In 2006, Australia’s National Roads and Motorists' Association (NRMA) released a study about dependence on oil "down under." Worried about the impact of unpredictable prices on the cost of transporting people and products, the report warned that by the end of the decade, Australia, much like the US, would import more than half its oil—a precarious dependency that could put the nation’s economy in serious jeopardy.
I visited the NRMA this week in Sydney as they released the 2010 version of this report. Not only was it right back in 2006—Australia now imports 55 percent of its oil—the updated report predicts that over 80 percent will be imported within another decade and prices will rise dramatically as a result.
Other consumer and trade groups study commerce and make predictions, but the NRMA is decidedly different—it’s actually trying to create a blueprint for how to transition to clean renewable sources of transportation fuels. The group hosted a summit to identify obstacles hindering development and production of the many alternative fuels and technologies already available in Australia and to determine a concrete set of steps to commercialize these solutions.
Why would a car club wade into such deep and potentially politically divisive issues? Because its reports and members have made a few things very clear. First, oil is running out and the future of motoring depends on evolving to something more sustainable very soon. More to the point, before oil wells themselves run dry, refineries in Australia and the US may be starved for product, because the booming economy in China and India are making those countries competitors for petroleum—and they’re winning. Just last month, for example, China surpassed the US as the Number One customer for Saudi crude, while other supplies around the world, including those in Australia’s fellow Commonwealth ally Canada, are also being gobbled up by China.
Second, we’re running out of atmosphere. Despite setbacks in both Canberra and Washington DC to regulate carbon, consumers—including members of car clubs like NRMA—are trying to reduce their own carbon footprint and want cleaner fuels now. Everywhere I travel in Australia, I see ads touting the lower carbon footprint of this product or that one. Mortgages, Barrier Reef tours, rental cars, and even dog food use carbon offsets or lower carbon content as a competitive advantage. If ordinary Australians are responding to those value propositions, will their politicians be far behind?
Could the American Automobile Association ever become the leading advocate to decarbonize the transportation sector in the US? Not very likely, but if the Aussies are any indicator, average consumers around the world have figured out that our cars are not just a part of the carbon problem, but could soon be a part of the solution, especially with a little push from groups like NRMA. If companies on both sides of the Pacific take a closer look at that roadmap and provide low carbon alternatives soon, we can keep our economies and our environment from stalling out on the side of the road.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).