Gail Broadbent, UNSW and Graciela Metternicht, UNSWAustralia’s trucking industry is making moves to go electric. The latest development — a system for using swappable batteries instead of time-consuming recharge stations for long-haul trucks between Sydney and Brisbane — shows how this transition is gathering momentum.
There will be clear socio-economic, environmental and health-related benefits from the switch to electric trucks — for the broader community as well as for the trucking industry and truckies themselves. As electric vehicle researchers, we think swappable batteries could work well for trucking, but are perhaps less suitable for everyday electric cars.
There are many benefits from electrifying truck transport. Companies such as Woolworths and Ikea have already started to transition to electric delivery vans for the environmental benefits (and a possible boost for their brands).
Many leading truck manufacturers such as Scania, Mercedes Benz and Volvo are proceeding apace with trials and plans to make their trucks electric.
Trucks make up 20% of the vehicles in Australia, and Australia’s transport emissions are still growing.
Australia’s motor vehicles consume more than 33 billion litres of fuel each year. The transport sector was responsible for about 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019.
Australia spent some A$31 billion in 2019 to import oil, with half used for road transport. This not only affects Australia’s balance of trade, but poses a risk to our freight industry (including supermarket deliveries) if geopolitical instability affects fuel imports (which mainly come from just a few countries).
The trucking company Linfox appears to have understood the advantages that transition to electric trucks can bring to its business, and is one of the early adopters trialling them here in Australia.
Not just trucking companies
Many big companies are making commitments to cut their carbon emissions, such as Fortescue Metals’ target of net zero operational emissions by 2040. Its mining fleet operations account for half of its operational emissions.
Procurement of electric trucks by government and mining fleets could not only help reduce transport emissions but signal to the community that the transition away from more polluting vehicles can be done.
Innovative solutions such as the truck battery swap system mean that not only big companies but also sole operators can make the change, by converting existing trucks and leasing batteries.
A typical articulated truck uses 53.1 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres. A trip from Brisbane to Sydney could cost more than A$600 in fuel (which you, the consumer, help pay for when you purchase transported goods). Going electric would not only at least halve that cost but reduce maintenance costs and reduce emissions, even if batteries are recharged from the grid.
Swapping out depleted batteries, rather than stopping to recharge, is a great solution for trucks: they make regular trips along major routes with regulated rest stops for drivers, which means you only need battery-swapping stations at key points along the routes.
However, battery swapping for ordinary passenger vehicles may be a different story. It has been tried before, but didn’t take off.
A US-based company called Better Place, founded in 2007, got as far as setting up trial stations (with one even planned for Canberra). But the company collapsed in 2013.
One problem was that car manufacturers would have had to agree to use a common battery platform to enable swapping, and only Renault came on board. Another was that the cost of installing enough battery swap stations to satisfy the wider community was enormous.
Trucks travelling on major transport routes won’t face this problem, so battery-swapping has a better chance of success.
How to go electric
Our ongoing research on policies to foster electric vehicle adoption has found that electric passenger cars are mostly recharged at home. This means we need solutions to help those without off-street parking get access to convenient local rechargers. This will help Australia reduce its balance of trade problems, reduce our health costs, and help the environment.
We just have to hope our government comes on board with suitable regulatory action to help us all go electric. One step might be to follow the US government’s recent announcement that it will electrify its entire fleet of vehicles. This will help car manufacturers, help bring down carbon emissions, help reduce the nation’s health budget and also help everyday people reduce their transport costs, which would be fairer and more sustainable.
The potential for expansion in onshore processing of recyclable waste is enormous – and it could lead to 3.1 million tonnes of waste being diverted from landfills. But it will only work if it is part of a strategy with clear and measurable targets.
During New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown between March and May, general rubbish collection was classed as an essential service and continued to operate. But recycling was sporadic.
Whether or not recycling services continued depended on storage space and the ability to separate recyclables under lockdown conditions. Facilities that relied on manual sorting could not meet those requirements and their recycling was sent to landfill. Only recycling plants with automated sorting could operate.
New Zealand’s reliance on international markets showed a lack of resilience in the waste management system. Any changes in international prices were duplicated in New Zealand and while exports could continue under tighter border controls, it was no longer economically viable to do so for certain recyclable materials.
International cardboard and paper markets collapsed and operators without sufficient storage space sent materials to landfill. Most plastics became uneconomic to recycle.
In contrast, for materials processed in New Zealand — including glass, metals and some plastics — recycling remains viable. Many local authorities are now limiting their plastic collections to those types that have expanding onshore processing capacity.
The investment in onshore processing facilities is part of a move towards a circular economy. The government provided the capital for plants to recycle PET plastics, used to make most drink bottles and food trays. PET plastics can be reprocessed several times.
This means items such as meat trays previously made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable from households, could be made from fully recyclable PET. Some of the most recent funding goes towards providing automatic optical sorters to allow recycling plants to keep operating under lockdown conditions.
The government also announced an expansion of the landfill levy to cover more types of landfills and for those that accept household wastea progressive increase from NZ$10 to NZ$60 per tonne of waste.
This will provide more money for the Waste Minimisation Fund, which in turn funds projects that lead to more onshore processing and jobs.
Last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags took more than a billion bags out of circulation, which represents about 180 tonnes of plastic that is not landfilled. But this is a small portion of the 3.7 million tonnes of waste that go to landfill each year.
More substantial diversion schemes include mandatory product stewardship schemes currently being implemented for tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics and packaging.
An example of the potential gains for product stewardship schemes is e-waste. Currently New Zealand produces about 80,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, but recycles only about 2% (1,600 tonnes), most of which goes offshore for processing. Under the scheme, e-waste will be brought to collection depots and more will be processed onshore.
Landfilling New Zealand’s total annual e-waste provides about 50 jobs. Recycling it could create 200 jobs and reusing it is estimated to provide work for 6,400 people.
An earlier 2002 strategy achieved significantly better progress. The challenge is clear. A government strategy with measurable targets for waste diversion from landfill can lead us to better resource use and more jobs.
Many Australians enjoy a glass of homegrown wine, and A$2.78 billion worth is exported each year. But hotter, drier conditions under climate change means there are big changes ahead for our wine producers.
As climate scientists and science communicators, we’ve been working closely with the wine industry to understand the changing conditions for producing quality wine in Australia.
We created a world-first atlas to help secure Australia’s wine future. Released today, Australia’s Wine Future: A Climate Atlas shows that all 71 wine regions in Australia must adapt to hotter conditions.
Cool wine regions such as Tasmania, for example, will become warmer. This means growers in that state now producing pinot noir and chardonnay may have to transition to varieties suited to warmer conditions, such as shiraz.
Hotter, drier conditions
Our research, commissioned by Wine Australia, is the culmination of four years of work. We used CSIRO’s regional climate model to give very localised information on heat and cold extremes, temperature, rainfall and evaporation over the next 80 years.
From 2020, the changes projected by the climate models are more influenced by climate change than natural variability.
Temperatures across all wine regions of Australia will increase by about 3℃ by 2100. Aridity, which takes into account rainfall and evaporation, is also projected to increase in most Australian wine regions. Less frost and more intense heatwaves are expected in many areas.
By 2100, growing conditions on Tasmania’s east coast, for example, will look like those currently found in the Coonawarra region of South Australia – a hotter and drier region where very different wines are produced.
That means it may get harder to grow cool-climate styles of varieties such as chardonnay and pinot noir.
Some regions will experience more change than others. For example, the Alpine Valleys region on the western slopes of the Victorian Alps, and Pemberton in southwest Western Australia, will both become much drier and hotter, influencing the varietals that are most successfully grown.
Other regions, such as the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, will not dry out as much. But a combination of humidity and higher temperatures will expose vineyard workers in those regions to heat risk on 40-60 days a year – most of summer – by 2100. That figure is currently about 10 days a year, up from 5 days historically.
Grape vines are very adaptable and can be grown in a variety of conditions, such as arid parts of southern Europe. So while adaptations will be needed, our projections indicate all of Australia’s current wine regions will be suitable for producing wine out to 2100.
Lessons for change
Australia’s natural climate variability means wine growers are already adept at responding to change. And there is much scope to adapt to future climate change.
In some areas, this will mean planting vines at higher altitudes, or on south facing slopes, to avoid excessive heat. In future, many wine regions will also shift to growing different grape varieties. Viticultural practices may change, such as training vines so leaves shade grapes from heat. Growers may increase mulching to retain soil moisture, and areas that currently practice dryland farming may need to start irrigating.
The atlas enables climate information and adaptation decisions to be shared across regions. Growers can look to their peers in regions currently experiencing the conditions they will see in future, both in Australia and overseas, to learn how wines are produced there.
Industries need not die on the vine
Agriculture industries such as wine growing are not the only ones that need fine-scale climate information to manage their climate risk. Forestry, water management, electricity generation, insurance, tourism, emergency management authorities and Defence also need such climate modelling, specific to their operations, to better prepare for the future.
The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.
True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.
But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.
So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.
The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.
The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.
On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.
Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.
That proposal hit many political and other hurdles and was never enacted. But it appears to remain on the federal government’s policy agenda.
It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.
The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.
The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.
In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.
The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:
The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.
Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.
But don’t change the current system much
Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.
The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.
For example, in 2019 the then-minister Melissa Price approved the Adani coal mine’s groundwater management plan, despite major shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and data about its impacts.
When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:
The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.
The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.
But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.
When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.
Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.
The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:
New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.
New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.
The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.
Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.
Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.
State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.
This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.
In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.
Holes in our green safety net
Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.
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.
But with 85% of our black coal exported each year, decisions made in Beijing and New Delhi matter more to these communities than decisions made in Canberra.
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.
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.
Among the vast number of native species damaged by the recent bushfire crisis, we must not forget native pollinators. These animals, mainly insects such as native bees, help sustain ecosystems by pollinating native plants.
Native pollinator populations have been decimated in burned areas. They will only recover if they can recolonise from unburned areas as vegetation regenerates.
Since the fires, Australia’s beekeeping industry has been pushing for access to national parks and other unburned public land. This would give introduced pollinators such as the European honeybee, (Apis mellifera) access to floral resources.
But our native pollinators badly need these resources – and the recovery of our landscapes depends on them. While we acknowledge the losses sustained by the honey industry, authorities should not jeopardise our native species to protect commercial interests.
The bush: a hive of activity
The European honeybee is the main commercial bee species in Australia. It exists in two contexts: in hives managed for honey production, and as a pest exploiting almost every wild habitat. Honeybees in managed hives are classified as livestock, the same way pigs and goats are.
Feral and (to a lesser extent) managed honeybees contribute a broad variety of crop pollination services, including for almond, apple and lucerne (also called alfalfa) crops.
Pollinators visit the flowers of the crop plants and ensure they are fertilised to produce fruit and seed. Beekeepers are often paid to put their bees in orchards since trees (such as almond trees) cannot produce a crop without insect pollination.
But native species of bees, beetles, flies and birds are just as important for crops. They are also essential for pollination, seed production and the regulation of Australia’s unique ecosystems – which evolved without honeybees.
Nature at risk
The honeybee industry sustained considerable losses in the recent fires, particularly in New South Wales and on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Commercial hives were destroyed and floral resources were burned, reducing the availability of sites for commercial hives. This has prompted calls from beekeepers to place hives in national parks.
Currently, beekeepers’ access to conservation areas is limited. This is because bees from commercial hives, and feral bees from previous escapes, damage native ecosystems. They compete with native species for nectar and pollen, and pollinate certain plant species over others.
Many native plant species are not pollinated, or are pollinated inefficiently, by honeybees. This means a concentration of honeybee hives in a conservation area could shift the entire makeup of native vegetation, damaging the ecosystem.
Australia’s national parks also suffer from mismanagement of grazing by native and introduced animals, and other activities permitted in parks, such as road development and in some cases, mining.
National parks must be allowed to recover from bushfire damage. Where they are unburned, they must be protected so native plants and animals can recover and recolonise burned areas.
Protecting nature and the beekeeping industry
The demand for commercial beekeeping in national parks is a result of native vegetation being cleared for agriculture in many parts of Australia.
In the short term, one solution is for beekeepers to artificially feed their hives with sugar syrup, as is common practise in winter. Thus, they could continue to produce honey and provide commercial pollination services.
While production levels may fall as a result of the reduced feed, and honey may become more expensive, at least consumers would know the product was made without damaging native wildlife and vegetation.
A long-term solution is to increase the area of native vegetation for both biodiversity and commercial beekeeping, by stepping up Australia’s meagre re-vegetation programs.
Unfortunately, vegetation clearance rates in Australia remain extremely high.
Protecting and enhancing native vegetation would have both commercial and public benefits. Programs like the recently announced Agricultural Stewardship Package could be designed, to pay farmers for vegetation protection and revegetation.
Increasing vegetation in our landscapes is an insurance policy that will not only protect biodiversity, but support the honey industry.
As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce enormous numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. Demand for the materials needed to build them will skyrocket.
This includes common industrial metals such as steel and copper, but also less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries and the rare earth elements used in the powerful magnets required by wind turbines and electric cars. Production of many of these critical minerals has grown enormously over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.
Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth – some claim we are on the cusp of a rare earths boom – but unless we learn how to do it in a responsible manner, we will only create a new environmental crisis.
What are critical minerals?
“Critical minerals” are metals and non-metals that are essential for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Their supply may be threatened by geopolitics, geological accessibility, legislation, economic rules or other factors.
One consequence of a massive transition to renewables will be a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (including concrete, steel, aluminium, copper and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.
Three centuries ago, the technologies used by humanity required half a dozen metals. Today we use more than 50, spanning almost the entire periodic table. However, like fossil fuels, minerals are finite.
Can we ‘unlearn’ renewables to make them sustainable?
If we take a traditional approach to mining critical minerals, in a few decades they will run out – and we will face a new environmental crisis. At the same time, it is still unclear how we will secure supply of these minerals as demand surges.
This is further complicated by geopolitics. China is a major producer, accounting for more than 60% of rare earth elements, and significant amounts of tungsten, bismuth and germanium.
This makes other countries, including Australia, dependent on China, and also means the environmental pollution due to mining occurs in China.
The opportunity for Australia is to produce its own minerals, and to do so in a way that minimises environmental harm and is sustainable.
Where to mine?
Australia has well established resources in base metals (such as gold, iron, copper, zinc and lead) and presents an outstanding potential in critical minerals. Australia already produces almost half of lithium worldwide, for example.
In recent years, Geoscience Australia and several universities have focused research on determining which critical minerals are associated with specific base ores.
For example, the critical minerals gallium and indium are commonly found as by-products in deposits of lead and zinc.
To work out the best places to look for critical minerals, we will need to understand the geological processes that create concentrations of them in the Earth’s crust.
Critical minerals are mostly located in magmatic rocks, which originate from the Earth’s mantle, and metamorphic rocks, which have been transformed during the formation of mountains. Understanding these rocks is key to finding critical minerals and recovering them from the bulk ores.
Fuelling the transition
For most western economies, rare earth elements are the most vital. These have electromagnetic properties that make them essential for permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, LCD screens and more. Australia shows a great potential in various deposit types across all states.
Beyond the economic opportunity, this is also an environmental one. Australia has the chance to set an example to the world of how to make the supply of critical minerals sustainable. The question is: are we willing to?
Many of the techniques for creating sustainable minerals supply still need to be invented. We must invest in geosciences, create new tools for exploration, extraction, beneficiation and recovery, treat the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste, develop urban mining and find substitutes and effective recycling procedures.
In short, we must develop an integrated approach to the circular economy of critical minerals. One potential example to follow here is the European EURARE project initiated a decade ago to secure a future supply of rare earth elements.
More than ever, we need to bridge the gap between disciplines and create new synergies to make a sustainable future. It is essential to act now for a better planet.
Achieving the large-scale cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed will require the development and adoption of new technologies at a rate not seen since the information technology revolution.
Which presents a fairly obvious idea. Why not do what we did in the information technology revolution?
There’s no mystery about what that was.
The IT revolution was sparked by the work of the US defence department and associated agencies in three related fields: semiconductors, computer hardware, and computer software.
More recently it has spawned the system of GPS global positioning satellites that can give us a readout on our locations wherever we are.
The lessons from how the US military industrial complex transformed information technology throughout the world can tell us a lot – but not everything – about what might succeed in stalling climate change.
It did it by spending a huge amount on research and development in its own right (as much as 80% of all government R&D spending during the late 1950s) and acting as a “lead customer,” for early and often very costly versions of technologies developed by private firms, enabling them to improve their innovations over time.
Seeds sown during the cold war
The improvements reduced costs and enhanced reliability, facilitating their penetration into civilian markets.
The US made the money available because of the cold war. Universities were also harnessed for the task, training the scientists and engineers who later assumed key leadership roles in emerging R&D enterprises.
As well, similarities in the technologies and operating environments of early military and civilian versions of new information technology products meant civilian markets for many of them expanded rapidly.
The defence programs also had a “pro-competition” bias.
New firms played important roles as suppliers of innovations such as integrated circuits, and – in a series of largely coincidental developments – the rigorous enforcement of US antitrust laws meant potentially dominant firms as IBM or AT&T found it hard to impede others.
As a result, intra-industry diffusion of technical knowledge occurred rapidly, complementing high levels of labour mobility within the emerging sector.
The very success of these military research and development programs in spawning vibrant industries means defence markets now account for a much smaller share of the demand for IT products than they did at the time.
Today’s challenges are different…
Climate change is different from post-war research and development in that it is as much an issue of technological substitution as development.
The urgency of the challenge will require the blending of support for the development of new technological solutions with support for the accelerated adoption of existing solutions, such as replacing coal-fired electricity generation with renewable generation.
“Stranded assets” such as abandoned coal-fired power stations and related political and economic challenges will loom large.
The geographic and technological breadth of the responses needed to limit climate change also dwarf that faced by the US defence establishment during the Cold War.
Also different is the fact that the prospective users of new technologies are by and large not the funders or developers of it. When US defence-related agencies acted as “venture capitalists,” beginning in the 1950s, they were focused primarily on supporting their own needs.
…but there are lessons we can learn
There are some things the diffusion of defence-related information technology can tell us.
One is the importance of rapid adoption.
Much of the large-scale investment in technology improvement and deployment will be the responsibility of private firms. They will require policies that create supportive, credible signals that their innovations will have a market – policies such as carbon taxes.
Another is that what’s needed is a program of research and development that spans an array of institutions throughout the developing and industrial economies.
Yet another is the importance of policies that encourage competition and co-operation among innovators rather than patent wars.
The success of the US military industrial complex in creating one revolution provides pointers to (but not a complete guide to) the next.
Emeritus Professor David C. Mowery will be presening the Tom Spurling Oration at Swinburne University on Wednesday 27 November at 5.45pm.
The Australian construction industry has grown significantly in the past two decades. Population growth has led to the need for extensive property development, better public transport and improved infrastructure. This means there has been a substantial increase in waste produced by construction and demolition.
In 2017, the industry generated 20.4 million tons (or megatonnes, MT) of waste from construction and demolition, such as for road and rail maintenance and land excavation. Typically, the waste from these activities include bricks, concrete, metal, timber, plasterboard, asphalt, rock and soil.
Between 2016 and 2017, more than 6.7MT of this waste went into landfills across Australia. The rest is either recycled, illegally dumped, reused, reprocessed or stockpiled.
But with high social, economic and environmental costs, sending waste to landfill is the worst strategy to manage this waste.
What’s more, China introduced its “National Sword Policy” and restricted waste imports, banning certain foreign waste materials and setting stricter limits on contamination. So Australia’s need for solutions to landfill waste has become urgent.
Their new policy has mixed meanings for Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry. While it has closed China’s market to some of our waste, it encourages the development of an Australian domestic market for salvaged and recycled waste.
But there are several issues standing in the way of effective management of Australia’s construction and demolition waste.
In Australia, the main strategy to reduce the waste sent to landfill is the use of levies. But the effectiveness of levies has been questioned in recent years by experts who argue for smarter strategies to manage waste from construction and demolition. They say that imposing a landfill levy has not achieved the intended goals, such as a reduction in waste disposal or an increase in waste recovery activities.
To slow down the filling of landfills, Germany introduced “the German Packaging Ordinance”. This law made manufacturers responsible for their own packaging waste. They either had to take back their packaging from consumers and distributors or pay the national packaging waste management organisation to collect it.
Australia has no specific EPR-driven legal instrument for the construction and demolition waste stream, nor any nationally adopted EPR regulations.
These schemes have provided an impetus for industry engagement in national integrated management of some types of waste, such as e-waste, oil, batteries and fluorescent lights. Voluntary industry programs also cover materials such as PVC, gypsum, waffle pod and carpet.
For instance, since 2002, the Vinyl Council of Australia has voluntarily agreed to apply EPR principles. Armstrong Australia, the world’s largest manufacturer of resilient PVC flooring products, collects the offcuts and end-of-life flooring materials for recycling and processing into a new product. These materials would otherwise have been sent to landfill.
In another example, CSR Gyprock uses a take-back scheme to collect offcuts and demolition materials. After installation, the fixing contractor arranges collection with CSR Gyprock’s recycling contractor who charges the builder a reasonable fee.
But extending producer responsibility in a sustainable way comes with a few challenges.
Everyone in the supply chain should be included: those who produce and supply materials, those involved in construction and demolition, and those who recover, recycle and dispose of waste.
The goal of our work is to connect organisations and industries across the country so waste can be traded instead of sent to landfill.
But the lack of an efficient supply chain system can discourage stakeholders from taking part in such schemes. An inefficient supply chain increases the costs associated with labour and admin staff at construction sites, transport, storage, separation of waste and insurance premiums.
All of these are not only seen as a financial burden but also add complexities to an already complicated system.
Australia needs a system with a balanced involvement of producers, consumers and delivery services to extend producer responsibility.
How can research and development help?
In our research, we’re seeking to develop a national economic approach to deal with the barriers preventing the effective management of construction and demolition waste in Australia, such as implementing an extended producer responsibility.
And a project aimed to find ways to integrate supply chain systems in the construction and demolition waste and resource recovery industry is supporting our efforts.
The goal is to ensure well-established connections between all parts in the construction supply chain. A more seamless system will boost markets for these materials, making waste recovery more economically viable. And that in turn will benefit society, economy and the environment.
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.
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.