In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.
So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.
Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.
That raises the question of whether we could make a similar shift in Australia. The big barrier to complete replacement of internal combustion cars has been the prevalence of long distance driving, combined with the limited range and long recharge time for electrics. However, the latest Tesla models have reached a point wherean intercity drive (say Sydney to Brisbane, which is 950km) could be managed in a single day. The maximum electric range currently is around 500km (Tesla) and the best recharge gives 250km in 30 minutes. So, with a driving speed of 100km, and alternating 2.5 hours of driving with a 30 minute break, a long-distance trip is feasible. From a road safety viewpoint, compulsory recharging breaks would be a good thing. Of course, Teslas aren’t an affordable choice for most, but these technologies generally flow through to the mass market a few years after they appear in luxury brands.
If the government’s rhetoric about “Direct Action” meant anything, this would be the kind of policy option they would be pursuing. Of course, as with the equal marriage plebiscite, the whole point of Direct Action is as a cover for inaction. But when this lot are finally gone, Australia is going to be close to exhausting its carbon budget. Carbon pricing alone is unlikely to deliver change fast enough to reach our targets. A large scale initiative in developing infrastructure and forcing car importers to increase the share of electrics may be the only way to go.