Renewable energy deal gives no certainty over coming decades


Ken Baldwin, Australian National University

Over the past 14 months the uncertainty over the future of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) has completely stalled Australia’s electricity industry (both renewables and fossil fuels), causing many companies to reconsider their future in this country.

A compromise target of 33,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) in 2020 agreed between Labor and the Coalition has finally ended the deadlock. Or has it?

The electricity industry needs certainty to invest in long-term generating capacity, but the target itself is only in force until 2020 (just four years and seven months away). At least the major parties have agreed to get rid of the intermediate biennial reviews which would have thrown certainty out the window.

But Labor has promised to increase the target after the next election, and who knows what a re-energised post-election Coalition government might do if they were to retain power.

So where does that leave the sector over the coming decades?

Falling demand increases renewable share

The ostensible reason for the current review was that for a notional goal of 20% renewables by 2020, the original target of 41,000 GWh would have been “too high” (23% to 26%) – given that grid-based electricity demand has fallen over the last seven years (see the chart below).


Pitt and Sherry Emissions Index, May 2015

This fall is the result of a combination of reasons: the changing structure of our economy away from manufacturing, fallout from the global financial crisis, increases in electricity prices arising from over-investment in networks to meet projected peak demand, improvements in energy efficiency, and the explosion of rooftop solar to replace grid-based electricity.

The decline is marked: 9% in the four years and seven months since September 2010 or around 2% a year. If this decline continues to 2020 – a similar time interval away – then it could significantly increase the percentage contribution of renewables.

Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt currently estimates that the 33,000 GWh target will provide 23.5% renewables by 2020. This is similar to projections by ACIL Allen in their report commissioned for the RET Review Committee which assumes that electricity generation will rise (not fall) each year by 1.6% on average.

Alternatively, if demand flatlines until 2020, then the contribution of renewables (currently around 16%) could exceed 25% based on the other ACIL Allen parameters.

Even more significantly, if demand continues to fall at the same rate as in recent years, then the number could surpass 28%.

By comparison, a 41,000 GWh RET would have yielded around 26% renewables under the growth scenario, around 29% with flatlined demand, or around 32% with declining demand.

Pushing out large solar

In any event, without a price on carbon, the lower renewable uptake created by the 33,000 GWh target will slow the much-needed decarbonisation of Australia’s economy. The electricity sector’s emissions have dramatically increased since the removal of the carbon tax (see the chart above), at a time when the international imperative to reduce emissions is increasing.

Further, because of the backlog of wind projects already stalled by the RET uncertainty, large-scale solar may be squeezed out even though it will be increasingly competitive towards 2020. While wind is currently the cheapest new-build renewable, the Australian Energy Technology Assessment shows it will be followed hard on its heels by solar in 2020 because of rapid cost reductions. But the potential to overtake wind on price may come too late if the 33,000 GWh is already built out by new and pipelined wind projects.

In addition, the predicted potential for the RET to eventually reduce electricity prices (due to increased competition with incumbent generators) will be less effective now that the RET is reduced and future low-price competitors are potentially squeezed out.

No room for wood-burning

One thing is for sure, there should be no room in the RET for the burning of so-called “native timber waste” left over from other logging operations. Even if leftover timber that would otherwise decay is used, this is not a zero-carbon source of electricity for two key reasons.

First, the timber decay process itself takes many decades and retains some of the carbon in the soil, whereas burning the waste timber releases it immediately into the atmosphere.

Second, there is an additional and ongoing carbon footprint from the collection, transport and further processing of the waste timber before burning.

This is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that burning timber waste is a stalking horse for logging trees that would otherwise have locked up carbon naturally or in timber products.

With the current RET deadlock over, our next focus should be on Australia’s emissions reduction trajectory post-2020. If Australia is to meet its international obligation to keep global warming below dangerous levels, we need to provide the electricity sector with the certainty needed to make this happen.

The Conversation

Ken Baldwin is Director, Energy Change Institute at Australian National University.

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A matter of degrees: why 2C warming is officially unsafe


Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne and Peter Christoff, University of Melbourne

The goal of international climate negotiations is “to avoid dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases”. In 2010, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change formally recognised the “long term goal” of the convention was to hold the increase in global average warming to below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Is 2C therefore the safe limit above which climate change becomes “dangerous”? A UN expert dialogue of more than 70 scientists, experts, and climate negotiators recently released a final report concluding that 2C is “inadequate” as a safe limit.

The report will feed into a review of the 2C limit, including discussions on a tougher 1.5C warming limit in the new climate agreement expected in Paris in December.

So, what does the evidence say?

What’s the difference between 1.5 and 2C?

It is well known that the risks of climate change can be significantly reduced if warming is limited to well below 2C.

However, the scientific literature related to 1.5C is scarce, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) compares differences along 2C and 4C pathways – somewhat at odds with the current policy debates over temperature limits and danger thresholds.

Global average warming is just that – an average. Regional warming and vulnerability to climate impacts will vary significantly. Therefore the difference in projected risks between 1.5C and 2C of warming is particularly important for highly temperature-sensitive systems, such as the polar regions, high mountains and the tropics, and low-lying coastal regions.

At 2C the very existence of some atoll nations is threatened by rising sea-levels. Limiting warming to 1.5C may restrict sea level rise below 1 metre.

Yet even at 1.5C warming, regional food security risks are significant. Africa is particularly vulnerable, with significant reduction in staple crop yields in some countries. Current levels of warming are already causing impacts that many people will not be able to adapt to – more scope for adaptation would exist at 1.5C, especially in the agricultural sector.

Can we limit warming to 1.5C?

The 2C warming limit or “guardrail” has long been controversial. It was rejected by many developing countries at Copenhagen and over two thirds of Parties to the Convention call for a 1.5C limit. So is this ambitious temperature limit still within reach?

The carbon budget approach – adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report – defines the amounts of cumulative CO2 emissions which will drive warming to a given global temperature limit. The most stringent IPCC scenario gives a remaining (from 2011) carbon budget of 1,000 billion tonnes of CO2, for a “likely” chance of keeping global temperature within 2°C.

Yet whether a lower temperature limit is still within reach, and the pathway to get there, is debated. The more ambitious mitigation scenarios reported by the IPCC are characterised by overshooting the budget and then removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This usually means relying on bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage (burning biomass for energy, removing the CO2, and then storing it underground) to remove carbon from the atmosphere – which comes with its own risks.

1.5C pathways which do not rely on negative emissions depend on a much lower remaining budget. Even a 50% chance of keeping below 1.5C requires immediate and radical emission reductions. This would mean unprecedented annual rates of decline which are not in line with current levels of energy consumption or ideas of economic growth.

Others suggest that, for fossil fuel emissions and for developed economies, there is already no carbon budget left at all.

Moreover, this discussion doesn’t account for aerosol and particulate pollution masking the impact of greenhouse emissions, which could mean an additional 0.8C of warming is already “locked in”, increasing the scale of the challenge.

The UNFCC expert group recognised that limiting global warming to below even 2C necessitates a radical transition, not merely a fine-tuning of current trends, yet such radical emissions reduction pathways are so far excluded from IPCC assessment, leaving policy makers with little evidence on the impacts and feasibility of lower targets.

Where to from here?

The group concluded that the world is not on track to achieve the long-term global goal of 2C, noting that the longer we wait to bend the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper we will have to bend it down later.

The report will feed into discussions in relation to a decision on the global goal, expected at the Paris congress, with the report noting that limiting global warming to below 1.5C would come with several advantages in terms of coming closer to a safer “guardrail”.

However, the expert group falls short of recommending a 1.5C goal, arguing that the science on a 1.5C warming limit is less robust, despite presenting evidence that, in some regions, very high risks are projected for warming above 1.5C.

The idea that the 2C threshold is not safe is not new. Ten years ago prominent climate scientist James Hansen said the 2C threshold “cannot be considered a responsible target” and subsequently called for a 1C limit, with a carbon budget of just 500 Gt.

Only a few weeks ago, Hansen told ABC breakfast radio that it was crazy to think of 2C safe limit.

Others have joined the fray, challenging the acceptance of high probabilities of exceeding 2C, and risky mitigation pathways to get there. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre in Britain has said that 2C represents a threshold, not between acceptable and dangerous, but between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” climate change.

According to the IPCC’s budget numbers, only the very ambitious 1.5C pathway also gives us a high probability of holding warming even below 2C. After decades of procrastination, limiting warming to 1.5C, or even increasing the probabilities of not exceeding 2C, will now require action “faster than most policy makers conceive is possible”.

The Conversation

Kate Dooley is PhD candidate, Australian German Climate & Energy College at University of Melbourne.
Peter Christoff is Associate Professor at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Given the value of emissions cuts, solar subsidies are worth it


Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Earlier this week the Grattan Institute released the report Sundown, sunrise: how Australia can finally get solar power right. It looked at the cost of solar subsides and explored emerging challenges and opportunities for solar power to “find its place in the sun”, and generated widespread reports of its headline figure, that the cost of solar photovoltaic take-up has outweighed the benefits by almost A$10 billion dollars.

That figure (A$9.7 billion, to be precise) was generated by comparing the benefits of greenhouse emission reductions from solar, against the capital and maintenance costs. The first part of this calculation is therefore dependent on the assumed carbon price of A$30 a tonne, which gives a total benefit to society of A$2 billion by 2030.

The Grattan Institute’s analysis says that rooftop solar photovoltaic panels have come at a large cost to society. Figures (in 2015 dollars) refer to benefits and costs of solar PV systems installed from 2009.
Grattan Institute

But why A$30 per tonne? And what is the actual cost of carbon emissions?

The real cost of carbon

One metric commonly used is the “social cost of carbon”. This is an estimate of the economic damages from the emission of one extra unit of carbon dioxide (or equivalent). There is a huge range and debate about what the social cost of carbon really is.

Earlier this year, a paper in Nature Climate Change estimated the social cost of carbon to be US$220 per tonne. This significantly changes the cost benefit analysis.

Rooftop solar PV has come at a large cost to society Aggregate net present benefits and costs to society of solar PV systems installed from 2009, $2015, with a carbon price of $220 per tonne
Authors illustration

Last year, Nicholas Stern and Simon Dietz updated their internationally renowned model, finding that a carbon price between US$32 and US$103 was required today to avoid more than 2C of warming, (rising to between US$82-260 in 2035).

Other work suggests that should global greenhouse mitigation continue to be delayed, a carbon price of US$40 per tonne of CO2-equivalent would reduce the probability of limiting global warming to 2C by only 10–35%.

The Grattan report argued that “subsidies are expensive and inefficient”, but arbitrarily used a A$30 per tonne cost, significantly underestimating the most important subsidy: the fact that polluters are allowed to emit carbon dioxide for free.

While the choice of carbon price and costs significantly changes the calculus, looking only at the emissions and avoided generation really misses the point of the support mechanisms in the first place.

Why do we have renewable energy support mechanisms?

The Grattan report concludes that “Australia could have reduced its emissions for much less money”.

This is undeniably true. As the report points out, the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund has purchased emissions abatement at an average price of A$13.95 per tonne, and the Warburton review estimated the cost of the large-scale Renewable Energy Target to be A$32 per tonne up until 2030.

However, the objective of renewable energy policy is not solely for cheap and efficient emissions reductions. In fact, the objectives within the legislation of the renewable energy target are to:

  • encourage the additional generation of electricity;
  • reduce emissions of greenhouse gases;
  • ensure that renewable energy sources are sustainable.

It is not particularly fair to assess a support mechanism against objectives it was not designed to achieve. Only assessing the efficacy of the renewable energy target against emissions abatement efficiency misses an important component of renewable energy support policy: industry development.

Market mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, are widely acknowledged to be the most efficient method to reduce emissions. However, they are not sufficient by themselves and do not address other market failures.

In fact this is something that the Grattan Institute itself previously reported on in a previous report, Building the bridge: a practical plan for a low-cost, low-emissions energy future, which said:

Governments must address these market failures, beyond putting
a price on carbon

and

…in order to develop, demonstrate and deploy the technologies that are likely to be lowest cost in the longer time frame of meeting the climate change targets, further government action is essential.

As indicated, deployment policies are an essential policy to tool to develop the renewable energy industry, and ensure the lowest cost in the long term. Typically, in the context of renewable energy deployment policies sit between R&D on one hand, and pure market mechanism (such as carbon pricing) for mature technologies on the other.

Such deployment policies are essential to enable learning-by-doing and realising economies of scale. The cost reductions enabled by this simply cannot be developed in the lab, or be captured in the market by individual companies (due to knowledge and technology spillovers and other similar positive externalities).

The cost of reducing emissions

The report concludes that solar schemes have reduced emissions at a cost of A$175 per tonne to 2030. This figure has been derived by using the net present costs and for the emissions abated to 2030, which includes the capital cost of older and significantly more expensive systems.

If carbon costs were price at A$220 per tonne, the cost of abatement becomes negative, that is, a saving.

An alternative measure looks at the subsidy paid today. Households are currently purchasing solar systems subsidised by the RET at rate of approximately A$0.80 per watt installed, while receiving cost-reflective (unsubsidised) feed-in tariffs. Over an expected 25 year life, and an average grid carbon intensity of 0.85 tonnes per megawatt hour, the cost of abatement would be approximately A$28 per tonne.

Comparing this with the cost of abatement only a few years ago (in the order of several hundred dollars per tonne), the support mechanisms look very successful in delivering on objectives of industry development, and delivering cost reductions.

Most would agree that some renewable policies have previously been poorly implemented, and the Grattan report is right in highlighting these. However measuring their costs against objectives they were not intended to achieve is unfair.

The simple cost benefit analysis fails to incorporate all benefits of renewable energy support policy, and underestimates the avoided costs of carbon emissions.

The Conversation

Dylan McConnell is Research Fellow, Melbourne Energy Institute at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Want to help the environment? First fix your work-life balance


Andreas Chai, Griffith University

When it comes to climate change, do you practice what you preach? While many of us express strong concern about the issue, there tends to be a yawning gap between this concern and many people’s willingness to actually act on it by doing things like using less power or petrol.

Why should we care about this “value-action gap”? Well for one thing, these practices can make a big difference: up to an estimated 20% of household emissions, according to one US study. Things like using housing insulation and public transport, if done on a wide enough scale, can seriously help the world avoid major climate change.

Many might attribute this gap to “cheap talk” – people say they care, but they don’t really. But survey after survey has shown that people are truly aware of the risks of climate change, and that it is a growing source of emotional distress. In Australia, national surveys in 2010 and 2012 showed that public acceptance and concern about climate change has remained very high, and that it is viewed as a genuine threat by many people across different ages, regions and income levels.

A much more disturbing idea is that people’s choices are shaped by their work and social settings, and that people’s lifestyles therefore hold them back from taking action. This is the crux of what the downshifting movement has been telling us about for decades: that your choices are not just yours alone, but are heavily shaped by the environment in which you live, the hours you work and play, and the social norms you embrace.

What time to adapt?

My colleagues and I re-analysed this extensive survey database, and found evidence to support this idea. Working conditions do indeed seem to influence the extent to which people act on their environmental concerns.

After controlling for a range of demographic variables and household income, we found that people who work longer hours tend to have a significantly larger gap between the extent to which they are concerned about the environment, and their actual engagement in environmentally sustainable practices.

It is tempting to attribute this to the effect of income – people who work longer are probably richer as well. But then again, wouldn’t more money make people better able to act on their concerns?

Here’s the catch: while the rich who declare themselves to be concerned about climate change do tend to buy environmentally friendly products, our results show they are also much less much likely to engage in time-consuming practices concerning how their goods are used, such as conserving electricity and fuel.

So what?

Our results suggest that policies to improve work-life balance and working conditions may deliver important environmental dividends. When it comes to adapting to climate change, governments and employers would do well to consider how long working hours can get in the way of environmentally sound behaviour.

Currently, millions of dollars are spent every year on public information and engagement campaigns to encourage the voluntary adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. Yet evidence suggests that such campaigns are relatively ineffective, partly because behaviour patterns are “locked” into existing lifestyles.

What’s more, as the economist Clive Spash has pointed out, standard “tax-and-subsidise” measures, such as both the carbon tax and the government’s Direct Action plan, are recognized to be both slow and costly to implement, and run the risk of reducing people’s motivation to take their own voluntary action.

In other words, there is a danger that the more people formally pay for carbon emissions, the less likely they are to do their bit to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Rather than narrowly focusing on taxing and subsidizing our way towards a more sustainable economy, we need to find way in which we can encourage people to act voluntarily on their environmental concerns. Rather than merely raising public awareness about climate change, the real challenge is to ensure that people have the broad capacity to respond to these messages.

Measures to improve work-life balance may help people to adapt their lifestyles so they can act on their environmental concerns.

The daily grind

For those of us caught in the daily balancing act between work and everything else, the advice is simple. Do take that opportunity to go home an hour early – not only are you safeguarding your mental health, you are also encouraging others to lead lifestyles that are more reflective of their values, environmental or otherwise.

Of course, if you go home and decide to burn coal for an extra hour, that’s not true.

But chances are that you, like most people, are concerned about climate change but just haven’t had the time to really think about what exactly you can do about it.

It’s time to change that – and that’s something that governments and employers, by implementing measures which promote a better work-life balance, can help out with too.

The Conversation

Andreas Chai is Senior Lecturer at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Explainer: what is the List of World Heritage in Danger?


Peter Valentine, James Cook University

The List of World Heritage in Danger has recently come to the attention of Australians, as the World Heritage Committee considers whether the Great Barrier Reef belongs there. What is the list, and what does getting onto it mean?

The World Heritage Convention and the ‘in danger’ list

The World Heritage Convention is an international convention adopted by UNESCO aimed at conserving the world’s most outstanding heritage sites. The convention covers 190 countries that voluntarily participate in it. Identifying potential world heritage places is the responsibility of each participating country.

The World Heritage Committee – a 21-member body established by the convention but with membership elected by the member states – decides which sites make the list (there are currently 1,007). Countries have to protect, conserve, communicate the value of, rehabilitate and transmit the sites to future generations.

The government of Honduras requested the World Heritage Committee place its Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve on the List in Danger because of its reduced capacity to manage the site. Lawlessness in the area led to illegal logging, fishing and land occupation, poaching and the presence of drug traffickers.
Hjvannes/Wikimedia Commons

The World Heritage Committee also publishes a second list: the “List of World Heritage in Danger”.

Normally, for a site to enter this list, its country asks for help to address serious threats. But in cases of urgent need, the committee can inscribe a site immediately and without the agreement of its country. Currently, 46 World Heritage Sites, 20 of which are natural, are on the List in Danger.

The 46 sites currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
UNESCO/Google Maps

How are sites added to the list?

The World Heritage Committee gets information about the state of conservation of sites from countries and from advisory bodies such as the IUCN (natural heritage) and ICOMOS (cultural heritage). Where threats have been identified or changes proposed that may adversely effect a World Heritage property, the committee may seek a detailed site examination. This happened on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, was put on the World Heritage in Danger List for excessive development. The Great Barrier Reef is under scrutiny for similar concerns.
Asteiner/Wikimedia Commons

Two of the criteria used for placing a property on the list are ascertained and potential danger. Ascertained danger measures imminent threats, such as industrial development, to the site. Potential danger applies to development proposals that could undermine the essential character of the site.

Why list a site as ‘in danger’?

There are some advantages to a country of having a site listed as “in danger”. The World Heritage Committee can allocate funds to respond to the threats, typically under a plan drawn up with the country concerned. And it highlights to the world the threats that exist and encourages donor agencies to help.

For example, all five World Heritage Sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been on the endangered list since 1994, which has generated a large amount of international aid to support their rehabilitation. More than US$50 million has flowed not just from UNESCO but also from non-government organisations and from Belgium and Japan. This is an excellent example of the convention at work.

Countries may seek to avoid listing (and any perceived shame attached to this) and address the concerns internally. This occurred when Ecuador’s Galapagos World Heritage Area was inscribed.

Ecuador initially opposed the listing and asked for time to resolve the concerns internally. This required a constitutional change to empower the federal government to take appropriate action. Much to Ecuador’s credit, this was accomplished.

Few other countries have taken such dramatic action to protect World Heritage. On two occasions when countries have failed to respond appropriately, the committee has taken the radical step to remove sites from both Heritage lists altogether. The first to be removed was Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary – a victim of the nation’s lust for oil.

Every such removal would be seen as a failure of the convention. The presumption is that a site is rehabilitated and then upgraded to its original standing on the World Heritage list.

While there has been some debate about its efficacy and there are different interpretations about the significance and meaning of listing a site as “in danger”, the process is a very clear first step in the potential removal of a site from the World Heritage List.

The Conversation

Peter Valentine is Associate Professor Environmental Science at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Shipping in the Great Barrier Reef: the miners' highway


Alana Grech and Laurence McCook, James Cook University

This article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef has deteriorated since its World Heritage listing in 1981 and, as a report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority made clear, this downward trajectory is likely to continue without significant intervention. At the same time, the global demand for coal, gas and minerals has led to rapid port expansion along the Reef’s coast, most prominently at Abbot Point, Hay Point and Gladstone.

The impact of ports and dredging on the Reef’s values are a focal point of local and international attention. Dredging establishes shipping lanes, swing basins and berth pockets to service the navigation of large shipping vessels. But what about the ships themselves? The impacts of shipping have been reported as well managed in the past, but will this change as more ships move through the region?

Traffic report

More than 9,600 ship voyages were recorded in the Reef between 2012 and 2013, and 3,947 individual ships called in at Reef ports in 2012. At the current growth rate of 4.8% per annum, the projected increase in ship numbers calling into these ports will exceed 10,000 by 2032.


PGM Environment/port authorities

The average size of ships is also increasing: worldwide, average vessel size has grown by 85% over the past 15 years.

In addition to commodity vessels, the number of cruise ships, super yachts and navy vessels are also predicted to increase.

When the Chinese bulk coal carrier MV Shen Neng I ran aground on Douglas Shoal northeast of Gladstone in 2010, it left a 400,000-square-metre scar – the largest ever recorded in the Great Barrier Reef. More than 600 shipping incidents were recorded in the region between 1987 and 2009, not to mention the many near misses that have gone unreported.

A diver surveys the damage caused when the MV Shen Neng I ran aground on the reef in 2010.
AAP Image/GBRMPA

The potentially catastrophic impact of incidents such as collisions, groundings, or major oil or cargo spills has led the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to develop the North-East Shipping Management Plan, which features measures such as mandatory ship reporting. The Reef is also listed as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), necessitating traffic monitoring of all vessels longer than 50 metres. Vessels are largely confined to dedicated shipping lanes in general use zones, and much of the region requires the compulsory pilotage of vessels over 70 m and all loaded oil tankers and chemical and natural gas carriers.

The result has been that, despite the reported increase in vessel traffic of about 1% per year over the past decade, the 2014 Outlook Report judged the likelihood of an acute shipping incident as “unlikely to impossible” – the same level as it was in 2009.

Accidents aside, what about the more gradual effects of growing traffic volumes across the Reef?

Chronic impacts – the sleeping giant?

The shipping industry has committed to continually improve the design and operation of ships to ensure they have no harmful impact on the environment. In practice, the biggest issues for the industry are cost and safety – the environmental conservation is not a priority, except in the case of acute events such as oil spills.

Yet the chronic impacts of shipping, despite generally causing only low-level damage, can accumulate significantly over time. Examples include physical damage from propellers and anchors, the introduction of invasive species, greenhouse gas and nitrogen oxide emissions, and contamination from the release of coal dust, rubbish, sewage, anti-fouling agents and non-synthetic compounds such as oil and heavy metals. The global trend toward deeper-draft ships is also increasing the likelihood of propeller scouring and the resuspension of sediment.

More ships moving through the Reef is increasing the likelihood of vessel strike on turtles, whales, dugong and other mammals, as well as exposing them to noise, light and pollution. Increased vessel traffic also presents a risk of collision with smaller boats, such as yachts and fishing vessels, which are vital to Queensland’s tourism and fishing industries.

The Commonwealth and Queensland government’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan concentrates its actions, targets and objectives on acute shipping incidents. However, it does not address the monitoring or management of the cumulative impact of chronic shipping pressures that cover a much wider area then acute incidents.

Shift to environmentally sustainable shipping

The strategies to avoid shipping accidents on the Reef are arguably world-leading. But there is room for improvement. Materials and equipment for disaster responses are dispersed and difficult to mobilise in the Reef, particularly in the wet season, when many roads and airstrips can be unusable. Logistical difficulties and high transport costs limit the ability to respond quickly to accidents, especially in the remote north.

Good incident management needs sufficient funding, equipment, procedures and personnel, to provide for pilotage and assistance of stricken vessels, ship inspections, and immediate clean-up in the case of spills or groundings. Authorities should also consider closing the Reef’s waters to ships that don’t meet prescribed standards of crew competency and vessel condition, similar to the eco-certification of tourism vessels.

But if we are really to safeguard the Reef, we need to address chronic shipping pressures too. This could be done by shifting the current focus on ship safety to a broader approach that ensures shipping is doing its business in smarter, safer and greener ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Move towards best environmental practice with introduction of Reef class vessels that are wider and shallower and result in less environmental impact than existing deep draught ships.

  • Develop an integrated monitoring program near major shipping routes, to measure the chronic impacts of shipping on species and habitats.

  • Implement the proposed National Vessel Strike Strategy and develop guidelines for noise levels to minimise harm to marine wildlife.

The shipping industry is an integral part of Australia’s maritime economy. But it needs to be managed in a way that will not increase pressure on the Great Barrier Reef’s unique values. Given the region’s World Heritage status and its vulnerable state, we should expect to see continued improvement in shipping management. If the government prioritises strategic planning, partnership and funding to shipping management like they have for Reef Rescue, we could see a transformation in the environmental sustainability of the shipping industry.

This article was co-written with Adam Smith, Director of Reef Ecologic and a former member of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The Conversation

Alana Grech is Lecturer in Spatial Information Science at Macquarie University.
Laurence McCook is Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, Partner Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Wealthy nations overlook the dangers of climate change


Alex Lo, University of Hong Kong

Do rich countries care more about the environment that poorer ones? In a recent study I found that’s not necessarily the case. The reason comes down to danger: poorer nations are more worried about risks such as flooding, so are more concerned about environmental impacts that might increase these risks, such as climate change.

But even that’s not the full story.

Social scientists have long argued that public support for environmental protection increases with wealth, an outcome of “post-materialism”.

Recent cross-national studies have shown that people in wealthier nations are more likely to take actions to protect the environment, such as paying higher prices or taxes to ensure better environmental quality. Those in lower-income countries are less likely to do so. It is not difficult to see why. Resource constraints and education are key factors affecting intention to contribute.

Others argue that environmental concern in affluent societies is not higher. Put it this way: economically disadvantaged societies are equally and perhaps increasingly concerned about nature. This may be related to income growth, but this would mean the most affluent societies would still do better on the environmental concern scale than the less fortunate ones (not necessarily the poorest).

Is this really the case?

Mixed concerns

There is no single answer.

Take climate change as an example. Certainly Australians have done quite a lot to mitigate climate change, such as installing solar panels on rooftops.

But would the average Australian care more about climate change than, say, an ordinary Vanuatuan? Yes and no.

Yes, because Australians, with higher incomes, have more resources for supporting their action and are therefore more willing (or able) to act.

No, because climate change is an everyday threat to the livelihoods of Vanuatuans, whereas Australians have greater capacity for managing bad consequences and reducing climate risks to acceptable levels.

The “no” tells a different story. Action, or intended action, is one thing. Danger, or perceived danger, is another. Environmental concern can be defined in both terms, but they respond to national income in opposite ways. This means wealth has mixed effects on environmental concern.

My report shows that the richer are indeed relatively less concerned about the danger of environmental problems than the poorer.

As gross domestic product (GDP) per capita increases, concern about environmental risks goes down, across 35 countries worldwide. Wealthier nations include Australia and the United States, while the lower-income ones include South Africa and the Philippines.

The latter group tend to see potential threats to the environment caused by human interventions (such as air and water pollution, genetic modification of crops, climate change, nuclear power plants) as more dangerous than the former group do. People in affluent societies see these environmental risks as lower.

Poorer nations more vulnerable

One reason for this is that people in wealthier nations tend to see these risks as manageable and therefore not a matter of great concern relative to how the rest of the world sees them. The report also shows that environmental risk perception decreases with adaptive capacity, which refers to a country’s ability to attract and mobilise resources to cope with changes in future conditions.

Richer countries have better infrastructure, technologies, social security systems, emergency supplies and community supports to help their citizens cope with catastrophic events. Greater capacity to cope gives people a stronger sense of collective security – they feel protected from environmental changes.

This is just like households with insurance which might see themselves at lower risk from flooding, as they assume themselves to be financially protected.

People with multiple residential properties in disparate locations are less likely to worry about forced relocation or homelessness as a result of flooding or other disruptive natural hazards. Without such protection, people living on margins see themselves as being at higher risk (of almost everything). So they are more concerned about the consequences of environmental stresses.

This is the case even if we only look at “remote” sources of danger, such as GM food and climate change. Not all poorer nations are directly and significantly affected by these changes; some wealthier ones are actually under greater threat.

However, GDP per person is still negatively related to perception of these risks. Australians and Dutch, both well informed of and highly exposed to climate change impacts, are the least likely to see temperature rises as very dangerous among the 35 countries.

This could be a recipe for bad adaptation to environmental change. The knowledge of better protection among the richer populations could elevate a collective self-assuring attitude.

This might prematurely undermine their caution about impending threats and consequently reduce motivation to strengthen or maintain capacity for dealing with environmental stressors.

Although Third World countries are not included in the study, these findings have implications for upper- and middle-income countries. This will be a bigger issue for emerging economies as people’s incomes and the capacity to cope are increasing, and their people feel more secure about changes in environmental conditions.

But the reality is that we live in an increasingly dangerous world as climate change accelerates.

The Conversation

Alex Lo is Assistant Professor, The Kadoorie Institute at University of Hong Kong.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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