In February the UK Court of Appeal ruled that a proposed expansion at Heathrow aiprort was unlawful because of its failure to take the UK’s emissions targets into account. In Australia infrastructure is directly responsible for 15 per cent of emissions, and indirectly responsible for 55 per cent. What is Australia doing to face the reality of its future?


Infrastructure must be built for the future we know is coming.

What we build now will be used by future Australians for decades – and maybe even centuries – to come. The Sydney Harbour Bridge has been in use for almost a century, since the cars had to be hand-cranked to get them started. Trains have been leaving from Melbourne’s Flinders Street since 1854, and though the steam trains and the original building are gone, the fact is that the location and use of the site was decided 170 years ago.

So what kind of Australia will our soon-to-be-built infrastructure projects need to operate in? Climate change is upon us, so we know that the country will be hotter and will experience more extreme weather events like the fires, floods and storms of recent months. With Australia’s international obligations to meet our emissions targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, we also know we need to move to a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

This means we need to take the opportunity now to talk about how our infrastructure can help avert the worst effects of climate by lowering emissions and how it can help to deliver a zero carbon future. A national conversation about infrastructure needs to consider both what we build and how we build it.

That means starting a dialogue about how to create the transport, communications, energy, water and waste infrastructure that will be fit for the challenges ahead.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), has produced a report with ClimateWorks Australia and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), entitled Issues Paper: Reshaping Infrastructure for a net zero emissions future, which demonstrates that infrastructure has a huge role to play in getting Australia to our zero carbon future.

Infrastructure contributes to Australia’s emissions in three ways. Embodied emissions are the ones created by making the materials like concrete or steel used to construct the infrastructure itself.

Operating emissions come from the day to day use of infrastructure, for example the energy used to move trains along a train line or pump water through the sewage system.

Enabled emissions are those the infrastructure permits to occur, for example from cars using a road. All these types of emissions add up, with infrastructure directly responsible for 15 per cent of Australia’s emissions, and indirectly responsible for 55 per cent.

Along with highlighting the need to address the impacts of climate change, Australia’s Infrastructure Audit notes the growing emissions footprint of infrastructure and the risk that – at the current rate – Australia might not meet our 2030 Paris Agreement commitment.

A major example came recently from overseas, in the form of the February ruling by the UK Court of Appeal that the proposed Heathrow expansion was unlawful because of its failure to take the UK’s emissions targets into account.

Right now, we have a great opportunity to turn our infrastructure emissions trajectory around, if we can start to factor our emissions targets into every infrastructure decision we make. 

Given the massive sums of money involved in infrastructure, we also need to talk about how we get the most out of our finite infrastructure budget. A bad decision will leave us stuck with an expensive headache and skyrocketing emissions well into the middle of the century, while a good one could save energy, money and improve quality of life for millions of Australians.

Again, it’s essential that we start the conversation. In 2017, ASBEC did just that, holding a series of roundtables with key decision makers from across the infrastructure sector.

These experts identified key actions that could improve the way we create business cases for infrastructure.

The resulting report, entitled Bang for Buck, explains how using improved data and processes that put sustainability and quality of life at the heart of all decisions about infrastructure could ensure we make better decisions about how we spend our money.

The zero carbon future is on its way, but we can get there more efficiently and cheaply if the infrastructure sector gets the conversation started. When it comes to infrastructure, it’s good to talk.

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council

One reply on “Infrastructure has a huge role to play in our carbon future”

  1. The resource base to keep suburbia and road transport alive just doesn’t exist, all road transit expenditure is a foolish frittering away of taxpayer funds.

    Oil production is permanently constrained and headed into a deep decline in the next 5 years,
    When “infrastructure has to be used for a century.

    Production of essential resource elements needed for EV’s are also constrained not only by availability but by a very small set of national producers.

    Australia only produces 10% of its oil consumption, has no way to guarantee supplies will be available for motoring next week, certainly not in a decade’s time.

    Breakout of a large war in the middle east will terminate private motoring permanently within days, leaving everybody without rail transit walking.

    Should a Global Warming black swan environmental crisis occur, it could lead to a very sudden international decision to end supply of petroleum fuels for both motoring and air travel. Remembering we’ve just had our black swan environmental event.

    The reliance on petroleum-based road transport systems should be replaced immediately with all transport funding being dedicated to Metro Rail systems, repair of existing intercity and interstate Freight /Passenger services proven to have a life cycles measured in centuries.

    A belief in the invisible hand of the market keeping things running is akin to believing the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

    Reliance on the US is profoundly stupid, it’s clear the US position is America first, pieces of paper with signatures on them are worthless.

    Wishful thinking about a personal EV based transport system isn’t a substitute for serious foreword planning for what’s known to be possible.

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