With so much build-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris, the pressure not to fail is as great as it has ever been. This conference of parties (COP) follows the Kyoto Protocol in achieving agreements that are binding for the 190 countries represented. As it comes at a time that is dire for our climate future, an urgent and momentous outcome is needed.
As of Monday there will be more than 40,000 delegates at the conference. I will be reporting from the conference venue at the Parc des Expositions in Le Bourget, just to the northeast of Paris.
The media interest in this summit is greater than it has ever been. Six-thousands journalists applied to go; only 3000 places are available. What such interest signifies is the sense that Paris will provide a collective recognition that we are drawing so close to losing control over the climate.
The conference will not by itself create the change that is needed to address climate change, except in one respect: it rallies every nation to get on board in what has to be a collective effort. The question here is: how sincere will each nation be in keeping their promises?
The two degree guardrail is advanced as a measure of the fact that anything more and humans lose control over being able to do anything about climate change. But for more radical climate assessments, to aim for a guardrail that is so close to UN-defined consensus limits is high risk – especially when considering that the pledges that have been made by participating nations around the world are pointing toward 2.7℃.
And, as had transpired, the importance of the conference has not been held hostage to the terrorist events of mid-November. Instead some have sought to point out that the climate summit that millions will march for this weekend is also a peace summit.
There is, after all, no way that humans are going to peacefully co-exist when dealing with so many new forms of existential threats, extreme weather, climate migration, food shortages – all of which become destabilising threat multipliers for military conflict also.
According to this thesis, a circle was actually closed by the terror attacks of November 13. That is, climate-induced drought in Syria led to civil war, which has led to a power vacuum, providing a base for Islamic State to conduct training for international terrorism, such as was witnessed in Paris.
Paris will be different from Copenhagen in at least three respects.
First, all of the nations represented at the conference have been asked to submit “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” in advance. So far 167 of the participating nations have done this, so there is already a baseline commitment to work with, and a way of evaluating the collective impact of such pledges as a basis for negotiation.
Second, there is the fact that since Copenhagen, climate change has been mainstreamed. As Erwin Jackson from the Climate Insitute has put it:
Climate change is not just an issue that is discussed in environment ministries any more, its now being discussed in treasuries. It is being discussed in defence departments.
Third, there is the enormous renewables boom since Copenhagen. The Climate Council in Australia has just launched its latest report:
The report details how, since Copenhagen, the number of nations locking into renewable energy targets has doubled. Nearly five million new jobs worldwide have been created since that time. The cost of solar power modules has fallen 75% in that time and wind power dipped by 30%.
This all adds up to countries being able to back their pledges because an alternative to fossil fuel in now available. And around the world, US$270 billion in renewable investments were made just last year, according to a UN report.
Such investment lags behind annual investment in fossil-fuel energy industries, but the difference is that such investment is in year-on-year decline. An open letter will be published today in New Scientist and The Guardian, signed by world-leading economists and scientists who have called for a moratorium on the building of new coal mines.
At the same time, the fossil fuel industry has a toe-hold on the Paris conference itself. GDF Suez (now Engie), the co-owner of Victoria’s Hazelwood coal mine, one of Australia’s dirtiest coal mines, is one of the event’s fossil fuel “sponsors”.
I will be interested to learn, while at the conference, precisely what such companies gain from being sponsors, in an age where greenwash can dramatically mask the sincerity of the promises that nations are about to make to change the world.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have agreed to limit subsidies for the export of inefficient coal-fired power plant technologies.
Export credit funding will be limited to coal-fired power generators using only the most efficient, and least polluting, “ultra-supercritical” technologies. The deal will come into force in January 2017 and be reviewed in 2019. This will limit the public financing of coal-fired power generation worldwide.
Australia unfortunately continued its role as a climate laggard by negotiating for the inclusion of a clause allowing for exceptions.
Due to the clause tabled by Australia and South Korea, developing countries can receive funding for the construction of smaller (500 megawatts or less) less efficient “supercritical” coal-fired power plants. Regardless, the deal will encourage movement away from inefficient coal-fired power generation towards the most efficient technologies and substitutes such as renewable energy.
The timing of the deal two weeks before the Paris climate summit was probably an intentional move to help further build international momentum towards an ambitious deal.
While Australia does not finance coal plants through these schemes, other major economies such as Japan devote billions to them. In the past five years OECD export credit agency funding has provided around US$11 billion for coal power plants.
How will the deal affect coal production worldwide?
This agreement is likely to add to several existing trends to undermine coal demand and investor and government confidence in coal production. Early estimates suggest that the agreement could cut OECD export credit financing to coal plants by around 80%.
Exceptions and the allowance of funding for efficient technologies undermine the impact of the deal. This is not the end to OECD coal subsidies that many were calling for. But in any case, it is a significant step in the right direction. Ultra-supercritical plants are both more expensive in up-front costs and more efficient in their coal usage, meaning that the agreement is likely to result in reduced demand for thermal coal.
The deal could undermine up to 850 coal plant projects that were previously eligible for subsidies.
This adds to a number of other factors, including the plummeting price of renewable energy sources such as solar PV, which will work to constrain worldwide coal demand and production in the coming years.
Could it affect coal production in Australia?
This agreement will add to other structural changes that are undermining the feasibility of new coal mine construction and expansion in Australia. Australia is already likely going to need to prematurely retire some thermal coalmining assets due to overinvestment during the mining boom.
Two of Australia’s largest export markets, India and China, have plans in place to limit thermal coal imports and prioritise domestic coal use over the coming years.
A successful Paris agreement would likely further compound this restriction in coal export demand and strengthen the case for limiting coal mine construction and expansion in Australia.
This agreement contributes to a number of growing forces which all have one clear signal: the future of coal production in Australia is bleak.
The Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications yesterday endorsed the proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, citing the “costs to proponents and consequences for economic activity when major development projects are delayed by judicial review”.
At the time, Attorney General George Brandis described such litigation as “vigilante” action by “radical green activists”, while agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce added in an ABC radio interview that the only people who should have standing to challenge mine proposals are those nearby who might be affected by dust, noise or water contamination.
But by seeking to limit who has the right to appeal its decisions, the government misunderstands the purpose of environmental legislation.
The amendments not only go against the progressive development of environmental law worldwide, which has helped to make approvals more open to public scrutiny, but they are also a grave injustice to nature itself.
Under the proposed amendment, a person or group will not be able to appeal a decision unless they can show that they will be “aggrieved” by the development, which typically implies suffering some direct and material adverse impact.
But, as Joyce also acknowledged, this is not a simple matter of physical proximity. Groundwater pollution, for instance, can affect people living many kilometres downstream. Determining who is or isn’t aggrieved could represent an entire new source of green tape.
Moreover, silencing legitimate public concerns in this way does not guarantee that a government’s preferred projects will be protected from legal challenge – a lesson the Tasmanian government learned when green groups collaborated with financial investors to defeat the Gunns pulp mill, in spite of the ignominious Pulp Mill Assessment Act.
But there is something more fundamental at stake here.
Against the tide
The question of whom or what should be protected by environmental law was raised by the US scholar Christopher Stone in his 1972 polemic Should Trees Have Standing? He argued that only by granting legal rights to nature would we change the culture that sees nature as an expedient resource at our disposal.
This would help to resolve a false dichotomy raised by the US environmentalist Aldo Leopold in a 1949 essay that helped to kickstart the environmental movement, in which he wrote that “we abuse nature because we treat it as a commodity which belongs to us rather than a community to which we belong”.
Clearly, nature is both community and commodity.
In 1999 the Australian government came close to recognising this when it passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Yet this protection is constrained in various ways, such as by being limited to designated threatened species (about 1% of Australia’s named plants and animals), areas of national environmental significance (such as world heritage properties), or certain areas under Commonwealth management.
So while anyone who can show they are likely to be affected by a decision has standing, usually only plants and animals that are threatened with extinction can qualify for legal protection. To use a medical analogy, they can only bulk bill if they’re terminally ill.
Prevention vs cure
Should we really only consider protecting nature when it’s on the way out? The fact that only 9% of species listed as threatened have ever recovered sufficiently to come off the list (and many have promptly gone back onto it) suggests that the Act is not working, even for the species it covers. It is not working because it is often not triggered until it’s too late, and the list of threatened species just keeps growing.
People on all sides of politics are currently arguing about who is being excluded from the EPBC Act. Meanwhile the law is failing to protect the plants and animals that are supposed to be included.
An alternative vision that evokes Christopher Stone’s ideal is beginning to find legal expression in some countries, such as New Zealand, where a long dispute between the government and Maori over management of a major river concluded in 2012 with an historic agreement that the Whanganui River is a legal person, with its own rights. Two guardians, one appointed by the local Maori iwi and the other by the government, will protect the river’s interests forever.
The challenge for science and the law is to develop criteria for protection based not on how rare something is, but on how significant it is to both nature and people – as both natural community and natural commodity. We should then empower environmental groups or other entities to act as guardians of that protected interest – and to defend it in any court.
At the centre of claims about wind farms allegedly causing health problems is the infrasound that wind turbines generate as they turn in the wind.
Infrasound is sound below 20Hz, which is generally inaudible. Wind turbines are just one source of artificial man-made infrasound. Others include power stations, industry generally, motor vehicle engines, compressors, aircraft, ventilation and air conditioning units, and loudspeaker systems. Everyone living in an urban environment is bathed in infrasound for most of their lives.
As I sit at my inner Sydney desk writing this I’m copping infrasound from the planes that pass some 200-300 metres over my house sometimes many times an hour, the sound of passing road traffic on a quite busy road 100 metres from our house, and the stereo system I listen to as I write. Don’t tell anyone, but I feel fine and I’ve lived here 25 years.
But infrasound is generated by natural phenomena too. These include rare occurrences such as volcanoes and earthquakes, but also sources like ocean waves and air turbulence (wind) that countless millions, if not billions, are exposed to on most days. Anyone living close to the sea is surrounded by constant infrasound from waves.
The inclusion of wind as a source of infrasound is of particular significance to claims made that wind turbine-generated infrasound is noxious. In a Polish research paper published in 2014, the authors set out to measure infrasound from wind turbines and to compare that with naturally occurring infrasound from wind in trees near houses and from the sound of the sea in and around a house near the seaside.
The researchers used the average G-weighted level (LGeq) over the measurement period. This is the standardised measurement of infrasound which approximately follows the hearing threshold below 20Hz and cuts off sharply above 20Hz.
The infrasound levels recorded near 25 100-metre high wind turbines ranged from 66.9 to 88.8 LGeq across different recordings. Those recording infrasound in noise from wind in a forest near houses ranged from 59.1- 87.8 LGeq. The recordings of sea noise near seaside houses ranged from 64.3 to 89.1 LGeq. These infrasound levels were thus very similar cross the three locations.
The peak 88.8 LGeq was recorded very close to the turbines – virtually directly under the blades. The lower 66.9LGeq was 500m away, which is more like a common scenario for the nearest residences to turbines. Similarly, for the other sources, highest levels were nearest the source.
Wind is, of course, a prerequisite for wind turbines to turn and generate their mechanical infrasound. Here, the Polish authors noted that:
natural noise sources … always accompany the work of wind turbines and in such cases they constitute an acoustic background, impossible to eliminate during noise measurement of wind turbines.
This is a fundamentally important insight: wherever there are wind turbines generating infrasound, there is also wind itself generating infrasound. And it is impossible to disentangle the two. Indeed, every time I’ve been near wind turbines, easily the most dominant sound has been that of the wind buffeting my ears.
In 2013, the South Australian Environmental Protection Authority measured infrasound in a variety of urban and rural settings. With the latter, this included locations near and well away from wind farms.
They reported that in urban settings, measured infrasound ranged between 60-70 decibels. In fact, at two locations – the EPA’s own offices and an office with a low frequency noise complaint – building air conditioning systems were identified as significant sources of infrasound. These locations exhibited some of the highest levels of infrasound measured during the study.
This study concludes that the level of infrasound at houses near the wind turbines assessed is no greater than that experienced in other urban and rural environments, and that the contribution of wind turbines to the measured infrasound levels is insignificant in comparison with the background level of infrasound in the environment.
Wind farm opponents claim infrasound is the cause of this Old Testament-like plague of plagues (now numbering 244 different problems). If that were true, how is it that hundreds of thousands of Australians who are daily exposed to infrasound in cities, in their houses surrounded by dastardly infrasound-generating fans, air conditioners and stereo systems, and those who live near trees or the sound of the ocean aren’t breaking down the door of those sworn enemies of infrasound Senators John Madigan, Nick Xenophon, Chris Back, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day who brought us their scathing report on wind farms in June?
The explanation lies in factors we recognise frequently in risk-perception studies, popularised by Peter Sandman. Sandman has produced matrices of factors which have been often found to be associated with increased levels of community “outrage” about putative environmental threats to health.
Sandman distinguishes primary from additional factors, with primary factors being those which have been shown to be more strongly associated with increased levels of community concern.
I applied these to a case study of mobile phone tower complaints in the 1990s. I’ve now constructed the table below indicating the likely applicability of these factors to the case of predicting community worry about wind farms.
People don’t worry about infrasound in wind, trees and ocean waves because these sources are natural, while the same levels of infrasound from wind turbines are considered quite differently as they are sourced from what anti-wind farm activists like to call evil “industrial” wind farms.
The rare examples of people complaining who host wind turbines on their land for rental payment, compared with the far more common situation of non-hosting neighbours complaining, illustrates the voluntary vs coerced exposure factor, as well as the fair vs unfair factor. Those not benefiting from lucrative rental payments because of unsuitable local topography, while near neighbours can, understandably feel this as unfair.
Wind turbines are very memorable and exotic (a new experience to many), while wind in trees or the pounding of the ocean is very familiar and unremarkable, both factors likely to greatly diminish concerns.
Table: Primary and additional components predicting community outrage about putative environmental risks to health: the case of wind turbines. (two ticks = applies strongly to wind turbines; one tick = likely to apply less strongly)
The 2015 Senate (majority) report into wind farms roundly rejected the idea that psychosocial factors such as nocebo effects were largely responsible for the challenging historical and geographical variance in wind farm complaints. A nocebo effect is the opposite to a placebo effect: instead of exposure to an inactive agent making people feel better because of belief that it will, nocebo effects are when a benign agent makes people feel worse because they have been told it will.
The Committee, chaired by avowed wind farm opponent John Madigan, was emphatic that infrasound was the culprit but did not produce convincing evidence for this.
If the committee is sincere in its concerns about the health effects of infrasound, will we soon learn of a new inquiry about the pernicious and unappreciated dangers of living near the sea or trees, having air conditioners, stereos, ceiling fans, or travelling in motor vehicles?