How cities can deliver a low-emission future

16 March 2018

Cities are where the fight for sustainable energy will be won or lost, argues Simon Corbell. And when it comes to answers, size doesn't matter.

The world's cities occupy just 3% of the Earth's land, but account for up to 80% of energy use and three-quarters of carbon emissions. And rapid urbanisation is putting pressure on everything from the natural environment to transport infrastructure.

But, the high density of cities can boost efficiency and innovation while cutting resource and energy consumption. And to do so, they don't need to be large, says Simon Corbell. Just look at what Canberra has achieved.

"The Australian Capital Territory is not a big jurisdiction – it has just over 400,000 residents", says Corbell, who until recently served as ACT's Environment and Climate Change Minister.

"But when it came to renewable energy and climate change policy we were able to punch above our weight. In doing that, we had influence on the way national and state policy was formed. And we helped underpin growth and development in a sector which is now booming in Australia but wasn't a couple of years ago."

The Territory's switch to renewables began in 2010, following legislation that called for a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 and net zero emissions by 2050.

"Renewable energy was the simplest, most direct way to rapidly decarbonise and meet that first milestone figure," says Corbell.

ACT's initiatives centred on 7 large-scale wind farms across southeast Australia totalling 192 turbines, and three solar projects – including what was the country's largest solar farm, and the first to be connected to the national electricity market.

What enabled that switch, he says, was the adoption of the country's first reverse auction scheme – a tender process that considered social and environmental outcomes, and community engagement as well as the dollar value of individual bids. Successful developers were awarded government contracts that guaranteed the price of generated electricity for 20 years.

At the time of the first revere auction, the Australian Bureau of Resource Economics anticipated that the cost per megawatt hour (MW/h) would be about $220. The actual cost, says Corbell, came in at $185 per MW/h, and newly commissioned wind energy sites are now achieving A$73 per MW/h.

"There is nothing like price discovery in the market to demonstrate whether or not your policy works," says Corbell.

The result of the auctions, he says, was more than A$500 million of direct investment into Canberra by successful auction bidders.

"What this taught us is that as a city, as a community, you can build in other criteria for investment beyond straight value for money. If it is a knowledge-based economy, like Canberra's, it is about investing in universities, research, skills training, technology transfer."

In Victoria, and Queensland, where the model has been copied, the focus is on supply chain augmentation, manufacturing, and specialist equipment.

The transition cannot be about replacing one group of incumbents with another, says Corbell. The large scale investments that are occurring in clean energy generation  – estimated at more than $8 trillion globally between now and 2040  – must be captured for the benefit of local communities.

"I don't know about New Zealand, but in Australia, the tribalism of politics at a national level, and the incapacity to sustain bipartisan policy on climate, on energy, on biodiversity management and a whole range of other issues, means it often falls to cities and regional governments to deliver that enduring outcome. And more and more cities are doing just that."

Simon Corbell presented a seminar on ‘Transitioning to a low-emission future' at an event co-hosted by the Business School's Energy Centre and the  University of Auckland's Public Policy Institute in February, 2018.

Simon Corbell

Simon Corbell is the Renewable Energy Advocate for the Government of Victoria, Australia, and the former Environment Minister for the Australian Capital Territory.



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