Preparing for a new transport future

We need electric transport, and we need everyone to be involved. Good government requires comprehensive planning for a just transition.

An affluent society like ours is full of technologies that delude us into thinking we’re in charge of our lives, and the example that first comes to mind is the car. For most Australians, life without one would be unthinkable.

The advertising hype – fingertip mastery over the universe in a sleek, shiny capsule – conceals the fact that people’s passion for cars contributes significantly to global warming. In Australia cars and light commercial vehicles produce over 60 per cent of transport emissions.

With the US and Canada, we are among the three biggest car-users in the world, and one of the worst performers in transport efficiency, or distance covered per person per litre of fuel burned, behind countries like Indonesia, Russia and Mexico.

Tasmania’s clean hydro electricity means that road transport makes up a higher proportion of total emissions than any other state. But while the cars on our roads have become more fuel-efficient over the past decade, our transport emissions have been virtually unchanged for many years.

This year Climate Tasmania, a small voluntary group of which I am a member, has developed a legislative framework for a strong Tasmanian climate change response. It is seeking a non-partisan parliamentary process to transform this into workable, effective legislation.

Prominent in our proposal is a mechanism for managing the changeover to clean transport. This is no trivial matter. A car is one of the most expensive items in any household inventory. If half the population ends up stranded with a fossil-fuelled clunker, we’re all in trouble.

We are proposing that an energy transition authority be set up to manage the shift to a clean economy. It would regulate public reporting of fossil fuel use by bigger industry players, reduce adverse impacts and identify business opportunities, while also safeguarding equity.

We envisage that government will lead this process by facilitating take-up of electric vehicles, encouraging a second-hand EV market and supporting the rollout of recharging stations.

For all its ultimate benefits including much cheaper transport, the inevitable transition to clean transport will be a massive economic disruption for our island state. Without a firm government hand on the tiller, this will be too much for some to handle.

The Hodgman government was notably absent from this scene until recently, but the latest report released by its Climate Change Office last week shows promising signs that it’s starting to respond.

The government’s “Charge Smart” program offers over $500,000 in grants for 26 new strategic charging stations in a state-wide EV network. It is also offering funding to help government (state and local) and commercial vehicle fleets reduce emissions and costs while preparing for EV uptake.

No doubt aware of potential government support, others are already acting. Gerry White, a veteran sustainability activist in Kingborough and Huon municipalities, reported “a good level of interest” from Upper House MPs this month on proposals by Circular Economy Huon for ride-sharing and other measures to combat traffic congestion.

The CEH submission highlighted the futility of increasing road space in the face of ever-rising car numbers and the high cost of rural public transport. It revives the idea of car-pooling, tried in 2008 in Georgi Marshall’s innovative CoolPool Tasmania, but this time with government incentives.

Car-pooling is a good idea regardless of the kind of vehicle used, but moving to an electric car in the absence of a transition plan is another level of commitment altogether. New EVs cost a minimum of around $45,000. I’ve never been able to afford one.

Tasmanian-based Good Car Company is aiming to break that impasse by offering used EVs at a relatively affordable price. Now it’s teaming up with groups like Circular Economy Huon and the South Hobart Sustainable Community to offer second-hand vehicles, acquired in bulk from Japan, at around half their original price.

Between two and six years old, these cars are not exactly for the highway– the longest range you can get out of their fully-charged batteries is 159 km – but they are ideal commuter vehicles. Unlike petrol and diesel cars, EVs are most economical in stop-start city traffic.

Savings increase over time. Energy for EVs costs well under half that for fossil-fuelled equivalents, a 2019 Victorian study found, and with almost no moving parts EVs are very cheap to maintain. Longer-range batteries and more fast-charge stations will secure their place in our transport future.

Many Tasmanians are primed and ready to go, but if this is to happen at scale it must have clear and strong support from government. That surely can’t be far away.

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