Light vehicles – cars, 4-wheel drives and small commercial vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes – account for 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The National Transport Commission estimates that if Australian consumers purchased vehicles with best-in-class emissions, average CO2 emissions for new light vehicles would be 58% lower.
The emissions intensity for new passenger vehicles sold in Australia is 45% higher than it is in Europe. This is largely due to the Australian preference for heavier vehicles with more powerful engines.
In addition to the air pollution caused by conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicles, residual oil can pollute the land, waterways and oceans.
Several European and Asian countries are phasing out petrol and diesel cars over the next few years or by 2040 at the latest.
Zero-emission electric vehicles will become more popular with increased availability, greater ranges and lower pricing.
A ‘green’ vehicle is defined as a one with emissions intensity that does not exceed 120 grams of CO2 per km (g/km). This category includes all hybrids and electric vehicles, and some conventional vehicles.
In 2017, Australia’s lowest emission combustion-engine car had a tailpipe emission rate of 145g/km, while the highest was at 219g/km. ‘Green’ cars accounted for just 3.8% of total sales in Australia in 2017.
Fuel-efficient conventional cars
What makes a conventional car more fuel-efficient than another is determined by factors such as:
- tailpipe emissions
- fuel consumption
- vehicle emission standards
All new conventional light vehicles sold in Australia are required to display a Fuel Consumption Label on the windscreen. This includes all passenger cars, 4-wheel drives and commercial vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes. The label shows the vehicle’s fuel consumption in litres of fuel per 100km (L/100km) and its emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in grams per km (g/km).
A less fuel-efficient car can:
- use 10L per 100km
- cost $1860 for fuel a year
- emit around 3 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year
A more fuel-efficient car can:
- use 5L per 100km
- cost $930 for fuel a year
- emit around 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
The dollar savings and greenhouse gas emissions in these calculations are based on a car using a sample petrol price of $1.45/L, over a travel distance of 12,830km a year with a mix of urban and rural driving. Other fuel types may result in different costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Compare the greenhouse and air pollution emissions and fuel economy of different cars (including four-wheel drives and light commercial vehicles) at the GreenVehicleGuide.
Use the Fuel cost and CO2 calculator to estimate your annual fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Hybrid vehicles use a combination of an internal combustion petrol engine and a battery-powered electric motor. The petrol engine and other process generate power for the electric motor.
A hybrid can use 40-60% less fuel and emits around 30% less CO2 than a conventional vehicle does.
How hybrids work
- The electric motor is used when the vehicle is travelling at under 24km/h.
- When cruising only the petrol engine is used, but it’s also charging the electric motor for later use.
- During deceleration and when brakes are applied, kinetic energy is captured and stored as electricity.
- During heavy acceleration, both the petrol and electric motors are in use.
- Some hybrids can be plugged-in for charging, as well as being charged while driven.
Hybrid cars are very efficient for city driving, because only the electric motor is used at lower speeds and the frequent stop/starting regularly recharges the batteries. Hybrids are also fuel-efficient for country driving, although some fuel-efficient conventional cars can achieve similar or better levels of fuel economy.
Consumption labels for non-plug-in hybrids
Non-plug-in hybrids are required to display a Fuel Consumption Label when first sold as new. The same labelling applies to all conventional light vehicles.
Plug-in hybrids (and fully electric vehicles) are required to display an Energy Consumption Label. This label shows the vehicle’s energy consumption in watt hours/km, the expected range when fully charged, fuel consumption in L/100km and CO2 emissions in g/km.
Electric vehicles (EVs) use a lithium ion battery-powered electric motor. EVs recharge from conventional power outlets or at roadside or carpark-based charging stations. The energy produced by regenerative braking is also redirected into the battery.
EVs produce zero tailpipe CO2 emissions.
Depending on the model, the range of EVs varies from around 130km to 800km. Ranges are increasing as the technology improves.
If 100% renewable energy such as solar power is used to recharge the batteries, the power is free and greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated.
Maintenance needs are low, given that electric vehicles have fewer parts and much less mechanical complexity than combustion-engine vehicles.
Consumption label for EVs and plug-in hybrids
EVs (and plug-in hybrids) are required to display an Energy Consumption Label. This label shows the vehicle’s energy consumption in watt hours/km, the expected range when fully charged, and fuel consumption in L/100km.
The road ahead
Sales of EVs in Australia rose from 1369 in 2016 to 2424 in 2017. This is a 77% increase in just 1 year. The Australian Energy Market Operator has forecast that within the next 20 years, more than half of all vehicles in the country will be EVs.
Nationwide EV recharging infrastructure is under development. The NRMA plans to establish one of Australia’s largest electric vehicle fast-charging networks, suitable for a range of EVs.
Motorcycles and scooters
Motorcycles and motor scooters are popular choices for commuting as they need less fuel and are cheaper to run than cars. They're generally easier and cheaper (sometimes free) to park.
Electric motorcycles and scooters are extremely cheap to run, and are roughly comparable in performance with their petrol-engine equivalents of the same size and weight.
The electric versions are plug-in vehicles, usually with rechargeable lithium ion batteries. They produce zero emissions and can have a range of just over 200km.
Ways to reduce fuel consumption
There’s no need to warm up a modern vehicle and have it sit idling.
Change gears sooner rather than later to keep engine revs down. If driving an automatic, ease back on the accelerator when the vehicle gathers momentum, and the gears will change up more quickly and smoothly.
Keep extra weight out of your vehicle. Empty the boot of any weighty items and remove roof racks when not in use.
At higher speeds, the on-board air conditioner is more efficient than having the windows down.
Don’t overfill the fuel tank, stop at the first click. Any more is lost in overflow and evaporation.
Other transport options
Depending on where you live, public transport may even be quicker than driving and can give time to read, do some work or relax while commuting.
Park and ride facilities are car parks with connections to public transport. They are usually located outside main centres and cities. Commuters travelling into city centres can leave their vehicles at the facility and transfer to public transport for the rest of their trip. The vehicle is parked in the car park during the day and retrieved when the driver returns.
A bicycle is a very cost-effective means of transport. Bikes are generally much cheaper to buy than cars or motorbikes and use much less energy for their production. Using a bicycle for transport means you will also save on fuel and parking costs.
Cycling is a way to include regular exercise into your day or routine. It can lead to long-term health benefits like increased strength and muscle tone, fitness, and reduce stress. It reduces traffic and parking problems, greenhouse gas emissions and air and noise pollution.
If you're planning on cycling a lot, select quality bicycle. Second-hand bikes can be excellent value if they've been well cared for.
Electric-assist bicycles are also available as an alternative to conventional bicycles. They reduce the amount of effort required from the cyclist—this can be especially useful on hills. Electric-assist bikes are much heavier than conventional bikes due to the battery, motor and other associated components. The battery may need to be recharged regularly depending on how much you use the electric motor and how far you ride. A bicycle shop can provide further advice and options.
It's important to stay safe when cycling. Ride defensively, scan the road, show common sense and courtesy, and you'll improve your safety and reduce the risk of an accident.
Make sure you:
- understand and obey the road rules, cyclists have the same obligations as other road users
- wear a correctly-fitted and fastened helmet that meets the current Australian Standards
- install and use front and rear lights, reflectors and a bell
- turn on your lights at night or when visibility is poor
- take extra care in the rain as roads become slippery and visibility can be poor
- wear brightly coloured and/or reflective clothing
- maintain your bike and make sure your tyres and brakes are in good condition.
Brisk walking is an excellent way of getting your 30 minutes exercise per day. Walking to and from work may mean you might not need to make extra time for exercise. Walking helps prevent cardiovascular disease. There is a strong link between walking and reduced rates of obesity, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis. Walking can also improve your sense of wellbeing.
If you have children at primary school, you could find out if their school has a walking school bus, where a group of primary school children walk with two adults to and from school. One parent 'drives' at the front of the bus, while the other parent supervises the rear. The walking bus picks up passengers along the way at designated bus stops.
This is a fun and safe way to take children to school. The children meet and mix with other children in their neighbourhood and parents can make new contacts and friends in their local community.
Cars and other light vehicles
GreenVehicleGuide Australian Government
Fuel and Energy Consumption Labels Australian Government
Fuel consumption guide database Australian Government
Child car seats - information in your language Starting Out Safely
Information about getting your licence and registering a car Available in multiple languages. VicRoads
Fuel Consumption Database Fuel consumption data for many vehicles sold in Australia between 1986 and 2003.
ACT | ACTION ACT Government
NSW | Bus Transport
NSW | Ferry Transport
NSW | Train Transport
NSW | Light rail Transport
NT | Public transport Northern Territory Government
QLD | Translink Queensland Government
SA | Adelaide Metro Government of South Australia
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WA | Transperth Government of Western Australia
Walking and cycling
ACT | Cycling and Walking ACT Government
NSW | Walking and cycling NSW Government
NT | Cycling Northern Territory Government
QLD | Cycling Queensland Government
SA | Getting to school Government of South Australia
TAS | Walking and cycling Tasmanian Government
VIC | Bicycles VicRoads
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Walking and cycling to school
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SA | Way2Go Government of South Australia
VIC | VicHealth Victorian Government
WA | Your Move Government of Western Australia