had proposed before the last election following the 2016 departmental analysis, would increase the cost of cars by $4,863 and “force people out of the cars they love and into EVs”. He did not mention the finding that the overall benefits would outweigh the costs.
The minister confirmed a budget pledge of $74.5m to be mostly spent on the rollout of charging infrastructure, but said the discussion paper showed direct subsidies would not be value-for-money for taxpayers as they were an expensive way to cut emissions. He said the cost would be reduced if commercial fleets switched to using cleaner cars as it would help build a second-hand market.
Taylor said the paper also showed plug-in hybrid cars would have immediate emissions reduction benefits above EVs in most parts of Australia due to the high-level of emissions from Australia’s electricity grid.
But Simon Holmes à Court, a senior adviser to the Climate and Energy College at Melbourne University and clean energy commentator, said this was a flawed analysis as it assumed a vehicle life of only five years, rather than a typical 15 years.
It also did not factor in that people often charged EVs from their own rooftop solar panels, and that the three biggest EV charging networks in the country offered 100% zero emissions power, he said.
“You have to work hard to make electric vehicle emissions look bad, and Angus Taylor has put in those hard yards,” Holmes à Court said.
Taylor said Australians were “already making the choice to switch to new vehicle technologies where it makes the most economic sense”, with hybrid sales doubling last year.
“We are optimistic about how quickly the technology cost will reduce for other electric vehicles compared to traditional cars, making it an easier choice for consumers,” he said.
Australia has become increasingly isolated on its approach to the climate crisis, with more than 100 countries having supported a mid-century net zero emissions target, a goal the government has to date resisted.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, this week said he wanted to meet net zero emissions “preferably by 2050” through low-emissions technology, not by imposing new costs, but has not explained how the government’s technology approach could get there.
The government has invited submissions on the transport discussion paper until 2 April, with a final policy promised mid-year.