Australia’s SUV obsession could wipe out emissions gains from EV sales and efficiency standards

<span>Chris Bowen, Catherine King and Anthony Albanese with at a car undergoing fuel efficiency testing in Canberra. A government report warns Australia’s love for the SUV and utes might undermine efforts to reduce emissions.</span><span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Chris Bowen, Catherine King and Anthony Albanese with at a car undergoing fuel efficiency testing in Canberra. A government report warns Australia’s love for the SUV and utes might undermine efforts to reduce emissions.Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Australia’s love for SUVs and utes could wipe out the emissions reductions from fuel efficiency standards and the uptake of electric vehicles, a new government report has warned.

On Wednesday the infrastructure department released a roadmap on achieving net zero emissions in the transport sector, warning that without further action it “is projected to be Australia’s highest emitting sector by 2030”.

The roadmap asks for feedback on a range of possible solutions that are not yet government policy, such as targets or incentives for “active” transport options – such as cycling or walking – and public transport and greater support for e-bikes and scooters.

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It described the fact “Australians increasingly prefer heavy passenger vehicles like SUVs [sports utility vehicles] and utes” as a “potential challenge to decarbonising light vehicles”. The report noted that “sales of bigger and heavier cars such as SUVs are the fastest growing vehicle segment”.

SUVs accounted for more than 50% of new vehicles sold in Australia in 2022, a share that has almost doubled over the past decade “despite higher registration fees for heavier vehicles”, the roadmap said.

“These trends have the potential to offset any reduction in emissions we may see from fuel efficiency improvements and the increased adoption of electric vehicles.

“These vehicles consume more energy and fuel per kilometre than smaller vehicles, resulting in higher emissions and effectively cancelling out the savings made by higher EV sales.”

The roadmap said the new vehicle efficiency standard – which passed the Senate earlier in May – “will encourage manufacturers to supply the next generation of electric SUVs and utes for the Australian market”.

In March the Albanese government watered down the laws aimed at disincentivising the use of high-polluting cars and hastening the importation of cleaner vehicles amid pressure from the auto industry.

Under the changes, a raft of Australia’s most popular SUVs – including the Toyota LandCruiser, Ford Everest, Isuzu MU-X, Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – were reclassified from passenger vehicles to the light commercial category.

The government’s preferred model, unveiled in February, was expected to cut 369m tonnes of CO2 by 2050, while the watered-down standard will cut 321m tonnes by 2050.

The roadmap said that in 2023 transport emissions increased by 8.7%, due to increased travel after Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted. Since 2005, transport emissions have increased by 19%.

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Transport accounts for 21% of Australia’s emissions, of which the biggest share is road transport (83%). Emissions from light vehicles are the single biggest source of emissions in the sector at about 60% of Australia’s transport emissions.

The roadmap confirms the government is “working with states and territories on long‑term options for zero emission vehicle road user charging” but contains no timeframe for the reform, which is considered to be on the back burner.

In a statement the transport minister, Catherine King, and the energy minister, Chris Bowen, said the roadmap was “intended to identify tangible and achievable changes that can help navigate the path to a cleaner future in a way that is economically responsible, creates jobs and eases cost of living”. Consultation closes on 26 July.