Light vehicles – cars, 4x4s, SUVs 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 carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for new light vehicles would be 60% lower.
The average 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
- Australia having a lower proportion of diesel-powered engines
- Australia has fewer government incentives for lower emissions vehicles
- relatively lower fuel prices in Australia compared with Europe.
In addition to the air pollution caused by conventional (combustion engine) vehicles, residual oil can pollute the land, waterways and oceans.
Some 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 emissions per km (g/km). This category includes all hybrids and electric vehicles, and some conventional vehicles.
‘Green’ cars accounted for just 4.1% of total sales in Australia in 2018. There were 93 ‘green’ model variants for sale in Australia in 2018.
Fuel-efficient conventional vehicles
What makes a conventional car more fuel-efficient and less polluting than another is determined by technologies such as:
- guidance indicators for more efficient gear changing
- automatic transmissions that makes the best use of gear ratios
- engine-off technology that turns off the engine when the car stops
- braking systems that feed energy back into the car battery
- low profile tyres that reduce rolling resistance
- lighter weight for better fuel efficiency
- more aerodynamic bodies that reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency
- engines that are more efficient and use lighter materials.
All new conventional light vehicles sold in Australia are required to display a Fuel Consumption Label on the windscreen. This includes all passenger cars, 4x4s, SUVs 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 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 petrol engines, electric motors and batteries to power the vehicle. There are 4 main hybrid technologies available at the moment.
A hybrid can use 40 to 60% less fuel and emits around 30% less CO2 than a conventional vehicle does.
How hybrids work
- When driving at highway speeds generally only the petrol engine is used. However, some hybrids can exceed 100km/h using only the battery.
- During deceleration and when brakes are applied, kinetic energy is captured and used to charge the batteries.
- In an urban environment many hybrids only use their electric motor/s.
- 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 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)
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 far fewer parts and much less mechanical complexity than combustion-engine vehicles.
Consumption label for EVs and plug-in hybrids
EVs and plug-in hybrids 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, and fuel consumption in L/100km.
The road ahead
Sales in Australia of EVs and plug-in hybrids increased by almost 300% to 6718 in 2019, up from 2357 in 2018.
The Australian Energy Market Operator has forecast that within the next 20 years, more than 50% of all vehicles in the country will be EVs.
Nationwide EV recharging infrastructure is under development. The NRMA is establishing one of Australia’s largest electric vehicle fast-charging networks, suitable for a range of EVs. There are a number of websites that list EV charging stations available across Australia. The ACCC New Energy Tech Consumer Code sets minimum standards of good practice and consumer protection for EV charging, as well as other new energy tech.
There are a number of websites that list EV charging stations available across Australia including:
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.
Empty the cabin or boot of any heavy items.
Remove roof racks when not in use.
At higher speeds, using 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 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'll 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.
Electric-assist bicycles are another option. 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.
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
- wear a correctly-fitted and fastened helmet that meets current Australian Standards
- install and use front and rear lights, reflectors and a bell
- 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.
Brisk walking is an excellent way of getting your 30 minutes (or more) exercise per day. 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.
Travelling with children in cars (translated into your language) Starting Out Safely
Fuel and Energy Consumption Labels Australian Government
Fuel Consumption Guide Database for vehicles sold between 1986-2003 Australian Government
GreenVehicleGuide Australian Government
GreenVehicleGuide - Electric Vehicle Information Australian Government
GreenVehicleGuide - Frequently Asked Questions Australian Government
State of Electric Vehicles August 2020 report Electric Vehicle Council
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ACT Transport Canberra ACT Government
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WA Transperth Government of Western Australia
Walking and cycling
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NT Cycling Northern Territory Government
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