In the recent Federal Budget, the Australian Treasurer announced more than $4.5 billion in climate-related spending, the bulk of which will fund efforts to reduce Australian emissions. 

Among the Budget’s line items was $20.9 million dollars over five years to decarbonise transport and infrastructure, including $7.8 million to develop a Transport and Infrastructure Net Zero Roadmap and Action Plan.

This amount of money suggests the government is laying the groundwork for a more robust response for the transport and infrastructure in years to come. 

The timing of this commitment is critical. The transport sector is the fastest growing and third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia.

Australia’s population and economic growth will continue to drive emissions without a plan to decarbonise the transport sector. Australia’s growing preference for larger vehicles has also been eating away at the small emissions reduction gains achieved through electric vehicle (EV) uptake.   

Funding the plan is the first, crucial step for successfully decarbonising the sector. More than this, including decarbonisation efforts across all aspects of the transport sector in this plan couldn’t be more important.

Australian Parliament House at dusk, Wikimedia commons: Thennicke, CC BY SA 4.0
The 2023 Federal Budget included more than $20 million over five years to decarbonise transport and infrastructure. (Wikimedia commons: Thennicke, CC BY SA 4.0)

There’s been a tendency to equate transport decarbonisation with EV uptake in Australia. But a plan that will decarbonise transport quickly enough will need to look well beyond technology solutions for private cars (like EVs) and instead diversify investment and solutions.

Transport is ripe for systems change. Reforms to maximise emissions reduction and improve transport outcomes, can help Australia overachieve on its legislated emissions reduction goal and come closer to a 1.5°C-aligned emissions reduction trajectory. 

Climateworks Centre is updating its transport sector modelling to build on the momentum underway on the transition to EVs. This update will showcase a broader, feasible pathway to decarbonise transport in the timeframe we need. Our approach includes a range of interventions and policy opportunities, including efforts that are already underway today.

A broad vision for decarbonised transport in Australia is one that ensures all parts of the sector reduce emissions, for example:

  • shifting trips to more environmentally friendly modes of transport where possible, including public transport walking and cycling
  • avoiding having to travel so far through better city planning so we are close to the thing we need, including jobs and services, and there are more low emissions transport options built in
  • reducing the amount of kilometres our goods have to travel by making freight systems more efficient
  • Giving Australia’s freight sector more attention, including improving the technology used in Australia’s truck fleet.

More EVs, as well as more than EVs

The solution for reducing transport emissions that most Australians are familiar with and embrace is switching from internal combustion engine cars to EVs.

Polls show that more than half of Australians want their next car to be electric.

The recently released National EV Strategy saw funding allocation of $7.4 million to develop the long-awaited Fuel Efficiency Standards, and another $5.2 million for charging infrastructure and battery recycling among other measures. This builds on states’ and territories’ targets and incentives, which have got the EV market rolling in Australia. 

The transport system is broader than just passenger cars, and there are more solutions than changing the car we drive.

Shifting to more environmentally friendly modes of transport not only helps cut emissions but also helps make cities more accessible.

A robust transport decarbonisation approach will use a range of complementary and integrated solutions to reduce emissions quicker while creating more efficient, equitable, affordable and accessible transport options for everyone relying on transport to live and work. 

Reduce demand through better planning

To complement the vehicle improvements already underway, policy-makers should be looking for ways to avoid and reduce the need for motorised travel in the first place.

Land-use planning is the focal point here. In order to avoid emissions, providing housing in places close to jobs and services can go a long way to reducing emissions and commute times.

Ensuring that public and active transport infrastructure and services are delivered early on in new housing developments can reduce emissions from the start.

More flexible working arrangements that allow people to work from home and avoid a commute is another intervention that can help avoid emissions. 

Public transport, walking and cycling investment

In addition, shifting to more environmentally friendly modes of transport – public transport, cycling, walking, e-scooters and the like – not only helps cut emissions but also helps make cities more accessible and liveable for people who call them home.

The vast majority of Australia’s transport emissions are generated in major cities and urban areas which are already facing congestion, sprawl and liveability issues.

As populations continue to grow in these areas, alternatives to vehicle transport will be a boon for liveability.

Transport decarbonisation goes beyond moving people

Beyond moving people, Australia’s economy as well as our access to goods and services that rely on freight transport are an equally important piece of the decarbonisation puzzle.

Freight is approximately 46 per cent of emissions and the sector is predicted to grow 9 per cent by 2035, due to increased economic activity. Half of this is in the light commercial vehicle sector, which suggests a large number of trips are urban or short-distance trips.

There are ready emissions reduction solutions here such as improving the efficiency of delivery systems, using local distribution hubs and shifting to zero emissions alternatives such as cargo bikes or renewably-powered electric vans.

For longer freight trips, there is equally a suite of available solutions to reduce emissions through making deliveries more efficient, supporting more freight to travel by rail and supporting truck operators to use zero-emissions vehicles.

As the transport and freight sectors come under greater pressure, they could also face competitive markets in carbon offsets and so interventions that reduce emissions directly and quickly will be crucial.

Australia can build on its EV momentum to create an integrated, national approach to net zero transport, bringing together work already underway and giving it a boost through a consistent national approach. Decarbonising transport involves more than just private passenger transport.

Infrastructure investment, city planning and freight and logistics operations will all have a bearing on how the sector gets to net zero emissions. Coordinating these disparate parts of transport will be a challenge and creating a plan is therefore paramount.

It will be vital to see the Net Zero Roadmap and Action Plan set out clear targets for each part of the sector, beyond EVs, to understand their role and next steps for reducing emissions.