CSIRO is poised to slash climate research jobs – experts react


Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW Australia; Clive Hamilton; Ian Lowe, Griffith University; Kevin Walsh, University of Melbourne; Neville Nicholls, Monash University, and Steve Sherwood, UNSW Australia

CSIRO is set to cut dozens of jobs from its climate research units, as part of a wider series of job losses.

In a message to staff, chief executive Larry Marshall said that the question of human-induced climate change has largely been answered, and outlined a list of new priorities for the agency, including health, technology, and “big data” research fields such as radioastronomy.

“Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?” he said.

A reported 110 jobs could be lost in climate research, among a total of 350 job losses from CSIRO’s staff of 4,832 full-time positions.

Below, experts react to the news.


Neville Nicholls, Professor Emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

For 30 years Australia has punched above its weight in international climate policy negotiations because the rest of the world recognised that our government was provided with high-quality, unbiased climate science by the Bureau of Meteorology and (especially) CSIRO. The crippling of CSIRO climate research means that from henceforth the world will view our future governments as captive to either left-wing activists or right-wing ideologues, unconstrained by science.

This decision cedes our place at the big table with the adults discussing what to do about climate change. From today we join the minnows on the little table on the veranda, waiting to be told what we will have to do by the grown-up countries that still have access to high-quality climate science.


Kevin Walsh, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

The proposed cuts to climate science expertise at CSIRO are disturbing, at a time when climate change is becoming more important to Australia and to the world, not less important. It is very naïve to expect that climate science expertise can be substantially reduced in Australia and then expect that reduction to have no effect on our ability to understand and adapt to the potential impacts of climate change in this country.

Nor will our friends in the Northern Hemisphere pick up the slack for us: they have climate problems of their own. Australia’s unusual climate has always demanded that we pay particular attention to developing and nurturing our own expertise in climate science, a decades-long effort that now may be abandoned.


Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, DECRA Research Fellow, Climate Change Research Centre, The University of New South Wales

The latest round of job cuts from CSIRO is nothing short of appalling. The climate research work conducted by CSIRO has been pioneering and of global standard. While we know that the climate is changing because of human activity, we have not simply “answered” that question after the Paris agreement – many more questions remain.

Like other scientific fields – such as biology, chemistry and medicine – continual research is required to continually improve our methods, understanding and knowledge. Research in any field does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered.

In terms of climate science, much more research needs to be done on furthering our understanding of these changes, monitoring the climate as it does change, and making our climate and weather models more efficient and improving their capabilities. Much of this work was undertaken by CSIRO, and so now a big hole will be left.

If we want to properly safeguard our country from climate change, we require ongoing fundamental climate research – we cannot create innovative and effective solutions towards climate change without it.


Andrew Holmes, President, Australian Academy of Science

Our climate and environmental scientists are some of the best in the world. We wouldn’t stop supporting our elite Olympic athletes just as they’re winning gold medals. Nor should we pull the rug out from under our elite scientists.

Australia is internationally recognised for its expertise and unique position in climate and environmental research. Realistically, there are no other countries in the Southern Hemisphere that are able to do what we do. We have a singular contribution to make towards global and regional climate knowledge, and with this role comes a great responsibility to the global community.


Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society, Griffith University

It is always disappointing when science is cut back, especially when we need to be more innovative to overcome the economic problem of falling commodity prices. It is particularly bad when the cuts are in such areas as Oceans & Atmosphere, Land & Water and Manufacturing, as these are critical to our chances of a sustainable future.

More worrying than the cuts is the language used by the new chief executive. There won’t be scientists sacked, there will be “reductions in headcount”! And these aren’t research areas, they are “business units”, headed not by top scientists but “business leaders”. The cuts are “something that we must do to renew our business”, according to the CEO. The language reveals that the government is trying to sabotage our public science body and turn it into a consulting business.


Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University

CSIRO climate scientists are world-class and are researching the most decisive factor that will influence the future of the world. To slash their numbers at a time when the urgency of understanding and responding to climate change has never been greater suggests that the government does not want to hear the facts.


Nerilie Abram, Associate Professor, Australian National University

The notion that somehow the question of global climate change has been answered is ludicrous. Yes, it is now absolutely certain that the greenhouse gases we have added to the atmosphere are causing Earth’s climate to warm, but that big-picture knowledge does not allow us to predict and prepare for the many ways in which climate changes are going to impact on the safety and prosperity of Australia in the future. To not invest in understanding this enormous problem will cripple this country’s ability to effectively respond to the many challenges facing us as the Earth’s climate continues to warm.

Climate models, including Australia’s ACCESS model developed by CSIRO researchers, have undoubtedly played an important role in proving the physical theory that greenhouse gases are causing Earth’s climate to warm. But one aspect where models consistently show we still have much to learn about exactly how the pieces of the climate jigsaw puzzle fit together is in their ability to accurately represent the Southern Hemisphere. Gutting Australia’s capabilities in climate science will severely hinder momentum in solving this and many other unanswered questions that will directly impact Australia’s future prosperity and security.


Steve Sherwood, ARC Laureate Fellow and Director, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales

Larry Marshall surely has a point about rejuvenating organisations and solving new challenges, but I worry about his statement that there is no further need after the Paris climate summit to understand climate change since we now know it is real. Effective action requires detailed understanding. For example, Marshall speaks of contributing to the proposed agricultural development of the Northern Territory, but we don’t know for how much longer this region will still support agriculture or even human habitation as the Earth keeps warming, nor how much drying (if any) Australia’s existing agricultural regions will experience. The groups that would help provide answers are the ones he says we don’t need any more.

Comments compiled with the Australian Science Media Centre.

The Conversation

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW Australia; Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE); Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University; Kevin Walsh, Reader, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Neville Nicholls, Professor emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University, and Steve Sherwood, Director, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Australia

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

Advertisements

Australia’s emissions are climbing again, but it already has the policies to turn the tide


Gordon Weiss, University of Sydney

The resumed growth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions after almost a decade of consistent decline shows the scale of the challenge ahead if Australia is to meet its climate commitments.

This week’s RepuTex analysis forecasts that national emissions will rise 6% by 2020, with no peak in sight until 2030. The signs are that the uptick for 2014-15 marks a reversal of the recent downward trend proclaimed by federal environment minister Greg Hunt.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

With the world’s nations having pledged in Paris to limit global warming to well below 2℃, it is clear that Australia (which joined the “high-ambition” diplomatic push for a 1.5℃ target also to be included in the agreement), will be expected to make far deeper emissions cuts than it has so far achieved.

Emissions on the rise

December’s federal government update of Australia’s emissions showed that emissions for 2014-15 did not rise dramatically from previous years, but it also highlighted two key considerations.

One, for the first time in almost a decade, Australia’s emissions did not fall from one year to the next. And two, the volume of electricity generated in the National Electricity Market also failed to fall. As electricity generation is responsible for one-third of Australia’s emissions, an increase in electricity is likely to drive up emissions overall.

Also in December, the government updated its forecast of national emissions out to 2020, which contained both good and bad news. The good news is that under the rules defined by the Kyoto Protocol, Australia’s rising emissions won’t stop it from meeting its cumulative 2020 emissions obligations. The bad news is that Australia is not on track to achieve its absolute emissions reduction target of 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

Current policies can do the job

Clearly Australia needs to turn things around. But there is good news here too, because it already has a broad suite of policies that can cut greenhouse gas emissions. Among them is the newly released National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP), as well as the Renewable Energy Target (RET), the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) (which may yet receive a funding boost), and the Safeguard Mechanism, which comes into force later this year and is designed to ensure that big emitters don’t wipe out the emissions savings made by projects funded under the ERF.

Some measures to cut emissions are more cost-effective than others – replacing power infrastructure is expensive, for instance, while improving fuel efficiency actually saves money. Different economic sectors can thus be plotted on an emissions-reduction “cost curve”, as seen below.

Cost curve for various emissions-reduction options
Source: National Energy Productivity Plan

Here’s how the various existing policies can each make a significant contribution.

Energy productivity

Looking at the cost curve, we see that some of cheapest emissions reductions can be found in saving energy. As Australia’s energy productivity lags other G20 countries, the NEPP can drive both emissions reductions and deliver broad economic benefits by maximising the value derived from each unit of energy. The sooner we see key parts of the NEPP implemented, such as requirements for light vehicle fuel efficiency, the greater its impact on emissions.

Emissions Reduction Fund

Judging by the two ERF auctions held so far, it seems that the scheme will mainly encourage projects such as low-emission farming and land use changes. The Paris climate agreement called for nations to embrace their “common and differentiated responsibilities”, and land use is surely one sector where Australia has greater potential than many countries to cut emissions.

Renewable Energy Target

The RET has made inroads into decarbonising electricity generation without drawing funds from other programs. While economic purists argue against promoting low-carbon electricity ahead of cheaper emissions-reduction measures, the RET is crucial for delivering on the long-term need to decarbonise the power sector.

The author’s own analysis of the interaction between the NEPP and the RET demonstrates how these policies complement each other, as improved energy efficiency and the growth in renewables both reduce the demand for electricity from coal-fired power stations. Weaning ourselves off coal will be essential if we hope to achieve deeper cuts to emissions.

The Safeguard Mechanism

During the Paris climate talks, Hunt acknowledged what commentators had been saying for some time: that the Safeguard Mechanism, aimed at constraining Australia’s largest emitters, has many of the features of a baseline-and-credit carbon trading scheme, and can drive emissions reductions.

Emitters will only be penalised when emissions exceed their agreed baseline, thus reducing the scheme’s overall economic impact. This allows for a much sharper price signal when emissions are excessive, and can reward the best performers. Furthermore, the Safeguard Mechanism will generate demand for emissions reduction activities across the whole economy, beyond the projects directly funded by the ERF.

An end to uncertainty?

In the wake of the Paris climate deal, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement saying that it was essential to price emissions. With the Safeguard Mechanism set to establish a market for emissions reductions, working together with other climate change policies, perhaps Australia now has a set of complementary policies that can help restore some certainty to its response to climate change.

We just need to move quickly and in step with the rest of the world.

The Conversation

Gordon Weiss, Honorary Associate, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Sydney

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