Monday, 7 July 2008

What strategy will result from a warning a decade overdue?

On 3LO today, I heard at last an admission that global warming will be disastrous for Victoria, something that should have been admitted way back in 1999 when it was clear that the winter polar cyclones are moving poleward at a rate of around one degree every two years. If you look though this blog or for my name in The Age, you should be able to see what I think without me saying much more.

In essence, the evidence of lake levels in the Western District demonstrates that unless carbon dioxide levels can be restored to something approaching pre-industrial levels of around 280 parts per million by volume, Victoria faces becoming entirely within the subtropical arid belt and having only irregular ephemeral streamflow or groundwater recharge from summer incursions of the monsoon. At current levels of fuel consumption and present demographic trends we are likely to see carbon dioxide reach 700 parts per million by volume, which would be the highest level since the beginning of the Miocene.

A carbon dioxide level of 700 ppmv is sometimes viewed as benign compared to today because of longer growing seasons in high latitudes. However, this gain would be nullified not only by elimination of the growing season in the Mediterranean-climate belt. Warmer temperatures would cause extensive leaching of soils that reduce crop yields potentially by a very large proportion if one compares 8 tonnes per hectare on very young northern European soils to around 1.5 tonnes per hectare on Australia’s ancient soils. Changes in ocean currents would affect the capacity of fisheries even more drastically.

Whilst I have spent too much time discussing the political problems responsible for Australia’s very poor greenhouse emissions, I certainly do want outline three steps Australia should take to cut greenhouse emissions:

1) Reducing road capacity
New roads are always advocated as solutions for the problem of traffic congestion that has resulted from increased affordability of private cars.

What too few people are ever told is that the supply elasticity of demand (ie. the responsiveness of change in demand to change in supply) of road capacity is so great that in fact increases in road capacity have never been found to reduce peak hour travel times.

Worse still, increases in road capacity, especially the growth of freeways, can be shown to be the decisive factor in the need for subsidisation of public rail and tram transport. Even Murray Lonie admitted that the Tullamarine Freeway took as many as fifty percent of off-peak passengers on the Broadmeadows train line upon opening and probably more afterwards. Other Melbourne freeways have had the same effect. If all these freeway users returned to public transport the fares would easily pay the entire costs of the system with no taxpayers’ subsidy. This would also provide incentives to actually make the system of a reasonable quality via extensions, duplications, and improved service frequencies, all of which would drastically cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

In the long run, in fact, I think reductions in road capacity would do nothing to reduce people’s mobility. With real incentive to invest in public transport, services would at last reach some sort of respectability in their quality and would serve to improve the mobility of rural as well as urban dwellers.

Whereas road building never pays off, large-scale road demolition in the long run will pay off through the public funding improvements to established infrastructure.

2) Rail track improvement
Most transport experts have been in wonderment at how ancient Australia’s track alignment is. Much of it has not been improved since World War I and is a major barrier to more respectable rail speeds that could compete with air services were aviation fuel properly taxed.

Calls to improve alignment have been made ever since the Pacific Highway accident of October 1989, but the government has instead concentrated upon truck safety laws that have been shown not to significantly improve the safety of road transport and have encouraged its further growth at the expense of more efficient rail.

3) Gauge standardisation
The lack on integration of Australia’s rail system has been one factor that promoted the growth of the most powerful road lobby in the world and continues to press for totally unneeded spending on an already oversized road system.

Rail is very well suited to Australia’s flat landscape and long distances, especially as it is a very clean means of transport. A high-speed rail network would be a much more efficient method of moving people around the continent than the present highway network, and the infrastructure exists to develop a very good system for goods.

The problem is that there exist “breaks of gauge” at state borders between New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland that make for a terrible network of multiple-gauge tracks.

Were these standardised, there would be multiple-track lines over extensive links that might allow for dedicated passenger and freight lines working in harmony as the main arteries between population centres.

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