Transport emissions continue to rise as Australia lags behind other nations

Exclusive: inaction on pollution standards leads to 63% rise in transport-related carbon emissions since 1990, report finds

Rush hour traffic in Melbourne
Rush hour traffic in Melbourne. Australia ranks behind Russia and Mexico in green transport efficiency due to policy inaction, a new report has found. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Australia is lagging behind other developed nations in the race to curb greenhouse gas emissions from transport, according to a new report.

The report from the Climate Council, due to be released on Thursday, finds that Australia’s transport-related emissions have continued to rise because of policy inaction.

The nation’s move to electric vehicles has been hampered by a lack of incentives and a lack of mandatory pollution standards for vehicles, which have been implemented in almost all other OECD countries.

“We’ve been having a big national debate about electricity sector emissions,” said senior climate and energy solutions analyst Petra Stock, “but [we] really wanted to draw attention to the growing problem of greenhouse gas pollution from the transport sector.”

Calling for the government to implement a climate and transport policy plan, the report said Australia ranked behind Russia, Mexico and Indonesia on transport efficiency due to high polluting cars, high car use, a low share of trips taken by public transport, and low capital spending on public transport compared to roads.

Transport is the nation’s second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution after electricity, the report says. Transport-related greenhouse gas pollution levels increased by 3.4% in the 12 months to December 2017. Since 1990, they have increased by 62.9%, a higher rate than any other sector.

“Australia’s transport emissions or transport greenhouse gas pollution levels have been steadily rising and are projected to continue going up,” the report said.

“Factors such as population growth have led to a higher number of cars on the road, while increased demand for freight is also driving up truck emissions.”

Other findings included that:

  • Nearly 87% of Australian commuters travel to work by car

  • Transport makes up 18% of all greenhouse gas pollution in Australia (electricity is the largest source at 33%)

  • Road-based transport pollution contributes to a greater proportion of emissions in Australian than the global average

  • Domestic air travel alone makes up 9% of Australian transport emissions

Energy policy paralysis continues in Canberra, exacerbated by the Morrison government’s decision to ditch the national energy guarantee.

Since 2015, the government has been consulting on mandatory fuel emissions standards, which have been in place for at least a decade in the US, Japan and China.

The report said if strict standards were introduced, Australia could prevent up to the equivalent of 65m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

“This is equivalent to the annual emissions from seven Liddell power stations. Urgency is key. Mandatory emissions standards have wider benefits, reducing fuel bills for car owners, saving an estimated $8,500 over a vehicle’s lifetime.”

The report said Australian cars pollute more per kilometre than other comparable countries. The lack of mandatory emissions standards was a factor, but so was vehicle size and the purchasing decisions made by individuals, business and government fleet buyers.

Stock said the government had already done the work required to “put these greenhouse gas emissions standards in place for vehicles and bring Australia in line with 80% of the global car market”.

“But we need to do it as soon as possible because these standards work as people replace their cars over time,” she said.

“It takes time for these standards to drive down emissions in the transport sector. So the sooner they are in place, the greater effect they will have on transport pollution.”

The report said the adoption of electric vehicles in Australia had been held back by “the lack of policy support or incentives, higher upfront cost, limited choice of available electric vehicles for sale in Australia, and the availability of public vehicle charging infrastructure”.

In New Zealand, which has a target of 64,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2021, there were 3,659 new electric cars sold in 2017, compared with only 2,284 in Australia, the report said.

It also calls on the government to focus on improving public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure, praising initiatives such as Melbourne’s move to a solar power tram network.