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Car companies face pressure to leave Australian industry group after documents reveal its lobbying on emissions

A wide view from the side of a main road of cars and trucks driving in both directions through fog
Australia’s Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries has pushed for a less ambitious voluntary emissions target rather than government-mandated limits. Photograph: Jono Searle/AAP

Car companies have faced calls to reconsider their membership of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, after documents revealed the industry group’s lobbying campaign on weaker road transport emissions limits.

The documents, reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, described a current lobbying and public relations campaign by the industry association to influence how Australia attempts to tackle its rising road transport emissions.

The FCAI represents 39 car brands and has pushed to have a less ambitious voluntary emissions target rather than federal government-mandated emissions limits.

In order to achieve this, the FCAI planned to present itself as the “trusted voice” and “moderate middle” of the climate debate as it advocates for weaker fuel efficiency standards.

Under the internal plan, new passenger cars sold in Australian in 2030 would be allowed to produce at least 98g of CO2 a kilometre. This compares to standards in Europe which currently limit cars sold to 95g of CO2 a kilometre and where many jurisdictions have introduced plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel engines entirely by 2030.

The FCAI has previously publicly said the limit on these emissions should be set at 100g of CO2 a kilometre, though its chief executive, Tony Weber, said this was a “typo”.

Weber said the organisation carried out “research” and developed its voluntary emissions code in 2019 when “the government wasn’t interested in putting in a CO2 target”.

He said the industry’s position was “give us the [CO2] and we’ll give you the technology”.

“What we need to do is develop a policy to decarbonise the light vehicle sector in the most efficient and effective way in the Australia context,” Weber said. “Now for some people, the answer will be battery electric because battery electric is a fantastic technology. But for some Australians it may be some other technology.”

The climate lead at the Australasian centre for corporate responsibility, Harriet Kater, said the documents confirmed long-held suspicions about the industry body’s lobbying efforts.

“The only unusual thing about this is that it’s been exposed,” Kater said. “It’s lifted the hood.”

She said the advocacy means the organisation and its “technology neutral approach” is prioritising the interests of some members above others, particularly those car companies looking to transition their product lines to electric vehicles.

“Ideally, [those companies] should withdraw financial support from these organisations,” she said. “They should vote with their feet.”

Weber said the organisation provided a range of benefits to members and that the decision about the association’s policy is made by the board.

“These are difficult decisions but the membership base are supportive of our position,” Weber said.

The FCAI’s position places it directly at odds with other industry bodies such as the Electric Vehicle Council (EVC) which represents companies transitioning their product range into battery electric vehicles.

In a recent submission, the council told the government a failure to act will prompt the states to go it alone by introducing EV sales targets.

Behyad Jafari from the EVC said it was not surprising “certain car companies are trying to block or water down fuel efficiency standards” and said it was “absurd” to suggest “Australia is so unique” that we can’t have the same standards as elsewhere.

“The reality for us in 2022 is that the rest of the world, US, Europe, Asia and [New Zealand] are really very far ahead of us and they have strong targets in place,” Jafari said.

Over the last decade, the Australian government has dragged its feet on introducing fuel efficiency and emissions standards which has cost Australians $5.9bn in fuel costs over the last six years alone, according to research by the Australia Institute.

Audrey Quicke, a climate and energy researcher at the institute, said these standards would have prevented emissions equal to one year’s worth of domestic flights and reduced the country’s reliance on oil imports.

“If we had fuel efficiency standards in place, we’d be having to put less fuels into our vehicles to travel the same distance and we’d also have EVs in the market as well,” Quicke said.

She said the voluntary standard contained “loopholes” that will allow companies which have been slow to transition to electric vehicles to continue selling polluting petrol and diesel cars, and “obsolete” hybrid vehicles to the Australian market long after they have been banned elsewhere.

“That’s exactly where we are at the moment,” she said. “We are a dumping ground for fuel inefficient vehicles at the moment. Because companies don’t face penalties for doing so.”

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