Ferries, electric transport: small steps on a long journey

It has been a long and anxious wait, but last week produced two signs that the Tasmanian government is now on board with the notion that being committed to climate change is more than just saying so. 

The first came on Monday, with the unveiling by premier Jeremy Rockliff and his deputy and transport minister Michael Ferguson of a “River Derwent Ferry Service Master Plan”, outlining how today’s Bellerive to Hobart service could be expanded to take in six additional sites – Regatta Point, Sandy Bay (Wrest Point), Wilkinsons Point (Goodwood), Howrah Point, Lindisfarne and Kingston Beach.

With conventional diesel the proposed power option, at least initially, a ferry service won’t affect transport emissions. The plan notes the high cost of electric or hydrogen ferries and the fact that zero-emission bus technology is more advanced than for ferries. But in that case why are we still without an electric bus fleet?

History is on the ferries’ side. Starting with repurposed whaleboats and finishing with clunky old car transports, water craft were essential to get people over the river until Hobart got a bridge in 1943. And they allowed industries like timber and agriculture to flourish in the Huon and Channel and on Bruny Island when road transport barely existed. 

Sightseeing ferries plied the Derwent for decades, and long before a New Norfolk railway started in 1887, river boats were the valley’s main freight transport. Reflecting these earlier far-flung connections, potential ferry destinations in the new master plan include New Norfolk, Woodbridge, South Arm and Nubeena – albeit at a low priority. It was that which raised the ire of Brighton and Derwent Valley mayors at the weekend.

The government remains open to attack for its neglect of Metro bus services and its wholesale rejection of rail possibilities. It has now opened the door to what may well be the least cost-effective public transport option. But at least it’s talking about public transport, which is welcome. The next question must be, what about Metro?

More noteworthy from a climate perspective was its launch on Friday of a new “e-transport support package”. There are three parts to this grants program, designed to cut transport emissions by offering people money as an incentive to ease the cost of buying vehicles and equipment. 

The first is to support people buying electric cars, for which a $2,000 rebate is being offered for new – or new-to-Tasmania second hand – battery electric vehicles (EVs). 

The second offers a 12 per cent rebate on the purchase cost of electric-powered bikes, scooters, skateboards and other “e-mobility devices”. There are set caps to this, of $250 for e-scooters, $500 for e-bikes and $1000 for cargo e-bikes (bikes designed to carry cargo, luggage or extra passengers).

The third part of the e-transport package is not yet available, but when that happens it will be offering financial support in the form of no-interest loans for installation of home EV chargers.

The subsidies are hardly spectacular, but they’re one more incentive for people to end their use of fossil fuel for their private transport. Given that almost all Tasmanian transport relies on petrol or diesel, and the fact that this sector is the main source of ongoing carbon emissions, I’m not going to argue with that.

Every political action, including a plan for a ferry scheme and support for electric vehicle use, matters, because any one of them can lead to another. But in the bigger scheme of things, they are drops in an ocean of actions and transformations needed to stop the advance of global warming.

The really critical question about any government’s climate response is, when will it take effect? Accelerating climate change is shrinking the time available to make a difference. At the weekend, for the first time in recorded history, Earth’s surface temperature broke through 2C above the pre-industrial baseline, while this year’s average is going to breach the 1.5C “safe” limit.

In this context, the climate response of Tasmanian governments present and past is a resounding failure. Once I would have huffed and puffed about this, but over the years I’ve come to realise that this chronic failure is only partly the responsibility of governments. They fail because their people let them. In the end we all fail.

In fact, Tasmania’s failure belongs to every jurisdiction in every developed country on Earth. It’s now clearer than ever that when humans individually and collectively are settled into a particular way of life, it takes a monumental shock to shift them from it. That, I fear, is what is in store for us. We should brace ourselves.

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