If you’ve been dead from the neck up this past week, it might come as something of a shock to learn Australia has a its 27th – and first female – Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
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So, is Ms Gillard a closet drifter? Has she been busted at 160km/h in a 40 zone? Not so far as we know. You’re probably thinking: Relevance of the whole recent political knife-fight bizzo to Car Advice? Zip? Less than zip? Well, not quite. In her acceptance speech, Ms Gillard, 48, solemnly intoned: “… I believe in climate change. I believe human beings contribute to climate change.” She also said: “If elected as Prime Minister I will re-prosecute the case for a carbon price at home and abroad.”

This means – basically – carbon dioxide, greenhouse, the environment, etc., will be the subject of ongoing public debate in the medium term in this country. And that means there’s a fair old chance the car will be once again unfairly and publicly demonized – in some quarters to a degree way, way beyond its actual contribution to the nation’s CO2 emissions. Crackpot greenies are on it right now, you can bet.

This column isn’t a debate about climate change – I’m not a climate scientist. So how the hell would I know? If the consensus view of climate scientists is that we need to cut CO2 emissions, fair enough – let’s do that. But let’s do it in a rational way, by targeting the biggest emitters, and by picking the lowest-hanging of the fruit first. That seems like a reasonable way to go about it.

Thankfully, in May this year the Federal Government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (a name that demands landscape-format business cards…) published its latest National Greenhouse Gas Inventory (NGI), which you can download as a PDF. It lists all the big CO2 emitters. It’s very interesting reading if you’re a car enthusiast (or a cow – we’ll get to that).

According to the NGI, the country’s total CO2 emissions for the year to December 2009 were 537 million tones (Mt) of CO2-equivalent. Huh? Basically, there is more than one greenhouse gas. There’s your basic CO2, your oxides of nitrogen, your methane, and your halocarbons (think: refrigerants). All these gasses have different greenhouse-causing potentials (they don’t contribute equally to the problem – a tonne of methane is a bigger greenhouse problem than a tonne of CO2, for example). What the NGI does is convert the methanes, NOx and halocarbons to the equivalent amount of CO2 in terms of the greenhouse contribution, for fairness. All the figures quoted in this report are in million tones of CO2 equivalent.

So, according to the NGI’s official data, of that total national annual emission of 537Mt, passenger cars emitted just 42Mt – or 7.8 per cent. Take a look at electricity – a mind bending 202Mt, or 38 per cent. That’s right: electricity emits five times the greenhouse gas of the humble passenger car. Got any extra lights burning in the house right now?

Agriculture emits 84Mt – double that of the passenger car. And, according to the NGI, of that 84Mt, 56Mt is the product of the ‘enteric fermentation’ of livestock. This is a very technical term for what is basically the contribution to greenhouse of millions of cows and sheep farting. That’s not a joke. It means cows and sheep farting is a bigger greenhouse issue than all of Australia’s passenger cars.

Fuel consumption in the mining of non-energy resources (think: iron ore, bauxite, gold, lime, etc.) is 49Mt – 17 per cent more than passenger cars. Exploiting resources is a bigger greenhouse issue than passenger cars.

Industrial processes – refining minerals (producing cement, for example), emissions from the chemicals industry, and metal production (making aluminium from bauxite, for example) – account for 31Mt worth of emissions. So-called ‘fugitive emissions’ – gasses that escape from the production of coal, gas, oil and solid fuels – total 40Mt. And, of those, 29Mt comes from coal mining and decommissioned coal mines. Industries that can’t control their leakages is the same as passenger cars from a greenhouse perspective.

Lastly, deforestation releases 50Mt worth of annual greenhouse emissions, though this is offset by reforestation schemes, which sequester carbon and bring that total down to a more respectable 23Mt.

What utterly gobsmacks me about all these different sources isn’t really the size of the problem. Nope, what’s got me 100 per cent stumped is public perception. I mean, if you say ‘climate change’ or ‘CO2’ or ‘greenhouse problem’ to your average Joe in the street, plenty of times the gut reaction will be ‘car’. I mean, what are these people running their computers on? Petrol?

We’re never going to make a real dent in CO2 by demonizing the car. Or by reducing the fuel consumption of passenger cars without targeting all the other emitters in a similar fashion. If we could cut the fuel consumption of passenger cars by 15 per cent overnight (and we could do that, theoretically, just by driving smarter) it would make just over one per cent difference to the national greenhouse emissions picture. But if we could cut electricity consumption by 15 per cent (also possible in theory) it would make almost six per cent difference.

Frankly, you’d be doing the greenhouse problem a bigger favour by using less heat in winter, less air conditioning in summer and turning off the lights when you’re not in the room, than you would by ditching the car you love.

You wait and see the well-intentioned greenhouse crackpots amp up into full-tilt car demonization when Ms Gillard starts getting the electorate all hot and bothered over the fair price for carbon as the only option to prevent envirogeddon. It’s cool in some circles to point the finger at cars and label them evil devices, but doing so is far from the truth. Also, it won’t get the job done.