ClimateWorks’ final Briefing Room webinar for 2021 asked whether Australia’s infrastructure sector has the momentum it needs to prepare for our net zero emissions future. Host John Thwaites, ClimateWorks’ Chair, led a panel of experts in this discussion, including: Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer for Infrastructure Australia; Henri Blas, Chief Content Officer for the Global Infrastructure Hub; and Margot Delafoulhouze, Cities System Lead for ClimateWorks Australia.

Infrastructure influences around 70 per cent of Australia’s annual emissions and accounts for over 20 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP). As Margot Delafoulhouze summarised, ‘infrastructure is central to how we live. It determines how we move around, how the energy we consume is produced, how our waste is processed. And so the type of infrastructure that surrounds us really shapes our lifestyle and even our consumption patterns.’ It will therefore play a critical role in Australia’s net zero transformation. 

Following the steep economic dip resulting from COVID-19, the sector is now seeing an appetite to invest in big infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy. This represents a critical moment in time: The decisions made today could determine whether we lock in emissions or accelerate decarbonisation across many sectors of the economy. So where do net zero ambitions sit as part of this vision for economic growth?

Panellist Romilly Madew pointed out, with infrastructure spending at a record high, a big risk is investing in assets that will soon be obsolete. While most of the infrastructure we build today will still be standing in 2050, decisions about investing in new infrastructure don’t automatically align with net zero outcomes. Panellist Henri Blas echoed this concern: ‘Spending is one thing. Delivering it the right way is another question.’ Infrastructure investments must be discerning, and look beyond the numbers, to identify what will deliver the truly transformative outcomes we need for a low carbon transition.  

If the infrastructure sector needs added confidence in signs the market is shifting, it need not look far: All Australian states and territories have committed to net zero by 2050 or earlier, and they’ve all written new strategies since COVID-19, covering issues like climate-related impacts, sustainability and resilience. We’re also seeing investors and asset managers increasingly committing to aligning their portfolios to net zero emissions. With the federal government making a net zero by 2050 pledge, it’s now a matter of how quickly and efficiently infrastructure planning and implementation can pivot. 

When asked what is most urgent and important for the infrastructure sector, Margot stated that ‘the single most important shift that we need is a change of mindsets and decision-making processes. We really must move from net zero and emissions being an option or a co-benefit – to it being a prerequisite (for) how we deliver projects in infrastructure and what infrastructure we build. And that means that we need to embed emissions and the net zero goal in every decision we make.’ She concluded by adding ‘we know that net zero is the only destination we should get to this decade.’

This will only happen through working together. Transformation of our infrastructure sector poses many complex challenges involving multiple stakeholders – and no single stakeholder holds 100 per cent of the solution. Together, however, governments and the private sector, along with industry, researchers and innovators can bring the full spectrum of vision, expertise, resources and entrepreneurship we need, to reach our net zero goal. 

Understanding that transformation of Australia’s infrastructure depends on  multi-stakeholder collaboration, ClimateWorks is establishing a platform for collaborative action to work on solutions. If you’re interested in learning more about this, contact our Cities System Lead or Cities Project Officer.