Australian car industry’s secret emissions plan would slow drive toward electric vehicles

They outline a campaign that started last week to shape public discussion and position the auto industry as a “trusted voice” in the “moderate middle” of the climate debate. But behind the scenes, they are lobbying policymakers to adopt rules that would preserve petrol and hybrid cars that are the main business of the biggest manufacturers such as Toyota for decades to come.

Asked about the strategy, FCAI chief executive Tony Weber said the industry group wanted to see significant emissions cuts in the sector but there were constraints around the number and cost of low emissions cars available.

“We want a sensitive debate predicated on the availability of technology, price points and what Australian consumers want to buy, not some sort of debate created around ‘we need to do something by 2050’,” Weber said.

“We want to transition to low-emissions technology but you’ve got to put it in the context of the country you’re in. We’ve had the climate wars over a decade — we’re late to this party. We’ve also got to recognize the Australian context, what Australian consumers drive.”

The auto industry’s existing emissions scheme relies on a system of “super credits” in which lower emissions vehicles are awarded points that can be used to offset higher polluting vehicles.

Audrey Quicke, a climate and energy researcher at the Australia Institute think tank, said voluntary standards were lax, riddled with loopholes and opaque in the way they calculate emissions performance.

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Australia’s car industry could comfortably exceed its own voluntary standards for 2030 by operating in a business-as-usual manner as more electric and hybrid vehicles from overseas flow into the Australian market, the FCAI documents show.

“The current FCAI industry target achieves a reduction in CO2 emission from new car sales that exceeds both the Paris commitment of 26 to 28 per cent and the new government’s commitment of 43 per cent over 2005 levels,” the FCAI’s strategy says.

But analysts point out that the government’s 43 per cent by 2030 emissions cut target applies to the nation’s total emissions. Reaching a 43 per cent cut for new car sales in 2030 would still mean car emissions fell far short of a total 43 per cent target because the vast majority of cars on the road are over one year old.

“Anything that delays emission standards is going to create problems for the longer term [because] almost every single petrol car sold in Australia in the next couple of years is still going to be on the road in the 2030s and 2040s, and that’s when Australia needs to be getting to net zero,” said Gareth Bryant, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney who specializes in climate and energy finance.

“From the car companies’ perspective they’re operating globally so they’re pigeon-holing Australia as a place where they can keep selling these polluting, high-emissions vehicles,” Bryant said. “They can rejig production to balance it out. To some extent they can use Australia as an offset for places where there are standards.”

Transport is Australia’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the sector is getting dirtier, with CO2 output rising by 48 per cent since 1990 and most of those emissions coming from the tailpipes of cars and trucks on the road.

The FCAI documents acknowledge that regulation and deeper emissions cuts are coming, and call for big boosts in electric car charging points and other infrastructure, while fighting for the core issue of keeping fuel efficiency standards favorable to the biggest manufacturers.

The objective is to “implement a mandatory new car CO2 regulation in line with the FCAI voluntary standard,” the documents say. The FCAI strategy concedes that “the government is unlikely to adopt the current FCAI standard without change”. Weber said the industry would continue to review its targets.

Confidential research prepared for the car industry group suggests Australia’s car market is about to radically change shape as more hybrid and electric vehicles displace internal combustion engine cars.

Currently, 88 per cent of new passenger vehicles sold are powered by internal combustion engines, with 10 per cent having versions of hybrid engines and just 2 per cent having battery-powered electric engines. Plug-in electric cars are less than 1 per cent of the market, the research shows.

But with new models flowing in from many global car companies, and prices for versions of electric cars expected to plummet, the market is expected to look vastly different by the end of this decade.

Even without further government action, hybrid vehicles will make up over half of all new passenger vehicles sold by 2030, the research shows, with internal combustion engine vehicles making up 24 per cent and battery-powered electric vehicles 18 per cent. Plug-in electric cars would make up 4 per cent of new sales.

“The price of an entry BEV (battery electric vehicle) midsize car will decrease by $17,400 between 2021 and 2030,” the research says.

The strategy mirrors aspects of the approach used overseas by car manufacturers such as Toyota, which combines public statements about environmental stewardship with behind-the-scenes pressure on policymakers to weaken regulation of car emissions.

Toyota formed “Team Japan” in that nation along with Subaru, Mazda, Kawasaki and Yamaha to defend the place of petrol and hybrid cars in the face of competition from electric vehicles.

Toyota last year refused to commit to a Glasgow Declaration pledge to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2040, saying “an environment suitable for promoting full zero emission transport has not yet been established” in many parts of the world.

Influence Map, an independent international think tank that records climate change-related lobbying by companies and industry groups, found Toyota to be the world’s third worst offender in attempting to quash emissions cuts after Chevron and Exxon Mobil in an analysis of 350 large-emitting global companies.

“Automotive industry associations are spearheading global opposition to climate regulation across major markets,” Influence Map concluded in a report released this year.

Green groups in Australia have also observed the parallels, describing the car industry’s public relations efforts as greenwashing.

“The car lobby’s engagement with fuel efficiency standards reflects the pattern we’ve seen elsewhere – conjuring roadblocks where there are none,” said Lindsay Soutar, a Greenpeace researcher who has tracked car company lobbying activities around the world.

Industry insiders said some in the auto industry were uncomfortable with the FCAI’s strategy, with division emerging between manufacturers who sold electric vehicles and those who had focused on petrol and hybrid vehicles.

The organization’s membership is based on market share, with the biggest manufacturers such as Toyota holding dominant roles. The FCAI’s chair is Toyota Australia’s chief executive Matthew Callachor.

The federal government has announced financial support for a network of electric vehicle charging stations, with a focus on rural Australia and cuts to fringe benefits tax which would lower the price of some electric vehicles.

A spokesperson said the transport department had “already been tasked with establishing a unit to drive our domestic transport sector towards net zero emissions” and was considering “further policy positions”.

Behyad Jafari, chief executive of peak body the Electric Vehicle Council, the members of which would stand to benefit from stronger fuel efficiency standards, said Australia was a global outlier for its lack of standards.

“The reality is that emissions standards are what car companies are used to facing all around the world,” Jafari said. “It’s business as usual for them and they have adjusted to produce cleaner cars in many places. But not here.”

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