Michael Li and his team signed off on the Reshaping Infrastructure for a net zero emissions future issues paper in March 2020, just as Covid-19 hit Australia.

Now, with Melbourne still locked down and state borders closed elsewhere, he thinks the issues paper – co-authored by ClimateWorks Australia, the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council – has become even more relevant than before.

‘In the past six months,’ he says, ‘there’s been a focus on stimulating the economy through both public and private investment in infrastructure. That means there’s a greater urgency to avoid locking the economy into a high emissions future and to seize the opportunities to support future reductions.’

It’s a point central to this work: that, because infrastructural assets last such a long time, they will necessarily shape the economy for years to come. ‘When you add it all up, the infrastructure that underpins our transport systems, our energy systems, our waste, water and telecommunications influences around 70 per cent of Australia’s emissions. That’s because you get emissions from the equipment and materials used to build these assets but, more importantly, the way we plan, design and operate infrastructure determines the way that we will use it in the future.’

Take the construction of a road. The choices made, first, to build a road and then to determine where it goes, the number of lanes it contains and any tolls paid by drivers will influence how we as individuals travel for decades. Will we catch public transport or will we drive? If the latter, what kind of car will we use? A hypothetical road supporting battery-charging stations makes electric vehicles far more viable than one that doesn’t.  

‘Net zero emissions by 2050 might seem like a target that’s a long time away – but the decisions made today will shape how easy or how hard that aspiration becomes.’

Michael says that when he began researching Australia’s infrastructure the sheer complexity of the sector astounded him.

‘If you look at transport, energy, waste and water, you’re cutting across different parts of the economy. There’s a range of opportunities and challenges presented in each of those different sectors and so many different stakeholders affected, which means that there’s no single agency or authority that can influence the outcomes of infrastructure projects across their entire life cycle. It requires a concerted effort across a whole range of different stakeholders, across a whole range of different sectors and regions, from initial planning through to operation and use. I was surprised by the sheer number of issues and opportunities.’

That scale and scope means the infrastructure sector could be transformative in supporting Australia’s transition to net zero emissions.

The overwhelmingly positive response from government agencies, investors and the construction industry to the report reflected the novelty of its focus – the emphasis on emissions reduction opportunities beyond infrastructure project delivery.

‘There’s a recognition that there needs to be a conversation about that,’ Michael says. ‘The overwhelming reaction we got related to the question of next steps. What do we actually need to do so as to help decision makers align their work in infrastructure with future net zero emissions outcomes?’

Different projects, sectors, stakeholders, and classes of assets face unique challenges in reducing their emissions. There are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions: strategies appropriate to the context of each project, need to be identified and developed.

In general, though, emissions reduction needs to be prioritised in all stages of infrastructure planning, business case development, delivery and operation. The pandemic makes that conversation, if anything, more urgent. ‘There’s a section in the report that looks at infrastructure in relation to the concept of transition risk – the risk that assets will diminish in value as the world decarbonises because, for example, they support emissions-intensive activities or they’re unable to adapt to zero emissions technologies and opportunities. That’s more pertinent now than ever because of momentum for infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus. We need to ensure that investments not only provide short term stimulus outcomes, but are also compatible with supporting longer term outcomes for the public good, including emissions reductions in alignment with the net zero target.’

As he readies himself for paternity leave, Michael cites his work on infrastructure as a basis for his own optimism about the climate future. ‘It’s made me more hopeful,’ he says, ‘mainly because of the momentum that we’re seeing in the private sector and in policy, a recognition that climate change presents a risk to society and to the economy, and an increased desire from the public and the private sector to respond. The challenge for all of us is to take that next step, pushing the boundaries and embracing action that truly aligns with net zero emissions.’