Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Environmental awareness in Australia: some observations

Traveling in Australia was a good opportunity to learn how another country in the developed world is responding to the environmental challenges of our times. These are some of the impressions I gathered about how their society is addressing the issues.


On transit: Melbourne has a very convenient, privately-run tram system. There are even two free trams that circle the city, serving tourists and downtown workers. There are also commuter trains and buses, although one Melburnian I met thought poorly of the bus service. The downtown area is walkable for a reasonably mobile, active person--it reminds me a bit of Boston in this regard. At Tullamarine Airport the high-capacity, convenient, efficiently-run, and relatively inexpensive Skybus Super Shuttle will take you between the airport and your hotel's front door.

Bike lanes in Melbourne are colored bright green:

Photo courtesy of mchampse at Flickr

Very occasionally I would see a short concrete barrier, either curb-height or waist-height, between the bike and car lanes. Once, I saw a bike lane marked on a (wide) sidewalk. Cyclists do have a presence on the city streets, and they seem to make out ok, although I did witness one minor cyclist-driver altercation. I was surprised to see the kinds of public places where people would park their bikes; they must not have as much bike theft as other cities.

Central Canberra seems more spread out than central Melbourne. It's a newer city. The suburban sprawl seems more visible (especially when you're viewing it from the observation deck at Telstra Tower, I guess). I did meet two researchers at Australian National University who commuted by bike from their suburb; their rides were less than 30 minutes.

While in Oz, I may have spotted a few Toyota Prii, but more noticeable to me was higher percentage of small cars on the road. By "small", I mean bigger than a Mini-Cooper but smaller than a hatchback. I even saw a billboard advertising the teeny-tiny Smart Cars made by Mercedes-Benz. Any of these small-ish cars would be great to drive on Aussie roads, especially since some highways have narrow lanes, and there are fewer big, intimidating SUVs to share the road with (although SUVs are still present).

Our rental cars were small four-door sedans (Corolla-size). You can rent even smaller cars (and they are cheaper), but they are manual transmission, which neither of us can drive. The average gas price in Melbourne works out to about USD $4.02/gallon.

In Far North Queensland, many locals (and tour operators, and car-renting tourists) drive Land Rover-type 4WD vehicles because the highway and rainforest roads are largely muddy and unpaved north of Cape Tribulation. Taking the car ferry across the Daintree River north towards Cape Trib is like entering an alternate tourist dimension: after that point, it seems like the only vehicles you see on the the Captain Cook Highway are tour buses and tourist rental cars. I have mixed feelings about the tour buses. On the one hand, it's like mass transit for travelers. On the other hand, it makes the sensitive rainforest ecosystem accessible to larger volumes of tourists. Also, I have a personal dislike of the tour bus experience (drive, stop for 15 minutes, take some pictures...repeat ad nauseum).


Australia is much more diligent about water conservation. Of course, most of the center of the country is inhospitable desert, but a more recent and pressing concern is the current drought in the eastern states. It's the worst on historical record. Many water conservation measures are being taken. Low-water-use toilets are used universally in Australia. They have a "half-flush" button and a "full-flush" button, and they also flush differently--the water gets poured/dumped into the bowl rather than swirling around from the rim.

One of the rainforest park facilities we used had a composting toilet. All in all, Aussie toilets are great--they're a real piece of water-saving engineering, and if I were building/remodeling a bathroom, I'd get one (the manufacturer, Caroma, exports to the U.S.)

The hospitality industry is also trying to save water. Like in the U.S., some hotels only change sheets/towels on days that you request it, to avoid laundry-related water usage. The tropical Daintree area is not affected by the drought; nevertheless, the Epiphyte B&B where we stayed used a rainwater cistern for its water supply, and requested that guests be conscious of their water usage.

Recycling and Waste Reduction

Incredibly, everybody, but everybody in Melbourne carries around these reusable green cloth bags and uses them for shopping instead of plastic bags:

It's downright heartening. There is even a official government campaign in the state of Victoria to "Just Say No" to plastic bags:

Finding recycling bins while traveling in Australia was hit-or-miss. A few public places had them, many didn't. At the Cairns airport, not only did I not find any recycling bins, I could hardly find any regular trash cans (or "rubbish bins" in Australian). Maybe they aren't provided because they're a "security risk". Or perhaps they are trying to reduce waste and janitorial costs by having air passengers follow the "pack it in, pack it out" philosophy?!?

Energy and Efficiency

One disappointing observation I made was the low adoption rate of energy-efficient compact fluorecent lights (CFLs) at the places I visited. Most establishments were still using incandescents.

The one exception was the Epiphyte B&B; I think they were using regular fluorescent lights (and actually a lot of candles, too, which conserved electricity while adding ambience). They have a strong motivation: the B&B is run on solar energy collected from solar panels on the roof and stored in a battery bank on-site. They ask guests not to use high-wattage personal appliances like hair dryers to avoid draining the batteries.

Magellan Observatory, where we stayed for a weekend, also runs on solar and green power. The observatory itself, including the telescopes, run on power from solar panels on the observatory roof, which were installed by the eco-friendly proprietor. The cottage where we slept uses grid power, but the proprietor has elected to enroll in a plan with his utility company where he can pay a small amount more for electricity from renewable sources.

Housing and Development

Surprisingly, while driving past the outer fringes of some metropolitan area (either Melbourne or Canberra, can't remember), I saw a housing development with the biggest McMansions I have ever seen, bar none! Bigger than any I've seen in an American city. Each house looked like its own little office building. I only saw one development like this, though.

In Queensland, Cairns is built up like a little Miami, but towns further up the coast have more restrictive development codes. For example, in Port Douglas they don't permit buildings to be taller than the palm trees, and there is a no-development zone along the shore that is a few hundred meters wide. Also a factor is that the government owns much of the shoreline.

Central Melbourne has a fair amount of high-density housing. It's a built-out city with a long history, so no surprises there.


The level of availability of organic foods in Melbourne didn't seem much different from home. Interestingly, I once ordered ginger ale at a restaurant, and it turned out to be organic. It wasn't specially labelled on the menu, and I didn't have to request it specifically; it just was. So that was a little bonus. It was really good ginger ale, too; you could taste the fresh ginger. (They call it "ginger beer" but it's nonalcoholic.)

I spotted a "Slow Food" banner on the back of a Melbourne tram--but on closer inspection, it turned out to be an advertisement for some convenience food being marketed as "just like" home-cooked, slow food. However, there is a Slow Food chapter in Melbourne which purports to be the largest in the world.

Our B&B hosts in Queensland got a real kick out of serving us tropical fruits that were grown locally. I'm sure part of it was the pride and pleasure of introducing newcomers to a staggering array of exotic fruits and literally giving them a taste of the local heritage. Whether food miles and the Eat Local movement had any influence, who knows. All I know is 1) it's kind of neat to see the banana plantations and other tropical fruit plantations growing by the highway; 2) passionfruit, golden kiwis, custard apples, and lady-finger bananas are all very yummy; and 3) speaking as a North American, it is an rare gastronomic delight to eat fresh tropical fruits that just came off the tree a few hours ago, as opposed to sitting on a container ship for days beforehand.

Habitat and Wildlife Preservation

Aussies seem to take the preservation of their wildlife and natural habitats pretty seriously. Australia is indeed like a parallel universe with respect to its flora and fauna; evolution in isolated conditions has resulted in strange and unique wildlife. Aussies are aware of this rich biological heritage and other natural treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage rainforests. They are also aware of episodes during colonial times and also more recently when introduced species wreaked ecological havoc (rabbits, foxes, cane toads). They have also seen many of their unique species go extinct due to human activity and even deliberate extermination (the Tasmanian tiger).

Steps are being taken, such as designating species as protected or endangered, restricting development in some areas, and enacting other policies. One of my blog readers commented that Aussies have the most stringent regulations for development and water. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, the rainforest in Daintree National Park is so strictly protected that the park actually has very few trails and is mostly inaccessible. Even the various private owners of the surrounding land seem to do a good job caring for the piece of rainforest that they own, often maintaining it as a private preserve and conducting tours.

Like many other nations in the developed world, though, Australian efforts towards wildlife and habitat conservation have to contend against factors that accelerate habitat destruction, such as population growth in some areas, urban sprawl, and pressure from increased tourism.

Speaking of tourism, eco-tourism is big here--I saw lots of evidence around the Daintree area and Great Barrier Reef. However, it was unclear to me whether "eco-tourism" here refers to tourism operations conducted in as green and environmentally-sensitive manner as possible, or if it just means any tourist activity related to the outdoors/nature/wildlife. Given the number of venues being marketed as "eco-tourism", I suspect it's often just the latter.

The Great Barrier Reef is an interesting case study in the complex issues of eco-tourism. Consider the snorkeling outfit we went with, Wavelength Reef Tours. They bill themselves as an Advanced Eco Accredited Tour Operator, whether or not that actually means anything--I haven't researched who does the accrediting and how. They participate in a program called Reef Watch, a community environmental monitoring project. They educate their passengers about the reef's ecology and how it is affected by global warming, e.g. coral bleaching. And yet with the sheer numbers of people who visit the reef, it's hard to believe that Wavelength together with all of the other tour boats are not having a collective impact, possibly negative, on the reef. It seems hard if not impossible to run a zero-impact tour operation: you are bringing large numbers of people out on the reef to interact with its ecosystem, you are burning fossil fuel to get out to the reef (if on a motorized boat) and for people to fly into the area to visit the reef (including myself, I know). But when talking to the boat crew, it's also clear that the reef is important to them, and not just economically. There is something special and wonderful to them about getting to go out on the reef every day, becoming intimately familiar with its wonders, and then sharing those wonders with newcomers. There is a very real and sincere concern on their part about the ultimate fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

Media and Public Opinion

I read an issue of Melbourne's daily paper, The Age, and noticed that a few of the editorials and letters to the editor were taking potshots at the concept of global warming. That was just one day's opinion section, though; I can't say it was a representative sample of the population at large.

When it comes to sustainability, the city of Melbourne seems to experience the same contradictions that I see at home and in other metropolitan areas in the U.S. On the one hand, people carry cloth shopping bags and ride the trams, and there are highly visible public campaigns about water conservation and other environmental issues. On the other hand, I think I read a statistic somewhere that claimed that only 10% of Melbourne workers commute by a method other than car.

A couple of the innkeepers at the places we stayed at were really on the sustainability bandwagon. Both of them were living in less-populated, rural areas, if that is of any significance. The owner of the Magellan Observatory mentioned that he would like to solarize the rest of the buildings once he's saved enough money. He also provides a recycling bin in the cottage and requests that guests sort out their recycling. He does not feel that the current political group holding power in the Australian government is doing enough to address sustainability. At the solar-powered, rainwater-supplied Epiphyte B&B, our host informed us that that the actual owner of the B&B is currently away at university in Adelaide. He is pursuing advanced studies in international relations, with an eye toward working for an NGO.

Tourism and Travel

Our trip gave me a chance to reflect on my own choices and experiences as a traveler. Of course, the major choice for me, given the extremely CO2-intensive nature of flying, was whether to go to Australia in the first place. I chose to go because I didn't feel like I could pass up this opportunity. A self-interested choice; not something I can justify from an environmental standpoint. My spouse is making a conscious effort to minimizing flying by being more selective about which conferences and business trips he really needs to make. Fortunately, he is at a point in his career where he can afford to be a bit more selective. However, the Melbourne conference was deemed necessary, and so I tagged along.

I've been asked whether I purchased carbon offsets for flying. This may come as a surprise, but I am lukewarm about offsets as they exist today. I was soured by my initial experience with the offset market. A few years ago, I read the fine print on a brochure from NativeEnergy and realized that what they were offering at that time was not an actual, measurable reduction in CO2, but a chance to donate money to their for-profit company in order to finance a wind energy project that may or may not get built at some unspecified time in the future. I'm all for renewable energy, but I hate deceptive marketing. NativeEnergy folks, if you're trying to raise capital for a wind energy project, just call it "wind energy capital investment". Don't call it an "offset" unless you're ready to tell me exactly how much carbon is offset when I write the check. And while you're at it, consider calling your "donors" investors and paying them a return, especially if you're for-profit! (end rant) Anyway, my doubts about the current offset market are eloquently summarized by this letter to Co-op America and this CNN.com article. I'll continue to reevaluate the market as it evolves, but for now, I am not sufficiently convinced about offsets.

Although jet fuel consumption is the biggie, I did observe some other opportunties for greening air travel in small ways. For example, I had never stopped to think about how much trash is generated on a long-haul flight, what with all the meals and beverages multiplied by the number of passengers on a 747. Maybe I should start bringing a travel mug on board, and write a letter to United asking them to switch to compostable tableware and food service containers.

Airports could get into the act, too, since their food service operations are a large source of disposable plates, napkins, cups, etc. Surprisingly, though, I noticed that a few restaurants and cafés at Australian airports did use real china. In particular, cafés were most likely to do this; I suspect it's due to the strong "coffee culture" there.

Moving on to ground transportation...I actually looked into renting a Prius. For a Prius, Budget was asking more than double the rate of an economy car. No thanks! We opted for a small car with good mileage instead. I think they must just keep a handful of Prii in their fleet and charge through the nose for them.

And as for sea transportation in the Great Barrier Reef: if I had to do it over, I'd consider taking a sailboat instead of a motorized boat, to reduce fuel consumption. And I'd rent a wetsuit for comfort and to avoid sloshing as much sunscreen off of my skin and into the ocean. I enjoyed my visit to the Great Barrier Reef immensely, but in the bigger picture, it's yet another choice that I can't necessarily justify from an environmental perspective. For one thing, it is a sensitive ecosystem that receives a huge volume of visitors. For another thing, the irony of emitting coral-bleaching CO2 while flying to Australia to see the colorful corals is not lost on me.

No comments: