New urban infrastructure could exhaust the world's carbon budget within 5 years

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If the current infrastructure trends continue without utilising green low carbon technology, Dr Anthony Horton warns that the world's entire carbon budget could effectively be exhausted in five years. Is Greg Hunt listening?

ACCORDING TO a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the infrastructure that is already in place around the world effectively accounts for 80 per cent of the 1000 gigatonnes of carbon (based on 2012 measurements) required to stay on a maximum 2°C average warming trajectory.

The problem is that if current infrastructure trends continue, the world’s entire budget could effectively be locked away within 5 years.

The SEI analysis added to a recent assessment by the UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and C40 cities. As part of the assessment, two scenarios were presented. A reference scenario in which global urban greenhouse gas emissions may evolve if incremental changes are made with the second scenario examining how emissions could be reduced if governments take bold actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The annual and cumulative long term emission implications (called “committed emissions”) of new investments in infrastructure and equipment under both scenarios were calculated.

The analysis specifically focused on the role that the construction of new urban infrastructure has in future infrastructure related carbon dioxide emissions. They attributed approximately 30 per cent of the 45 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide expected from all infrastructure annually to urban infrastructure.

The construction of new buildings and transport systems provides an opportunity to rethink urban areas and deploy the most efficient designs and appropriate materials and technologies.

Building low carbon infrastructure now can facilitate the development of skilled labour forces that will be essential to roll out progressively lower carbon infrastructure in future, particularly in rapidly growing urban areas in developing and emerging economies such in the South and East Asian regions.

In the longer term, savings in energy costs in the order of US$500 billion per year could be realised by implementing design principles, appropriate materials and technologies. Choosing such initiatives now can also realise savings that would instead be expenditure required for retrofits to keep up with more stringent climate requirements.

This is especially significant when the cost of retrofitting building to the same energy performance standard as newly constructed buildings is approximately 5 times higher (US$50 per tonne of carbon dioxide compared to less than US$10 per tonne of carbon dioxide).

Urban areas are being presented with a unique opportunity to choose a greener urban infrastructure path, and those in government can implement appropriate policies to support such infrastructure as well as public transport. Such initiatives are not only necessary to reduce emissions and meet increasingly stringent climate requirements, they will also ensure that urban areas are more liveable.

It is quite clear from the SEI analysis that Jamie Briggs, Australia’s Minister for Cities and the Built Environment has his work cut out for him.

On October 11, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt (senior Minister Responsible for Cities) outlined the Government’s infrastructure plan for Victoria to the year 2200, which includes two road, two rail and one port project, with the goal being to ease pressure resulting from an anticipated booming population as part of the government’s vision to transform Melbourne.

Minister Hunt’s vision consists of an upgrade of the Monash Freeway at a cost of $200 million, a Metro rail project consisting of two 9km tunnels and 5 new stations at a cost of $11-15 billion, an 18km East West Link road and tunnel (linking the Western Ring Road with the Eastern Freeway) at a cost of $6-8 billion (Stage 1), a link to connect the Eastern Freeway and East Link with Metropolitan Ring Road ($6 billion), undergrounding Melbourne’s metropolitan train lines (cost unknown) and relocating the container Port to Hastings and Geelong (cost also unknown).

The SEI is rightfully concerned with the South and East Asian region given the number of existing and emerging megacities in the region and the sheer numbers of people relocating from regional and country areas into those megacities.

I would be interested to see what the outcomes would be if a similar project was conducted in Australia. Given recent reports of the costs associated with traffic congestion in Sydney and the seemingly endless discussion of the transport needs of Perth going into the future, infrastructure is clearly a significant issue here as well.

The point of difference is that many cities and countries have moved beyond the discussion of infrastructure for its own sake and are confronting the reality that carbon emissions are an inevitable accompaniment to construction and therefore designs, materials and technologies have to be chosen with this reality in mind.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if such an issue was tabled in Australia? Maybe some of the skilled Australian scientists that have had to leave to pursue international opportunities in the cleantech sector due to the sheer lack of prospects may be tempted to return….but then we know the fundamental problem with that at present don’t we?

You can follow Anthony on Twitter as the Climate Change Guy @DrAnthonyHorton as well as his blog the Climate Change Guy.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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