What's the deal with transport emissions?

While greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s electricity sector have received significant media and political attention in recent years, the transport sector – a large and growing source of emissions – has largely escaped the spotlight.

Here we outline the problem of transport emissions and key climate solutions: in an infographic, and then in more detail below.


Transport: third largest emitter, highest emissions growth

Transport – cars, trucks, public transport, domestic flights and shipping – is Australia’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (93MtCO2e in 2015, 18% of total emissions).

Transport emissions have the highest rate of growth, and if no action is taken, are projected to keep climbing to double 1990 levels (120 MtCO2e) by 2035.

The major source of the problem is cars, responsible for roughly half of all transport emissions. In fact, Australian cars emit roughly the same per year (43MtCO2e) as Queensland’s entire coal and gas fired electricity supply.

How does Australia compare on transport emissions?

Australia lags well behind the pack on tackling transport emissions. We have the ninth-highest transport emissions per capita in the world, nearly 50% higher than the OECD average.

Australia also ranks among the worst for transport energy efficiency due to:

  • The lack of greenhouse gas emissions standards in place for cars or heavy vehicles
  • Our high emitting cars
  • The relatively high distances travelled by car per person, compared to similar countries
  • Our low use of public transport (12% of trips)
  • And our low ratio of spending on public transport with only 50c spent on public transport for every $1 spent on roads

Climate solutions for transport

Key climate solutions for transport involve:

  • adopting stringent, mandatory greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and other vehicles (and strengthening these over time)
  • electrifying and powering cars, buses, trains and trams with 100% renewable energy
  • providing viable alternatives to driving, such as expanding access to reliable, comfortable public transport

Mandatory emissions standards

Australia lacks mandatory emissions standards, meaning our cars pollute more.

Mandatory greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars now cover 80% of the global car market, including the United States, Europe, Japan, Korea, China, India, Canada and Mexico.

Australia is among a small minority of countries without mandatory emissions standards in place, despite this being identified as a key action by the Federal Government to meet its 2030 emissions targets.

Mandatory emissions standards drive the take-up of lower emissions cars by requiring new cars to meet a decreasing limit on carbon dioxide emissions (per kilometre travelled) over time. As new, lower-emissions cars gradually replace older, more polluting vehicles over time – the emissions intensity of the overall car fleet is reduced.

The lack of mandatory emissions standards here has meant that in 2015, new cars sold in Australia emitted 43% more CO2/km on average compared with new cars sold in Europe.

In addition, manufacturers tend to allocate their most efficient cars to countries with strict standards in place (CCA 2014). So, Australia’s lack of mandatory emissions standards also means even the makes of car sold here tend to emit more than their equivalents sold overseas. Lack of mandatory emissions standards means Australia risks becoming a dumping ground for petrol and diesel cars that other countries don’t want.

Consumer choices also play a role. Australians (particularly government fleet buyers) tend to choose larger, less efficient cars. If individuals, businesses and governments purchasing new cars in 2015 had chosen similar cars with best-in-class emissions, the average emissions intensity for new vehicles in 2015 would have been halved.

The sooner mandatory emissions standards are introduced, and rapidly strengthened, the greater the impact. If strict standards are introduced in 2018, Australia can prevent 59 MtCO2 of emissions by 2030. Urgency is key.

Mandatory emissions standards have wider benefits, reducing fuel bills for car owners, saving an estimated $8,500 over a vehicle’s lifetime.

The Australian Government is currently consulting on the introduction of mandatory vehicle emissions. Submissions close 10 March 2017.

Electric vehicles powered by 100% renewables

Electrifying our transport, and powering it by 100% renewable energy is critical for positioning Australia on the road to zero emissions by 2050.

Electric cars run on electricity and plug-in rechargeable batteries. Globally, the rollout of electric cars is picking up speed, going from almost zero cars on the road in 2010, to passing one million electric cars in 2015 (see below).

China, the United States, the Netherlands and Norway dominate the electric vehicle market. Falling battery costs together with supportive government policies is driving global growth in electric vehicles.

In Norway, nearly a quarter of cars sold are now electric. Contrast this to Australia, where electric vehicles make up 0.08% of new vehicles sold.

The source of electricity for electric cars charging is critical to reducing emissions (this is particularly a problem given Australia’s coal dominated electricity grid).

Electric vehicles powered entirely by renewable energy have negligible emissions (as low as 6gCO2/km), compared to an average new car (184gCO2/km).

In addition, charging an electric vehicle with renewable energy – be it rooftop solar panels or 100% GreenPower purchased from an electricity retailer – is substantially cheaper than the cost of fuel for an equivalent petrol car.

The uptake of electric vehicles in Australia is being held back by the lack of policy support or incentives, higher upfront cost, lack of choice of available electric vehicles for sale in Australia, and the availability of public vehicle-charging infrastructure.

Despite higher upfront costs, once purchased, households with an electric vehicle benefit from considerably reduced operating and maintenance costs.

Most electric cars can comfortably cover the average commuting needs (work, shopping, school pick-ups) for a city driver.

However up to 10% of Australian drivers regularly commute 30-50km. Although new electric car models (like Teslas Model 3 with a range of 350km) are able to travel greater distances on a single charge, a greater distribution of fast-charging infrastructure, especially along highways, will be needed to allay range concerns for these drivers.

Increasing the availability of charging stations (as has been done in the United States, Japan and Europe) addresses “range anxiety”, or the fear that an electric car will not be able to reach its destination on a single charge.

State governments and industry in Australia are starting to role out electric vehicle charging networks, such as the RAC (2016) Electric Highway between Perth and Augusta, and Tesla’s (2016) charging stations along the route between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. However such charging infrastructure is well below that available overseas.

Shifting to public transport

Travel on all forms of public transport involves fewer emissions per person per kilometre than the average Australian car.

Table 1 – Emissions for different forms of transport


Average emissions per kilometre (gCO2 /km)

Metro train systems

3-21 (per person)1

Light rail

4-22 (per person)1

Bus rapid transport systems

14-22 (per person)1

Average car sold in 2015


1 Sims et al 2014

2 National Transport Commission 2016

Research has found a ‘high shift’ approach to transport spending – where investment is directed towards public and active transport and away from roads and parking – found equivalent mobility can be achieved while reducing overall public and private spending on transport, and dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Providing reliable, accessible public transport infrastructure (relevant to people’s needs) can drive significant numbers of people to switch from driving, to taking the tram, train or bus. Rail based transport is known to have the greatest impact on reducing car use.

The Gold Coast Light Rail is a recent example where new public transport infrastructure led to a 25% increase in public transport use on the Gold Coast with 6.18 million trips taken in its first year of operation.

Emissions from public transport can be reduced even further if operators move to electric vehicles (trains, trams and buses) powered by 100% renewable energy.

Overseas, public transport operators are switching to renewable power. Deutsche Bahn (2016a), which runs Germany’s trains aims to supply 45% of its total energy needs from renewable energy by 2020 (already reaching 42% in 2015), with an ultimate goal of reaching 100% by 2050. The train operator offers travellers the opportunity to pay a premium to have their entire trip powered by 100% renewable energy (Deutsche Bahn 2016b).

Adelaide City Council was the first city in the world to introduce an electric bus re-charged by solar panels at the bus depot (Adelaide City Council 2013; Figure 3).

Similarly, in Gothenburg, Sweden, a key bus route is now served entirely by electric buses, powered by renewable electricity.

Like other transport solutions, public transport brings with it wider benefits – it is cheaper for individuals (who can save up to $9,400 annually) and the wider community, reduces congestion and encourages higher levels of physical activity for users.

It’s time for Australia to get moving on transport solutions

Little has been done to tackle Australia’s substantial and rising problem of greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

Key solutions needed by government and individuals to reduce Australia’s transport emission include:


  • Fast-tracking the introduction of mandatory greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars, and incentives to drive electric vehicle uptake
  • Transitioning our electricity grid from fossil fuels to renewable energy, to reduce emissions from electric vehicles
  • Ensuring government fleet purchases select vehicles with the lowest emissions
  • Investing in public transport and electric car charging infrastructure.


  • When purchasing a new vehicle, choosing one with low greenhouse gas emissions, particularly electric vehicles (if available and appropriately priced)
  • Using public transport (or cycling or walking) as an alternative to driving where possible.

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