Delaying action on car emissions will make Australia more vulnerable


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We don’t know what the car of the future will look like – but that’s no excuse to delay transport reform.
www.twin-loc.fr/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Bonnie McBain, University of Newcastle

France has set its car manufacturers the goal of halting sales of diesel and petrol cars by 2040. The announcement last week came a day after the Swedish manufacturer Volvo declared it will build only hybrid and electric cars from 2019.

Moving away from highly polluting cars is an urgent global priority. Worldwide, transport accounts for 26% of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions and, of these emissions, 81% comes from road transport.

Our latest research, published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, shows that car ownership and the total distance travelled by cars are both likely to keep growing, globally and in Australia.

But just because there will be more cars, covering more ground, that doesn’t necessarily mean CO₂ emissions will continue to rise. It depends on a complex mix of population trends, income growth and the impacts of new policies and technologies.

It might therefore seem sensible to delay policy decisions until we can see what type of future emerges. However, our research found that a “wait and see” approach will dramatically increase our economic, social and environmental vulnerability.

Lower-income Australians are particularly at risk. This is because transport accounts for a greater proportion of their household income and they tend to live on the urban fringe where daily travel distances are necessarily higher.

Future-proofing our transport policy means we must engage with uncertainty, not ignore it. That means choosing policies that allow us to adapt to a range of technological or social developments.

We modelled different policy options in Western Australia, looking for options that reduced CO₂ emissions without creating social vulnerabilities. The most effective approach requires simultaneously improving fuel standards, making cars more efficient, and increasing city density to reduce both car ownership and the total distance we need to travel in cars.

However, CO₂ emissions alone don’t provide the full picture. Our model found that encouraging biofuels, for example, could mean increasing our agricultural footprint to grow feedstock.

Similarly, electric and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles require energy supplied by the electricity sector. As this sector itself decarbonises, technologies such as solar, hydro and wind will require greater areas of land than coal and gas technologies.

However, managing carbon dioxide emissions and demand on land is not necessarily mutually exclusive. Wind turbines can co-exist with grazing, and decentralised solar panels are already common on existing buildings. Offshore wind farms and solar installed on otherwise unproductive land can lessen impact. Targeted investment in technological efficiency can further reduce this impact.

Using land for both agriculture and energy production could actually give farmers greater economic resilience. Alternative fuels that use waste products or are low-impact (such as biofuel made from algae) are also promising avenues.

The economic case for expensive changes

Although the implementation of stringent transport policy will be costly – it requires massive changes in capital infrastructure and behaviour – it will open up other benefits and saving.

Vehicle emissions are recognised as the source of more air pollution than any other single human activity. These emissions cause hundreds of preventable deaths in Australia every year. (As well as saving lives, we’d also save billions of dollars in related costs.)

Well-designed, more compact urban spaces encourage more biking and walking. This, in turn, reduces chronic diseases that also cost Australians billions every year.


J G/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Research shows that compact cities reduce infrastructure costs by 11%; a 2015 report found gridlock alone could cost Australia A$53 billion by 2031. Curbing urban sprawl can reduce the clearing of native vegetation, which benefits the rivers and animals that live around our cities.

Changing the type of fuel used by cars, improving vehicle efficiency and increasing city density are all policy levers that can reduce the footprint of urban cars, but these must occur in tandem. To minimise costs and realise the potential savings, policymakers need to collaborate on finding policies that are flexible enough to adapt to an uncertain future.

The ConversationShould we have the leadership to implement such sophisticated policy, we might accidentally design a future in which we are healthier and happier too.

Bonnie McBain, Tutor in Sustainability Science, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t listed as ‘in danger’ – but it’s still in big trouble


James Watson, The University of Queensland and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

In a somewhat surprising decision, UNESCO ruled this week that the Great Barrier Reef – one of the Earth’s great natural wonders – should not be listed as “World Heritage in Danger”.

The World Heritage Committee praised the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, and the federal minister for the environment, Josh Frydenberg, has called the outcome “a big win for Australia and a big win for the Turnbull government”.

But that doesn’t mean the Reef is out of danger. Afforded World Heritage recognition in 1981, the Reef has been on the warning list for nearly three years. It’s not entirely evident why UNESCO decided not to list the Reef as “in danger” at this year’s meeting, given the many ongoing threats to its health.

However, the World Heritage Committee has made it clear they remain concerned about the future of this remarkable world heritage site.

The reef is still in deep trouble

UNESCO’s draft decision (the adopted version is not yet releasesd) cites significant and ongoing threats to the Reef, and emphasises that much more work is needed to get the health of the Reef back on track. Australia must provide a progress report on the Reef in two years’ time – and they want to see our efforts to protect the reef accelerate.

Right now, unprecedented coral bleaching in consecutive years has damaged two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This bleaching, or loss of algae, affects a 1,500km stretch of the reef. The latest damage is concentrated in the middle section, whereas last year’s bleaching hit mainly the north.

Pollution, overfishing and sedimentation are exacerbating the damage. Land clearing in Queensland has accelerated rapidly in the past few years, with about 1 million hectares of native vegetation being cleared in the past five years. That’s an area the size of the Brisbane Cricket Ground being cleared every three minutes.

About 40% of this vegetation clearing is in catchments that drain to the Great Barrier Reef. Land clearing contributes to gully and streambank erosion. This erosion means that soil (and whatever chemical residues are in it) washes into waterways and flows into reef lagoon, reducing water quality and affecting the health of corals and seagrass.

Landclearing also directly contributes to climate change, which is the single biggest threat to the Reef. The recent surge in land clearing in Queensland alone poses a threat to Australia’s ability to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target. Yet attempts by the Queensland Government to control excessive land clearing have failed – a concern highlighted by UNESCO in the draft decision.

Land clearing can lead to serious hillslope gully and sheet erosion, which causes sedimentation and reduced water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.
Willem van Aken/CSIRO

A time for action, not celebration

The Reef remains on UNESCO’s watch list. Just last month the World Heritage Committee released a report concluding that progress towards achieving water quality targets had been slow, and that it does not expect the immediate water quality targets to be met.

The draft decision still expressed UNESCO’s “serious concern” and “strongly encouraged” Australia to “accelerate efforts to ensure meeting the intermediate and long-term targets of the plan, which are essential to the overall resilience of the property, in particular regarding water quality”.

This means reducing run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farmlands. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.

The Great Barrier Reef is the most biodiverse of all the World Heritage sites, and of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance” according to the United Nations. A recent report by Deloitte put its value at A$56bn. It contributes an estimated A$6.4bn annually to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs.

Excessive landclearing in Queensland, which looks like being a core issue in the next state election, has been successfully curbed in the past, and it could be again.

But the reef cannot exist in the long term without international efforts to curb global warming. To address climate change and reduce emissions, we need to act both nationally and globally. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” to delay action on emissions.

The ConversationWe need adequate funding for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and a plan to reach zero net carbon emissions. Without that action, an “in danger” listing seems inevitable in 2020. But regardless of lists and labels, the evidence is clear. The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our eyes. Unless we do more, and fast, we risk losing it forever.

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.