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Cutting greenhouse emissions can start in simple ways

By Nicholas Low - posted Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Sir Nicholas Stern has told us that Australia needs to set a target of at least a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on 1990 levels by 2050. That target has to apply to the transport sector where, according to the Allen report a few years ago, Australia was on track towards a 67 per cent increase in emissions by 2050. Growth of transport energy use is closely coupled to economic growth. It has to be decoupled if global warming is not to make the Earth uninhabitable.

What's the answer? Well we can wait for technological advance to come up with "the golden bullet" - the hydrogen car, nuclear power stations or clean coal. Or we can get on with the job of reducing carbon emissions right now with what works. Two scientists from Princeton University, writing in the journal Science, tell us that the necessary reduction in emissions can be achieved without the development of dramatic new technologies, but rather by a mixture of current and well-known technologies, and some change in human behaviour.

If these scientists' thinking is applied to transport, a 70 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions can be achieved. A 70 per cent reduction from transport looks daunting, but if just five smaller steps are taken simultaneously, and spread over, say, 20 years, the goal looks more possible.


Step 1: Reduce travel demand by 20 per cent. Obviously people in cities have to travel to get to work, but are the massive flows of the daily journey to work really necessary? A 20 per cent cut would take Melbourne back to about the amount of travel in 1998. Remote communications with the use of the Internet and email could make it possible for a significant number of people to go to the office just three days a week instead of five. Improved logistics in the delivery of goods could make some of those journeys by half-empty trucks unnecessary. Still, most people, 80 per cent, would continue to travel as before.

Step 2: Shift 20 per cent of journeys to low or non-greenhouse gas emitting modes of transport. Most trips in the city are of less than five kilometres. Some of these trips could be made on foot, or by bike. Some could be made by low emission public transport.

Step 3: Improve vehicle greenhouse performance by 20 per cent by the use of alternative fuels (biofuels, LPG etc). Improvements in engine technology now in train could well deliver such a reduction.

Step 4: Improve fuel efficiency for travel by 20 per cent. This is perhaps the easiest step of all. Travel does not require large heavy fuel-guzzling cars. Such vehicles are for style, not travel, and style can be delivered in other ways once the true price of travel is paid.

Step 5: Obtain 20 per cent of energy for travel in individual motor vehicles from zero-carbon sources. Solar electric energy is coming. Electric vehicle refuelling could be linked to housing equipped with high-efficiency solar arrays to recharge batteries, as already installed in one suburban house in Oxford, UK. New generation photovoltaic "sliver" cells could be used.

These are things that can be done, starting now. We don't know for sure whether these steps will each deliver the 20 per cent improvement necessary. There may be other steps that could be taken. There are certainly still many questions to be answered: for instance, about whether biofuel production will displace food production or natural forests. Some steps may deliver less, some much more. The point is that together they will multiply to nearly a 70 per cent reduction in emissions from transport over 20 or 30 years.


However, to achieve these steps, regime change will be necessary, not of the political regime but the regime of incentives, subsidies and regulations that frame market transactions today. For instance, the Government subsidies to four-wheel-drive vehicles would have to be changed to subsidies to low-emission vehicles. Much more money must be spent improving safety on the roads for cyclists and pedestrians everywhere in cities. Major improvements will be necessary to public transport systems whether the service is delivered by the public or private sector or a mixture of both.

Australia cannot afford climate change on the scale now predicted. No dollar value can possibly reflect the loss of human habitat and food production that climate change will bring in its train. To meet the challenge, the price of greenhouse gas emitting energy will have to rise to a level that reduces its consumption. But that price will be lower if the alternatives are readily available. We need to start thinking about them now, and planning to adapt to the new reality.

Join the debate on public transport at the GAMUT website.

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First published in The Age on March 30, 2007.

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About the Author

Nicholas Low is director of the Australasian Centre for Governance and Management of Urban Transport, University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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