Australia to ratify the Paris climate deal, under a large Trump-shaped shadow


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Australia’s government has announced that it is to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which was struck 11 months ago and entered into force last Friday.

The move comes despite the election of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese-inspired hoax. Trump has pledged to turn his back on the Paris treaty after he takes office in January, although this would take at least a year and technically leave the Agreement still in force, albeit weakened.

The question for Australia is how Canberra will react to such a seismic shift in US climate policy. The last time a US president pulled the plug on international climate negotiations was in March 2001, when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty. Australia’s prime minister John Howard followed suit on Earth Day 2002.

The temptation for Australia’s current government would be to follow in Trump’s slipstream in much the same way. Despite its 2030 climate target being widely seen as unambitious, Australia still lacks a credible plan to deliver the necessary emissions cuts, and has no renewable energy target beyond 2020.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may be a vocal supporter of climate action, not everyone on on his side of politics is as keen – such as MPs Craig Kelly and George Christensen. (It was not always thus under the Liberals.)

The temptation to defect might be strong, but the countervailing pressure will be much stronger that it was in 2002, and the clean energy transition is already underway. Just this week, a high-powered group of business leaders, energy providers, academics and financiers called on Turnbull to expand the renewable energy target and create a market mechanism to phase out coal.

Yet the US election has also reinvigorated Australian opponents of climate action, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, who were cracking champagne at the prospect of Trump in the White House, and media commentator Andrew Bolt, who jubilantly described Trump’s victory as a “revolt against the left’s arrogance”.

Which bit of history will repeat?

On balance, then, it is still hard to predict Australia’s next move – and past form is little guide for future performance.

Over the past 26 years, Australia has made two largely symbolic commitments to international climate action, and one very concrete refusal.

In 1990, ahead of the 2nd World Climate Conference which fired the starting gun for the United Nations’ climate negotiations, the Hawke government announced a target of a 20% reduction by 2005.

The pledge, however, was laced with crucial caveats, like this one:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This target was sidelined in the final United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Australia signed and ratified in 1992.

In 1997, Australia got a very sweet deal at the Kyoto climate talks, successfully negotiating an 8% increase in greenhouse gases as its emissions “reduction” target, as well as a special loophole that allowed it take account of its large reduction in land clearing since 1990. Australia signed the deal in April 1998, but never ratified it.

Kyoto’s rules hid a multitude of sins, anyway, as Oxford University’s Nicholas Howarth and Andrew Foxall have pointed out:

…its accounting rules obscure the real level of carbon emissions and structural trends at the nation-state level… it has shifted focus away from Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter towards China, its primary customer.

Although Kevin Rudd famously ratified Kyoto and received a standing ovation at the Bali Climate summit in 2007, a stronger Australian emissions reduction target was not forthcoming.

The next big moment came at the Paris negotiations of 2015. Australia’s official pledge was a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 – a target unveiled by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, and which met with a lukewarm response from analysts.

Since then, pressure has been building for Australia to explain how it can meet even that target, given the hostility to renewable energy among the federal government, the lack of a post-2020 renewables target, and the inadequacy of the current Direct Action policy.

And now we are looking at the prospect of a Trump presidency, already described as “a turning point in the history of climate action” and “the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees”.

In a chaotic world that has confounded pollsters, it seems foolish to bet on anything. But two predictions seem sure: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will rise, and the future will be … interesting.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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

The third global bleaching event took its toll on Western Australia’s super-corals


Verena Schoepf, University of Western Australia

Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef has suffered through the worst bleaching event in its history, part of the world’s third mass bleaching event.

However, coral reefs from the other side of the continent have also experienced unprecedented bleaching and coral death. This is bad news because the unique coral reefs of Western Australia’s northwest are home to some of the toughest coral in the world.

Western Australia’s unique coral reefs

Although much less well-known, coral reefs in Western Australia are highly diverse. They include, for example, Australia’s largest fringing reef, the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, as well as Australia’s largest inshore reef, Montgomery Reef which covers 380 square kilometres.

WA’s remote Kimberley region also features “super-corals” – corals that have adapted to a naturally extreme environment where tidal swings can be up 10m. These corals can therefore tolerate exposure to the air during low tide as well as extreme daily temperature swings.

My past research has shown that these naturally extreme conditions increase the heat tolerance of Kimberley corals but that they are nevertheless not immune to bleaching when water temperatures are unusually hot for too long.

Previously I had put these super-corals in tanks and subjected them to a three-week heatwave to see how they would respond, but I always wondered how they would cope in the wild where such events typically unfold over longer timescales. Unfortunately, I did not have to wait long to find out.

Kimberley reef exposed at low tide before…
Verena Schoepf, Author provided
….and during the bleaching.
Morane Le Nohaic, Author provided

The hottest years on record

2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 will likely be hotter still. This has caused an unprecedented global coral reef crisis. Although global coral bleaching events already occurred in 1998 and 2010, this third global bleaching event is the longest on record and still ongoing.

Sadly, in WA the Kimberley region was hit the hardest. As part of Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, colleagues and I conducted extensive monitoring before, during and after the predicted bleaching event along the entire WA coastline. In the southern Kimberley, we also carried out aerial surveys to assess the situation on a regional level.

Aerial view of a bleached inshore Kimberley reef in April 2016.
Claire Ross and Steeve Comeau, Author provided

The severity and scale of bleaching that we observed in April was devastating. Almost all inshore Kimberley reefs that we surveyed had about 50% bleaching, including Montgomery Reef. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science found that offshore Kimberley reefs such as Scott Reef fared even worse, with 60-90% bleaching in shallow lagoon waters.

Many corals had already died from the severe bleaching in April, but the final death toll has only been revealed during visits to the Kimberley last month. Vast areas of coral reef are now dead and overgrown with algae, both at the inshore and offshore Kimberley reefs.

According to local Indigenous Rangers and Traditional Owners who assisted in the research, this appears to be unprecedented. Such events had never previously been described in their rich local history of the coastal environment.

Bleached staghorn coral on inshore Kimberley reefs in April 2016.
Verena Schoepf
Dead staghorn coral on the same reefs in October 2016.
Verena Schoepf

Some good news

There was nevertheless some good news. Corals living in intertidal areas, where they regularly experience exposure to air, stagnant water, and extreme temperature fluctuations, bleached less than corals from below the low-tide mark, where conditions are far more moderate. And importantly, the majority of intertidal corals were able to fully recover within a few months.

Similarly, researchers from the Western Australian Museum and Curtin University confirmed last month that intertidal coral reefs in the central Kimberley (Bonaparte Archipelago) were in great condition.

Overall, these observations confirm the findings from my past research which showed that highly-variable, extreme temperature environments can boost the bleaching resistance of corals.

It is also important to note that the 2016 severe bleaching event in WA was restricted to the Kimberley region. Ningaloo Reef as well as coral reefs in the Pilbara and the Abrolhos Islands all escaped the bleaching. This is great news because some of these locations are still recovering from major bleaching in 2010-11 and 2013.

Healthy coral at Ningaloo Reef in 2016.
Morane Le Nohaic

The future of WA’s coral reefs

Although it is now clear that WA’s coral reefs are at risk of bleaching during both El Niño (as in 2016) and La Niña years (as in 2010-11), they have some advantages over other reefs that may hopefully allow them to recover from bleaching more quickly and stay healthy in the long term.

For example, most of WA’s coral reefs are located far away from major population centres and are thus less affected by environmental threats such as poor water quality (though other threats such as oil and gas exploration do exist). We also know that their isolation, particularly in the case of offshore reefs, helped them recover from previous mass bleaching events.

Finally, it is critical that we identify coral populations worldwide that are already naturally adapted to higher temperatures and have a greater bleaching resistance, such as the Kimberley corals.

These super-corals, while not immune to climate change, should be a priority for research into the limits of coral tolerance, as well as conservation efforts.

The Conversation

Verena Schoepf, Research Associate, University of Western Australia

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