Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia


Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, UNSW Australia

The conflict between urbanites and wildlife recently developed a new battleground: the small coastal New South Wales town of Batemans Bay, where the exceptional flowering of spotted gums has attracted a huge influx of grey-headed flying-foxes from across Australia’s southeast.

In response to intense and highly publicised community concern, federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has announced he will seek an immediate National Interest Exemption to facilitate dispersal of these bats – a move that risks undermining legal protections afforded to this and other threatened species.

Similar conflicts are occurring elsewhere in NSW, such as the Hunter region, where some unscrupulous members of the public lit a fire in a flying-fox roost at Cessnock.

With the ongoing expansion of the human urban footprint, animals are increasingly confronted with urban environments. Human encroachment into natural habitats generally negatively affects biodiversity. However, urban landscapes can present wildlife with an irresistible lure of reliable food supplies and other resources. While urban wildlife can provide a range of benefits to health and wellbeing, it can also be cause for frustration and conflict.

Urban human-wildlife conflict is a growing area of management concern and scientific research. But the research suggests that the current strategies for addressing NSW’s conflicts between humans and flying-foxes might not have the intended results.

Flying-foxes increasingly find themselves in urban areas.
Justin Welbergen

Ruling the urban roost

Australian flying-foxes are becoming more urbanised, and the noise, smell and droppings from their roosts can have huge impacts on local residents.

A fundamental problem underlying current approaches to urban roosts is a lack of understanding of the extraordinary mobility of flying-foxes. They are some of the most mobile animals in Australia, with movements that range from foraging trips of up to 120 km in a single night to long-distance nomadism covering thousands of kilometres in a single year.

Nomadic movements of an adult female grey-headed flying-fox, tracked over a period of four years and currently at Batemans Bay.
John Martin & Justin Welbergen, unpublished

While roosts can remain active for decades, they are more like backpacker hostels than stable households, housing a constantly changing clientele that comes to visit local attractions. Roosts are connected into large networks through which flying-foxes move in response to changes in local food resources.

This explains the sudden influx in places such as Batemans Bay where preferred food suddenly becomes abundant. But it also highlights the importance of a national approach to flying-fox management and conservation.

Intense local flowerings of Eucalypts, such as spotted gums, produce copious amounts of nectar and pollen, which attract large numbers of flying-foxes and other species for several weeks. When a relatively small local flying-fox population that is tolerated by its human neighbours suddenly increases tenfold, it can place severe pressure on the local community.

Despite their transient nature, these influxes are often wrongly interpreted as population explosions, leading to calls for culling. In comparison, more humane tactics – such as using loud noise or vegetation removal to disperse the flying-foxes – can seem like a more balanced response. But does dispersal actually work?

Council workers in Charters Towers, Queensland, using ‘foggers’ to disperse flying-foxes from a local roost.
Australasian Bats Society

Shifting the problem elsewhere

There is now ample evidence to show that dispersals are extremely costly and can exacerbate the very human-wildlife conflict that they aim to resolve.

Most dispersals result in the flying-foxes returning the original roost as soon as the dispersal program ends, because naïve new individuals continue to arrive from elsewhere. Overcoming this can take months or years of repeated daily dispersal.

Other dispersals result in flying-foxes establishing new roosts a few hundred metres away, typically within the same urban environment in locations that we cannot control. This risks shifting the problem to previously unaffected members of a community and to other communities nearby.

Former flying-fox roost at Boonah, Queensland, that contained thousands of flying-foxes before it was destroyed in June 2014.
Justin Welbergen

While flying-foxes are often portrayed as noisy pests, they serve our economic interest by providing irreplaceable pollination and seed-dispersal services for free. What’s more, those same bats that annoy people during the day work tirelessly at night to maintain the health of our fragmented forests and natural ecosystems.

So it is in our national interest to manage conflict at urban roosts, by using approaches that balance community concerns with environmental considerations.

Flying-foxes perform irreplaceable ecological roles in our natural environment.
Steve Parish

To be considered “successful”, a dispersal should permanently reduce conflict to a level that is acceptable to the community without causing significant harm to the animals. However, dispersals are currently implemented at the local council level with little or no monitoring of the impacts in or outside the immediately affected area. This makes it hard to assess whether they have been successful.

For example, it is not uncommon for flowering to cease and flying-fox numbers to decline naturally during the period of active dispersal. This gives the community a false sense that a permanent solution has been achieved, when in fact the issues will recur the next time the trees blossom. There is thus an urgent need for urban roosts to be managed with properly defined and applied criteria for success.

Evidence-based management

Unfortunately, lack of research effort directed at “ugly” and “less popular” Australian animals means that very few evidence-based management tools are available to deal with contentious roosts.

Research targeting a few key areas would greatly help efforts to improve urban roost management. For instance, we do not know how flying-foxes choose their roost sites, which leaves us unable to design “carrot solutions” by creating more attractive roost sites elsewhere.

Intensive tree-flowering events are relatively infrequent and hard to predict. This means that it is difficult to prepare communities for a sudden influx of flying-foxes.

Furthermore, the acceptability of various flying-fox management options differs between sections of the community, so it is difficult to find optimal solutions. Social scientists are currently trying to help identify priority areas that promote long-term viability of flying-foxes while also easing conflict with humans.

The extreme mobility of flying-foxes means that a uniform federal approach for management is needed.
Justin Welbergen/WildPhotos.org

Local, state and federal governments continue to allocate considerable funds for dispersal responses, even though such actions are high-risk activities for local communities and are unlikely to provide long-term solutions. We argue strongly that targeted research is needed to better inform land managers and affected communities of flying-fox ecology and provide them with low-cost, low-risk, evidence-based tools for dealing with urban roosts.

Flying-foxes don’t care about legislative borders, and state-based responsibility for wildlife management leads to discontinuity in approaches between jurisdictions. While flying-foxes are being monitored at the national scale, this initiative needs to be combined with a uniform federal approach for managing flying-foxes in our human landscapes. Otherwise, conflicts such as those faced by the residents of Batemans Bay will continue unabated.

The Conversation

Justin Welbergen, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Peggy Eby, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate change, tourism and the Great Barrier Reef: what we know


Allison Anderson, CQUniversity Australia

The removal of an entire section on the Great Barrier Reef from an international report on World Heritage and climate change has been justified by the Australian government because of the impact on tourism.

The Guardian reported that all mention of Australia has been removed from the report released on Friday. An Environment Department spokesperson was quoted as saying that “recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of World Heritage properties impacted on tourism”.

Australia is the only populated continent that was not mentioned in the report, which was produced by UNESCO, UNEP, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. It comes in the wake of one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most significant coral bleaching events – one widely attributed to climate change.

What’s to hide?

In its purest sense, it could be argued that it is important for the world to know about the impacts climate change is having on some of its most famous natural wonders. This has the potential to precipitate national and global policy change that might ultimately help the reef.

It could also be argued that much of the damage to perceptions of people around the world has already been done. The final episode of David Attenborough’s documentary on the Great Barrier Reef – which discusses the widespread bleaching in detail – arguably has far more potential to influence would-be tourists contemplating a visit to the reef.

News coverage of the events has reached audiences as far afield as the United States and Britain. And a recent picture essay on The Conversation provides evidence of the bleaching, observing the phenomenon as “a huge blow to all Australians who cherish this natural wonder and to the tourists who flock here to see the reef”.

The impact on tourism

Given that the issues on the reef are well known and widely covered, would the UNESCO report really have had an impact?

The Cairns tourism industry is a vital export earner, not only for the region but for the nation. The region has more than 2.4 million visitors per year, contributing A$3.1 billion to the economy, with the Great Barrier Reef as its anchor attraction.

Adding complexity to the issue, there is debate locally as to how widespread the coral bleaching reported by scientists really is.

The tourism industry in Cairns has been quick to counter scientists’ claims with its own. Tour operator Quicksilver has responded with Reef Health Updates featuring a marine biologist who claims that as the water cools through winter, many of the coral are likely to regain their colour.

Tourists have also been interviewed for the campaign, emerging from the water amazed and astounded at the diversity of colour and marine life they have seen.

Regional tourism organisation Tourism Tropical North Queensland has also begun a campaign to showcase undamaged parts of the reef.

Tourism is a perception-based activity. Expectations of pristine waters and diverse marine life on a World Heritage-listed reef are what drives the Cairns and North Queensland tourism industry in Australia.

We know from past research that perceptions of damage to the natural environment from events such as cyclones do influence travel decisions, but we do not yet know how this translates to coral bleaching events.

Researchers in the region are working to collect data from tourists about how their pre-existing perceptions of coral cover and colour match their actual experiences.

This will provide evidence of the impacts of the bleaching event on the tourist experience and also shed light on what has shaped tourists’ perceptions prior to visiting. Currently, we only have anecdotal evidence from operators and the tourist interviews in the Quicksilver video on what these impacts really are.

What impact could this have on the reef?

From another perspective, tourism is particularly valuable to the reef because it is a relatively clean industry that relies on the preservation, rather than depletion, of the resource for its own survival.

The Great Barrier Reef is a resource of value to both tourism and other industries. In the past, the reef has narrowly escaped gas mining, oil spill disasters and overfishing, not to mention the ongoing impacts of land-based industries along the coast that drains to it.

It is important to remember that the original World Heritage listing was “born out of a 12-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in the world from being destroyed by uncontrolled mining”. This raises questions about whether the comparative economic importance of mining and other industries could increase if tourism declines.

The message about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef is already in the public domain. Research is still being done on the true impact of the bleaching event and associated perceptions on the tourism industry, and the results are not yet conclusive.

Rather than bury information that many people globally already have access to, perhaps the Australian government could think more creatively about how it is addressing the issues and promoting this as a positive campaign for “one of the best managed marine areas in the world”.

The Conversation

Allison Anderson, Lecturer in tourism planning and development, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Antarctica may not be as isolated as we thought, and that’s a worry


Ceridwen Fraser, Australian National University

For a long time, we have thought of Antarctica as isolated from the rest of the world. The continent is entirely surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which heaves with giant waves whipped up by intense winds, and is home to the world’s strongest ocean current, the eastward-flowing Antarctic circumpolar current (ACC).

The Southern Ocean is associated with several circumpolar oceanic fronts (see image below), where sharp transitions in ocean temperature and salinity occur.

Approximate positions of the Antarctic polar front and the subtropical convergence, which are the northern bounds of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic water, respectively.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

One of the most significant of these is the Antarctic polar front, a convergence zone where cold Antarctic water sinks under warmer sub-Antarctic water.

Ocean barrier

The polar front was considered as a barrier blocking movement of marine plants and animals into and out of Antarctica.

Many groups of organisms show strong differences on either side of the front, suggesting northern and southern populations have been separated for a long time. We know from genetic work that some species, such as some molluscs and crustaceans, have managed to cross the front in the past, but there is little evidence that biological movement across the front can or does still occur.

Some live adults and larvae of crabs that hadn’t previously been found south of the polar front have recently been detected in Antarctic waters, but there is doubt about whether these are true invaders from the north, or have been around Antarctica for thousands of years.

Species on the move

Globally, many species are either moving up mountains or towards the poles as the Earth warms. This trend has been going on since the end of the last Ice Age, but is accelerating as global warming speeds up due to human influences.

In the Northern Hemisphere, shallow waters and continental land span almost all latitudes from the tropics to the poles (see image, below), making it straightforward for many tropical and temperate species to move north.

Pole-centred globes showing the oceanic isolation of Antarctica compared to the more continental Northern Hemisphere.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

But in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Ocean gets in the way of plants and animals trying to head to higher latitudes.

Many species that are already on the southern tips of continents such as South America, Africa and Australia face extinction if they cannot move south as the climate warms.

Antarctica’s unique ecosystems

Antarctic ecosystems are unique; they feature large numbers of species not found anywhere else in the world.

Many Antarctic species are slow growing. Antarctic lichens, for example, take between 100 and 1,000 years to grow one centimetre.

Antarctic species have adapted to extreme conditions where evolving strategies to compete with other species has been less important than evolving ways of dealing with intense cold and desiccation. As a result, most Antarctic species are poor competitors.

New arrivals could cause major ecosystem shifts and sharp declines in native species. Some such impacts have already been seen with invasive species reaching sub-Antarctic islands.

To protect Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems from the impacts of invasive species, efforts are being made to limit the chance of humans (tourists and scientists) moving exotic species into the polar region.

The chance of non-native species finding their own way in has generally been considered too remote to pose a major threat.

Antarctic penguins watch the ocean.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

Crossing the Antarctic Polar Front

Modelling and oceanographic research has started to indicate that the polar front is not the unbroken, continuous barrier was thought to be. Rather, it is a dynamic, shifting series of water jets that can be breached by features such as eddies, which transport pockets of water through the convergence zone.

New evidence published this month from observations of floating kelp at sea indicates that drifting marine species can cross the polar front and enter Antarctic waters from the north.

On each of three separate ship voyages – one in the Atlantic Ocean (2013-2014), and two in the Indian Ocean (2008 and 2014) – many detached pieces of kelp species that grow in the sub-Antarctic were observed floating on both sides of, and across, the polar front.

Southern bull-kelp grows abundantly in the sub-Antarctic but can drift long distances at sea.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

Floating kelps act as the “taxi service” of the sea, forming rafts that can transport diverse species – even entire communities – across hundreds of kilometres of open ocean.

At the moment, the absence of most of these species from Antarctic shores suggests that cold and ice are stopping them from successfully colonising polar environments.

Some groups, at least, seem able to disperse across the polar front and enter Antarctic waters.

Antarctica has some of the fastest-warming regions of the world, and with less ice and warmer waters, many shallow-water marine species from the north could colonise and establish, irrevocably changing the structure of Antarctic marine ecosystems.

The Conversation

Ceridwen Fraser, Lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can ‘reset’ Earth’s damaged ecosystems


Martin Breed; Andrew Lowe; Nick Gellie, and Peter Mortimer, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Earth is in a land degradation crisis. If we were to take the roughly one-third of the world’s land that has been degraded from its natural state and combine it into a single entity, these “Federated States of Degradia” would have a landmass bigger than Russia and a population of more than 3 billion, largely consisting of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.

The extent and impact of land degradation have prompted many nations to propose ambitious targets for fixing the situation – restoring the wildlife and ecosystems harmed by processes such as desertification, salinisation and erosion, but also the unavoidable loss of habitat due to urbanisation and agricultural expansion.

In 2011, the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, a worldwide network of governments and action groups, proposed the Bonn Challenge, which aimed to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020.

This target was extended to 350 million ha by 2030 at the September 2014 UN climate summit in New York. And at last year’s landmark Paris climate talks, African nations committed to a further 100 million ha of restoration by 2030.

These ambitious goals are essential to focus global effort on such significant challenges. But are they focused on the right outcomes?

For restoration projects, measuring success is crucial. Many projects use measures that are too simplistic, such as the number of trees planted or the number of plant stems per hectare. This may not reflect the actual successful functioning of the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale are projects that shoot for outcomes such as “improve ecosystem integrity” – meaningless motherhood statements for which success is too complex to quantify.

One response to this problem has been a widespread recommendation that restoration projects should aim to restore ecosystems back to the state they were in before degradation began. But we suggest that this baseline is a nostalgic aspiration, akin to restoring the “Garden of Eden”.

Beautiful, but not particularly realistic.
Wenzel Peter/Wikimedia Commons

An unrealistic approach

Emulating pre-degradation habitats is unrealistic and prohibitively expensive, and does not acknowledge current and future environmental change. While a baseline that prescribes a list of pre-degradation species is a good place to start, it does not take into account the constantly changing nature of ecosystems.

Instead of a “Garden of Eden” baseline, we suggest that restoration projects should concentrate on establishing functional ecosystems that provide useful ecosystem services. This might be done by improving soil stability to counter erosion and desertification, or by planting deep-rooted species to maintain the water table and reduce dry land salinity, or by establishing wild pollinator habitats around pollinator-dependant crops such as apples, almonds and lucerne seed.

Natural ecosystems have always been in flux – albeit more so since humans came to dominate the planet. Species are constantly migrating, evolving and going extinct. Invasive species may be so prevalent and naturalised that they are impossibly costly to remove.

As a result, land allocated for restoration projects is often so altered from its pre-degradation state that it will no longer serve as habitat for the species that once lived there. Many local, native species can be prohibitively difficult to breed and release.

And present-day climate change may necessitate the use of non-local genotypes and even non-local native species to improve restoration outcomes. Newer, forward-thinking approaches may result in the generation of novel gene pools or even novel ecosystems.

Projects should focus on targets that are relevant to their overarching goals. For example, if a restoration project is established to improve pollination services, then the abundance and diversity of insect pollinators could be its metric of success. As we argue in correspondence to the science journal Nature, restoration should focus on helping to create functional, self-sustaining ecosystems that are resilient to climate change and provide measurable benefits to people as well as nature.

An excellent example of a successful, large-scale restoration project with targeted outcomes is Brazil’s ongoing Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact. This has committed to restoring 1 million hectares of Atlantic forest by 2020 and 15 million hectares by 2050.

This project has clear objectives. These include restoring local biodiversity (for conservation and human use, including timber and non-timber forest products); improving water quality for local communities; increasing carbon storage; and even creating seed orchards that can be either sustainably harvested or used to provide more seeds for sowing as part of the restoration.

This project has clear social objectives as well as ecological ones. It has created new jobs and income opportunities. Local communities are contributing to seed collection and propagation, while the project gives landowners incentives to abide by laws against deforestation. For forests, this is the kind of pragmatic approach that will bear the most fruit.

The Conversation

Martin Breed, ARC DECRA Fellow; Andrew Lowe, Professor of Plant Conservation Biology; Nick Gellie, PhD Candidate, and Peter Mortimer, Associate professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Queensland commits to fixing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef


Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, The University of Queensland

Current measures are not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to experts in a government report released today.

After a year of careful analysis, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce has delivered its final report to the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles. This is part of efforts to resource the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which was designed to meet the challenges facing the reef.

The report is part of the response to the United Nations’ concerns that the reef is in danger of irreparable damage – with declining water quality from farming and land-use change being a major driver. The reef narrowly missed being listed as “in danger” in 2015.

The Queensland government has committed A$90 million over the next four years specifically for water quality. The federal government has also committed funding, but it remains to be seen how much will be directed specifically to water quality concerns.

The report recommends the money should be directed at understanding and beginning to reverse the impact of sediment and nutrient from rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

By any degree, the taskforce has done well in terms of bringing together a wide range of opinions and perspectives on a potentially contentious issue — views that are unified around the report’s conclusions.

While the report is not about climate change, climate change is critically important to whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail. Stronger storms, floods, droughts and underwater heatwaves will all make the task of solving the water quality issue even harder.

So there is an assumption that we will beat the climate change challenge through mechanisms such as the international commitments that Australia agreed to under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Starting to reverse the damage

The Great Barrier Reef and its river catchment are bigger than Italy. With problems going back over 100 years, A$90 million is not going to fix all of the problems, but it can start to significantly reverse the damage.

The Queensland government has committed to ambitious water quality targets adopted in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — for instance, reducing nitrogen runoff by 80% and sediment by 50% across the key catchments of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin by 2025. As many have noted, these targets will not be achieved under current practice — even if farmers fully adopt best management practices — and the taskforce report agrees.

Angry voices on soapboxes won’t solve this monumental challenge. That will only come about through inclusive and considered processes — it needs a long-term, sustained and coordinated reef-wide strategy.

We must redefine how we manage — and therefore resource — the Great Barrier Reef system, from the ecosystems that thrive in it to the industries and communities that depend on it for the long term. That strategy should coordinate all existing but separate approaches.

We’ve been here before

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — Australia has been here before with a complex environmental problem that crosses multiple borders. Particularly in the past 15 years, state and federal governments have attempted to undo a century of mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although water quantity is the issue in the basin, as opposed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef, there are similarities.

The two systems are a similar size — the Murray-Darling Basin covers a million square kilometres, and the Great Barrier Reef half-a-million sq km. In both cases, productive industries such as farming cotton or cane closely interact with valuable ecological systems. Overall, they produce billions of dollars of annual revenue from food production, tourism and other industries.

In each case, international pressure (the RAMSAR convention on wetlands in the Murray-Darling, UNESCO for the reef) have played very significant roles in encouraging responsible actions from Australia.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the Murray-Darling — and similar investment is probably required for the Great Barrier Reef catchments. While action within the Murray-Darling system hasn’t been (and still isn’t) perfect, we can learn much from the experience.

Where to from here?

In our opinion, and drawing on the experiences in the Murray-Darling, the following principles should be core to any strategy for the reef.

First, recognise that a significant shift is required in how we manage and develop land next to the Great Barrier Reef. While this is politically, economically and socially difficult, the fallout will be greater if we don’t get this right.

Farmers must be enabled and supported to care for the land to deliver both economic outcomes and ecosystem services. They are the stewards of our natural capital as well as key contributors to our economy.

We’ll also need to take a small proportion of land out of production to form riparian strips, and incentives will need to be established to ensure the careful use of fertiliser, better use of cover crops, and the like. Again, these initiatives are occurring now, but we need to adopt a whole-of-system approach that corrals these actions into a coherent strategy.

The efficiencies introduced through the National Water Initiative and later the Murray-Darling Basin Plan did achieve such a shift there.

Second, acknowledge that nothing we do to address water quality issues makes sense if we don’t also address climate change as a major source of the problem. Any strategy to protect the reef has to include meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa. Solving the climate issue only to let the reef down on the water quality issue doesn’t make any sense either.

Third, full and enduring cooperation and coordination between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments are essential. Anything else risks duplication, redundancy, confusion and, more than likely, a monumental waste of money.

The political heat in the lead-up to the National Water Initiative, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2007 Water Act served only to diminish the opportunities for a lasting and meaningful solution to excessive water allocation in the basin.

Fourth, in support of the cooperative federalist approach, a statutory authority that oversees the implementation of the strategy — with appropriate financial incentives and regulatory powers — will be necessary. This authority would operate across Queensland river catchment and estuarine regions. We would argue that this should be a separate entity to GBRMPA, which already has its hands full managing the reef.

One of the successes from efforts in water reform was the National Water Commission, which played a crucial role in the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Its subsequent demise was regrettable.

Fifth, well-designed, market-based mechanisms work. Just as some efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cheaper than others, we need to know which measures that reduce water quality are most cost-effective. If designed correctly, these mechanisms have the potential to drive innovation and game-changing ideas.

A water quality “trading scheme” should be explored. If done properly, such a market could prove to be enormously beneficial to farmers as well as the reef.

Finally, make sure the strategy has the resources to get the job done. While throwing money at the problem won’t solve it on its own (the billions spent in the Murray-Darling Basin proved that), the challenge will demand significant resources over the coming decade.

Such finance need not come from governments alone. If the principles above are implemented in a way that provides transparency and certainty to the market, then the private sector may be able to contribute.

These are the first steps of a journey that is critical for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. As the taskforce stresses, this is a journey that will require clever policy that adapts to a dynamic world.

The reforms to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin were triggered by the Millennium Drought. The recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef should inspire the same urgency.

And, if so, let’s hope that we are now truly on a pathway to a future for the Great Barrier Reef where its people, industries and ecosystems thrive into the future.

The Conversation

Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, Visiting fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Without extra money, the Coalition’s low-emissions roadmap is a trip to nowhere


Craig Froome, The University of Queensland

On Friday, the Coalition made a low-key announcement of its new Low Emissions Technology Roadmap. To be developed by the CSIRO, it will aim to “highlight areas of growth in Australia’s clean technology sector”.

Unveiled jointly by the industry and science minister, Christopher Pyne, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, the plan asks the CSIRO to identify the most promising ways to reduce emissions and to come up with plans to accelerate the development and commercialisation of Australian technologies such as solar panel components.

With the election campaign in full swing and announcements coming thick and fast, some will obviously get more airtime than others. Still, it was surprising to see this one quietly released on a Friday afternoon, given the seniority of the ministers involved, not to mention the importance of both renewable energy and greenhouse emission reductions as issues in this election.

It’s also not immediately clear what is actually involved in developing a “technology roadmap” like this. It might conceivably follow a model previously developed at the US Sandia National Laboratories, which identified three key elements:

  • preliminary activity, which involves defining the project’s precise scope

  • developing the roadmap, by deciding which technologies to include and defining specific targets for their development

  • follow-up, by working out how the plan is actually going to be implemented.

The announcement in itself has kick-started the first of these three stages. CSIRO has been given the lead for the second element. But it is the third stage – the actual implementation – where roadmaps typically lose their way. Many governments have set roadmaps in the past, only for successive ones to choose different objectives and therefore move down a different path.

The key for any roadmap to deliver its intended outcome is the successful implementation of its proposals. The policy and, crucially, the funding committed to the project will determine whether the ultimate objectives are met.

Pay to play

In the announcement’s press release, Pyne said the roadmap would “achieve a large-scale technology transformation”. But looking at the steps above, this will require policy and investment in those technologies that are to drive the transformation process.

While this announcement supports previous policy pledges, notably the A$1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund uneviled two months ago, will this be enough to drive the crucial third stage of the roadmap: developing commercial-scale clean energy generation to the level required to make serious inroads into emissions reduction?

In the past Australia has tended to adopt the cheapest available energy technologies, particularly given that much of the electricity sector is moving from public to private-sector ownership.

Will this change now? Frydenberg’s statement that “the Coalition is committed to a technology-neutral approach to energy policy” would suggest that it may not.

Josh Frydenberg wants to grasp the commercial potential of new energy technologies.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

With the minimal growth in electricity demand over recent years, new generation on a large scale will need to be more economical than existing assets, or else policy measures should be put in place to make the new technologies competitive.

Part of the Coalition’s plan, as also stated by Frydenberg, is to ”help identify opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved in the global energy supply chain, with the potential of creating new industries that create new jobs and growth in Australia”. History has shown that while Australia has been a very innovative nation, much of the technology developed here tends to move offshore.

Pyne added that “by 2018 Australian solar technology will be embedded in over 60% of the world’s [photovoltaic] panels”. But how much of this global supply chain has created jobs and growth in Australia?

Hunt also stated that the roadmap will help Australia meet its greenhouse emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. But 2030 is not that far away, and the process of drawing up roadmaps, developing technologies and then commercially deploying them takes time. Support for existing mature technologies, such as solar and wind energy, must be continued in the meantime.

While existing agencies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation support these technologies, ongoing funding is a constant subject of debate within the government. These bodies will jointly administer the new Clean Energy Innovation Fund, but if this new roadmap is to be a success, ARENA’s funding must continue beyond its currently planned expiry date of 2022, and the CEFC needs a longer business plan than the current one which runs to 2019.

In the meantime, it pays to think carefully about the initial phase for the roadmap: defining its precise scope. According to the announcement, the areas to be considered include “renewable energy, smart grids, carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency” – all areas in which CSIRO has existing research programs. As such, it is well placed to understand the challenges, the investment needed, and realistic time frames for implementation. All of these need to be identified and quantified precisely, given that the plan only spans a few years.

Introducing innovative technology into an existing sector, which is already working, will always draw resistance, particularly from the operators (as well as equipment manufacturers, maintenance companies and fuel suppliers) of existing generation assets. But, of course, decisions about electricity generation have much wider effects than just the provision of energy.

The need to reduce emissions affects every aspect of how we will live our lives in the future. No major political party disputes the need to move from existing technology to a clean energy future. But policy, with sufficient financial backing, needs to be put in place now and supported by successive governments to have any chance of hitting the deadlines we face.

The Conversation

Craig Froome, Global Change Institute – Clean Energy Program Manager, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.