best practice governance public transport zero emissions

Zero Emissions – What is the Plan for Melbourne’s transport?

The Prime Minister recently stated that achieving zero emissions would be similar to tackling Covid – just a case of applying technological solutions and leave business to carry it out, whilst in the meantime proceeding with business as usual.


The Prime Minister recently stated that achieving zero emissions would be similar to tackling Covid – just a case of applying technological solutions and leave business to carry it out, whilst in the meantime proceeding with business as usual. A more accurate assessment of the challenge was made by Prof Johan Rockstrom, that it will require an effort equivalent to the Apollo program to achieve success. I.e., a large-scale concerted effort, hugely complex involving science, politics, the public sector and industry employing resilience and creativity with a common goal. With climate, he argues there is little time left. We have ten years to transition the whole world to a new logic. But it needs a plan and it will need to be far better than the one delivered so far for covid.

Understanding and defining the problem is the starting point for this zero-emission project, but is only the first of many elements that would need to be addressed in a zero-emission plan discussed briefly in these notes.

Elements of a zero-emission transport plan for Melbourne

Essential elements of a zero-emission transport plan for Melbourne suggested below would be reflected in any serious program/project and include the following:

1. Terms of reference – know what you are planning for – scope, outcomes/outputs that are clearly defined and can be measured

2. A deadline for achieving it

3. Implications for not meeting the deadline – usually measured as a cost with penalties in financial terms

4. Steps/milestones that must be achieved, their sequence/order in which they must be completed supported by plans/programs etc to make it happen

5. Allocation of resources

6. An assessment of risks and barriers that must be overcome and strategies and priorities to address them

7. Contingency plans to address unforeseen circumstances that threaten the plan

8. Assignment of people/agencies responsible for implementing the plan, its structure and accountabilities

9. Assignment of auditors and others to monitor progress, measure and record outcomes and hold the program managers to account.

At this stage none of these fundamental elements exist for achieving net zero emissions. Actions to reduce emissions must start immediately – achieving early reductions is just as critical as meeting the 2030 zero emission target but there are no plans for either at this stage. At best we have a vague commitment by the State government and an adhoc list of actions that address part of the problem but we don’t even know the full extent of what we must plan for. I.e., the “project” has not been properly defined yet, so that must be the starting point. It also requires a definition of the end point and recognises that over the course of “project” many of the assumptions made will change as different sectors respond to actions implemented by the “project” and the changing world around it. In other words, it is a dynamic concept that should be more accurately defined as a “framework” which must anticipate changes during the implementation stage and have the flexibility to adapt as they arise without compromising end goals.

1. What is the scope of the plan and what are we planning for?

For the purposes of Melbourne’s transport this means achieving zero emissions generated, directly or indirectly by the transport system as a whole. This includes all modes of transport, supporting infrastructure and emissions from imbedded energy, use, maintenance, renewal and disposal of all components at the end of their economic life.

Whilst the primary goal must be to achieve zero emissions by the end of the program, it is critical emissions are reduced as quickly as possible before the deadline. Some of this will occur directly or indirectly as a result of pressure to reduce emissions over the course of the program/project with implications for the transport task itself, service planning and the need for supporting infrastructure. Whilst many of these trends will be difficult to pick some are becoming obvious and must be taken into account.

The airline industry is a good example. It is already struggling because of the covid pandemic but will be put under more pressure as emission-based taxes such as those proposed by the European Union become more widely imposed. Legal actions such as the case against Royal Dutch Shell by the Netherlands government which directs Shell to reduce its emissions by 50% by 2030 will also impact before long and it is likely more will follow. This ruling applies to all of Shell’s global operations and downstream uses of its oil and gas including all activities that use these raw materials such as the plastics industry etc. This is expected to have flow on effects which will put even more pressure on airlines and other parts of the transport sector.

But these are only short term problems. Achieving zero emissions will be much more challenging. Zero emissions are not confined to the fuel that powers the aircraft but to every aspect of its operations, including the imbedded energy in the planes themselves, their maintenance and infrastructure that supports it. This is an enormous challenge and may make it impossible to survive. If it fails the impact on the local Melbourne economy will be profound. It would remove any justification for a new train line to the airport and the impact on economic activity and transport task associated with it would have flow on effects throughout Melbourne.

Converting the existing road and rail fleet to zero emissions also presents huge challenges and it is not clear how this will be achieved. Even if there are solutions, it is not clear how quickly they could be carried out. Almost certainly there will be factors which limit the take up. These may be technological, supply (of critical materials such as rare earths etc), production (electronic chips etc), affordability or financial constraints within the economy. All may be problematic, even critical in achieving a 2030 deadline. Similar concerns apply to supporting infrastructure on the roads, rail lines and other sources such as stand-alone power from the grid etc.

It has been assumed by many that a transition to electric vehicles will be a major part of the solution to achieving zero emissions, however this is by no means assured. The environmental footprint of an electric powered car, including the imbedded energy to create it in the first place, its use and disposal at the end of its economic life is no better than a conventional motor vehicle. Considerable improvements will be necessary to improve the efficiency of batteries, power sources to charge them and the ability to recycle all components (particularly batteries) at the end of the vehicle’s life. This will require integration with a new “circular economy” – an economy that does not exist at this time.

It is difficult to consider this program in isolation. It will create changes with flow on effects to the broader economy which will rebound to transport. Service/maintenance and other industries that support transport is a good example. Battery driven vehicles require far less servicing and

maintenance than conventional vehicles with significant implications for jobs in an industry that is a major part of the local economy. There will be many other businesses that also fail in an increasingly difficult environment with similar flow on effects that will ultimately impact the demand for transport, the way the services are provided, infrastructure that is required to support it and emissions generated.

Similar concerns apply to the food industry. Climate change presents serious challenges for the food sector that supplies Melbourne. A declining and ultimately zero emission environment will put additional pressure on all sectors of the food industry to grow, harvest, process and distribute it. Each sector will have its own zero emission targets and it is not clear how these will be achieved. For example, how will tractors, other farm machinery, manufacturing plant and transport, all of which is predominately diesel powered be replaced with zero emission power plants? What restrictions will be imposed on petroleum based fertilisers and herbicides?

These are some examples of changes that may be expected in coming years approaching a zero emissions economy. The overall impact would be profound and trigger a major transformation in the local economy and with it a fundamental change in the transport task and the way in which it will be met. It is important these changes be anticipated, planned for and ultimately reflected in transport planning and its own plan to achieve zero emission.

2. What is the deadline?

This should be obvious and well understood but there is little agreement. The federal government is reluctant to commit to any deadline and whilst state and local governments have made some commitments, these vary, there are no properly developed plans to implement them, and none are consistent with latest deadlines imposed by the science. This was clearly articulated at TfM’s annual forum in December 2020 by Prof David Karoly i.e., that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels – which the G7 group of nations recently committed to, greenhouse emissions must be reduced by 125% by 2030. This means abandoning earlier targets of 2050, 2040. The Climate Council has since advised that limiting global warming to 2 degrees would require zero emissions by 2035 i.e., only five years later. But 2 degrees will put us very close to a tipping point that would result in runaway climate change so it is argued that 2030 should be the latest target date for zero emissions.

3. Implications for not meeting the deadline – usually measured as a cost with penalties in financial terms

Failure to achieve this target i.e., 2030 increases the risk of runaway climate change with increased global warming of up to six degrees Celsius or more that would lead to the extinction of most of the biosphere including humanity. Such a prospect is unthinkable so meeting this target must be seen as non-negotiable and achieved at any price.

4. Steps/milestones that must be achieved, their sequence/order in which they must be completed, and intermediate emission reduction targets

It is not clear how existing modes of transport can achieve zero emission targets by working forward. Such an approach is more likely to promote planning based on business as projections. The most appropriate basis for the development of milestone targets in an emergency situation is to work backwards i.e., back-casting from a zero-emission world of 2030 i.e., a non-negotiable end point and use it as a baseline for setting intermediate goals, which must include interim emission reduction targets and steps required to achieve them. This will require modelling to provide a rational basis for

determining the transport task and how it will be delivered. This will force politicians to confront very difficult scenarios and make tough decisions which have been ignored in the past or put in the too hard basket.

At this stage the only modes that meet zero emissions are active transport i.e., walking and cycling. The most confronting priority relates to the supply of food and essential services – currently provided by petrol and diesel vehicles. This presents a huge challenge and must be a top priority.

Most of emission reductions achieved during the early stages of the “project” will have to be achieved using the existing fleet, ie before it is phased out. This will require a combination of behavioural change involving improved efficiency, transfer to more efficient modes and reduced usage i.e., by transporting goods and services and traveling less often and over less distances, using traditional approaches of best practice. This program will be very short and require the development of external measures such as increased renewable power from the grid and advances in technology etc to make it happen.

5. Allocation of resources and priorities

This is of fundamental importance – without it there can be no commitment, and must be reflected in State government budgets and funding priorities. It must also be reflected in all existing policies, works and services and capital works programs to ensure all of these are contributing to the same goals. Any projects that do not comply, and there are many, particularly in the State Government’s Big Build program, must be axed. Similar priorities must apply at the local government level and measures taken to ensure this happens. This raises many issues of a governance nature which are discussed in an earlier paper “Melbourne’s Transport -The Need for a New Framework for Assessing Priorities”

6. An assessment of risks and barriers that must be overcome and strategies and priorities to address them.

Most of the barriers will be of a political nature. This will require development of strategies to manage the change process. Many of the “levers” that can be applied for this purpose are outlined in a paper by Donella Meadows “Places to intervene in a system”. Briefly this includes, in increasing order of effectiveness:

  • numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)

  • material stocks and flows

  • regulating negative feedback loops

  • driving positive feedback loops

  • information flows

  • the rules of the system (incentives, punishments and constraints)

  • the power of self-organisation

  • the goals of the system

  • the mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules feedback structure arise.

This systems-based approach is applicable to complex systems such as a national or local economy. It highlights the scale and complexity of the task. Successful application will almost certainly require the use of all levers identified above, but the starting point is the mindset, which must change at all levels and without this there will be no prospect of success.

7. Contingency plans to address unforeseen circumstances that threaten the plan.

The environmental imperative must demand contingency plans to ensure zero emission targets are met. It is difficult to specify what these might be but may arise at every level. At a macro level they may be economic due to international market failure, conflict, the loss of key export markets (such as iron ore to China), trade barriers, failures to deal with covid or other diseases, environmental disasters – the list is endless, but there must be plans to counter them.

8. Who will be responsible for implementing the plan, its structure and accountabilities?

This is a critical issue that must be addressed at the outset. It will require amongst other things people and organisations with the skills, knowledge, expertise etc to manage the program and the independence and organisation structures to carry it out free from political and other influences that may compromise the outcome.

9. Who will monitor progress, measure and record outcomes and hold the program to account?

Similar argument applies to the monitoring process etc.

In summary, the ability to achieve a zero-emission transport sector will depend on the thoroughness of the planning process the way in which it is implemented. The scale and complexity is huge, and will require coordination of many other programs driven by similar zero emission reduction and other environment targets which must be run in parallel. Even at this stage, without extensive modelling it is clear that achieving this will require a total transformation of our society, its values, aspirations, expectations, the choices we make and the way we live.

These notes only scratch the surface but they may help start the conversation about the need for a plan. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a growing number of business in the commercial sector are already advanced in their thinking and planning for a zero-emission world but often driven from a narrow corporate perspective. Whilst some will present opportunities to progress better zero emission outcomes as a whole, it is critical these interests are understood and not become opportunities to hijack the program to suit vested interests.

Thinking behind the conceptual framework proposed above has been in response to the “climate emergency”. Missing the targets by five years would commit this planet to 2 degree warming. Missing it by ten years would almost certainly put it in a situation where cascading tipping points occur which would put it on a runaway hothouse earth trajectory and global temperature rises that could exceed six degrees by the end of the century. At this stage we are starting to see the impact of a 1.1 degree warming – extreme heat conditions in Australia during last summer followed by firestorms on an unprecedented scale followed by severe flooding and storm damage, which has been repeated this year in the northern hemisphere with even more extreme temperatures up to 56C degrees C (or 133 degrees F) and torrential rain and flooding in Germany/Belgium and Japan on an unprecedented scale – less than a year later. It is a pattern that can be expected to be repeated with increasing severity with only a 1.1 degree warming. But this is only one of many indicators that highlight the challenges we face in the future.

It could be argued that the prospects of meeting a 2030 deadline with such a program are unrealistic and a waste of time. If that is the case one could argue why bother and simply continue to party and carry on with business as usual and go to hell in a hand basket. A more appropriate response might be to treat this in a similar way to the Japanese threat in the last world war – treat it as if our lives depended on it and do what it takes to survive. In the case of the WW2 the Australian response was immediate but the threat was also far less. The very worst outcome was to lose the war and be

invaded and subjugated by the Japanese – not a great prospect but at least we would survive. The climate trajectory we are facing is one that leads to extinction – a point of no return. Survival will need a plan – not a simple one like the Prime Minister proposed but one of enormous complexity and scale as Prof Rockstrom wrote a couple of years ago from his institute in Potsdam with a reminder we have little time left to develop and implement it.

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