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.