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By Kate Cranney 30 July 2020 7 min read

We’re throttling down. We’ve got the handbrake on. For many of us, our cars have been sitting idle during the COVID-19 lockdown. Our streets are quieter, and transport emissions have temporarily plummeted. The state of global lockdown is not sustainable, but it also presents opportunities for the future.

Transport accounts for over 18 per cent of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. (Image: HTO2008)

That (not so) new car smell: transport emissions in Australia

The transport sector accounts for 18.9 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Light vehiclesthe cars we drive about town—make up 10 per cent of our total emissions.

Australia is the only OECD country without mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for road passenger vehicles and mandatory vehicle emission standards. These are in place in the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea and India. Australia’s per capita transport emissions are 45 per cent higher than the OECD average.

Without emission or fuel economy standards, vehicles sold in Australia are generally less efficient, and more costly to run, than the same model sold in the UK.

How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected the transport sector?

Lockdown has been tough on the economy, but it has had some dramatic effects on emissions and the transport sector.

The lockdown has temporarily put the brakes on global emissions and sparked a renewable energy experiment. The fall in road traffic was a main driver of the global emissions decline. There has also been a reduction in fuel demand: the June 2020 National Energy Emissions Audit reported that the consumption of road vehicle and aviation fuels have been dramatically reduced.

In contrast, the numbers of people cycling and walking during the lockdown has skyrocketed. International cities are expanding their bike lanes and public paths to accommodate extra cycling traffic, and some Australian cities, like Melbourne, have followed suit.

With fewer cars on the road, there are also improvements in air quality and associated health benefits. A recent study found ‘remarkable declines’ in the concentration of air pollution. If these lockdown-induced changes in pollutant concentration continue for all of 2020, the study estimated we could avoid near a million premature deaths and 1.6 (0.8 to 2) million paediatric asthma cases, globally.

Then there are other, rather unexpected silver-linings. As lockdown keeps drivers at home, there is less road kill and wild animals, emboldened by quiet streets and a lack of cars, have returned to suburbs around the world.

Fewer Australians have bought cars this year, mirroring a global decline in sales of vehicles. (Image: Sacha Fernandez via Flickr) ©  Sacha Fernandez

Has COVID-19 affected which cars Australians buy?

Unsurprisingly, fewer Australians have bought cars this year. Records show a steep decline: sales were down 17.9 per cent in March, down 48.5 per cent in April and down 35.3 per cent in May. June represents the 27th consecutive month of decreasing sales for the automotive industry in Australia. This mirrors a global drop in vehicle sales.

Fewer Australians are buying cars, but more Australians are buying more hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) than ever before. Sales of electric and plug-in hybrid (grouped together by the FCAI) and hybrid sales were up, with nearly 11,000 more hybrid sales (23,235 YTD) and nearly 1,600 more electric/PHEV sales in 2020, compared to the first half of 2019.

But these are so-called ‘green shoots’; on the whole, Australia has a low percentage of electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid vehicles compared to other countries.

How does Australia compare to other countries?

Globally, EVs are picking up speed. Back in 2010, there were close to zero electric cars on the road. Fast forward to 2019, and sales of EVs topped 2.1 million globally, boosting the worldwide stock to 7.2 million. EVs, which accounted for 2.6 per cent of global car sales and about 1 per cent of global car stock in 2019, registered a 40 per cent year-on-year increase.

But Australia is lagging. In 2016, EVs (not including Telsa models) made up to 0.08 per cent of new vehicles sold in Australia. Compare this a country like Norway which dominates the electric vehicle market. Closer to home, New Zealand, is powering ahead, and in the the United Kingdom sales in EVs, plug-in EV and hybrids make up 4.7, 3 and 6 per cent respectively in 2020, to date.


Four low emissions opportunities for Australia

So how could Australia embrace new technologies and maintain the low-emissions benefits of the lockdown?

1. Ignore the myths and embrace the electric dream

“There's an illusion that EVs aren’t suited to Australia, they aren’t available, and they cost far more than the average car. But there are many reasons why Australians should be early adopters of EVs,” says Dr Munnings.

He highlights that most Australians live in suburbs, park our cars off street, have multiple cars per household, and the cars we buy are often at the more premium end of the market.

“More Australians could be driving electric cars. This isn’t some fancy dream – it’s a very practical solution that makes sense for a lot of Australians[Link will open in a new window]. There are many new zero emission models entering the Australian market, so it’s worth having a second look to see if there’s one that matches your needs.”

2. Solar charge your electric vehicle

Millions of Australian sell energy to the grid from solar PV panels, only to then buy energy back from the local petrol station. A residential solar PV system could provide enough energy to power a house with plenty left over for an EV. We have been working with Nissan and Delta to create a solar-powered EV charging technology that can stabilise the grid and let you charge multiple cars all at once, without blowing a fuse.

“Many people find that their house is perfectly setup already for their first EV. Almost all homes will have enough capacity for a single charger. The electricity distribution board is often near where they currently park their car. And if you’re working from home or use your car around school hours, your charging will overlap with solar generation,” explains Dr Munnings.

“The other thing to remember is that it’s perfectly possible to charge your EV from a regular plug socket (it’s just a bit slower), so renters are not locked out of the EV dream.”

Solar panels at Nissan Australia Headquarters power the charging modules, which also contain a battery and our smart charging technology.

3. Hybrids for smaller budgets

Hybrid cars have been improving for years and now offer some of the lowest total cost of ownership of any cars in the market. An e-bike provides an even cheaper, greener option. A combination of battery power for the hills and person power for flat areas, e-bikes can dramatically increase a cyclist’s range, and reduces their travel time. Downsizing from a two-car to a one-car household also .

“The battery on an e-bike is around 100 times smaller than that in an EV. Even though batteries can be recycled there is no arguing that an e-bike has a lower environmental footprint,” says Dr Munnings.

4. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles of the future

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are becoming an increasing reality in Australia with trials in Canberra and a recent announcement of plans to produce plug-in hybrid hydrogen vehicles in Illawara.

“Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would feel very normal to most people,” says Dr Munnings. “It’s a different type of engine. Instead of a normal combustion engine, you have a fuel cell that electrochemically oxides the hydrogen (in a reaction similar to what you find a battery) and that powers the car. The process is more efficient than a petrol engine but the business model is the same: it’s really just a different fuel bowser.”

The fall in road traffic was a main driver of the global emissions decline, following the COVID-19 lockdown. As we look to the future, there are a wide range of technologies that could allow us to keep the benefits of a lockdown. Zero-emission vehicles will mean a healthier population, lower running costs and cleaner air.

Dr Christopher Munnings with one of CSIRO’s solar-powered fleet cars. (Image: CSIRO).

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