Donald Trump has just attended his first APEC leaders’ summit following bilateral state visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. After the NATO summit and G20 earlier in the year, in which he displayed his inexperience and lack of affinity for multilateralism, many feared the worst.
But the comfortable rapport he established with leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as the less formal structures of APEC, meant there was no repeat of the northern hemisphere summer.
APEC was established in 1989 with the leaders’ summit added in 1994, with an ambition to drive economic co-operation and in particular trade liberalisation across the region. While it has been modestly successful in the unglamorous area of trade facilitation – involving largely regulatory streamlining to make the business of international trade smooth – as a co-operative framework it has not achieved any major outcomes.
So when looking at APEC, the real interest is not on the grouping’s economic policy process, but what occurs on the platform that the leaders’ summit provides, as its convening power remains impressive. What did we see in 2017?
Once again, APEC was a forum for discussing a non-APEC trade agreement. The TPP had regularly figured in previous meetings, and this time the 11 remaining members met to try to craft an agreement without the US. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to attend one of the meetings, but it does appear that the 11 have salvaged some kind of a deal.
A string of meetings occurred on the sidelines. Of greatest interest was Trump’s conclave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mostly focused on relationship-building, particularly important given the slate of new leaders in the club. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Moon, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen were all making their debut.
Despite the evidently warm personal relationship that Trump has developed with Xi, the smiles and diplomatic tourism in Beijing are the pleasant facade of what has become a more overt competition for influence in the region. At the 2017 iteration of the meeting Gareth Evans famously described as “four adjectives in search of meaning”, this was plainly in sight.
At keynote speeches to the APEC CEO summit, Xi and Trump laid out their views on the region’s future. Trump’s speech was the second setpiece, following Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS in October, which outlined a belated US strategy to the region. The US aims to sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and Trump’s focus at APEC was on the economic dimension.
Continuing the themes raised in his UN General Assembly speech of September in which Trump declared he expected all countries to pursue their own interests first, he continued his walk away from core principles of its economic engagement of the region. In the past it had pursued large scale multilateral agreements, initially chasing a big free-trade agreement of the Asia Pacific, and more recently the TPP.
Trump said very plainly that there would be no more big agreements, and only bilateral deals based on strict and fairly narrow ideas of reciprocity. The other notable element was a direct statement that the US would no longer put up with predatory practices of other countries, such as IP theft, subsidies and not-enforced trade rules. While he did not name China as his main concern, he didn’t need to.
Trump’s effort to reconcile US rhetorical commitment to an open economic order in the region with his mercantilism stood in contrast to Xi’s approach. Xi painted a picture that seemed much more in keeping with the longer-run trends in Asia’s economic order.
Xi repeated the promise made at Davos that China was committed to economic openness. More specifically, he said China would seek to make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced.
Interestingly, he said China would uphold regional multilateralism as the best means to advance the region’s common interests that were “interlocked”. He also presented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open mechanism that would help advance regional connectivity and even, somewhat surprisingly, described it in fairly economically liberal terms.
To be clear, Xi’s speech was a declaration of what China would do – whether it actually follows through is an open question. Nonetheless, Xi presented a China that would lead an open and inclusive economic order, in some ways as a defender of the status quo. Trump, in contrast, seemed to break with that tradition. Trump’s economic nationalism was on display, and he encouraged others to follow his lead.
Quite where this leaves the region is unclear. We still have to wait to see whether the two speeches of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” becomes an actual strategy. US policy remains hindered by a lack of resourcing in key branches of government.
Equally, we have to wait to see what China will actually do. But make no mistake, at APEC 2017, the region’s two biggest powers presented clearly different visions of the region’s economic future.
The most important thing to understand about the federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee is that it is designed not to produce a sustainable and reliable electricity supply system for the future, but to meet purely political objectives for the current term of parliament.
Those political objectives are: to provide a point of policy difference with the Labor Party; to meet the demands of the government’s backbench to provide support for coal-fired electricity; and to be seen to be acting to hold power prices down.
Meeting these objectives solves Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s immediate political problems. But it comes at the cost of producing a policy that can only produce further confusion and delay.
The government’s central problem is that, as well as being polluting, coal-fired power is not well suited to the problem of increasingly high peaks in power demand, combined with slow growth in total demand.
Coal-fired power plants are expensive to start up and shut down, and are therefore best suited to meeting “baseload demand” – that is, the base level of electricity demand that never goes away. Until recently, this characteristic of coal was pushed by the government as the main reason we needed to maintain coal-fired power.
The opposite of baseload power is “dispatchable” power, which can be turned on and off as needed.
Coal-fired plants can be adapted to be “load-following” which gives them some flexibility in their output. But this requires expensive investment and reduces the plants’ operating life. The process is particularly ill-suited to the so-called High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE) plants being pushed as a solution to the other half of the policy problem, reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Given that there is only limited capacity to expand hydro (Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 is years away, if it ever happens) and that successive governments have made a mess of gas policy, any serious expansion of dispatchable power would realistically need to focus on batteries. The South Australian government reached this conclusion some time ago, making a decision to invest in its own battery storage. That move was roundly condemned by the federal government, which at the time was still focused on baseload.
The government’s emphasis on baseload was always mistaken, but the confusion and noise surrounding energy policy meant that few people understood this. That changed in September when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) reported that Australia’s National Electricity Market faced a capacity shortfall of up to 1,000 megawatts for the coming summer, and that older baseload power stations will struggle to cope.
Clearly this situation called for more flexibility in dispatchable sources in the short term, and widespread investment in dispatchables for the long term.
A question of definition
Obviously, this presented Turnbull with a dilemma. The policy advice clearly favoured dispatchables, but vocal members of his backbench wanted a policy to subsidise coal.
The answer was breathtakingly simple. The new policy redefines coal as dispatchable, despite it having the opposite technological characteristics.
This is not an entirely new approach. Before the government decided to abandon the proposed Clean Energy Target it put a lot of effort into redefining coal as “clean”. The approach here involved creating confusion between carbon capture and storage (CCS) and HELE power stations. CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from power station smokestacks and pumping it underground, thereby avoiding emissions. This would be a great solution to the problems of carbon pollution if it worked, but unfortunately it’s hopelessly uneconomic
By contrast, HELE is just a fancy name for the marginal improvements made to coal-fired technology over the 30-50 years since most of our existing coal-fired plants were designed and built. The “low” emissions are far higher than those for gas-fired power, let alone renewables or, for that matter, nuclear energy (another uneconomic option).
The core of the government’s plan is a requirement that all electricity retailers should provide a certain proportion of dispatchable electricity – a term that has now been arbitrarily defined to include coal. By creating a demand for this supposedly dispatchable power, the policy discourages the retirement of the very coal units that AEMO has identified as ill-suited to our needs.
Given that the policy is unlikely to survive beyond the next election, it’s unlikely that it will prompt anyone to build a new gas-fired power station, let alone a coal-fired plant. So the only real effect will be to discourage investment in renewables and create yet further policy uncertainty.
This undermines the basis for the (unreleased) modelling supposedly showing that household electricity costs will fall. These savings are supposed to arise from the investment certainty resulting from bipartisan agreement. But the political imperative for the government is to put forward a policy Labor can’t support, to provide leverage in an election campaign. If the government had wanted policy certainty it could have accepted Labor’s offer to support the Clean Energy Target.
It remains to be seen whether this scheme will achieve the government’s political objectives. It is already evident, however, that it does not represent a long-term solution to our problems in energy and climate policy.
What is this awkwardly named idea? It’s the concept that someone’s experience of the internet in Turkey, for example, is increasingly different from their experience of the internet in Australia.
Travellers to China, in particular, will be familiar with this phenomenon. Thanks to the government’s tight control, they have to use Baidu rather than Google as their search engine, and are unable to access Facebook or news sites like The Economist and the New York Times.
Read More: Is America’s digital leadership on the wane?
We have a growing splinternet because of regional content blocking and the need for companies to comply with diverse, often conflicting national policies, regulations and court decisions.
This tension is particularly apparent when it comes to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. These platform companies have users in almost every country, and governments are increasingly insisting that they comply with local laws and cultural norms when it comes to access and content.
The internet was never truly open
The idea of the internet as an independent, global and unregulated platform has always been something of a fiction. Even at the height of techno-futurist rhetoric about its potential to transcend national boundaries in the late 1990s, there were always exceptions.
The Chinese Communist Party understood from the start that the internet was simply a new form of media, and media control was central to national sovereignty and its authority.
But the splinternet refers to a broader tendency to use laws and regulatory powers within territorial jurisdictions to set limits on digital activities.
A threshold moment was Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. The documents he shared suggested that the US National Security Agency, through its PRISM program, had been collecting information from global users of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo.
In countries such Brazil, whose leaders had had their communications intercepted, this accelerated moves towards developing national internet control.
Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet law, for instance, now requires global companies to comply with Brazilian laws around data protection.
Is this a bad thing?
Until now, much of the appeal of the internet has been that it’s driven by user content and preferences, and not by governments.
But people are paying more attention to hate speech, targeted online abuse, extremism, fake news and other toxic aspects of online culture. Women, people of colour and members of certain religions are disproportionately targeted online.
Academics such as Tarleton Gillespie and public figures such as Stephen Fry are part of a growing rejection of the typical response of platform providers: that they are “just technology companies” – intermediaries – and cannot involve themselves in regulating speech.
A UK House of Commons report into “hate crime and its violent consequences” noted that:
…there is a great deal of evidence that these platforms are being used to spread hate, abuse and extremism. That trend continues to grow at an alarming rate but it remains unchecked and, even where it is illegal, largely unpoliced.
If we say online hate speech “should be policed”, two obvious questions arise: who would do it and on what grounds?
At present, content on the major platforms is largely managed by the companies themselves. The Guardian’s Facebook Files revealed both the extent and limitations of such moderation.
We may see governments become increasingly willing to step in, further fragmenting the user experience.
Fair play for all
There are other concerns at play in the splinternet. One is the question of equity between technology companies and traditional media.
Brands like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Amazon are eclipsing traditional media giants. Yet film, television, newspapers and magazines are still subject to considerably greater levels of country-specific regulation and public scrutiny.
For example, Australian commercial television networks must comply with locally produced material and children’s content regulations. These mostly do not apply to YouTube or Netflix despite audiences and advertisers migrating to these providers.
It is increasingly apparent to media policy makers that existing regulations aren’t meaningful unless they extend into the online space.
In Australia, the 2012 Convergence Review sought to address this. It recommended that media regulations should apply to “Content Service Enterprises” that met a particular size threshold, rather than basing the rules on the platform that carries the content.
Do we want a splinternet?
We may be heading towards a splinternet unless new global rules can be set. They must combine the benefits of openness with the desire to ensure that online platforms operate in the public interest.
Yet if platform providers are forced to navigate a complex network of national laws and regulations, we risk losing the seamless interconnectedness of online communication.
The burden of finding a solution rests not only on governments and regulators, but on the platforms themselves.
Their legitimacy in the eyes of users is tied up with what Bank of England chair Mark Carney has termed for markets is a “social licence to operate”.
Although Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and others operate globally, they need to be aware that the public expects them to be a force for social good locally.
In distinguishing between “good” and “bad” debt, federal Treasurer Scott Morrison equates good debt with infrastructure investment. However, not all infrastructure investment announced in the budget is necessarily “good”.
We are now in the Anthropocene – a new geological age defined by the global scale of humanity’s impact on the Earth – which places new requirements on our infrastructures. We need to move beyond the AAA ratings mindset, and instead aim for net-positive outcomes in social, economic and ecological terms from the outset.
Infrastructure (such as transport, water, energy, communications) underpins our ability to live in cities and our quality of life. And most infrastructure is very, very long-lived. Therefore, our infrastructure investment decisions matter enormously, especially for tomorrow.
More than half of the world’s people live in cities, and have just one planet’s worth of material resources to share around. This means we must define a new set of expectations and performance criteria for infrastructure.
Rather than settling for doing less bad, such as less environmental destruction or social disruption, we must aim from the outset to do more good. This net-positive approach requires us to restore, regenerate and increase social, cultural, natural and economic capital.
What sort of change is needed?
Examples of this kind of thinking are, as yet, rare or small.
Bishan Park on the Kallang River in Singapore gets close. Formerly a channelled stormwater drain, this collaboration between the national parks and public utility agencies has recreated significant habitat while providing flood protection and an exceptional recreational space. All this has been done in an extremely dense city.
Looking further into the future, in transport, a net-positive motorway might prioritise active transport and make public transport central by design. It might send price signals based on the number of passengers, vehicle type (such as autonomous) and vehicle ownership (shared, for instance).
Net-positive thinking aligns with a groundbreaking speech by Geoff Summerhayes, executive board member of Australia’s Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), earlier this year. He identified climate change risk as a core fiduciary concern, and therefore central to directors’ duties.
This shift raises significant questions for the financial and operational validity of major infrastructure projects.
For example, in assessing the WestConnex motorway project, Infrastructure Australia queried why a broader set of (potentially less energy-intensive) transport options was not considered. Similar questions arise for the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund’s support for Adani’s giant Carmichael coal mine and associated water and transport infrastructure.
A core part of the switch to net-positive infrastructure is the realisation that resilience and robustness are different things. Historically, robustness has been central to infrastructure planning. However, robustness relies on assuming that the future is more or less predictable. In the Anthropocene, that assumption no longer holds.
How do we build in resilience?
So, the best we can do is set ourselves up for a resilient future. This is one where our infrastructure is at its core flexible and adaptable.
This could include, for example, phasing infrastructure investment and development over time. Current analysis is biased toward building big projects because we assume our projected demand is correct. Therefore, we expect to reduce the overall cost by building the big project now.
However, in a more uncertain future, investing incrementally reduces risk and builds resilience, while spreading the cost and impact over time. This approach allows us to monitor and amend our planning as appropriate. It has been shown to save water utilities in Melbourne as much as A$2 billion.
Maybe the fact that we can be criticised for not having enough capacity ready in time has influenced our decision-making. We should really be challenged over investing too much, too soon, thereby eliminating the opportunity to adapt our thinking.
Or maybe we are so concerned about the need to build certainty into our planning that we are missing the opportunity to build learning through feedback loops into our strategies.
Surely there is a balance to be struck between providing enough certainty for investment without pretending we know with absolute certainty what we need to invest for the next 30 years.
We need long-term plans alongside learning and adaptation to respond to the imminent challenges facing infrastructure everywhere. These include:
major unregulated growth in interdependencies between infrastructures;
lack of systems thinking in planning and design;
radical shifts in the structure of cities and how we live and work;
increasingly fragmented provision;
no central governance of infrastructure as a system; and
much existing infrastructure approaching or past its end of life.
Regulatory reform is part of what’s required to enable public and private investment in better outcomes. Here too we need to learn our way forward.
Sydney’s emerging, world-leading market in recycled water is an example of a successful niche development that delivers more liveable and productive pockets in our cities through innovative integrated infrastructure.
Ultimately, doing infrastructure differently will also require investment in research on infrastructure. The UK is investing £280 million in this through the Collaboratium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities. But in Australia’s recent draft roadmap for major research investment, infrastructure is largely absent. We overlook infrastructure research at our peril.
Cynthia Mitchell, Professor of Sustainability, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; David Singleton, Chair, Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology, and Jim Bentley, Honorary Director, Centre for Infrastructure Research, University of Auckland
This is the fourth 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 privatisation of urban infrastructure in Australia is an ironic story. The vehicles of urban infrastructure – the utilities and the state-owned enterprises – were so central to the life of cities that they became perfect entities for private sell-off. We now live with the consequences of the sell-off.
The utilities flourished in Australia as a nation-building exercise following the second world war. The Bretton Woods agreements entrenched Keynesian fiscal behaviours across the Western world.
The utilities thrived on the willingness of governments to raise capital for public works. They were also central to the development of state capacity and the assembly of a career-based professional public service. As part of the social compact, the public accepted reasonable user pricing for the availability of water, energy, public transport and telecommunications services.
Hence, the utilities and the state-owned enterprises led the roll-out of urban infrastructure in the second half of the 20th century. This roll-out shaped the nature of Australian urban life, its format and flows.
But then fiscal crisis of the state descended in the 1970s and 1980s. The sell-off of public assets was seen worldwide as a solution to state indebtedness. Arguments that private enterprise could deliver infrastructure services more efficiently added impetus.
A wholesale transformation
Few governments resisted the sell-off urge. Australian governments, state and federal, participated in the sell-off, though in a stuttering manner. Through time, however, the change has been substantial.
Abbott and Cohen calculate that the output of state-owned enterprises in Australia in 1989-90 accounted for 7% of GDP, 9% of total employment, and 14% of gross fixed capital expenditure.
By 2011-12, the output of state-owned enterprises had fallen to 1.3% of GDP. Their gross fixed capital expenditure contributed only 1.8% of the nation’s total. The authors estimate that proceeds from privatisations in Australia since 1987 total around A$194 billion (in constant year 2000 dollars).
The sell-off commercialised and privatised a raft of assets: electricity generation and transmission, gas distribution, airports, ports and telecommunication. New assets went straight to private hands: motorways, public transport, renewable energy generation, and freight handling.
The shedding of public responsibility for infrastructure meant public investment in Australia as a share of GDP fell from more than 5% in the mid-1980s to well below 3% by the end of the 1990s.
What’s in it for investors?
There is much to understand about the sell-off. Here I focus only on why private investors are willing to pay extraordinary prices to acquire urban infrastructure assets.
The attraction of investing in an urban infrastructure asset comes from the infrastructure services being embedded in the daily flows of people, water, energy and information throughout a city. The flows of a city are remarkably ordered in terms of volume, direction and timing.
How a city operates is dependent on the co-existence of decisions by infrastructure operators and users. The operators decide how and when services will be available. Households and firms decide what they will be doing across a 24-hour day and therefore how and when they will use the infrastructure services on offer.
Thus, the efficiency of infrastructure provision comes from the predictability of the flows of a city. These in turn come from a historical patterning and sequencing of behaviours by householders and firms as they read off and conform to each other’s movements.
An example is the relatively sympathetic structuring and sequencing of work hours and school hours. This ensures that public transport facilities are utilised more efficiently in peak hours, while the hours that parents and children spend together are made more convenient.
The embeddedness of infrastructure into city life means that revenue streams from user fees for infrastructure services are highly predictable and stable. And because transport, water and energy supply is usually monopolised, the householder has little choice but to continue as a consumer of an infrastructure service.
The books of a utility or state-owned enterprise, then, represent a discrete set of households well trained to pay their monthly bills. This is precisely the type of revenue stream that pension, insurance and sovereign wealth funds seek when faced with the peculiar problem of having surplus cash to lock away for at least the next two decades.
What did we lose in the sell-off?
Perhaps it was clever to have solved a government debt problem in Australia back in the day through a sell-off of assets to a new class of long-term investor. But as a consequence we have lost other things.
Infrastructure as a planning tool to shape our cities is one. Revenue streams to subsidise needy customers or supply to remote locations is another.
And, critically, we have lost the opportunity for the state to revamp energy, water and transport systems to allow for innovative supply and demand formats – such as distributed electricity supply networks – that are more appropriate to a climate-threatened planet.
Long-term privatisation contracts, most of them closed to scrutiny, lock urban infrastructure provision into 20th-century formats.
The difficult task now will be their unlocking.
This article draws on a research paper by the author 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.