Greenhouse gas emissions from diesel cars, utes and vans have risen sharply since 2011, effectively cancelling out the cut in pollution from new renewable energy replacing some coal plants.
A surge in ownership of larger diesel vehicles is a central reason emissions from transport leapt by more than 10% over the decade, according to the monthly emissions audit published by progressive think tank the Australia Institute, report agencies.
They rose as the federal government considered, promoted and ultimately shelved plans to introduce vehicle emissions standards to address the issue.
Report author Hugh Saddler, an energy expert and honorary associate professor with the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, found annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning diesel increased by 21.7m tonnes between 2011 and 2018.
Diesel vehicles – mostly utes – have doubled their share of the light commercial vehicle market, and from a lower base tripled their share of household passenger car sales. Emissions from electricity fell by 22.1m tonnes a year over the same period.
Saddler said the increase in diesel use was one of the reasons there had been a year-on-year rise in national emissions since 2015.
He said governments and industry had improved fuel efficiency of heavy road freight vehicles but done little to lift the efficiency of light vehicles such as the work ute or family car, with the issue “placed in the purgatory of a ministerial forum for the last five years”.
“Focusing purely on reducing electricity emissions while failing to recognise the importance of transport emissions is taking two steps forward, one step back,” he said. Saddler said there had been a dip in retail diesel sales over the past six months but it was too early to tell what caused it.
The ministerial forum on vehicle emissions was set up by the Turnbull government in 2015. In 2017, interest groups were sent a model proposing a standard of 105g of carbon dioxide per kilometre for Australian light vehicles, phased in from 2020 to 2025. The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development estimated the resulting fuel savings would deliver a net benefit to the economy by 2040 of $13.9bn. The owner of an average petrol car was expected to save $519 a year.
Josh Frydenberg, then the environment and energy minister, now the Treasurer, said reforms to Australia’s fuel efficiency, fuel quality and noxious emissions standards had the potential to deliver real benefits, and pointed out that 80% of the global vehicle passenger fleet was subject to fuel efficiency standards. But the proposal was shelved after internal opposition and criticism from the automotive lobby.
Labor adopted a similar policy before this year’s federal election, promising 50% of new car sales would be electric by 2030. Scott Morrison responded by accusing the opposition of wanting to “end the weekend” by forcing people out of four-wheel drives.
A spokeswoman for the Michael McCormack, the minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development, said the government’s goal was to encourage cleaner and more efficient vehicles without burdening Australian families.
She pointed to a February announcement that it would develop a national electric vehicle strategy “to plan and manage the transition to new vehicle technologies and infrastructure”.
“The Liberal and Nationals government’s policy is clear: we will not introduce a mandatory fuel efficiency standard that can drive up the price of cars for Australians,” she said.
Saddler said based on the evidence there was “absolutely no reason” not to introduce vehicle emissions standards. “It’s a failure of political will,” he said.
Most countries in the OECD have adopted policies to reduce emissions and improve vehicle efficiency.
Saddler said in the 1990s diesel vehicles were viewed as better for the environment than petrol cars but technology evolved and many markets, particularly in Europe, had moved to cleaner alternatives. “The average diesel vehicle owner travels further than a petrol vehicle owner and many diesel engines have gotten larger, easily undoing the benefit of diesel as a lower CO2 polluting fuel than petrol,” he said.
The Australian government has revised down over time the emissions cuts it expects to make from cleaning up cars. In 2015, it produced a graph indicating it expected to achieve a reduction of about 100m tonnes between 2020 and 2030 through vehicle emissions standards. The climate package released earlier this year projected only 10m tonnes of abatement through a yet-to-be-released electric vehicle strategy.