Photo by Kristel Velez on Unsplash

News from the front desk, issue 511: It’s hard not to feel a warm glow after waking up to newly sworn-in US president Joe Biden honouring his promise to re-join the Paris Agreement.

It’s a promising start to the year, seeing the biggest economy in the world taking the climate emergency seriously.

We just need to keep that momentum going.

In Australia, we’re told the federal government’s ambition on climate action is also heating up.

Yes, you heard right. Despite PM Scott Morrison giving Australian coal mining a big thumbs up for the next few decades during a Queensland mine visit yesterday, at the same time we’re told the government has somehow developed a taste for zero emissions technologies.

Chief executive officer of Beyond Zero Emissions, Heidi Lee, says two of the initiatives in the climate change think tank’s The Million Jobs plan have “caught the attention of the federal government”.

The winners in the organisation’s plan to create over a million jobs in low carbon industries are the low carbon housing retrofit program and the renewable energy industrial precincts.

A focus on deep retrofits? This sounds almost too good to be true, with the plan recommending energy efficiency retrofits to 2.5 million Australian dwellings.

Lee says the retrofits program will be a slow burn, however, with immediate attention focused on the industrial precincts that will cluster heavy industry in selected spots where they can access renewable energy, not gas, in an economical way.

Interest from investors and manufacturers has been overwhelming, Lee says, with the organisation struggling to stay ahead of the government’s ambition on this front.

This enthusiasm is a departure from the norm that Lee thinks is motivated more by carrot than stick.

She says Australia’s highest level decision makers are feeling the pull of global markets interested in our low-emissions offerings instead of our fossil fuels.

There’s already precedence for Australian leadership in low-emissions technologies. For example, solar technology invented by University of NSW researcher Scientia Professor Martin Green, the Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC), now makes up 50 per cent of solar production worldwide.

And now back to reality

Before we get too giddy with excitement, let’s not forget about the other major crisis still underway.

Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, and its more lasting effects are starting to become apparent. 

The flight to the regions is happening and with it some grumblings of discontent. The concern is that big city folk are bringing with them more than just their coffee snobbery – they are bringing their urban planning mistakes too.

Dr Iain Butterworth, an honorary associate professor at RMIT, is worried that without good planning, rapid growth in these cities might lead to urban sprawl, car dependence and a loss of local character.

“We should be making more use of these marvellous towns that are on railway lines to and from Melbourne. I mean, it’s brilliant. The risk is that we just end up filling in all the land between the train stations with housing and then you just end up with more urban sprawl,” Dr Butterworth told The Age.

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, QUT’s Dr Mirko Guaralda also expressed his concerns about the accelerated migration to the regions.

He and some of his colleagues are hoping to study the topic, including looking at alternative human settlement models.

Interconnected villages in parts of Europe spring to mind, but as Guaralda explains, it’s less about picking winners and more about opening the door to alternatives to Australia’s default city structure of a dense urban centre surrounded by low-density sprawl.

Speaking of dense urban centres, the fate of CBDs in our major cities remains uncertain. Some degree of workforce decentralisation within cities looks set to stay, and with it the benefits of shorter commutes , reduced congestion and more meaningful connections in local neighbourhoods.

Professor Jago Dodson, director of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University, says infrastructure will likely need to adapt to meet these evolving workforce habits.

He wonders if it’s wise to keep pushing for retail and cafes in the CBDs to stay open if these trends continue. But at the same time, he expects some bounce back as rental prices in CBDs drop, attracting a fresh crop of tenants.

Departing CEO of the Australian Energy Foundation (AEF), Alison Rowe, is keen to maintain the good habits that emerged during the pandemic.

Rowe, who is leaving AEF after more than four years to join the Nature Conservancy Australia as managing director, hopes the improved flexibility and inclusivity in working life remains.

The work-from-home trend also brought with it an unexpected ancillary benefit: the acceleration of rooftop solar.

“So many solar panels went on roofs last year, with people at home and thinking about how to best run their homes,” Rowe told The Fifth Estate.

Positive snippets like this are the life-blood of The Fifth Estate. These are the stories that bring hope for the future, hope for the planet. This is the encouragement we need to create better buildings and better cities.

So please keep them coming for yet another year: editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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