Thursday, 23 October 2008

FNQ and climate change: Where’s the plan?

Syd Walker took along his crap detector when local MP Steve Wettenhall came for a spin up to Kuranda

Last week I attended a meeting in Kuranda called by local State MP Steve Wettenhall.

Steve has organized a number of similar sessions around the electorate. I decided to go along.

In Kuranda, attendees were small in number, but there was talent in the room: several experienced conservationists, a local expert in alternative energy technology and others with various interests in sustainable living.

Rather laboriously, Steve worked his way through government-prepared documentation. With a straight face, he apologized for the lack of a PowerPoint presentation. He took questions, but the main intent was clear: to show that (Labor) governments, State and Federal, are responding responsibly to the issue of climate change.

Eventually a more free-ranging Q & A broke out. I asked Steve if work had been done to analyze the FNQs greenhouse footprint. What sector makes the biggest contribution to our greenhouse emissions? And how does FNQ compare with Queensland and Australia as a whole?

Steve responded that transport was the biggest factor in FNQ’s emissions.

I leveraged his answer to raise my pet theme: rail.

I’m convinced that a modern rail system – in the Cairns area and on the tablelands – is a necessary investment for this generation. Steve knows this already. CairnsBlog readers may know it too. It’s said I have a fetish about rail.

As expected (based on past performance), Steve was dismissive. He waxed lyrical about the State Government’s sensible bus initiatives. Rail, he said, is not conceivable in places like FNQ, with such a low population base. Far too expensive! Rail is for cities…

I responded that it’s misleading to imply we need to become a city before we merit an urban rail system. FNQ is more comparable to a single rail line. We need rail to connect our main population centers in the Cairns-Tablelands region – not every small rural township.

Steve’s reply was that all this had been considered at the time of the State’s Integrated Transport Strategy several years ago. Rail for mass transit was ruled out then as a serious option. That’s it. End of story.

But is it?

The Integrated Transport Strategy was a follow up to the first regional plan, FNQ 2010. At the time, the Beattie Government’s focus was to justify building a 4-Lane Highway on the Kuranda Range, a pet project of the powerful Department of Main Roads. It had to consider alternatives (that is, to dismiss them as not feasible) as part of the environmental impact assessment process. Naturally, the ITS did not disappoint Highway advocates.

But there is a more fundamental reason why the ITS provides no adequate basis for the current government making rational decisions about transport infrastructure investment in FNQ.

In effect, it was written at a time when no governments in Australia acted as though greenhouse emission targets will require very significant adjustments to our way of life.

Last week, the British Government committed to an 80% reduction by mid century. There are compelling grounds for believing that’s the way the whole of the developed world must head, if we are to stabilize the climate.

Steve Wettenhall has a background in the environment movement and is fundamentally a decent human being, so it pains me to claim that he simply hasn’t ‘got it’ when it comes to climate change. To be fair, he’s not alone. Most of his party – and probably most of the general community at this time – are in a similar frame of mind. The penny hasn’t dropped.

Here’s my challenge to Steve Wettenhall, the planners at FNQ 2025 - and anyone else who imagines that anything resembling business as usual will suffice in the coming years. Show me the broad outlines of a strategy that delivers close to 80% reductions in FNQ greenhouse emissions which does NOT include a modern rail system. I doubt you can. But by all means prove me wrong.

I think with rail (and many other measures, not only in the area of transport) such reductions are conceivable and compatible with a high quality of life. But I’m not in government. You are.

Governments have custody of the public purse and resources to come up with well-researched, comprehensive plans. They can commission experts and put them to work. So, where are the Bligh Government’s plans for major greenhouse reductions in FNQ?

The answer, I suspect, is that such plans don’t exist. The government is still not really serious about grappling with climate change. Our FNQ MPs aren’t serious. They pay lip service, but in their heart of hearts, they can’t be serious.

If they were, they’d deliver a real strategy for change – or at least be angst ridden because it doesn’t yet exist. They’d insist that FNQ 2025 – the soon to be released new regional plan – is consistent with a deep greenhouse emissions target. As it is, they seem to act more like PR agents for business as usual.

It’s the same across a plethora of policy areas, State and National.

If lazy, conformist politicians can get away with business as usual, they will. To break the mould requires leadership and conviction. It takes guts to question entrenched beliefs.

Previous generations, with far fewer resources and less advanced technology, built rail systems. As a New Zealander attending the meeting pointed out, Christchurch is a city/region with rail and a fairly low population. I did some Googling after the meeting. Apparently those railways are a legacy of 1930s recession-busting. Yes, Christchurch’s population is roughly double FNQ’s today; however, its rail system is popular and still expanding.

But then, previous generations were often capable of doing new things. They built a public health system. They created public libraries (can anyone imagine today’s politicians proposing such an outrageous idea – Liberal or Labor?). They did foolish things too – but at least they found the courage to design and implement audacious schemes for the greater public good.

We need less spin and more direction from our current crop of local politicians. I’d have more faith if they had fewer glib pre-prepared answers and showed more interest in questions.

With a modern rail backbone, FNQ could develop in nodes around stations: towns, large villages and key Cairns suburbs. It's a development pattern far more conducive to overall sustainability than car-reliant sprawl. We’d stand a chance of meeting greenhouse targets. We’d be more resilient in the event of global fuel scarcity. What's more, we'd have built the beginnings of a sustainable transport system on the tablelands as some insurance against the quite conceivable circumstance that, within the next century, we are forced to abandon the coastal plains.

But hey – I may be wrong. There could be better ways to invest the resources and skills of this generation so those in the future cope better with pressures we can confidently predict they will face.

Maybe the government has a better plan?

If so, where is it?


Tyson Hayter said...

Have you read the reports done by CAFNEC and the Wilderness society (I think those were the two - but regardless, it was some of the environmental groups) done about the environmental record of the Beattie-Bligh Government?

They'd be good to get your hands on, and find out the truth about QLD Labor.

They got a really bad rap, from organisations that usually love them.

NorthernBeaches Observer said...

Syd, you're a pathetic idiot.

Hey, I'd love a railroad too. I'd love one 'o them flyin' cars, like they had on the Jetsons as well.

You can "want" for all of these things Syd, and criticise everyone for not giving it to you. Proves you can't do the sums, the most important exercise.

Virtually every public transport system in the world must subsidise rail. Massively. In high density cities like Tokyo, the subsidy is over $2 per boarding. As population density decreases, the subsidy skyrockets. A rail system in serving Gordonvale to the Tablelands would require a minimum of $110MM per year of operational subsidy, AFTER you've talked some damn fool into building it.

You cocktail socialists are boring us, Syd. Try applying your brain power to something practical. And have a big bowl of STFU tomorrow morning.

Syd Walker said...

I don't mind when people too anxious to identify themselves proffer critical comments.

When they make spiteful, utterly gratuitous personal attacks while shielding under the cloak of anonymity - well, I can cop that too, up to a point.

But if such ‘observers’ weigh in on serious issues, such as the future of this region's transport, and make bald assertions of 'fact', it would benefit their case if they presented some evidence.

The issue of which transport modes attract subsidy - and which do not - is more complex than the 'NorthernBeaches Observer' would have us believe.

One of the distortions is the way that favoured transport modes (notably road and air transport) have been able to externalize their growing environmental costs.

I believe that must end if we are to solve the problem of climate change. It was not even considered by the so-called FNQ ‘Integrated Transport Strategy’, to my knowledge. But please do correct me if I'm wrong.

Providing a reference would be more persuasive (to me) than simply increasing the level of abuse.