Tasmania ill-prepared for transport revolution

Tasmania has a “nation-leading” emissions profile, climate change minister Roger Jaensch said when he introduced our climate change action plan in March. The facts don’t support him and he should stop saying it. 

But as car owners we are definitely nation-leading, in all the wrong ways. The 2021 census revealed that we have 954 registered vehicles per 1000 people – nearly 100 higher than second-placed Western Australia and way beyond the national average of 783.

And this is costing us dearly. As Clare Armstrong reported yesterday in the Mercury, it costs more to own a car in Hobart than in any other Australian capital and Launceston has the worst cost-to-income ratio of all the nation’s cities.

It’s been said many times before in this space that Tasmanian emissions seem low because we use data from growing trees to offset the carbon released from chimneys and – notably – tailpipes. This hides the uncomfortable fact that carbon emissions from transport – the second highest-emitting sector behind agriculture – have not changed since the start of this century.

Having clean electricity is a good start to getting Tasmanian transport emissions trending downward. But nation-leading car ownership – that is, high dependency on private transport in a state with the lowest average personal income in the country – signals that other issues will come into play here.

Transport was easily the most commonly raised issue in public consultations for the government’s 2023-25 climate action plan. The government has put funds into a handful of charging facilities and getting electric vehicles (EVs) into public fleets, but these are just first steps in a long journey.

Electrifying the nation’s car fleet will dominate public discussion in coming years. BMW survey data released yesterday shows that while only 4 per cent of Australians currently own an electric or hybrid vehicle, 50 per cent expect their next car to be electric. The survey indicates that over a third of the nation’s fleet will be EVs by 2040. 

But how that all plays out will not be straightforward. In world-leading Norway, mass rollout of electric vehicles (EVs) – ironically funded by the export of North Sea gas and oil – includes putting charging stations everywhere, beefing up wind and hydro generation, and financial incentives to make the change. Business is finding ways of adjusting to low-maintenance EVs, with whole new industries to manage and recycle batteries, the most problematic and expensive EV component.

Buses ought to be a priority because they get cars off the road, but Tasmania’s action plan refers only to “trials” of electric buses. We need a whole new bus fleet. As Greg Barns pointed out in these pages yesterday, Tasmania’s slow and inflexible transit system is the country’s oldest and most neglected. This is the legacy of too many leaders over too many years disregarding the importance of public transport as an essential element of regional infrastructure.

Tasmania’s relatively short distances would make electric trucks using swappable batteries a viable option, but the action plan contains no substantive move in this direction either. 

The government’s “technology-led” response to climate change rides on the back of what is already happening in the world at large. It gets points for its stamp duty waiver on EV purchases, along with putting funds into a handful of charging facilities and getting EVs into public fleets. 

But with the urgency of the climate challenge now undeniable, this is complacent. Rachel Hay’s Climate Tasmania paper reported in last weekend’s Sunday Tasmanian calls for much greater urgency in rolling out better incentives to buy EVs along with investment in public transport and “active transport” (cycling and walking).

Real success will depend on cracking the hardest nuts of all, the human ones. People’s fear of change, an aversion to leaving familiar ways behind and taking up new ones, paltry public support and an unequal share of wealth… left unattended, such psychological, economic and social factors will derail EV rollout in Tasmania and everywhere else.

As Climate Tasmania pointed out in its response to the new climate laws passed in State Parliament last year, “opportunity for gradual change within existing structures has long passed and urgent action is now needed”. Minimising the inevitable economic disruption calls for active government mediation.

The Rockliff government’s unspoken rationale is that off a base of “nation-leading” emissions reduction, our response to climate change can be rolled out smoothly without job losses or dislocation. This is foolishly complacent.

Disruption is happening now, and all Tasmanians need to be brought into the discussion about how we deal with it. That’s called leadership, and right now it’s nowhere to be seen.

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