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With the price of oil now reaching more than $120 per barrel, the reality of peak oil and rising costs at the petrol pump are truly straining the budgets of most Australian families.
This worsening issue, the future of the petrol engine and Sydney’s troubled transport infrastructure were the focus of a recent UTSpeaks public lecture presented by three of University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) leading sustainability researchers.
More than 250 people heard presentations that scoped the problems facing transport in Sydney and associated environmental dangers ahead.
According to UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) Senior Research Consultant Dr Michelle Zeibots the rising price of petrol will, not surprisingly, hit families living in the outer lying regions of Sydney hardest, where reliance on car trips is greatest.
"It is inevitable that people living nearer to public transport in outer suburbs will be forced financially to rely on it far more," Dr Zeibots said. "The problem is, however, compared with cities like Tokyo, these same regions are very poorly serviced by public transport, presenting an urgent problem for our governments."
ISF researcher and NSW Manager for the Clean Energy Council Chris Dunstan suggested that plug-in hybrid electric cars could be one solution to Sydney’s love affair with road travel.
He said while biofuels offered some relief from our reliance on fossil fuels, the production of ethanol and bio diesel would demand the cultivation of vast tracts of agricultural land needed for food production and even then would provide only 15%-25% of our forecast fuel needs to 2050.
"Electric vehicles alone are also a problematic option due to the high expense of batteries with the capability to run vehicles," Mr Dunstan said. "Plug-in hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, make it possible to use batteries with backup fuels to spread demand while significantly minimising greenhouse emissions.
"Charging batteries in family plug-in hybrid vehicles would ideally take place during periods of cheaper off-peak supply of electricity. The challenge will be to ensure that charging vehicles during off-peak periods doesn’t compete with electrical heating of water and running home air conditioners. It certainly makes a stronger case for widespread use of solar water heating and more efficient strategic use of our electricity supply."
Senior Lecturer in urban planning with the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, Dr Garry Glazebrook, painted a sobering picture of the environmental consequences of climate change due to the greenhouse effect. He said we were fast approaching a concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that would lead to dramatic and irreversible climate change, acidification of the oceans and dramatic rise in sea level.
"We are addicted to the car despite the fact it is a very costly way of travel financially and environmentally," Dr Glazebrook said. "Much of our real financial costs are obscured to us by staggered fees associated with car ownership – registration costs, depreciation and so on.
"We need to get used to the idea of travelling less and when we do travel, choose options that have far fewer environmental impacts.
"Alternative sources of energy used in association with public transport is one of the most obvious and urgent solutions we should be pursuing. There is no reason why our train system in Sydney should not be run entirely on green energy and our buses be fuelled by electricity.
"Making urban areas car-free and more conducive to public transport and bike use is an urgent path that Sydney’s planners could choose to adopt, as is happening in many other cities throughout the world."
In short, all three presenters agreed that far-reaching change is needed now if the quality of our lives and the lives of future generations is to be preserved and environmental disaster averted.