Move aside electric cars, another disruption set to occur in the next decade is being ignored in current Australian transport infrastructure debates: electric aviation. Electric aircraft technology is rapidly developing locally and overseas, with the aim of potentially reducing emissions and operating costs by over 75%. Other countries are already planning for 100% electric short-haul plane fleets within a couple of decades.
Infrastructure projects are typically planned 20 or more years ahead. This makes it more important than ever that we start to adopt a disruptive lens in planning. It’s time to start accounting for electric aviation if we are to capitalise on its potential economic and environmental benefits.
Why aren’t there electric airplanes yet?
What can these aircraft do?
The key issue affecting the uptake of electric aircraft is the need to ensure enough battery energy density to support commercial flights. While some major impediments are still to be overcome, we are likely to see short-haul electric flights locally before 2030. Small, two-to-four-seat, electric planes are already flying in Australia today.
A scan of global electric aircraft development suggests rapid advancements are likely over the coming decade. By 2022, nine-seat planes could be doing short-haul (500-1,000km) flights. Before 2030, small-to-medium 150-seat planes could be flying up to 500 kilometres. Short-range (100–250 km) VTOL aircraft could also become viable in the 2020s.
If these breakthroughs occur, we could see small, commercial, electric aircraft operating on some of Australia’s busiest air routes, including Sydney-Melbourne or Brisbane, as well as opening up new, cost-effective travel routes to and from regional Australia.
Why go electric?
In addition to new export opportunities, as shown by MagniX, electric aviation could greatly reduce the financial and environmental costs of air transport in Australia.
Short-haul electric aircraft are particularly compelling given the inherent energy efficiency, simplicity and longevity of the battery-powered motor and drivetrain. No alternative fuel sources can deliver the same level of savings.
With conventional planes, a high-passenger, high-frequency model comes with a limiting environmental cost of burning fuel. Smaller electric aircraft can avoid the fuel costs and emissions resulting from high-frequency service models. This can lead to increased competition between airlines and between airports, further lowering costs.
What are the implications of this disruption?
Air transport is generally organised in combinations of hub-and-spoke or point-to-point models. Smaller, more energy-efficient planes encourage point-to-point flights, which can also be the spokes on long-haul hub models. This means electric aircraft could lead to higher-frequency services, enabling more competitive point-to-point flights, and increase the dispersion of air services to smaller airports.
While benefiting smaller airports, electric aircraft could also improve the efficiency of some larger constrained airports.
For example, Australia’s largest airport, Sydney Airport, is efficient in both operations and costs. However, due to noise and pollution, physical and regulatory constraints – mainly aircraft movement caps and a curfew – can lead to congestion. With a significant number of sub-1,000km flights originating from Sydney, low-noise, zero-emission, electric aircraft could overcome some of these constraints, increasing airport efficiency and lowering costs.
The increased availability of short-haul, affordable air travel could actively compete with other transport services, including high-speed rail (HSR). Alternatively, if the planning of HSR projects takes account of electric aviation, these services could improve connectivity at regional rail hubs. This could strengthen the business cases for HSR projects by reducing the number of stops and travel times, and increasing overall network coverage.
What about air freight?
Electric aircraft could also help air freight. International air freight volumes have increased by 80% in the last 20 years. Electric aircraft provide an opportunity to efficiently transport high-value products to key regional transport hubs, as well as directly to consumers via VTOL vehicles or drones.
Plan now for the coming disruption
Electric aircraft could significantly disrupt short-haul air transport within the next decade. How quickly will this technology affect conventional infrastructure? It is difficult to say given the many unknown factors. The uncertainties include step-change technologies, such as solid-state batteries, that could radically
accelerate the uptake and capabilities of electric aircraft.
What we do know today is that Australia is already struggling with disruptive technological changes in energy, telecommunications and even other transport segments. These challenges highlight the need to start taking account of disruptive technology when planning infrastructure. Where we see billions of dollars being invested in technological transformation, we need to assume disruption is coming.
With electric aircraft we have some time to prepare, so let’s not fall behind the eight ball again – as has happened with electric cars – and start to plan ahead.
Victoria has some of the most carbon-dense native forests in the world. Advocates for logging these forests often argue that wood products in buildings and furniture become long-term storage for carbon.
However, these claims are misleading. Most native trees cut down in Victoria become woodchips, pulp and pallets, which have short lifespans before going to landfill. In landfill, the wood breaks down and releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
On the other hand, our evolving carbon market means Australia’s native forests are extremely valuable as long-term carbon stores. It’s time to recognise logging for short-lived wood products is a poor use of native forests.
The problem with logging native forests
These forests can store up to 1,140 tonnes of carbon per hectare for centuries.
But around 1.82 million hectares of Victorian native forests are allocated to the government’s logging business, VicForests.
VicForests claims logging is the only market for the large area of native forest allocated to it. In other words, its forests are exclusively valued as timber asset, in the same way a wheat crop would be exclusively valued for wheat grain production.
In Victorian native forests, industrial scale clearfell logging removes around 40% of the forest biomass for logs fit for sale.
The remaining 60% is debris, which is either burned off or decomposes – becoming a major source of greenhouse gas emission.
Myth one: storing carbon in wood products
The first myth we want to address is logging native forests is beneficial because the carbon is stored in wood products. This argument depends on the proportion of forest biomass ending up in wood products, and how long they last before ending up in landfill.
On average, logs suitable to be sawn into timber make up only an average 35% of total logs cut from Victorian native forests.
Of this 35%, sawmills convert less than 40% into sawn timber for building and furniture. Offcuts are woodchipped and pulped for paper manufacturing, along with sawdust sold to chicken broiler sheds for bedding.
Sawn timber equates to 14% of log volume cut from the forest. The remaining 84% of logs cut are used in short-lived and often disposable products like copy paper and pallets.
The maximum lifespan of a timber pallet is seven years. At the end of their service, timber pallets are sent to landfill, chipped for particleboard, reused for landscape mulch or burnt for energy generation.
Longer-lived wood products, such as the small proportion of native timber used in building and furniture, have a lifespan of around 90 years. These wood products are used to justify logging native forests.
But at the end of their service life, the majority of these wood products also end up in landfill.
In fact, for the 500,000 tonnes of wood waste generated annually from building, demolition and other related commercial processes in Victoria, over two thirds end up in landfill, according to a Sustainability Victoria report.
Myth two: the need to log South East Asian rainforests
A second myth is using logs from Victorian native forests will prevent logging and degradation of rainforests across South East Asia, particularly for paper production.
This is patently absurd. The wood from the Victorian plantation sector – essentially timber farms, rather than trees growing “wild” in native forests – could replace native forest logs used for paper manufacturing in Victoria several times over.
In fact, in 2016-17 89% of logs used to make wood pulp (pulplogs) for paper production in Victoria came from plantation trees, with the majority of hardwood logs exported.
And Australia is a net exporter by volume of lower-value unprocessed logs and woodchips.
Processing pulplogs from well managed plantations in Victoria instead of exporting them would give a much needed jobs boost for local economies.
With most of these plantations established on previously cleared farmland, they offer one of the most robust ways for the land use sector to off-set greenhouse gas emissions.
The time is right for Australian governments to develop a long-term carbon storage plan that includes intact native forests.
Logging results in at least 94% of a forest’s stored carbon ending up in the atmosphere. A maximum of 6% of its carbon remains in sawn timber, for up to 90 years (but typically much shorter). This is patently counterproductive from a carbon-storage point of view.
State-owned forest management companies, such as VicForests, can transition away from the timber business and begin managing forests for carbon storage. Such a concept is not new – the federal government has already approved a way to value the carbon storage of plantations.
The same must now be developed to better protect native forests and the large amounts of carbon they can store.
Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
The report describes an environment that faces serious pressures, including species at risk of extinction, polluted rivers and streams, the loss of productive land as cities expand, and climate change.
New Zealand’s global share of emissions
New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions are high internationally. In 2015, New Zealanders produced 17.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases (measured as carbon dioxide equivalent) per person, 33% higher than the average of 13.2 tonnes from industrialised countries.
In the latest figures from 2017, gross emissions rose 2.2% from 2016 and remain 23% above 1990 levels. The immediate causes are clearly stated: high emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture and sharply rising emissions of carbon dioxide from transport.
The report is silent on the root causes of rising emissions, including ineffective government action and community attitudes that rank climate change as a relatively low priority. Instead it states:
Our high per-person emissions are reversible if we adopt policies, technologies, or other means that reduce our production of greenhouse gases.
But this obscures the story of 30 years of policy work on climate change and 11 years trying to make New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme work.
An earlier report on climate change did not foresee the flood of vehicles entering the country. This has now given New Zealand the highest rate of vehicle ownership in the OECD. New Zealand has 4.36 million vehicles, up half a million since 2015, but lacks the regulations found in many other countries, such as CO₂-linked registration fees and fuel efficiency standards. With a flood of cheap, high-emission used imports, it is no surprise that New Zealand’s transport emissions continue to rise.
A key function of this latest report is to identify knowledge gaps. An important one for New Zealand is the relative strengths of different carbon sources and sinks, for example by different types of vegetation, soils and agricultural practices.
As emphasised recently by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, New Zealand is still focusing too much on plantation forestry as a short-term fix for our emissions problem. It is a risk because it creates a carbon liability for the future, as well as exposure to diseases and fires. Its true environmental impact is not well understood.
The section on current climate impacts could not be more clear.
Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand. Changes include alteration to temperature, precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, ocean acidity, wind, and sunshine.
New Zealand’s temperature has increased by 1ºC since 1909. While this is close to the global average, it is less than the global land average which has increased by 1.4ºC. New Zealand is protected to some degree by the Southern Ocean.
Warm days have increased and frosts decreased. Soils have dried, glaciers have melted, sea levels have been rising, the oceans have warmed and acidified, and sunshine hours have increased. No surprises so far. Climate science predicts an increase in extreme rainfall events, but this has not yet been detected statistically. At one-third of the measured sites, extreme wind has decreased, whereas an overall increase in wind is expected.
New Zealand not immune to climate change
If anything, the section on current impacts is too conservative. The data stops in 2016 before the epic years of 2017 and 2018, which saw many extreme weather events of all types. These were linked in part to El Niño, which raises global temperatures, and in part to an extreme Southern Annular Mode, an indicator whose strengthening is itself linked to climate change.
The report’s final section covers future impacts in the most forceful official statement seen yet. It lays out a blizzard of impacts in all areas of the environment, country, economy and infrastructure, including coastal flooding, erosion, tsunami risk, liquefaction risk and saltwater intrusion.
All aspects of life in New Zealand will be impacted.
The way forward
The uncertainties are clear. We don’t have a clear idea of the rate of future emissions, or the impacts under different emission scenarios. Some of the most important impacts, such as sea-level rise, are also the most uncertain. The report notes that information on cumulative and cascading impacts is limited. Climate change has the capacity to undermine environmental efforts elsewhere.
Polls show a rising awareness of climate change and a hunger for stronger action. The Zero Carbon bill is expected to go to select committee before June, but even when passed, emissions will not start falling until the mid-2020s, with the heavy lifting left to the 2040s and future emission reductions technologies.
A recent report on New Zealand’s transition to a low-emission economy outlines many more immediate actions. Let’s hope that this report, along with the public pressure from the School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion movements, give the government the courage to act decisively.
Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have raised the question of electric vehicles’ capacity for “grunt”.
Now I’m by no means a “grunt” expert, but when it comes to performance, electric cars are far from lacking. In fact, Australian electric car owners have ranked performance as the top reason for their purchase choice.
The V8, fuel-guzzling, rev-heads, who are supposedly worried that electric cars mean they will be left driving around golf buggies, should first check out this drag race between a Tesla and a Holden V8 Supercar.
SPOILER ALERT: The Tesla wins, and by a fair amount.
Internal combustion engine vs electric motor
Internal combustion engines and electric motors are very different. In an internal combustion engine, as the name suggests, small amounts of fuel are mixed with air, and are exploded to drive a series of pistons. These pistons drive a crankshaft, which is then connected to a gearbox, and eventually the wheels.
This is a rather simplified overview, but there are literally hundreds of moving parts in a combustion engine. The engine must be “revved-up” to a high number of revolutions in order to reach peak efficiency. The gearbox attempts to keep the engine running close to this peak efficiency across a wide range of speeds.
All of this complexity leads to a significant amount of energy being lost, mostly through friction (heat). This is why combustion engine cars are very energy inefficient.
So how are electric motors different? Electric motors are actually pretty simple, consisting of a central rotor, typically connected to a single gear. The rotor is turned by a surrounding magnetic field, which is generated using electricity. The added benefit of this design is that it can operate in reverse, acting as a generator to charge the batteries while slowing down the vehicle (this is called regenerative braking).
On the other hand, the electric motor reacts instantly as soon as the accelerator is pushed. Given the minimal moving parts, electric motors are also highly reliable and require little to no maintenance. Their simplicity also means that almost no energy is lost in friction between moving parts, making them far more efficient than internal combustion engines.
Does simplicity translate to more or less grunt?
Combustion engines need to be “revved-up” to reach peak power and torque. Torque is a measure of how much rotational force can be produced, whereas power is a measure of how hard an engine has to work to produce the rotational force.
As shown below, the power and torque characteristics of a combustion engine means that although a conventional car might have a top capacity of 120 kW of power and 250 Newton metres of torque, this is only when the engine is running at high speeds.
In contrast, an electric motor provides full torque from zero kilometres an hour, with a linear relationship between how fast the motor is spinning and the power required. These characteristics translate to a vehicle that is extremely fast at accelerating, with the ability to push you back into your seat.
What about pulling power?
For over a decade electric motors have been used in mining trucks, sometimes with a capacity greater than 100 tonnes, due to their powerful, instant torque and ability to pull large loads at slow speeds.
While most of these vehicles have been diesel-hybrids, fully electric mining trucks are now being introduced due to their high power-to-weight ratio, low operating costs, and ability to use regenerative braking to – in some cases – fully recharge their batteries on each mine descent.
Electric motors are also increasingly being used in shipping, again because of their ability to push large loads. In Europe, a number of short-haul electric ships are currently in use. One example is the Tycho Brahe, a 111 metre-long, 8,414 tonne electric passenger and vehicle ferry that operates between Helsingborg, Sweden and Helsingør, Denmark.
The future of grunt
The global transition to electric vehicles is underway. Australians must decide whether we want to capture the enormous benefits this technology can bring, or remain a global laggard, literally being killed by our current vehicle emissions.
While long-distance towing in fully electric vehicles is currently a challenge, in the near future this will no longer be the case with the introduction of long-range electric utes like the Rivian R1T and Tesla Pickup.
In the interim, alternatives also exist, like my own plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It can tow, drive on the beach, and drive up to 50 kilometres on electricity alone. Charged using my home solar system or The University of Queensland’s fast-charger, it means that more than 90% of my trips are zero-emission.
It is clear that electric cars can provide plenty of grunt for Australians, so let’s make sure we are ready for an electric performance future.
An earlier version of this article stated the electric passenger and vehicle ferry Tycho Brahe was 238 metres long. The article has been updated with the correct length of 111 metres.
The Easter long weekend marks the last opportunity this year for many Australians to go to the beach as the weather cools down. And for some, particularly in Queensland, it means dodging bluebottle tentacles on the sand.
In just over a month this summer, bluebottles stung more than 22,000 people across Queensland, largely at beaches in the southeast. At least eight of these stings required hospitalisation.
To make matters worse, there were more than twice the number of Irukandji jellyfish stings in Queensland than is typically reported for this time of the season. Irukandjis – relatives of the lethal box jellyfish – cause “Irukandji syndrome”, a life-threatening illness.
There have also been widespread reports that Irukandjis have been migrating southwards. Many reports have assumed there is a southward migration linked to climate change. But Australia’s jellyfish problem is far more complex. Despite the media hype, there exists no evidence that any tropical Irukandji species has migrated, or is migrating, south.
In addition, many people find it surprising to learn there are Irukandji species native to southern waters. Many cases of Irukandji syndrome have been recorded in Moreton Bay (since 1893), New South Wales (since 1905), and even as far south as Queenscliff, near Geelong (in 1998).
So amid the misinformation, pain and misery, why is this jellyfish problem not more effectively managed?
What is being done to manage jellyfish risks?
In North Queensland, coastal councils have grappled with jellyfish risk for decades.
At popular beaches in the Cairns, Townsville, and Whitsunday regions, visitors are offered protection in the form of lifeguard patrols and stinger nets. Beaches are also peppered with marine stinger warning signs.
But these strategies are not as effective as intended. Stinger nets, for instance, protect people against the larger, deadlier box jellyfish, but not against the tiny Irukandji.
There’s a lack of public awareness about many aspects of stinger safety. For example, that Irukandji can enter the nets; that Irukandji may be encountered on the reefs and islands as well as in many types of weather conditions; and that both Irukandjis and box jellies are typically very difficult to spot in the water.
To make matters worse, visitors, especially international tourists, are completely unaware of these types of hazards at all. This was confirmed in a recently published study that found marine stinger warning signs are not effectively communicating the true risk.
The high number of stings that continue to occur at patrolled beaches highlights the need for a redesign.
Reef operators share a similar problem.
Workplace Health and Safety legislation requires businesses for recreational water activities to do all they reasonably can to protect their staff and customers from health and safety risks.
Jellyfish risk management is only mentioned in the Code of Practice applying to diving and snorkelling businesses. But jellyfish stings continue to be widely reported, raising questions about the effectiveness of this law and its applicability to businesses for other water activities like jet skiing, kayaking, and resort watersports.
Can jellyfish risk management improve?
Absolutely! But only with more data and communication about the risks of jellyfish.
A newly established independent Marine Stinger Authority, based in Cairns, will be well positioned to provide all coastal councils, government and tourism organisations, and the wider public with updated research, information and consultation on jellyfish risks in Australia.
Why your tourist brain may try to drown you
It’s a good start, and all current strategies provide a level of protection, but there is room for improvement. We have identified the following points as the highest priority:
1. a national reporting system
A national reporting system to capture real-time data about stings. This would inform coastal councils, tourism operators and other stakeholders so they can better protect the public and meet their duty of care.
Such a system has been partially developed by CSIRO, but this has ceased. We are seeking funding to resume development and implementation of this critical public safety tool.
2. improved warning signage
Modification of jellyfish warning signs should be consistent with research-based design guidelines.
Effective signs should, among other things: be noticeable and include a signal-word panel with “WARNING” in appropriate size and coulours to alert of the hazard; be easy to read, including by international visitors; include a well-designed pictogram indicating scale of hazardous jellyfish; and include hazard information, its consequences and how to avoid it.
Any modifications would also need to be monitored to ensure the signs are properly understood where deployed.
3. an updated Code of Practice
The Work Health and Safety Code of Practice should be amended to include all businesses for recreational water activities and make jellyfish risk management mandatory.
4. safety messaging research
More research is needed to better understand the effectiveness of jellyfish management strategies, taking into account the diverse cultural expectations and
languages of visitors at different destinations.
For this Easter break, here a few safety tips for beachgoers:
plan ahead and be aware of local conditions
don’t touch bluebottles or other jellyfish (they can still sting out of the water)
wear stinger protective clothing like a full body lycra suit (a “rashy”) or neoprene wet suit (especially in tropical areas)
pack a bottle of vinegar in your beach bag, boat or boot of the car
get local advice on recent stings (from lifeguards or tour operators).
Growing demand for electric vehicles is important to help cut transport emissions, but it will also lead to new mining. Without a careful approach, we could create new environmental damage while trying to solve an environmental problem.
Like solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage technologies, electric vehicles require a complex mix of metals, many of which have only been previously mined in small amounts.
These include cobalt, nickel and lithium for batteries used for electric vehicles and storage; rare earth metals for permanent magnets in electric vehicles and some wind turbines; and silver for solar panels.
Our new research (commissioned by Earthworks) at the Institute of Sustainable Futures found that under a 100% renewable energy scenario, demand for metals for electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies could exceed reserves for cobalt, lithium and nickel.
To ensure the transition to renewables does not increase the already significant environmental and human impacts of mining, greater rates of recycling and responsible sourcing are essential.
Recycling can offset demand for new mining
Electric vehicles are only a very small share of the global vehicle market, but their uptake is expected to accelerate rapidly as costs reduce. This global shift is the main driver of demand for lithium, cobalt and rare earths, which all have a big effect on the environment.
Although electric vehicles clearly help us by reducing transport emissions, the electric vehicle and battery industries face the urgent challenge of improving the environmental effects of their supply chains.
Our research shows recycling metals can significantly reduce primary demand for electric vehicle batteries. If 90% of cobalt from electric vehicle and energy storage batteries was recycled, for instance, the cumulative demand for cobalt would reduce by half by 2050.
So what happens to the supply when recycling can’t fully meet the demand? New mining is inevitable, particularly in the short term.
In fact, we are already seeing new mines linked to the increasing demand for renewable technologies.
Clean energy is not so clean
Without responsible management, greater clean energy uptake has the potential to create new environmental and social problems. Heavy metals, for instance, could contaminate water and agricultural soils, leading to health issues for surrounding communities and workers.
Most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and around 20% of this is from artisanal and small-scale miners who work in dangerous conditions in hand-dug mines.
This includes an estimated 40,000 children under 15.
Rare earths processing requires large amounts of harmful chemicals and produces large volumes of solid waste, gas and wastewater, which have contaminated villages in China.
Copper mining has led to pollution of large areas through tailings dam failures, including in the US and Canada. A tailings dam is typically an earth-filled embankment dam used to store mining byproducts.
When supply cannot be met by recycling, we argue companies should responsibly source these metals through verified certification schemes, such as the IRMA Standard for Responsible Mining.
What would a sustainable electric vehicle system look like?
A sustainable renewable energy and transport system would focus on improving practices for recycling and responsible sourcing.
Many electric vehicle and battery manufacturers have been proactively establishing recycling initiatives and investigating new options, such as reusing electric vehicle batteries as energy storage once they are no longer efficient enough for vehicles.
But there is still potential to improve recycling rates. Not all types of metals are currently being recovered in the recycling process. For example, often only higher value cobalt and nickel are recovered, whereas lithium and manganese are not.
And while electric vehicle manufacturers are beginning to engage in responsible sourcing, many are concerned about the ability to secure enough supply from responsibly sourced mines.
If the auto industry makes public commitments to responsible sourcing, it will have a flow-on effect. More mines would be encouraged to engage with responsible practices and certification schemes.
These responsible sourcing practices need to ensure they do not lead to unintended negative consequences, such as increasing poverty, by avoiding sourcing from countries with poorer governance.
Focusing on supporting responsible operations in these countries will have a better long-term impact than avoiding those nations altogether.
What does this mean for Australia?
The Australian government has committed to supporting industry in better managing batteries and solar panels at the end of their life.
But stronger policies will be needed to ensure reuse and recycling if the industry does not establish effective schemes on their own, and quickly.
Australia is already the largest supplier of lithium, but most of this is exported unprocessed to China. However, this may change as the battery industry expands.
For example, lithium processing facilities are under development in Western Australia. Mining company Lithium Australia already own a battery component manufacturer in Australia, and recently announced they acquired significant shares in battery recycling company Envirostream.
This could help to close the loop on battery materials and create more employment within the sector.
Human rights must not be sidelined
The renewable energy transition will only be sustainable if human rights are made a top priority in the communities where mining takes place and along the supply chain.
The makers of electric cars have the opportunity to lead these industries, driving change up the supply chain, and influence their suppliers to adopt responsible practices.
Governments and industry must also urgently invest in recycling and reuse schemes to ensure the valuable metals used in these technologies are recovered, so only what is necessary is mined.
Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney