Clean road transport game plan

Enjoyed reading Prime Mover magazine’s recent sustainability report series. Signing the COP21 Paris accord certainly does accelerate the need for a commercial road transport industry game plan to lead Australian business and government policy responses or we’ll be left wondering what happened post-2020. The language has changed: “low carbon” ambitions of last century are obsolete; specific, measurable “zero carbon” goals are in.

With an old truck fleet averaging 14+ years of age, half our technology is last century too. Fuel is such a critical and volatile cost; why the lack of fleet renewal in Australia? Especially when new fuel-efficient trucks promise substantial operating cost savings and liquid capital markets offer the cheapest interest rates in memory. Perhaps it’s the difficulty accessing capital when thin profit margins produce long paybacks on capital intensive equipment?

To help operators buy new trucks, government funds are available from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Emissions Reduction Fund, but there’s been little take-up. If these programs don’t suit the industry, we need to understand what policies will work and advocate accordingly. Without effective government assistance we’ll continue falling further behind the rest of the world. Reducing fuel tax credits for trucks over 13 years old and using the money saved to help operators buy new trucks is a great idea.  

The US SuperTruck program shows the critical role government can play, not only in R&D but also supporting market adoption of new technologies at scale. The USA has many policies that may work here: fuel efficiency standards; standards for renewable and low carbon fuels; vouchers to help buy efficient trucks; co-investment in alternative fuel infrastructure and vehicle technology; and a Smartway partnership between government and industry that tests, benchmarks and informs operators on green transport technologies, so successful there’s now similar programs in Europe, Asia and Brazil. Meanwhile the enormous carbon reductions possible through biodiesel use in Australia have previously been constrained by perverse government policies. While Scania and Volvo show biofuel blends all the way up to B100 are technically viable, fuel tax credits only apply up to a B20 blend limit.

The commercial road transport industry needs targets. Aviation is the first transport sector to set a global goal, aiming for carbon-neutral growth after 2020. Key to this is a target of 1.5% fuel efficiency improvement each year, currently being over-achieved at 2.9% p.a. While emerging technologies featured in Prime Mover’s report may help a clean energy transition in the future, fuel efficiency remains the best action we can take now using current technologies. Key to this will be using the growing daily flood of data coming from each modern truck.

Transport is Australia’s largest energy user, so action in the road freight sector will be critical to achieving the Paris COP21 zero carbon goals. Doubling energy productivity, using clean fuels and offsetting residual emissions is the way forward. Carbon neutral engine oil is a brilliant start; zero carbon transport is the new goal. Making it happen, to use Prime Mover’s June editorial theme, is now the challenge. Creating a game plan with the industry’s green and clean solutions for input to the 2017 Australian climate policy review, rather than taking the policies we’re given, will take collaboration and leadership, and the time to start is now.