High-speed rail on Australia’s east coast would increase emissions for up to 36 years



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Greg Moran, Grattan Institute

Bullet trains are back on the political agenda. As the major parties look for ways to stimulate the economy after the COVID-19 crisis, Labor is again spruiking its vision of linking Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane with high-speed trains similar to the Eurostar, France’s TGV or Japan’s Shinkansen.

In 2013 when Labor was last in government, it released a detailed feasibility study of its plan. But a Grattan Institute report released today shows bullet trains are not a good idea for Australia. Among other shortcomings, we found an east coast bullet train would not be the climate saver many think it would be.

Anthony Albanese releasing a high-speed rail study in 2013. The idea has long been mooted.
AAP/Lukas Coch

The logic seems simple enough

Building a bullet train to put a dent in our greenhouse gas emissions has been long touted. The logic seems simple – we can take a lot of planes and their carbon pollution out of the sky if we give people another way to get between our largest cities in just a few hours or less.

And this is all quite true, as the chart below shows. We estimate a bullet train’s emissions per passenger-kilometre on a trip from Melbourne to Sydney would be about one-third of those of a plane. We calculated this using average fuel consumption estimates from 2018 for various types of transport, as well as the average emissions intensity of electricity generated in Australia in 2018.




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If we use the projected emissions intensity of electricity in 2035 – the first year trains were expected to run under Labor’s original plan – the fraction drops to less than one-fifth of a plane’s emissions in 2018.

It should be remembered that while coaches might be the most climate-friendly way to travel long distances, they can’t compete with bullet trains or planes for speed.


Notes: Average occupancy estimates are 38.5 (coach), 320 (bullet train), 119 (conventional rail), 2.26 (car), and 151.96 (plane). Plane emissions include radiative forcing. For more detail, see ‘Fast train fever: Why renovated rail might work but bullet trains won’t’.

There’s a catch

So, where’s the problem? It lies in construction. A bullet train along Australia’s east coast would take about 15 years of planning, then would be built in sections over about 30 years. This construction would generate huge emissions.

In particular, vast emissions would be released in the production of steel and concrete required to build a train line from Melbourne to Brisbane. These so-called “scope 3” emissions can account for 50-80% of total construction emissions.




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Scope 3 emissions are sometimes not counted when assessing the emissions impact of a project, but they should be. There’s no guarantee the quantities of concrete and steel in question would have been produced and used elsewhere if not for the bullet train.

And the long construction time means it would be many years before the train actually starts to take planes out of the sky. This, combined with construction emissions, means a bullet train would be very slow to reduce emissions. In fact, we found it would first increase emissions for many years.

Slow emissions benefit

As the chart below shows, we estimate building the bullet train could lead to emissions being higher than they otherwise would’ve been for between 24 and 36 years.

This period would start at year 15 of the project, when planning ends and construction starts. At the earliest, it would end at year 39. This is the point at which some sections of the project would be complete, and at which enough trips have been taken (and enough plane or car trips foregone) that avoided emissions overtake emissions created.

This means the train might not actually create a net reduction in emissions until almost 40 years after the government commits to building it – and even this is under a generously low estimate of scope 3 emissions. If scope 3 emissions are on the high side, emission reductions may not start until just after the 50-year mark – 36 years after construction began.


Notes: Estimates derived from the 2013 feasibility study of the Melbourne-to-Brisbane bullet train, and other sources. The feasibility study assumed that government would commit to the project in 2013. For more detail, see ‘Fast train fever: Why renovated rail might work but bullet trains won’t’.

The bullet train would create a net reduction in emissions from the 40- or 50-year mark onwards. But the initial timelines matter.

The world needs to achieve net zero emissions by about 2050 if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. All Australian states and territories have made this their goal. Unfortunately, a bullet train will not help us achieve it.

The way forward

Hitting the 2050 net-zero emissions target implicit in the Paris Agreement remains a daunting but achievable task. Decarbonising transport will play a big part, including the particularly tricky question of reducing aviation emissions.

But during the most crucial time for action on emissions reduction, a bullet train will not help. Our efforts and focus ought to be directed elsewhere.

Milan Marcus assisted in the preparation of this piece.




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The Conversation


Greg Moran, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Massive road and rail projects could be Africa’s greatest environmental challenge


Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Africa’s natural environments and spectacular wildlife are about to face their biggest challenge ever. In a paper published today in Current Biology, my colleagues and I assess the dramatic environmental changes that will be driven by an infrastructure-expansion scheme so sweeping in scope, it is dwarfing anything the Earth’s biggest continent has ever been forced to endure.

People, food and mining

Africa’s population is exploding – expected nearly to quadruple this century, according to the United Nations. With that, comes an escalating need to improve food production and food security.

In addition, Africa today is experiencing a frenzy of mining activity, with most of the investment coming from overseas. China, for instance, is investing over US$100 billion annually, with India, Brazil, Canada and Australia also being big foreign investors.

To feed its growing population and move its minerals to shipping ports for export, Africa needs better roads and railroads. When located in the right places, improved transportation can do a lot of good. It makes it easier for farmers to get access to fertiliser and new farming technologies, and cheaper to get crops to urban markets with less spoilage. It can also encourage rural investment while improving livelihoods, access to health services, and education for local residents.

Improved transportation is especially important for Africa’s agriculture, which is badly under-performing. In many areas, large “yield gaps” exist between what could be produced under ideal conditions and what is actually being produced. With better farming, Africa’s yields could be doubled or even tripled without clearing one more hectare of land.

Using rudimentary methods, small-scale farmers eke out a living in Gabon.
William Laurance

Pandora’s box

However, there is another side to new transportation projects — a dark side, especially for the environment. When located in areas with high environmental values, new roads or railroads can open a Pandora’s box of problems.

Roads slicing into remote areas can lead to range of legal and illegal human land uses. For instance, in the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within five kilometres of a road; and for every kilometre of legal road there are three kilometres of illegal roads. In the Congo Basin, forest elephants decline sharply, and signs of hunters and poachers increase, up to 50 kilometres from roads.

A forest elephant shot by poachers.
Ralph Buij

In the wrong places, roads can facilitate invasions of natural areas by illegal miners, colonists, loggers and land speculators. In my view, the explosive expansion of roads today is probably the greatest single peril to the world’s natural environments and wildlife.

Africa’s ‘development corridors’

Earlier studies that my colleagues and I conducted, including a major study published in Nature last year, suggest Africa is likely to be a global epicentre of environmental conflict. A key reason: an unprecedented scheme to dramatically expand African roads, railroads and energy infrastructure.

In total, we have identified 33 massive “development corridors” that are being proposed or are underway. At the heart of each corridor is a road or railroad, sometimes accompanied by a pipeline or power line.

The 33 development corridors that are being proposed or constructed in sub-Saharan Afirca.
William F. Laurance et al. (2015) Current Biology.

The projects have a variety of proponents, including the African Development Bank, national governments, international donors and lenders, and commercial agricultural and mining interests. They’re intended to promote large-scale development and their scope is breathtaking.

If completed in their entirety, the corridors will total over 53,000 kilometres in length, crisscrossing the African continent. Some individual corridors are over 4,000 kilometres long.

Will these corridors generate key social and economic benefits, or will they cause great environmental harm? To address this question, we looked at three factors, focusing on a 50-kilometre-wide band laid over the top of each corridor.

First, we assessed the “natural values” of each corridor, by combining data on its biodiversity, endangered species, critical habitats for wildlife, and the carbon storage and climate-regulating benefits of its native vegetation.

Second, we mapped human populations near each corridor, using satellite data to detect nightlights from human settlements (to avoid lands that were simply being burned, we included only places with “persistent” nightlights). We then combined the natural-value and population data to generate a conservation-value score for each corridor, reasoning that sparsely populated areas with high natural values have the greatest overall conservation value.

Finally, we estimated the potential for new roads or railroads to increase food production. Areas that scored highly had soils and climates suitable for farming but large yield gaps, were within several hours’ drive of a city or port, and were projected to see large future increases in food demand.

Costs versus benefits

When we compared the conservation value of each corridor with its potential agricultural benefits, we found huge variation among the corridors.

A two-minute video summary of our study’s main findings

A half dozen of the corridors look like a really good idea, with large benefits and limited environmental costs. However, another half dozen seem like a really bad idea, in that they’d damage critical environments, especially rainforests of the Congo Basin and West Africa and biologically rich equatorial savanna regions.

In the middle, there are 20 or so corridors that appear “marginal”. These tend to have high environmental values and high potential agricultural benefits, or vice versa.

We argue that these marginal projects should be evaluated in detail, on a case-by-case basis. If they do proceed, it should only happen under the most stringent conditions, with careful environmental assessment and land-use planning, and with specific measures in place (such as new protected areas) to limit or mitigate their impacts.

Dangers for Africa

There’s no such thing as a free ride. For Africa, the dangers of the development corridors are profound. Even if well executed, we estimate that the current avalanche of corridors would slice through over 400 protected areas and could easily degrade another 2,000 or so. This bodes poorly for Africa’s wildlife and biodiversity generally.

Wild zebras in the Serengeti.
William Laurance

Beyond this, the corridors will encourage human migration into many sparsely populated areas with high environmental values. The wild card in all this is the hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investments pouring into Africa each year for mining. Even if a corridor is likely to yield only modest benefits for food production, it may be very difficult for governments and decision makers to say no to big mining investors.

The bottom line: it could be a fraught battle to stop even ill-advised development corridors, though not impossible. If we shine a bright light on the corridors and argue strongly that those with limited benefits and large costs are a bad idea, we may succeed in stopping or at least delaying some of the worst of them.

This is unquestionably a vital endeavour. Africa is changing faster than any continent has ever changed in human history, and it is facing unprecedented socioeconomic and environmental challenges.

The next few decades will be crucial. We could promote relatively sustainable and equitable development — or end up with an impoverished continent whose iconic natural values and wildlife have been irretrievably lost.

The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

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