Which portfolio should the Greens take?

Climateworks - click to enlarge

It’s a commonplace in politics, as it is in most things, that it’s better to focus limited resources on a few objectives than to spread them thin over a broad front.

So I’m therefore more than a little surprised that the Greens in Victoria, fresh from winning the Federal seat of Melbourne, are reportedly going to demand the Transport portfolio if they control the balance of power at the next State election (here and here).

If true that strikes me as a curious demand. There are doubtless complex political issues around why the Greens would even want a Ministry, but in terms of the scope for improving the environment it seems to me that Energy would be a more logical choice than the Transport portfolio.

There are a number of reasons for this view.

First, as this report prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climatechange Summit shows, electricity is a far larger generator of CO2 emissions than the transport sector. In Victoria, 64% of all carbon emissions are generated by the residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors. Almost all of this carbon is emitted from coal-fired power stations.

In comparison, all passenger transport in the State – by both car and public transport – generates 14% of Victoria’s total carbon emissions. The transport of freight is responsible for another 5%. Comparable figures are also published in The Victorian Transport Plan.

So on the face of it there’re potentially much bigger gains for the environment from clean energy production than there are from clean transport.

Second, green electricity offers scope for battery equipped, low carbon cars to replace oil fuelled vehicles and thus directly address peak oil. This would be an enormous benefit because, despite the Greens focus on public transport, cars will be the majority mode in Australian capital cities for many decades to come.

Third, the energy portfolio is directly concerned with encouraging conservation by individuals and businesses across a wide range of activities. This report by Climateworks Australia estimates that around 75 million tonnes per annum of CO2 could be saved by 2020 at nil cost, largely through property-related conservation measures like improving insulation (see graphic). In these cases the savings over time exceed the initial costs.

In contrast, the Climateworks report estimates that reducing total urban car travel by 5% through increased use of public transport would save 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 p.a. by 2020. The report gives little weight to this option because it would require major behavioural changes. That makes implementation a fraught exercise.

I haven’t been able to locate any reliable cost comparisons, but I expect it would cost substantially less to save a tonne of carbon through shifting to green electricity than it would by providing public transport. Virtually all public transport operations are subsidised to begin with and, moreover, compete against cars (public transport only captures around 11% of all travel in Melbourne at the moment).

In contrast, electricity is not subsidised and no one’s suggesting it should be. The cost of sustainable energy sources such as wind is fully passed on to customers. And there’re only limited substitutes for electricity – if you want a split system air conditioner to keep cool this summer you’ll need electricity, although it’s likely you’ll have sufficient price incentive to buy an energy efficient model.

I’m not suggesting that transport should be ignored, but I am saying that when you’ve only got limited resources you need to prioritise rather than spread them thinly across all fronts. So far as environmental issues are concerned, the great bulk of the low hanging fruit lies outside the transport sector.

In the transport sector, the immediate priority should be to make cars more environmentally efficient as suggested by the Climateworks report. Cars have largely been ignored by policy-makers in Australia, as I’ve pointed out before (here and here).

For all its weaknesses, the limited and poorly-designed “cash for clunkers” package announced by Julia Gillard during the election campaign (here and here) is the only serious proposal that any politician has advanced for tackling CO2 emissions from cars. It recognises that there’s a lot that needs to be done before and during the likely transition to electric cars and to widespread public transport use.

5 Comments on “Which portfolio should the Greens take?”

  1. Matt says:

    Maybe they are basing their choice of the Transport Ministry on more than just CO2 emissions. Maybe they think that there are real gains to be made for social equity, and general happiness, and reducing pollutants other than CO2. I would say that transport’s a good fit for the Greens as they seem to be the only political party that consistently published transport policy on their websites. Maybe they think they can make a difference with Transport with lots of smaller politically achievable wins, rather than dealing with the big electricity producers. Personally I’d give them Transport and Energy and the whole government.

    Or maybe they want to repeal the mandatory bike helmet law and promote cycling 🙂 That comes under transport too.

    (It’s quite common for some undereducated folk to mistake combating anthropogenic climate change with the whole of the aim of the green movement. Or in my experience they think that woodheaters only emit CO2 and that’s why people complain about them, rather than understanding about all the PAHs, dioxins, particulates etc)

    • Matt says:

      Oh poo. As I read what I wrote it looks like I was deliberately being insulting. I’m not calling you undereducated Alan.

      It just didn’t strike me as curious, even if the gains for Transport are less than in Energy in that one regard (CO2). It is too limited a view of what they might actually be trying to achieve.

      • Alan Davies says:

        No offence taken. You might well be right. I’ve complained before about how the meaning of terms like “environmental sustainability” have been devalued and reified by having their meanings stretched.

        Issues of equity are inextricably linked with sustainability but let’s please use two or three words with more specific meanings than try to make one do double or triple service. After all, this is the rich English language!

        Here’s an interesting take on the Green’s agenda from someone who usually leans toward the Liberal Party, Professor Harry Clarke.

  2. I suspect that there are two main reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, the Victorian Greens believe that there should be a state run Transport Authority. They are the only party that has this as a policy so the only way that they could enact this policy is to take the transport portfolio. Matt has done a good job of pointing out that the Greens are not a one-issue party.

    In base political terms, transport policy is the biggest area of differentiation between the Greens and both major parties. It is also going to be one of the biggest issues with voters in Melbourne at the upcoming election and there are votes to be won for the party with the most broadly appealing plan. The Victorian ALP have a Climate Action plan that is quite impressive by Australian standards and the Greens cannot rely on climate change as a clear cut issue in the upcoming campaign.

  3. […] in 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 […]

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