Australia’s top-selling utes are among the most expensive and polluting vehicles to run and their popularity means transport emissions are projected to remain high as manufacturers funnel their least efficient models to the Australian market due to a lack of fuel-efficiency standards.

In its Ute Beauty! report the Climate Council argues that while the goal to decarbonise transport in Australia has to rely on electric vehicles including utes in the long term, “this won’t happen overnight” and new laws are needed in the interim to shift Australians away from high-polluting utes and into the most efficient models on the market over the next decade.

The report comes amid surging uptake of SUVs and dual cab utes in Australia over the past decade, which has seen transport emissions spike as comparable nations reduce theirs. Experts argue various tax perks are incentivising the uptake of larger vehicles and Australians are paying billions of dollars extra at the bowser each year to fuel these cars.

Dr Jennifer Rayner, the head of advocacy at the Climate Council, said “while it’s true that electric vehicles and utes might not be accessible in the near future for everyone”, there needs to be an interim solution to address the emissions impact.

“If people really need a ute for work today, there are much more efficient and cheaper-to-run utes out there than most Australians are buying,” Rayner said.

“People who want to cut their fuel bill and emissions can do that without waiting for any new technology. There are vehicles on the market right now.”

The report found the two top-selling utes in Australia, the Toyota HiLux and the Ford Ranger, are among the most expensive to run and have poor tailpipe CO2 emissions, while other popular utes such as the Toyota LandCruiser are considerably worse.

However, the report highlights some readily available models that are fuel efficient, such as the Mazda BT-50.

“If in the next five years everyone in the market for a ute bought the most efficient 2022 model, this would cut collective fuel bills by $210m over that period and avoid 436,600 tonnes of harmful CO2 emissions being pumped into our atmosphere,” the report said.

Rayner also said consumer choice would play an important role in decarbonising Australia’s transport industry and Australians should only be buying utes and large vehicles if they require them.

However, she noted demand for electric and more efficient vehicles in Australia is already high, but a lack of government policy means there is insufficient supply for the local market.

Rayner points to fuel-efficiency standards as the solution and notes the EU, US and New Zealand have strong standards in place.

Fuel-efficiency standards limit emissions from cars by creating a cap of carbon emissions across a manufacturer’s overall sales. This provides an incentive for manufacturers to supply low and zero-emissions vehicles to a country, Rayner said, and penalises companies for failing to do so.

“Right now manufacturers have no incentive to bring cleaner vehicles here because they lose out on incentives if they don’t take them to other markets that do have standards. That’s why they’re bringing their most polluting cars to our market,” Rayner said.

“Fuel-efficiency standards can put Australia at the front of the queue for those zero and low-emissions vehicles.

“If we don’t make any policy interventions, we’re just going to keep getting the high emissions and high-polluting vehicles we currently are.”

Rayner also noted a Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries study this week that found emissions from utes and large SUVs have exceeded the body’s voluntary emissions targets. Carbon emissions from heavy SUVs and light commercial vehicles, including utes, rose to 212.8 grams per kilometre in 2022, far exceeding the industry target of 189 grams.

“These results highlight why Australia needs strong mandatory fuel-efficiency standards to save Australians money on their petrol bills and drive down transport emissions. Car manufacturers set themselves a weak voluntary standard and still missed it by a mile last year for some types of vehicles,” Rayner said.