Many of us depend on our cars to go about our everyday lives, but the unavoidable fact is that Australians’ driving habits are exacerbating climate change. Carbon emissions from the country’s 20 million cars are contributing to global warming, spurring extreme weather and forest fires, and threatening our wildlife and ecosystems.
It’s clear that if Australia is going to meet its goal of net zero by 2050 and mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we need to take action on the damaging environmental impact of car travel. Transport accounts for 18% of all of Australia’s emissions, and this will only grow as the population increases and roads systems across the country expand.
All non-electric cars produce emissions, but they aren’t created equal. SUVs are among the worst offenders - if they formed a country, SUV drivers would be the sixth largest emitter in the world. Worryingly, these gas guzzlers account for just under half of all cars sold in Australia in 2020.
And it’s not just the cars that we should be concerned about - it’s the quality of the fuels they run on. Australia ranks among the worst out of developed countries for harmful petrol, and unlike other countries it has no regulations around fuel efficiency.
These facts illustrate the problem, but they also illuminate a golden opportunity. Clearly, our daily choices around transport make an impact on our climate - but we can act today to change our behaviours and help build a more sustainable world.
We’re in a race against the clock, and we can’t wait for the government to step up and make the transport industry clean up its mess. To stand a chance of driving down emissions to reach the 1.5 degree target recommended by the IPCC - and avoid the most devastating consequences of the global climate crisis - we need to act now.
And we can. Here are a range of ways you can limit the harmful environmental effects of your car travel, whatever your circumstance.
SWITCH TO AN ELECTRIC VEHICLE
Demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is booming, as increasing numbers of people become aware of cars’ effects on the climate and seek to make greener choices.
Electric cars are better for the planet because they don’t use petrol or diesel to run. Since they’re free from fossil fuels, driving an electric car for a year can save as much as two to three tonnes of carbon emissions every year.
EVs have faced some criticism because their production process is itself incredibly carbon intensive, even more so than non-electric cars. In particular, manufacturing the batteries the cars run on generates substantial amounts of carbon emissions because the rare minerals required, including lithium and cobalt, are mined in a very polluting process. A third of the overall emissions of an electric car come from its production alone.
But despite this carbon heavy process, electric cars still win over petrol or diesel cars in the long run. One UK study found that the lifetime emissions from an electric car are three times lower than an average car.
Better yet, to counter the impacts of carbon intensive mining, scientists are delving into the potential of battery recycling. The future of electric cars looks even more optimistic as they can run on renewable energy. As clean power becomes more widespread and accessible the sustainability of EVs will continue to escalate.
Ready to go green? Unfortunately, you’ll likely be in for a long wait. Consumer demand for electric cars is skyrocketing and the supply in Australia isn’t keeping pace. Customers have faced waits of up to seven months for Tesla cars while petroleum-run cars still dominate the roads.
Weak policy in Australia has been blamed for this delay, but pressure has been mounting for new legislation that will make it easier for drivers to own these cars. To reach net zero by 2050, Australia will need to be at more than 50% EV sales by 2030 - an ambitious goal judging by the progress so far.
It’s a shame that electric cars aren’t yet readily available, but in the meantime there are other ways of travelling and small steps we can take to ensure our daily journeys have less of an impact on the planet.
USE PUBLIC TRANSPORT
It’s common sense that taking public transport such as trains, buses, and trams - where possible - is a simple and effective way to limit your carbon footprint. But in a country as large as Australia, this is often much easier said than done.
There’s clearly a gap in access to public transport - while it may be available in cities, in more rural areas alternatives to family cars are often nonexistent. Even in urban areas, public transport may be unreliable or inconvenient, especially for families or those with disabilities.
But for those who have the option, swapping the morning commute by car for a bus ride can reap substantial benefits for the climate, even if you only do it once a week. Some public transport services are even running on renewable energy, such as Melbourne’s trams, making them an incredibly sustainable option.
As well as limiting emissions, public transport has the added bonus of decreasing noise and air pollution in cities, and can also improve wellbeing - think about how much more relaxing a journey by train is than being stuck in traffic. It’s a win all around.
BIKE AND WALK WHERE YOU CAN
As well as having a detrimental impact on our climate, car pollution can cause adverse public health effects such as increased risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The predominance of cars in our cities makes them less walkable and more spread out, creating a chicken-and-egg situation where pedestrians are then forced to buy cars to get around.
But we can navigate our cities on our own terms, while living more healthy lives. Swapping trips that we’d usually take by car for walking or cycling can help you get your body moving while doing your part for the planet. The exercise will lift your mood as well as save you some money.
Don’t own a bike? Sharing schemes are often available in major cities, so you can take them for a test run without making a commitment.
ECO DRIVE TO SAVE ON FUEL
We all want to do what we can to stop rising temperatures and mitigate climate change. But there’s no need to feel guilty when a more sustainable means of travel isn’t possible for a trip and you need to use a car.
One thing you can try is adopting eco driving techniques. This means following more efficient behaviours that can save on pollution and help reduce the amount of fuel your car burns when it’s on the road.
Some examples of eco driving include trying as much as possible to drive at a steady speed, and gently coming to a stop or start, as sudden acceleration uses more fuel.
You should also make sure your tires are properly inflated, remove unnecessary baggage from the boot, and plan your route as best as possible. These simple tips can help ensure your car trips are as sustainable as possible - while also saving you money on fuel.
By incorporating as many of these small actions as possible and being mindful of your driving, you can make a difference even when using a car is necessary to get you from A to B.
OFFSET YOUR EMISSIONS
One of the easiest and most meaningful ways you can limit your carbon footprint is by offsetting your car usage . Investing in carbon credits is an innovative way you can counter the damaging environmental impacts of your car.
Carbon credits are a straightforward, easy way to neutralise high emitting activities that you can’t reduce. Purchasing Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) from Go Neutral funds projects around Australia that use natural methods to capture atmospheric carbon. By investing in carbon credits, you can effectively eliminate the emissions you produce by travelling by car.
Just as you’d pick up your trash after having a picnic on the beach, you can clean up your carbon emissions by offsetting them.
Go Neutral offers an easy way of managing your carbon footprint. Buying a Go Neutral sticker funds 3.2 tonnes of carbon credits, which is the same as the average annual emissions of an Australian car. Your purchase is invested in projects that restore and protect native forests and bushland, helping build a better and more sustainable Australia for all of us.
The fact is, we don’t have to wait for the right policies, better public transport, or until we can afford a new electric car. We can make a difference right now, by offsetting the emissions we’re making today.
Car emissions may be problematic for Australia’s climate goals, but if we all take steps to reduce our emissions where we can - and offset those we can’t yet - we can tackle this crisis and win a brighter future for our planet.
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