A city at the crossroads

Rising from decades of slumber, Hobart faces some difficult decisions. It’s important we get them right.

Hobrt: a divided city. PHOTO Mercury/Richard Jupe

Hobart’s complex topography. PHOTO Mercury/Richard Jupe

Tasmania’s capital city brings to mind a confused mess of contrasting adjectives – sublime, chaotic, trendy, traditional, inspiring, frustrating, spectacular, forward/backward/inward/outward-looking, disparate, incoherent.

Jason Byrne’s thoughtful Mercury article last Friday raised a lot of the conflicting pressures coming to bear now that Hobart finds itself on the cusp of changes which look like being more dramatic and profound than at any time since the very early years of European settlement.

It’s good to know such thinking is happening at the University of Tasmania, which has a big role to play in resolving the complex problems afflicting Hobart, Launceston and Tasmania’s other urban centres. Its planning graduates have a lot of work to do, if only there are jobs for them here.

Byrne identified a range of desirable and not-so-desirable changes in prospect for the capital: new residents, fresh ideas, new skills and new cultural opportunities contrasting with negatives like traffic congestion, low employment in key sectors and unaffordable housing.

Pain is an inevitable part of rapid urban change, and some of Hobart’s pains are awkward and stubborn, with a history of division and conflict. With good planning we can find ways around conflicts and lessen the pain, but it’s not going to be easy, nor cheap.

As a first step, those who serve us in parliament need to pause and think before barging ahead with support for yet another new idea. Their thinking must be based on a well-considered, well-understood and publicly-accepted vision of where the city is headed and what it should look like.

That vision must be a unified one, where individual issues are not treated separately from others. Everything of consequence in a city affects everything else: how we live, work, travel, shop and socialise; how we singly and collectively use energy and manage waste.

Hobart’s spectacular setting is a huge challenge for planners seeking to build a vibrant, coherent, secure community while retaining essential natural values. In our long, narrow city, wildfire, flood defence and transportation loom as big unresolved planning issues.

I’ve reported before on how Hobart might secure its long boundary with the bush along both western and eastern shores. The solution has to include permanent fire-breaks defining city limits: open land grazed by bush animals and limited plantings of small, fire-resistant trees and shrubs.

Fire is a crisis planning issue; another is flooding, from both rainfall deluges and inundation of low-lying land by king tides and storm surges. Increasingly energetic weather and rising sea level will exacerbate these threats, and planning must account for that accordingly.

All levels of government must be aware of the legal consequences of failing to act on fire, flood and other climate threats, especially where property is involved, but we still allow development in vulnerable areas and tackle communal security in a piecemeal fashion, one issue at a time.

Then there’s the no small matter of getting about. The state government has tossed the prospect of ferry services into the perennial debates over cars, bicycles, buses and light rail. All this highlights Hobart’s uniquely complex topography, impacting on transport at every turn.

Walking, cycling and all forms of public transport have to be on the agenda in making a coherent whole out of the ribbons of settlement lining the Derwent’s eastern and western shores. Cities are about public amenity, and every reputable city has multiple alternatives to the private car.

For all that, residents of Hobart will continue to take advantage of the comfort and convenience of private cars, as geographer Bob Cotgrove has so persistently argued over the years. They won’t be going away any time soon.

Quieter, less polluting electric vehicles may make city traffic more bearable, but there will still be a lot of them. A fully functional city will require either strictly enforcing limits to private car use in the city, or building expensive diversionary routes, or something of both.

All this presents huge challenges for Hobart’s future planners and administrations. But we shouldn’t be leaving it all up to them. Our towns and cities are the responsibility of all those who live in them and use their facilities.

Private homes and vehicles, no matter now technically-advanced, don’t make us independent. We’re social animals; we depend on others and we need our community.

Designing future cities, like tackling climate change – and the two are intimately connected – is a collective thing.

We can’t expect to be able to sit back and wait for others to fix things. We all need to join the debate. And in doing so, we should bear in mind that like all cities, Hobart is first and foremost a place to live and not a showcase for visitors.

The wider public good will have to come increasingly into play. Building adequate, durable defences against flood, fire and tempest demands that we give collective security priority over individual needs and privileges. Managing that shift is likely to be the toughest challenge of all.

Posted in Adaptation, built environment, business, investment, employment, changes to climate, governance, land use, leadership, local economy, local government, planning | Leave a comment

Natural disaster: a tale of two cities

Recovery from disastrous events like floods and earthquakes involves vision and  imagination as well as hard yakka.

Christchurch’s airy new “Cardboard Cathedral”

Christchurch’s new “Cardboard Cathedral”

Hobart and Christchurch have a lot in common. They’re around the same latitude and each is the main centre on a southern island. They also tell us quite a bit about natural disasters.

Natural disasters are by definition beyond human control, but people can and do influence them. What we do after the event can make a huge difference to the ultimate outcome, but we can also play a part in causing or preventing them.

The failure to extinguish fires burning ahead of Hobart’s biggest natural disaster, the 1967 bushfires, increased the likelihood of a conflagration, though maybe not by much. But the fingerprints of human excess are all over the flash floods of 11 days ago. I’ll come back to that.

Christchurch’s biggest disaster was definitely natural. Situated close to the boundary between two major tectonic plates, it was free of major quakes for nearly a century until getting a painful reminder of its vulnerability over four years of tormenting tremors that started in 2010.

More than 14,000 tremors, including some big ones in which 186 people died, made recovery for business and residents difficult or impossible and rendered some suburbs uninhabitable by turning the ground to a black liquid. I can’t imagine a more crippling or dispiriting experience.

Many left and did not return, but those who stayed, helped by a national Natural Disaster Fund, are steadily bringing the city back from the brink.

The tremors ended nearly four years ago. While on a family visit to New Zealand this month, I was struck by the buzz of construction activity around the city centre and a general air of people up and about. Christchurch is well and truly on the move.

A disaster like this, in which most major buildings were damaged and many destroyed, is a rare opportunity for visionary thinking. It offers a strong incentive for authorities and citizens to think big, about innovations they’d like to see, what should be kept and what scrapped.

The great stone cathedral that once dominated the city’s heart now lies in ruins, encircled by weeds and a high fence. A couple of blocks away, a temporary structure designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban offers a vision of a new cathedral, and the contrast with the old couldn’t be more stark.

The “Cardboard Cathedral” features a translucent polycarbonate roof supported by large cardboard tubes, a feature wall of coloured glass, neatly-integrated shipping containers for offices, and comfortable seating for 700. The interior is bright, cheerful and informal.

With much of its built heritage reduced to rubble, the city is choosing a different persona. The new Christchurch aims to be the world’s most people-friendly city, and has employed Jan Gehl, the same Danish urban designer who advised Hobart City a few years ago, to help it get there.

Bicycle paths are everywhere, cars are being restricted in the city centre, pedestrian-only precincts are opening up and the public transit system is one that any city would be proud to own. The city aims to be among the world’s most resilient, climate-friendly cities.

Hobart, too, has such aspirations, and its administration has rightly earned accolades for innovations in transport, waste management and energy use. Which makes last month’s deluge seem like a kick in the guts.

The fact is, had the world acted decisively on scientific advice 20 years ago to make deep cuts to the use of fossil fuels, events like this would tend to be less damaging today. But faced with denial and prevarication among political leaders, that turned out to be beyond us.

In those 20 years we’ve learned a lot about how global warming affects rainfall. A warm atmosphere lifts the rate of evaporation from land and sea while being able to hold more moisture. The 1C of man-made warming to date has increased moisture in the atmosphere by about 7 per cent.

That doesn’t mean fewer droughts – many parts of Australia are likely to get more of those – but it does increase the prospect of rain falling in large dollops. A 2017 US-Swiss study found that in most places rainfall will become as much as 15 per cent more intense for every degree of warming.

Recent observations tend to support this broad, global study. In Australia, extreme rain events are increasing in both frequency and intensity. The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology estimate that this century will see a steady rise in the number of such events for most of Australia.

The US has seen a strong upward trend in extreme rain events. The US Global Change Research Program calculated in 2014 that one-in-five-year precipitation events, measured over two days, have quadrupled since the 1960s.

The impact of these events on cities’ stormwater and sewage infrastructure is huge. Such public facilities are generally designed around averages, but extreme rain events, like earthquakes, are as sporadic and unpredictable as they are devastating.

We can’t stop either of these from happening, but we can mitigate the impact of extreme weather by cutting global carbon emissions everywhere, starting now. As it happens, that fits neatly with making cities more liveable.

Posted in Adaptation, built environment, Bureau of Meteorology, bureaucracy, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, economic activity, extreme events, extreme events, future climate, investment, land use, leadership, local economy, local government, planning, science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We are a nation in denial

Experts, opinion leaders, politicians and the rest of us are in denial about Australia’s grossly inadequate climate response.

Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, from 1958 to April 2018, in parts per million (ppm). IMAGE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, from 1958 to April 2018, in parts per million by volume (ppm). IMAGE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Next time you hear a political leader talk about progress in curbing greenhouse emissions, bear this in mind: right now, the level of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere is rising at a record rate.

Observations on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa show CO2 levels since 2010 rising at an average rate of 2.38 parts per million per year, well above the average annual rise of the previous decade, 2.04 ppm.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the air are now at their highest level since the Pliocene, about three million years ago. Back then the world was about 2.5C warmer than today and sea levels were about 20 metres higher. That tells us a lot about where we’re heading now.

Australia and every other country that signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement claim to be on track to meet their Paris targets. The atmospheric readings tell us another story altogether.

When a person rejects scientific evidence that humans are changing Earth’s climate, we call them a climate denier. Most political and business leaders are keen to let it be known they’re not in that category – they say they believe what science says and support measures to fix the problem.

We keep hearing from governments all over the world that measures are effective and targets are being met when CO2 readings show that this isn’t true, that measures are not working. Saying that all is well when it is not is a form of denial.

Australia can lower its emissions a little through better agricultural and forestry practices, but 80 per cent of our emissions are from burning fossil fuels: oil mainly for transport, gas for generating electricity, heating and industry, and coal for electricity and steel-making.

The only way to make an impact on emissions is to target fossil fuels, and our only scheme to do that was the carbon tax – inadequate because it didn’t tackle transport emissions, but much better than nothing. In 2014 the Coalition replaced it with the Emissions Reduction Fund.

The ERF pays for lowest-cost abatement projects out of existing revenue, without a supporting tax. Far from the economy-wide scheme it replaced, it focuses on land management and farming: avoided deforestation, soil carbon, savannah burning and methane from piggeries.

Working within very narrow limits, the ERF funds low-hanging fruit, involving feel-good actions that could offend no-one, like tree-planting and waste management. It has had no impact on the big emissions sources: coal-fired power, transport and industrial processes.

Environment minister Joel Frydenberg continues to tout the scheme as an outstanding success. After the most recent ERF auction in December he asserted that “the ERF is in stark contrast to Labor’s $15.4 billion carbon tax” which he said produced “little emissions reduction”.

But comparing the ERF with the carbon tax is comparing apples with oranges. The effectiveness of the carbon tax, which dealt directly with fossil-fuel emissions, was clear from generating and market data. Not so the ERF, whose emissions claims are all but unverifiable.

One of the principal objections to the ERF among those who have seriously studied it has been a lack of scrutiny of proposals to ensure they aren’t simply seeking government funding to do things, like leaving trees in the ground, that would have been done anyway.

Back in 2016, in the ERF’s early years, an environmental economist at the Australian National University, Paul Burke, expressed concern at the amount of money awarded to low-effort land projects – sometimes many times the value of the land concerned.

In February, University of Queensland senior economist Ian MacKenzie wrote in The Conversation that the “safeguard mechanism” intended to stop big business increasing its carbon emissions was not working because the government kept increasing emission baselines.

“This underlines the importance of having a climate policy that operates throughout the economy, rather than only in certain parts of it,” wrote MacKenzie. “If heavily polluting businesses can so readily be allowed to undo the work of others, this is a recipe for disaster.”

The Turnbull government’s state of denial about climate change was thrown into stark relief a fortnight ago when it announced a $500 million Great Barrier Reef restoration package which ignored the elephant in the room: a warming Coral Sea that has killed vast areas of coral.

Less obvious but just as dangerous is the shared fantasy in political, bureaucratic and business circles across the developed world, including Australia, that nations’ Paris pledges are somehow going to do the trick, when they are orders of magnitude less than what is needed to contain climate change.

Most leading economic advisers and commentators, while protesting their full support of national and international action to reduce emissions, continue to overlook climate factors when ruminating about future prospects. That crucial omission leaves a gaping hole in all their analyses.

As long as our governments continue pretending that they’ve done what’s necessary to address carbon emissions, and as long as leaders and pundits refuse to acknowledge the climate demon, looking every which way but squarely into its face, ours is a nation in denial.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon cycle, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon record, carbon tax, contrarians, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, land use, leadership | Leave a comment