Australians keep buying huge cars in huge numbers. If we want to cut emissions, this can’t go on | Richard Denniss

Parisians just voted to charge large vehicles three times more to park in the city than small vehicles. In Australia we offer the most convenient parking for free to people driving enormous twin-cab utes (we call them loading zones, even though you don’t have to load up anything more than your groceries). Policy choices matter.

Last year all of Australia’s top 10 selling cars were twin-cab utes or large SUVs. And just as most utes aren’t really shifting cargo around our cities, “sports utility vehicles” are not engaged in sport – and they clearly aren’t utilities. But the names used to describe these expensive, inefficient and dangerous forms of transport are by no means the most absurd thing about Australian car culture.

Economics 101 says we should tax things we want fewer of and subsidise things we want more of, but in Australia we subsidise the purchase of twin-cab utes and charge goods and services tax on bikes and public transport. It’s as though economics plays absolutely no role in the design of our tax or transport systems.

According to the Australian Taxation Office, if a vehicle can carry more than one tonne of cargo it must be a “commercial vehicle”, even if the vehicle never carries anything heavier than a laptop. And if you or your employer buys you a “commercial vehicle” for work purposes, you don’t have to worry about that pesky fringe benefits tax or even keep track of the percentage of your car use for work or personal matters.

How can this be? It’s because, as the ATO sees it, what are the odds people would choose to drive a huge twin-cab ute around the city if they weren’t carrying lots of cargo?

If Australia were serious about the climate crisis – admittedly that’s a big if in a country that is still subsidising new gas and coalmines – one of the easiest ways to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while saving people a lot of money, would be to encourage a rapid shift from big cars to small cars and public transport. But while Australian governments love population growth, they hate planning for car-free cities – almost as much as they love catering for the biggest cars on our roads.

Standards Australia has floated the idea of enlarging the size of a standard car parking space to accommodate the steadily expanding size of passenger vehicles. While this was applauded by some drivers, the fact that enlarging parking spaces would inevitably mean an overall reduction in the number of parking spaces (that haven’t already been turned into loading zones) seems to have been lost on most.

If we were serious about reducing Australia’s transport emissions we would be removing the GST from bikes and public transport and providing dedicated car parking spaces for small cars in our cities. Because small cars take up much less room than giant twin-cab utes, offering dedicated spaces for them would lead to an overall increase in the number of spaces available, an outcome that would ultimately benefit drivers of big cars as well. The opposite is of course true; if we paint the lines further apart to accommodate all the subsidised utes, there will be fewer spaces for everyone, including the ute drivers.

Of course parking rules aren’t the only way to influence vehicle choices. The Albanese government has just announced yet another consultation paper on the shape of fuel efficiency standards for Australian vehicles. Significantly, Australia and Russia are the only developed countries who are yet to introduce such standards. While there is no doubt that the government’s preferred model is a big step in the right direction, it looks quite likely that the scheme will succeed in simultaneously encouraging the sale of electric vehicles while failing to rein in the number of large SUVs and twin-cab utes on our roads. Indeed, the government’s own modelling suggests that the number of such vehicles, and the total amount of fuel used, will continue to grow.

While the easiest way to increase the fuel efficiency of the Australian vehicle fleet would be to reduce the number of big vehicles on the road, the easiest solution is rarely the most politically palatable. And so it is that the Albanese government has designed a complicated proposal that will encourage a lot more people to buy electric vehicles while doing little, if anything, to rein in demand for the utes taking up so much space in our cities.

The government will no doubt get a big tick from the electric vehicle industry for its new fuel efficiency standards but a clear goal of the policy was to simultaneously avoid getting a big kick from the companies that sell the utes. While the outcome might be good politics, as long as Australians are buying enormous cars in enormous numbers, we clearly aren’t trying hard to reduce emissions.


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