If we want to address climate change with the seriousness it deserves, we should electrify transport. The ACT Light rail project shows leadership in this direction: it will be Australia’s first zero-pollution public transport system.
In a recent article in Vox, “The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything,” David Roberts cites a growing expert consensus on what is called “environmentally beneficial electrification.” He says that there is a two-pronged strategy for deep decarbonization:
1. Clean up electricity
2. Electrify everything.
The ACT is well on the way to doing (1). It is leading Australia in the effort to decarbonise the electricity supply, with a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020. We know how to do this. What we don’t know how to do is how to decarbonise engine fuel. You can buy offsets, which have problems in themselves, but you can’t make the fuel itself greenhouse-friendly. Even if you make biodiesel from the waste oil from takeaway fish and chip shops, you are still emitting CO2 and other nasties.
If you electrify transport, the job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions for transport is much easier: you can plug into the 100% renewable energy of the ACT grid by 2020, and you immediately decarbonise a considerable part of Canberra’s carbon footprint, in one of the most car-dependent cities in Australia, making the new ACT light rail line Australia’s first zero pollution, zero carbon emissions public transport system.
The Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change states that “Limiting the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius requires changing this transport emissions trajectory, which involves the development of an integrated electro- mobility ecosystem encompassing various transport modes, coupled with the low-carbon production of electricity and hydrogen, implemented in conjunction with broader sustainable transport principles.”
Currently Australia’s transport emissions trajectory is not reducing at the pace needed for a safe climate. Transport in Australia emits 16 per cent of Australia’s polluting greenhouse gases per year, over 90 Megatons. Diesel vehicles- such as conventional buses, trucks and 4WDs – are the fastest growing fuel type for all vehicles in Australia. Yet diesel fumes emit CO2 and CO, and have the added problem of being a Group 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organisation.
There have been many promising developments in electric bus technology that are prompting rapid adoption of this mode of transit due to vast fuel savings over the lifetime of the bus. The Greens policy to transition ACT’s bus fleet to 100% electric is a good step in the right direction. Internal combustion engines are less than 30% efficient. Add to that the energy cost of transporting fuel from the other side of the world.
Yet buses do not have the transformative network effects that light rail has. Light rail has become the “backbone” of systems such as on the Gold Coast and Glenelg extension (SA), where in both cases there was much scepticism before their construction. Light rail attracts more people out of their cars than buses: there is a section of the population that simply will not use buses whereas they will happily use rail modes of transit. Energy is also lost from friction between rubber tyres and the road. It’s smoother and more efficient to have tracks connecting steel and steel. This is why many people find rail-based journeys more comfortable and preferable to road-based transport, especially if they spend their commutes reading or working on handheld devices or a computer.
While some such as Kim Huynh have argued that to address environmental concerns, Canberra should focus on cycling infrastructure rather than building light rail, my experience riding my bike each day to work during the winter in Canberra gives a strong hunch that for most people cycling does not have the “lifestyle and convenience benefits” that he claims: it is not an all-weather mode of transport: less than half my colleagues who cycled did so during the winter. Furthermore, cycling is less inclusive than light rail for elders, disabled people and young children.
I am very proud to have been part of community campaigns in Canberra for the ambitious climate change targets that it has today. The ACT has shown what a pathway to renewable energy looks like that doesn’t break the bank, being the only jurisdiction in Australia where electricity prices decreased by an average of $80 per household in 2015. These targets dovetail very well with an ambitious public transport policy of light rail that both Labor and the Greens have adopted, which several environmental groups advocated for.
In 2008, the Conservation Council of the ACT advocated for light rail for the ACT election, commissioning an animation of what a light rail journey down Northbourne Avenue would look like. I helped build a 3 metre-long light rail model, which members of Climate Action Canberra would carry above our heads and take to climate change protests in 2008-10. We would get many appreciative honks from passing motorists as we walked down the median strip towards Parliament House, prefiguring a future in which light rail formed a backbone of Canberra as Walter Burley Griffin intended.
We are now much closer to that future than we have ever been for a very long time, and I hope people register the significance of what the ACT government is doing. Canberra will be the first in Australia to have 100% renewable-powered public transport, showing other cities a pathway out of their smog: it is clear that electrification holds a similar kind of promise of a brighter future as it did for my grandparents’ generation.