climate change governance government policy public transport

Achieving Zero Transport Emissions. Where is the plan?

Scientists are telling us we must achieve zero emissions – not by 2050, or 2040 but by 2030. But this will not happen on its own and cannot be left to the “market”. It needs a plan.

Scientists are telling us we must achieve zero emissions – not by 2050, or 2040 but by 2030. But this will not happen on its own and cannot be left to the “market”. It needs a plan.

A transport plan is already mandated under the Transport Integration Act and whilst it acknowledges the need to respond, prepare and adapt to the challenges presented by climate change and improve the environmental performance of all forms of transport and the forms of energy used in transport, these provisions are merely passing comments and paid lip service by government in an Act which focuses to a large extent on business as usual. Despite the provisions of the Act we still don’t have a transport plan, let alone one that acknowledges the urgent need to respond to our climate emergency. This must change if government is to have any hope of achieving a zero emission target by 2030.

From a transport perspective the urgency is clear and compelling. As noted in an earlier blog zero emissions means no more petrol/diesel or natural gas driven motor vehicles of any kind for personal, business travel and freight (land, sea and air), industry including tractors and other machinery for agricultural purposes. It also includes the embedded energy in the construction, maintenance and renewal of supporting infrastructure. This is a huge challenge and requires a transformation in our transport industry.

But transport is a “derived demand”, a function of the economy it services so the starting point must be to get a better understanding of what a zero emission world will look like. This means the social and economic activities and number of people it will support. We need to ask what jobs will have value (and which ones will disappear), where will they be located? More specifically how and where will food be grown and processed, and other essential goods and services transported in a zero emission world? What will be the social and economic impact on businesses that provide them and the flow on effect for the broader economy? What will their transport/travel needs be and how these be met, and cost implications remembering the vast majority of people in Melbourne are car dependent? It has implications for many energy intensive industries and others such as the tourist industry with its heavy dependence on the airline industry which will have great difficulty achieving zero emissions and most likely no place in a zero emission world. All of this must be reflected in transport policies and strategies and the infrastructure required to support it. It is almost certain much of the infrastructure existing today or being built will become irrelevant, redundant or require repurposing.

Whilst 2030 should be seen as an end point, achieving it will require milestone targets for earlier years. There are opportunities to make significant emission reductions now. This was the finding by Stanley et al in their paper “Reducing Australian motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions” published in 2006, which estimated possible reductions of 40% using a range of measures based on technological improvements and behavioural change. This analysis does not include a whole of life assessment for the transport fleet or supporting infrastructure so it is an overestimate but it would be a significant start.

Achieving this reduction will not be easy of course. The authors recognise these gains would be quickly eroded by population and economic growth and inappropriate land use planning and development that promotes more travel and longer trips. It has also been eroded by transport projects such as new motorways that promote more travel, mostly by motorised vehicles – cars and trucks etc. And it also requires political support and intervention. Whilst measures proposed in the report are conventional – certainly not radical, there has been little or no action since the report was written. Yet achieving 40% reduction should be the easy bit: getting to zero will be far more challenging and require fundamental system change.

The challenge to make it happen within the existing political system is huge. It raises fundamental questions about our society, its values, aspirations and the choices it is prepared to make and there will be considerable resistance to change. Despite this it is clear that when a crisis is identified, strong leadership from government can result in widespread community support and rapid change, including community values and behaviour and a willingness to make sacrifices.

This was clearly demonstrated by the federal government’s initial response to the Covid pandemic and later by the state government’s response to the second wave in Victoria in which the top priority was to survive and do whatever it takes to achieve it. It resulted in major restructuring of government departments responsible for public health, upgrading procedures and technological advances. It is now run like a “war office” with strong linkages to other state governments and internationally. The pandemic has also demonstrated the capacity for rapid technological advances – in vaccines, and timescales, previously measured in decades to less than a year. But it is a reminder that all of this has been driven by leadership at the political level and its capacity to create an environment for change – not by the ‘market”. It is also a reminder that government should never delegate this kind of task to market forces as has so often been the case in the past.

The challenge now is to harness this energy and leadership to respond to our climate emergency. Governments have demonstrated that when they are willing to listen to the science and science experts radical change is possible, but they must get the priorities right and start working to goals and targets with a plan to achieve them. It really is a race against time. They must also do so based on the understanding that we require a combination of technological advances and behavioural change, that technology must be directed to support behavioural change, not used for its own sake for commercial interests, recognising that on its own technology will make matters worse.

There are many challenges that remain unresolved. Currently the footprint for EV’s is higher than conventional internal combustion vehicles so major improvements are required to address this, particularly for batteries to increase their efficiency, reduce their environmental footprint and make them more easily recycled at the end of their economic life. There are encouraging signs with the development of hydride batteries and their potential use in many transport modes, farm machinery and fixed power generation but this needs a plan and must become an integral part of a new “circular economy”. It must also be accompanied by programs that promote behavioural change. In the case of transport, this means to travel less, less often and more efficiently, particularly using travel modes such as active transport which have minimal environment footprints. There is little to be gained if EV’s simply replace the existing fleet in a way that promotes business as usual and leave it to market forces to determine the outcome.

These are questions that should have been addressed decades ago when scientists and others started warning us of the impending climate emergency. Time is fast running out and the time to act is now. The scale and complexity of the challenge is huge. Prof Rockstrom (Director Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Germany) has described the task as another Apollo project designed to get man on the moon or beyond and here is less than a decade to make the transition. Failure to achieve this and put this planet on a hothouse trajectory is unthinkable and must be rejected. So where is the plan?

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