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Cars not always the greenhouse culprit

Occasionally use a bicycle to commute, or use public transport, and you'll probably be eligible to drive a V12 sports car on Sunday.

Hypothetical? Not according to the Australian Greenhouse Office, which argues that hybrid cars aren't the answer.

Bigger reductions in greenhouse gases — which include carbon-dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane — are possible around the house.

The office also reports that passenger cars contribute 7 per cent of Australia's total greenhouse-gas emissions — less than the nation's cow and sheep population emit through flatulence.

Bushfires beat both, but the doozy is the greenhouse gases emitted to produce electricity — a whopping 35 per cent of Australia's total. Unless new and cleaner power sources for electricity generation are found, Australia — and the world — won't be able to justify mass use of plug-in electric cars.

Think GM's aborted electric car was part of a conspiracy? It wasn't, but it made for an interesting film, Who Killed The Electric Car?.

Basically, if all the 11 million passenger cars on Australian roads were suddenly converted to plug-in electric power, there would be no car emissions. But the electricity required to charge these cars would create a massive increase in greenhouse gases.

Current electric plug-in cars marketed in the US and Europe require an average of 0.25kWh for each kilometre travelled.

Electricity from a combination of gas and coal-fired stations in Australia produces 0.99kg of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2 which adds to other greenhouse gases) for 1kWh according to the Sustainable Energy Development Office.

An electric car travelling 20,000km a year indirectly produces 4950kg of CO2 a year.

By comparison, a Toyota Prius hybrid emits 2120kg of CO2 a year; a Toyota Camry petrol four-cylinder 4660kg; a Holden Commodore V8 6600kg; a Volkswagen Golf diesel 2980kg; and a Smart Fortwo 2260kg (source: Australian Greenhouse Office).

Even a BMW X5 SUV diesel emits 4620kg — 330kg a year less greenhouse gas than an electric car.

Of course, there are emissions from refining oil and gas. In Australia, that is estimated at "less than 4 per cent" of all energy emissions.

Future electric cars are expected to have more efficient batteries, with the Lotus Elise-based Tesla prototype claiming 0.16kWh/km — resulting in 3168kg of CO2 a year.

Change the electricity station to natural gas — which emits only 0.21kg per 1kWh — and electric cars start to make a difference.

Change to sustainable power — wind or solar — and we will have virtually emission-free transport. That won't happen overnight.

What can happen is a substantial reduction in greenhouse gases through simple changes to our houses. Each Australian household produces an average of 15 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.

On a per capita basis, that makes us one of the world's worst greenhouse gas polluters.

This is because most of our electricity comes from coal burnt in one of the 24 power stations around the country.

In the period 1999-2004, greenhouse emissions from electricity generation in Australia rocketed 50.4 per cent.

In the same period, passenger car emissions rose 18 per cent — up because there are more cars on the road, but comparatively modest because car manufacturers are making "cleaner" cars.

If every Australian motorist is serious about becoming green, they can cut car use by 30 per cent. Walk, use public transport or cycle.

Do this and motorists will reduce the nation's greenhouse emissions by 2.5 per cent.

However, we can achieve that same 2.5 per cent reduction by reducing our electricity use by 7 per cent.

Change the incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, turn off electrical appliances that have a standby mode, take shorter showers, change from electricity to gas or solar hot-water heating, raise the airconditioning temperature by 1C or 2C in summer, turn off lights in unoccupied rooms, and so on.

Simply, legislation should be focused on how green we build new houses, not just new cars. The bottom line is we all have to become smarter and that includes car use. Just stop blaming the car for all our greenhouse woes.

Do you agree with Neil Dowling's view?


Things you should know

  • Australia's total greenhouse emissions were 564.7 million tonnes recorded in 2004 (the latest data available).
  • Livestock generated 65 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas methane, while passenger cars emitted 41.7 million tonnes.
  • It takes 22 years and 10 months of driving at 20,000km a year for the $37,400 Toyota Prius to finally equate to the price differential of the $19,990 Toyota Corolla, assuming $1.20 a litre for petrol. But in that time, the Corolla dumps 30.5 tonnes more CO2 into the air than the Prius.
  • If every household in Australia installed one energy-efficient light, it would equal a drop in emissions of taking 130,000 cars off the road.
  • Appliances on standby account for one-eighth of household energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

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