Ararat highway

Australians’ heavy energy use seems to change our frame of mind – we exaggerate the benefits and dismiss dangers from energy-intensive activities. Take the planned highway widening near Ararat in Western Victoria. 

Major Roads’ blueprint there will swap trees and birdsong for four new traffic lanes rushing through the country at 110 kilometres an hour. An expensive new swathe up to 180 metres wide is to be dug through hills, ancient trees, natural corridors and farms where I live near Buangor.

These works were expected to increase traveller safety and, by reducing travel costs and assisting freight efficiency, economic efficiency as well. These gains were forecast from expanding the highway’s traffic capacity, even though the road authority says the current road is a long way from being full.  

But it will shave a tiny 22.4 seconds off the 12 kilometre Buangor-to-Ararat stretch. Emissions from highway traffic will keep growing at around +1.6 per cent a year. 

The forecast benefit to traveller-safety included in the project’s cost-benefit analysis has not eventuated on stretches of highway where duplication has been completed.

Between Ballarat and Stawell, which span the project area, the fatal accident rate is identical on duplicated and unduplicated sections, according to 10 years of Major Roads’ accident data to 2020 – perhaps it’s due to the duplication’s higher speed limit and the feeling of greater safety. 

More people die from obesity, a good part of it from an obesogenic car–culture, than road accidents. Medibank Private estimated in 2008 that inactivity was killing more than 16,000 Australians annually, more than 14 times death rates of road fatalities. But this negative was not included in the project’s cost-benefit analysis. 

The Australian construction sector, which covers road-building, adds 23 per cent to our greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is a near-to medium-term threat to human survival, according to some reports including an Australian report endorsed by the former chief of the Australian Defence Force retired Rear Admiral Chris Barrie. This energy-intensive project helps create climate change, at a calamitous cost excluded from the official project assessment. 

Undaunted, Victoria’s Planning Minister optimistically declared the highway widening will “provide a net benefit to the state of Victoria in … long-term and short-term economic, environmental and social considerations”. 

This even conflicts with the highway’s own economic assessment.  

Although crafted to lobby for a larger Western Highway, the best the official assessment could predict was a 50 per cent loss on the whole project’s $347 million, based on a mix of public and private benefits over 25 years. A revised figure is 68 per cent loss. Counting the consumption of natural resources and the contribution to climate change as debts would make the losses far outweigh gains. 

I’d cop it sweet if public benefits really outweighed the costs. But this project worsens climate change and arguably travellers’ health, causes serious direct harm to the land yet provides little if any extra immediate traveller-safety and barely any time savings.

 It is not justified by traffic volumes.  It provides little economic dividend beyond what could be had by gifting the same public funds. It appears to be worse than the Westgate Tunnel, with independent analysis finding that the Tunnel returned a loss of around 65 per cent except of course for the contractors and perhaps politicians. 

Our investments in skills, machinery and cultural aspirations are obvious contributors to these narrow responses to travel, safety, health and our global prospects. Heavy energy-use is a better hidden contributor. 

The energy directly used today by average Australian households was available in muscle-powered societies only to the wealthy with 4700 slaves, or equivalent horsepower. And the energy-use for the industrial underpinnings of our households is several times larger.  We live like emperors. These high rates explain why Australia’s tidy streets full of neat homes have so few workers in sight. 

Road construction is more energy-intensive again, with a single lane kilometre of road-building using a year’s worth of energy for around 80 Australians, or 6000 residents of Myanmar. That’s 48 years‘ worth for the highway’s next 12 kilometres. Globally, we are using up fossil energy around a million times faster than it accumulated in the earth’s crust – and to most people this seems routine or is totally unseen. 

This energy blindness joins with ecological disregard so we think our future is determined largely by the excellence of our technology and planning for new infrastructure and economic growth. It means we think little of driving cars for any and all trips even though they are around 15 times heavier than ourselves. 

After a whopping 85 per cent heat loss, that means about 1 per cent of the car’s fuel energy is used to move the driver. 

We expect to arrive at work and “grab” lunch, with its long-distance ingredients, all without raising a sweat. 

Distance means much less now, as just one consequence of our high energy consumption, so that some of my friends says “it’s no big deal” to fly around the world. How to run a profitable business, when to upgrade, which aeroplane flights are cheapest – these conversations and calculations unconsciously assume cheap energy-heavy goods and services, and cheap emissions. 

Our efforts to recognise human rights, and provide medical care and education currently have the same dependence on heavy energy consumption.  

Natural limits are left out of the excited talk about rapidly upscaling renewables. But there are limits – loss, disturbance, fragmentation and hardening limits – to what the living fabric of the earth can tolerate from our cities, agriculture and solar, wind and hydro schemes, regardless of how “clean” the energy used. 

And we have already crossed four of nine thresholds for a habitable earth. We’re geared for positive feedback in the wrong direction: we cope with personal mobility problems from inactivity, for example, with more car-use. Our freedoms and conveniences are ephemeral artefacts of a vanishing world, disappearing under expanding human activity. 

While renewably powered electric cars, for example, avoid some emissions, they are the creation of a physically expanding human economy and they want materials 

Renewable energy is obviously vital and more efficient, resources-wise, per unit of energy. But while renewably powered electric cars, for example, avoid some emissions, they are the creation of a physically expanding human economy and they want materials. Growing numbers of electric cars will boost the impacts of mining, minerals transport and processing, traffic, roads and manufacturing for cars and roads. 

Efficiency gains per unit of production won’t counteract this effect. It will compound it. A common effect from more efficient cars has been greater overall impact as their markets expand. 

On top of this, renewable energy can take more resources per unit of energy harvested. Solar energy can take 10-40 times more copper per kilowatt hour of electricity. Greater efficiency by itself may at best slow our approach to the cliff-edge, not reverse it. We need to reduce our total impact.

High rates of energy-use don’t just upset landscapes, climates and human bodies. They make us think like emperors too. Lavish energy-use is mind-bending. 

Thinking like emperors might seem like a wonderful accomplishment. But druglike, heavy energy use makes us less aware of the energy we use … everything happens so easily! 

We overconfidently propose huge projects. Government proclaims overall benefit from them, a sure bet since the assessment criteria are created by our energy-soaked viewpoints to make this so. 

It gives disproportionately more power to those unconcerned about our impact on the natural world. Our economic innovations measure up as “faster, cheaper, better” only because we let serious costs remain legal and omitted from our economic sums. 

It means the approved highway widening project is high-energy and high-emissions and fertilises the economics of physical expansion.

For a moment let’s not query the Faustian core of projects like this. There are some middle paths for this stretch of road: alternative plans that use a fraction of the diesel. They save tens of millions in funding, cultural heritage and other rare places and, with skill, scores of large old trees. They splinter the landscape less by using the existing highway. 

We could be permitted to expect the Andrews’ government to prioritise these plans. They are quicker and safer to build. They’re win-win options. They are good for today, and they will make the future less dire. They just need the government’s willingness to use new information and good design and to act in the public interest. 

MairiAnne is a  farmer on a property near Ararat in Victoria who has noticed the limits to the robustness of the physical world, but is keen to see how much better we can do. She has closely studied the economic, engineering, legal, political, environmental and cultural heritage aspects of assessment of the highway for a decade.

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