Transportation and Carbon Emissions

Continuing the series of articles on Sustainable Living, this article looks at modes of transport that negatively impact our environment through the emission of greenhouse gases.

Australians have one of the largest carbon footprints per capita in the world and transport is the third highest national emitter of carbon at 18% of total emissions, only lower than Electricity (33%) and Stationary Energy excluding Electricity (20%).[1] Cars are responsible for roughly half of Australia’s transport emissions.

Taking a flight or driving alone are the most carbon-intensive options.


Transport emissions in Australia have grown more than any other sector, increasing nearly 60% since 1990. Globally, 45% of transport emissions come from road (passenger); 29% from road freight and 12% from aviation. Rail only accounts for 1% of emissions.


Australia is well behind many other global countries when it comes to tackling transport emissions which were 33% higher in 2018-19 than in 2001-02. 

The reasons for Australia’s poor performance include:

  • Not having a national fuel efficiency standard
  • Heavy car use
  • High pollution cars
  • Relatively high distances travelled per person by car
  • Low share of trips taken by public transport


Heavier carbon emitters are large petrol and diesel vehicles with lesser amounts of emissions coming from smaller petrol, diesel, electric and hybrid cars, buses, trains and trams.


What Can We Do?

Cutting transport emissions depends upon us using alternative sources of transport or lower emission modes e.g. bicycles, walking, public transport, electric and hybrid cars.                                          

Importantly, there can be wide variation in emissions depending primarily on:

  1. the length of the trip
  2. the source of electricity in the local grid
  3. the occupancy of public transport
  4. in the case of driving — vehicle and number of passengers.


Suggestions to reduce our transport carbon footprint 

  • A great way to reduce our transport carbon footprint is to walk and cycle distances that we are comfortable with.
  • Use public transport - did you know that a full bus can take 40 cars off the road.
  • Trains are nearly always the winning option over moderate-to-long distances. Buses and trams over short ones.


Motor Vehicles

  • Big engine cars are costly and not that efficient.
  • CO2 emissions will depend mainly on which vehicle you use and the number of passengers.
  • Emissions vary depending on the size of vehicle and the type of fuel, preferably look for a car with the best fuel economy in its class.


Electric Vehicles  (EVs)            

Recent research from a number of global universities shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a petrol car.

However, the carbon intensity of the local electrical grid matters. Battery electric vehicles have no exhaust emissions. Their emissions are primarily determined from the production and distribution of the energy used to charge them which could be from less environmentally friendly fossil fuels rather than from renewables.

Cost has been an issue with EVs - although costs are reducing, the range of EVs is increasing, more charging stations are developing, vehicle manufacturers are moving increasingly to the production of EVs and more countries are planning for an EV future, including Australia although some countries such as Norway have a far greater EV uptake.

In making a personal decision to move to an EV, there are some questions to consider:

  • What your needs are? Consider how current available EV models will fit your specific purposes.
  • What your typical travel needs are? Compare your daily commute mileage with EV battery ranges. A hybrid or electric vehicle may be appropriate if longer trips are regularly taken.
  • Finally, how easy is it to charge your EV?


For more information go to the Green Vehicle Guide


Air Travel & Carbon Offsets  

If you travel from Sydney to London 4.2 tonnes of CO2 would be produced. Air travel creates a little less than 12% of global emissions and sometimes it’s unavoidable.

During the pandemic, interstate and international meetings have been conducted remotely, significantly reducing emissions. Should we consider online meetings and events more often?

Carbon offsets can be purchased when booking flights. Airlines create these offsets by planting large forests of trees to sequester carbon, restore native vegetation and wetlands and clean up waterways. Half the dry weight of a tree is carbon.



Remember to be a friend to the environment - it helps make the world a healthier and safer place for ourselves and future generations.

Useful Links 

Quarterly Update of Australia's National Greenhouse Gas Inventory


Reducing your transport carbon footprint

Climate Council: Transport Emissions

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Growth for Road Transport in Australia

Buying an electric car or vehicle | Sustainability Victoria

Clean, green machines: the truth about electric vehicle emissions

Fight For Planet A: Our Climate Challenge


[1] Stationary energy excluding electricity includes emissions from direct combustion of fuels, predominantly from the manufacturing, mining, residential and commercial sectors.


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