A few hybrids don’t make a transport transition policy

Peter Gutwein is proud of his hybrid vehicles, but where’s his real solution to transport emissions?

The wheels of government move slowly, but they do move. After more than six years in power and many claims of global climate leadership, Tasmanian Liberal ministers are finally committing to using electric cars.

Premier Peter Gutwein told parliament a fortnight ago that he would be the first Tasmanian premier ever to travel in a hybrid car – a vehicle powered by both electricity and petrol or diesel. The latter option helps drivers cope with a lack of charging stations.

Currently, hybrid vehicles make up just five per cent of the government’s fleet, but Gutwein wants to change that. In his next budget he promises “an ambitious target for electric and hybrid vehicles across the government fleet and a road map to get there”. That will build on about $2.5 million worth of charging infrastructure now being installed in key locations.

It took a while, but at least it’s happening. The biggest hurdle in our state’s push to lower carbon emissions is transport. A statewide all-electric car fleet powered by renewable energy could make Tasmania a genuine climate leader, rather than a pretend one.

But there’s a lot more to be said about this important transition. First question: why does the government want to bother with hybrid cars?

This complex technology – hybrid vehicles have many times more moving parts than pure electric ones – has value for transitional purposes when charging infrastructure is still being installed. But to acquire hybrid cars when that installation is well advanced suggests a want of confidence in the government’s own system.

Gutwein feels proud about travelling in a hybrid vehicle, but hybrids still use imported fossil fuels, which cost our economy around a billion dollars a year. How much prouder would he feel to be travelling in a car that runs solely on home-grown electricity?

In Europe, the US and China, current vehicle battery technology is mature enough to persuade drivers, manufacturers and governments that pure electric, not hybrid, is where the future lies. For instance, General Motors recently stopped making hybrid vehicles to focus on electric-only.

If the ultimate policy goal is a smaller Tasmanian carbon footprint, as it surely must be, a few more electric vehicles in the government fleet will make no discernible difference to our substantial transport emissions. Their value is symbolic.

What will make a difference is large numbers of people switching to electric vehicles powered by clean energy. Which gives rise to two more, much bigger, questions.

First, where is the additional power coming from to recharge all those vehicle batteries? Exactly how these vehicles can interact with a power grid is still being worked out, but as battery and smart-grid technology rapidly improves the amount of power needed won’t be as much as we might think. Even so, demand will definitely rise.

Unless Tasmania can develop new sources of renewable energy as electric car sales pick up, the power for their batteries would have to come from Victoria (mostly coal-fired) or the gas-fired Tamar Valley power station. That would seem to defeat the whole purpose of an electrified fleet.

The second big question is about how our island’s community can pay for the transition from current combustion-engine vehicles.

As electric transport technology improves and prices decline, today’s snazzy SUVs will become tomorrow’s unsaleable clunkers unless conversion to electric drive is within the reach of average households. Given that Tasmania’s median income is just 75 per cent of the national average, conversion should be a high government priority.

The government would by now be well aware that the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act, currently under review, is no longer fit for purpose and must be replaced. But its replacement will also fail if the government does not address this leading source of Tasmanian emissions, transport. The bottom line is that we’re ill-prepared for social and economic disruption on this scale.

Fixing that will be neither easy nor cheap. The new renewable energy needed, plus substantial measures to smooth the transition to electrified private and public transport, call for real commitment by successive governments prepared to work steadily to a plan over at least a decade.

We hear a lot about vision in political chatter, but today’s governments tend to respond to the moment. We can only hope that the pandemic has started them thinking longer term.

The addition of a few electric vehicles to the government fleet is worth noting, but it’s not a game changer. Without hard thinking and heavy lifting from Peter Gutwein’s government, those new hybrids will quickly lose their shine.

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The astonishing lives of migrating shorebirds

Andrew Darby’s investigations of these toughest of birds takes some unexpected turns

Godwit. Curlew. Whimbrel. Redshank. Greenshank. Dowitcher. Turnstone. Knot. Sandpiper. Stint. Plover. These shorebirds and the people who study and care for them have much to say about us and the state of our planet, says Hobart author Andrew Darby.

Darby’s new book, Flight Lines (Allen & Unwin, 2020), is about these long-distance migratory shorebirds and the scientists who study their extraordinary lives.

When they’re not breeding over the short Arctic summer, these birds can be found on every continent but Antarctica, including Australia (and New Zealand, and Tasmania). Their travel route (“flight lines”) between the far north and here, with staging points in Japan, the Korean Peninsula and China, is called the East Asian-Australasian flyway.

Tracking their lives takes real dedication. It involves long hours at remote nesting sites and at coastal mudflats where the birds rest, where nosey foreigners with long lenses are not always welcome.

Andrew Darby did all of that, in company with dedicated local bird enthusiasts and an elite band of bird scientists. The people he writes of put in extraordinary effort to protect these vulnerable creatures from the depredations of human industry and coastal development.

One or two of the birds he writes about are biggish, but most of modest size and some are quite tiny. Careful, watchful and skittish, they are easily overlooked by humans. Yet they are miracles of evolution, able to find their way over thousands of kilometres with pinpoint accuracy, negotiating storms and trackless oceans, guided by their ability to detect Earth’s north-south magnetic field.

The species that especially caught Darby’s attention is the Grey Plover, which in our warmer months can be seen mostly alone or in small numbers on tidal flats from Australia’s northwest across to the south and east coasts, including Tasmania.

Darby’s main focus was two particular Grey Plovers trapped by a cannon-fired net on the shore of South Australia’s Gulf St Vincent, under a hot sun in November 2015. They were fitted with bands tagged with unique identifying codes, CYA and CYB, which is what they were called thereafter.

Each of these female birds also scored a tracker, a tiny bit of electronic wizardry used by biologists the world over. Fixed to the backs of the two Grey Plovers, the device transmitted location data via satellite that enabled the scientists, and Darby, to track the birds’ movements in real time.

Flight Lines could have been just another birder’s journal, but it is much more than that. This account of one man’s connection to another species says volumes about how the rest of our own species lives in and relates to our natural world.

Much of this story is not pretty. The birds’ migratory route takes in heavily populated Yellow Sea coasts in South and North Korea and China, where they must feed to regain the strength they need to reach Southeast Asia or far-distant Australia and New Zealand.

China has for many years been turning sea into land for residential, industrial or military use. In recent years, birders’ pleas have led to some government restrictions on coastal development, and international protection is in prospect, but landfill remains a big threat.

Looming even larger in the future of these birds, as it does for us, is the threat from climate change. Like us, birds adapt quickly to changing circumstances, but earlier springs and reduced insect abundance at breeding sites – happening now – are among a host of changes negatively affecting shorebirds’ breeding and feeding success. Rising seawaters pose a longer term threat.

Darby catalogues all this dispassionately and objectively, but his story also conveys something much deeper and more personal, involving the flight lines of the satellite-tracked Grey Plovers.

We follow the fortunes of these two birds as they separately find their way to their respective breeding grounds and then begin their return journeys. CYA disappears from the radar in Siberia, but CYB makes it all the way to Australia’s Arnhem Land coast.

Visiting the place where her tracker stopped transmitting, during his own recovery from cancer, Darby finds himself thinking of big things: “of life’s fragility and the often profound injustice of its loss… the demure Grey Plover, their uplifting journeys, and the wish we have in our hearts for completion, for neat resolution. I thought of the untimely end of things.”

If you want a deeper understanding of these intrepid, gifted, utterly wonderful birds, or of the outstanding scientists and birders who speak for them, or if you just like fine writing and a great yarn – read this book.

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Hobart’s breath of fresh air

On climate issues, what local government lacks in power, it makes up for in engagement

The unwilling have the power while the willing struggle along without it. This is the tragedy of the world’s shambolic response to the steadily growing threat from global climate change.

The worst we have seen of this response has come from the governments of countries capable of doing vastly more: from Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and errant European states.

And from Canberra, to our nation’s great shame. State governments have been more responsive – and more responsible – but they too are inclined to treat the climate challenge as something of a passing fad.

It could be argued that higher levels of government unprepared to take up the challenge themselves should pass resources down the line to those who are. But I guess it doesn’t work that way.

The best has come from low in the pecking order. Our youth has led a people’s charge for stronger, better-informed action to lower emissions, and various local groups have supported community-based initiatives such as walking and cycling facilities, parks and urban food gardens.

Local government reflects this grass-roots engagement. For many years its greater awareness of the growing climate threat has shown up its “superior” counterparts. A welcome manifestation of this is the “Sustainable Hobart” 2020 to 2025 action plan. Years in the making, the plan was the subject of some spirited council debate last year and more recently over whether it should exist at all.

Alderman Simon Behrakis is not among the council majority that supports it. He believes it is expensive, over-ambitious and bizarre, and that it takes the council far beyond its legal responsibilities. That position would seem almost quaint, in light of current scientific knowledge about climate change, if it wasn’t so widespread in Australian politics.

Very little of substance is happening in this space at higher levels of government. Federally we have no climate or energy policy, while the state government continues to drag its heels over urgently-needed legislation to replace the outdated and ineffectual 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act.

That’s why Hobart and other Tasmanian councils, well served by dedicated climate officers who have won widespread acceptance of the need to act among colleagues and in their communities, are pushing the sustainability agenda in the face of a pandemic and economic upheaval.

The new Hobart plan looks in detail at what a climate-aware city should be like. A sustainable Hobart, it says, will use smart technology to help relieve traffic congestion, determine when public rubbish bins need emptying and when street lights can be dimmed to save power.

The city will experiment with alternative short-trip public transport such as electric tuk-tuks, and electric and driverless vehicles to deliver online shopping parcels. It will investigate how otherwise unused city spaces can be better utilised for all manner of pop-up uses including art displays and homeless shelter. And it will pay above standard rates for residents’ surplus solar electricity.

With help from scientific and other experts and community groups, it aims to improve the city’s biodiversity by developing self-sustaining vertical habitats, building artificial habitats for threatened bird species on the city’s outskirts, creating habitats for threatened insect species, and integrate edible plants, tended by children and parents, into playgrounds.

Having developed a way to determine local community emissions, the city will pursue international certification and lobby the state government to apply the methodology across Tasmanian councils.

It will work with local communities to build stronger preparedness for major fire, flood, storm and drought events, and establish a Sustainable Hobart community forum to share knowledge between the community and the city administration.

Although some of this plan is being realised it remains just a plan, and Simon Behrakis is right to say it is ambitious. But in the face of the climate emergency ambition is what we should expect from every government, at every level.

Over the years the state’s Climate Change Office has been a clearing house for information, a host of good ideas and financial backing for community projects, but its good work has had little impact on the partisan standoff that has so plagued action at the top.

Ideas and initiatives at grassroots level, however impressive, are no substitute for a focus on concerted action around Australian cabinet tables and corporate boardrooms. With prime minister Scott Morrison preferring not to talk about climate policy, it is clear we have a long way to go.

  • At yoursay.hobartcity.com.au residents can download a draft Sustainable Hobart report and enrol for information sessions. The council aims to finalise the plan before the end of this year.
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