Australia has an historic opportunity to build a new, export-focused manufacturing sector based on renewable energy.
As a bonus, it could enable a less politically fraught conversation about climate change. Global action on climate change is in Australia’s national interest.
The changing climate is already reducing profits for Australian farmers. Tens of thousands of jobs depend on the again-bleached Great Barrier Reef.
But for too long, political leaders have struggled to balance the national interest with the legitimate concerns of Australians who live and work in regions that host coal mining and other carbon-intensive industries – most notably central Queensland and the Hunter Valley in NSW.
This climate conundrum has greatly complicated the national debate about climate change: neither commitments to a “just transition” to a low-emissions future, nor promises of coal exports in perpetuity, have proven convincing, leaving regional jobs in the lurch.
Australians want industry
In the 2019 federal election, voters in these carbon regions, perhaps fearing for their livelihoods, seemingly rejected Labor’s more ambitious climate policies.
Australia needs a credible plan to replace carbon jobs as the world decarbonises, and ideally the new jobs will offer similar salaries, need similar skills, and be located in similar places.
This is the key to cracking the climate conundrum: a plan based on sound economics that can offer hope to communities that currently depend on carbon-intensive activities.
A new Grattan Institute report, Start with steel, finds that manufacturing green steel for export is the largest job opportunity for these regions of Australia.
We can start with steel
Green steel can be made by using renewable energy to produce hydrogen, and then using that hydrogen in place of metallurgical coal in the steelmaking process.
The byproduct is water, rather than carbon dioxide.
Winding back the 7% of global emissions that come from steel production will require creating demand for low-emissions steel.
Australia has far better renewable resources than many of our major Asian trading partners, allowing us to make low-emissions hydrogen more cheaply, and therefore to make cheaper green steel.
And because hydrogen is expensive to transport, it makes sense to use it to make green steel here rather than exporting it to make green steel somewhere else.
The Pilbara in Western Australia is the world’s largest iron ore province, which makes it look like the natural place to make green steel.
But it is difficult to attract workers to remote Western Australia. Making green steel for export would require large industrial workforces like those in central Queensland and the Hunter Valley.
Our calculations suggest that the availability of reasonably-priced labour on the east coast of Australia more than outweighs the cost of shipping iron ore from Western Australia to turn it into green steel there.
If Australia captured just 7% of the global steel market, it could create 25,000 ongoing manufacturing jobs.
Seven per cent is much higher than the 0.3% of globally-traded steel that Australia produces today – but it is much less than our share of iron ore production, which is 38%.
Crucially, the opportunity does not rely on leaps of faith or endless subsidies – it is one of the few economically-credible ways to make the low-emissions steel the world will need if it gets serious about tackling climate change.
We should act quickly
The markets for these products are less certain, but if the world moves decisively to limit emissions, the projects that respond will deliver thousands of jobs.
Governments cannot single-handedly create these industries, and nor should they.
Instead, they should focus on bringing down the cost of the key intermediate product – hydrogen – by funding pre-commercial studies of geological structures suitable for storing hydrogen cheaply.
And they should invest in Australia’s low-emissions steel making capabilities by partly funding a flagship project that uses the direct reduction technology needed to use hydrogen to make steel.
The politics of climate change skewered a decade’s worth of prime ministers. And an inability to communicate the costs of action – and why they’re justified – contributed to a would-be prime minister losing an unlosable election.
Green steel offers Australia a reset button: a chance to get bipartisan cooperation to tackle a wicked problem that threatens our national interest.
We’ve heard plenty about the climate crisis. It’s time to talk about the opportunities.
Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, some still propagate the myth that the world will need Australian coal for decades to come. Last weekend Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese joined in, saying thermal and metallurgical coal mining and exports would continue after 2050, even with a net zero emissions target.
Metallurgical coal (or “coking coal”) is mined to produce the carbon used in steelmaking, while thermal coal is used to make steam that generates electricity.
Albanese argues there’s no replacement for metallurgical coal, but this is not the case. The assertion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of modern steelmaking, and places Australian manufacturers at risk of missing out on massive opportunities in the global shift to a low-carbon economy.
Just as thermal coal can be replaced with clean energy from renewables, we can use low-emissions steel manufacturing to phase out metallurgical coal.
The problem with steel
Steel is the second-most polluting industrial material in the world after cement, causing 7-9% of global emissions.
Australia manufactures a relatively small amount of steel – 5.3 million tonnes, or 0.3% of world output. Yet, we’re one of the biggest exporters of raw materials for steel production.
There is potential to not only strengthen Australia’s steel manufacturing industry, but also to grow it using the ore (rock containing metals like iron) we currently export and our extensive renewable energy sources.
Doing so would work to our manufacturing strengths, history, abundant resources, and would cater to the future low-carbon market that will still require steel.
There are a few ways we can do this.
Seventy-two per cent of the world’s virgin steel (steel made from ore, not from recycled material) is created from a high emissions manufacturing process – via the integrated steel-making route. This involves a blast furnace and a basic oxygen furnace, using coal, coke, iron ore and gas.
We can replace the coal and coke with rubber tyres that would otherwise end up in landfill, as shown by University of NSW’s Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who dubbed this process “green steel”.
Right now we can also boost the recovery of steel from landfills in greater percentages. According to a 2018 national waste report, Australia generated an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste in 2016-17.
Steel makes up 2.5% of this. That’s more than 1.5 million tonnes, enough to build 150,000 buses.
‘Direct reduction’ from renewable hydrogen
But the best way to reduce emissions in steel manufacturing is to shift to “direct reduction”. This process produces more than 60 million tonnes of primary steel each year.
And almost 50 plants around Australia already make steel this way. It results in 40% lower greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting a viable and thriving manufacturing industry, which uses our own raw materials rather than exporting them.
Here’s how it works. Direct reduction removes the oxygen in ore, which produces metallic iron. The chemical reaction that drives this process uses carbon monoxide and hydrogen, sourced from greenhouse gases – reformed natural gas, syngas or coal.
But there’s no reason these fossil fuels can’t be entirely replaced with renewable hydrogen in the near future.
We’ve seen this from two leading direct-reduction technologies, called Midrex and Energiron. Both use fossil fuels, but also with a high proportion of hydrogen. In fact, Energiron facilities can already use up to 70% hydrogen, and they’ve also trialled 100% hydrogen.
The source of this hydrogen is critical, it can be made from fossil fuels, or it can be made using renewable energy.
At least five companies in Europe are also working on producing low emissions steel. What’s more, three companies (SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall) are collaborating to progress the technology, creating the “world’s first fossil-free steel-making technology, with virtually no carbon footprint” – called the “HYBRIT system”.
In fact, SSAB recently announced they’re bringing their plans forward to will produce fossil-free steel by 2026.
A new Aussie industry
The key message is this: it is possible to create low-emissions steel, without metallurgical coal. And it is already happening.
With the support of industry and government, non-metallurgical, low-emissions steel could provide an opportunity to create jobs, develop a decarbonised industry and extend the steel market’s contribution to Australia’s economy.
Not to mention what products we can produce from the steel – adding value in many more ways than just exporting ore – and taking advantage of an increasing consumer demand for low carbon products. This is especially relevant for communities transitioning away from fossil fuels.
There’s not much stopping low-emissions steel from forming a core new Australian industry. Australia must address the costs involved in transitioning the infrastructure, to upgrade plants and processes.
But it needs to start with working from facts – and effective government support and vision.
Concrete is the most widely used man-made material, commonly used in buildings, roads, bridges and industrial plants. But producing the Portland cement needed to make concrete accounts for 5-8% of all global greenhouse emissions. There is a more environmentally friendly cement known as MOC (magnesium oxychloride cement), but its poor water resistance has limited its use – until now. We have developed a water-resistant MOC, a “green” cement that could go a long way to cutting the construction industry’s emissions and making it more sustainable.
Producing a tonne of conventional cement in Australia emits about 0.82 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂). Because most of the CO₂ is released as a result of the chemical reaction that produces cement, emissions aren’t easily reduced. In contrast, MOC is a different form of cement that is carbon-neutral.
What exactly is MOC?
MOC is produced by mixing two main ingredients, magnesium oxide (MgO) powder and a concentrated solution of magnesium chloride (MgCl₂). These are byproducts from magnesium mining.
Many countries, including China and Australia, have plenty of magnesite resources, as well as seawater, from which both MgO and MgCl₂ could be obtained.
Furthermore, MgO can absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere. This makes MOC a truly green, carbon-neutral cement.
MOC also has many superior material properties compared to conventional cement.
Compressive strength (capacity to resist compression) is the most important material property for cementitious construction materials such as cement. MOC has a much higher compressive strength than conventional cement and this impressive strength can be achieved very fast. The fast setting of MOC and early strength gain are very advantageous for construction.
Although MOC has plenty of merits, it has until now had poor water resistance. Prolonged contact with water or moisture severely degrades its strength. This critical weakness has restricted its use to indoor applications such as floor tiles, decoration panels, sound and thermal insulation boards.
How was water-resistance developed?
A team of researchers, led by Yixia (Sarah) Zhang, has been working to develop a water-resistant MOC since 2017 (when she was at UNSW Canberra).
To improve water resistance, the team added industrial byproducts such as fly ash and silica fume to the MOC, as well as chemical additives.
Fly ash is a byproduct from the coal industry – there’s plenty of it in Australia. Adding fly ash significantly improved the water resistance of MOC. Flexural strength (capacity to resist bending) was fully retained after soaking in water for 28 days.
To further retain the compressive strength under water attack, the team added silica fume. Silica fume is a byproduct from producing silicon metal or ferrosilicon alloys. When fly ash and silica fume were combined with MOC paste (15% of each additive), full compressive strength was retained in water for 28 days.
Both the fly ash and silica fume have a similar effect of filling the pore structure in MOC, making the cement denser. The reactions with the MOC matrix form a gel-like phase, which contributes to water repellence. The extremely fine particles, large surface area and high reactive silica (SiO₂) content of silica fume make it an effective binding substance known as a pozzolan. This helps give the concrete high strength and durability.
Although the MOC developed so far had excellent resistance to water at room temperature, it weakened fast when soaked in warm water. The team worked to overcome this by using inorganic and organic chemical additives. Adding phosphoric acid and soluble phosphates greatly improved warm water resistance.
Over three years, the team has made a breakthrough in developing MOC as a green cement. The strength of concrete is rated using megapascals (MPa). The MOC achieved a compressive strength of 110 MPa and flexural strength of 17 MPa. These values are a few times greater than those of conventional cement.
The MOC can fully retain these strengths after being soaked in water for 28 days at room temperatures. Even in hot water (60˚C), the MOC can retain up to 90% of its compressive and flexural strength after 28 days. The values remain as high as 100 MPa and 15 MPa respectively – still much greater than for conventional cement.
Will MOC replace conventional cement?
So could MOC replace conventional cement some day? It seems very promising. More research is needed to demonstrate the practicability of uses of this green and high-performance cement in, for example, concrete.
When concrete is the main structural component, steel reinforcement has to be used. Corrosion of steel in MOC is a critical issue and a big hurdle to jump. The research team has already started to work on this issue.
If this problem can be solved, MOC can be a game-changer for the construction industry.
The problem with reinforced concrete
Yixia (Sarah) Zhang, Associate Professor of Engineering, Western Sydney University; Khin Soe, Research Associate, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, Western Sydney University, and Yingying Guo, PhD Candidate, School of Engineering and Information Technology, UNSW
Greening our cities has become one of the great global imperatives of the 21st century including to tackle climate change. And Australia’s sprawling car-based cities are gradually changing to embrace green or living infrastructure.
Green cities bring together elements of architectural design and urban planning, often combining plants and built infrastructure to meet the needs of humans, such as our love of nature.
Trees, plants, waterways and wetlands can deliver climate conditioning, cooling cities by reducing the urban heat island effect. They also absorb carbon dioxide, filter wastewater and create habitats.
Living elements can be incorporated with built infrastructure at a range of scales, from individual buildings with green walls and roofs, through to citywide strategies. And there are a suite of strategies to guide more widespread integration of biological elements and ecological processes in cities.
In recent months, we profiled Australian examples of living infrastructure that show some of Australia’s approaches to developing green infrastructure, from greening Melbourne’s laneways to Canberra’s urban forest. These cities are already redesigning their water systems and implementing urban forest strategies to create green belts and protect and restore waterways.
Melbourne and Canberra provide some useful examples of the green cities movement, but to make it mainstream, these techniques need to be adopted widely through policies supporting more holistic and better integrated urban planning.
Why we need urban forests
Percival Alfred Yeoman was one of the first Australian pioneers of urban forestry. In 1971, he articulated a clear vision for enhancing cities with trees.
Local governments in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, are implementing his ideas, committing to ambitious increases in urban canopy cover. Their targets range from 25% to 40%.
This revived interest in urban forestry comes from its well documented potential for accelerating the transition to more climate adaptive cities.
The social, environmental and economic benefits of urban trees, or “ecosystem services”, are becoming better recognised, including for their recreational and cultural values.
Melbourne and Canberra are leading Australia’s green cities movement
Melbourne has a rich legacy of urban parks and green belts thanks to planning decisions made in the city’s early years.
These parks underpin a new wave of urban greening, with projects that aim to deliver action on climate change, biodiversity and the health and well-being of communities.
The Melbourne green infrastructure plan includes:
a “growing green guide” that provides practical advice to community and business groups on planning, design and maintenance of green infrastructure
the greening laneways strategy, which builds on the commercial revitalisation of Melbourne’s laneways over three decades. Laneways with greening potential were mapped and demonstration project developed to display techniques for making them more vibrant green spaces for business, tourists and locals to enjoy
an urban forest strategy, with an overall target of 40% canopy cover by 2040. And 5 to 8 million trees will be planted over coming decades for the greater Melbourne metropolis.
Canberra is often described as “a city within a landscape” and the “bush capital”. But its higher altitude, hot dry summers and cold winters bring a set of challenges for green infrastructure.
With more than 800,000 planted trees, Canberra is an urban forest. But these trees require special care and attention given they are ageing and suffering from a hotter, drier climate.
Wildfire also represents a significant risk where urban and rural areas connect. This means Canberra needs urban forests that will cool the city in warmer months without also escalating wildfire risks.
The ACT Government has committed to action on climate change, legislating targets for 100% renewable electricity by 2020 and carbon neutrality (no net carbon emissions) by 2045.
Integrated approach needed to expand green cities
Greening cities requires a holistic approach – for instance, not leaving the health of waterways entirely to water engineers.
Greening cities is more than just a technical challenge. Transforming the form and functions of urban systems, through urban forests and other living infrastructure, requires greater leadership and political commitment, integrated planning and community participation, and long-term thinking.
An integrated approach to greening cities involves mapping diverse opportunities and mobilising support for change in the community. As an example, urban storm water can be a productive resource when used in constructed wetlands or to irrigate urban forests.
And often urban drainage lines and wastelands can be transformed into green spaces, but it’s worth recognising there is intense competition for space for housing.
But for more widespread adoption of integration, institutional support within local governments and metropolitan water and planning agencies is needed.
So to scale up living infrastructure in our urban landscapes, we must learn from local success stories, conduct more research, and better understand how to deal with climate adaptation and mitigation challenges.
Jason Alexandra would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Barbara Norman to this article.
In signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the Australian government committed to a global goal of zero net emissions by 2050. Australia’s promised reductions to 2030, on a per person and emissions intensity basis, exceed even the targets set by the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the European Union.
But are we on the right track to achieve our 2030 target of 26-28% below 2005 levels? With one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world, this represents at least a 50% reduction in emissions per person over the next dozen years.
Consider the impact of one sector, the built environment. The construction, operation and maintenance of buildings accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. As Australia’s population grows, to an estimated 31 million in 2030, even more buildings will be needed.
In 2017, around 18,000 dwelling units were approved for construction every month. Melbourne is predicted to need another 720,000 homes by 2031; Sydney, 664,000 new homes within 20 years. Australia will have 10 million residential units by 2020, compared to 6 million in 1990. Ordinary citizens might be too preoccupied with home ownership at any cost to worry about the level of emissions from the built environment and urban development.
What’s being done to reduce these emissions?
The National Construction Code of Australia sets minimal obligatory requirements for energy efficiency. Software developed by the National Housing Rating Scheme (NatHERS) assesses compliance.
This combination of obligatory and voluntary performance rating measures makes up the practical totality of our strategy for reducing built environment emissions. Still in its experimentation stage, it is far from adequate.
An effective strategy to cut emissions must encompass the whole lifecycle of planning, designing, constructing, operating and even decommissioning and disposal of buildings. A holistic vision of sustainable building calls for building strategies that are less resource-intensive and pollution-producing. The sustainability of the urban landscape is more than the sum of the sustainability of its component buildings; transport, amenities, social fabric and culture, among other factors, have to be taken into account.
Australia’s emission reduction strategy fails to incorporate the whole range of sustainability factors that impact emissions from the built environment.
There are also much-reported criticisms of existing mandatory and voluntary measures. A large volume of research details the failure of voluntary measures to accurately evaluate energy performance and the granting of misleading ratings based on tokenistic gestures.
On top of that, the strategy of using front runners to push boundaries and win over the majority has been proven ineffective, at best. We see compelling evidence in the low level of voluntary measures permeating the Australian building industry. Some major voluntary rating tools have penetration rates of less than 0.5% across the Australian building industry.
That said, voluntary and obligatory tools are not so much a weak link in our emission reduction strategy as the only link. And therein lies the fundamental problem.
So what do the experts suggest?
We conducted a study involving a cohort of 26 experts drawn from the sustainability profession. We posed the question of what must be done to generate a working strategy to improve Australia’s chances of keeping the carbon-neutral promise by 2050 was posed. Here is what the experts said:
Sustainability transition in Australia is failing because:
government lacks commitment to develop effective regulations, audit performance, resolve vested interests (developers), clarify its own vision and, above all, sell that sustainability vision to the community
sustainability advocates are stuck in isolated silos of fragmented markets (commercial and residential) and hampered by multiple jurisdictions with varied sustainability regimes
most importantly, end users just do not care – nobody has bothered to communicate the Paris Accord promise to Joe and Mary Citizen, let alone explain why it matters to them.
Tweaking the rating tools further would be a good thing. Getting more than a token few buildings rated would be better. But the show-and-tell display of a pageant of beautiful, green-rated headquarters buildings from our socially responsible corporations is not going to save us. Beyond the CBD islands of our major cities lies a sea of suburban sprawl that continues to chew up ever more energy and resources.
It costs between 8% and 30% more than the usual costs of a building to reduce emissions. Someone needs to explain to the struggling home owner why the Paris climate promise is worth it. Given the next election won’t be for a few months, our political parties still have time to formulate their pitch on who exactly is expected to pay.
Synthetic plastics have made many aspect of modern life cheaper, safer and more convenient. However, we have failed to figure out how to get rid of them after we use them.
Unlike other forms of trash, such as food and paper, most synthetic plastics cannot be easily degraded by live microorganisms or through chemical processes. As a result, a growing plastic waste crisis threatens the health of our planet. It is embodied by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a massive zone of floating plastic trash, three times the size of France, stretching between California and Hawaii. Scientists have estimated that if current trends continue, the mass of plastics in the ocean will equal the mass of fish by 2050. Making plastics from petroleum also increases carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Much of my work has been dedicated to finding sustainable ways to make and break down plastics. My lab and others are making progress on both fronts. But these new alternatives have to compete with synthetic plastics that have established infrastructures and optimized processes. Without supportive government policies, innovative plastic alternatives will have trouble crossing the so-called “valley of death” from the lab to the market.
From wood and silk to nylon and plexiglass
All plastics consist of polymers – large molecules that contain many small units, or monomers, joined together to form long chains, much like strings of beads. The chemical structure of the beads and the bonds that join them together determine polymers’ properties. Some polymers form materials that are hard and tough, like glass and epoxies. Others, such as rubber, can bend and stretch.
For centuries humans have made products out of polymers from natural sources, such as silk, cotton, wood and wool. After use, these natural plastics are easily degraded by microorganisms.
Synthetic polymers derived from oil were developed starting in the 1930s, when new material innovations were desperately needed to support Allied troops in World War II. For example, nylon, invented in 1935, replaced silk in parachutes and other gear. And poly(methyl methacrylate), known as Plexiglas, substituted for glass in aircraft windows. At that time, there was little consideration of whether or how these materials would be reused.
Modern synthetic plastics can be grouped into two main families: Thermoplastics, which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling, and thermosets, which never soften once they have been molded. Some of the most common high-volume synthetic polymers include polyethylene, used to make film wraps and plastic bags; polypropylene, used to form reusable containers and packaging; and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in clothes, carpets and clear plastic beverage bottles.
Today only about 10 percent of discarded plastic in the United States is recycled. Processors need an input stream of non-contaminated or pure plastic, but waste plastic often contains impurities, such as residual food.
Batches of disposed plastic products also may include multiple resin types, and often are not consistent in color, shape, transparency, weight, density or size. This makes it hard for recycling facilities to sort them by type.
Melting down and reforming mixed plastic wastes creates recycled materials that are inferior in performance to virgin material. For this reason, many people refer to plastic recycling as “downcycling.”
As most consumers know, many plastic goods are stamped with a code that indicates the type of resin they are made from, numbered one through seven, inside a triangle formed by three arrows. These codes were developed in the 1980s by the Society of the Plastics Industry, and are intended to indicate whether and how to recycle those products.
However, these logos are highly misleading, since they suggest that all of these goods can be recycled an infinite number of times. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling rates in 2015 ranged from a high of 31 percent for PET (SPI code 1) to 10 percent for high-density polyethylene (SPI code 2) and a few percent at best for other groups.
In my view, single-use plastics should eventually be required to be biodegradable. To make this work, households should have biowaste bins to collect food, paper and biodegradable polymer waste for composting. Germany has such a system in place, and San Francisco composts organic wastes from homes and businesses.
Designing greener polymers
Since modern plastics have many types and uses, multiple strategies are needed to replace them or make them more sustainable. One goal is making polymers from bio-based carbon sources instead of oil. The most readily implementable option is converting carbon from plant cell walls (lignocellulosics) into monomers.
As an example, my lab has developed a yeast catalyst that takes plant-derived oils and converts them to a polyester that has properties similar to polyethylene. But unlike a petroleum-based plastic, it can be fully degraded by microorganisms in composting systems.
It also is imperative to develop new cost-effective routes for decomposing plastics into high-value chemicals that can be reused. This could mean using biological as well as chemical catalysts. One intriguing example is a gut bacterium from mealworms that can digest polystyrene, converting it to carbon dioxide.
Other scientists are developing high-performance vitrimers – a type of thermoset plastic in which the bonds that cross-link chains can form and break, depending on built-in conditions such as temperature or pH. These vitrimers can be used to make hard, molded products that can be converted to flowable materials at the end of their lifetimes so they can be reformed into new products.
It took years of research, development and marketing to optimize synthetic plastics. New green polymers, such as polylactic acid, are just starting to enter the market, mainly in compost bags, food containers, cups and disposable tableware. Manufacturers need support while they work to reduce costs and improve performance. It also is crucial to link academic and industrial efforts, so that new discoveries can be commercialized more quickly.
Today the European Union and Canada provides much more government support for discovery and development of bio-based and sustainable plastics than the United States. That must change if America wants to compete in the sustainable polymer revolution.
The debacle over the removal of single-use plastic bags from supermarkets has been analysed from a range of different perspectives. Supermarkets have been described as breaking a psychological trust contract with their customers and cynically using environmental concerns to reduce their costs and increase their profits. The pushback by Australian shoppers has been the cause of much amusement and bewildered head-shaking.
But there’s one aspect of people’s resistance to this type of change that has major implications for every environmental initiative in the country. Let’s call it the “yeah-but” mentality.
Yeah-buts know when things are bad for the environment. They know about the dangers of throwaway plastic, whether it be bags, straws or bottles. They know that eating farmed meat, leaving the tap running, and driving cars powered by fossil fuels are not good for the world we live in.
They know this situation is not sustainable and that someone must do something about it. They might even be willing to make an occasional donation to an environmental charity. But ask them to take action themselves, especially if that involves even a low level of inconvenience, and the Yeah-buts sound their call.
Yeah-buts know they shouldn’t really drive to work, but then again public transport takes longer and doesn’t go door-to-door.
Yeah-buts know that farmed meat has a large environmental footprint, but they like the taste, and anyway veggies are only really an accompaniment.
This mentality has significant implications for any organisation attempting to address environmental challenges in Australia, or any other democratic society.
Previous research – such as that into the low take-up of electric cars – has found that consumers can be resistant to eco-friendly innovations in products and behaviour where they perceive that the proposed alternative is more expensive and/or less practical.
A requirement for people to actually put in some effort to acquire new behaviour that helps the environment is almost certainly going to encounter resistance.
How to drive behaviour change
Encouraging people to adopt new behaviours – especially those that involve personal inconvenience – is traditionally done through a “standard learning hierarchy approach”. The first step is to provide people with new knowledge and information on a topic or issue, thus increasing their understanding. As a result they will change the way they feel about the topic, and ultimately change their behaviour to reflect this new understanding and feeling.
Research has shown, however, that giving people new knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the right thing.
For years, organisations have been telling us how bad plastic bags are for the environment. As a result, people have been feeling increasingly negative towards the use of plastic bags. But despite some shoppers changing their ways, many didn’t. Until this month, supermarkets were still supplying millions of single-use bags, and thousands of their customers were still using them.
Then came the prospect of a ban, and the yeah-but excuses began to flow. One shopper told A Current Affair:
It’s just one extra thing (to remember) and invariably as I get older my memory gets worse.
Clearly the standard learning hierarchy wasn’t working here. The Yeah-buts persisted because their unwillingness to be inconvenienced by the need to provide their own shopping bags triumphed over their knowledge of the harm that plastic bags do. For these people, the inconvenience of forgetting their bags is acute, whereas the guilt over using unnecessary plastic is more vague. So this is where the government stepped in and removed the option of single-use plastic bags altogether.
Under pressure from environmental groups and concerned individuals, governments introduced a legislated ban on single-use plastic bags. This is a different approach to the standard learning hierarchy, which seeks to change people’s perception first, and then their behaviour. Here, people’s behaviour was forcibly altered in the hope that their knowledge and feelings would catch up.
The idea that people will reject an opportunity to acquire a new habit that will bring positive environmental change because it inconveniences them is one that clearly needs more research. It’s hard to think of another example where this inconvenience has resulted from a government mandating the withdrawal of a legal product to benefit the environment.
The case of the plastic bag ban is still being analysed, but could it provoke copycat behaviour by other environmental agencies – lobbying for legislation to force people to take a particular course of action while waiting for them to realise it’s the “right” thing to do and it makes them feel good? It’s an avenue that has been explored by some over many years, with varying degrees of success.
Only time will tell if the use of legislation makes the Yeah-buts’ resistance over the single-use plastic bag futile. If it does seem to work, watch out for a slew of applications from other environmental agencies and charities for similar levels of strong-arm government support.
But those organisations will have to be prepared to weather a severe storm of backlash and negative public sentiment if they think legislation is the way to go. It’s not the governments that will be held liable: just ask Coles and Woolies!
Australian supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags is just one example of how retailers are fiercely engaged in a race to be “green”. Other examples are dumping plastic straws, buying back used products and reducing unnecessary packaging.
Rather than competing on price or time, green credentials offer a way for retailers to differentiate themselves. Encouraging customers to make overtly good moves also has a psychological effect, allowing them to excuse poor behaviour elsewhere – such as buying a product that may not be ethically sourced.
Way back in April Woolworths announced the removal of all single-use bags across the country by the end of June. Although, after some backlash, Woolworths has said it will give bags to customers until the 8th of July.
Coles will also ban single-use bags from July 1.
Woolworths has since announced further strategies for “a greener future”. These include reducing unnecessary packaging and linking with “food waste diversion partners”.
However, sustainability is bigger than just food waste and plastics.
Buying ‘green’ makes us feel good
The consumer market for green products and services was estimated at US$230 billion in 2009 and predicted to grow to $845 billion by 2015.
While consumers are increasingly engaging in shopping activities that support the environment, such as reusing shopping bags, buying local and supporting local farmers and producers, at the same time many are still tempted by A$4 T-shirts from Kmart.
This behaviour can perhaps be explained by the effect of “moral self-licensing”. This is where consumers do something good to offset their bad behaviour.
In the context of shopping, a good deed, a customer putting reusable bags in the boot of the car, will be followed by a not-so-good deed, such as driving to the shops in our gas-guzzling 4WD.
In this way, the first choice gives us a positive self-concept, which negates or “licenses” the subsequent more self-indulgent choice.
A slippery (green) slope
The only concern for companies is that they might be accused of “greenwashing” – using marketing to create the perception that their policies, purpose or products are environmentally friendly, when that’s not really the case.
Despite consumer awareness of the practice of greenwashing, the number of companies making green claims has escalated sharply in recent years as organisations strive to meet escalating consumer demand for greener products and services.
Research shows that when consumers are sceptical about a retailer’s corporate social responsibility practices, this can damage the retailer’s brand, increase sensitivity to negative information and stimulate unfavourable word of mouth.
Over the past couple of years, we have seen exactly these phenomena play out again and again.
Several years ago, Walmart faced scrutiny about its corporate social responsibility claims relating to renewable energy, the industrialisation of food systems and its cheaply made, disposable products.
Other retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, JC Penney and Backcountry.com have faced fines for making misleading environmental claims.
Banning the single-use plastic bag alone will not save the environment. Sadly, it is not as simple as that. Research shows lightweight plastic shopping bags make up around 1.6% of litter in Australia or less than 2% of landfill.
However, despite some backlash, banning the bag is certainly a step in the right direct.
Remembering to bring reusable shopping bags is a fairly significant change in shopping behaviour, but the practice has been successfully implemented in states such as Tasmania, which banned single use bags several years ago.
Louise Grimmer, Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania and Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology
As Australian cities grow and transform, we need to ensure we are not building the slums of the future by making buildings so tall and tight they turn our streets into stark canyons. Sydney’s Wolli Creek, where buildings dominate and tower over a transport hub, is an example of where this is happening. It is now considered one of the city’s densest areas.
Dense, high buildings limit the space available for urban greenery and, unfortunately, the current development boom privileges concrete and glass over vegetation. A more strategic approach to urban growth can ensure our cities maintain adequate green space and become low-carbon, efficient and affordable.
It’s also vital the community and individuals are enthusiastic drivers of such change, with shared ownership of it. Imaginative projects – at times described as urban acupuncture – can all play a role. This is where small-scale interventions (like green balconies) are applied to transform the larger urban context, improve the environment and make the city liveable.
Going up or out
Whether you go up (higher) or out (more), or both, there are always challenges and opportunities.
The drawback in going out is that we start creeping into our remaining open space, including important biodiversity hotspots.
Going out can also encroach on agricultural land. Farmers around the Sydney basin produced up to 20% of the area’s fresh food needs in 2011. But researchers have predicted urban sprawl and rising land prices will lead this to drop to 6% by 2031, losing both produce and jobs.
Going up is an approach driven by proximity to transport, utilities and employment, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. Major upward developments, like Wolli Creek, are logically being located around transport nodes. But these then become dense and concentrated areas, putting growing pressure on open space and community facilities.
Community consultation is key before any major project and redevelopment, as genuine dialogue supports shared ownership of the outcomes. Existing community projects must be celebrated. Having an engaged and empowered community leads to a healthier, happier population.
In Sydney, new precincts like Waterloo are ambitious and have good intentions. These areas aim to deliver new homes, shops, major transport services, community facilities, parks and open spaces over the next 20 years – and they’re located close to the urban centre.
Waterloo already has three community gardens, which bring together public housing residents through growing and sharing fresh produce. This approach is important to continue and initiate new projects.
Around the world there have also been successes with city farming where the community grows and sells agricultural produce locally. In skyscraper Singapore, they are farming vertically at Sky Greens, providing an alternative to importing food for this densely peopled city-state.
Green roofs are another alternative where communities can grow flowers and vegetables while providing training and jobs. A good example is the Uncommon Ground rooftop farm in Chicago.
In Australia, the Grounds is a former pie factory in the industrial heart of Sydney’s Alexandria. In 2012, the site began to metamorphose into a cafe, restaurant, bakery, organic mini-farm and more. This is a successful example of how a little greenery has turned a bleak post-industrial site into an enjoyable destination, where young and old from far and wide come to enjoy the plants, animals and coffee.
A domestic garden, a green balcony or a green wall can all play a role – but these need ongoing care and attention, which means individuals and engaged communities must drive the enthusiasm.
Nature in the city
So, for a start, let’s not build fast and furiously without grasping the place as a whole and making the most of what is already there. This means preserving mature trees and shrubs, leaving open space unpaved and protecting areas of deep soil for future planting.
Maintaining, enhancing and creating urban green space not only fulfils the requirements for urban acupuncture, but – to mix medical metaphors – provides a kind of urban vaccination against the emergence of slums, where nothing can grow and depression sets in.
We can combine building development with what Stefan Boeri Architects have described as “vertical densification of nature within the city” to achieve a new kind of urban nature – nature in the city to transform the nature of the city.