Path to zero emissions: the future of transport

Path to zero emissions: the future of transport

To describe how I think transport will look in the future I need to set the scene. My Quarterly Essay, “Getting to Zero”, and the Australian Government’s Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, share the same philosophy on the role of technology. We recognise that there are incumbent technologies that are high emission and low cost, and there are new and emerging technologies that have zero emissions but they’re too expensive. They carry a cost premium – what Bill Gates calls a green premium.

Via the Roadmap, the Australian Government (and state governments are doing these kinds of things too) is investing alongside industry, reviewing regulatory barriers and spending on supporting infrastructure such as transmission lines, to help industry to navigate down the cost curve during the early, low-volume stages of technology introduction. Early adopters of new technologies will happily pay the green premium, which gives producers more manufacturing volume, and as the volume increases the green premium decreases to the point where the low emissions new technology reaches cost parity with the high emissions incumbent. 

That’s a tipping point at which any rational purchaser will buy the low emissions newcomer, which will drive the price even lower into the realm of what I call the green discount.

Particularly for personal transport, the changes are happening stunningly fast. 

We’ve already seen the green discount manifest itself in solar and wind electricity, and within three or four years, you’ll see cost parity achieved for the total cost of ownership of an electric car compared to a comparable petrol car.  I say “total cost” since the capital purchase costs will be higher, but your running costs will be much lower so your total cost of ownership will be at parity. 

And pundits are estimating that by 2030, or perhaps before then, the purchase price of electric cars will be about the same as comparably configured petrol cars. At that time, with the purchase price the same and the running cost lower, the total cost of ownership will be lower, and we’ll be enjoying the world of green discounts for our personal transport.

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A Grove hydrogen truck on display during the 19th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition, 2021. Credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Particularly for personal transport, the changes are happening stunningly fast. Around the world, all the largest manufacturers of passenger vehicles have declared their vision to change their fleets to zero emissions vehicles. General Motors, famous for building V8 vehicles, will not make a petrol powered vehicle – or as they would call it a gasoline powered vehicle – after 2035. Volvo will make the switch much earlier than that. 

And Volkswagen! Their response to the problems they had a few years ago with diesel vehicles has been to say: okay, we get it, we’ve got the message. And they are transforming. They are spending more than $20 billion every year to convert their manufacturing and vehicle designs to electric. That’s one car company, spending more per year on converting their fleet than most national governments spend on research and development across the whole of their economy.  And many countries have said that after 2030 or 2035, you won’t be able to legally sell a petrol or diesel new car.

Since full torque is available from a standing start, they don’t need a clutch, and they jump forward like a thoroughbred racehorse out of the starting gate.  

So, passenger vehicles are going to go electric, and to be specific, the vast majority of them will be battery electric. Some will be hydrogen powered, but remember that a hydrogen car is actually an electric car, with the energy stored as chemical energy in hydrogen in a tank instead of electrochemical energy in a battery. But mostly, you’d want to use batteries for passenger vehicles because they’ve got fabulous performance and incredible convenience. You charge them at home. I feel sorry for my friends who have to divert on the way home a couple of times a week to fill up with petrol. We’ve had an electric Nissan LEAF for eight years, and the only place we’ve ever filled it up is in our driveway or our garage. It is also worth noting that electricity is much cheaper than petrol per kilometre driven.

Now for big vehicles, it’ll be a slower transition to zero but it’s already beginning. And there, both batteries and hydrogen have a role, with hydrogen having a more important role the bigger the vehicle. Picture those big B-double trucks that go south to north and back in Australia. If they were using batteries, they wouldn’t be able load much cargo, because they’d be carrying many tonnes of batteries. Same with interstate trains, and very much so for cargo ships. These larger transport units will be using hydrogen, probably in the form of ammonia.

Given that electric motors in battery and hydrogen powered electric vehicles have extremely powerful twisting force (torque) and can spin out to 10,000 revs per minute or faster, the vast majority of electric vehicles don’t bother with shifting gears. Since full torque is available from a standing start, they don’t need a clutch, and they jump forward like a thoroughbred racehorse out of the starting gate. 

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Aviation company Airbus has developed a suite of concept aircraft, called ZEROe, with the aim of creating the world’s first zero-emission, hydrogen-power aircraft by 2035. Credit: Airbus

On top of that, and this is ultimately the most important thing, once the electricity supply is decarbonised electric vehicles will go a long way towards eliminating the 18% of our current emissions attributable to transport.

So it’s relatively easy to anticipate the transport system of the future as being electric vehicles: smaller and medium-sized ones powered by batteries, and bigger ones powered by hydrogen and its derivatives such as ammonia.

The one thing that I’m incapable of imagining is zero emissions long-distance aviation. That’s really tough. 

My optimism is because of the growing effectiveness of community will driving political will.

Airbus has a concept design for liquid-hydrogen-powered planes that would be for intermediate distance – up to about 4000 kilometres – carrying a couple of hundred passengers. But even Airbus doesn’t have a concept design for the sort of plane that will take off from Melbourne and land in Los Angeles with 350 passengers aboard. That long distance, regular air travel is hard to imagine powered by zero emissions hydrogen or ammonia.

For the long-distance flights, which are responsible for most aviation emissions, we might have to use some sort of synthetic kerosene – noting that jet fuel is kerosene. This takes us into the realm of doable but very expensive. It’s possible to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the process is expensive – it takes a lot of energy. You can then take clean hydrogen that you’ve made in a separate process, and combine the hydrogen with the captured carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbons, and ultimately synthetic kerosene. So there’s a pathway, but at the moment it’s just too expensive, and it’s not clear how it will become cost effective. We need to invest a whole lot more in research, so that eventually human ingenuity will deliver the answers. But right now, I just don’t know what the answers are.

A final word about the zero emissions big picture.

People ask me why I’m optimistic that our grandchildren will inhabit a planet as magnificent as the one that our grandparents grew up in, the planet we love and want to restore. My optimism is because of the growing effectiveness of community will driving political will.

In my Quarterly Essay I wrote about the importance of technology, and I made the point that I’m not so naive as to think new technology can solve our problems in the absence of policy, financing, community support and enabling markets.

We’ll survive, but it won’t be the world we want to survive in.

So, there’s community will, which is driving political will, which is leading to increasingly effective policies. That community will is also driving shareholders and companies and investors to invest in these green technologies. There’s AEMO – the Australian Energy Market Operator – and others ensuring effective markets to operate the zero emissions solutions. There are economists planning the levers that might help to lower the cost of the green alternatives. Eventually we’ll get to zero emissions. And if we get there at a reasonable pace, we’ll keep the temperature rise to something that is tolerable.

I’m not an existentialist – I don’t believe that we’re going to wipe out humanity. But I don’t want to live in a world with two or three or four degrees of temperature rise. We’ll survive, but it won’t be the world we want to survive in.

This is the edited transcript of a portion of a Cosmos video interview with Alan Finkel published in April. You can see the full interview here.

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