Recycling can be confusing, but it’s getting simpler


Jenni Downes, University of Technology Sydney

At first glance, Australians appear to be good recyclers: ABS figures report that in 2012 about 94% of households participated in some way in kerbside recycling. State waste authorities also report a consistent increase in the volume of materials recovered for recycling. The Conversation

However, these figures do not justify complacency. Our total household waste is increasing and our kerbside recycling rate – the amount of materials collected for recycling as a percentage of the total waste generated – is actually relatively low by global standards, and is only growing slowly.

The recycling rate increased from 45% in 2007 to 51% in 2011, just creeping above the average of 50% across comparable countries.

One reason our kerbside recycling rate isn’t higher is because many people find the rules confusing: a Planet Ark survey found that 48% of Aussies struggle to figure out what can and can’t be recycled, and many incorrectly identified materials that could be recycled. Much of this is likely due to the variation in rules in different places, and the extent to which recycling has changed in the 35 years since it began in Australia.

Many people are confused about what can and can’t be recycled.
Adapted from Planet Ark, 7 Secrets of Successful Recyclers

Why is there variation in recycling rules?

Every local council makes its own decisions about what it collects for recycling, based on factors like population density, economics, local infrastructure and facilities, waste contracting services available, and potential end markets.

For example, the volume and value of recyclables collected from smaller or remote populations might be too low to be economic, once the costs of collection and transport are factored in. In other words, one size will not fit all council areas.

The type of facilities available to a council also affects what can be collected. For example, combination products like Tetra Pak juice cartons are made of multiple materials: cardboard, plastic and foil linings. Specialised machinery is needed to separate the product into its component materials before it can be recycled and this may not be available in all areas.

In the past the variation between councils was big, as some got access to facilities and new technologies quicker than others.

The good news is things are getting simpler as councils move towards much greater consistency. Now more than 80% of people can place the same things in their recycling bins, by following a few golden rules.

How has recycling changed over time?

Household kerbside recycling schemes were introduced in the 1980s, initially in Sydney, and then spread to the other major centres. By the early 1990s nearly half of households had kerbside collections, and by 2014 94% of Australians had access to kerbside recycling.

Early recycling collections used council-provided bags and crates, or boxes or other bins that were provided by the householder. But mobile garbage bins, better known as “wheelie bins”, have steadily gained in popularity and are now the major form of recycling bin provided by councils. This shift was in part driven by waste service contractors desiring greater cost-efficiency.

Initially, recycling had to be sorted into paper and plastic/glass. Over the past 15 years many councils have moved towards “comingled” recycling, in which all recyclables are placed in the one bin. For example, in 2006, only 47% of Sydney councils had comingled recycling, while in 2012, 95% of councils across NSW did.

Research suggests, however, that while comingled recycling is more convenient for households, it leads to lower recovery rates and more contamination than separated recycling.

Again, the shift to comingled recycling is partly due to a desire for reduced costs. While sorting was traditionally done by hand, recycling is increasingly sent straight to automated machines in materials-recovery facilities, which use the physical properties of different materials to separate them from each other.

Is recycling enough?

Like most conversations about recycling, so far we have only discussed the “supply” side: how things get recycled. It is also important to recognise the “demand” side: what happens to recycled material.

A strong recycling system requires a closed loop, where there is demand for products made from recycled material. Increased demand supports a more circular economy by providing an incentive for investment in recycling collection schemes and infrastructure.

People who want to be super successful recyclers can increase demand by “buying back” their recycling; looking for products with recycled content, such as toilet paper, wrapping and copy paper, boxes, plastic containers and packaging, as well as bigger items like outdoor furniture and carpet underlay.

Recycling also needs to be considered in its appropriate place in the scheme of things. While it is extremely important to ensure useful materials don’t go to waste in landfill, many might be surprised to know that recycling sits below a number of waste avoidance actions. Recycling and other waste management should be more of a last line of defence.

The ‘waste hierarchy’ prioritises actions by those with the greatest environmental benefit.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Most of us only think about recycling when we’re disposing of something. However it’s much more effective to think about recycling where we’re acquiring it. For most of us, that is in the supermarket when buying groceries.

When considering a product, if we think about the waste that will be produced when we get home, we could choose refuse to purchase products with too much packaging, thus reducing the amount of waste that needs to be recycled. Similarly, we could buy reusable items instead of single-use, disposable items.

New social movements are also trying to encourage people to be even more creative about how they can avoid waste, introducing concepts like “repair” and “re-gifting” back into our consciousness. They are trying to create an extended waste hierarchy with more emphasis on waste avoidance.

An extended waste hierarchy, focusing on waste avoidance.
UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures, CC BY-SA

Recycling is vital to reducing resource use and waste to landfill, and getting it right is crucial. But it’s also important for recycling to take its place alongside waste-avoidance actions for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute of Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

Conservation efforts must include small animals. After all, they run the world


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Ladybugs stop pests from eating our food and destroying crops.
Flickr/Inhabitat

Michael Samways, Stellenbosch University

Humans like to think that they rule the planet and are hard wired to do so. But our stewardship has been anything but successful. The last major extinction event, 66 million years ago, was caused by a meteorite. But the next mass extinction event, which is under way right now, is our fault. The Conversation

Geologists have even given this era in the history of the Earth a new name to reflect our role: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

It’s the first time in the history of the Earth in which one species dominates all the others. These “others” numbers are probably around 10 million. The vast majority are the invertebrates, the animals without backbones. Not all are so small – some squids and jellyfish are several metres long or across.

Most, though, are small and unassuming. And they are hidden in plain view. They are busy maintaining the fabric of the world around us. They are the warp and weft of all natural systems. They make the soil, pollinate the flowers, spread seeds, and recycle valuable nutrients back into the soil. They are also food for many birds that are so loved, and keep other small animals in check by eating or parasitising them.

Yet most of us are oblivious of the many roles of these mostly small, even tiny, animals. If all their services were gone tomorrow, many plants would soon go extinct. Crops would be lost overnight. Many birds would die from lack of food, and soil formation would largely halt. The knock-on effects would also be huge as food webs collapse, and the world would quite literally fall apart.

So how can all the small animals be saved?

Saving small animals

Future generations depend on these small animals, so the focus must be on increasing awareness among the young. Research has shown that children are intrinsically interested in what a bee, cricket, butterfly or snail is. Their small world is at the same level as this small world of insects and all their allies without backbones. Yet strangely, while we care about our children, we care so little for all the small creatures on which our children depend on now and into the future.

Children must be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well, the grasshopper is recycling scarce food requirements for plants, the millipede is making the soil, and the ladybug is stopping pests from eating all our food. Showing children that this miniature world is there, and that it’s crucial, is probably one of the best things to do to help them survive the future in this world of turmoil.

Children need to be shown that the bee is keeping the flowering plant species alive and well to help them understand the importance.
Flickr/RDPixelShop

Being aware of what the various species actually do for maintaining ecosystems is crucial to understanding how complex the world around us is. Pointing out that a bee is intimately connected with flowers and so seeds are produced, and an ant is the cleaner of the forest floor, taking away all the debris from other small animals, and the caterpillar is feeding the soil by pooing on it. Then we can conceptually jump to the whole landscape, where there are millions of little claws, mandibles and tongues holding, munching and sucking nectar all the time, even though we rarely see it happening.

Natural communities

A good way to understand this complexity is to view a small community of 1000 species. This can lead to potentially half a million interactions between the various species. Yet the natural communities around us are usually much larger than that. This makes understanding this world too mind boggling, and conserving its complexity too unwieldy. What this means is that for conservation, while we use conceptual icons, like the bee and the butterfly, the actual aim is to conserve landscapes so that all the natural processes can continue as they would without humans.

Conservationists have developed approaches and strategies that maintain all the natural processes intact in defined areas. The processes that are conserved include behavioural activities, ecological interactions and evolutionary trends. This umbrella approach is highly effective for conserving the great complexity of the natural world. This doesn’t mean that particular species are overlooked.

Small-creature conservationists in reality work on and develop strategies that work at three levels. The first is at the larger scale of the landscape. The second is the medium scale of the features of the landscape, which includes features like logs, ponds, rock crevices, patches of special plants, among many others. The third is the still smaller scale of the actual species.

The third is really about a conceptual scale because some particular species actually need large spatial areas to survive. At this fine scale of species, conservationists focus attention on identified and threatened species that need special attention in their own right. The beautiful Amatola Malachite damselfly, which is endangered, and lives in the Eastern Cape mountains of South Africa, is a case in point.

The common thought is that it’s only tigers, whales and parrots that need conserving. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small creatures that all need special conservation focus like bees for example. And this focus becomes increasingly and critically important every year, if not every day, that passes. It’s crucial to think and conserve all these small animals that make up the platform for our future survival on the planet.

Time is short as the Anthropocene marches on. Putting in place strategies that conserve as many animals as possible, along with the rest of biodiversity, is not a luxury for the future. New strategies are possible, especially in agricultural and forestry areas where the aim is to optimise production yet maximise on biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of natural ecosystem function.

Michael Samways, Professor, Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University

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

Galapagos giant tortoises make a comeback, thanks to innovative conservation strategies



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Giant tortoise on Pinzon Island, Galapagos.
Rory Stansbury, Island Conservation/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

James P. Gibbs, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. The Conversation

Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant.

Remains of tortoises killed by hunters, Galapagos Islands, 1903.
R.H. Beck/Library of Congress

Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists.

Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, overseen by Washington Tapia, Linda Cayot and myself with major collaboration from Gisella Caccone at Yale University. Using many novel strategies, the initiative helps guide the Galapagos National Park Directorate to restore viable, self-sustaining tortoise populations and recover the ecosystems in which these animals evolved.

Back from the brink

As many as 300,000 giant tortoises once roamed the Galapagos Islands. Whalers and colonists started collecting them for food in the 19th century. Early settlers introduced rats, pigs and goats, which preyed upon tortoises or destroyed their habitat. As a result, it was widely concluded by the 1940s that giant tortoises were headed for oblivion.

After the Galapagos National Park was established in 1959, park guards halted killing of tortoises for food. Next, biologists at what was then known as the Charles Darwin Research Station did the first inventory of surviving tortoises. They also initiated a program to help recover imperiled species.

One species, the Pinzon Island tortoise, had not produced any juveniles for over 100 years because nonnative black rats were preying on hatchlings. In 1965 park guards started methodically removing eggs from tortoise nests, rearing the offspring to “rat-proof” size in captivity and releasing them back into the wild. More than 5,000 young tortoises have been repatriated back to Pinzon Island. Many are now adults. This program is one of the most successful examples of “head-starting” to save a species in conservation history.


Storpilot/Wikipedia

The Española tortoise, which once numbered in the thousands, had been reduced to just 15 individuals by 1960. Park guards brought those 15 into captivity, where they have produced more than 2,000 captive-raised offspring now released onto their home island. All 15 survivors are still alive and reproducing today, and the wild population numbers more than 1,000. This is one of the greatest and least-known conservation success stories of any species.

Eliminating nonnative threats

Over the past 150 years, goats brought to the islands by early settlers overgrazed many of the islands, turning them into dustbowls and destroying forage, shade and water sources that tortoises relied on. In 1997 the Galapagos Conservancy launched Project Isabela, the largest ecosystem restoration initiative ever carried out in a protected area.

Over a decade park wardens, working closely with Island Conservation, used high-tech hunting tactics, helicopter support and Judas goats – animals fitted with radio collars that led hunters to the last remaining herds – to eliminate over 140,000 feral goats from virtually all of the archipelago.

Building on lessons learned from Project Isabela, the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Island Conservation then eradicated nonnative rats from Pinzón Island in 2012, enabling tortoise hatchlings to survive and complete their life cycle again for the first time in a century.

Restoring ecosystems with tortoises

The argument for tortoise conservation has been strengthened by reconceptualizing giant tortoises as agents whose actions shape the ecosystems around them. Tortoises eat and disperse many plants as they move around – and they are more mobile than many people realize. By attaching GPS tags to tortoises, scientists with the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme have learned that tortoises migrate tens of kilometers up and down volcanoes seasonally to get to new plant growth and nesting sites.

As they move, tortoises crush vegetation. They may be an important factor in maintaining the native savannah-like ecosystems on the islands where they live. When tortoises are scarce, we think that shrubs sprout up, crowding out many herbaceous plants and other animal species.

We need data to support this theory, so we have constructed an elaborate system of “exclosures” on two islands that wall tortoises out of certain areas. By comparing vegetation in the tortoise-free zones to conditions outside of the exclosures, we will see just how tortoises shape their ecosystems.

Restoring ecosystems on islands where tortoises have gone extinct requires more drastic steps. Santa Fe Island lost its endemic giant tortoises more than 150 years ago, and its ecosystems are still recovering from a scourge of goats. Park managers are attempting to restore the island using an “analog,” nonnative species – the genetically and morphologically similar Española tortoise.

In 2015 the Galapagos National Park Directorate released 201 juvenile Española tortoises in the interior of Santa Fe Island. They all appear to have survived their first year there, and 200 more are scheduled for release in 2017. Española tortoises are still endangered, so this strategy has the extra value of creating a reserve population of them on Santa Fe island.

On Pinta Island, which also has lost its endemic tortoise, park managers have released sterilized nonnative tortoises to serve as “vegetation management tools” that can prepare the habitat for future introductions of reproductive tortoises. These initiatives are some of the first-ever to use analog species to jump-start plant community restoration.

Reviving lost species

The endemic tortoises of Floreana Island are also considered to be extinct. But geneticists recently discovered that in a remote location on Isabela Island, tortoises evidently had been translocated from around the archipelago during the whaling era. In a major expedition in 2015, park rangers and collaborating scientists removed 32 tortoises from Isabela Island with shell features similar to the extinct Pinta and Floreana species.

Now the geneticists are exploring the degree of interbreeding of these 32 distinct tortoises between the extinct species and native Wolf Volcano tortoises. We are hoping to find a few “pure” survivors from the extinct species. Careful and selective breeding of tortoises in captivity with significant levels of either Pinta or Floreana ancestry will follow to produce a new generation of young tortoises to be released back on Pinta and Floreana Islands and help their ecosystems recover.

Removing a Wolf Volcano tortoise from Isabela Island for the Floreana tortoise restoration initiative.
Jane Braxton Little, CC BY-NC-ND

Converting tragedy to inspiration

Lonesome George, the last known living Pinta Island giant tortoise, died in 2012 after decades in captivity. His frozen remains were transferred to the United States and taxidermied by world-class experts. In mid-February Lonesome George will be returned to Galapagos once again and ensconced as the focus of a newly renovated park visitation center. Some 150,000 visitors each year will learn the complex but ultimately encouraging story of giant tortoise conservation, and a beloved family member will rest back at home again.

James P. Gibbs, Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology and Director of the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

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

India’s militant rhino protectors are challenging traditional views of how conservation works



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Benedikt Saxler / shutterstock

Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge

In Kaziranga, a national park in north-eastern India, rangers shoot people to protect rhinos. The park’s aggressive policing is, of course, controversial, but the results are clear: despite rising demand for illegal rhino horn, and plummeting numbers throughout Africa and South-East Asia, rhinos in Kaziranga are flourishing. The Conversation

Yet Kaziranga, which features in a new BBC investigation, highlights some of the conflicts that characterise contemporary conservation, as the need to protect endangered species comes into contact with the lives and rights of people who live in and around the increasingly threatened national parks. India must balance modernisation and development with protections for the rights of local people – all while ensuring its development is ecologically sustainable.

To understand what’s at stake in Kaziranga, consider these three crucial issues:

1. The militarisation of conservation

The BBC feature shows park rangers who have been given the license to “shoot-on-sight”, a power they have used with deadly effect. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were killed – more than the numbers of rhino poached that year.

The programme accuses the rangers of extra-judicial killings of suspected rhino poachers. This resonates with a wider trend in the use of violence in defence of the world’s protected areas and the growing use of military surveillance technologies to support the efforts of conservation agencies.

In India, the Forest Department, which is responsible for the protection of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, has always been a “uniformed” service. Rangers wear military-style khakis, are allowed to carry arms, and have powers to prosecute offenders. Recently, the government allowed them to use drones as an anti-poaching measure in Kaziranga.

To justify such escalation and its talk of a “war” against poaching, the government cites the growing power and sophistication of the crime syndicates involved in the illegal wildlife trade. However, as with all wars, a serious conflict over rhinos risks collateral damage. The worry is that increased militarisation is not conducted within strict legal limits or subject to judicial scrutiny. The BBC alleges that such checks and balances were not in place in Kaziranga.

2. The rights of local and indigenous populations

The BBC story also points to the growing conflict in and around Kaziranga between the interests and rights of local and indigenous people and the need to protect threatened species. Groups including Survival International – which features in the BBC story – claim that well-meaning conservation projects have denied and undermined the rights of indigenous groups around the world. The group calls for these rights to be placed at the heart of modern approaches to conservation – and most enlightened environmentalists now agree. It’s increasingly hard to look at conservation without also considering human rights and social issues.

Kaziranga is also home to tigers, elephants, buffalo and these swamp deer.
kongsak sumano

The context for these struggles in India is the colonial legacy of forest settlement, which reserved forests for the imperial state, but failed to take account of the rights of people who already lived there. This injustice was recognised in 2006, in landmark legislation known colloquially as the Forest Rights Act, which restored both individual and community rights based on evidence of historic access and use.

Yet there remains significant tension between India’s wildlife conservation lobby, which perceives the Forest Rights Act as the death-knell for nature, and groups such as Survival International which argue that it is only by recognising the rights of local people that the country’s wildlife will be protected.

3. Can we keep expanding protected areas?

To protect threatened species across the world, conservationists have called for more and more land to be placed under protection. Renowned biologist EO Wilson, for instance, wants us to set aside “half the planet”.

In an unconstrained world, dedicating half the earth to the protection of the most threatened species and the world’s important habitats might seem like a sensible way to avoid the risks of what people fear might trigger the next great extinction. In reality, there are few places left where such a proposal might practically be implemented.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in rapidly developing India. The country already has a population of 1.3 billion – and it aspires to both develop as a global economic powerhouse and lift its poorest people out of poverty. This development requires land and resources, with little space left for nature.

Plans to double the size of Kaziranga means villagers are being displaced with little due process and there are documented cases of violence and even death. This is a violent “green grab”, where land is usurped for ostensibly progressive environmental objectives, but which results in the dispossession of some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.

Kaziranga illustrates the dilemmas of contemporary conservation. If it is to be successful, environmentalism in India must be seen as part of the changing social and economic context, and not set itself up in opposition to these wider trends.

Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.

Bhaskar Vira, Reader in Political Economy at the Department of Geography and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College; Director, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, University of Cambridge

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

Snowy hydro scheme will be left high and dry unless we look after the mountains


Adrienne Nicotra, Australian National University; David Freudenberger, Australian National University; Geoff Cary, Australian National University; Geoffrey Hope, Australian National University; Graeme Worboys, Australian National University; Sam Banks, Australian National University, and Susanna Venn, Australian National University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plan for a A$2 billion upgrade and expansion of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, announced last week, will be an impressive engineering achievement. Snowy Hydro 2.0 will increase the scheme’s capacity by 50%. The Conversation

Meeting this extra capacity will depend entirely on the natural water supply available in the Snowy Mountains. But the current environmental conditions of these mountains, and the Australian Alps where they are located, are compromising both water delivery and water quality.

The only way to maintain water flow is to control the threats that are actively degrading the high country catchments. These include introduced animals, wetland loss, and climate change.

Restoration and management

The remarkable Snowy Hydro Scheme was developed over 25 years from the 1940s. During this period the NSW Soil Conservation Service and later NSW National Parks effectively managed soil and restored areas damaged by grazing.

Conservation efforts focused on looking after topsoil, stabilising wetlands, and restoring vegetation after decades of grazing. This ensured good amounts of high-quality water for both hydro power and irrigation downstream.

More recent efforts have focused on the impacts of building the original Snowy scheme. This includes restoring areas cleared for roads and construction sites, and areas where rock and soil from blasting and cutting were dumped.

Before and after revegetation works in the 1970s, following the removal of cattle. Current ecological change is likely to be far more significant and could require new types of intervention.
Image courtesy of Roger Good

Threats to mountain catchments

The Australian Alps are the nation’s water towers. They provide water for growing food and hydroelectricity, but face several threats.

Across the Alps, despite well-informed and committed control programs, feral horses, pigs and deer are destroying wetlands, degrading streamside vegetation, and causing moisture-holding peat soils and stream channels to erode. This leads to more evaporation, more rapid runoff and erosion, less water flow, and lower water quality.

There is currently no effective response to this damage. We estimate that more than 35% of the high mountains’ wetlands have been affected, and the problem is getting worse.

The Alps are also recognised as extremely vulnerable to climate change. Climate models suggest that alpine areas that currently receive at least 60 days of snow cover will shrink by 18-60% by 2020.

Temperatures in the alps are already increasing by 0.4℃ per decade, an increase of 1.79℃ since records began. Climate change projections for the Australian Alps indicate the hottest summer days will be around 5°C warmer in 2100, minimum temperatures will rise by 3-6℃, and precipitation (rain and snow) will decrease by up to 20%, with less falling as snow. These changes are already putting pressure on iconic mountain ecosystems including the peatlands, snowgum woodlands and alpine ash forests.

The Australian Alps are also likely to experience more extreme events such as heatwaves, storms, fires and severe frosts. All of these affect high mountain ecosystems, making the environment more vulnerable to disturbances such as more fires, weeds and disease outbreaks.

For example, the root-rot fungus, Phytophora cambivora, recently appeared in the alps. The fungus killed large areas of shrubs following unusually warm springtime soil temperatures.

New weeds are an additional concern for the alps as these may compromise the existing plant communities and their ability to deliver services such as water. Alpine peat soils, which build up over thousands of years, can also burn in drought.

Reliable water depends on functioning ecosystems

A stable water supply from the Alps is crucial for energy and food production. This relies on intact vegetation.

Back in the 1950s, it became clear to the researchers at the Soil Conservation Service that hard-hooved animals, in this case domestic cattle, were severely damaging the alpine catchments.

The success of the original Snowy scheme depended on removing cattle from alpine areas, controlling soil erosion that resulted from prior grazing and hydro works, and carrying out extensive revegetation works across the whole of the nearby mountain ranges.

However, land managers to this day are still controlling a legacy of disturbance and weed invasions from both the Snowy scheme itself and years of previous grazing. Snowy 2.0 must consider these lessons from the past, and work to improve mountain catchments.

Alpine plants and animals often live close to their environmental tolerances, meaning they are not necessarily able to cope with change. For some species, climate change is likely to exceed these thresholds. Vegetation communities will change as current populations decline and colonisers from different species move in to occupy the gaps, including invasive species.

Feral horses make it even more difficult for native species to respond to a changing climate, by exacerbating environmental degradation and impacts on water.

Part of the solution is restoring and re-vegetating degraded high country landscapes. For example, restoring snowgum communities, which were severely affected by burning and grazing, may lead to increases in the amount of water trapped as drifting fog.

But climate change will demand new research and management partnerships to find species that will survive well into the future and to develop adaptation pathways to respond to uncertain conditions.

This will be a new and different world. We are currently ill-prepared to maintain high-quality water yield in the future, to predict the impacts of climate change, or to effectively protect our alps for future generations.

But we are confident these questions can be answered with adequate investment in the environmental infrastructure needed to underpin the engineering. We estimate that between A$5 million and A$7 million per year is needed to research and develop new management structures. You could see this investment as royalties returned to the system that provides the water and power.

Turnbull’s plan may deliver more power, but only if the environment is carefully managed. Otherwise Snowy Hydro 2.0 may be left high and dry.

Adrienne Nicotra, Professor Research School of Biology, the Australian National University, Australian National University; David Freudenberger, Senior Lecturer Environmental Management, Australian National University; Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Geoffrey Hope, Emeritus Professor, Department of Archaeology and Natural History; Visiting Fellow, Fenner Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Graeme Worboys, Associate professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Sam Banks, ARC Future Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and Susanna Venn, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

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

Government needs to front up billions, not millions, to save Australia’s threatened species



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Orange-bellied parrots are one of the species included in the government’s Threatened Species Prospectus.
JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Southern cassowaries, orange-bellied parrots, Leadbeater’s possums, and Australia’s only purple wattle are among the threatened species the government is seeking conservation investment for under its recently released threatened species prospectus. The prospectus seeks business and philanthropic support in partnership with the government and community groups to raise around A$14 million each year. The Conversation

The government has proposed 51 projects, costing from A$45,000 to A$6 million. At first glance the prospectus is a positive initiative.

But it also highlights that the current government is unwilling to invest what’s needed to assure the conservation of our threatened plants, animals and other organisms.

The good news

The government’s partial outsourcing of conservation investment and responsibility might have some benefit. Raising broader awareness about the plight of Australia’s threatened species, particularly among Australia’s leading companies and donors, could lead to valuable conservation gains. It could translate to pressure for greater financial investment in conservation and less damaging actions by big companies.

The prospectus includes an excellent range of critically important projects. These include seed banks for plants facing extinction, and projects to control feral animals and create safe havens for mammals and birds.

These projects could help to save species on the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered Gilbert’s potoroo, the Christmas Island flying fox and the orange-bellied parrot.

The projects have a high chance of success. Community groups and government are already on board and ready to take action, if only the funds materialise.

Why do so many species need urgent help?

The State of the Environment Report released in early March shows that the major pressures on wildlife have not decreased since 2011 when the previous report was released. The prospects for most threatened species have not improved.

Habitat loss is still the biggest threat. The homes of many threatened species are continually under threat from developments. Coal mines threaten the black-throated finch, urban sprawl eats away at the last 1% of critically endangered Victorian grasslands, and clearing for agriculture has spiked in Queensland.

Grasslands, such as these in Melbourne, are being lost to development.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Feral animals are widespread and control programs have been inadequate. New diseases are emerging, such as the chytrid fungus that has devastated frog populations worldwide.

The horticulture industry, for example, introduced myrtle rust to Australia. The disease was poorly managed when it was first detected. It now infects more than 350 species of the Myrtaceae family (including eucalypts).

We have so many threatened species because national and state governments don’t invest enough money in protecting our natural heritage, and environmental protections have been rolled back in favour of economic development.

Show us the money

Over the past three years the federal government has invested A$210 million in threatened species. This annual investment of A$70 million each year is minuscule compared with the government’s revenue (0.017% of A$416.9 billion).

It includes projects under the National Landcare Program, Green Army (much of which didn’t help threatened species) and the 20 Million Trees program.

The A$14 million that the prospectus hopes to raise is a near-negligible proportion of annual revenue (0.003%).

Globally, the amount of money needed to prevent extinctions and recover threatened species is at least ten times more than what is being spent.

In Australia, A$40 million each year would prevent the loss of 45 mammals, birds and reptiles from the Kimberley region.

Most species in the government’s threatened species strategy, like this northern quoll, are charismatic.
S J Bennett/Flickr, CC BY

The inescapable truth is that Australia’s conservation spend needs to be in the billions, not the current and grossly inadequate tens of millions, to reverse the disastrous state of the environment.

Can we afford it? The 2016 Defence White Paper outlines an expansion of Australia’s defence expenditure from A$32.4 billion in 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion by 2025, even though the appropriate level of investment is extremely uncertain.

We are more certain that our biodiversity will continue to decline with current funding levels. Every State of the Environment report shows ongoing biodiversity loss at relatively stable, low-level funding.

And what will happen if industry won’t open its wallets? Will the government close the funding gap, or shrug its shoulders, hoping the delay between committing a species to extinction and the actual event will be long enough to avoid accountability?

In the past few years we’ve seen the extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys with no public inquiry. Academics have been left to probe the causes, and there is no clear line of government responsibility or mechanism to provide enough funding to help prevent more extinctions.

Popularity poll

Another problem is the prospectus’s bias towards the cute and cuddly, reflecting the prejudice in the Commonwealth Threatened Species Strategy. The strategy and prospectus make the assumption that potential benefactors are inclined to fork out for a freckled duck, but not for a Fitzroy land snail.

The prospectus includes almost half of Australia’s threatened mammals (listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) and one-fifth of the threatened birds.

Other groups are woefully represented, ranging from 13% of threatened reptiles to just 1% of threatened plants and none of the listed threatened invertebrates. The prospectus does not even mention spectacular and uniquely Australian threatened crayfish, snails, velvet worms, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects.

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The allocation of funds is equally problematic. We found that birds received the most money (A$209,000 per species on average), followed by mammals and plants.

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Raising new funds to help save iconic species is valuable, and can help other species. This focus on birds and mammals wouldn’t be a problem if the government were to pick up the tab for the less popular threatened species.

But it hasn’t. That means our threatened species program will continue to be exceptionally biased, while many more species vanish forever, with little acknowledgement.

We think that the prospectus, despite its biases, is a positive initiative. It is vital to engage society, including business and wealthy philanthropists, in the care of Australia’s natural heritage. But it also highlights how little the government is willing to invest in preserving our threatened wildlife and ecosystems.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, Vice-President, Ecological Society of Australia, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

With battery storage to the rescue, the Kodak moment for renewables has finally arrived



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AAP/Lukas Coch

David Holmes, Monash University

Who would have thought that, scarcely five weeks after Treasurer Scott Morrison, paraded a chunk of coal in parliament, planning for Australia’s energy needs would be dominated by renewables, batteries and hydro? The Conversation

For months now, the Coalition has been talking down renewables, blaming them for power failures, blackouts, and an unreliable energy network.

South Australia was bearing the brunt of this campaign. The state that couldn’t keep its lights on had Coalition politicians and mainstream journalists vexatiously attributing the blame to its high density of renewables.

But this sustained campaign, which would eventually hail “clean coal” as Australia’s salvation, all came unstuck when tech entrepreneur Elon Musk came out with a brilliant stunt: to install a massive battery storage system in South Australia “in 100 days, or it’s free”.

The genius of the stunt was not to win an instant contract to follow up on such a commitment, but to put an end to decades of dithering over energy policy that major political parties are so famous for in Australia and around the world, and which have intensified the climate crisis to dangerous levels.

Musk’s stunt was not without self-interest. It also aimed to position Tesla as a can-do company for future contracts. But where it was lethal was in completely neutering the campaign against renewables.

Anti-renewable politicians around the country, regardless of whether they are captive to the fossil-fuel lobby, could no longer argue for a dubious “clean-coal” powered station that would take between five and seven years to build when Tesla could fix a state’s energy crisis in 100 days – and not emit one gram of carbon at the end of the process.

Both the South Australian and Victorian governments have responded to Musk’s proposal by bidding for 100 megawatts of battery storage in their states. In South Australia’s case, a state-owned 250MW backup gas-fired fast-start aeroderivative power plant is also to be commissioned.

The state-owned gas power plant is, however, only a support to plans for a renewable-fed grid to be the main source of emergency dispatchable power. It is a plant that anticipates the way extreme weather can impact on energy infrastructure in much the same way desalination plants do for water infrastructure.

This is one reason it must be state-owned. But another is that a private operator would insist on full-time generation to maximise investment and profits. Thus, the South Australian gas plant is actually a critique of the privatisation of energy provision in Australia, which is the single greatest cause of why electricity prices have gone up.

As Giles Parkinson from RenewEconomy points out, within a framework in which privatisation dominates, the current market rules actually disadvantage the merits of non-domestic battery storage for consumers – because private power retailers can exploit arbitrage between low and high prices.

They can load up the batteries when excess wind and solar are cheap and sell it at peak demand for inflated prices. So, storage can actually enhance profits for power suppliers and create a bad deal for consumers.

However, the intrinsic value of storage is that the more you add, the less volatility there will be in a market. This creates a stable price for consumers and less profits for the corporations.

An example Parkinson uses is the Wivenhoe pumped storage facility in Queensland. This is:

… rarely used, because it would dampen the profits of its owners, which also own coal and gas generation.

Nevertheless, as a concept, the battery storage solution proposed by Musk, followed by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s decisive action, really had constricted Malcolm Turnbull’s options. For a start, it makes redundant the longstanding fiction of “baseload power”, which was coined by the fossil-fuel industry to justify coal.

By last week, Turnbull would have already had the results of focus groups telling him that “clean” coal doesn’t wash with voters at all.

So, after reeling for most of last week over the humiliation that the Tesla and Weatherill challenge presented, and after scrambling for a counterpunch, Turnbull came up with Snowy Hydro 2.0. Here Musk’s stunt could only be really met with another stunt, but one in which Turnbull is only trying to salvage a very bad hand that he has played against battery-friendly renewables.

It is true that pumped hydro is currently cheaper than battery storage, but cannot be implemented nearly as quickly, and is not infinitely scalable as battery farms are.

Also, whereas the cost of battery storage continues to fall, the cost of the engineering needed for pumped hydro is not. And there are limited locations suitable for its operation.

But more important than all these considerations is that it while Snowy 2.0 will stabilise the national grid no matter whether clean or dirty energy is powering its pumps, it will only assist decarbonisation if the pumps are powered by wind and solar, which has all been glossed over in its PR sell.

With current energy market rules, there is still some incentive for dirty generators to feed the Snowy pumps. This helps energy security but does nothing for the climate crisis.

Yet, with his PR campaign, Turnbull thinks he is on a winner. The Snowy is also an icon of Australian nation-building and fable. And there is probably some political capital to be scored there. But the Snowy is a once-off, and not a part of the future as battery storage is.

But in having to play the part of the Man from Snowy River, Turnbull may have forestalled the inevitable onset of batteries, the price of which was that he was snookered into committing to an alternative substantial renewable-energy-friendly project.

So significant was the original stunt by Musk that set off a train of events cornering Turnbull into offering counter-storage that Giles Parkinson declared:

Turnbull drives stake through heart of fossil fuel industry.

But then, just when you thought coal had been cremated for the last time, it is revived over the weekend with the work of Chris Uhlmann, the ABC’s political editor, who gained notoriety for his anti-renewable stance on South Australia last year.

In his latest piece on the ABC, Uhlmann forewarns that the closure of the Hazlewood power station (5% of the nation’s energy output) will lead to east coast blackouts and crises in the manufacturing sector.

Uhlmann salutes the language of the coal companies in predicting that an energy crisis will result from no new investment in “baseload” power, even though this is precisely what renewables plus storage actually amounts to. He then quotes a Hazelwood unit controller as his source to raise the bogie of intermitancy once again:

Intermittent renewable energy could not be relied on during days of peak demand.

But the most misleading part of his piece was to point to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s prediction that shortfalls in supply next summer can be attributed to the closure of coal power stations, rather than the fact that climate-change-induced hotter temperatures are driving up demand during this period – as they did in the summer just gone, when Hazelwood was operating.

Perhaps Uhlmann’s piece would not look like such an advertorial for the coal industry had it not appeared on the same day as Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s speculation that a new coal-fired plant could be built in Queensland that will be subsidised by the A$5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure fund.

On the ABC’s Insiders, Canavan lamented that Queensland did not have a:

… baseload power station north of Rockhampton … We’ve got a lot of coal up here, the new clean-coal technologies are at an affordable price, reliable power and lower emission.

It seems that while South Australia is leading the progress on a renewables Kodak moment, Queensland, with plans to build a coal-fired power stations and the Queensland Labor government going to great lengths to support the gigantic Adani coal mine, at least two states are moving in completely opposite directions.

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

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

Gas crisis? Energy crisis? The real problem is lack of long-term planning



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The long view: energy policy needs to stay firmly focused on the horizon.
Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Alan Pears, RMIT University

If you’ve been watching the news in recent days, you’ll know we have an energy crisis, partly due to a gas crisis, which in turn has triggered a political crisis. The Conversation

That’s a lot of crises to handle at once, so lots of solutions are being put forward. But what do people and businesses actually need? Do they need more gas, or cheaper prices, or more investment certainty, or all or none of the above? How do we cut through to what is really important, rather than side details?

The first thing to note is that what people really care about is their energy costs, not energy prices. This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but if homes and businesses can be helped to waste less energy, then high prices can be offset by lower usage.

The second thing to note is that energy has become very confusing. A host of short- and long-term problems have developed over decades of policy failure, meaning that there is no single solution.

Take gas prices, which were indirectly responsible for South Australia’s blackouts last month. Last week, SA Premier Jay Weatherill responded by unveiling a A$550-million plan including a new state-owned gas power station, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed to have secured a promise of secure domestic supply from gas producers.

Short-term thinking

It is crucial to keep the ultimate goals in focus, or else our short-term solutions could exacerbate long-term problems.

For electricity, we want to avoid blackouts and limit prices and overall costs. We need to do this in ways that allow us to meet our climate constraints, so we need solutions with zero or very low greenhouse emissions.

For gas, we need to ensure enough supply for local demand, at reasonable prices, and give large consumers the opportunity to negotiate contracts over reasonable time frames.

This means we need to allocate more of our gas to local consumers, because increasing overall gas production would just add to our long-term climate problems.

Peak gas and electricity prices are entangled. In our electricity markets, the most expensive generator needed to maintain supply in a given period sets the price for all the generators. So if an expensive gas generator sets a high price, all of the coal and renewable energy generators make windfall profits – at the consumer’s expense.

So either we need to ensure gas generators don’t set the price, or that they charge a reasonable price for the power they generate.

Quick fixes

Demand management and energy storage are short-term fixes for high peak prices. Paying some electricity or gas consumers to use less at peak times, commonly called “demand response”, frees up electricity or gas, so prices don’t increase as much.

Unfortunately, policymakers have failed to introduce effective mechanisms to encourage demand response, despite the recommendations of numerous policy reviews over the past two decades. This is a serious policy failure our politicians have not addressed. But it could be fixed quickly, with enough political will.

Energy storage, particularly batteries and gas storage, can be introduced quickly (within 100 days, if Tesla’s Elon Musk is to be believed). Storage “absorbs” excess energy at times of low demand, and releases it at times of shortage. This reduces the peak price by reducing dependence on high-priced generators or gas suppliers, as well as reducing the scope for other suppliers to exploit the shortage to raise prices.

The same thinking is behind Turnbull’s larger proposal to add new “pumped hydro” capacity to the Snowy Hydro scheme, although this would take years rather than weeks.

Thus South Australia’s plan, which features battery storage and changes to the rules for feeding power into the grid, addresses short-term problems. Turnbull’s pumped hydro solution is longer-term, although his handshake deal with gas suppliers may help in the short term.

The long view

When we consider the long term, we must recognise that we need to slash our carbon emissions. So coal is out, as is any overall expansion of natural gas production.

Luckily, we have other affordable long-term solutions. The International Energy Agency, as well as Australian analysts such as ClimateWorks and Beyond Zero Emissions, see energy efficiency improvement as the number-one strategy – and in many cases, it actually saves us money and helps to offset the impact of higher energy prices. Decades of cheap gas and electricity mean that Australian industry, business and households have enormous potential to improve energy efficiency, which would save on cost.

We can also switch from fossil gas to biogas, solar thermal and high-efficiency renewable electricity technologies such as heat pumps, micro-filtration, electrolysis and other options.

Renewable energy (not just electricity) can supply the rest of our needs. Much to the surprise of many policymakers, it is now cheaper than traditional options and involves much less investment risk. Costs are continuing to fall.

But we need to supplement renewable energy with energy storage and smart demand management to ensure reliable supply. That’s where options such as pumped hydro storage, batteries and heat-storage options such as molten salt come in.

This is why the crisis is more political than practical. The solutions are on offer. It will become much more straightforward if politicians free themselves from being trapped in the past and wanting to prop up powerful incumbent industries.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

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