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03 May 2019

If you’ve been reading the news of late, you will have noticed a considerable uptake in attention surrounding electric vehicles, particularly from politicians. Loud noises on the topic, from both sides of politics, dominated the news for the first week of April. Is the attention warranted? Photo ops aside, will electric vehicles have significant impacts for health?

On April 1, in front of a shiny charging station in the centre of Canberra, the ALP announced its climate policy – including its plan to increase electric vehicle use. Labor’s proposal aims to ensure that 50 per cent of new car sales are electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030, and that 50 per cent of the government car fleet are EVs by 2025. The policy also includes tax incentives for businesses purchasing EVs and proposed emissions standards for all light vehicles – limiting emissions to 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre, on average.

Despite their protestations and assurances that Bill Shorten is ‘coming for your weekend’, the Coalition’s proposed climate solutions package also includes provisions for electric vehicles. It has promised a national electric vehicle strategy. Environment Department officials conceded in Senate Estimates that EV use would likely rise to between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of new cars under the Government’s plan. The Coalition Government also announced $6m of funding for a rapid charging network in 2018. Requisite shouting about the superiority of each party’s policy has ensued. 

With all this rhetoric, important points about the impact of transport emissions on health are being missed. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that about 3,000 deaths per year in Australia can be attributed to urban air pollution. Air pollution directly contributes to mortality and ill-health from stroke, heart disease, lung disease and lung cancer, and has also been linked to asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Transport emissions, which largely result from burning fuel in internal combustion engines, are particularly associated with harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides. Overall, transport is the second highest contributor to emissions in Australia, comprising 19 per cent of total emissions. However, this contribution is more pronounced in urban centres. For example, in both Sydney and Melbourne, motor vehicle emissions are responsible for the majority of air pollution, and this has significant costs for health. Researchers have estimated that motor vehicle emissions caused 1715 deaths in Australia in 2015 – a higher amount than the 2015 national road toll.

Current policies aren’t improving the situation. Australia’s cars emit 45 per cent more pollution than the OECD average, and Australia is ranked 22nd of 23 high-emitting countries on transport energy efficiency. In 2018, 0.2 per cent of new cars sold in Australia were EVs, compared to a whopping 58.4 per cent in Norway. Australian transport emissions are on the rise – they have increased by 60 per cent since 1990 and are expected to increase a further 15 per cent by 2030.       

Electric vehicles have been heralded as a solution to the transport emissions problem. According to the Climate Council, when totally powered by renewable energy, EV emissions can be as low as six grams of CO2 per km, compared to 184g/km for average new cars. But importantly, emissions from EVs vary depending on the energy source used to recharge them. Based on current power grid formulations, an EV powered on the Queensland grid would have emissions 25 per cent lower than a vehicle with a combustion engine, while an EV charged on Victoria’s brown-coal reliant grid would have higher emissions than an average new car.

Unless EVs are powered by renewable sources, all they represent is a shift in air pollution locations from congested urban roads, to electricity plants located in suburban and regional areas. EVs will have the most impact in grids powered by renewables. 

Overall, the EV story is an optimistic one. The final report of the Senate Inquiry into Electric Vehicles, released in January, found that transitioning to EVs would have more benefits than challenges, bringing economic, environmental and health advantages. Modelling by PwC estimates that a utilisation of EVs at 57 per cent of new cars by 2030 would reduce emissions by 18 million tonnes annually. If ambitious policies to encourage uptake are pursued by whichever party forms the next government, we might all enjoy the weekend fresh air in our electric utes for decades to come.  



Published: 03 May 2019