Freelancer writer Alice Body writes: The wheels aren’t just turning on the electric vehicle (EV); the whole industry is accelerating thanks to a major new initiative by the Chinese government. Officials are planning on completing no less than 10 million electric parking spaces by 2020, Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co’s (BAIC) president Wang Dazong revealed last week.

The plan coincides with other incentive actions by Chinese policymakers that will not only help free China from its dependency on foreign oil and lighten their carbon load, but will also further bolster their economic position in a world with dwindling oil supplies. Australia, take note.

China’s ten million electric parking spaces complement several other government endeavours to make EVs attractive to produce. The government’s 2009 $220 million stimulus package encouraged local Chinese carmakers such as BAIC and BYD to upgrade to green automotive technology. In October last year, China’s Minister of Science and Technology estimated that 8.5 billion yuan (AU$1.3 billion) has been invested in the green car industry thus far.

Consumers are also benefiting from — and thus helping to support and maintain — China’s commitment to the EV revolution. The government is giving 120,000 yuan (AU$18,276) to each EV consumer. Such strong support from both the public and private sectors should lead to increasingly affordable EVs.

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China’s output of electric and hybrid vehicles is expected to reach one million units by 2020. Such developments are the rumblings of a formidable domestic market, good news for China’s already-healthy economic appetite. In fact, it all sounds just peachy — if you’re Chinese.

If you’re an Australian watching these events unfold, you may be feeling more like a backseat driver. Oil is expected to reach US$200 a barrel within five years, and at the moment Australia’s carmakers provide just 15% of cars sold in the domestic market each year. How better to reinvigorate the Australian auto-industry, and cope with skyrocketing petrol expenses, than to evolve to the future of car-buyer demand, especially when it’s so clearly foreseeable? A switch to EV production is the inevitable solution.

Matthew Wright, Executive Director of Beyond Zero Emissions, laid out the challenge for the Gillard government last week: “The time has come for the Labor government to strengthen the car industry and turn threats into opportunities, providing matched funding to retool Australian car plants for electric-vehicle production.” For Wright, laying the foundation of an EV market in Australia is the key to a profitable manufacturing sector.

Julia Gillard’s Multi-Party Climate Change Committee may continue their carbon-pricing banter, but it’s significantly harder to hear over China’s assertive statement. While a carbon-pricing model is an important part to any policy tackling climate change, direct public investment in renewable technology is inescapably integral to getting those carbon-loaded wheels out of the fossil fuel quagmire and on to the right renewable track.

Climate change writer Leigh Ewbank tells Crikey that “carbon pricing is just one policy tool and is of limited use for deploying enabling infrastructure like EV recharging stations. While this infrastructure has the potential to decarbonise Australia’s transport,” he argues, “it doesn’t directly reduce carbon and therefore won’t benefit from carbon markets. We need government and private sector collaboration and investment to build the foundation for a domestic EV market.”

Happily, Australia isn’t completely out of the EV loop. California-based EV infrastructure company Better Place is off to a head start in Australia — their project Better Place Australia installed their first electric charging station in Canberra last October, on top of plans to start establishing a nationwide EV infrastructure network later this year. Through agreements with AGL Energy and Macquarie Capital Group, Better Place Australia plans to raise $AU1 billion toward the network. Yet such seemingly positive developments are not without their uncertainties. How will Better Place fare without government assistance — and within what time-frame? Are Australian-owned infrastructure companies missing out on a glaring opportunity under their very noses?

Australia currently holds fourth place as the country with most cars per capita, a sure gauge of a society hooked on private transport and, subsequently, a rather unwholesome fossil fuel diet. Interesting when you think that each of China’s 10 million future electric parking spaces could be shared by just 1.5 of Australia’s 15 million cars on the roads at the moment.

See more of Alice Body’s writings on her blog. She is also a volunteer at Beyond Zero Emissions.

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