Zero emissions vehicles

By Dr Sue Saunders – Vice President

Have you noticed that the air is clearer with less vehicle movements under COVID lockdown? Right now, we are experiencing a little of what it would be like if a high percentage of vehicles had zero emissions.

This article draws some of its material from a January 2021 background paper from Infrastructure Victoria entitled Tackling Victoria’s Transport Emissions.

Most people these days are well aware of the need to counteract climate change on many fronts. In the dense living conditions of a large city like Melbourne, there are at least two short term initiatives that will help reduce the production of CO2 and other noxious gases.  First, despite good intentions, we still need to plant more trees and other vegetation that absorb CO2 as well as moderating temperature extremes. The second intervention is to aim for zero emissions from all transport vehicles.

In the background paper, zero emissions vehicles are defined as those powered by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. Both types need electricity either to charge a battery or to produce hydrogen via electrolysis.  

Transport accounts for 22.9 per cent of Victoria’s emissions compared to 45.4 per cent from electricity generation. 

When there are more zero emissions vehicles, will that not mean more polluting emissions from centralised generators? One way to think about it, is to understand that emissions from vehicles are spread over a wide area. In a sense they are diffusing emissions affecting the air quality for many. Vehicles using combustion engines are inefficient, wasting a lot of energy through heat and waste products such as their polluting gases. 

On the other hand, centralised electric power generation is normally an efficient process and less costly per unit of electricity produced. Being a concentrated source of electricity, it is possible with constant improvements in design, to increase efficiency and to find ways to sequester the damaging CO2 gases. It is much easier to tackle the emissions problem at the power station compared to finding a solution for every internal combustion engine-driven vehicle.

Looking around the CBD, I see Melbourne’s iconic trams moving people around with an old technology but way ahead in being emission free. The same applies to our metro trains.  Then there are more and more electric bikes and scooters. But there are only a few electric vehicles.  

The 2020-21 Victorian Budget committed $20 million in a state-wide trial to investigate solutions to achieve a zero-emission bus fleet. The trial will run over three years, testing different technologies on buses across Victoria.

Imagine our city with all vehicles, including trucks and buses, running with zero emissions.  This would mean cleaner air, healthier people. Electric vehicles are quiet. Noise pollution is substantially reduced.  

Why is the uptake of zero emission vehicles so slow? The vehicles are too expensive? There are not enough charging facilities? Although that need not be a problem. Most people would charge their vehicle overnight, just like your laptop, phone, watch and other electronic devices. Just add the car! High-rise buildings need to ensure that car parks have electric vehicle charging facilities installed for residents.

The Victorian Government needs to think about incentives to encourage the uptake.  However, a new charge on electric vehicles is not helpful. In the 2020-21 Victorian Budget, the Victorian Government announced that Victorian owners of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will be charged a usage fee of 2.5 cents per kilometre from July 2021. The charge is intended to offset the loss of revenue collected from petrol and diesel vehicle sales. Why not only charge the “electric vehicle road tax” when the uptake has reached a significant percentage?

Jurisdictions worldwide are using a range of regulatory, financial and infrastructure incentives to promote zero emissions vehicle uptake in order to help meet their emissions reduction goals. The country with the highest zero emission vehicle market share, Norway, uses a mixture of financial and infrastructure incentives to drive uptake. Norway’s capital city, Oslo, has the highest per-capita representation of battery electric vehicles in the world, with 10 per cent of Norway’s total fleet of vehicles and more than half of new car sales being electric.

When it comes to regulatory interventions, simply removing the ability to choose a traditional internal combustion vehicle is a powerful mechanism. To date, 13 countries and 31 cities/regions have announced plans to phase out sales of internal combustion vehicles to encourage the transition to zero emissions vehicles.

Last thought – why are Australian entrepreneurs not coming up with a smaller, less costly electric vehicle? The silent, pollution-free, Aussie city car – imagine! We used to manufacture motor vehicles, didn’t we? Why not innovate to produce our own cost-effective electric vehicle? Come on Aussies, come on!

Note: Infrastructure Victoria is an independent advisory body, which began operating on October 1, 2015 under the Infrastructure Victoria Act 2015•

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