Which leads us to the bit that attracted much of the international attention; Johnson plans to ban the sale of cars and vans with internal combustion engines in 2030, bringing forward earlier deadlines of both 2040 and then 2035.
“Is Johnson Quite Mad?” The Conservative Woman journal asked irritably in a headline the following day. But Johnson’s radical plan was generally better received.
Unsurprisingly the UK Greenpeace chief, Rebecca Newsom, backed the policy, describing it as “a landmark,” and “a historic turning point” in addressing climate change. “Although there are some significant question marks and gaps, overall this is a big step forward for tackling the climate emergency,” she said.
Even the British auto industry trade group was cautionary rather than damning in its response.
“We share government’s ambition for leadership in decarbonising road transport and are committed to the journey,” said Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes. “Manufacturers have invested billions to deliver vehicles that are already helping thousands of drivers switch to zero, but this new deadline, fast-tracked by a decade, sets an immense challenge. Success will depend on reassuring consumers that they can afford these new technologies, that they will deliver their mobility needs and, critically, that they can recharge as easily as they refuel.”
The British motoring organisation RAC said that for Johnson’s plan to be realised there would need to be “exponential growth” in the development of a charging network across the country.
Johnson was clearly aware of consumer concerns about both cost and so-called range – the fear of running out of power on a long drive. The plan addresses these concerns directly, with £1.3 billion slated for investment in a speedier roll-out of charging points in residential areas, private homes and along highways and £582 million for grants to encourage consumers to buy zero or ultra-low emission vehicles.
And so to Australia, where there have also been developments in the potential future role of electric vehicles.
Days before Johnson’s plan was released, South Australian Treasurer Rob Lucas announced that he had another idea. Rather than subsidise people to purchase non-polluting electric vehicles, he would tax them extra for the privilege of coughing up for cars that do not pollute.
It is almost as though he misunderstood federal Energy and Emissions Reductions Minister Angus Taylor’s mantra on climate action “technology not taxes”.
“Someone needs to take the lead,” Lucas said in comments reported by The Australian Financial Review about his big-spending budget. “Now’s the time to bite the bullet and introduce reform. There’s great logic to it.”
Lucas’ logic is that electric vehicle users do not contribute to the cost of maintaining roads via the fuel excise, so they should pay a road users fee. “We’re pretty confident that ultimately it’s a no-brainer,” he said, ignoring the fact that just about every other comparable jurisdiction on the planet has looked at the issue and decided to reward people rather than penalise them for not polluting.
Some US states have similar fees, explains Jake Whitehead, an expert in electric vehicle policy at the University of Queensland who has worked closely with the United Nations’ lead climate group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that is eclipsed by a whopping $US7500 ($10,280) tax credit from the federal government to those who buy EVs.
The South Australian policy, he says, risks compounding the already bad reputation Australia has for electric vehicle policy, which in turn was exacerbated by the federal Coalition’s campaign against electric vehicles in the last election.
The impact of this reputation is already being felt by Australian consumers, says Whitehead, because several manufacturers are opting not to provide new models to Australia. Britain and India are both, like Australia, right-hand-drive countries. And India, like Britain, has also opted to phase out internal combustion engines. With such significant markets already locked in, manufacturers will be less likely to design right-hand-drive models for the Australian market. We could be competing with Sub-Saharan Africa for global vehicle left-overs by the end of the decade, says Whitehead. (He notes that since the last federal election the government has dedicated some funding to charging infrastructure.)
But the issue is not just just one of consumer choice. The transport sector is one of the top three contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. If Australia wants to cap its emissions mid-century – a lofty goal but not one the government has adopted – it will have to sell its last internal combustion engines by the mid to late 2030s. And given the life of an Australian car is about 13 to 15 years, that means we need to start discussing policies like Johnson’s right about now, or risk being left behind with a transport sector that is not only dirtier than that of our peers, but more expensive to run.
But Johnson’s plan was significant to an Australian audience for more than its tough stance on the internal combustion engine. His references to “building back better” and to a “Green Industrial Revolution” puts Britain firmly in the camp of those nations that have voiced a determination to use the response to the pandemic as a launching pad for broad and fast decarbonisation, and in particular with the US Democratic Party under Joe Biden, who incorporated into his campaign platforms large sections of the “Green New Deal” put forward by his own party.
The language also emphasises how seriously Johnson is now taking the threat of climate change. Britain will host the next UN climate meeting in Glasgow in November next year, and it appears Johnson sees the success of that meeting to be a legacy issue for him, says Dean Bialek, a former Australian UN diplomat who is now advising the British organisers of the climate summit.
“I think it’s an indication now that the UK wants to lead by example,” Bialek says. “It obviously now has the confidence of a change in Washington, which is going to be a huge boon for diplomatic momentum in the lead-up to the COP [the Glasgow summit].”
Further, says Bialek, it is a signal that Britain is also preparing to significantly deepen its emissions reduction target for 2030. It has already set a net-zero by 2050 target in law, but the legislation has a mechanism for rolling five-yearly targets of increased ambition.
The current target includes a reduction of 57 per cent of 1990 emissions by 2030. There is talk that by the end of the year this will be increased to 70 per cent, says Bialek. Which is, he notes, about three times more ambitious than Australia’s target of a 26 per cent reduction on 2005 levels.
In October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed media in Canberra, saying he was not concerned about the potential impact on Australia’s trade of decisions by Japan, South Korea and China to adopt mid-century net-zero targets.
“Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom,” Morrison said. “They won’t be set in Brussels. They won’t be set in any part of the world other than here. And no one understands that better than the British Prime Minister, given his recent election on the issue of Brexit.
“And so he totally understands Australia’s sovereignty when it comes to making these sovereign decisions about our future.”
On Thursday night, the Prime Minister said during a speech to the Business Council of Australia that he hoped the government would not need to use what it calls carryover credits from its previous climate commitments to meet its 2030 targets.
“My ambition is that we will not need them and we are working to this as our goal, consistent with our record of over-delivering. I am confident our policies will get this job done,” he said.
This is laudable but unlikely to impress the rest of the world, which has never toyed with the notion of carryover credits.
Either way, Johnson and Biden, the leaders of Australia’s two closest allies, are wedded to ambitious, immediate action on climate change. They might soon tire of Australia significantly under-promising, even if we do manage to marginally over-deliver.
Nick O’Malley is national climate and environment editor.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.