Transport is Australia’s second largest source of carbon emissions, and around 85 percent of these transport emissions come from private road users. While zero emission vehicles are an important part of decarbonising transport and we need to plan for the associated EV charging infrastructure, we need to consider them as part of the wider transport ecosystem and reflect their place in the modal hierarchy. This includes making sure we continue to use planning and digital access to reduce the need to travel, promote modal shift to public and active transport, decarbonise freight, and also consider opportunities for micro mobility, ferries and air travel.
Sustainable transport hierarchy
Decarbonising Australia’s transport is a complicated challenge and will require many interdependent changes for us to achieve Australia’s net zero ambitions. As well as converting hydrocarbons to net zero energy sources, i.e., renewable electricity and green hydrogen, we must consider using more sustainable travel modes for getting around. This means shifting to a higher proportion of active and public transport trips , so we are making fewer car trips (even if they are electric).
Moving goods presents a major challenge. We can transition last-mile freight through micro mobility options and by using net zero smaller freight vehicles, but heavy long-distance freight between population centres represents a more complex challenge.
Since the 1850s, we have spent more than 160 years basing our travel and related infrastructure around hydrocarbon-fuelled transport. Of course, zero emission vehicles can still use our roads, rail, ports, intermodal terminals, and airports. But we still need a huge investment in getting energy to where it’s needed, either through charging facilities and their upgraded power networks, or hydrogen-producing and refuelling infrastructure.
Eleanor Short, WSP’s Senior Principal, Transport Advisory says the move to electric vehicles is one important part of decarbonising transport.
“Australia is a large country with many remote areas, a highly car dependent population and significant long distance heavy freight. Australia is the only OECD country with no mandatory vehicle carbon emissions standards, and as a result our average fuel consumption and emissions per km are significant. Overall, our carbon footprint per capita from transport is more than double that of the UK (see diagram below), and 45 per cent higher than the OECD average. Work is underway looking at emission standards, which is very welcome step.”
“Another challenge – and opportunity – is that the approach to how each of our States and Territories manage vehicle registration differs. ACT, for example, has banned the sale of internal combustion engines (ICEs) by 2035, and will reform registration to be based on carbon emissions, sending a strong signal to support the transition to electric vehicles. But, with vehicles in Australia reaching an average age of around 20 years, even faster action may be required.
“In 2021, electric vehicles made up just 1.9 per cent of Australia’s market share of all new vehicle sales, compared to the global average of 9 per cent. Supply issues, up-front cost differences with ICE vehicles, concerns around the availability of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and general awareness about electric vehicles are all challenges to increasing uptake, which State and Federal level electric vehicle policies and strategies are being developed to address. We can learn a lot from other countries in these areas, and are already working closely with our WSP UK colleagues on tools like ‘EV:Ready’ to assess how much EV charging is needed and where.”
Transport carbon emissions comparison between UK and Australia
Changing how we think about transport
Walkability and mass transit are incredibly important to decarbonisation, but changing a car dependant culture is not an easy task.
James Logie, WSP’s Associate Principal, Climate Change and Net Zero Advisor, says in a sustainable transport hierarchy, private vehicles are towards the bottom, even new electric vehicles. To decarbonise, we need active and public transport as part of the solution.
“Shifting to electric vehicles is a big part of Australia’s current strategy but it’s not a silver bullet. With our current grid mix, the fossil fuel energy used to charge electric vehicles means the carbon emissions per vehicle km are only about 25 percent lower than ICEs. By comparison, an electric vehicle in the UK emits a fraction of the emissions due to their much cleaner electricity grid. But this will rapidly improve as we transition our grid to renewables.”
Emission reduction benefits from electrifying ICE cars (Australia vs UK)
“We need to get better at considering whole-of-life carbon when prioritising infrastructure investments, planning our communities and transport networks, and incentivising the right behaviours to shift people from private vehicles to a mix of active transport, micro mobility and public transport,” James says.
Road pricing reforms, including for example congestion charging in city locations, could help address traffic congestion while also lowering transport carbon emissions.
As Eleanor says, “Road pricing reform, if carefully designed, has great potential to reduce emissions while also alleviating traffic congestion and delays to movement of essential goods, services, and people, without the need for large-scale investment in new transport infrastructure. Cities in Europe such as London, Stockholm and Milan have been successfully using mechanisms including congestion charging and low emission zones for years. Reforming how we pay for our road networks can encourage modal shift and changes to travel patterns. It can also allow for a less regressive approach - which better reflects not only the environmental, but also the social, economics and safety external costs of road use - as well as potentially providing alterative revenue sources in the context of declining fuel excise incomes with the shift to electric vehicles.”
James adds “Beyond congestion charging, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen prioritise walking and cycling infrastructure and have also deployed traffic restrictions for cars. We are starting to see more such initiatives in Australia, for example Brisbane City Council’s Green Bridges – one of which WSP is designing.”
Freight is also a massive challenge for Australia, says Scott Benjamin, WSP’s Technical Director, Intelligent Transport.
The freight task is rapidly growing and evolving due to changes in domestic and international supply chains. In the short term, the shift to online shopping is unstoppable and is driving huge growth in light commercial traffic and delivery vehicles. In the medium and long term, decarbonising heavy freight – trains, trucks and ships – will require extensive research, planning, technological innovation and support policies to decarbonise the whole freight network.
While absolutely essential for our economy, freight transported by heavy vehicles disproportionately consumes oil, emits greenhouse gases, and pollutes our air. Heavy vehicles represent an important opportunity to adopt fuel-efficient and emissions-control technologies.
Sam Potts, Associate Principal, Infrastructure Investment Decisions says, “many government agencies are trialling and introducing more automated and sustainable last-mile freight vehicles in an effort to make last-mile freight more efficient and environmentally friendly.”
“This includes looking at roadmaps for rolling out more electric vehicle charging points and investigating greener energy sources, particularly hydrogen for long-haul freight.”
Technology: A whole-system approach to achieve net zero ambitions
It’s not just an electric vehicle change we need to consider, intelligent transport systems are also part of the decarbonising puzzle.
“Intelligent transport systems offer opportunities to evolve our transport networks, and deliver transformation that influences travel patterns and demand, reduce congestion, facilitates more efficient planning, and provides a pathway for greener mobility, to help achieve global net zero ambitions,” Scott says.
“A whole-system approach to transport can help deliver the outcomes we are targeting. We must consider our community needs and the potential roles of government and the private sector as part of the solution and seek to create links that add value and remove barriers that result in inefficiencies intelligent transport systems. Intelligent transport systems and technology generally will be a key enabler, a key part of the solution.
Connected and Automated Vehicles will provide huge safety, efficiency, and sustainability outcomes over time. These are great for our transport networks and communities, but will users pay for these benefits? People want comfort and convenience, expect to see a wide range of connected services also focused on these user needs, whilst achieving the sustainability outcomes we seek.
Supporting infrastructure unlocks net zero transport
Like traditional hydrocarbon fuelled transport, net zero vehicles require ‘refuelling’ infrastructure. While the existing power network infrastructure allows people to slowly charge most electric vehicles, widespread fast-charging infrastructure will require significant investment.
Andrew Ah Toy, Senior Principal, Infrastructure Investment Decisions, says there are at least three major power infrastructure challenges that we will need to address.
“Firstly, the electricity must come from renewable sources, and that does require new power infrastructure to unlock both onshore and offshore renewable energy zones. Secondly, vehicles and fleets that need fast charging (e.g., bus fleets or enroute chargers for long-distance travel and heavy freight) are likely to need local power infrastructure upgrades. Thirdly, as personal cars transition to electric vehicles, greater demand on the overall grid may require power network upgrades. Upgrading infrastructure takes a long time and requires significant forward planning and investment.”
While we have a dense and competitive petrol station network, these are in the very early stages of development for electric vehicles, and even more so for hydrogen fuelled vehicles.
Valuing carbon to enable change
Ray Winn, Technical Executive, Infrastructure Investment Decisions, explains that how we value and appraising carbon will significantly change how we address transport challenges, by using tools like WSP’s Carbon Zero appraisal framework.
“When we are forming infrastructure and service options to address transport challenges its important that we value the impacts of the carbon generated by the enabled activities and embedded in the creation and operation of infrastructure. We need to ensure that emissions avoided are valued in a way that is consistent with the benefits derived. Otherwise it makes it difficult to justify carbon-reducing investments using current investment appraisal processes.”
“As time goes by and the impacts of climate change are likely to become more acute, we expect this to raise the value attached to reducing carbon emissions. This will unlock a lot more sustainable projects that currently may seem too expensive.”
“The public sector has an important role in incentivising industry to develop and use greener technologies and materials in delivering public infrastructure and services. This will involve change and managing the risks that come with this but is essential if we as a nation are to reach the greenhouse gas reduction targets we have set.”
In the race to net zero, we need to remember that failure will impact us all, through catastrophic impacts from global warning.
Eleanor says “Although net zero by 2050 is a clear and understandable goal, the really important concept is the ‘carbon budget’ of how much CO2-e we can emit from now on if we want to limit global warning to 1.5 degrees. The carbon budget is rapidly being used up, and the slower we act now, the greater the cuts we will need to make in the future. It means dramatically overhauling our current thinking and polices across several sectors.”
As Eleanor says, “Decarbonising transport is urgent, essential and doable.
“If we act decisively now - using what we already know to cut emissions where we can – we gain more time to solve the harder areas like heavy freight emissions and air travel.”
Interested in learning more about our decarbonising transport expertise? Please contact our experts Eleanor Short, Andrew Ah Toy, James Logie, Scott Benjamin, Sam Potts, and Ray Winn.
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