Emma Whittlesea: Flying toward Net Zero
Dr Emma Whittlesea is the Acting Executive Director for the Climate Ready Initiative, which is based at Griffith University under the Climate Action Beacon. Emma recently spoke at iMOVE Conference 2022, which took place in Sydney on 14 and 15 November 2022. She spoke in the ‘Making up for years of decarbonisation inaction’ session, on day 2 of the conference. Her presentation was entitled Decarbonising Australia’s Transport Sector – Reimagining Aviation.
Predominantly, your work is in the area of clean transport. How did you gravitate towards this area either your studies or in your work?
I started out with a degree in environmental science and have always had an interest in the environment. I grew up in the country with an interest and passion for animals and nature, and that took me into the world of environmental sustainability and climate change. Most of my roles throughout my life have been either that way inclined, or in community development and social-orientated roles.
Where was it you studied, Emma?
I did my undergrad at the University of Plymouth, and a PhD, looking at low carbon tourism futures, working through different scenarios with stakeholders to decarbonise the tourism sector.
And was it a straight jump from Plymouth to Australia or was there some roles in between?
There were a lot of jobs in between, working with governments and industry. I worked for the tourist board in the South-West of England for five years and I ran my own sustainability consultancy for a bit which included working with national government in the UK.
I arrived in Australia in 2013 and joined Tweed Shire Council in Northern NSW as their social planner. I then worked for the Queensland Government as a Principal Policy Officer in the Climate Change and Sustainable Futures branch. I took on my current role in January this year and it’s a role that excites me, because the Climate Ready Initiative, a social impact-based initiative, is progressing climate action and building capability with and across different sectors. It’s not a traditional research or academic role and is hands-on!
Is it one project you’re working on at the moment or multiple?
No, multiple. we have a whole range of programs that come under the Climate Ready Initiative. We have our flagship program, Climate Ready Australia 2030 which has pulled together an alliance of peak bodies, to develop a shared agenda and advance climate action. We also manage the Queensland Climate Ready Program, which has been running since 2018 and supports Queensland Government departments to advance climate risk management.
We recently ran an Aviation Reimagined webinar series and we’ve been doing climate action projects with industry.
We have some new projects underway around health decarbonisation and advancing climate risk management in local government. So, we have a whole range of quite different projects, but very exciting.
And not just in clean transport by the sound of it, you’re branching out to quite a few areas.
The Climate Ready Initiative advances climate action with all sectors but I have a personal interest and background in the tourism and transport sectors.
We have an existing partnership project underway with an airline, and we’ve got some research applications in that would further advance decarbonisation in the aviation sector.
We’ll leave the real world for a moment and move into the world of the hypothetical. Considering you’re in Queensland let’s give you the title and powers of the Empress of Queensland. You have absolute control over budgets, labour, and resources. Such things are of no limit for you. You want to attack an issue, a bottleneck in the area of clean transport, you can do whatever you want to do however you want to do it. What might you do in this scenario?
Well, because of my recent work with the aviation sector, if I had an unlimited budget and could mobilise CASA and government to make things happen, I’d want to see rapid development of new alternative clean powertrain technologies and clean zero emission fuels for aircraft.
The development, testing and production of hydrogen, electric and hybrid technology here in Australia and to get planes flying. It’s happening elsewhere, but we are far behind here.
That was my next question to you. If I could quickly duck the hypothetical and go back into the real world, is there much at all happening in that area in Australia at the moment?
Very limited currently. There is a federal commitment to develop an aviation white paper that has recognised emissions reduction as a key part, and a Jet Zero Council – but details are to be determined and there are no national plans or targets for decarbonising the aviation sector.
There are increasing plans and targets emerging from industry, including airports, aircraft manufacturers and airlines, and increasing work and alliances around Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which will need to be developed and targeted for use in long haul flights where decarbonisation options are limited.
There is a lot of opportunity for cleaner aviation in Australia, including regional airlines and regional travel which could benefit from a transition to fully electric, hydrogen electric, or hybrids.
Okay, on to part two of the hypothetical in which we demote you a little bit; you’ve gone from Empress of Queensland to Lord Mayor of Brisbane. Obviously your powers and your budget have to be downgraded. You’ve got limited budget, limited manpower and a limited timeframe in which to improve something in the realm of clean transport. In this scenario what would you like to do?
I think where there’s a big opportunity and we don’t need so much budget, is helping people, business and organisations to explore and identify high- versus low-value travel trips and flights.
I am thinking about step one in the hierarchy of emissions reduction, to try and avoid unnecessary trips and to shorten trips where possible, I’d probably focus on that. Identifying methods and mechanisms to help us all manage our travel better and maximise trips, saving costs and precious time in the process.
Do you mean, in essence, like a return to the bad days of COVID where we shifted to Zoom meetings rather than physically travelled, or is it more than that?
No, it’s a lot more than that, recognising that we undertake a lot of travel in our lives and some is unnecessary or low-value, from both a leisure and business travel perspective. What do we deem worthy of a long flight with high environmental impact?
I’d like to further explore this area, especially as businesses and organisations coming out of COVID are quite mindful of the savings they made with their travel budgets. We’re in a situation now where travel’s starting to ramp back up, but people are also looking to travel better and smarter; increasingly thinking about impacts and emissions reduction, combining and maximising trips. Can we reimagine how trips are planned and taken?
It’s a real area of friction, isn’t it? During those periods of lockdowns and so forth, we all made it work using Zoom and various tools, but we find some wanting a return to the ways things were done pre-pandemic. Politicians want the cities filled with people again.
Yes, although it also presents an opportunity, doesn’t it? Because it’s also a chance for us to think and behave differently, whether it’s our personal or business lives. What are the opportunities to make better decisions and what are the benefits?
I would like to make that more interesting and fun to engage with, rather than it being seen as “You can’t do this!”, rather it’s, “How can I do this better?.”
Indeed. Let’s leave hypotheticals and get back to the real world. You’ve worked in consultancies and in tertiary education, so of the many, many projects you might have touched so far, is there one that stands above others, as being something you’re prouder of? Feel free to have a couple.
I mentioned the Aviation Reimagined webinar series earlier, it’s been fun organising that. The series has been running for three years now. The webinars are free and attract over 500 people from all over the world to explore how the aviation sector is being reimagined in terms of reducing emissions.
It’s quite inspirational and engages national and international lead players in the aviation and travel sector, including industry and businesses, large and small. It’s heart-warming to hear they are increasingly engaged and looking at science-based targets, and are willing to share their journeys with others and answer questions in an open discussion panel. Hopefully it will inspire more action across Australia.
There’s been lots of other great projects, including the framework for an Australian clean transport strategy, a collaborative outcome developed by 18 academics and experts, and was supported by iMOVE. It brought people together to identify what is needed across all transport sub-sectors to boost decarbonisation across Australia, identifying the opportunities for action for different tiers of government, but also industry, in transitioning the transport sector toward net zero.
Terrific. Okay, last question for you, and again, you can answer in terms of transport or clean fuels, whatever you would choose but in the next three to five years, what is it you’re most excited about? Probably the caveat there, is that it has a likelihood of happening.
I really hope that we start to see rapid development and take-up of zero emission technology and alternative fuels in Australian aviation. I think it would be terrific to see some of the new technologies being tested and trialled here. To actually have a commercial electric flight that’s carrying passengers or cargo, and to see more Australian start-ups in this space.
I’d love to see a national Australian strategy and targets for decarbonising the transport sector. That would consolidate the mechanisms and policy levers to enable the rapid shift that’s needed and that everybody could get behind.
I don’t think we mentioned it yet, but probably, another area that needs attention is maritime transport.
Agreed, and when I talk about an Australian strategy and plan for decarbonising transport, that should include aviation and shipping, domestic and international. It is not just big ships either, but also smaller vessels. In short, the framework for an Australian clean transport strategy, also known as FACTS: A Framework for an Australian Clean Transport Strategy that we worked on, provides a great starting point, for all transport modes.