Let’s make sure that cleaning up the world’s water doesn’t send our climate targets down the gurgler


Peter Fisher, RMIT University

Much of the world still lacks clean, safe water. Progress on sanitation is falling far short of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. The scale of the problem is highlighted by India, where half the population – some 665 million people – still defecate in the open, and where most sewage, even from toilets, is dumped untreated into rivers and streams. Worldwide, contaminated water is implicated in 85% of all illness.

An even more pernicious problem with the world’s water is widespread contamination with antibiotics, fuelling the rise of resistant superbugs. A recent survey in China, for instance, estimated that 53,800 tons of waste drugs are entering the environment each year, even after wastewater treatment. Meanwhile paraben, an antimicrobial preservative used in cosmetics, food and medicines, has now been detected in Indian sewage treatment plants, and antimicrobial resistance is now seen as an increasingly serious threat to global public health.

Clearly, the world’s water is in urgent need of a cleanup. Installing or upgrading sewer networks and sewage treatment plants, and implementing regulations to curb the release of antimicrobials into waterways, will be crucial. But if we’re not careful, all this extra infrastructure will mean lots of extra greenhouse emissions.

Bad to worse

The pollution problem is most acute in China, where traditional smokestack industries have been joined by a new breed of technologies such as (ironically enough) solar panel manufacture, which produces highly toxic silicon tetrachloride.

A 2012 survey of 11 cities showed that 64% of water sources were severely polluted and 33% moderately polluted. The China Geological Survey has since reported that 90% of the country’s groundwater is polluted, 60% of it “severely”. Heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, zinc, nickel and other contaminants like DDT are long-lived and can’t easily be “cleaned up” especially if they’re lodged in groundwater

Add to that the legacy of pollution from years of open defecation; crude, poorly maintained or underused sewage works; oil runoff from roads; phosphorus, zinc, lead and nitrates; factory discharges; fertiliser and dung; pesticides and herbicides, and waste animal drugs from farms.

Many Chinese waterways are severely polluted.
EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL/AAP

India is hardly better off, with a recent report finding that 80% of sewage flows untreated directly into its rivers, while thousands of small factories also discharge untreated sewage and toxic waste. These problems are exacerbated by extremely high populations and population densities – India is expected to have 404 million more city dwellers by 2050.

But it’s not purely a problem for the world’s Asian population epicentres. In Latin America and the Caribbean less than half of water is treated to secondary standard, and in Africa far less even than that.

The largest circles show the countries most in need of sanitation.
World Bank

The emissions problem

But what will be the knock-on effects of rolling out new sewage treatment plants right across the world? We can get a feel for what is at stake by looking at the United States, where energy usage rose by 74% between 1996 and 2013, largely as a result of the mandated installation of advanced water treatment systems under the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts. 

Given the huge scale of retrofit needed for Asia, Latin America and Africa (currently home to 2 billion people without toilets), a vast amount of energy would be required to plumb buildings, install sewers in towns, and operate newly installed or upgraded sewage works.

Then, if we want to move beyond basic sanitation and into the issue of waste drugs and other bioactive chemicals, much more technology will be needed: activated sludge, trickling filters, membrane filtration, chemical treatments, ultraviolet irradiation, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis. Any and all of these make it hard to stay carbon-neutral.

Yet the carbon footprint of the water cycle can be vastly improved, by improving the maintenance and efficiency of treatment plants, and by using technology such as biogas for electricity generation. Moreover, the large number of flat surfaces – roofs, yards, etc. – found at sewage works makes them well suited for solar panels and even mini wind turbines. Coupled with new battery storage technologies and micro-grids, it’s clear that new sewage works in developing countries can start with a “clean sheet” in terms of using green energy. 

China certainly has the capacity to build low(er) carbon water treatment infrastructure, despite its failure to meet and enforce environmental standards as a result of its previous use of underengineered sewage plants that were overwhelmed by sheer volume.

India is in a similar position, but financing sewage collection and treatment in its thousands of underperforming towns is a major challenge, and existing clean-up campaigns have not always focused enough on water quality.

Most developing countries share the same broad problem: the rapid modernisation and growth of their cities is overwhelming the human and natural capacity for pollution control. The poorest nations have no resources at all for moving away from pit latrines to install proper sewage and treatment infrastructure, and without these the sanitation goals of development agencies such as UNICEF will remain elusive. While people in these areas are rapidly being given access to mobile telecommunications technology, this zeal tends to go missing when it comes to fixing their crippling soil and water pollution problems.

Possibilities for Paris

One option is for delegates to the Paris climate talks to examine financing for sewage-treatment technologies that are designed to be carbon-neutral, and powered by combinations of renewable energy, battery storage technologies and micro-grids.

The West surely has more than a passing interest in helping to ensure that India and China take action – not least because these are the places where rich nations “offshore” their pollution, but also because these countries have become prime breeding grounds for the global spread of drug-resistant bacterial strains

What’s needed in Paris this December is joined-up thinking about two of the most pressing issues affecting life and ecosystems on this planet: the health of our climate and the healthiness of our water.

The Conversation

Peter Fisher is Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University

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

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Economic modelling may overplay the costs of Australia’s 2030 climate target


John Foster, The University of Queensland; Liam Wagner, Griffith University; Lynette Molyneaux, The University of Queensland, and Phillip Wild, The University of Queensland

The debate about Australia’s 2030 climate target, and how much it will cost Australia’s economy, continues.

Last month, Australia announced a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Modelling by Professor Warwick McKibbin, economist at Australian National University, found that this would come at a cost of 0.6% of gross domestic product (GDP). McKibbin has argued that this puts Australia at the “high end” of global action in terms of economic costs.

The Climate Change Authority, which has recommended a higher target of 40-60% below 2000 levels by 2030, has argued that Australia’s target is inadequate based on the size of emissions cuts.

So is the modelling a solid foundation for Australia’s new climate target?

Making assumptions

Economic models are often the framework for making policy decisions. They start with “back-of-envelope” calculations and end with computer models requiring heavy computation of interaction between the major variables.

All economic models make assumptions about the world. For instance, the price of gas. However unless we know what assumptions a model makes, we can’t test or scrutinise it.

McKibbin’s modelling shows that action to reduce Australia’s emissions by 26-28% by 2030 is an affordable exercise. Reductions in economic growth are relatively small but in order to defend standards of living, the Australian government argues that action taken should be conservative.

He modelled a range of scenarios, including a 45% reduction target that would come at a cost of 1% of GDP.

The assumptions behind McKibbin’s modelling are not easy to unpack. The model focuses on energy related emissions and represents a highly aggregated framework of the economy. Emission reductions are based on two key levers: the transition to low-carbon energy fuels and improvements in energy efficiency.

Both of these levers involve many assumptions, evidence of which are not available in the reports thus far released.

What’s in the mix?

The most significant of the missing assumptions is what Australia’s electricity mix looks like with and without a climate target.

Australia’s fleet of electricity generators is currently composed of ageing coal-fired power stations plus a few gas-fired power stations. The government’s Renewable Energy Target indicates 23% of electricity will come from renewable sources by 2020. There is a widely held view that Australia doesn’t need any more capacity to produce electricity before 2023-24.

So even without the new climate target there will be changes to Australia’s electricity mix, such as closure of old coal-fired power plants and investment in new plants, but it’s not clear from the modelling what these changes will be.

There is also no detail about the electricity mix under new climate targets. It is essential to understand the relative contributions of gas and renewables in any target scenarios.

Mature renewable technologies, such as wind and solar photovoltaics, are cheaper than emerging technologies such as solar thermal, geothermal, wave, storage technologies. So the type of renewable energy in the mix has a large impact on how much reducing emissions will cost.

Mature renewable technologies will be a cheaper source of energy by 2025. As South Australia has found, investment in renewables for South Australia has put downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices, not increased it. Independent modelling, both commissioned for and submitted to the recent Renewable Energy Target review, which can be seen here and here arrived at similar conclusions.

So, the costs of renewable forms of electricity are likely to reduce the costs of electricity, and yet the assumptions in the modelling point to an increase in cost for pursuing renewable forms of energy not a decrease.

Gas: cheaper or more expensive?

Any transition to a low-carbon energy future will be reliant on the affordability or otherwise of natural gas. Gas, per unit, produces less CO2 than coal, so increasing the proportion of gas in Australia’s energy mix will reduce overall emissions.

Predictions about the future price of gas are many and varied but none of them is explicitly referenced in the modelling conducted. There is no way to know whether the assumptions used included a high cost of gas or a low cost of gas, and thus what the relative contributions of renewables and gas generations are to the cost of meeting the climate target.

McKibbin readily acknowledges that his assumed costs for renewables are at the upper end of commonly accepted range of estimates. A conservative assumption would be high gas prices in the future.

In our view, the economic impact of action is likely to be lower than the headline results that were reported in the modelling when based upon more likely technology costs.

The cost of climate

The effects of climate change are expected to include significant levels of damage from unpredictable climate events. The worst of these events is thought to be a few decades into the future, but the costs should be taken into account now rather than loaded into the future.

We do this today with simple cost-shifting exercises such as depreciation and superannuation. It would be logical to start this process with economic models too.

McKibbin acknowledges that his modelling includes no costs associated with climate change damage, but in our view, excluding these costs reduces the value of the modelling exercise. Ignoring these costs is also likely to present an artificial picture of the costs of pursuing carbon abatement policies, by both exaggerating the benefits and downplaying the costs of no action.

Forecasting big changes

Furthermore, there is a question about the applicability of this model to predict the level of disruptive change likely to be experienced in the energy industry over the next couple of decades.

As seen with recent trends in wind and solar photovoltaics, production and process innovation together with scale economies often drive unexpectedly large reductions in costs, as acknowledged by McKibbin.

If we are to see levels of disruption like that experienced in the IT and telecommunications industries over relatively short periods of time, the tools used by economic modellers must be able to take into account the innovation that is gathering force in the energy industry. The tools used to represent innovation and complex policy mechanisms in the model are, in our view, inadequate to make useful predictions with respect to targets for 2030.

We welcome modelling that helps politicians make informed decisions with respect to climate targets, but the assumptions made should be transparent and defensible and that models used are appropriate for the task.

Our concern with the modelling conducted thus far, is that it is not sufficiently robust to serve as Australia’s primary methodology for setting targets at the Climate Change conference in Paris in November.

The Conversation

John Foster is Professor of Economics at The University of Queensland; Liam Wagner is Lecturer in Economics at Griffith University; Lynette Molyneaux is Researcher, Energy Economics and Management Group, Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, and Phillip Wild is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland

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

Global count shows tree numbers have halved since dawn of human civilisation


Global count shows tree numbers have halved since dawn of human civilisation

Eliza Berlage, The Conversation and James Whitmore, The Conversation

There are more than three trillion trees worldwide, but that’s only half as many as were around at the start of human civilisation, according to new research.

The study, published today in Nature, updates the estimate for the total number and density of trees on Earth. It found that each year more than 15 billion trees are lost through a combination of deforestation, disturbances such as fire, and changes in land use. Since the beginning of human civilisation, the world has lost 46% of its trees.

The research team, led by Thomas Crowther, postdoctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental studies, challenges previous estimates from satellite data by using more than 400,000 on-ground tree density estimates to produce the first complete global map of trees.

Crowther said the map contributes to our fundamental understanding of the Earth’s ecosystems, allowing us to comprehend the global forest spread in terms of tree numbers.

There are 1.39 trillion trees in tropical and subtropical forests, 610 billion in temperate regions, and 740 billion in northern, boreal regions.

Crowther argued that without a solid baseline of tree numbers it is difficult to develop targets and projects to conserve forests.

Bill Laurance, a biologist at James Cook University, said the findings of the study were both striking and alarming.

“It’s remarkable that there are so many trees on the planet but concerning that we are losing the trees so rapidly,” he said.

Laurance said it was important to consider the consequences of the shift in tree sizes, where small trees are rapidly replacing large trees that are vulnerable to environmental factors such as drought and human intervention through logging.

Rod Keenan, a forestry professor at University of Melbourne, said “high tree numbers may not always be a good indicator of forest condition”.

Lots of trees may indicate young forests recovering from disturbance, and tree numbers would decline as forests mature, he said.

The worst tree loss is already known to be in tropical regions but the global scale of forestry decline highlights how historical land use has shaped natural ecosystems.

Peter Kanowski, a forestry professor at Australian National University, said “all sorts of forests are valuable for all sorts of reasons, and we’re losing too much of them”.

“The scale and rate of loss of biodiversity, carbon stock and other forest values, that has been at unprecedented rates for much of the past 50 years, is impacting profoundly and perhaps irreversibly on ecosystems, livelihoods, forest values and climate at scales from global to local,” he said.

The Conversation

Eliza Berlage is Editor at The Conversation and James Whitmore is Editor, Environment & Energy at The Conversation

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

Silverbacks and greenbacks: the catch-22 at the heart of gorilla conservation


David Newsome, Murdoch University

Back in 1979, an estimated 500 million television viewers watched a landmark moment in natural history documentaries, as David Attenborough sat with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Attenborough said at the time:

There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know.

The gorillas that Attenborough met were habituated for research purposes, and since then many gorilla groups have been habituated purely for tourism. As a result, thousands of tourists have now visited Rwanda and Uganda’s wild mountain gorillas and, to a lesser extent, the lowland gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Gabon.

Slightly less exotically, in 1961 I went to London Zoo and saw Guy the gorilla. I was utterly astonished and inspired by the sight of this animal. He turned and watched the crowd; I believe at the time I caught his eye. That moment has never left me, and the experience fired my imagination and instilled a desire to visit Africa.

You can imagine how I felt when, as a university student in 1979, I watched Attenborough’s now-famous footage from Rwanda. Could I possibly, one day, do that too?

In July this year that dream became a reality, and I went on a wildlife tour to Uganda. I undertook two gorilla treks and was thrilled by the experience. I delighted in the enthusiasm and knowledge of my guides and was moved by personal accounts of schools being built and medical facilities being improved through the local community benefits of gorilla tourism. Several of my guides said their lives had significantly improved as a result of tourism.

Local tourism, helping local people.
David Newsome, Author provided

Money and memories

So what is the wider significance of my tale of exchanging glances with wild gorillas, 54 years after doing the same with Guy the gorilla at London Zoo?

Although admittedly expensive by many tourism standards (a gorilla trekking permit costs up to US$700 per person), it is a venture worth doing because it is in ecotourism where wild gorillas’ future now lies. Although the pioneering conservationist Dian Fossey was originally against tourism, it has been instrumental in safeguarding habitat for both lowland and mountain gorillas in Africa.

The ultimate success of wildlife tourism depends on many factors, the most important of which is the protection of enough suitable habitat. And this is where the issue lies. All gorillas are endangered, and lowland gorillas in particular are declining as a result of war, hunting, ebola, deforestation and habitat fragmentation.

It may be difficult to be inspired by gorillas if one is hungry, battling malaria, need land to grow crops, or if authorities are cutting down the forest and you have no say in the matter. Or if you are dodging bullets. As Attenborough said on the subject:

It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not – and that we are.

Getting the right balance

So where does our responsibility lie? Many of these problems can be managed through financial, technical, health and educational assistance, and a lot of concerned people are working towards these aims in Africa. The task, however, is huge and protected areas need funding, adequate protection to deter hunting and damage, and the instigation of appropriate tourism management.

The only population of gorillas that is stable and/or increasing is the mountain gorillas in Uganda. But there are only about 880 left in the wild, 400 of them in Uganda. They are, of course, vastly outnumbered by humans, so protecting their interests becomes a tricky balancing act. There is a strong need for security, mostly to deter poaching, and this costs money – one of the reasons why the gorilla permits are expensive!

The mention of finances brings us to the trickiest problem of all, because more money doesn’t automatically mean good news for the gorillas. There are oil interests in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, and the history of the DRC in particular has been beset by conflicts over resources.

Say a decision is taken to start drilling for oil in the Virunga National Park. Would an oil pipeline improve the lives of nearby local communities? Would it improve the park? Would it help the gorillas? It’s difficult to imagine the answers all being “yes”.

So here is the catch-22 at the heart of the gorillas’ lives. Gorilla conservation needs money, and for that it needs tourists. But to get to Uganda, or Rwanda, or wherever, these tourists have to get into a plane, which needs fuel. In fact almost everyone in the world wants fuel, which is why the resources industry can be such a financial boon for local communities, which is why communities are often keen to embrace resource development, which in turn can harm conservation.

Preserved for future generations?
David Newsome, Author provided

Will it be tourism or the resources sector that seals the fate of the mountain gorillas? This is a dilemma for those of us who want (and can afford) to see what the world has to offer. I freely admit that my life has been enriched because of the opportunity to see gorillas in the wild. We can all choose what to do with our money, and I chose to share mine with the Ugandan people and in doing so, help to protect gorillas.

Yet we are all bound up in using energy and resources, and so we must reflect on our relationship with nature and realise the consequences of our collective actions and lifestyles.

Millions of people around the world continue to be amazed by meeting gorillas in zoos, as I was at the age of 10. Many will continue to be inspired, as were those millions watching Attenborough on television decades ago. Thus it is my hope that we can give something back to the gorillas. We can do this by understanding how our lifestyle is linked to the gorillas, by realising that our mobile phone, oil company shares, and use of resources can impact on the lives of animals in distant lands.

This is the start of a conversation about what we can do to help. We can lobby companies and politicians to value nature more. We can support and join organisations that do this work on our behalf. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can take the holiday of a lifetime and in the process show that we care about gorillas.

In doing so we also realise that, like great works of art, fine music and magnificent buildings, gorillas and their habitat are a rich source of inspiration and delight, and a treasure that can be saved, if we care enough.

The Conversation

David Newsome is Assoc. Professor of Environmental Science at Murdoch University

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