There was great hype last week as the ACT Government launched its new Zero Emissions Vehicle strategy, making headlines all around the country that it would ‘ban the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2035’. The resulting public debate has no doubt advanced the discussion around the imminent technology shift; social media commentary was running hot, with people falling into two distinct camps – those who saw the transition to electric vehicles as inevitable, and those who responded in a “from my cold dead hands” kind of way to the thought of losing their fossil-fuel burning vehicles. Setting the direction in the Zero Emissions Vehicle Strategy may serve to soften up some in the electorate, and one can only hope that each time we have this debate it gets a little more sensible. (Remember the 2019 election and debate around losing your weekend?)

But for all the hoopla, the commitment about “banning ICE car sales by 2035” made by the ACT Government isn’t remarkable. Nor is it especially radical. (Nor is it actually what is written in the policy document.) But most importantly, nor is it planet saving. Here’s why.

As mentioned in the ACT’s Zero Emissions Vehicles Strategy 2022, there are a number of jurisdictions that have already made such announcements to ban the sales of ICE vehicles, and sales of EVs doubled in 2021 from the previous year to a new record of 6.6 million with China leading the way. According to the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook 2022, public spending on subsidies and incentives for EVs nearly doubled in 2021 to almost USD 30 billion. The electric vehicle industry is in lift off. The cost of vehicles will drop, range will increase, and running costs are remarkably low compared to ICE vehicles, primarily because there are fewer moving parts compared to internal combustion engines. This is a product people will want to get their hands on. By 2035, electric vehicles will be commonplace. 

So a policy to ‘ban new ICE sales by 2035’ isn’t going to make a heck of a lot of difference, and isn’t especially radical. And this is not actually what the ACT policy document says. Rather it commits to “Phase-out light internal combustion engine vehicles from 2035”, which is even less remarkable.. The policy acknowledges this by saying “​It is expected that by 2035, ZEV sales for new standard light vehicles will be close to 100%.” The ACT Government already knows that the world will have moved on; the policy is really just a way of telling the community what is going to happen and putting in place the supporting infrastructure to ensure it happens smoothly, such as the commitment to expand the public EV charging network to at least 180 publicly available charging stations by 2025.

However, ‘starting a phase out’ of ICE vehicles from 2035’ is completely inconsistent with a safe climate. Acknowledging that the ACT is but a microcosm of the market, and of global emissions, it has aligned its policy objectives with EV targets being set in other jurisdictions, and a local emissions reduction target that is inadequate to respond to the climate emergency. The IEA highlights that global policies on EV sales still fall well short of the 60% emissions reduction by 2030 needed to align with a trajectory to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The reality is that we have far less time than that –- at the current rate of 10 billion tonnes of global emissions each year, we will exceed the remaining carbon budget by 2030. This 2050 target, much like the ACT’s net zero emissions by 2045 target, has a low chance of keeping us below 2 degrees of warming, and therefore a low chance of keeping the climate safe. 

In 2019, the ALP and Greens members of the Legislative Assembly voted in support of a Declaration of a Climate Emergency, acknowledging the need for urgent action across all areas of government. Yet the ACT’s EV policy commitments are comfortably aligned with inevitable market evolution and the same kind of policy mediocrity we see across the globe, and their speed to respond on even small but meaningful changes has lacked the urgency one would expect in an emergency.

For example, if we are facing a Climate Emergency, why has the ACT Government not already made the simple change to planning law to ensure that new multi unit developments are fitted with the capacity to charge electric vehicles? They have known about this issue for at least five years, probably longer, and yet the new Strategy indicates that it still won’t happen until 2023. 

Transport emissions are approximately 60% of the ACTs direct carbon emissions, generated primarily by our love of cars, the design of our city, and our transport habits. Moving away from vehicles powered by fossil fuels is crucial to cutting emissions, as is ensuring we have a good public transport network, and our bike and foot path networks for active travel are extensive, safe and maintained. Significantly, the EV strategy was released just after the draft Active Travel Strategy, which flags an objective of reducing private vehicle use overall,  important in the context of emissions reductions and the liveability of our city.

A Zero Emission Vehicle Strategy is a useful policy framework for the ACT to have in place, and it is true that this week the ACT started a conversation about EVs that hasn’t yet occurred around the country. Hopefully that in itself will put pressure on other jurisdictions and the Federal Government to put in place policies to drive EV uptake and ensure appropriate infrastructure is available. But don’t kid yourself that phasing out ICE vehicles from 2035 is radically progressive policy, nor enough to ensure a safe climate over the next decade.

Helen Oakey

Executive Director