Rachel Lynskey unpacks how infrastructure can influence transport systems for the better: providing options for shifting to clean transport modes as well as improving health and environment outcomes. Infrastructure investments can play an important role in reducing the number and length of vehicle trips taken, and increasing the use of public and active travel options.

Australia is in the midst of an infrastructure boom. Unfortunately this has created a risk of locking in high emissions production from the transport sector – unless zero-emissions outcomes are prioritised. Australia’s private and public sectors are investing huge amounts into transport infrastructure, to keep pace with population growth and increasing transport demands. This year NSW’s infrastructure budget grew 17 per cent on the previous year and Victoria saw 28 per cent on the previous infrastructure budget. Australia-wide more than AU$123 billion has been spent on infrastructure since 2015, with over AU$200 billion in the pipeline. Most of this is for new transport infrastructure, with some upgrades and extensions of existing networks. With recent announcements, such as the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, Australia can expect decades more transport infrastructure investment.

Emissions are not being considered to an appropriate extent when deciding what is built. Emissions need to be considered in two important ways: the emissions embodied in the construction process and the emissions enabled by the infrastructure. For transport infrastructure, emissions are enabled by influencing the way people and goods travel, and this is the main focus of today’s article and the transport program.

Including enabled emissions generation in infrastructure decisions can lead to prioritising infrastructure that reduces the amount of travel people need to make; and shifting transport used to clean shared types, such as public transport. This would have a positive impact on all the different modes of the transport sector, leading to long-term emissions reductions. While in the longer term vehicles may transition to cleaner energy sources, they currently remain emissions-intensive. Spending on emissions-intensive transport infrastructure, such as roads, can enable high-emissions activities, while public transport and cycling infrastructure can immediately enable emissions reductions aligned with a zero-emissions transport sector.

Infrastructure can lay the foundations for a net zero emissions future, as infrastructure built today will be in operation for decades to come. Given the long lived nature of infrastructure investment, it is vital the pipeline of transport infrastructure enables emissions reductions. Every Australian state and territory has set a net zero by 2050 target, and the next step is operationalising these targets. Policies and strategies put in place in the coming years will ultimately determine whether zero emissions transport can be achieved. As Australia transitions to a net zero world, it is vital to avoid transport infrastructure that ‘locks in’ emissions. 

Transport sector emissions could be reduced 20–50 per cent by 2050 by reducing transport demand and shifting to efficient shared transport options. Building more public transport such as high-speed rail, and active travel infrastructure, as well as accelerating the uptake of zero-emissions vehicles and digital infrastructure (to support remote working patterns) can help reduce private vehicle use, avoid unnecessary vehicle travel kilometers, and promote more liveable communities.

Aligning decision making with zero-emissions requires investment in options that reduce emissions, as well as limiting investment in infrastructure that enables high-emissions transport modes. Scotland’s transport emissions reduction plan aims to reduce car use by 20 per cent within 10 years, with more active, public transport and shared transport options in urban settings. In neighbouring Wales, decision makers have paused new road-building projects, establishing an external panel to review spending on projects that encourage more people to drive. Instead, there will be focus on maintaining existing assets and new infrastructure that enable cycling and public transport. This approach incorporates the long-term emissions impacts of transport infrastructure. 

Infrastructure decisions that consider the full lifecycle for emissions and prioritising the least carbon-intensive modes can also contribute to broader transport outcomes. For example, investing in active, public and shared transport options can reduce congestion and emissions, compared to expanding roads that ultimately attract more cars to the road. Reducing emissions from transport can also impact broader environmental issues beyond energy use, including local air and noise pollution,  water use and habitat change. Ensuring these co-benefits are accounted for in decision making can help set cities and communities up for a resilient future.

All Australian states now have independent infrastructure advisory bodies, which are recognising the need to consider emissions in long-term strategies, plans and advice. Infrastructure Victoria’s Draft 30-year Strategy outlined the need to specify climate scenarios, review infrastructure in light of climate risks and to identify cost-effective opportunities to reduce emissions. Across the country, Infrastructure WA’s State Infrastructure Strategy included specific recommendations on the need for state agencies to improve infrastructure planning processes to consider climate change and align with a net zero future. Recent updates to Infrastructure Australia’s Assessment Framework now suggests consideration of how proposals both improve and consider the risks associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Infrastructure has a vital role to play in enabling more zero-emissions transport options. In deciding what gets built, considerations need to include the full lifecycle of emissions – including embodied and enabled – and support for least carbon-intensive modes. This can range from including minimum electric vehicle charging station requirements in statutory planning for new building developments, to investing in new cycling or public transport infrastructure.

Incorporating net zero into infrastructure planning mechanisms will provide a regulatory driver and supporting tools to implement emissions reduction solutions. Find out more about  zero-emissions solutions from our cities program

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