Level Crossing Removal Project in Victoria.

Right now, Australia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our country more resilient, prosperous and sustainable.

That’s because Australia has some serious cash in the kitty for infrastructure: $225 billion to be spent across four years to June 2023. And Infrastructure Australia is helping make every dollar work.

Infrastructure Australia exists to advise the Australian government on the best way to spend our infrastructure budget, aiming to ensure our spend is focused on great long term outcomes and isn’t hostage to short term political needs. Its annual Infrastructure Priority List (IPL) identifies how to make the most of the budget so it delivers maximum long term benefits.

Last month, Infrastructure Australia released its new Sustainability Principles, meaning that for the first time, sustainability will inform its appraisal of infrastructure priorities across social, economic, environmental and governance parameters.

In the wake of Covid, and with climate change leading to extreme weather events such as fires, floods and heatwaves, there is no shortage of opportunities to improve the resiliency and sustainability of our infrastructure for the long term.

For a start, we need to lower emissions to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change. One step towards achieving this, identified by the IPL, is to expand Australia’s “renewable energy zones” and help new large scale renewable projects to get off the ground.

With climate change making life more challenging for our coastal towns, the infrastructure list’s “Coastal hazards adaptation strategy” aims to work with local and state governments across Australia to increase the resilience of our coasts to rising sea levels and erosion. This occurs with a mix of strategically planted vegetation and buffer zones, keeping land where it’s supposed to be and protecting coastal settlements.

Climate change, combined with growing demand due to population increases, threatens our water supply. The IPL identified clean water as a priority, with the “South East Melbourne recycled water supply infrastructure” aimed at increasing the supply of safe, drinkable water available to one our main population centres.

Some of the proposed infrastructure projects work in tandem with a suite of behavioural change initiatives. For example, despite an upsurge in household waste caused by ordering more home-delivered goods during COVID, the Australian Packaging Covenant seeks to manage the way governments and businesses work together to manage the environmental impacts of packaging.

The IPL priority “National waste and recycling management” will support this, to ensure maximum take-up of circular economy opportunities to reprocess the waste into useful items, such as turning plastic bottles into roads and pavements. Best of all, this means local jobs, ensuring the environmental goals work hand-in-hand with the social and economic ones.

We’ve heard a lot about expanding access to broadband in the context of working from home due to Covid, but that’s not the only benefit a bigger network will bring. “Enabling digital health services for regional and remote Australia” will mean Australians living outside our cities will have increased access to the specialist services they need to level up outcomes for serious health conditions.

Then there’s transport. We know we need to reduce emissions from the transport sector, and the take up of electric cars is key to this. The infrastructure list’s “National Highway electric vehicle fast charging” recognises the infrastructure required, including a reliable network of charging points that can charge most batteries in less than 30 minutes. Coupled with the increase in renewable energy generation, these cars will be travelling on fewer fossil fuels, lowering emissions.

The best infrastructure also involves community buy-in, achieved using best practice community consultation and design. The level crossings removal initiative in Victoria prioritised in the infrastructure list ensures different modes of transport, like cars, trains, trams, cycling and walking, work together, with the added bonus of parks created by raising rail lines off the ground and planting water resilient native vegetation underneath. Rainwater tanks installed at the stations collect water while the projects maximise the use of recycled materials. The process won the highest sustainability accolades for innovations like working with TAFEs to get local people into construction jobs and opening up new land for public recreational use.

Challenges like climate change and Covid are enormous. Only with excellent infrastructure, carefully assessed according to a range of social, environmental, economic and governance outcomes, will we have the best chance of not just meeting these challenges, but creating an Australia that can truly flourish in the years ahead.

Suzanne Toumbourou is the executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

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