Transport and climate change

Does climate change mean we all need to give up our cars?

No. Apart from the inherent advantages that access to personal transport offers, dependence on cars has been built over decades into the planning of Australian cities – or the lack of it in too many cases.

But we do need to reduce CO2 and other emissions from driving, as well as from power stations and industry. As well as CO2, emissions from internal combustion engines generally also include nitrogen oxides (because they generally use air with their fuel, and air contains nitrogen) which are more than 300 times as powerful as CO2 as greenhouse gases.

We also need to ensure that more people have viable alternatives to driving – through better public transport availability and through better support for other options like walking and cycling. While transport is only one source of emissions, it’s important to reduce emissions in this area as well as others.

Transport is an area where as well as there being a need for appropriate pricing of emissions, there is clearly a need for complementary measures, including

  • appropriate regulatory measures and co-operation with industry on standards
  • support for research and innovation, to industry and to public transport providers
  • work on the sustainability of our cities more generally (including how far people have to travel to work) – the kind of work Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren pioneered for Australia, and Anthony Albanese has taken forward, and Tony Abbott doesn’t support at all.

In particular, improved vehicle emission standards are not “red tape” or “green tape” that should go on Tony Abbott’s “repeal days” – any more than vehicle safety standards are.

The Climate Change Authority, in its February 2014 report recommending improved targets for emissions reductions by Australia, also recommended early adoption of improved vehicle emissions standards, as one way of contributing quickly to getting to lower levels of emissions. They pointed out that this would also save consumers on fuel costs. They noted particularly that, with all cars soon to be imported cars, there is no reason for Australia to accept less than best international practice on vehicle emissions.

Is public transport greener than using cars?

Generally yes. More substitution of public transport for car transport, as well as offering savings in less time lost in congestion (which is significant for the economy as well as for individuals and families), generally offers savings in emissions per person kilometre.

Estimates from the Public Transport Users Association (based on the existing mix of sources for electricity generation) indicate the following:

Transport mode Emissions
(grams of CO
2-equivalent per
Petrol Car 286
LPG Car 256
Ethanol (E10) Car 253
Electric Tram 52
Diesel Bus 22
Ethanol (E10) Bus 19
Natural Gas Bus 18
Diesel Train 16
Electric Train (Victorian) 14
250cc Motorcycle 124
1000cc Motorcycle 178

So work by Labor governments to enhance provision and useability of public transport, is closely connected with reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (as well as with reducing congestion and travel time and addressing other aspects of liveability and productivity of our cities and regions).

Note that petrol motorbikes, while less emissions intensive than cars, are still substantially more emissions intensive than any form of urban public transport. An interesting development in this area is the widespread adoption of electric bikes in China in particular.

The biggest savings, of course, in enhanced provision and use of public transport are to be found where public transport uses renewable energy.

Are hybrid vehicles part of the answer?

Hybrid vehicles still (mostly) have petrol or diesel engines, but they combine this with electric power from batteries or capacitors.

Often, batteries are charged from regenerative braking rather than the car or other vehicle just throwing all the energy in braking away as noise and heat. For trains in particular this is a very large amount of energy.

Plug-in hybrids can be charged from specialised charging equipment at home or in dedicated charging stations. (These charging stations for plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles are still fairly rare in Australia but are becoming more common in some areas overseas.)


Hybrid vehicles still produce emissions, but offer significant reductions. This does have to be offset against the extra energy (and financial) costs of producing a second electric power and braking system for a car based around internal combustion. But particularly for cars in intensive use in urban environments with frequent braking (like taxis), these extra costs are repaid fairly quickly (depending on the amount of urban driving done), particularly when combined with fuel efficiency measures. It’s interesting that fleet owners (whose decisions can be expected to be motivated mostly by calculations about dollars and cents) have generally been bigger buyers of hybrid vehicles in Australia than individuals.

In the US there is a handy calculator from the Federal Government for payback periods for hybrids with different patterns of use and fuel prices (which uses the different range of models available there). We haven’t found an Australian equivalent yet.

The CSIRO is working on improved concepts for batteries and power for electric cars. It is not clear yet what impact Tony Abbott’s cuts for the CSIRO as part of his war on science will have on this project.

Buses and trucks

Hybrid urban buses have only had limited use and trials in Australia. A NSW trial showed disappointing results, but hybrid buses have been used much more extensively and successfully overseas, including in London where over 300 hybrid buses are now in use, including double deckers, with significant savings in fuel consumption and emissions.

In March 2013, Labor’s Transport Minister in South Australia, Chloe Fox, launched a trial of hybrid buses, built by Custom Coaches and AJ Dennis, on Adelaide’s City Loop. She noted that routes with frequent braking are ideal for vehicles that recharge their batteries from braking. These buses do not face the same challenges in range between charging sessions as are faced by pure electric buses.

Hybrid buses commercially available in Australia from Volvo are due to be trialled in Brisbane in 2014.

Hybrid light and medium sized trucks are made by a number of manufacturers around the world. They have had a limited market due to higher construction and hence purchase costs, but have obvious advantages as fuel costs rise.


Electric motors are standard for most rail transport (obviously for electric locomotives and electric multiple unit sets; less obviously perhaps, but very widely, for diesels. Most diesel locomotives are actually diesel electrics, with diesel engines generating electric power which is then used by electric motors).

Trains with overhead or third rail power can return power to the network using regenerative braking, although there are some limits to this.

(This includes that the power generated needs other trains in the same area to be able to use it. For older Australian networks like Sydney there’s also the problem that 1500 volt DC systems which made sense in the 1920s aren’t suitable for the high power needed for modern freight or high speed passenger rail. Gough Whitlam supported converting rail networks to 25,000 volts AC for this reason.)

Where overhead or third rail power networks are not available (as in much of Australian rail freight operations) or not used, regenerative braking and power is still possible, using batteries.

This approach has become common in US shunting locomotives, to reduce noise and emissions in urban environments, including some remanufactured from older, conventional 2000 HP diesel locomotives. A locomotive launched by GE in 2007 involved 4400 HP of diesel generation, supplemented when needed with 2000 HP of battery power. Another locomotive being trialled has a full 6000 HP of battery power (which can be charged in advance and used alone, but which might also be integrated in a set with conventional diesels using regenerative braking to form a hybrid set). Hybrid multiple unit passenger trains are also being trialled in several countries.

Some multiple unit trains and locomotives overseas are now being trialed, and used more routinely in specialist applications, using hydrogen fuel cells, in hybrids which also use electricity from regenerative braking. For example, as California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive in 2010.

US railroads are looking at extensive conversions of thousands of diesel locomotives to use natural gas. Advocates of hydrogen technology have pointed out, however, that while burning natural gas in itself involves less emissions than diesel fuel, such conversions involve locking in use of fossil fuels for locomotives for another 20 to 30 years. This is clearly undesirable in the context of an urgent need to reduce emissions, not just a bit but sharply, to stay within tight carbon budgets. Concerns have also been raised regarding the environmental risks of “fracking” to gain access to gas, and leakage of methane from gas wells. Advocates have therefore urged more attention for hydrogen locomotives.

No trials or commercial applications of hybrid power for rail appear to have occurred as yet in Australia.

What’s happening with electric cars and bikes?

Electric cars and bikes offer emissions free driving – so long as the electricity used is generated without emissions, of course. As the proportion of electricity from sources such as wind and solar increases, electric vehicles offer a means of translating this progress into progress in transport using technologies which already exist and thus can be effective quickly – which is what we need.

There are only a small number of electric cars in Australia so far – estimated at 700 in March 2014 compared to 180,000 already in the USA. Principal barriers are:

  • a scarcity of charging stations
  • greater upfront costs (although running and maintenance costs are very low compared to other cars; and upfront costs could be expected to fall as electric vehicles become more common).

In January 2014 the Electricity Supply Association of Australia issued a report urging increased support for electric cars, noting that

  • an equivalent “litre” of electricity currently costs between 37 cents off peak and 62 cents at peak prices from supply networks
  • on this basis equivalent fuel costs for electric cars amount to around 3 cents a kilometre compared to around 10 cents a kilometre for petrol engines.

These savings would of course be even greater for people charging their cars from rooftop solar (effectively for free once these facilities have repaid their installation costs and allowed for depreciation and the minimal maintenance required). Electric vehicles (including plug in hybrids) also offer new and potentially highly important possibilities for distributed sources of storage, both for network electricity and for household generated electricity.

As at October 2013 electric bikes in China were estimated to number 200 million. Take-up in Australia has been slow but is likely to pick up since amendment in 2012 under Labor of relevant Australian Design Rules to adopt European standards and facilitate use of international designs. (Sensible approaches to regulation, not the ridiculous vanity of “bonfires” of repeal of regulations, like Tony Abbott wants.)

What’s happening with electric buses?

Adelaide is successfully using an electric bus which has a 200km range between recharging from solar panels on the city bus station. This initiative was partly funded through the Federal Labor Government’s Solar Cities program.

In Brisbane, local firm Varley Electric Vehicles was reported in 2012 as working on an “Instant Charge Electric Bus” for Brisbane City Council’s bus services, funded in part by the Labor Government’s Business and Industry Transformation Incentives program.

What’s happening with hydrogen power?

Using hydrogen for energy doesn’t produce CO2, like burning hydrocarbons does. The main exhaust is water vapour. While,yes, that’s a greenhouse gas too, it’s nothing near the problem that too much CO2 is.

Burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine is possible – but like hydrocarbon fuels, if hydrogen is burnt with air, some of the hydrogen combines with nitrogen in the air to form nitrogen oxides, which are very powerful greenhouse gases (300 times as powerful as CO2). Use of hydrogen in fuel cells to produce electricity doesn’t have the same problem, and fuel cell technologies have advanced rapidly in recent years.

Hydrogen is an abundant power source – for one thing, remember, the H2 in water is hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be a very clean fuel – depending on how clean the energy is that we use to make it. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen takes energy, and burning hydrogen releases energy again.

Some people in the environment movement have been hesitant about advocacy for “the hydrogen economy” because hydrogen made using fossil fuel energy only looks clean, while CO2 and other pollutants keep going up the chimney somewhere else. But hydrogen power, like electric power for vehicles, offers potential for storage of renewable energy, and having that energy where and when we want it.

Hydrogen vehicles currently offer much greater range and quicker refuelling than battery electric vehicles. The costs of hydrogen have also fallen dramatically, along with the costs of renewable energy to produce it with. High volume production of fuel cells has dropped from $275 a kilowatt in 2002 to $51 a kilowatt recently and this trend downwards is expected to continue.

Major current developments include:

  • Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are all planning production models of hydrogen fuel cell cars for release in 2015.
  • In Germany a 500kw system to produce hydrogen from surplus wind power is being built at the new Berlin airport.
  • In 2013 the US Department of Energy launched H2USA, a partnership of automakers, gas suppliers, and hydrogen technology companies to support the development of hydrogen infrastructure and fuel cell electric vehicles.

The IPCC report, Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, included an essential role for hydrogen.

As at the start of 2014, however, and unlike other advanced economies, we don’t yet have any major hydrogen initiatives in Australia despite the expertise and skills we have available.

For more information, read: Why is hydrogen fuel making a comeback? from Associate Prof. John Andrews at RMIT.

Isn’t hydrogen dangerous?

Sure. So is petrol. So is electricity. So, of course, are fossil fuels like coal and gas – for their emissions; and for the dangers and environmental hazards in mining or drilling, transport and use, including for local communities like Morwell in Victoria.

More FAQs on transport and climate change

We hope to have more FAQs available shortly on transport and climate change including:

  • Is high speed rail part of the solution? What’s happening there?
  • Is sustainability be part of the answer for the car industry workers abandoned by Tony Abbott’s government?
  • What’s happening with sustainability and aviation?
  • What’s happening with sustainability and shipping?

Please let us know of other topics you’d like to see FAQs on, and any additional information or corrections or clarifications on the FAQs provided here.

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