Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security


Gas infrastructure and exploration attracted the lion’s share of new energy announcements in the 2017 Federal Budget. 

Hugh Saddler
, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute
The budget contains several measures designed to boost energy security, including: The Conversation
  • A$90 million to expand gas supplies, partly through increased unconventional gas exploration
  • a potential Commonwealth buyout of an expanded Snowy Hydro scheme
  • up to A$110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta
  • monitoring of gas and electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Below, our experts react to the measures.

Gas price problem far from solved


Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne


The budget contains a broad range of funding in energy-related areas, with a significant focus on gas resources, making A$78 million available for onshore unconventional gas exploration and reform in the gas markets, and A$7 million for studies into new gas pipelines to South Australia, from both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Interestingly, there is A$110 million in equity available (but not guaranteed) for a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. And most notably, the government has proposed purchasing the Snowy Hydro Scheme from the New South Wales and Victorian governments, ensuring that the scheme stays in public hands.

The budget also includes A$13 million for CSIRO to improve energy forecasting tools, and A$8 million for the ACCC to investigate consumer energy pricing issues.

Overall, the budget highlights the government’s desire to do something about gas prices, but offers little to make a significant difference to a very difficult problem. Gas market reform and new pipelines are unlikely to reduce the exposure of the domestic market to price rises driven by international exports.

Importantly, there is little new funding in the budget directly relating to reducing carbon emissions and meeting the pledges made in the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% emission reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030). Also noteworthy is the removal of funding for research into carbon capture and storage.

‘On energy this budget is small fry’


Tony Wood, Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute



The budget does little more on energy than endorse the government’s deal with Senator Nick Xenophon on corporate tax cuts, complemented by modest commitments to energy security, more gas and better regulation.

Government facilitation of gas development and beefing up the energy capability of the Australian Energy Regulator and the ACCC are simple logic, and the one- off payment to pensioners to help with electricity bills will be welcomed by them.

Major public funding for further feasibility studies is a little more questionable. If the gas crisis can’t galvanise support from pipeline companies and gas consumers for pipelines, why would governments reach a different conclusion?

And finally, one can only speculate as to why the federal government is contemplating buying out the NSW and Victorian governments’ share of Snowy Hydro. Presumably it is because the feds are concerned about securing support for the proposed expansion.

In summary, on energy this budget is small fry ahead of major policy decisions that rest on the forthcoming Finkel Review of the National Electricity Market next month, and the climate change policy review later in the year.

A step towards radical energy reform?


Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University



Few announcements in the budget speech are more emblematic of complete policy reversal than the announcement that the Commonwealth would buy the shareholdings in Snowy Hydro Limited of the governments of NSW (58%) and Victoria (29%), to add to the 13% currently owned by the Commonwealth. This comes almost exactly 11 years after Prime Minister John Howard, responding to vociferous public opposition, pulled the plug on plans by all three governments for a public float of their entire shareholdings. What is more, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced that, once owned by the Commonwealth, Snowy Hydro would remain in public ownership.

This announcement of course accompanies the government’s Snowy 2.0 proposal, for a fivefold increase in the Snowy scheme’s current 500 megawatt pumped storage capacity (at Talbingo). This was used, after commissioning in 1974, to allow inflexible coal fired power stations to operate with constant output levels day and night, but is now almost never used. This presumably reflects commercial decisions by Snowy Hydro, as it trades in the National Electricity Market.

The rationale for Snowy Hydro 2.0 is to facilitate operation of a grid with a high share of renewable generation, by smoothing out variations in wind and solar supply. Does this announcement mean that the government envisages moving away from a strictly commercial approach to using the assets of the Snowy scheme? Is this a first step towards radical restructuring, or even dismantling, of the National Electricity Market?

Stronger legislation needed


Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University



The detailed A$265 million energy package includes a number of useful measures to strengthen the weak regulatory culture of the energy sector that has allowed our energy crisis to evolve. But it is still limited: strong legislative reform and active support of emerging competitors will also be needed. It is a modest investment compared with recent multibillion-dollar energy cost increases. If it is successful, it will deliver vary large net benefits to the economy by limiting energy price increases. Unfortunately, past efforts to fix the energy situation have largely failed to deliver real outcomes: we need clear objectives for outcomes, and a mechanism to implement contingency strategies if they are not achieved.

In a context of increasing urgency for stronger action on climate, and the reality that the global “burnable carbon” budget is very limited, investment to encourage more gas development seems misplaced. More emphasis on energy efficiency, renewables and smart energy systems would make much more sense. Energy efficiency already saves billions on energy costs and could save much more, while renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to achieve our climate targets. And fossil fuels are responsible for almost three-quarters of Australian emissions, so we need strong action to meet our international obligations.

The extension of the A$20,000 tax write-off for small business spending on equipment is a measure that, at least for small businesses, offsets a significant barrier to investment in energy efficiency. Firms will also be able to continue to claim the write-off to improve the economics of investments in on-site renewable energy and storage. Of course, the problem still remains for spending over A$20,000 by small businesses, and for larger businesses.

The energy security plan, which includes funding for ACCC to police energy industry behaviour is only a small step towards fixing the disastrous failures of energy policy and a transition to a 21st century energy policy framework. Much more will need to be done.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Higher-density cities need greening to stay healthy and liveable


Adelaide. Getty image.

Melanie Davern, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, University of Melbourne

Access to high-quality public open space is a key ingredient of healthy, liveable cities. This has long been recognised in government planning policy, based on a large body of academic research showing that accessible green spaces lead to better health outcomes. The Conversation

However, cities are home to more than just people. We also need to accommodate the critters and plants who live in them. This includes the species who called our cities home before we did.

Greening cities that are becoming denser is a major challenge. Green spaces and density are both good for health outcomes when designed well. However, higher-density development can place added pressure on green space if not well planned and managed.

The South Australian government is leading the way in the design of public green spaces in denser cities by bringing together the multiple actors needed to create change. This includes the Heart Foundation, Departments of Health and Ageing, Environment Water and Natural Resources, Office for Recreation and Sport, the South Australian Local Government Association and the Office of the Chief Architect, as well as researchers from RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
This is the new shift required for urban greening practice – led by practitioners with support from research evidence provided by (and in collaboration with) academics.

In Victoria, Planning Minister Richard Wynne has called for the suburban backyard to be maintained in the refreshed Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. This policy recognises the importance of private green space by establishing minimum garden areas in new developments.

Another major challenge is increasing urban heat and climate change. Some tree species we know and love will no longer be viable in cities that are several degrees warmer than they were.
Suitable species for future climates need to be selected, as the City of Melbourne has recently demonstrated. Increasing temperatures and the resulting loss of old trees will have adverse consequences for public health, ecology and biodiversity.

Understanding how best to achieve these benefits, and the trade-offs involved in delivering them, is particularly important today. Our cities are growing rapidly. We are seeing increasing populations, greater housing density, rising temperatures, growing rates of obesity, diabetes, stress and depression, and declining native biodiversity.

Why is greening on the agenda?


Urban greening is now recognised as a public health issue. New research has found its benefits include:
Ecological research also shows that urban green spaces can support many kinds of birds, bats, bees and plants. Urban greening has even been found to lead to safer neighbourhoods.
Australian urban planning and policy need to embrace these findings. Multiple government portfolios must work together to better plan for green cities that achieve maximum impact for economic, environmental and public health outcomes.

What do we mean by green space?


Green spaces are areas of public and private land covered with vegetation. This includes most areas we traditionally see as public open space: parks, gardens and sports ovals.

Green space also includes other areas of public land: street trees and streetscapes, nature conservation reserves, community gardens, school grounds and public buildings with green walls, facades and roofs. On private land, green spaces include residential gardens, golf courses and greening on and around private buildings.

All these green spaces together provide multiple benefits. The Heart Foundation and South Australian government recently commissioned an evidence review of how quality green space is supporting health, wellbeing and biodiversity. This report shows that green spaces can be designed to provide multiple benefits.

These benefits are delivered by including features that are known to influence physical activity, mental health, social, cultural, environmental and biodiversity outcomes. For example, planting trees in parks, gardens or streets can have many benefits:


Greening solutions aren’t simple


The benefits green spaces provide are also influenced by local context: climate, inequity and social disadvantage, culture, or resident/user age and gender.

However, if green spaces are well designed with community input, these local factors can provide opportunities to maximise impact. For example, green space can be more beneficial when provided in areas of social disadvantage with limited existing green space, and trees provide more cooling benefits in hotter cities.

There are no magic bullets. If green spaces aren’t well designed, for example, trees can:

  • reduce the area available for some active sports;
  • shade rooftop solar panels;
  • reduce flower, fruit and vegetable production;
  • create mess through fallen leaves; and
  • create unsuitable habitat for other kinds of plants and animals.

These complex interactions highlight the need for academics and practitioners to work collaboratively across disciplines and sectors. These should include urban planning, public health, urban ecology, urban forestry, engineering, community development and economics. Knowledge needs to be shared and translated into action.

Our green cities of the future need to be designed to benefit human (and non-human) residents equitably. We need to move beyond a reliance on backyards and parks that were designed according to 19th-century principles (and using 19th-century species).

Cities need green spaces that are well designed, creatively delivered, accessible to all, and managed and maintained with appropriate resources to ensure long-term quality and availability.

Further reading: How urban bushland improves our health and why planners need to listen
Melanie Davern, Senior Research Fellow, Healthy Liveable Cities Group, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, Research Assistant, School of Ecosystem & Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, Research Fellow, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences and the Clean Air and Urban Landscape hub of the National Environmental Science Program, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, Research Fellow, Community Indicators Victoria, McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, University of Melbourne
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 28 April 2017

We must plan the driverless city to avoid being hostage to the technology revolution



John Stone, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Curtin University

Trials of autonomous cars and buses have begun on the streets of Australian cities. Communications companies are moving to deploy the lasers, cameras and centimetre-perfect GPS that will enable a vehicle to navigate the streets of your town or city without a driver. The Conversation

Most research and commentary is telling us how the new machines will work, but not how they might shape our cities. The talk is of the benefits of new shared transport economies, but these new technologies will shape our built environment in ways that are not yet fully understood. There’s every chance that, if mismanaged, driverless technologies will entrench the ills of car dependency.

As with Uber and the taxi industry, public sector planners and regulators will be forced to respond to the anger of those displaced by the new products the IT and automobile industries will bring to the market. But can we afford to wait?

Three competing interests


Three distinct groups are giving form to the idea of driverless vehicles. Each has its own corporate proponents and target markets, and its own, often competing, demands on citizens, regulators and planners. Each will make its own demands on our streets and public spaces.

First, the traditional car makers are adding “driverless” features to their existing products. They have no compelling interest in changing the current individual ownership model. Their target consumer is someone who values private vehicle ownership and enjoys driving.

These carmakers’ challenge is to win over drivers sceptical about “their” car doing things they can’t control, whether that is behaving differently in traffic or performing unescorted journeys. But, if successful, these new cars will make driving easier and so encourage more travel and ever-expanding suburbs.

Second, cashed-up IT disruptors like Google and Uber see new types of vehicles and new patterns of ownership as the basis for new transport economies. They want lightweight, utilitarian “robo-taxis” owned by a corporation and rented by the trip. Travellers will use phone apps or their next-generation successors to do this. This, in the jargon, is “mobility as a service”.

These companies’ ambition is to carve out a large niche in competition with private cars, taxis, conventional public transport and even non-motorised transport. Fleets of shared vehicles in constant circulation can reduce the number of individually owned cars and, in particular, the need for parking.
In some circumstances, this may support more compact urban forms. But while sustainability or social objectives might be part of the pitch, the profit motive remains dominant.

Third, public transport operators can see opportunities and challenges in driverless technologies. Already, Vancouver reaps the benefits of lower operating costs for its driverless elevated-rail system.



In Vancouver, the train pulls into a station with no driver on board.

Savvy operators understand that new vehicle technology is only valuable if it is integrated with traditional public transport services and with cycling and walking. This means central coordination.

Vitally, it also requires control of the information platforms needed to provide multimodal mobility.
Such levels of planning and regulation conflict with Google’s “disruptive” free-market ambitions.

European operators, who are in a more powerful position in economic and social life than their Australian counterparts, are already mobilising for this contest.

Whatever the technology, transport needs space


Many claims for the benefits of driverless technologies rely on the complete transformation of the existing vehicle fleet. But the transition will not be smooth or uniform. Autonomous vehicles will face a significant period of mixed operation with traditional vehicles.

Freeways are likely to be the first roads on which the new vehicles will be able to operate. Promoters of these vehicles might join forces with the conventional car lobby to demand extra lanes. This would dash the hopes of many that driverless cars will lead to reduced space for mass movement of cars.

After the freeways, the next objective will be to bring driverless cars, trucks and buses onto city streets. This will require complex systems of sensors and cameras.

The ambition is to allow all users to share road space much more safely than they do today. But, if a driverless vehicle will never hit a jaywalker, what will stop every pedestrian and cyclist from simply using the street as they please? Some analysts are predicting that the new vehicles will be slower than conventional driving, partly because the current balance of fear will be upset.

Already active travellers are struggling to assert their right to the streets of Australian cities. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a dominant autonomous-vehicle fleet operator demanded widespread fencing of roadways to keep bikes and pedestrians out of the way.

The presence of driverless cars cannot alter the fact that space for urban transport is severely constrained. For travel within and between compact urban centres, we will need more and better high-capacity mass transit as well as first-class conditions for walking and cycling.

The integration of conventional public transport networks with shared autonomous vehicles, large and small, offers many opportunities for a much improved service. But that will happen only if this objective is the major focus of investment, innovation, planning and regulation.

Researchers and policymakers need to move rapidly to gain a holistic and systematic understanding of the multiplicity of driverless-vehicle scenarios and the potential harm that some might contain. The technologies are not an unalloyed good, and governments will need to do more than just be “open for business”.

John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

How do we restore the public's faith in transport planning?






This is the third article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges. The Conversation



Opposition to proposed road projects has become a feature of state and federal elections.

In Western Australia, protests against the Roe Highway Stage 8 escalated just before Christmas 2016. On the eve of the state election, Main Roads WA contractors (acting at the behest of the then Liberal-National government) pushed forward with the destruction of the environmentally significant Beeliar wetlands.

This happened despite considerable community opposition. The Labor opposition, now the newly elected government, declared it would halt the construction if elected.

Politics as usual puts planning under a cloud


In our recently published paper, we compared road projects in Melbourne (East West Link), Sydney (WestConnex) and Perth (Perth Freight Link). Based on observational, policy and media analysis, we found growing antagonism between the state governments and their residents.

Roe 8 is just the latest freeway battle in Australia, following those in Sydney and Melbourne, where the Labor government cancelled the East West Link.

To the casual observer, these protests, and promises by parties in opposition to scrap contracts if elected, could be seen simply as “politics as usual”.

However, normalising politics in transport can veil the deficiencies and shortcuts that undermine planners’ ability to act in the public interest. For this reason, it is critical that we examine what dynamics are at play, and how planning serves and/or exacerbates these.

Professional planning bypassed


In the case of Roe 8, good planning was circumvented.

Not only is this undermining efforts to reduce car dependency and invest in public transport – goals adopted in these three cities’ metropolitan strategic plans since at least the 1990s – it is undermining professional planning practice.

The evasion of due process in planning has recently come into sharp focus. Reports by the Australian Auditor-General on the WestConnex project in Sydney and by the Victorian Auditor-General on the East West Link in Melbourne are severely critical of processes taken. The report on the East West Link concluded that the Victorian government lacked “a sound basis for the government’s decision to commit to the investment”.

In the case of Roe 8, Main Roads WA documents provided to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development were recently released under FOI after a two-year court battle to keep them secret. These show a rushed and partial assessment of the transport case for the road was put to Infrastructure Australia.

The latter, in its own assessment, alerts us to concerns about inadequate analysis:

A rapid BCR (benefit cost ratio) was completed for the preferred option only … [and] a rapid BCR was not completed for additional options to determine if the preferred option provided the greatest net benefits.

Traffic planning is only one part of the process. A Freight Network Review commenced in 2001 and concluded in 2003 found that Roe 8 was not needed. There is no publicly available report stating why this sound planning was set aside.

In addition, proper planning process has been bypassed. The previous WA government argued that the Roe Highway had been reserved in the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS) since the 1960s and that this was good long-term planning. However, the detailed road alignment falls outside this reserve at three locations.

This triggered the use by the WA Planning Commission of a “Planning Control Area” (PCA), the purpose of which is to protect land until “proper planning” can take place. After this, an MRS amendment must be initiated and advertised for public comment.

Construction began before any public consultation on the MRS amendment. Was this to avoid public scrutiny?

Public consultation is an important part of any good planning process. It was undertaken for other 1960s major road reserves. These were reviewed against current knowledge and policy, and in some cases deleted (the Stirling Highway, for example).

Public input into the planning process provides an opportunity for governments to bring the community with them through both owning the planning problem and arriving at a solution that the public can support.

Risks of politicisation are high


Large transport projects are likely to attract opposition from affected communities. Construction is disruptive and the visual, noise and amenity changes are significant.

These projects are also transformational. They lead to profound city-wide, and even region-wide, changes to the environment and the working of a city.

For these reasons, planning for transport projects must be a process of careful consideration. It requires sound professional planning based on reasoned justification drawing on the best available evidence. This process must be transparent to all.

When politicians choose a different course to planning advice, this must be on their own account and again transparent. We need a strong discussion on professional ethics and the need for clear separation of planners’ independent advice from elected politicians’ decisions.

In the case of Roe 8, are we to assume that the analysis and conduct of the planning process we see revealed reflects what planners at Main Roads WA and the Western Australian Planning Commission believe is sound professional practice? Or are they simply building a case for politicians?

Without clear and transparent documentation, planners leave themselves open to criticism and bring the profession into disrepute.

Room for improvement


Based on our research, we assert the need to recognise that the gap between strategic planning and project planning needs to be filled by a more community-oriented decision-making process.

We must challenge “urgency” – when governments aim to sign contracts before we have had sound planning analysis and community input.

Long-term planning does not mean that a project like Roe 8, which was first mooted more than 50 years ago, must be built today. We need to take into account new knowledge and current views on our future. We must place equality and environmental and economic sustainability in balance, as weighed by community values.

The political process is one place where those values must be considered holistically. This is immensely important, but it should not undermine transparent and sound planning.



This article draws on a research paper by the authors in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.

Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Homophobia is harmful to workers and businesses




Raymond Trau, RMIT University

Homophobia is costly to workers and the businesses that employ them, research shows. Unfortunately, it’s still prevalent in Australia and the latest lobbying from 34 business leaders for marriage equality emphasises the need for it to be addressed both within and outside the workplace. The Conversation
It’s little wonder some of Australia’s leading companies called on the government to get on with the job of legislating for marriage equality. Businesses increasingly recognise that homophobia and transphobia limit their organisation’s ability to attract and retain a high calibre workforce and is hurting their bottom-line.

As CEO of Deloitte, Cindy Hook, stated
I believe in fairness and inclusion for all and my overriding aim is for every one of our people at Deloitte to reach their full potential, which includes choosing who they marry.
Smart employers know that diverse and inclusive workplaces are more profitable, innovative and have employees who are more engaged, and have a higher level of staff retention.

Homophobia is prevalent and costly


Research tells us that close to one in two LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) Australians hide their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the workplace for fear being “out” could damage their careers.

And despite Australia having some of the most inclusive anti-discrimination protections in the world for LGBTI people, most LGBTI employees in Australia have witnessed or heard of homophobic incidents at work.

Those experiencing homophobia and transphobia are likely to have decreased well-being and negative work attitudes, suggesting that homophobia and transphobia (including not recognising LGBTI relationships) can hurt the quality of work life and the general well-being of LGBTI individuals.

LGBTI individuals face barriers even before they start a job. The probability of gay and lesbian applicants being selected for a job interview is lower than it is for their heterosexual counterparts. This is especially true for those residing in areas lacking legal protection such as Texas in the United States and working in male or female-dominated industries.

Homophobia and transphobia can also have a detrimental impact on productivity and profitability. In Australia, lesbian and gay marketing specialist firm Out Now estimates the financial benefits associated with encouraging closeted workers to come out could be as much as A$285 million per year. This includes an 11% increase in staff retention and 30% improvement in the productivity of closeted workers.

Research from the US shows companies that adopt LGBTI-supportive policies achieve higher productivity and profitability resulting in a greater growth in their share price. This is compared to companies that are not supportive of their LGBTI employees. So LGBTI inclusion makes good business sense.

What should business do?


Over the past decade, companies have made significant progress towards creating more inclusive workplaces for LGBTI employees. And this is having a pay-off for all employees, as a recent review of LGBTI studies shows.

Research shows that inclusive leaders play a critical role in unlocking the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Having an inclusive leader who is a member of a minority group may reduce unconscious bias towards this minority group.

So it follows that having visible LGBTI senior leaders in an organisation could help to reduce homophobic and transphobic attitudes and demonstrate a more inclusive culture within the organisation.

Research in social psychology has also found that clear instructions to avoid stereotyping can be an effective way to reduce unconscious bias. Therefore, a firm and consistent message on LGBTI inclusion from supervisors, managers and executives, may minimise unconscious bias and stereotyping towards LGBTI employees.

Companies can also create an LGBTI-inclusive workplace by developing and implementing specific LGBTI-inclusive policies and practices. Examples of this include providing information and support to LGBTI employees (such as establishing a LGBTI network) and also making the support of LGBTI inclusive initiatives visible to all their employees, business partners and the community.

Businesses can also create diversity champions, employees who model inclusive behaviour and positive attitudes towards LGBTI employees. These champions can create a safe space for LGBTI individuals. This practice is increasingly common in sports.

Homophobia is costly to individuals, businesses and the community. Unfortunately, it is still prevalent and needs to be addressed both within and outside the workplace. Leaders, organisations and the community should work together to tackle homophobia and achieve equality.


Cathy Brown contributed to this article. She is the Policy and Research Manager at Diversity Council Australia and is also an Authorised Marriage Celebrant.
Raymond Trau, Lecturer, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Gas crisis? Energy crisis? The real problem is lack of long-term planning

Image 20170317 6113 1aln8fl

The long view: energy policy needs to stay firmly focused on the horizon. Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA




If you’ve been watching the news in recent days, you’ll know we have an energy crisis, partly due to a gas crisis, which in turn has triggered a political crisis. The Conversation

That’s a lot of crises to handle at once, so lots of solutions are being put forward. But what do people and businesses actually need? Do they need more gas, or cheaper prices, or more investment certainty, or all or none of the above? How do we cut through to what is really important, rather than side details?

The first thing to note is that what people really care about is their energy costs, not energy prices. This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but if homes and businesses can be helped to waste less energy, then high prices can be offset by lower usage.

The second thing to note is that energy has become very confusing. A host of short- and long-term problems have developed over decades of policy failure, meaning that there is no single solution.
Take gas prices, which were indirectly responsible for South Australia’s blackouts last month. Last week, SA Premier Jay Weatherill responded by unveiling a A$550-million plan including a new state-owned gas power station, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed to have secured a promise of secure domestic supply from gas producers.

Short-term thinking


It is crucial to keep the ultimate goals in focus, or else our short-term solutions could exacerbate long-term problems.

For electricity, we want to avoid blackouts and limit prices and overall costs. We need to do this in ways that allow us to meet our climate constraints, so we need solutions with zero or very low greenhouse emissions.

For gas, we need to ensure enough supply for local demand, at reasonable prices, and give large consumers the opportunity to negotiate contracts over reasonable time frames.

This means we need to allocate more of our gas to local consumers, because increasing overall gas production would just add to our long-term climate problems.

Peak gas and electricity prices are entangled. In our electricity markets, the most expensive generator needed to maintain supply in a given period sets the price for all the generators. So if an expensive gas generator sets a high price, all of the coal and renewable energy generators make windfall profits – at the consumer’s expense.

So either we need to ensure gas generators don’t set the price, or that they charge a reasonable price for the power they generate.

Quick fixes


Demand management and energy storage are short-term fixes for high peak prices. Paying some electricity or gas consumers to use less at peak times, commonly called “demand response”, frees up electricity or gas, so prices don’t increase as much.

Unfortunately, policymakers have failed to introduce effective mechanisms to encourage demand response, despite the recommendations of numerous policy reviews over the past two decades. This is a serious policy failure our politicians have not addressed. But it could be fixed quickly, with enough political will.

Energy storage, particularly batteries and gas storage, can be introduced quickly (within 100 days, if Tesla’s Elon Musk is to be believed). Storage “absorbs” excess energy at times of low demand, and releases it at times of shortage. This reduces the peak price by reducing dependence on high-priced generators or gas suppliers, as well as reducing the scope for other suppliers to exploit the shortage to raise prices.

The same thinking is behind Turnbull’s larger proposal to add new “pumped hydro” capacity to the Snowy Hydro scheme, although this would take years rather than weeks.

Thus South Australia’s plan, which features battery storage and changes to the rules for feeding power into the grid, addresses short-term problems. Turnbull’s pumped hydro solution is longer-term, although his handshake deal with gas suppliers may help in the short term.

The long view


When we consider the long term, we must recognise that we need to slash our carbon emissions. So coal is out, as is any overall expansion of natural gas production.

Luckily, we have other affordable long-term solutions. The International Energy Agency, as well as Australian analysts such as ClimateWorks and Beyond Zero Emissions, see energy efficiency improvement as the number-one strategy – and in many cases, it actually saves us money and helps to offset the impact of higher energy prices. Decades of cheap gas and electricity mean that Australian industry, business and households have enormous potential to improve energy efficiency, which would save on cost.

We can also switch from fossil gas to biogas, solar thermal and high-efficiency renewable electricity technologies such as heat pumps, micro-filtration, electrolysis and other options.

Renewable energy (not just electricity) can supply the rest of our needs. Much to the surprise of many policymakers, it is now cheaper than traditional options and involves much less investment risk. Costs are continuing to fall.

But we need to supplement renewable energy with energy storage and smart demand management to ensure reliable supply. That’s where options such as pumped hydro storage, batteries and heat-storage options such as molten salt come in.

This is why the crisis is more political than practical. The solutions are on offer. It will become much more straightforward if politicians free themselves from being trapped in the past and wanting to prop up powerful incumbent industries.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

How microfinance reduces gender inequality in developing countries

A Xhosa family at their home, Mthtata, Transkei, South Africa.

Quanda Zhang, RMIT University and Alberto Posso, RMIT University

An increase in the proportion of women accessing microfinance services by just 15% could potentially reduce gender inequality, as measured by the Gender Inequality Index, by half in the average developing nation. The finding comes from a recent study published in Applied Economics Letters that also found that cultural characteristics can influence this relationship. The Conversation

Gender equality refers to the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men, girls and boys. It does not imply that women and men are the same, but that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men should be taken into consideration while recognising diversity across different populations.

While the world has achieved progress towards gender equality under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and violence in many parts of the world.

Take girl’s education for example, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990 in southern Asia. By 2012, enrolment had ratios remained the same.

Girls also face barriers to entering both primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and western Asia. Disadvantages in education translate into a lack of skills and limited opportunities in the labour market. In northern Africa, for instance, women hold less than one in five paid jobs in the non-agricultural sector.

Microfinance and gender inequality


Microfinance gets its popularity and fame from Mohammad Yunus, who began experimenting with lending to poor women in the village of Jobra, Bangladesh, during his tenure as a professor of economics at Chittagong University, in the 1970s. In 2006, he won the Nobel Peace prize for pioneering the concepts of microfinance and establishing the Grameen Bank in 1983.

Since then, various forms of microfinance programs have been introduced in many countries.
Generally speaking, microfinance is the extension of small loans to the very poor, in combination with other financial services such as saving facilities, training, health services, networking, and peer support. This enables people to pursue entrepreneurial projects that generate extra income, thus helping them to better provide for themselves and their families.

The last 30 years have shown that microfinance is a proven development tool capable of providing a vast number of the poor, particularly women, with sustainable tailored financial services that enhance their welfare.

According to Microcredit Summit Campaign Report 2015, 3,098 microfinance institutions had reached over 211 million clients by 2013, 114 million of whom were living in extreme poverty. Of these poorest clients, 82.6%, or over 94 million, were women.

Conceptually, microfinance enables poor women to engage in income-generating activities that help them become financially independent, strengthening their decision-making power within the household and society. It is through this channel that economists argue that microfinance has the potential to reduce gender inequality.

But country-level community-based microeconomic research from across the developing world both supports and contradicts this premise. Given this inconclusive evidence, we thought a macroeconomic approach that pulls information from many countries together might provide a clearer picture.

Evidence from around the world


Our study uses data from 64 developing countries from between 2003 and 2014 to examine general international trends and patterns on gender inequality and microfinance.

Gender inequality is measured with two popular indicators from the UN: Gender Development-related Index (GDI) and Gender Inequality Index (GII). These are composite indices based on measures of differences in health, education, living standards, empowerment, and economic status.
The key variable of significance in our analysis is a gendered indicator of microfinance usage, defined as the proportion of female clients as a share of the total national population. We constructed this measure using microfinance data from MIX Market, a microfinance auditing firm.

We found evidence of a negative relationship between women’s participation in microfinance and gender inequality. In other words, we found that gender inequality will potentially decrease when women’s participation increases. As noted above, in the average developing nation, an increase in microfinance by around 15% is associated with a decline in gender inequality by about half.

But we also found that cultural characteristics that govern the relationships between men and women can potentially influence this relationship. For example, pressure on women to take on cooking and rearing responsibilities within the home could potentially limit their ability to fully adopt employment opportunities through microfinance-generated investments.

That religion does not necessarily play a role in explaining the interaction between microfinance and gender inequality is another one of our findings. Instead, national conservatism and microfinance firms’ adoption of culturally-appropriate local practices potentially does. Many firms acknowledge the difficulties associated with women working outside the house in certain communities, for instance, so they help women establish small businesses at home, sometimes pulling resources together across households.

Policy implications


More microcredit in developing nations then is clearly good news for women. Since gender inequality is measured as composite indices of health, education and income indicators, it’s natural to conclude that greater access to credit in women’s hands will mean greater access to education and health as well as income-generating opportunities.

Given these positive outcomes, governments and international organisations in developing nations should continue to promote microcredit institutions to indirectly empower women. But they must keep in mind that microfinance does not automatically empower women.

Country-specific and cultural factors play a key role in determining how microfinance interacts with gender inequality. And these should be considered when assessing the impact of microcredit in the developing world.

Quanda Zhang, PhD Candidate in Economics, RMIT University and Alberto Posso, Associate Professor of Economics, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Fact or fiction – is sugar addictive?


Amy Reichelt, RMIT University 

Some of us can definitely say we have a sweet tooth. Whether it’s cakes, chocolates, cookies, lollies or soft drinks, our world is filled with intensely pleasurable sweet treats. Sometimes eating these foods is just too hard to resist.

As a nation, Australians consume, on average, 60 grams (14 teaspoons) of table sugar (sucrose) a day. Excessive consumption of sugar is a major contributor to the increasing rates of obesity in both Australia and globally.

Eating sugary foods can become ingrained into our lifestyles and routines. That spoonful of sugar makes your coffee taste better and dessert can feel like the best part of dinner. If you’ve ever tried to cut back on sugar, you may have realised how incredibly difficult it is. For some people it may seem downright impossible. This leads to the question: can you be addicted to sugar?

Sugar activates the brain’s reward system


Sweet foods are highly desirable due the powerful impact sugar has on the reward system in the brain called the mesolimbic dopamine system. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released by neurons in this system in response to a rewarding event.

Drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine hijack this brain system. Activation of this system leads to intense feelings of reward that can result in cravings and addiction. So drugs and sugar both activate the same reward system in the brain, causing the release of dopamine.

This chemical circuit is activated by natural rewards and behaviours that are essential to continuing the species, such as eating tasty, high energy foods, having sex and interacting socially. Activating this system makes you want to carry out the behaviour again, as it feels good.


Our brain systems encourage us to undertake activities that will continue our species - such as eating high energy foods.


The criteria for substance use disorders by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) cites a variety of problems that arise when addicted to a substance. This includes craving, continuing use despite negative consequences, trying to quit but not managing to, tolerance and withdrawal. Although sugary foods are easily available, excessive consumption can lead to a number of problems similar to that of addiction. So it appears sugar may have addictive qualities. There is no concrete evidence that links sugar with an addiction/withdrawal system in humans currently, but studies using rats suggest the possibility.

Sweet attractions


Dopamine has an important role in the brain, directing our attention towards things in the environment like tasty foods that are linked to feelings of reward. The dopamine system becomes activated at the anticipation of feelings of pleasure.

This means our attention can be drawn to cakes and chocolates when we’re not necessarily hungry, evoking cravings. Our routines can even cause sugar cravings. We can subconsciously want a bar of chocolate or a fizzy drink in the afternoon if this is a normal part of our daily habits.

Sugar tolerance


Repeated activation of the dopamine reward system, for example by eating lots of sugary foods, causes the brain to adapt to the frequent reward system stimulation. When we enjoy lots of these foods on a regular basis, the system starts to change to prevent it becoming overstimulated. In particular, dopamine receptors start to down-regulate.

Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine to bind to, so the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted. More sugar is needed the next time we eat in order to get the same feeling of reward. This is similar to tolerance in drug addicts, and leads to escalating consumption. The negative consequences of unrestrained consumption of sugary foods include weight gain, dental cavities and developing metabolic disorders including type-2 diabetes.

Quitting sugar leads to withdrawal


Sugar can exert a powerful influence over behaviour, making cutting it out of our diets very difficult. And quitting eating a high sugar diet “cold turkey” leads to withdrawal effects.

Our brain systems encourage us to undertake activities that will continue our species - such as eating high energy foods.


The length of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms following a sugar “detox” varies. Some people quickly adjust to functioning without sugar, while others may experience severe cravings and find it very difficult to resist sugary foods.

The withdrawal symptoms are thought to be factors of individual sensitivity to sugar as well as the dopamine system readjusting to a sugar-free existence. The temporary drop in dopamine levels are thought to cause many of the psychological symptoms including cravings, particularly as our environment is filled with sweet temptations that you now have to resist.

Why quit sugar?


Cutting sugar from your diet may not be easy, as so many processed or convenience foods have added sugars hidden in their ingredients. Switching from sugar to a sweetener (Stevia, aspartame, sucralose) can cut down on calories, but it is still feeding the sweet addiction. Similarly, sugar “replacements” like agave, rice syrup, honey and fructose are just sugar in disguise, and activate the brain’s reward system just as readily as sucrose.

Physically, quitting sugar in your diet can help with weight loss, may reduce acne, improve sleep and moods, and could stop those 3pm slumps at work and school. And if you do reduce sugar consumption, sugary foods that were previously eaten to excess can taste overpoweringly sweet due to a recalibration of your sweetness sensation, enough to discourage over-consumption!

The Conversation
Amy Reichelt, Lecturer, ARC DECRA, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 20 February 2017

So much art… not enough time! Art Study Tour Blog – Week 2



Some of the RMIT Art students in front of one of Dan Flavin’s light artworks at Dia Beacon.

by Deborah Sippitts

Halfway through the RMIT School of Art Study Tour there is a free weekend to check out more art, sightsee and explore … so much art, so much to see, not enough time!

On the Saturday I walked the length of 5th Avenue taking in famous landmarks along the way – the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, the infamous Trump Tower with its full-on security and permanent protest on the pavement opposite, New York Public Library – where the original Pooh Bear lives, St Patrick’s Cathedral, the famous Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s and afternoon tea at the café there, Tiffany’s including a light dusting of magical real snow, light leopards climbing up the newly refurbished Cartier store, and a bit more of Central Park in the dark.

On Sunday, I visited Brooklyn with one of my friends and fellow travellers, Bronwyn, to catch-up with her cousin who lives and works in NY. We were treated to wonderful hospitality and a scrumptious bagel breakfast with scrambled eggs, salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes, juice and more.

On Monday we visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan. Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, MOMA is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world.

At MOMA we got to see amazing world famous modern art from Andy Warhol’s Marilyn and Campbell’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art, to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and Piet Mondrian’s red, black, blue, yellow and gray squares … as well as art from Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley, Yves Klein, Lee Bontecou, Max Ernst, Edward Rusha, Claes Oldenburg and many more. Amazing stuff and incredible to see it in situ in person as well.


The famous Ed Sorel Jazz Age mural at The Monkey Bar.
After an art-soaked morning at MOMA, a group of us went to The Monkey Bar at the Hotel Elysee for lunch. With appearances in Sex and the City and Mad Men, the Monkey Bar has a great atmosphere, cool retro décor and a wonderful mural in the main dining room. Renowned illustrator Ed Sorel was commissioned to paint the three-panelled mural paying homage to great Jazz Age figures, who once sailed through the Saloon doors including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.

One NY hamburger lunch and stylish location ticked off, and it was back to MOMA for more modern art treasures, including an exhibition of artwork and band posters from San Francisco’s summer of love,1967.

Tuesday was a busy day for art – first over to Brooklyn via the subway for our second artist’s studio visit, this one with Nancy Brooks Brody. In her sparse white studio we got to see and find out about a range of artwork that she produces – drawings made from thread; Portraits of Days achieved by using lines, squares and rectangles of block colour; her Glory Holes in varying shades of black, white and grey; and her movable contrasting Color Forms.


One of Nancy Brooks Brody’s Glory Holes at her Brooklyn studio
I found the way Brooks Brody approached and talked about art – in a very logical and even mathematical way – really intriguing. I loved the minimal aesthetic, clean lines and limited colour palette.

After the studio visit we hung out at a café in Brooklyn for a while, then headed to The Guggenheim Museum for an exhibition by Agnes Martin.

Born in Canada in 1912, Martin was an American abstract painter. Her work was often referred to as minimalist, but she considered herself an abstract expressionist. We saw a retrospective of her works from the 1950s to 2004.


Viewing the Agnes Martin retrospective at The Guggenheim.

Again I loved Martin’s artwork – from a painting called Friendship from 1963 – which featured gold leaf and gesso on canvas, to one of her subdued stripe paintings such as Untitled 2004, acrylic and graphite on canvas. I loved the variety of simplicity in her art … as we walked to the top of the iconic Guggenheim building and then spiralled down its circular walkway taking in the exhibition.

A stunning and beautiful building, The Guggenheim is not necessarily the most perfect venue to display all types of art. But the Agnes Martin exhibition worked well in the circular gallery setting, with its minimal yet different, beautiful and at times mesmerising paintings.

On Wednesday we visited the Judd Foundation located right in the middle of SoHo. In 1968, Donald Judd purchased 101 Spring Street, a five storey cast iron building constructed in 1870. It was the first building Judd owned and it served as his New York residence and studio. It is also considered to be the birthplace of “permanent installation” art.

We enjoyed a guided tour of all five floors – with all the works on view remaining as they were installed by Judd prior to his death. Judd spent a great deal of time placing the art and designing the renovation accordingly, consequently the dialogue that has developed between the building and the artworks is still tangible for visitors today.

Each floor featured thought-provoking modern art including work by Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain. It was an interesting tour to see where permanent installation art started and how the Judd family lived here surrounded by art in the 1970s … a hallmark of contemporary art and an art time capsule.

Lunch was at Fanelli’s Café, just round the corner from the Judd Foundation. Affordable food in a dark café that opened in 1922 and operated as a speakeasy in the 1920s and 1930s during Prohibition – loved the black and white photos of boxers up on the walls.

On Thursday we were treated to a talk by Judd Tully an Art specialist, critic and journalist. Also based in SoHo, Tully talked about how the New York art scene, galleries, artists and art world work. Art is huge in New York in all forms – as our tour leader Robin Kingston said: “Art really matters in New York, like sport does in Melbourne.”

As Tully explained the ins and outs of how art works in New York, he had a totally different take on how to get noticed, how to succeed, what you have to do and a probably more cynical viewpoint than your average artist … but an interesting and pertinent one nonetheless.

After lunch at Café Gitanes in SoHo – which we visited several times over our stay for its fresh French-themed salads and food, cool atmosphere and friendly staff – we made our way to the New Museum for Contemporary Art for a survey of the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.


A still image from one of Pipilotti Rist’s video projections, part of the Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest retrospective.
Born in 1962, Elisabeth Charlotte “Pipilotti” Rist is a visual artist who works with video, film, and moving images – which are often displayed as projections. Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest was truly an amazing and mind blowing exhibition … from laying back on beds to view a projection of underwater photography sloshing on the ceiling … to more videos of lights and hanging lights in a light-filled room that constantly changed colour … I was captivated. I ended up watching the video projection from the bed three times as it was soothing, meditative and soulful to watch.

And suddenly, just like that, we reached the final day of our School of Art Study Tour of New York … our day trip to Dia Beacon.

Occupying a former Nabisco box printing factory on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon in Upstate New York, Dia Beacon presents a collection of art from the 1960s to now. The 1929 building was adapted to create a 21st century museum, an appealing site for contemporary art with more than 34,000 square feet of skylights. The skylights provide wonderful natural light and establish Dia Beacon as a “daylight museum” – a truly amazing space for huge works of art.

But first, we had to get there … meeting at Grand Central Station at 8.15am was an order from our extremely well organised and knowledgeable tour leader, getting on the train to Beacon and watching the Hudson River glide by was fun, and the walk to the museum on a cold bright morning was pleasant … but it didn’t prepare me for what was ahead … Dia Beacon blew me away.

From Michael Heizer’s deep, unfathomable and sometimes sad impressions, to Robert Smithwood’s jagged glass sculpture of the lost city of Atlantis; from Dan Flavin’s stunning light installations, to Richard Serra’s huge rusty iron sculptures; from Louise Lawler’s audio recording of bird calls to more of Agnes Martin’s subdued, haunting paintings … Dia Beacon did not disappoint.

At one time during the day, I sat in a spacious white room surrounded by the grey glass reflective panels of Gerhard Richter and thought about how astonishing Dia Beacon was and how lucky I was to be part of this remarkable study tour.

I headed back to the reception and café for lunch … then suddenly pandemonium broke out. Someone had spotted the actor Chris Noth, aka Mr Big from Sex and the City, and there was a wild goose chase by the art students to find him. I didn’t see Mr Big … a shame … but I did see some astonishing art in an amazing space.

After Dia Beacon in the fading afternoon light, we walked in the cold winter air for 20 minutes to downtown Beacon to visit artist Melissa McGill in her studio.

McGill does amazing work in the local landscape around Beacon – her latest work, Constellation, was three years in the making. A large-scale public art project 50 miles north of New York, Constellation also takes into account beliefs of the indigenous/Native Americans of the area, of Opi Temakan, the “White Road” or “Milky Way” connecting our world with the next. Every evening as the sun goes down, starry points of light emerge one by one with the stars of the night sky around a castle ruin on an abandoned island.

Hearing McGill talk about her work, watching multi-media about Constellation and seeing other projects and artwork in her studio was a real treat at the end of Week 2 of the tour.

The very cold walk back to Beacon station to wait for our train to NYC was bracing and a bit sad too. An 80 minute train ride brought us back to Grand Central Station, where a large group of us had dinner at the Grand Central Oyster Bar … oysters and seafood from California and Washington State to Maine, Nova Scotia and Long Island … absolute yum to finish up the last day of the study tour.


Grand Central Station, New York – trains and oyster bar!

A smaller group of us met up again on Saturday morning for breakfast at the famous Balthazar restaurant in SoHo … another classic New York experience. After that a bit more shopping – Century 21, Nordstrom Rack, MOMA SoHo outlet, Chelsea Markets; lots more sightseeing – Staten Island Ferry, Statue of Liberty, 5th Avenue (again), the Rolling Stones Exhibitionism retrospective; and trying to fit far too much in to the last weekend … we finally boarded the plane back to Melbourne on Monday.

I didn’t want the art, the study tour, or New York to end. I loved every minute of the trip, the art, the tour, the cocktails, the food, the endless walking and pounding the pavements, the iconic buildings and more. I can’t wait to get back for more of the same … bring on NY trip 2.0!

P.S. All the gallery shops were excellent for books on art, books on everything, as well as small gifts, unique and quirky souvenirs. The MOMA outlet shop in SoHo is particularly good for cool ideas for gifts and stuff to use on your trip.


The School of Art Study Tour 2016 took place in November/December 2016, this blog post is about Week 2 of the tour.

Photos by Deborah Sippitts