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Harnessing Federalism
Russell Degnan

A lot has been said on the plastic bag issue in the past few weeks, most of it - though not all - critical of the failure of Federal and State governments to come up with a levy, or a ban, or something that was so obviously (apparently) needed.

I don't have anything substantive to add to that; for those interested, David Jeffery put up two excellent posts on the issue. What I'm interested in here, is drawing on a strand that came out my friend Rob's critique of the 2020 Summit. To quote:

"The 'national' aspect of this strikes me as a complete irrelevance, and symptomatic of a more general assumption that the solution to any serious problem - whether it inherently crosses state borders or not - is to get the federal government to act on it."

The plastic bag issue is a classic case of this, because while plastic bags cross state (and national) borders, the issues Jeffery notes are no more national issues than state ones:

* they're a large component of litter;

* they're a reasonably important component of waste / landfill;

* they get into waterways where they harm marine life;

* they're made from a non-renewable resource.

None of these are national issues, they are either local or they are global, not in between. But, to the environmental lobby - who have a long history of successful pushes at national level - and to people whose main goal for the states is abolishment, failures of environmental policy are failures of national leadership.

This is a mistake, for two reasons. Firstly, because while their have been a number of significant environmental movement successes at national level, they mostly occur before the affected bodies have shifted their focus to counter them at a national, or international level. As someone noted regarding the 2020 sustainability session, the coal lobby came prepared.

Shifting the debate to the national level only shifts the debate. You can only outflank industry so many times; this is true for plastic bags, and it is true for public transport (increasingly being begged for at a federal level). If you can't win a cost-benefit debate at state level, there is no particular reason to believe you'll win it at national level.

Mostly, people seem to chase the money. But just because the Federal government has the money doesn't make them the best people to distribute it. The long term outcome of increased Federal control is increased Federal pork-barreling and Washington-style lobbying. It is practically impossible to hold the Federal government to account on local spending issues (it is extremely difficult even at state level). Lobbyists benefiting from Federal largesse might not care, but things are as likely to turn out badly as good.

Secondly, there is the oft-cited benefit of having states: competitive federalism. Plastic bags, again, offer a clear case of the benefits of multiple state policies. As Jeffery says, the issue is complex, and there is not necessarily one best way to gain benefit the environment; levies might work best, but so might an outright ban, subsidies for alternatives, bio-degradable bags, or even some other issue. Nothing beats an experiment for determining a policy outcome, and other states are normally reasonably quick to follow successful outcomes.

From a national point of view, if the Federal government wants to enact change, and they should, where they can, the best way will almost never be a direct policy. Like a market, often the best policy is targets and incentives, but in this case, not targeting the individual, but the state governments.


At the moment, the Commonwealth Grants Commission works on a strictly neutral policy basis. Their only aim is to give each state the ability to produce services at the same level as each other state, taking into account their different demographic, geographic and fiscal conditions. This can sometimes (or not) work in the environmentalists favour, such as when, two years ago, an increase in (expensive) renewal energy production in NSW and Queensland. meant they increased their percentage of the tax pie, at the expense of (cheaper) polluting energy production.

But most of the time, as the Victorian and NSW Treasuries never fail to point out in their budget papers, it penalises efficiency, because being more efficient reduces the average cost of that service, and therefore, some of the savings to other states.

The Federal government's spending authority would be better utilised, not with handouts, but with the whip hand. If the goal is to reduce landfill, then per capita (per industry) landfill requirements should be assessed for each state. If they manage to use less landfill than expected, then they should receive an environmental efficiency bonus through the grant, that both redresses the existing efficiency de-bonus, and provides incentives for further efficiencies (and further R&D into efficiencies).

Practically any social, environmental or economic outcome can be incentivised in this way, provided the incentives can be brought back to specific state government policy (there is no point penalising Tasmania or Northern Territory for low unemployment, though we make a fair fist of subsidising it now). If lobbyists want more public transport usage, adding an improvement factor for air emissions and health is a much better policy than subsidising new train lines that the State Government, probably rightly, never chose to build through a marginal electorate.

Instead of proscribing a solution, it allows one to be found, be it through improved transport, or congestion charging, or travel demand programs, or better urban design. Similarly, a state-wide ban on plastic bags might be the outcome of improvement factors for litter, landfill, water quality and non-renewable resource usage. Or as no doubt some of the states argued, there may be a better solution to those problems.

Environment 23rd April, 2008 18:45:42   [#] [0 comments] 

A few drops at l(e)ast.
Russell Degnan

It has been more than a little annoying that while, to date, Melbourne has relished in reminding us how cold and wet she can be, little of the rain has fallen on our depleted water catchments.

Strictly speaking, Melbourne is still receiving less than average rainfall each month. Nevertheless, the drought appears to be breaking, and finally, a bit is falling where it ought. Following last week's good rain, the Thomson Dam, has received nearly another 100mm today, including over 300 (albeit highly suspect) millimetres up on Baw Baw.

Even so, by my reckoning - 48,700 hectare catchment, 50% yield, average catchment rain of ~100mm - that's the best part of 25,000ML. Enough to push the catchments over 30% again.

Not that this, in any way, reflects on the need, or otherwise, for a desalination plant. It is merely a bit of good news on a gloomy day.

Environment 27th June, 2007 18:52:52   [#] [0 comments] 

The follies of an election lead-up
Russell Degnan

In a state full of committed gardeners, there is probably very few things the Bracks government is more afraid of than the sight of yellow lawns, and dying trees. One has to assume that is the main reason they haven't imposed stronger water restrictions already.

Either that, or they believe their own press, that substantial water savings have been achieved since the 1990s. They haven't, the claim that water consumption is down 22% since the late 1990s is based on the measurement of pre-water restriction drought conditions in 1997. Every year is a bit different in terms of rain, but the sudden upsurge on the back of a dry winter is not surprising. Gardens need a lot watering in hot weather, and there is nothing to stop people doing so.

What is surprising, is how slow the response has been. Triggers for water restrictions are all well and good, but even a cursory look at this graph shows that Melbourne has been trending towards the lowest storage levels in a decade since July. Based on previous drought years, and the continuing lack of rain, we can expect the water storage levels to drop by around 15-20% by next June (as happened in 1997 and 2002 even with water restrictions in place).

That puts storage levels down to, or even a bit under 30%. That's laundry water on the garden territory. The sort of restrictions we haven't seen since the Thompson Dam was built in the 1980s.

Not that this drought will last forever. Droughts are a constant feature of the landscape, and will continue to appear and depart as long as we live here. What needs to disappear is our reliance on punitive restrictions and half-arsed water pricing to manage our water supplies. As was discussed on Harry Clarke's site some time ago, pricing should reflect supply, and can and should be managed over the 20-year drought-cycle of south-eastern Victoria.

Moreover, as Robert points out: desalination plants are cost-effective solutions to water requirements, as long as people are willing to pay for them -- and one supposes they are. However, the government cannot build that kind of infrastructure if water remains under-priced.

It is going to be an ugly summer. Strictly speaking, there is plenty of water, but the fear that there won't be next year will drive restrictions until it rains. Until then, expect a lot of unhappy urban tree-lovers.

Environment 16th October, 2006 14:20:24   [#] [7 comments] 

Yes, this is Planning related
Russell Degnan

[The Scene: A refridgerator store, meaning big and open, with fridges everywhere. In the interests of better comedy you may find it useful to imagine the sales staff as wearing brown suits, and sounding a bit like Eric Idle. Not necessary mind, it is just that seventies clothing and english accents are funnier than nineties suits and smarmy wankers. Where was I? Oh, yeah, a customer walks in...]

SALESMAN #1: Good morning sir.

CUSTOMER: Good morning.

SALESMAN #1: I recommend the R650 for you, definitely the best option for a discerning customer like yourself.

CUSTOMER: Ah, I'm sorry?

SALESMAN #1: Yes sir, I can see you are a smart man sir, interested in the best fridge money can buy, low cost, reliable, safe and energy efficient.

CUSTOMER: Well I guess...

SALESMAN #1: Then the R650 is what you need, a fantastic fridge. The best for you, I can tell. Everything you could want in a fridge sir, everything and more, much better than the others, much better indeed.

CUSTOMER: Oh, well, maybe...

[SALESMAN #2 appears]

SALESMAN #2: Good morning sir, might I recommend the S510 for you sir. A fantastic fridge, the best: low cost, reliable, safe and energy efficient.

CUSTOMER: Wait, he [points at SALESMAN #1] just recommended the R650.

SALESMAN #2: Oh did he, well I wouldn't listen to him sir. The S510 is much cheaper, much better, plus his leaks oil.

SALESMAN #1: [outraged] It does not.

SALESMAN #2: It does too. [to CUSTOMER] You have to out a cup down to collect it, every night, a whole cup.

CUSTOMER: [to SALESMAN #1] Is this true?

SALESMAN #1: Well, it drops a little, but you can pour most of it back into the fridge.

CUSTOMER: Most of it?

SALESMAN #1: Well, there is some you don't want to put back in the fridge, but you pour it on the garden.

SALESMAN #2: You can not! It kills the plants.

SALESMAN #1: I mean, you can use it to grease things, there are always locks in need of a good greasing around my house.

CUSTOMER: Locks? I think you're mad, I don't have enough locks to use a cup of grease every day.

SALESMAN #1: It is not a whole cup! Look, you can just put it somewhere, there is not much oil. Plus, his fridge blows steam all day. Ruins the paint.

SALESMAN #2: It does not! You can't prove that! It could be the water heater, that has lots of steam. Or mist. Lots of mist around these days.

SALESMAN #1: Mist? No mist in my house, or peeling paint, not like yours. Fairly dripping off the walls. [discreetly to CUSTOMER] His whole house is peeling, and his grandma died of pneumonia. All that wet air.

SALESMAN #2: That is not true! She could have got pneumonia anyway. And you can just put the fridge outside.

CUSTOMER: I'm not putting the fridge outside, that's silly.

SALESMAN #2: Oh it is not so bad. At least my fridge doesn't explode.

CUSTOMER: Explode?

SALESMAN #1: My fridge doesn't explode.

SALESMAN #2: It does, just last year, blew up in a house, killed the whole family ...

SALESMAN #1: ... it was only a cat ...

SALESMAN #2: ... oil everywhere, impossible to clean, killed the man next door too.

SALESMAN #1: It did not!

SALESMAN #2: Did too, he died of oil related illnesses

SALESMAN #1: He was hit by a car!

SALESMAN #2: That is an oil related illness.

SALESMAN #1: It wasn't this model, it was one of those imported ones. Much different.

SALESMAN #2: This one blows up too, there was oil all over the door one morning.

CUSTOMER: That doesn't sound like an explosion...

SALESMAN #2: Maybe not, but you can't be too careful with these oil related illnesses.

[SALESMAN #3 appears]

SALESMAN #3: I wouldn't listen to these two sir. What you need is an ice chest.

CUSTOMER: A what?

SALESMAN #3: An ice chest sir. It is the fridge technology of the future: low cost, reliable, safe and energy efficient. And versatile, you can take it camping. You like camping don't you sir?

CUSTOMER: Well yes, but...

SALESMAN #3: See, perfect. Can't take those fridges camping. Too bulky.

CUSTOMER: But I don't want to go camping with it, I want it for my house.

SALESMAN #3: Well nothing beats an ice chest for home usage sir. Easy to use, no electricity, just pop the ice in and you're done.

CUSTOMER: Where do I get the ice?

SALESMAN #3: The what?

CUSTOMER: The ice, for the chest.

SALESMAN #3: Oh that. Well, we expect in the future sir, that ice will be delivered to your door, every day.

CUSTOMER: But what about now.

SALESMAN #3: Well, I take ice out of my freezer.

CUSTOMER: But I don't have a freezer. What do I do then?

SALESMAN #3: Well, you'll need to ask those gentleman [waves at SALESMEN #1 and #2] about freezers, I just sell ice chests. But they are great value sir, much cheaper than a fridge.

CUSTOMER: [looks at ice chest] They aren't very big though.

SALESMAN #3: That doesn't matter sir, you can stack them. [puts another ice chest on top, then another] See, sir, just like a big fridge, tons of space and very cheap.

[SALESMEN #1 and #2 begin to snicker]

CUSTOMER: But if I buy three ice chests and a freezer it is more expensive than a fridge!

SALESMAN #3: Not true sir, not true, the ice chest is your best value for money for your refidgeration needs, and much safer than the others. Plus, [conspiratorial whisper] I think they get paid to sell those fridges.

SALESMEN #1 and #2: [outraged] I heard that, that is not true!

SALESMAN #3: Is too!

SALESMEN #1 and #2: Is not!

SALESMAN #3: Is too!

[SALESMAN #4 appears while SALESMEN #1, #2 and #3 wrangle in the background]

SALESMAN #4: Can I help you sir?

CUSTOMER: Well I hope someone can, all these gentlemen want to do is argue. I am looking for a fridge, and I want it to be low cost, reliable, safe and energy efficient.

SALESMAN #4: Well, don't we all sir. What I really need to know is how big you want it and how much you have to spend. We'll worry about the trade-offs later.

CUSTOMER: Oh, well, I think maybe 500L and about $1000.

SALESMAN #4: We can do that, come this way and I'll show you what we have...

Environment 9th June, 2006 00:55:01   [#] [5 comments] 

Yet another drought crisis
Russell Degnan

"... the Australian historical reaction to drought has been generally to view its onset with indignant surprise. The denigration of the drought hazard has been implicit in official disaster relief which has always assumed drought to be a temporary and short-lived phenomenon and has not sought to reward those who sought to buffer themselves against drought impacts."
R L Heathcote in 'A Drought Walked Through' - Keating, J. 1992

And so it goes.

Drought is coming, drought is always coming, drought is also always leaving, and always present. But farmers want relief regardless. Anybody familiar with Australia's water history -- which farmers should be, some are, although some don't want to admit it -- will know recognise that drought happens. Often.

To look at the climate charts on the Bureau of Meteorology you wouldn't recognise the drought as being serious. Most of Australia has had typical rainfall in the past 18 months. Although some parts have still not recovered from several years ago. In the book quoted above, a larger problem was identified:

"[...] there has been a persistent and enduring reluctance to recognise drought as a permanent feature of Australian life. Records show that for only twenty years out of every hundred is the whole of Australia 'drought-free'"

Guy Rundle's amusing piece and the Age editorial both make the point that welfare for farmers is pointless over the long term. The problem with the implication of Heathcote above is that many farmers are not bad managers as much as they are uninsurable and unsustainable. Even though giving money to farmers to keep them on the land degrades the land further and wastes money, it is a problem that - often - the State and Federal governments created, then reinforced repeatedly.

But if things are going to change, you have to start somewhere. Acknowledging that drought is inevitable and common is an important start.


In the same week comes news that the same message hasn't percolated through to urban water consumers either. This is something I've argued before when questioning the governments claimed water savings. To summarise, there are two things stopping people from using more water: restrictions on use and fines for ignoring them; and enough rain that people's gardens aren't dying. Until people stop expecting a green garden in a drought water use will continue to cycle upwards, the same as it always has.

In response to the last article I wrote about this, Robert pointed out that people would probably be quite happy to pay the costs of de-salinification plants and grey-water systems if it meant keeping their gardens. I think he is right, but this also means the water authorities should start charging for projected infrastructure needs. As it stands they plan to keep the demand within the current supply limitations. An attitude, which while admirable, is going to cause a lot of angst when people realise what it means for their backyards.

It has been called a 'coming crisis'. My quarterly water bill is only $20. If and when it is a crisis it will be a manufactured one. The lesson of the farmers above is an important warning for what is at stake.

Environment 29th May, 2005 03:26:49   [#] [0 comments] 

In case of emergency, empty dam
Russell Degnan

We've had a fair amount of rain recently, so rightly, the fountains are being turned back on. Despite this, Melbourne Water have said that we still need to save water, so the depleted catchments can refill. Again, rightly. But beyond that some of the assumptions about water conservation don't match the reality of our water usage.

That reality is of ever-increasing per capita usage, despite claims to the contrary. What Melbourne Water do claim is a per household reduction from 340 kL in the early 1980s to 220 kL in 1993. This looks fantastic except for two points. One, average household size has reduced substantially in that period, so much of that gain is illusory. Two, the points chosen for comparison are right before the start of water restrictions in the early 1980s and during restrictions now. Examining water usage as a trend tells a different story.

source: Melbourne Water

What this shows (and a per capita graph shows it better, but I had none at hand), is that water usage is inversely related to rain, and that we continue to use more and more as every year passes on.

One thing at a time. Average summer water usage in Melbourne is 1600 ML a day. The average generally is 1200 ML. The average this week was 1000 ML. The reason: when it rains, people don't water their garden, and gardens are both the biggest and most fluctuating use of water. During a drought, they can use up to 60% of total water, as compared to 35% normally.

There is a constant pattern over the course of the drought cycle (a complicated and unpredicatable thing, but which generally runs in patterns of 4, 7 and 11 years). Water usage when restrictions are eased rises quickly, before smoothing out until the drought starts. At this point, the lack of rain means people start watering their dying gardens, water storage levels drop, and restrictions are introduced until the drought eases. Then the pattern begins again.
Except that each successive cycle has seen higher usage than the previous one. I am not sure why. It is not dissimilar to the Induced Demand Hypothesis as it applies to roads. But road use that can be explained as a willingness to travel further in the same time frame. Increased water use because it is available has no similar rhime nor reason. Except that people water gardens because they can, and every year we get more and more greenery.

It is for this reason that water savings measures cannot be the be-all and end-all of Melbourne's water policy, as proposed. Droughts cause more water to be used, droughts occur often in Melbourne, and Melbourne has a finite supply of water that is nearing (in fact it is past) the limit of what can be taken. And rationing water more heavily in the wet part of the drought cycle doesn't help when uses that normally make no, or small demands on water - such as most gardens - start making heavy demands on water for lack of a natural supply.

For that we will need water restrictions. Or harsh water pricing that achieves the same ends. Till next time though, we have our fountains again. And a fine sight they are.

Environment 29th July, 2004 00:21:11   [#] [4 comments] 

One step forward, two back
Russell Degnan

No news to comment on at the moment so I'll mention an interesting article on Salon.com (hat tip: John Massengale). Despite green awareness being much higher in the United States, the size of the houses is more than negating any benefits from good design.

Here in Victoria the government has just brought in the 5 star energy rating for new houses. The enormous McMansion on the front of the site is a dead giveaway that it doesn't include any references to house size in it. (An aside - that house may be north facing, but it has enormous windows and no eaves, and is built almost against the edge of the block. How did it get 5 stars?) Instead, the site offers a neat contradiction by saying both that: "Apartments and terrace houses have a natural advantage in energy efficiency." and that smaller blocks are a "challenge". Whereas, the Salon article points out that design can be far more flexible on smaller blocks.

Now that the building industry is being forced into line on green building standards the Planning industry needs to do likewise. Large block-sizes, discrimination - not to mention nimbyism - against terrace houses will work against any good the new legislation might achieve. Unless house-size is incorporated into the next round of green building legislation, but that would really cause some angst.

Environment 25th July, 2004 20:00:34   [#] [2 comments] 

Bangalore, clean and green?
Jess Buckley

Will hopes of an environmental revolution in India disappoint like their unfulfilled promise of a 'western style' toilet? (sorry, I know I have issues)

It seems that the Bangalore Government is keen to shake its image of urban India as polluted. Everywhere on the streets is environmental propoganda claiming that 'Bangalore is clean and beautiful. Please keep it that way'. Quite the contrary, but I guess they are trying, right? And it is slightly funny to see painted on the backs of Rickshaws (the main mode of transport, infamous for their clouds of black exhaust ) 'please don't pollute the air'.

But to be fair, the Bangalore Government does deserve some praise. Their most recent proposal is efforts to switch to renewable energy sources, in the form of small domestic generators using a combination of solar and wind energy atop the roofs of houses. This energy is intended for lighting, TV, but not heating. However, there are many worries that Bangalore does not have strong enough wind to support the energy required. The Government will be providing subsidies and claims that the investment (for the generator) will be recovered in 6-8 years. This is an important consideration for many Bangalorians (?) as generally they are in difficult economic situations. It will be interesting to see how successful this initiative is since there is little incentive for these people to be environmentally sustainable. Does there need to be an incentive to protect the environment?

Are the attempts made by the Bangalore Government at environmentally sustainablility genuine or is it just a new fad to be quickly tossed aside? But I don't know whether the city's fads are anything to go by as mullets are still really cool!

Environment 17th December, 2003 06:55:12   [#] [1 comment] 

What price, which environment?
Russell Degnan

There is an op-ed in The Age today by Ted Baillieu, the shadow planning minister on coastal wind farms. The basic thrust, that wind farms ruin their local environment. Mostly aesthetically, but also with surrounding infrastructure such as roads and power lines. The problem being, that the government and industry want to place them up and down the coast line where the wind blows best.

Now, obviously there is an environmental benefit to wind farms: they don't produce greenhouse gases being the main one. But the question is, what do we value more? Should we prefer a change - possibly negative - to the overall environment, and substantial degredation in the Latrobe Valley; or, significant changes and possibly damage along parts of the coastline environment; or, to even larger parts of our inland plains?

The 'market' can't decide. Not because it would be incapable, but because the integrity of the environment is not properly priced (an externality in other words). If it did, you would rarely develop on the coast. The supply of undeveloped coastlines is so low, and the demand for so high, that few, if any, projects would be deemed 'cost-efective'.

But what do you think, are our energy needs a purely political problem? Or is there a way to balance the environmental costs with the economic and social ones?

Environment 20th September, 2003 12:15:06   [#] [9 comments] 


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