Australia has High Passenger Car Ownership and No Mandatory Fuel Standards

While the 2022 Australian federal election signaled a positive change in the way the country is responding to climate change, the country’s love affair with vehicles seems unlikely to end anytime soon. Australia has high rates of vehicle ownership, with the 2021 Australian census demonstrating that by 31st January 2021 the country had 20.1 million registered motor vehicles for a population of 25,422,788 people. This was an increase of 1.7% from 2020 to 2021, with the average age of vehicles being 10.6 years old. Of the vehicle fleet, the majority of cars were fueled by petrol (unleaded 70.2% and leaded 1.5%), while 26.4% were fueled by diesel. ‘Other’ fuels comprised 1.8% of the fleet, of which only 23,000 vehicles (0.11%) were electric.

The Australian vehicle fleet has also long had high fuel consumption rates. For example, the Survey of Motor Vehicle Use, which measured vehicle characteristics between July 2019 and June 2020, found that Australian vehicles consumed 39,019 megalitres of fuel in just one year (49% petrol and 49.1% diesel). Of the vehicle fleet, passenger cars were the highest consumers, using an average of 11.1 liters per 100 kilometers. Furthermore, the Australian car industry has been decimated in the past two years, with Holden, Toyota, and Ford manufacturing plants all closing. This has stopped the development of a local electric vehicle (EV) industry, while also leading to a situation where all cars available in the country are imported from elsewhere. Currently, the top two selling cars (Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger) are utes made in Thailand, and both have high petrol consumption rates.

There is a slight trend toward increasing numbers of EVs in the vehicle fleet, with the total number of registered electric vehicles increasing from 14,253 in 2020 to 23,128 in 2021. Government projections estimate that by 2030 there will be 1,320,000 EVs (including plug-in hybrids). However, the potential growth of EV uptake faces significant barriers, given that unlike most countries Australia has no mandatory fuel efficiency standards, nor has the federal government signaled any intentions to introduce them. Indeed, across the board, there has been an absence of federal incentives or policies to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles, and in the case of the past Liberal (right-wing) federal government, an overt push to suppress EV availability and uptake. As well as reducing the availability of electric vehicles for purchase, the absence of policies supporting electric vehicles has led, according to some research, to Australian consumers paying over $500/yr in additional fuel and maintenance costs due to the inefficiency of the passenger vehicle fleet.

Given this history, it is clear that transitioning the vehicle fleet from high emissions to electric will be a persistent challenge for the country. Modelling undertaken by the federal government indicates that just 26% of the vehicle fleet will be electric by 2030. Other analysis by the Electric Vehicle Council demonstrated that in 2019, while 56% of surveyed consumers would consider purchasing an electric vehicle as their next car, 82% noted that ensuring public fast charging is available was important. However, even if charging access improved, consumers wanting to purchase an EV must import them and thus compete internationally for adequate supply. Of the 32 electric cars available in Australia, eight are made in Germany, China, and South Korea. Two are made each in the UK and Japan, and one model is available from France, Hungary, Austria, and Belgium.

Given this high dependency on emissions-intensive passenger vehicles, the transport sector produces a significant proportion of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2012, transport emissions increased by 50%, and by 2021 transport accounted for almost 20% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of these emissions, 60% came from cars. However, not all transport-related news is bleak. A recent analysis of fuel emissions demonstrated that average passenger cars and light SUVs in Australia produced 146.5g/km of CO2 emissions in 2021, (down from 150g/km in 2020), while heavy SUVs and light commercials scored 212.5g/km (218g/km in 2020). Alongside the new Labor Federal Government’s introduction of an Electric Car Discount Bill and commitment to building a national EV charging network, this slight decline in emissions offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

The slight reduction may be related to a new voluntary CO2 Emissions Standard introduced by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) in July 2020. The FCAI voluntary target aims to achieve under 100g of CO2 emissions for passenger cars and light SUVs, and under 145g/km for heavy SUVs and light commercials. However, even with the slight reduction recorded between 2020 and 2021, it is clear there is a long way to go in achieving even these voluntary targets. Indeed, the voluntary nature of the agreement has led to criticism, with some analysts arguing that the standards are so weak they encourage car manufacturers to continue to dump dirty engines in the country. Given these challenges, the FCAI is also continuing to call on the Federal Government to mandate emissions reductions in the transport sector.

While reducing emissions from the transport sector remain an ongoing challenge, there is a wealth of reliable, accurate, and timely data available to track progress. From modelling by the Climate Change Authority to quarterly national emissions and greenhouse gas inventory updates, and 4-year census surveys, accurate data is captured and made publicly available to all interested stakeholders. In addition, a number of special interest organisations and industry associations such as the Electric Vehicle Council also collect and analyse transport-related data. As a result, there is a wealth of sources available to cross-check and track data on passenger car production, use, and emissions.

Although Australians are well served with data, a long journey towards reducing emissions remains ahead. Government modelling completed in 2020 demonstrated that emissions from cars and light commercial vehicles produced 62 Mt CO2-e (62 percent of total transport emissions) in 2019. Only by 2024 are these emissions projected to begin declining, and even so, they are likely to only reduce to 58 Mt CO2-e by 2030. This small decline indicates that much more work is required to rapidly transition to zero-emission transport systems in Australia.


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver


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