How important is transport in addressing climate change?

There are some salutary lessons in the Climateworks Australia report, Low Carbon Growth Plan for Australia, released publicly last month.

It reinforces the point I made on 10 March (We need to be more strategic about how we tackle GHGs) that it is important to think more deliberately about how to reduce carbon emissions. The estimated contribution that traditional “urban” policies in transport, buildings and land use planning can make to reducing emissions is relatively small, contributing together just 11% of potential savings, whereas the Climateworks report estimates power generation could contribute 31% and forestry 28%.

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The Report highlights the key role of the private sector and the ‘market’ in achieving significant and lasting reductions. It also gives a sense of where the largest and the most likely gains are likely to be found.

The take-home message is Australia can reduce its carbon emissions by 25% on 2000 levels within ten years. The proposed program involves a combination of specific targeted opportunities and carbon pricing. It’s estimated net cost is $185 per household.

Climateworks is a new non-profit established jointly by the Myer Foundation and Monash University. It styles itself as an honest broker in the field of climate change, coming from a position unaligned with commercial, political or NGO interests.

The Low Carbon Growth Plan for Australia was prepared in conjunction with McKinsey & Company. It identifies 54 distinct opportunities, of which a quarter generate a positive return for business even without a carbon price. The opportunities cover six sectors. Their relative contributions are as follows:

Power 31%

Forestry 28%

Industry 15%

Agriculture 13%

Buildings 11%

Transport 2%

There are some valuable insights in the Report. For example, the point is made that three quarters of the potential savings in the Buildings sector come from commercial buildings. The Report also points out that there is considerably more to commercial buildings than offices – for example, retail and educational buildings – and states that “most efforts from policy makers and business players…….concentrate on only 13% of the opportunity (large public and private offices)”.

The potential of density and public transport get little prominence in the discussion on the Transport sector. Two thirds of the opportunities for savings lie in making conventional internal combustion engines more fuel-efficient. Biofuels and alternative power technologies like hybrids and electric vehicles are also seen to have a role.

A key implication of the Report to my mind is that priority must be given to the sectors with the largest pay-off i.e. power and forestry. When funds are scarce, it would make more sense to invest massively in carbon-neutral electricity generation than in, say, public transport – see my earlier post on public transport from 9 March (Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet) for some background on the outlook for public transport.

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Urban policy-makers nevertheless need to look to where the best pay-off is in cities. This Report makes it abundantly clear that, at least in the time frame adopted, they lie primarily in improving the environmental performance of commercial buildings and cars. Policy does not always align with these priorities – see my argument that policy action on cars has been neglected.

The counter argument is that we have to fight climate change on many or all fronts. I doubt that’s an effective or even feasible strategy. Attempting to shift reluctant travellers from cars to public transport on a massive scale, for example, is likely to entail a lot of pain for little gain. Converting electricity generation to low carbon sources will also be painful but the prospects for obtaining real gains are a lot better.

3 Comments on “How important is transport in addressing climate change?”

  1. […] the countries 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 […]

  2. […] also a host of other lower cost options as explained in this Climateworks report. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that offsets are going for around $20 per […]

  3. […] vital because in my view significantly better environmental and health outcomes aren’t going to come about unless business […]

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