By Scott Dwyer and Kriti Nagrath, Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney

Transport is a critical lifeline for many of us but despite the benefits, the way we travel and the fuel we use is having a major impact on the environment, our well-being, and our health. As the global automotive industry shifts towards electric vehicles (EV), local government is ideally placed to benefit while smoothing the transition – and that is good news for all of us. This is why it is not Elon Musk holding the keys to the EV revolution in Australia, instead it is our country’s 537 local governments.

Source: Getty Images

The shift towards electric vehicles

Transport plays an important role in our everyday lives. It helps us get to work and do our work, deliver vital services and shop for convenience, keep essential appointments and enjoy leisure activities. However, there is a global paradigm shift underway in transport as the public becomes more concerned about sustainability issues, as governments establish and commit to new environmental targets, and as the automotive industry responds by adding EVs to their product offerings.  

Unfortunately, mixed messages from politicians and media, combined with a policy vacuum, has meant Australia has been slow off the blocks with regards to EVs. Meanwhile, a number of local governments around the country have been quietly ‘plugging away’ at initiatives to support the uptake of EVs within their fleets and LGAs. Many are also keen to further explore how electrification can mitigate many of the negative impacts of transport, while helping to bring wider benefits to the communities they serve.  

Reducing Carbon emissions

Transport in Australia contributes a disproportionate amount to the country’s overall carbon emissions, which as the science shows, is making our world much less inhabitable. Transport is the country’s third-largest source of carbon dioxide and light vehicles (such as cars, SUVs, 4x4s, utes and vans) alone are responsible for 10 per cent of the country’s total emissions. They are also increasing quicker than any other source over the last three decades. 

Contributing to a changing climate, previously rare weather events are becoming a more regular occurrence. This has a direct and long-lasting impact on communities, harming local economies, and stretching local services that must respond to more frequent and intense bushfires and storms, flash floods, long droughts, and extreme temperatures. A switch from petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicles to all-electric ones offers an important route to decarbonise a major part of the transport sector. By replacing an engine with an electric motor and re-charging the battery using grid-supplied (or even better, renewable) electricity, they are able to emit less carbon and particle pollution than those using fossil fuel.

Source: Lake Macquarie City Council

Improving local air quality

The negative health effects of a more sedentary lifestyle and overreliance on motorised transport are well known, but there is mounting evidence that the health impact of air pollution is wider and more severe than previously thought. 

Fine particulate matter (such as those that are produced by diesel vehicles) has been shown to lodge deep in the lungs, with the inflammation increasing the likelihood of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This means it affects those communities where traffic is heaviest and most congested. Local air pollution also disproportionately affects the young, elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions.

Benefiting local economies

Destination charging – where EV charging facilities are strategically placed in regional towns or tourist amenities to encourage patronage – can drive local economic benefits to these areas. This is in contrast to the highways service station model, which redirected heavy and speeding traffic away from towns and villages but at the same time took away the local income they generated. 

Local government is in a good position to support the placement of charging infrastructure that serves the local community, going beyond purely economic criteria, and ensuring that regional and rural areas can play a role and benefit from the transition to EVs.

Source: Getty Images

Improving affordability of EVs

Local government can play another important role in decarbonising transport by helping to bring more affordable EVs to the public via their out-cycled fleet vehicles. Despite positive customer sentiment of EVs among Australians, prices remain high and sales low and EV sales stalled between 2019 and 2020, with less than 7000 sold in 2020. A recent uptick in sales in 2021 means that 10,000 or more are likely to be bought in 2021 but this is still a tiny fraction of the 1 million+ light vehicle sales a year. 

Notes: 2021 is year to date as of June 2021; BEV = Battery Electric Vehicle; PHEV = Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle; Light vehicle = cars, SUVs, 4x4s, utes, and vans.

Source: Data from Electric Vehicle Council 2021 

In 2021, the EV Council reported that there were thirty-one EV models for sale in Australia, with fourteen priced under $65,000. However, even the recently launched ZS EV – a medium-sized SUV from MG Motors – has prices starting from $41,990 (the same model in petrol engine format costs $21,990). This is more than many motorists on the roads today would be willing or able to spend on their next car. However, the total cost of ownership is now becoming competitive in certain cases with purchase price parity expected in the mid to second half of the decade. 

On carsales.com, a leading online marketplace of used vehicles, only 20 used fully electric cars were for sale at the time of writing. This is out of a total of 121,996 previously owned cars. Pre-owned fleet vehicles are critical to increasing this supply to bring more affordable electric models to those who want them. 

With a government fleet in the hundreds of thousands and typical passenger vehicle and SUV replacement cycles of 3-4 years, these will be an important source of more affordable EVs for the used car market.

Ensuring equity, inclusivity, liveability, and accessibility

There are many considerations for charging infrastructure deployment but the best interests of the entire community are not always taken into account. Existing strategies and priorities mean that local government is well placed to ensure EV charging deployment benefits those who can’t afford brand new EV passenger cars, as well as those of us who don’t drive or can’t drive.  

Research from the UK has found that disabled people are concerned that the way EV charging is being deployed. For physically and visually impaired drivers, potential issues include locating charging facilities far from other services, lack of wheelchair accessibility, and heavy or difficult to reach EV charging cables. These anxieties can then affect driver confidence and lead to a decline in independence.  

Working within existing council policy frameworks that address equity, inclusivity, liveability, and accessibility can help avoid creating issues such as these. Support services, community groups, educational institutions, and not-for-profit enterprises can also benefit greatly from the electrification of transportation and local government offers a way to support these groups and help them engage with EVs. 

The role of local governments in EV uptake

Australian States have been initially slow to support EVs but new measures put in place recently have started to create the sort of policy environment that’s needed. While local government has less control over these policy levers, there is still much local government can do. 

While many choices can be made by councils in terms of how charging infrastructure is deployed, one of the biggest and most challenging decisions they need to make is on what role they want to play in owning and operating it. A systematic approach to assessing which business models best suit the unique characteristics of their local government area, the risks they are willing to bear, and how this relates to existing council policies, can help result in an optimum outcome based on local constraints and resources. However, state and the Federal Government could do more to help councils navigate these challenges. If Australia is serious about decarbonising its transport sector, the third tier of government can help this happen faster and more equitably if they are given the tools to do so.

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