Saturday, 3 May 2008

How Australia’s ecosystems wish it were true!

At the local service station on the corner of Nicholson Street and Princess Street, the signs showing the cost per litre of petrol do not have a decimal point. Although I have watched over varying petrol prices for around twenty years now, it is only very recently - through it becoming clear to me just how astronomical Australian petrol prices would need to be to fit the country's ecology – that I noticed the lack of a decimal point in the signs whilst riding my bike.

The sign says something like:

cents per litre

1427 cents, or fourteen dollars twenty-seven cents, per litre is far less cheap than any petrol in the world today. At that price, it would cost $784.85 a week to run my mother’s 1990 Peugeot 405, or around $2140.50 a week to run a Ford Territory into and out of the city. $2140.50 is more than the average Australian worker’s income – about equivalent to the wage of, say, an engineer. Petrol prices of that order of magnitude would, clearly, then, produce a demand for cars far more economical than exist for sale today and Australia’s car designers might have to be more innovative than they ever have been under the Mariana Trench-level petrol prices that have prevailed for many decades. Fuel consumption in Australian vehicles would fall to a fraction of the consistent eleven to twelve litres per 100 kilometres observed over the past half-century. This would provide some hope of limiting or halting the runaway declines in southern Australian rainfall and maintain some water in Melbourne’s dams.

Nevertheless, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Recent newspapers have contained the following two errors about petrol prices that actually would do wonders for our environment if they were true:
At one hundred and fifty-three dollars per litre, it would cost around one million two hundred thousand dollars to run a big 4x4 for a year. That is around the wage of the richest sports- or businesspeople!

Even if petrol use were much less (say, confined to remote-area trips on unsealed roads), such a price would provide abundant revenue for drastically needed projects like renewable energy, large-scale road demolition and completely free public transit. Assuming the entire extra price was tax, only 0.2 percent as much carbon dioxide would be emitted. That level would actually give about the same ecological impact as current emissions in Europe and East Asia. Thus, one can conclude that such prices, which people see as unbearable (how else could someone else not notice the obvious error) are actually about what Australians should be paying for petrol given current prices elsewhere in the OECD.

Unfortunately, Melbourne’s climate keeps drying out under prices of $1.53 a litre, which is clearly far too cheap. I have long wished for less cheap petrol in Australia, and it would be good to imagine the innumerable benefits of a fuel price reflecting our fragile ecology. Most young people cannot imagine the much greater southern rainfall, cooler temperatures or absence of water restrictions that would have resulted from ecological-level petrol prices in Australia being brought in a decade or two ago. (Nor do they imagine the destruction our present dirt-cheap petrol will bring in the future).

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