Time for hard policy decisions around decarbonisation of trucking

A day doesn’t go by without a spate of media stories pushing hydrogen as a viable fuel alternative to diesel, or that electric trucks are entering the market, although in small numbers and for specialised purposes.

The transport sector is responsible for about 18.6 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport (passenger and freight) for about 85 per cent or that.

Australia has committed to a 43 per cent decrease in total emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050.

I know most heavy vehicle operators are too busy making ends meet to be too concerned about decarbonisation. 

In fact, NatRoad research released earlier this year showed that only eight percent in a sample of 158 trucking companies considered reducing their carbon footprint as ‘very important’. 

The rapidly changing business environment means that we need to start thinking about what the future looks like sooner rather than later. 

Big supermarket Coles, for example, recently announced that by 2027, it will only work with suppliers that have science-based emissions reduction targets.

Whichever way you look at it, change is coming.

NatRoad is doing some substantial work in the background, looking at what our members need in terms of a roadmap to net zero. We’ll have more to say shortly, but I want to share some preliminary thoughts.

The Australian Government has committed to a number of plans to reduce emissions in the heavy vehicle sector, including the Future Fuels and Vehicles Strategy, the National Electric Vehicle Strategy and the yet to be finalised Transport and Infrastructure Net Zero Roadmap and Action Plan. 

The existing documents are big picture and thin on detail, and there’s much more work to be done.

The Future Fuels and Vehicles Strategy, for example, identifies five priority initiatives: investment in electric vehicle charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and helping businesses access latest vehicle technologies.

The Electric Vehicle Strategy covers all road transport and in acknowledging the challenges also poses many questions. 

For example, what fuel efficiency standards need to be in place? 

Given we import most of our trucks, how can domestic assembly be expanded to encourage rapid uptake of alternate fuel vehicles? 

And with the looming loss of income from fuel excise, how should we approach a new road user charging regime?

Australia traditionally looks overseas for solutions to many policy problems – and that’s where we see some fundamentally different approaches.

Most US freight shipments, move less than 400km. According to the European Union’s version of the ABS, about 45 per cent of all goods transported on its roads travels less than 300km.

In the Australian context, trucks travel an average of 232km per day, but this figure hides some big extremes. In capital cities the average is less than half, but our regional and long-distance operators travel much more.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCEVs) powered by electric engines use hydrogen fuel cells as their main source of energy. Hydrogen burns without carbon emissions. Its batteries weigh much less than those in EVs and take less than five minutes to refuel. 

FCEVs will have a comparable range to diesel engines but they are still under development.

Electric trucks may increasingly be viable in our cities, but our diverse and significant freight task will require multiple technology approaches so that operators can choose the best truck for the freight job.

In March 2022, the NSW, Victoria and Queensland governments announced a landmark collaboration to create a renewable hydrogen refuelling network for heavy transport along the eastern seaboard. The Albanese government has since put more money on the table for hydrogen refuelling.

But despite all of that, a new report from the CSIRO finds that Australia risks falling behind. It says our investment in hydrogen refuelling is too slow, and major public-private partnerships have been critical overseas to stimulating demand.

Perhaps the future for road transport will be a combination of electric and hydrogen fuel technology, depending on the nature of the freight task.

The internal combustion engine will also likely continue to be needed for our heaviest and most remote freight tasks. But the supply of alternative fuels that we will need to reduce emissions for these vehicles are largely absent. 

The one certainty is that the current policy framework is not yet right for trucking operators to make cost-effective decisions to decarbonise. 

Both risks and costs to operators need to be reduced if emissions reduction targets are to be realised.

  • Warren Clark is NatRoad CEO

1 Comment

  1. where is the bio fuel industry? its almost non existent here. we could make a lot of bio fuel from the waste products of our agriculture industry.

    there is at least one piggery in qld that is using the waste manure,feed and waste from the on-site meat works to make bio fuel in a bio digester, they use the resulting bio gas to power a genset to generate some of their electric power needs.

    we dump large quantities of fruit and veg before it even leaves the farm what if this could be used to make biodiesel or bio gas to run the tractors.
    during ww2 many farmers had gas producers on theirr tractors and used pig or cow manure to make gas its well under stood technology.

    we could deal with the plastic crisis and make fuel and other useful chemicals using plastic pyrolisis plants. virtually all plastic is made from oil or natural gas. and plastics are here to stay. for some things there just isnt a viable alternative to plastic packaging. so why not turn that into another product.

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