Carbon tax a spur for urban renewal

by Professor Patrick Troy AO


The Carbon Tax offers a new opportunity to re-organise two most important aspect of our system of cities.

The new compact between Labor , the Greens and the independents offers a new opportunity for the Commonwealth government to re-organise two of the most important aspects of our system of cities.

The two are:

  1. urban water services, and
  2. intercity and intra-city transport systems.

Water services

It is not widely understood that moving water around our cities is extremely energy expensive.

Water authorities are among the highest energy users as they pump water around to supply the precious resource to every dwelling and business.

They also pump prodigious volumes of the water we discharge as ‘waste’ or sewage.

For some time now we have been at the practical limit of nature to provide water for the variety of uses we put it to. We drink only about 1 percent of household water consumption and we need a further 6-7 percent of potable quality water for food preparation, cooking and cleaning of utensils, cutlery and crockery. Say a total of 10percent of the water we use needs to be of potable quality.

We use about a quarter of such high quality water for showering and personal hygiene, slightly less to flush the present kinds of toilets and a further 15percent in the laundry. The remainder goes on a variety of activities ranging from gardening to car washing for none of which is it essential to use potable water.

The highly centralized way we have organized both the collection and delivery of water is extremely energy expensive as is the way we collect and process the sewage flows before discharging it to the oceans.

We continue to ignore the water that falls as rain and is of excellent quality but by seeing it as a storm water ‘problem’ we frequently have to pump it to discharge it, again to the rivers, bays and harbours on which our cities are built.

Rather than explore ways in which we might reshape our demand for potable water we have resorted to the development of ‘manufactured water’ in the form of desalination plants or sewage recycling plants. Both of which are extremely energy intensive and lead to highly expensive water.

An alternative approach would be to re-examine the ways in which we use water to identify how we might best use all the water resources available to us on a ‘fit-for-purpose’ basis. By harvesting rainwater for use in the shower, laundry, toilet flushing and garden we would greatly reduce our demand for potable quality water. This would greatly reduce our energy consumption in pumping water. It would mean we would not need to build more dams with their high levels of embodied energy. Nor would we need such high capacity water mains etc which also have high levels of embodied energy.

We would also greatly reduce our discharges of storm-water which are the greatest sources of pollution of the harbours, rivers and bays on which our cities are built.

By local processing of water we not only produce water ‘fit for purpose’ for local use at a lower energy cost we would not have to pump so much of it.

This issue is of increasing importance to Sydney because so much of its water supply and sewerage system is now obsolete and needs to be replaced.

Developing water services on ‘greenfield’ sites is expensive but redeveloping them on the existing model for existing cities is even more so.

Other cities and major towns face similar problems and also need to re-examine the efficacy of the nineteenth century Chadwickean approach to the provision of water services they adopted.

Unfortunately the major urban water services authorities, and Sydney’s is no exception, have a strong ‘big engineering’ culture now overlaid by a powerful economistic approach which leads them into highly centralized, big-pipe-in-big-pipe-out approaches and solutions that are highly energy expensive and lead to expensive water services.

The carbon tax and consequential increase in energy costs provide the opportunity to develop a new highly decentralized water services supply system.

Adopting a decentralized water cycle management system would not only lead to significant reduction in energy consumption it would:

  1. massively reduce the environmental stresses in the eco-systems from which we extract or harvest water,
  2. mean we could reduce the environmental stresses in the eco-systems on which our cities are built by exploiting the rain that falls on them; and
  3. reduce the stresses imposed on the eco-systems into which we currently discharge our waste water flows.

That is, the carbon tax initiative provides the excuse - if one was needed - to modernize and adapt our urban water services systems to make the cities and towns more sustainable and resilient.

Intercity and intra-city transport systems

It is widely understood that energy consumption is at the heart of our demand for transport services.

The Carbon tax comes just at the right time.

The Intercity and intra-city transport system of the nation are facing massive challenges.

We are facing a peak oil problem which signals the end of cheap transport.

Our cities are over centralized and we have for the last three generations failed to invest sensibly in public transport.

We have too readily relied on seemingly cheap energy to provide the transport connection between the cities and we have simultaneously failed to invest in the rail systems to connect them not only for the movement of people but also of freight. The result is that it becomes increasingly expensive to travel between the cities and the inefficiencies in the freight systems now threatens the efficiencies of our import and exporting industries.

Travel by air will become increasingly expensive.

Travel by road between our major cities and towns will likewise become increasingly expensive.

The nation needs to refurbish our national inter-city rail network. There is a strong case for building a fast train service connecting the major cities on the South east corner of the nation. A fast train not necessarily a high speed train- system connecting Brisbane-Gold Coast-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne would connect the major population centres in a way that could be stage-developed and allow for the ultimately introduction of high speed trains. Developing such a system would also have the benefit of improving the connectivity of other intermediate regional centres in such a corridor

One of the immediate benefits of such a system would be the immediate reduction in high energy consumption air travel.

Some sections of the present rail alignment would need to be re-routed and gradients adjusted to allow trains of reasonable speed to operate safely but all this could be done in a staged manner to gain substantial economies and reliability in service provision.

It would be necessary to simultaneously upgrade the freight train connections between the major ports in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The freight and passenger traffic between the major centres would be accommodated on separate tracks although for much of their length the two could be within existing rail line ‘reservations’.

For maximum efficiency and convenience the fast train services would need to connect with the central areas of the major cities. The fast train network might need to make connection at one or two points with the international air transport system but the important feature of city-centre-to-city-centre service needs to be maintained.

The intra city rail transport systems in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne have suffered several decades of neglect but what is needed now is to revitalize their local rail systems so that they meet the travel demands of their residents but in such a way as it facilitates connection with the inter city services. Major emerging cities like the Gold Coast and Canberra suffer from a lack of a good rail transport spine to connect with the inter-city rail system as it is refurbished and developed.

The strategy should be to:

  1. Develop the rail network spines of the Gold coast and Canberra so that they each provide connection for the development of a fast train system connecting the eastern seaboard cities. These developments could be undertaken quickly.
  2. Begin the development of the fast train system between Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne realigning the track and improving gradients where necessary but on the understanding that this is a preliminary stage to developing a high speed rail passenger service to connect the centres of the major cities and regional centres on the eastern seaboard.
  3. Develop the rail freight system between the three major east coast ports to improve the efficiency of industry and of trade.

The improvements cannot come overnight but a sensible national development plan could achieve much of what is needed over a five year period.

The Carbon tax initiative is important in helping us reshape fundamental aspects of the nation’s economy.

Infrastructure Australia has been charged with the responsibility of reshaping the nation’s infrastructure but has not demonstrated that it understands what that might mean and has produced little to justify the trust placed in it.

The new opportunities opened up by the government’s carbon tax initiative gives Infrastructure Australia the responsibility to show, on the ground, how the larger diagram and aspiration for the nation embodied in the Prime Minister’s statement on the restructuring of our economy can be/must be pursued in both water services and transport.

We do not want to undergo all the pain and travail the carbon tax entails without some tangible evidence that it is all worthwhile.

Professor Patrick Troy AO is Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Adjunct Professor in the Uban Research Program at Griffith University and Visiting Professor in the City Futures Research Centre, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales.