2016, the year that was: Environment + Energy

Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

If 2015 ended on a note of hope, with the successful conclusion of the Paris climate talks, the overriding impression of 2016 is that last year’s optimism has been answered with a large reality check.

The Paris Agreement was meant to herald a year in which politicians would finally cut through the stalemate and start saving the planet. Instead we watched aghast as swathes of the Great Barrier Reef were killed by climate change, while the political uncertainty only grew. Donald Trump completed his improbable climb to the US political summit, and Australian climate politics stayed mired in the trenches.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the unseemly blame game over the statewide blackout that plunged South Australia into darkness on a stormy night in September.

With fingers being pointed at the state’s reliance on wind power, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used the incident to call for an end to Labor states setting their own agendas on renewable energy. That was despite analysis showing that the blackout was due to 22 transmission towers being knocked over.

The planned closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood power station prompted more argument over cheap brown coal versus expensive electricity. The debate culminated in the Turnbull government’s 24-hour dalliance with the idea of an emissions intensity scheme for power stations (a policy that Labor took to July’s federal election).

The episode was seen as a slapdown for minister Josh Frydenberg, who in July had been handed the “superportfolio” of energy and environment in an overdue acknowledgement that these issues are now one and the same.

One of Frydenberg’s biggest tasks for 2017 will be handling the planned review of climate policy. Figures released quietly before Christmas underline the fact that Australia is on course to miss the government’s 2030 emissions target of 26-28% below 2005 levels. This year’s events proved that the electricity sector, the biggest source of emissions, is in serious need of reform.

In the states, Queensland continued to navigate a legal course for the controversial Carmichael coal mine, while SA Premier Jay Weatherill suggested a plebiscite to decide whether the state should build an international nuclear waste dump.

In fact, one of the year’s quietest periods for environmental policy was during the federal election campaign itself – neither climate nor conservation rated more than the briefest of mentions.

Death comes to the reef

The year’s biggest single environmental story was the unprecedented coral bleaching that hit the Great Barrier Reef in March and April. The bleaching affected more than 1,000km of the reef and prompted a storm of media reports – some more accurate than others.

Months later, the damage is clear: two-thirds of corals on the reef’s northern stretches are dead. Researchers are watching anxiously to see how much will bounce back.

Elsewhere on the high seas, there was better news for environmentalists. Oil giant BP cancelled plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight, and Australia’s Macquarie Island research station earned a reprieve after being slated for closure by the government.

In October, nations signed off on creating the world’s biggest marine park in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Meanwhile, Australia had a win (of sorts) in its battle with Japan’s whaling program, successfully sponsoring a resolution to provide greater oversight of “scientific” whaling.

In reality, however, the voluntary measure will have little effect on Japan’s activities. Perhaps it’s time to admit that whaling cannot be stopped altogether, and maybe even try some “whale poo diplomacy” instead.

Talking Trump

Speaking of diplomacy, when delegates arrived at November’s UN climate summit in Marrakech, they were expecting to begin putting flesh on the bones of the previous year’s Paris Agreement. This came into force with record speed just 11 months after it was signed.

But on its third day the summit was hit by a “Trump tsunami” as the surprise US election result dawned. Perhaps understandably, the conference morphed into a show of defiance towards the new president-elect.

It is still unclear whether Trump will follow through on his threat to withdraw from the Paris deal. For those keen to see global climate action continue, perhaps the most optimistic view is that Trump will be unable to revive the coal economy singlehanded, and that if the United States does relinquish the climate leadership it has belatedly shown under President Barack Obama, China will be more than willing to step up.

Heat and ice

While the political hot air flowed, the climate records kept tumbling. 2016 is set to be confirmed as the hottest year ever recorded, although September did bring an end to the streak of 16 consecutive record-setting months.

In May, the southern hemisphere joined the north in passing the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the good news is that global emissions seem, at long last, to have plateaued – although the picture is less rosy when it comes to methane emissions.

The El Niño came to an end, after helping to push Australia’s summer sea temperatures to record levels. We learned that rising seas have claimed five entire Pacific islands, while the Arctic ice is at record low levels, driven by a freak bout of human-induced warm weather.

Meanwhile, Earth’s last remaining wild places are being crisscrossed by roads, although there was some rare good news in the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants all live together – a treasured Indonesian forest now saved from logging.

If all that wasn’t enough, we were told that we are officially living in the Anthropocene Epoch, courtesy of nuclear weapons testing – which came to Australia 60 years ago this year.

A more nature-loving 2017?

Having polished off your ethically raised Christmas ham, perhaps now is the time to resolve to engage a bit more with the natural world in 2017.

While you might not be able to sail a scientific voyage around Antarctica, climb trees to save orange-bellied parrots, or discover previously unknown wild gatherings of animals, there are things you can do at home.

You might decide to join in a citizen science program, tend your garden, or get to know some of the fascinating critters who share your home.

You could even get closer to nature while doing the most 2016 thing possible: playing Pokémon GO.

So if the past year in environmental news has left you feeling despondent, look on the bright side – at least you don’t have a ball of 150 huntsman spiders living in your house … or do you?

The Conversation

Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

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


What role for the states on climate and energy policy? NSW enters the fray

Anna Bruce, UNSW Australia; Graham Mills, UNSW Australia, and Iain MacGill, UNSW Australia

We’re currently having a national conversation about climate and energy, with reviews of climate policy and the National Electricity Market underway. Up for debate is how the states and federal government will share these responsibilities.

Following the recent statewide blackout in South Australia, the federal government pointed the finger at Labor states’ “aggressive”, “unrealistic” and “ideological” renewable energy targets.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews returned: “Rather than peddle mistruths, Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce should start providing some national leadership and focus on developing a renewable vision beyond 2020.”

It might seem to be yet another partisan, ideological stoush between a Liberal federal government and three Labor state governments.

However, the Liberal-led New South Wales government has now also entered the fray, with a 2050 emissions target that will almost certainly require complete decarbonisation of the electricity sector within the next 25 years.

And to achieve this, renewables will have a key, many would argue overwhelming, role to play.

What are the states already doing?

NSW released its climate policy framework in November, joining Victoria, South Australia and the ACT with an aspirational target to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

While NSW didn’t announce a renewable target, the majority of states now have one. Queensland is seeking 50% renewable generation by 2030, Victoria 40% by 2025 and South Australia 50% by 2025.

Tasmania’s generation is already mostly renewable (albeit mostly conventional hydro generation). The Australian Capital Territory looks set to achieve 100% renewables by 2020 and the Northern Territory has announced a 50% target for 2030.

At present, the federal government has a renewable energy target of around 23.5% renewable electricity by 2020 and a 2030 target of 26-28% greenhouse emission reductions from 2005 levels. These ambitions fall way below those of the states.

And way below the almost complete electricity sector decarbonisation by 2040 that the International Energy Agency says is required globally to avoid dangerous global warming.

What does the law say?

Constitutionally, energy policy in Australia is a matter for state governments. The development and implementation of the National Electricity Market over the past two decades has been achieved through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), with harmonised legislation in each state.

State governments therefore have the constitutional scope to act both independently and in consort to achieve clean energy related goals.

Whether they should choose to do this, however, is another question. There is an obvious national context including Australia’s participation in international climate change processes such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

National policy coherence also has value in avoiding uncoordinated policies that can adversely impact investment incentives, increase compliance costs, and generally lead to less efficient outcomes.

While suitably ambitious, nationally consistent, legislation under federal government leadership may be ideal, it hardly seems realistic at present. The apparent divisions within the federal government seem likely to prevent useful progress, even with the two reviews.

It might well be a choice between state leadership or very little leadership over the next few years. And these years will be key to setting Australia on a clean energy path fit for the future.

New South Wales’ climate plan

The NSW climate change policy framework proposes to meet the net zero target through a number of policy “directions” to reduce emissions. It also proposes adaptation measures to cope with the warming that is already underway.

The emission reduction directions include: enhancing investment certainty for renewables; boosting energy productivity (energy efficiency); capturing other benefits of reducing emissions (such as improved health from reduced air pollution) and managing the risks; and growing new industries in NSW.

These are to be advanced through government policy, government operations, and advocacy. Specific initiatives are to be outlined in a set of action plans, including a climate change fund and an energy efficiency plan, which are currently under consultation.

A further advanced energy plan will be developed in 2017. This will include provisions for the future role of renewable energy. Clearly the government will not be able to achieve its aspirational emissions target in the absence of a transformation of the energy system, so how will renewable energy figure in the absence of a state target?

While we can’t preempt the plan, the policy framework defines advanced energy to not only cover renewable generation itself but also how it is integrated into industry structures and adopted by end users.

Given the importance of integration in transitioning the energy system, such a broad focus could usefully complement the activities of other states as well as NSW.

The policy also emphasises collaborating with the commonwealth and other states through COAG.

NSW: a climate advocate?

Combined state action has historically played a key role in federal climate policy. It was bottom up pressure from states that resulted in the Howard government’s initial emissions trading scheme (ETS) proposal in 2007.

The Garnaut review that formed the basis of Kevin Rudd’s ETS was originally commissioned by Labor state governments.

On this point SA Premier Jay Wetherill has taken the lead in calling for a national emissions trading scheme to be implemented through harmonised legislation at a state level.

While this seems unlikely to be a feature of NSW’s advocacy in 2017, continued failure by the federal government to advance climate and energy policy might require such types of coordinated state efforts.

In this light, state government efforts do not appear “ideological”. That would seem to better describe the federal government’s present opposition to even exploring promising emission reduction options.

And while it is too soon to know if NSW’s climate policy is fit for the future, it certainly represents welcome progress, and provides a basis that can be built upon.

The Conversation

Anna Bruce, Lecturer in the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, UNSW Australia; Graham Mills, , UNSW Australia, and Iain MacGill, Co-director, Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets, UNSW Australia

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