Rapid transition to clean energy will take massive social change


Mark Diesendorf, UNSW Australia

Global climate change, driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, is already affecting the planet, with more heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods, and accelerating sea-level rise.

Devastating impacts on our environment, health, social justice, food production, coastal city infrastructure and economies cannot be avoided if we maintain a slow and steady transition to a zero-carbon society.

According to Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, we need an emergency response.

A big part of this response needs to be transforming the energy sector, the principal contributor to global warming in Australia and many other developed countries.

Many groups have put forward ideas to transition the energy sector away from carbon. But what are the key ingredients?

Technology is the easy bit

At first glance the solution appears straightforward. Most of the technologies and skills we need – renewable energy, energy efficiency, a new transmission line, railways, cycleways, urban design – are commercially available and affordable. In theory these could be scaled up rapidly.

But in practice there are several big, non-technical barriers. These include politics dominated by vested interests, culture, and institutions (organisational structures, laws, and regulations).

Vested interests include the fossil fuel industry, electricity sector, aluminium smelting, concrete, steel and motor vehicles. Governments that receive taxation revenue and political donations from vested interests are reluctant to act effectively.

To overcome this barrier, we need strong and growing pressure from the climate action movement.

There are numerous examples of nonviolent social change movements the climate movement can learn from. Examples include the Indian freedom struggle led by Gandhi; the African-American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr; the Philippine People Power Revolution; and the unsuccessful Burmese uprising of 1988-90.

Several authors, including Australian climate scientist Matthew England, point out that nations made rapid socio-economic changes during wartime and that such an approach could be relevant to rapid climate mitigation.

Learning from war

UNSW PhD candidate Laurence Delina has investigated the rapid, large, socio-economic changes made by several countries just before and during World War 2.

He found that we can learn from wartime experience in changing the labour force and finance.

However, he also pointed out the limitations of the wartime metaphor for rapid climate mitigation:

  • Governments may need extraordinary emergency powers to implement rapid mitigation, but these are unlikely to be invoked unless there is support from a large majority of the electorate.

  • While such support is almost guaranteed when a country is engaged in a defensive war, it seems unlikely for climate action in countries with powerful vested interests in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Vested interests and genuinely concerned people will exert pressure on governments to direct their policies and resources predominantly towards adaptation measures such as sea walls, and dangerous quick fixes such as geoengineering. While adaptation must not be neglected, mitigation, especially by transforming the energy sector, should be primary.

Unfortunately it’s much easier to make war than to address the global climate crisis rapidly and effectively. Indeed many governments of “democratic” countries, including Australia, make war without parliamentary approval.

Follow the leaders!

According to Climate Action Tracker, the 158 climate pledges submitted to the United Nations by December 8 2015 would result in around 2.7℃ of warming in 2100 – and that’s provided that all governments meet their pledge.

Nevertheless, inspiring case studies from individual countries, states and cities could lead the way to a better global outcome.

Iceland, with its huge hydroelectric and geothermal resources, already has 100% renewable electricity and 87% renewable heat.

Denmark, with no hydro, is on track to achieve its target of 100% renewable electricity and heat by 2035.

Germany, with modest hydro, is heading for at least 80% renewable electricity by 2050, but is behind with its renewable heat and transport programs.

It’s easier for small regions to reach 100% renewable electricity, provided that they trade electricity with their neighbours. The north German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein are generating more than 100% net of their electricity from renewables.

The Australian Capital Territory is on track to achieve its 100% renewable electricity target by 2020. There are also many towns and cities on programs towards the 100% goal.

If the climate action movement can build its strength and influence, it may be possible for the state of Tasmania to achieve 100% renewable energy (electricity, heat and transport) and for South Australia to reach 100% renewable electricity, both within a decade.

But the eastern mainland states, which depend heavily on coal for electricity, will need to build new renewable energy manufacturing industries and to train a labour force that includes many more highly trained engineers, electricians, systems designers, IT specialists and plumbers, among others.

Changes will be needed to the National Electricity Market rules, or at least to rewrite the National Electricity Objective to highlight renewable energy, a slow task that must obtain the agreement of federal, state and territory governments.

Australia has the advantage of huge renewable energy resources, sufficient to create a substantial export industry, but the disadvantage of a declining manufacturing sector.

There are already substantial job opportunities in renewable energy, both globally and in Australia. These can be further expanded by manufacturing components of the technologies, especially those that are expensive to ship between continents, such as large wind turbine blades, bulk insulation and big mirrors.

Transport will take longer to transform than electricity generation and heat. Electric vehicle manufacturing is in the early stage of expansion and rail transport infrastructure cannot be built overnight, especially in car-dependent cities.

For air transport and long-distance road transport, the only short-term solution is biofuels, which have environmental and resource constraints.

How long would it take?

The timescale for the transition to 100% renewable energy – electricity, heat and transport – depends on each country or region and the commitment of its governments.

Scenario studies (see also here), while valuable for exploring technological strategies for change, are not predictions. Their results depend upon assumptions about the non-technical strategies I have discussed. They cannot predict the timing of changes.

Governments need to agree on a strategy for transitioning that focuses not just on the energy sector, but includes industry, technology, labour, financial institutions, governance and the community.

Everyone should be included in developing this process, apart from dyed-in-the-wool vested interests. This process could draw upon the strengths of the former Ecologically Sustainable Development process while avoiding its shortcomings.

The task is by no means easy. What we need is a strategic plan and to implement it rapidly.

The Conversation

Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, UNSW, UNSW Australia

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

Queensland moves to control land clearing: other states need to follow


Megan C Evans, Australian National University

Queensland’s land clearing has yet again become a national issue. After laws were relaxed under the then Liberal-National state government in 2013, land-clearing rates tripled, undermining efforts to conserve wildlife and reduce carbon emissions.

Now the Labor state government wants to re-tighten the laws. The revised legislation is expected to be debated after June 30.

Land clearing is a highly contentious and polarising issue in Queensland. Scientists and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the dramatic increase in land clearing. But some rural landholders are reportedly worried about the prospect of re-tightened regulations and their possible impact on property values and business certainty.

So, what does the big picture suggest?

Then and now

Since the 1980s, all Australian states and territories have introduced laws to protect native vegetation, in response to rising public concern about land degradation, salinity, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant policy reforms have been in Queensland – where the vast majority of land clearing in Australia has occurred over the past four decades – as I show in a new paper published in Pacific Conservation Biology.

Total forest loss due to human activity from 1972 – 2014. Data is sourced from the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS), Australian Department of the Environment (2015). Image: Evans (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/PC15052

Changes to land-clearing laws in 2007 were heralded as the end of broad-scale clearing in Queensland. Clearing of remnant (old-growth) forest was restricted on freehold land, all remaining clearing permits (issued under a ballot) expired and A$150 million of compensation was provided to landholders. Further amendments in 2009 placed protections on “high value” (more than 20 years old) regrowth forest.

Fast forward to 2012, and Premier Campbell Newman was elected on a promise to keep Queensland’s land clearing laws in place. Soon afterwards though, Natural Resources Minister Andrew Cripps announced the Government would “take an axe” to tree-clearing laws.*

The 2013 amendments:

  • removed protections on “high value” regrowth forest

  • allowed landholders to self-assess clearing for activities such as fodder harvesting and vegetation thinning

  • allowed clearing of remnant forest for “high-value agriculture”

  • changed the onus of proof so that the Queensland government had to prove that land-clearing laws had been violated.

Queensland’s current Labor government intends to reverse most of the 2013 amendments to vegetation-clearing laws, as well as extending protections on regrowth forest to three additional catchments, to reduce runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef.

The laws will also be retrospective, in an effort to prevent panic clearing before the changes come in.

How does Queensland compare?

Queensland is not alone in its recent changes to vegetation protection laws.

New South Wales introduced self-assessment for “low risk” clearing in 2013. It also promised to repeal the Native Vegetation Act and replace it with a new Biodiversity Conservation Act. An independent review recommended that these changes occur, but environmental groups remain opposed.

Victoria’s vegetation laws were also changed in 2013. The then Coalition government’s changes included the removal of the “net gain” target in vegetation extent and quality that had been in place since 2003. The Victorian Labor government is now undertaking another review of the state’s regulations.

Laws have also been relaxed in Western Australia, where landholders may now clear up to 5 hectares per year on individual properties without a permit (an increase from 1 ha per year).

From state to self-regulation

Within ten years of what looked like the end of broad-scale land clearing in Australia, most state vegetation laws across the country have been relaxed.

Government regulation of native vegetation is generally unpopular with landholders and so maintaining these policies has proven to be politically unpalatable. At this stage, only Queensland is looking to re-strengthen land-clearing laws – and, even so, self-assessment for some clearing activities will remain.

What does this all mean for native vegetation in Australia? This is actually a difficult question to answer.

Many factors influence land clearing: rainfall, the price of key agricultural commodities and the amount of land available to clear. This complexity means it’s difficult to know what impact (if any) changes in policy have on the rate of land clearing.

Trends in national-scale deforestation and key macroeconomic variables. Plots are total deforestation versus: a) Year, b) Extent of primary forest remaining, c) Log-transformed total rainfall, d) Gross domestic product per capita (current USD) , e) Agriculture, value added (% total GDP) f) Farmer’s terms of trade. Image: Evans (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/PC15052

It’s quite clear that the relaxation of Queensland’s clearing laws was followed by a sharp increase in vegetation clearing, but it’s not yet apparent whether this has happened in other states.

A big issue is a lack of reliable data. There’s no consistent reporting of vegetation clearing across Australia. Some states, such as New South Wales, only publish information on the amount of clearing permitted by regulation.

As reported last week, total vegetation clearing in New South Wale is much higher than official data shows as most clearing is exempt from regulation, or illegal.

Better policy needed

If we’re serious about protecting Australia’s native vegetation for the sake of soil health, biodiversity and the climate, we need to use all the tools we have available to achieve this goal.

Using a mixture of government regulation, self-regulation and genuine economic incentives, such as carbon farming, is the best approach.

But no matter which policies we use, they all need to be monitored and evaluated to be effective. Otherwise, we have no idea whether all the time and money devoted to designing and implementing new policies has been worthwhile.

The inconsistency between the federal government’s Direct Action policy and the relaxation of state restrictions on vegetation clearing is a big problem. Landholders need a clear and consistent message from all levels of government if they are to adapt and make long-term business decisions.

Interestingly, around 75% of the recent clearing in Queensland has occurred in the Brigalow Belt and Mulga – areas where we’ve found that carbon farming could be more profitable than cattle grazing.

If only the price, and the policies, were right.

*This sentence was amended on May 10 2016 to clarify that land clearing laws were originally to be maintained.

The Conversation

Megan C Evans, PhD Candidate in Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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

The NSW government is choosing to undermine native vegetation and biodiversity


Neil Perry, Western Sydney University

While everyone’s eyes were turned to the Federal budget last Tuesday, the NSW government released a very controversial piece of draft legislation that will remove restrictions on land clearance and, despite their claims, threaten biodiversity.

The new reforms implement the recommendations made in the NSW Biodiversity Legislation Review but the economic assumptions underlying both documents are not accurate or acceptable.

The reforms aim to “conserve biodiversity” and “facilitate ecologically sustainable development”. However, they will only do so in a perfect world where farmers have complete knowledge about the value of native vegetation, where there are no spillover effects from land clearance, and where landowners care about the long-run condition of the land as much as they care about current income. Outside of this world, the Baird government’s reforms will lead to large increases in land clearance, increased carbon emissions and more threats to endangered species.

While some aspects of the new legislation are informed by ecological science, the main approach derives from economic theory. Essentially, the government will repeal the Native Vegetation Act, 2003 (NVA), which restricted land clearance on farms, and replace it with a market-based approach that provides flexibility for farmers to clear land.

While the NVA had certain exemptions where land clearance was allowed, the new Biodiversity Conservation Act has many more and applies a risk-based approach. The risk is loosely framed around threats to endangered species or communities. For example, low-risk vegetation includes land that has been cleared at some point in the last 25 years, and grasslands assessed as being of low conservation value.

Based on a farmer’s self-assessment of risk, land clearance is allowed at the lower risk levels while it requires approval at higher risk levels from Local Land Services – administrative bodies that can include other farmers as members (itself a possible conflict of interest). A biodiversity market can be used to offset land clearance impacts at these high-risk levels. That is, landowners who clear land can either buy credits in the Biobanking scheme or pay money into a biodiversity trust fund.

In contrast, under the NVA, any approved land clearance had to be offset by improving the environmental condition of other areas on the property. This ensured protection for biodiversity at the local level.

Thus, the new approach will “broaden and deepen” the use of biodiversity markets and it will apply offsetting at the regional and State level rather than the local level, which means that local biodiversity will be lost.

The government’s argument for taking this approach is that the current system “doesn’t deliver”. This is simply not true. Since the NVA was implemented in 2004/5, land clearance for agriculture has reduced from an average of 21,500 hectares to 16,000 hectares per year. A 2009 review of the NVA stated that from 2006-2008 the legislation led directly to the conservation or rehabilitation of 250,000 hectares.

Thus, if the aim is to conserve biodiversity and deliver ecologically sustainable development, the NVA certainly has delivered. Of course, the NVA may not be delivering maximum short-term economic gains for some farmers and large agribusiness firms, but that is another matter.

The underlying economic assumptions don’t stack up to reality

The government claims that the new legislation will both facilitate economic development and protect the environment. By giving farmers more freedom, they say, native vegetation will be preserved and protected. The old legislation creates perverse outcomes, they argue, and limits the actions of responsible farmers. If we put trust in the farmers, they state, the environment will be conserved.

However, for these environmental benefits to be realised under the looser, market-based approach, the following three conditions need to apply. First, farmers would need to have perfect knowledge about the impact of native vegetation on their current and future incomes. For example, farmers would need to understand the value of native vegetation in halting erosion and salinity, providing wind breaks, harbouring bird diversity, restricting pest invasions and supporting current and future agricultural productivity. Only then can farmers accurately value the conservation of native vegetation.

The second condition that the draft legislation assumes to be true is that land clearance creates no spillover effects. However, native vegetation does not simply provide benefits on a farmer’s own property. It provides spillover benefits such as pest resistance, flood control, wind protection and pollination services to other properties in the local area. Native vegetation also provides regional benefits, such as climate and water regulatory functions, and it houses threatened and endangered species and biodiversity valued by other citizens.

Unless farmers are forced to consider these spillover effects, as they were forced to do under the NVA, they will make decisions on the basis of private benefits and costs only. Thus, they will clear too much relative to the desires and needs of society and other local land users. The legislation does require offsetting of high-risk land clearance which in some way internalises the spillover cost, but the market-based offset price is not equal to the social impact and spillover costs occur when low and medium-risk vegetation is cleared as well.

The third unrealistic assumption of the draft legislation is that the ‘discount rate’ of landowners is identical to society’s. That is, it is assumed that the rate at which farmers discount future income compared to current income is the same as society’s rate of discount. In contrast, if landowner’s rate of discount is greater than society’s, too much land will be cleared relative to the needs and desires of society and future generations.

The impact of high discount rates can be seen in the extreme in the clear cutting of tropical forests where farmers are poor and desperate. NSW farmers may not be as poor and desperate as landowners bordering the Amazon, but as they frequently tell us, they are highly indebted and being squeezed from all sides between multinational input suppliers and highly-concentrated domestic food wholesalers and retailers. Thus, according to their own evaluation, farmers have high discount rates and as such a focus on short-term economic interests rather than environmental sustainability will drive decisions under the proposed legislation.

The Baird government is undermining the long-run condition of the land

The theory underlying the government’s reforms assumes that farmers know best. That is, farmers know how to best manage their land (perfect knowledge), they will incorporate their neighbour’s needs and the broader public interest (zero or internalised spillover effects), and they will act in the long-run interest of the land (discount rate equal to society’s). Because these assumptions are untrue in reality, the new legislation will lead to a vast increase in land clearance and loss of biodiversity. This exact result occurred in Queensland when similar changes were made to land clearance laws.

Aware of the devastating effects of the Queensland legislation on land clearance, the government has claimed that NSW is “not Queensland” and that more checks and balances are in place. But these checks and balances are still designed for a world with perfect knowledge, no spillover effects and perfectly forward-thinking landowners. Thus, the checks and balances will not “deliver”.

Ultimately, the major impact of the reforms is to free up land clearance, to make it easier to clear and to reduce regulation. As all environmental problems stem from unrestrained economic activity, the removal of regulation can only be seen as a decision to accept a lower land condition – a land with more erosion and salinity, less species and biodiversity, and eventually less economic productivity as well.

The Baird government seems to believe that we exist within an unrealistic, textbook version of a free-market economy and is setting policy on the basis of free-market ideology and in response to the demands of large agribusiness firms and food retailers who want still lower farm-gate prices. In setting policy this way, the Baird government is promoting a less sustainable land condition and undermining the prosperity of future generations. This is no way to manage the commons.

The Conversation

Neil Perry, Research Lecturer, Western Sydney University

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