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Transforming Melbourne for a zero emission world

Melbourne must, like all cities adapt to the changing world around us and this includes the need to achieve zero emissions within a decade. At this stage we don’t know what a zero emission world looks like.

Melbourne must, like all cities adapt to the changing world around us and this includes the need to achieve zero emissions within a decade. At this stage we don’t know what a zero emission world looks like, let alone how to get there and the transformation required, but a brief view of the transport industry may provide some clues of the extent of the challenge.

A zero emission transport sector will require the removal of all fossil powered vehicles. This includes trucks of all sorts, buses, diesel trains, service vehicles of all kinds, emergency vehicles including ambulances and fire engines, rubbish trucks and so on, cars, aeroplanes, shipping, industrial equipment, farm vehicles and machinery(1). Most of these have no ready zero emission replacement. In many cases the infrastructure required is not available or the technology solutions required are poorly developed or not even apparent. Even if there was one, supply lines and delivery times may be long in a globally competitive environment and the cost to replace them will be considerable. Production will also have to be carried out in an emission and resource constrained environment, which in itself poses huge challenges, and there will be similar challenges disposing of the existing fleet.

Under these constraints the ability to replace the existing transport fleet within a decade is near impossible and we can expect a substantial short fall. This in turn will force severe rationing of vehicles which may prioritise vehicles of greatest importance. This will include essential services and freight for food (2) and other essentials. It will also require major changes in consumer lifestyles which force people to travel less, less often and more efficiently. For personal travel there are few options. Public transport is limited and will never have the capacity to take up the slack and many trips that were previously done by car will have to be done by active transport. This has huge implications for the majority of the city’s population who are car dependent, living in suburbs remote from shops and other essential services and where public transport is poor or non-existent.

The above assumes to some extent continuation of business as usual, that people will continue to live in these poorly serviced areas and have similar jobs. It is inevitable however this will not be the case. Many industries will fail in the changing environment. The airline industry will almost certainly be one of these. This industry is already struggling because of covid and this alone may force its demise, but the technology to create a zero-emission industry does not exist and may never do so and even if it did, the economics may be unsustainable.

This is only one example of a sunset industry. There will be many others that fail in the race to achieve a zero emission world. It is inevitable that new industries will emerge and replace some that fail in the meantime but it is not clear what these will be and where they will be located. This will in turn change people’s life styles and where they live. It will also determine their travel needs and the demand for goods and services and the way they are delivered. There will be flow on effects for supporting infrastructure: the need for it in the first place and the way is it designed and used and managed. The implications for food production, essential services and freight are even more compelling and there appear to be no simple or single fix solutions.

Despite this, solutions must be found and very quickly. What should be apparent is that achieving a zero emission world will require nothing short of a radical transformation for Melbourne as a city and in a way few people imagine. Traditional concepts of sustainability and “the sustainable city” and notions of best practice to achieve it will become irrelevant. The issue will become one of survival and politically fraught. The burden of change will fall most heavily on those who can least afford it and the number, which is already large will increase as the gap between rich and poor increases even further. The burden will also be felt by those who are financially vulnerable, particularly car dependent families with big mortgages and those who cannot find work when their jobs disappear.

Politicians continue to ignore the science, as they have done for more than thirty years despite growing evidence that scientists’ worst fears are being realised. If politicians continue to ignore the warnings or fail to act with the urgency and commitment required the situation will become dire and increasingly ungovernable. Despite this, politicians appear more concerned about their own future and being re-elected, using policies designed to maintain business as usual and promote the illusion that everything will be alright to keep people happy, knowing that bad news does not sell. The reality is there is no good news here – it is bad but could be far worse depending on the choices we make now. The right choice would be to accept the need to achieve zero emissions by 2030 or even earlier and if was the case it is likely the scenario outlined above could play out. If the government fails to do this we can expect business as usual to continue for a few more years but end up with a crunch point of far greater severity and an irreversible hothouse trajectory that would result in global temperatures rising rapidly by five or six degrees or more over this century.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the lack of a positive response by politicians or the community in general. Human history is littered with stories of the collapse of cities and civilisations and is a story that has been repeated over many thousands of years. Invariably the underlying reason was environmental. Jared Diamond has identified five main reasons for past failures which include:

  1. failure to anticipate a problem (no previous experience, no science)

  2. failure to perceive a problem in progress (no measurements, too complex to observe)

  3. failure to attempt a solution (rational, bad behaviour) rational for vested interests to maintain their dominance

  4. failure to change bad values (irrational behaviour, societal values entrenched)

  5. failure to change other irrational behaviour including psychological denial

In the current situation we have the science and can measure it but the other three continue to dominate. These points were made at a presentation by Dr Graham Turner (CSIRO) at the Sustainable Cities Sustainable Transport forum in 2009, and he concluded with the following comments:

  • There are success stories of avoiding collapse, but very few within isolated systems

  • There is a very common recourse to using technology, rather than changing behaviour

  • It appears that we (modern society) have progressed SLOWLY along the road map toward addressing our global problems

  • But we now appear to be potentially in the last stage: solution unlikely

The challenge is to prove him wrong.

(1) Transport is Australia’s third largest emitter (19%) and emissions have increased by 22% since 2005. Road transport makes up the bulk at 84.2%, with domestic aviation 8.4%. Passenger vehicles (cars) contribute more than half of road transport emissions with continuing growth reflecting population growth and increased travel overall, as well as increased fuel consumption due to a switch to heavier, less fuel-efficient vehicles. It is not clear whether this figure includes emissions generated from the construction, maintenance etc of supporting infrastructure.

(2) The food industry is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (approx. 14%) and faces huge challenges of its own to achieve zero emissions at a time when climate change will make growing food increasing difficult.

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