Cityscape of Melbourne at sunset, Australia

Is net zero carbon infrastructure on the horizon?

After the events in Canberra in late August, one could be forgiven for concluding that Australia is destined to remain in a state of perpetual carbon policy paralysis, punctuated only by occasional attempts to pass increasingly tortuous legislation (and by the biennial departures of crestfallen Prime Ministers). Having drawn such a conclusion, the divergence between Australia’s emission trajectory and that which is needed to meet our 2030 targets under the Paris Agreement would seem all the more alarming.

However, all is not lost. Developments at other levels of government are converging upon a concept that could substantially reduce Australia’s long-term emission reduction challenge – net zero carbon infrastructure.

In lieu of meaningful action at a federal level, states and territories (TasmaniaVictoriaNSWACT and Queensland) have each developed net zero carbon targets. These targets align with Australia’s 2030 target and look to establish a downward emissions trajectory to reach net zero carbon by 2050.

Having set these targets, states and territories are beginning to recognise that appropriate infrastructure planning and design decisions will be crucial in meeting them. For example, a net zero carbon strategy has been developed for Victoria’s Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area (the largest urban renewal area in Australia), and Infrastructure Victoria is actively investigating net zero emissions vehicle infrastructure.

In parallel, the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy released the National Carbon Offset Standard for Precincts in 2017, thereby providing a mechanism by which carbon neutrality can be brought into the planning of precinct-scale developments.

These developments have been mirrored by the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), which has continued to develop and roll-out its Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating system. The breadth and detail of the IS Rating System has seen it be incorporated into tender requirements for multi-billion dollar state-funded infrastructure projects (e.g. the $11b Melbourne Metro tunnel). With the July 2018 release of Version 2.0 of the IS rating system, ISCA has now created a credit to reward the carbon neutrality of infrastructure projects.

Finally, in July 2018, Infrastructure Australia released its Infrastructure Decision-making Principles. Principle number 1 requires that infrastructure planning take into account: “changes in technology, market and regulatory developments that are likely to impact infrastructure services over the coming decades.” Arguably (and perhaps optimistically), this could necessitate consideration of the state and territory net zero targets in infrastructure decision making.

Given the convergence of these developments, it is likely only a matter of time before state and territory (and potentially federal) governments further align infrastructure planning and tender requirements and with their net zero carbon aspirations. Should this occur, tens of billions of dollars of cumulative infrastructure funding annually will begin to place downwards pressure on Australia’s emissions trajectory.