climate change global warming government policy zero emissions

Zero emissions for Melbourne’s transport What is the plan?

One of the aims of the forum is to provide a better understanding of the complexity of the issues that must be addressed in a plan to reduce emissions quickly, starting immediately, get to zero, and the implications.

One of the aims of the forum is to provide a better understanding of the complexity of the issues that must be addressed in a plan to reduce emissions quickly, starting immediately, get to zero, and the implications. All are poorly understood. Whilst the forum will focus on transport it cannot be considered in isolation. Transport is a service industry, a derived demand that is a function of the broader economy (primarily local but also national and global), the characteristics of the city itself and the social and political environment in which it operates.   

Global impacts are becoming increasingly critical. COP26 has constantly reminded us of the impending environmental catastrophe and the imperative to reduce emissions now. The discussion is no longer about 2050, it is 2030 and the necessity to achieve substantial reductions this decade to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Even this is a political compromise: the situation is worse than many are prepared to admit so we are between a rock and a hard place with little room left for error. As Prince Charles put it recently “this is our last chance saloon”. 

The question then becomes what is the plan? 

Our Prime minister insists it can be solved by technology and the impressive skills and drive of “Can-do Capitalism”. If that is the case, given we have had more than thirty years to respond to this impending crisis, why is it our Can-do Capitalists have not seen it coming and are still stuck in “business as usual”, and why are some of the wonderful technological breakthroughs people have been talking about still unproven pipe dreams.  

We need to question assumptions that underpin such a strategy and start with the following:  

  • Do the technologies our government is pinning its hopes on really exist, and can they be developed quickly enough during the early part of this decade (beyond this will be too late)  
  • If so, can they be delivered at scale and at a price that can be afforded  
  • In the transport context, this applies to all vehicles: road, rail, air, sea, service vehicles, agricultural vehicles and machinery for all types of journeys and tasks 
  • What are the risks and how can they be addressed
    • Scale-ability  
    • Supply shortages (raw materials, critical technology etc, manufacturing skills and capability) 
    • Logistics – capability and bottlenecks  
    • Supporting infrastructure 
    • Supporting industries (that may not exist yet, such as a circular economy for processing and recycling waste etc)    
    • Energy required and emissions generated in the process (Prof Ian Lowe carried out a similar estimate several decades ago for the energy required to replace all coal fired power stations with nuclear. It was huge and would have resulted in unacceptable levels of greenhouse emissions. A similar exercise is required for transport).    
    • Potential for disruptions of all kinds
      • Local – social, economic and political barriers  
      • Global – the above plus other factors such as global conditions (recession/ depression, trade and other disputes (even wars) over strategic resources such as rare earths (dominated by China), computer chips (dominated by Taiwan) etc, or more general resource shortages. 
    • Fundamental assumptions or omissions which invalidate the model. For example:
      • EV’s require a whole of life assessment which includes embodied energy for extraction, processing, transportation of raw materials, manufacture, supply and distribution, operations including maintenance and renewables (tyres, oils etc) as well as electric power, disposal at the end of the economic life 
      • A power source that is 100% renewable and can be supplied at scale without compromising demand from other sources and in a way that can be managed, particularly during times of peak demand or crisis  
      • Includes emissions (including embodied energy) to provide/construct, operate, maintain/repair/renew or upgrade supporting infrastructure. This applies to all modes of transport; road, rail, airports/seaports etc and ability to cope with shortages of raw materials, etc  
      • financing capability to meet the above and affordability at every level (note this applies at every level; government, business, household).  
      • Technology will automatically improve outcomes. It may improve efficiency of use but may not necessarily change behaviour, and on its own may even promote undesirable outcomes.  

Achieving zero emissions will require action that delivers measurable outcomes in a predictable and controlled manner. This requires a combination of behavioural change and improved efficiency. Whilst technology may be an aid in achieving this its value as a control measure on its own is limited and requires other measures to be effective. The challenges are endless and complex with no simple single fix solutions but solutions must be found and there is growing pressure for change which delivers measurable outcomes and ensures emission reduction targets are met. This pressure is becoming increasingly broad based, including:   

  • Industry which is now demanding government leadership and intervention to change direction and create the conditions necessary to make it happen.   
  • The broader community, which will vote accordingly. 
  • Other countries which see Australia as a laggard and impose penalties of all kinds to encourage us to lift our game 
  • Similar pressure from financial organisations that deny essential capital because they view Australia as a poor opportunity to invest.   
  • An increasing body of environmental case law which will impose penalties on recalcitrant governments, and corporations. National pledges to reach zero emissions are being rendered irrelevant in country after country by court action almost before the rhetorical words are uttered. There has been a cascade of judgements based on the European Convention on Human Rights or national constitutions compelling governments to act faster. The Grantham Institute says there were 1841 climate action cases worldwide as of May. Two cases in the Haig are particularly relevant. One against the Dutch government itself and one against Royal Dutch Shell. It is expected the success of these two will set a precedent for many more.  
  • Scientists who continue to present evidence that demands action and positive responses to our environmental challenge. 
  • Changes in the natural environment itself and the capacity of the planet to support life which will put increasing pressure on communities to adapt.   

This pressure will increase further as more governments formally declare a state of emergency in response to climate change. A declaration of this nature can provide a catalyst for rapid change similar to the response created by WW2 or the OPEC Oil crisis in the 1970’s or more recently the covid pandemic which enabled vaccines to be developed within a year instead of the norm of 15 years.  

Achieving 2030 or 2035 at the latest and intermediate targets will require fundamental changes in the way we think about this challenge, our expectations and behaviour and the environment in which we respond to the challenge. It will demand “system change”. This will require “levers” that change the current mindset and create the environment in which this can happen.  This will require political leadership and intervention from all instruments of government. But this will not be pain free and will require actions most politicians find electorally difficult. There are many questions that must be asked. For example:  

  • How will people travel if the technological challenges associated with EV’s and other zero emission vehicles remain unresolved?   
  • If concerns raised earlier about the viability of electric vehicles, hydrogen powered and others can be resolved how will people travel if these cars are in short supply, if refuelling/charging infrastructure is not available, or simply unaffordable for most people, particularly those living remote from public transport, essential services and those with large debts (mortgages etc) or who are socially and economically disadvantaged. This situation is expected to worsen if the global economy enters a period of “stagflation”, a combination of depressed economic conditions and rising inflation. 
  • What measures will be taken to phase out fossil fuel powered vehicles and machinery, over what time and how will the process be managed. 
  • What will be the impact on supply and distribution of essential goods and services, particularly food including agricultural production much of which involves long haul bulk transport. 

This raises questions about how governments will respond, setting up the administrative and governance structures to develop a plan to achieve zero emissions, fund and administer it, monitor outcomes, take corrective action as required in a way that ensures it is given top priority. It will also require strategies to engage the community and manage the transition at a time of increasing financial hardship. The social, economic and political implications are profound but do not appear on the government radar. 

The task of achieving zero emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, currently focusses only on the geosphere but this will not be sufficient. It must be carried out in combination with actions to address the degradation of the biosphere and limits to growth. These interact and are mutually reinforcing. Addressing this will be critical and impacts are becoming increasingly obvious, particularly in poorer countries in Africa, the Middle East and now Afghanistan.  

Contrary to what many people think, Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change. It is the driest inhabited continent in the world and is warming faster than the global average. It has “warmed” 1.4 degrees over the last 120 years compared to the global average 1.1 degrees and most of it is becoming drier. It is also the most variable climate in the world. Many of the agricultural activities survive on the margins, dependent on carbon intensive energy sources for their operations and most agricultural practices have European origins or reflect other practices that are incompatible in the long term with the uniquely Australian environment. All of this has made our food bowls vulnerable. The challenge of converting these practices to make them more resilient in response to the changing environment is enormous. Similar challenges exist within our cities which also rely heavily on fossil fuels to sustain almost every activity. Much of this is the result of the way our cities have grown, exacerbated by a wasteful consumer driven culture. Changing this culture will be difficult and governments at all levels have, so far, shown little willingness to tackle it with the level of seriousness and urgency it demands.  

Australia has two options.  It can pretend to act without achieving meaningful change as it is doing at present and rely on technology to maintain business as usual or it can treat the situation as a genuine emergency and act accordingly. Neither option will be easy or pain free but the first option will almost certainly guarantee a hothouse earth trajectory and ultimately extinction for humanity as a species.  The second will require the abandonment of business as usual which got us into this mess in the first place and the philosophy, values and mindset that underpins it. It will demand a profound change in our collective behaviour and the way we use technology to support change instead of a means to maintain business as usual. This option will create a world that provides a better chance for our children and grandchildren and give us the best chance of survival as a species but this survival mindset must be applied to every government portfolio, including transport. There are opportunities to address these challenges which will be presented at the forum but in the end the outcomes will depend to a large extent on the willingness of governments at every level to create the environment for change, provide the means for it to happen and their capacity to manage and guide the transformation.

A forum on this vtial topic will take place on Monday 6 December.

Click here for more details

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