We need to be more strategic about how we tackle greenhouse gases

Do we need to tackle climate change and peak oil on all fronts or would it be more strategic to focus on priority areas?

This question is prompted by reading Victoria’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990-2005, prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climate Change Summit by George Wickenfield & Assocs. This report calculates that 64.4% of all carbon emissions in Victoria are generated by the residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors. Almost all of these emissions are in the form of electricity generated by brown coal.

In contrast, all passenger transport in Victoria – by both car and public transport – generates only 13.9% of the State’s total carbon emissions. That’s less than a quarter of what the electricity sector generates.

The message I take from these numbers is that we should give priority to reducing the carbon emissions of electricity by, for example, switching generation from coal to natural gas in the short to medium term, with a longer term objective of making all generation carbon-neutral.

It would also be good policy to encourage smaller, better insulated dwellings so that less electricity is needed in the first place for air conditioning, swimming pools and flat panel TVs, as well as less embedded energy. But I’m not so much of a puritan that I think we need to be excessively zealous about that if we can get to the point where the electricity we’re using is generated with little or no carbon.

Similarly, rather than expect Melburnians to use public transport when they overwhelmingly and plainly prefer to use cars (except in a limited number of situations, such as CBD commuting), it makes much more sense in my view to give priority to reducing the oil consumption and carbon emissions of Melbourne’s car fleet by, for example, encouraging a shift to smaller, more efficient cars and switching to gas or electrically powered vehicles.

Billions of dollars invested in making electricity generation more sustainable would give far more bang for the buck than the same money invested in trying to shift reluctant motorists out of their cars and into public transport – see my post on public transport from 9 March for some background on the outlook for public transport.

That’s not to say there aren’t other reasons for suppressing car travel, such as congestion, road injuries, noise and the environmental impact of making and maintaining millions of car. However if carbon emissions and peak oil are eliminated as relevant considerations, then the warrant for ‘forcing’ people out of their cars and on to public transport is much less compelling and probably politically impossible in the foreseeable future. The BBC’s Ethical Man had something to say about that.

Returning to my starting theme, how far do we need to go? It’s bad strategy to attack on all fronts at once – we should instead prioritise our scare resources and focus on those actions that give the highest pay-off.

7 Comments on “We need to be more strategic about how we tackle greenhouse gases”

  1. Matt L says:

    Hi Alan,
    Here is the website that I referred to for the recent breakthroughs in providing most of our energy needs by solar:

    The radio links at the bottom provide a quick summary of how far advanced the solar solution is.

    Their executive summary lays out their stationary energy plan (power supply) in detail:

    Click to access preview-exec-sum14.pdf

    Next will come plans for lower car emissions, etc.

    My father is one of the volunteers who has been researching the report, so I have his inside information on how balanced and defensible their plan is. I can also vouch for the fact that the group is not driven by vested interests, beyond starting from a belief that it is worth planning to drastically reduce our carbon emissions if we have a solution at hand.


  2. […] vs nuclear generation Posted on March 14, 2010 by Alan Davies In my post on 10 March, We need to be more strategic about how we tackle greenhouse gas, I argued that we should give priority to making electricity carbon-free ahead of other actions […]

  3. […] reinforces the point I made in an earlier post (We need to be more strategic about how we tackle GHGs), that we need to think more strategically about how to reduce carbon emissions. The estimated […]

  4. […] where the cars we buy are manufactured. This is an example of why I argue (e.g. here, here and here) that making electricity clean should be the number one priority – it means, for example, that […]

  5. […] that’s not always going to be possible, but it’s a desirable aspiration. For example, as I’ve suggested before, replacing cars with public transport isn’t the only – or even the most plausible – route to […]

  6. […] emissions, it is not the main game. As I’ve noted before, the transport sector accounts for only a minority of all GHG emissions. This point is reinforced by the Productivity Commission, whose research […]

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