Global clean energy scorecard puts Australia 15th in the world


Alan Pears, RMIT University

Australia ranks equal 15th overall in a new World Bank scorecard on sustainable energy. We are tied with five other countries in the tail-end group of wealthy OECD countries – behind Canada and the United States and just one place ahead of China.

Called the Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE), the initiative provides benchmarks to evaluate clean energy progress, and insights and policy guidance for Australia and other countries.

RISE rates country performance in three areas – renewable energy, energy efficiency, and access to modern energy (excluding advanced countries), using 27 indicators and 80 sub-indicators. These include things like legal frameworks, building codes, and government incentives and policies. The results of the individual indicators are turned into an overall score.

The majority of wealthy countries score well in the scorecard. But when you drill down into the individual areas, the story becomes more complex. The report notes that “about half the countries with more appropriate policy environments for sustainable energy are emerging economies,” for example.

The RISE ranking.
RISE report

The report relies on data up to 2015. So it does not account for recent developments such as the Paris climate conference, the Australian National Energy Productivity Plan, the widespread failure to enforce building energy regulations, and the end of Australia’s major industrial Energy Efficiency Opportunities program under the Abbott government.

Furthermore, Australian electricity demand growth has recently re-emerged after five years of decline.

But the World Bank plans to publish updated indicators every two years, so over time the indicators should become a valuable means of tracking and influencing the evolution of global clean energy policy.

Australia

Australia’s ranking masks some good, bad and ugly subtleties. For example, Australia joins Chile and Argentina as the only OECD high-income countries without some form of carbon pricing mechanism. Even the United States, whose EPA uses a “social cost of carbon” in regulatory action, and has pricing schemes in some states, meets the RISE criteria.

Australia also ranks lower than the United States for renewable energy policy, at 24th. This is due to scoring poorly in incentives and regulatory support, carbon pricing, and mechanisms supporting network connection and appropriate pricing. But we are saved somewhat by having a legal framework for renewables, and strong management of counter-party risk. It’s not clear how recent political uncertainty, and the resulting temporary collapse of investment in large renewable energy projects, may affect the score.

I have argued in the past that Australia is missing out on billions of dollars in savings through its lack of ambition on energy efficiency. Yet we rate equal 13th on this criterion, compared with 24th on renewable energy. It seems that many other countries are forgoing even more money than us.

In energy efficiency, we score highly for incentives from electricity rate structures, building energy codes and financing mechanisms for energy efficiency. Our public sector policies and appliance minimum energy standards also score well. Our weakest areas are lack of carbon pricing and monitoring, and information for electricity consumers. National energy efficiency planning, incentives for large consumers and energy labelling all do a bit better. Of course, these ratings are relative to a low global energy efficiency benchmark.

The rest of the world

Much of the report focuses on developing countries. There is a wide spread of activity here, with some countries almost without policies, and others like Vietnam and Kazakhstan doing well, ranking equal 23rd. China ranks just behind Australia’s cluster at 21st.

RISE shows that policies driving access to modern energy seem to be achieving results. The report suggests that 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, down from an estimated 1.4 billion a few years ago. A significant contributor to this seems to be the declining cost of solar panels and other renewable energy sources, and greater emphasis on micro-grids in rural areas.

The report highlights the importance of strategies that integrate renewables and efficiency. But it doesn’t mention an obvious example. The viability of rural renewable energy solutions is being greatly assisted by the declining cost and large efficiency improvement in technologies such as LED lighting, mobile phones and tablet computers. The overall outcome is much improved access to services, social and economic development with much smaller and cheaper renewable energy and storage systems.

The takeaway

Screen Shot at am.
RISE report

RISE finds that clean energy policy is progressing across most countries. However, energy efficiency policy is well behind renewable energy. “This is another missed opportunity”, say the report’s authors, “given that energy efficiency measures are among the most cost-effective means of reducing a country’s carbon footprint.” They also note that energy efficiency policy tends to be fairly superficial.

Australia’s ranking on renewable energy policy is mediocre, while our better energy efficiency ranking is relative to global under-performance. The Finkel Review and Climate Policy Review offer opportunities to integrate renewables and energy efficiency into energy market frameworks. The under-resourced National Energy Productivity Plan could be cranked up to deliver billions of dollars more in energy savings, while reducing pressure on electricity supply infrastructure and making it easier to achieve ambitious energy targets. And RISE seems to suggest we need a price on carbon.

The question is, in a world where action on clean energy is accelerating in response to climate change and as a driver of economic and social development, will Australia move up or slip down the rankings in the next report?

The Conversation

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

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

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How the warming world could turn many plants and animals into climate refugees


Matt Christmas, University of Adelaide

Finding the optimum environment and avoiding uninhabitable conditions has been a challenge faced by species throughout the history of life on Earth. But as the climate changes, many plants and animals are likely to find their favoured home much less hospitable.

In the short term, animals can react by seeking shelter, whereas plants can avoid drying out by closing the small pores on their leaves. Over longer periods, however, these behavioural responses are often not enough. Species may need to migrate to more suitable habitats to escape harsh environments.

During glacial times, for instance, large swathes of Earth’s surface became inhospitable to many plants and animals as ice sheets expanded. This resulted in populations migrating away from or dying off in parts of their ranges. To persist through these times of harsh climatic conditions and avoid extinction, many populations would migrate to areas where the local conditions remained more accommodating.

These areas have been termed “refugia” and their presence has been essential to the persistence of many species, and could be again. But the rapid rate of global temperature increases, combined with recent human activity, may make this much harder.

Finding the refugia

Evidence for the presence of historic climate refugia can often be found within a species’ genome. The size of populations expanding from a refugium will generally be smaller than the parent population within them. Thus, the expanding populations will generally lose genetic diversity, through processes such as genetic drift and inbreeding. By sequencing the genomes of multiple individuals within different populations of a species, we can identify where the hotbeds of genetic diversity lie, thus pinpointing potential past refugia.

My colleagues and I recently investigated population genetic diversity in the narrow-leaf hopbush, a native Australian plant that got its common name from its use in beer-making by early European Australians. The hopbush has a range of habitats, from woodlands to rocky outcrops on mountain ranges, and has a wide distribution across southern and central Australia. It is a very hardy species with a strong tolerance for drought.

We found that populations in the Flinders Ranges have more genetic diversity than those to the east of the ranges, suggesting that these populations are the remnants of an historic refugium. Mountain ranges can provide ideal refuge, with species only needing to migrate short distances up or down the slope to remain within their optimal climatic conditions.

In Australia, the peak of the last ice age led to dryer conditions, particularly in the centre. As a result, many plant and animal species gradually migrated across the landscape to southern refugial regions that remained more moist. Within the south-central region, an area known as the Adelaide Geosyncline has been recognised as an important historic refugium for several animal and plant species. This area encompasses two significant mountain ranges: the Mount Lofty and Flinders ranges.

Refugia of the future

In times of increased temperatures (in contrast to the lower temperatures experienced during the ice age) retreats to refugia at higher elevations or towards the poles can provide respite from unfavourably hot and dry conditions. We are already seeing these shifts in species distributions.

But migrating up a mountain can lead to a literal dead end, as species ultimately reach the top and have nowhere else to go. This is the case for the American Pika, a cold-adapted relative of rabbits that lives in mountainous regions in North America. It has disappeared from more than one-third of its previously known range as conditions have become too warm in many of the alpine regions it once inhabited.

Further, the almost unprecedented rate of global temperature increase means that species need to migrate at rapid rates. Couple this with the destructive effects of agriculture and urbanisation, leading to the fragmentation and disconnection of natural habitats, and migration to suitable refugia may no longer be possible for many species.

While evidence for the combined effects of habitat fragmentation and climate change is currently scarce, and the full effects are yet to be realised, the predictions are dire. For example, modelling the twin impact of climate change and habitat fragmentation on drought sensitive butterflies in Britain led to predictions of widespread population extinctions by 2050.

Within the Adelaide Geosyncline, the focal area of our study, the landscape has been left massively fragmented since European settlement, with estimates of only 10% of native woodlands remaining in some areas. The small pockets of remaining native vegetation are therefore left quite disconnected. Migration and gene flow between these pockets will be limited, reducing the survival chances of species like the hopbush.

So while refugia have saved species in the past, and poleward and up-slope shifts may provide temporary refuge for some, if global temperatures continue to rise, more and more species will be pushed beyond their limits.

The Conversation

Matt Christmas, ARC Research Associate, University of Adelaide

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