Despite pockets of silliness, like the freedom ‘n’ gun-loving idiocy erupting in the US, sensible minds are turning to what happens once COVID-19 restrictions are eased. Already, tensions are starting to appear between resuming past urban policy settings and the need to rethink them deeply.
Following presidential musings on the curative efficacy of injecting bleach, only now are the lower jaws of many reasonable Australians starting to lift after viewing US news footage of armed protesters forcefully entering legislatures, seeking to remove COVID-19 movement restrictions in order to enable local economies to restart – despite still-surging infection rates.
When asked to reconcile mortality and morbidity consequences for the vulnerable, some gun-toting protesters basically said, well they’re gonna die anyway.
Meanwhile, the US president described protesters as “very good people” and urged them on. So much for notions of global leadership, social capital, national cohesion, collective responsibility, and basic intelligence…
It invites lurid rejoinders. Might future Darwin Awards include a “self inflicted mass extinction” category? Could re-election chances be jeopardised through mortal thinning of the presidential heartland? Will the next zombie apocalypse be a US documentary?
Other than exposing the gross descriptive inadequacy of English derogatory superlatives, these events reveal by comparison the maturity and compassion of our own region’s responses.
Following so close on the bushfire crisis, the pandemic provided a further lesson on the utter folly of ignoring evidence of impending collective doom.
We should therefore be proud to have been so diametrically more sensible in our pandemic management and recovery musings – at least until now.
By closing down large parts of the economy our response to the pandemic did two things.
Firstly, it removed the momentum from contentious projects and policies that had previously progressed on the grounds that they had already commenced. For them to recommence would now entail a considered decision to do so.
Secondly, it invited contemplation of the terms under which the economic recovery might occur. It drew attention to the significance of a recovery plan as a signal of what Australia’s future will comprise.
It now seems so long ago, except to the many who directly experienced both, but the bushfire crisis reminded all but the most obdurate Australians that climate change is not a matter of ideological preference but a real crisis that will not go away.
It is not surprising, then, that government is increasingly being encouraged to direct recovery infrastructure spending towards establishing a renewable energy economy.
Highly respected economists advise that investment in renewable energy projects generates twice as many jobs compared with non-renewables. For them, environmental commitments are conceived not as constraints but opportunities.
Investors concur, “recovery plans that exacerbate climate change would expose investors and national economies to escalating financial, health and social risks in the coming years”.
Compared to the dithering of many larger economies, a few mid-sized economies like Australia’s responded to the pandemic firmly, early and effectively. In relation to recovery, another of this group, South Korea, has already committed to an environmentally sustainable recovery.
Australia’s recovery plan will therefore likely be directly compared.
The Climate Club
Yet an even more significant policy shift could soon emerge at an international level.
A reason typically given for Australia’s chain-dragging on climate change abatement – that Australia’s interests, narrowly understood, are not best served by selfless commitment to reduction in greenhouses gasses – may no longer be sound.
William Nordhaus suggests that the stubborn failure of international cooperation to curb emissions, despite compelling evidence of the extreme global damage caused, suggests that alternative strategies should now be considered. He suggests the establishment of a “climate club” of states committed to reducing emissions.
These states could erect trade walls to render uncompetitive those goods and services from non-member states that benefit commercially from the un-costed negative externalities, experienced by everyone, of higher polluting production.
Indeed, South Korea’s commitment makes even more economic sense if such a club were now to emerge as a response to the failure of larger states to progress climate commitments.
If the current retreat from globalisation continues after the pandemic, being on the right of side of such a wall would best serve our interests as well, particularly as we have significant still-untapped potential to develop lucrative renewable technologies.
Indeed, early commitment to join such a “club” could benefit Australia and express regional leadership at a time when existing alliances are starting to fray.
We could become partners in a new “coalition of the competent”.
Return to the past?
How do current urban recovery musings look against this backdrop?
It is largely accepted that government stimulus is essential to Australia’s economic recovery.
It is also accepted that recovery will not occur without kick starting cities, most notably Melbourne and Sydney.
Some consider the acceleration of infrastructure projects as essential to the revival of Sydney’s economy. The Transport Minister offered, “the pipeline of infrastructure projects would be one of the major levers that the state has to drive its economic growth post-pandemic … we go harder, we go faster”.
As before, asset recycling would also be a feature.
Joining the dots, along with some rail projects, this recovery plan seems to entail recommencing big urban road projects to sell to the private sector in order to build even more.
Indeed, though suffering close to a 50 per cent reduction in traffic on its roads in recent months, Transurban seems eager to purchase new road infrastructure from economically distressed states; “the period after the global financial crisis a decade ago had been the best time to buy roads … the company would take advantage of the situation this time around”.
However, it seems many are now coming to the view that an unreflective return to pre-pandemic policy settings and projects would be folly. For example, the NSW treasurer opined, “…there is no place for pre-pandemic thinking in a post-pandemic world”.
Marion Terrill of the Grattan Institute supports this view. Many of the state’s transport projects, which total some $40 billion, were evaluated against conditions that no longer apply.
Let’s explore these thoughts by turning to the redevelopment of Sydney’s second airport at Badgerys Creek.
Consistent with the current re-evaluation mood, some are now urging a “go slow” on its development.
There certainly are good aviation grounds for a rethink. The decline in air-travel suggests that other more urgent developments should proceed until demand returns.
Within Australia, the fate of Virgin is yet to be determined but it is unlikely to restart unchanged. Qantas considers it will be a very different airline after the recovery. Its long-haul project has been delayed and it may shed some of its A-380 super-jumbos. This is because it considers that international travel demand will take many years to recover.
However, though Badgerys Creek commenced as a transport project – to increase airport capacity in the Sydney basin – the additional economic benefits to the region were clearly understood.
Whether or not one agrees with the idea of a second airport, it is relevant to consider the advantages of delaying the project against the need for economic recovery within western Sydney.
It is also particularly relevant to consider how escalating concerns for environmental sustainability should affect airports more generally.
Despite its contribution to carbon emissions it is unlikely that international air travel will fade away post-pandemic. Australia and New Zealand will remain particularly dependant on it for many decades. In any event, though all emissions matter and should be reduced, greater reductions can more readily be achieved by limiting contributions from agriculture.
Therefore, the necessary “greening” of air travel is likely to entail its ever greater efficiency, the development of renewable fuels – purely electric propulsion is still a long way off, other than for smaller aircraft – and, its replacement with rapid electric surface transport where such alternatives are feasible.
How might these conditions affect the development of Badgerys Creek?
The demand for a second airport in the Sydney basin derives from the capacity constraints on the Mascot facility; not from a fundamental requirement for two airports.
The pandemic hit on air travel means there is now no certainty that Sydney’s Mascot capacity limits will require Badgerys Creek to take overflow by its scheduled opening around 2026.
Yet, if better infrastructure – as distinct from any infrastructure – is to be a focus of recovery, might now be the time to consider pressing on with a full curfew-free contemporary facility at Badgerys Creek and moving to retire Mascot after it opens?
The 907 hectares of land served by two train stations at Mascot might then be better applied to addressing Sydney’s housing shortage.
By number of passengers the three routes within the Melbourne to Brisbane corridor are in the top-50 busiest air routes worldwide. The Sydney-Melbourne route is the third busiest.
This corridor is an obvious focus for replacement of higher polluting air travel by rapid surface transport.
Indeed, a pivot towards rapid rail and its renewable power supply could help rejuvenate our national technological capacity following the end of car manufacturing in Australia.
New funding would obviously be required but in the spirit of asset recycling, sale of the fully serviced Mascot land, much of it waterfront, combined with the redirection of state funds from now questionable road projects should be on the table. Furthermore, money has never been cheaper to borrow than right now.
Different tiers of government would control constituent elements of such a city-building project. The commonwealth controls airports and is best placed to secure rail corridors. State governments are currently responsible for other transport projects. City councils are typically more involved with local urban renewal. All tiers have roles in promoting renewable energy.
Fortunately, a positive consequence of the pandemic is the establishment of a remarkably effective forum for state and federal government cooperation. There is every sign that this will continue during the lengthy economic recovery and would be a sound forum to advance coordinated city-building endeavours.
Furthermore, Australia is now reaching out to other “early responder” states, an initiative that could develop into the “climate club” envisaged by Nordhaus.
Pick a future
It may well be that on closer examination these particular notions – these possible synergies – are not feasible.
But the point here is that compared to road projects there are other genuinely city building initiatives that appear to sit in that sweet spot between urban economic recovery, sustainable reshaping of transport, a more robust renewable future, development and growth of high value-added jobs, growth of resilient endogenous technological capabilities, provision of more affordable housing, the sharing of urban growth with the regions, and the deeper legacy of a future-focused nation capable of supporting those generations that must dig us all out of this COVID-19 hole.
Well, at least that’s option 1.
Option 2 is the zombie metropolis of coal, gas and cars on evermore roads going round and round in last century’s city; advancing into the future with our face turned to the past – leading with our bums.
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.
Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email firstname.lastname@example.org