How to drive sustainably

Most people now appreciate that their car causes problems for the environment. We’ve all read the recent global warming headlines: the average global surface temperature has been warming at an average rate of 0.17 degrees a decade since the 1970s, which is causing the polar ice caps to melt, which in turn increases sea levels and has the potential to sink small islands and shrink coastlines. Then there’s the increased incidence of catastrophic weather and flooding events. Conversely, in Australia, our dry arid areas are getting drier and the ability to maintain water supply levels is becoming a huge problem.

So how does your little car add to this global problem? The energy required to power the car’s internal combustion engine comes from fossil fuels found in the earth’s crust, including petroleum, coal and natural gas. Petroleum, which powers much of the world’s transport, is refined into suitable fuel products, such as gasoline, heating oil and kerosene.

We now know that some of the world’s most serious environmental issues have been created by burning petroleum as part of the refining process. When fossil fuels are burned, sulphur, nitrogen and carbon combine with oxygen to form compounds known as oxides. These form gases that cause numerous problems for the atmosphere, including global warming, particle pollution and acid rain.

What’s more, the reliance on fossil fuels and the global growth in the numbers of cars have combined to set up a formula whereby fossil fuels are being consumed at a much faster rate than they are produced and will eventually run out.

What can you, the car driver, do about it? There are three potential actions you can take:

  1. Convert to alternative cleaner and greener fuels.

  2. Start using your existing car more efficiently.

  3. Start using your car less.

The green car options

There’s no doubt the car of the future can be a much greener one. Years of research and investment by companies into alternative ways of powering your car with renewable, clean and energy-efficient fuel has led to a number of exciting new car options being released to the market.

Everyone keeps talking about hybrids, but do you really know what they are? A hybrid is a term used to describe the evolution of the everyday combustion engine car into a half petrol/half electric (or other alternative fuel) car. They have been on the market in the US for some time but have only recently been introduced to the Australian market.

The hybrid switches from petrol to electric mode when idling or travelling at low speeds, thereby reducing petrol consumption and emissions. One of the selling points of the hybrid is the electric battery component of the car charges every time you press the brakes, rather than having to refuel from an electric power point in your garage.

The best known of the hybrids is the Toyota Prius, which retails at approximately $A37,000. The Honda Civic Hybrid is the only competition to the Prius in Australia and retails for approximately $32,000.

Ford and Mitsubishi have also recently released dedicated LPG vehicles in Australia. The Ford Falcon E-Gas (using LPG) is the first alternative fuel car in Australia that runs without a combustion engine. It will set you back approximately $37,000. Mitsubishi produces a Magna sedan dual-fuel LPG and petrol engine hybrid.

In the US, several models are now running on an ethanol/gasoline mix. Ethanol is produced by fermenting and distilling sugar or starch crops such as sugar cane, corn, barley and wheat — or anything else that contains starch or sugar. It’s mixed with petrol that can be used in combustion-engine vehicles, although you’ll need a car that’s branded as a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV). The most popular mix is E85 — 85 per cent ethanol to 15 per cent gasoline.

Biodiesel is also a mixed fuel for diesel engines. Made from vegetable oils or animal fats mixed with an alcohol-like substance such as methanol, most biodiesels are currently mixed with regular diesel (approximately 20 per cent) so they can be used in diesel engines without modification.

The ethanol and biodiesel mixes can be seen as the most popular compromise alternative fuel at the moment as they don’t require changes to the current combustion engine style of vehicle yet they achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Hybrids and fuel mixtures are really only a start, though. They’re a sort of each-way bet to get people used to the idea that alternative fuels can work just as well as petrol.

It’s the hydrogen-powered fuel-celled car that is the great hope for a truly low-environmental-impact car. When mixed with oxygen, hydrogen produces enough electricity to power a car, yet the process of creating electricity produces no emissions. And no emissions means no greenhouse gases or smog.

The main issue in getting these cars on the market has been developing a small yet powerful enough hydrogen tank to fit within a relatively small model. The other issue is setting up the supporting hydrogen tank refilling infrastructure required to enable users to fill up their tanks without having to drive halfway around the world.

It appears Honda is the most advanced in developing hydrogen fuel-cell cars. As well, the company has developed prototype hydrogen refuelling stations for urban areas, and home-based energy stations that generate hydrogen for not only use in cars but also for powering electricity and hot water in your home.

This will happen if people want it to happen. If the demand for cleaner, greener alternative fuels and cars increases, the market will certainly supply them in greater numbers. That’s how it works. Just ask all the oil and car companies that have profited from the transport sector requiring petroleum for internal-combustion engines all these years.

Becoming more efficient

Maybe you’re a few years away from taking the punt and buying a new alternative-fuel car. No need to feel guilty just yet. Reducing the amount of fuel you use in your current car can still help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some actions you can take to decrease your fuel use:

  • Avoid idling in congested traffic situations — it wastes fuel.

  • Ensure your car is regularly serviced, as out-of-tune cars pollute more heavily.

  • Reduce speeding and avoid hard accelerating and heavy braking — driving more slowly and smoothly reduces fuel consumption. For city driving, 60km/h is the most fuel-efficient speed.

  • Travel light and remove unnecessary items from your car — the lighter the car, the better the fuel consumption.

  • Try to reduce your use of the air-conditioner — it can swallow up to 10 per cent extra fuel.

Then there’s the type of car you have. You’ll probably know there are major differences between large and small cars when it comes to fuel efficiency. A big Ford or Holden V8 will get you approximately 15 litres every 100km when driving on city streets compared with a smaller 1.3-litre three-door, say, which will get you approximately eight litres every 100km. The V8 will cost you about double the fuel and cause you to produce double the emissions.

There’s a good website provided by the Australian Greenhouse Office ( that includes a guide to fuel consumption rates for the various models on the market. To make things a little easier when browsing for a car, there’s now a mandatory labelling system the Federal Government introduced in 2004, showing the fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emission rates of all new cars.

Leave it in the garage

Clearly, there’s a massive potential for cars to become cleaner and greener. But their social impact will always be a problem. Here’s why:

  • Cars are a major contributor to urban sprawl. They provide you with the mobility to live way beyond walking distance from where you work, shop and socialise. This enables developers to continue releasing masses of cheap land on the outskirts of cities knowing people with cars will find these areas attractive places to live.

  • Cars are the cause of more deaths than any other mode of transport. Close to 90 per cent of transport-related accidents in Australia that result in death are road-related, most involving cars.

  • Cars are unhealthy. Many more people are using their car for local trips that were once an easy walk. This increase in car use for every trip away from home has corresponded with an increase in obesity rates in our urban areas.

  • The continuing mass ownership of cars encourages governments to resource road extensions and upgrades, thereby reducing the pot of funding that might otherwise be available to fund public transport extensions and upgrades.

  • In areas that are not located near public transport services, cars become the only realistic form of transport access. But not everyone can drive cars. Some people living in these areas, such as the elderly, children and low-income earners, to name a few, are stuck at home for the day until someone is available to drive them.

  • The roads that cars use take up a large proportion of open space in our urban areas. It has been estimated that roads and carparks take up an accumulated 30 per cent of our urban areas. Imagine being able to reduce this percentage to provide more open space.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that you have to get rid of your car. I have done so, but only because where I live, work and socialise allows me to get around by walking and using public transport. What I am suggesting is there are benefits in converting to an alternative-fuel car and using your car less.

Here’s a thought. How about leaving your car at home for a day or two and using public transport as an alternative? Or how about sharing a lift with a workmate? Maybe you could telecommute — ask your boss whether you can work from home via the computer one day a week.

In any event, you can plan your car travel in a way that enables you to reduce the number of car trips you make in a given week. Convert and reduce. The future of the planet depends on it.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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