OPINION | States stepping up where Feds fail


Crispin Hull


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Australia so often follows the US – whether stupidly into war or in other good ways.

It is happening again in the wake of both nations’ Federal Governments determination to do nothing about the climate crisis and the development and take-up of autonomous and electric vehicles to bust congestion and pollution in our cities and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

In both countries states and cities are giving up on the Feds and taking their own actions. And the private sector, too, is joining the fray. In their way, individuals will follow.

The disruption is coming. Better to embrace it and prepare for it than resist.

If the Australian Federal Government remains blind to the influence electric vehicles will have on its revenue stream from fuel taxes it might be in for a rude shock.

The states will soon be able to raise the equivalent of their own fuel taxes. The Commonwealth took over fuel taxes in 1997 when the High Court ruled unconstitutional state schemes to tax tobacco (and by inference fuel) through a licence scheme based on consumption levels. The court held that that was an excise, which the Constitution says is exclusively federal.

But a tax based on distance, time and place travelled recorded by existing technology which the states could mandate with vehicle registration or re-registration is almost certainly not an excise and not unconstitutional.

The states have shown no shyness in standing up to Federal inaction.

This week NSW repeated its pledge to set its own carbon emission targets unless the Feds do something, which they show do sign of doing so.

Victoria will set an interim target early next year.

In the US, California was the first US state to set a target – to 1990 levels by 2020 (which has been met) and to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Twenty-two other states and DC have followed.

It would be better if both Federal Governments set tough targets and acted to meet them. But even if they do not, both countries will head to a renewable future whether their coal-loving national governments like it or not.

Australia faces a double whammy. Domestic emission reduction is only half the story. Our largest export is coal at $67 billion, or 15 per cent of our exports.

The market for coking coal its likely to hold up for some time to come. You need the carbon in coking coal to add to iron to make steel.

But the global demand for thermal coal (about two-thirds of what we produce) is going to collapse before too long because renewables are cheaper and the Europeans and Chinese will demand all nations set and meet emissions targets or face trade sanctions. Moving electricity generation away from coal is the easiest way to reduce emissions.

So Australia faces the biggest trade change it has had for half a century. A government serious about the economy would be starting to plan for it. We should be heavily promoting electric vehicles so we can reduce the $30 billion a year petroleum import bill and we should be promoting large-scale solar and wind projects on unproductive land (which we have plenty of) and export the electricity (or hydrogen produced from it) to our northern neighbours, particularly Singapore which does not have any unproductive land so cannot make renewable energy as cheaply as Australia.

It used to be Labor, with its union mates’ concern for jobs, that resisted technological change. Now it is the Liberals, with their mates in established industries, who resist it. The Luddites have swapped political parties in Australia.

To some extent the same thing happened with the Democrats and Republicans in the US.

After electricity generation, transport will be the next big-ticket item if we are to meet the climate crisis and avoid economically catastrophic global heating.

Again, the Liberal Luddites at the federal level are happy to remain idle. However, at state and city level, where roads policy, congestion and pollution really matter, administrations are more active, especially in the US.

At the Federal level in both countries, the Government is really only interested in building more roads and more freeways and is not concerned much with public transport; promoting cycling and scooters over cars; and promoting electric and autonomous vehicles.

Trams and light rail are already electric. Buses are going that way. Powering buses with batteries is ideal. Buses have set routes of set distances and return to depots, so running out of charge is not a problem. Passengers much prefer electric buses. There is less vibration; no fumes and they are quieter. They are also lighter and do less road damage and are easier and cheaper to maintain.

If we follow the US trend, expect shared electric scooter riding to explode in our major cities. It the past year, at nearly 40 million rides, they outstripped share cycling for the first time. Again, nimble city administrations are leading the way.

Building bigger and more freeways – the preferred method of the Federal Government – will do far less to ease congestion than better public transport and smart technology.

Some US cities are already using traffic light technology that uses videos to determine traffic levels (including pedestrians, cyclists and emergency vehicles) and to change green and red light times to smooth traffic flows. They are testing systems where vehicles send proposed-route information to the system and the system optimises traffic lights accordingly or even suggests alternative routes.

This technology cut travel time and emissions by 40 per cent in trials in Pittsburgh.

More importantly, their respective state governments and universities are all co-operating in the research. This eliminates the fear that one city might be stranded with incompatible technology if it goes it alone.

NSW and Victoria must not repeat the railways mistake of the late 19 th century. If just those two states co-operate on things like electric and autonomous vehicles and smart technology, it will not matter much what the Feds do or, more likely, do not do – subject to a dire caveat.

In short, we are lucky we live in a federation. It used to be that Labor supporters wanted the states out of the way so the national government could progress the nation and Liberal supporters were the proponents of states’ rights. That is reversing as the states want progress and the Feds are laggards.

And the dire caveat? It is that the Feds have power over imports and could prevent the import of electric and autonomous vehicles and all the smart technology to record journeys for taxing and congestion purposes.

This would be unlikely, however, because the motor dealers have become a powerful lobby since Australia stopped manufacturing cars and no government would stand between a car dealer and a dollar.

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