Climate change: Nauru’s life on the frontlines

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Nauru’s people are struggling in the face of environmental change.
Anja Kanngieser, Author provided

Anja Kanngieser, University of Wollongong

International perceptions of the Pacific Island nation of Nauru are dominated by two interrelated stories. Until the turn of the century, it was the dramatic boom and bust of Nauru’s phosphate mine, and the mismanagement of its considerable wealth, that captured global attention.

Then, in 2001, Nauru become one of two Pacific sites for Australia’s offshore incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees. As money from the extraction of phosphate began to wane, Nauru became increasingly reliant on the income generated through the detention industry.

There is a third story that is often overlooked, one that will heavily determine the island’s future. Everyone on Nauru – Indigenous Nauruans and refugees alike – is experiencing the impacts of one the greatest social, economic and political threats faced by the world today: global environmental change.

Read more:
The new rise of Nauru: can the island bounce back from its mining boom and bust?

I visited Nauru earlier this month as part of my project Climates of Listening, which amplifies Pacific calls for climate and environmental justice. I spoke with public servants, community leaders, and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about their climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. I wanted to document the changes to the island’s reefs, lagoons and landscape, and also the community initiatives to cope with these changes.

Colonial legacy

Nauru was first colonised in the late 1800s by Germany, which aimed to exploit the island’s plentiful reserves of phosphate, a prized ingredient of fertiliser and munitions. In the early 1900s Britain brokered a deal with the German government and the Pacific Phosphate Company to begin large-scale mining, which became crucial for Australia and New Zealand, who were building up agricultural and military capacity.

After the first world war, Australia, Britain and New Zealand took over full trusteeship of the island, which served as a strategic military site and was successively occupied, costing many Indigenous lives. It was not until the late 1960s that Nauru finally regained independence and took over mining activities.

By this time there were already signs that accessible land would become an issue. Nauru is small, covering just 21 square km. The mine has taken over more than 80% of Nauru’s land, and although primary production is drawing to a close, the government is considering plans for secondary mining. That would extend extraction by around 20 years before phosphate is fully depleted and Nauru’s only exportable commodity is completely exhausted, although a possible new avenue has appeared in the form of deep seabed mining.

The mine area, called “topside” by Nauruans, is like a moonscape. Huge limestone pinnacles reach skywards, punctuated by steep gullies into which, I was warned, people have fallen to their deaths. It is unbearably hot, humid and inhospitable.

Nauru’s ‘topside’ is an inhospitable moonscape after decades of phosphate mining.
Anja Kanngieser, Author provided

Shrinking habitable land means that most of Nauru’s growing population is clustered along the edges of the island. Around the north, coastal erosion eats away at the beach, leaving families with nowhere to go. While sea walls protect some areas, they push the waves onto others, meaning homes are flooded either way. Periodic king tides cover the only road running around the island, limiting accesses to services and resources.

Salt from the sea leaches into the groundwater supply. The water table is already contaminated with rubbish, mining effluent, and even leaks from cemeteries. While most of Nauru gets its water from the desalination plant, the delivery of the water can take a long time and when something goes wrong, experts have to be flown in to fix it. Rainwater is another option, but not everyone has a tank to catch it, and severe droughts are increasingly common.

Read more:
How the entire nation of Nauru almost moved to Queensland

Despite the successful establishment of kitchen gardens, which feed several families, many people on the coast feel their soil is not adequate for growing food. Food is largely imported and I was told that there are long queues whenever a shipment of rice is due to arrive. In one supermarket, cucumbers sell for A$13 each, and a punnet of cherry tomatoes costs A$20. Most Nauruans cannot afford to buy fresh produce.

Compounding food insecurity are the depleting reef fish stocks, which the government is hoping to address through the eventual establishment of locally managed marine areas. There is a plan to rebuild milkfish supplies in people’s home ponds, a species endemic to the island. However, as the groundwater is contaminated, the fish will also become contaminated. If people use the fish to feed livestock, the contamination is passed up the food chain.

Dust from the mine still causes major respiratory issues. It covers houses near the harbour, where the phosphate is processed and shipped. Locals refer to it as “snow”.

A monument to boom and bust.
Anja Kanngieser, Author provided

Many people commented to me about how much hotter Nauru seems to be now, and fondly recalled the more clement weather they remembered from childhood. Today’s children don’t want to walk to school in the heat, and when they arrive their classrooms are not air-conditioned.

I was also told that the combination of mining, heat and erosion, as well as possible coral bleaching, is taking a toll on the island’s wildlife diversity. Usually, in the tropics, there is a cacophony of birdsong at dusk. But at one mine site I heard a single bird, despite an abundance of trees and shrubs.

Environmental officers further recounted that in early 2018 the reef was littered with sick fish, and that Nauru’s noddy birds – a popular food source – had contracted a mysterious and deadly virus. Curiously, there have also been recent sightings of orcas and a beached dugong, despite Nauru not being on any known migratory path.

Read more:
Pacific nations aren’t cash-hungry, minister, they just want action on climate change

The many issues on Nauru add up to a grave threat to the island’s land, water and food security. While the idea of rehabilitating topside has been broached many times, there are no firm plans in place. This rehabilitation may be Nauru’s lifeline, given its precarious economic situation.

In order to fully understand the situation in Nauru, the climate impacts that everyone on the island is facing need to be addressed. The environmental disregard of wealthy nations hits frontline communities like Nauru first and, oftentimes, hardest.

The lives of those incarcerated on Nauru and of Indigenous Nauruans are all being detrimentally affected by choices that we, in Australia, make. This is true both in terms of allowing for human rights violations against asylum seekers and refugees, and in our continuing support for our national fossil fuel industry which is a massive contributor to global warming.

Australia plays a major role in the ongoing colonisation of the Pacific through aid, economics and security policies. It is our responsibility to push our governments to change Australia’s activities, and to support regional calls for self-determination and environmental justice.

We need to remember that Nauru wasn’t always like this. We helped make it what it is today.The Conversation

Anja Kanngieser, Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bioenergy carbon capture: climate snake oil or the 1.5-degree panacea?

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Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Sequestration, known as BECCS, is one of the technologies we may need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
from, CC BY-ND

Paul Behrens, Leiden University

With the release of the latest special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s time we talk frankly about Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Sequestration, known as BECCS. It is one of the key technologies many models say we will need to limit warming to 1.5℃.

Read more:
The UN’s 1.5°C special climate report at a glance

BECCS involves growing plants which remove carbon dioxide as they grow and are then burned in power stations to produce electricity. The resulting carbon dioxide from this combustion is captured and stored underground. The result is carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.

It is the not-so-high-tech wonder many are waiting for, but it comes at a high price. It also risks delaying policies that actually reduce emissions in the first place.

Mapping the future, now

According to models, BECCS is the technology we are banking on to fix our climate disruption and safeguard our future. The models have doubled down on BECCS, but it is an unproven solution on a large scale – and one that has significant and damaging side effects.

There are three choices on the table (we will likely see a mix of at least two):

  • Equitable sustainability Massive amounts of low-carbon energy (solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles), huge improvements in energy efficiency, a revolution of the food systems and a transition of society towards lower growth, both in population and economy.

  • Hypothetical backstop Continue down the road we are on, and hope to “overcorrect” the problem in the future by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A lack of political will and intense lobbying has meant what was once a fairly manageable problem has become an exercise in inventing heroic backstops.

  • Cowboy optimism Engineer the planet (even further) to ease the impacts of climate disruption, but not the underlying causes themselves.

The first choice means we change ourselves and alter the way we do things. The second means we continue polluting as we do now, and hope to clean up later. This option is a bit like the plastic clean-up trial currently underway in the Pacific.

Choice three means we simply paper over the cracks, perhaps saving some aspects of human civilisation but pushing large parts of nature to extinction.

It’s worth noting that in any scenario, massive investment by richer countries on behalf of poorer countries will be necessary. This is already a significant problem).

Given the delay, the majority of 1.5℃ and 2℃ scenarios run by models have doubled down on the second choice. But this lessens the need for unprecedented changes today.

Read more:
New UN report outlines ‘urgent, transformational’ change needed to hold global warming to 1.5°C

The reliance is so heavy that, on average, current models for meeting 2℃ suggest we will be using BECCS and afforestation to mop up total, annual global emissions by around 2070 (or 2055 for 1.5℃). This results in a massive growth in BECCS power plants through this period, from three today to 700 by 2030, and 16,000 by 2060.

Bonfire of the BECCS

But large-scale BECCS is a monumentally tricky idea. BECCS aims to fix one thing – climate disruption – but makes many other things worse.

BECCS on an industrial scale needs many resources. Plants need land, water and fertilisers (sometimes) to grow, and infrastructure to get low-density plant matter from one place to another. We already struggle to do this sustainably.

Related to this, it is reasonable to think that BECCS will increase food prices. We have to produce 70% extra food by 2050 to just keep up with population and food demand increases. Can we do this while using vast tracts of land for BECCS production? Perhaps only if we have a big change in dietary habits which frees up land?

While BECCS will provide some electricity, you don’t get much bang for your buck – it has the lowest power density of any other type of energy.

BECCS make use of thermal power plants so inherit many problems related to running them. Power plants are heat engines and need water for cooling.
We already have problems with water cooling, and it is getting worse with climate change.

Finally, BECCS power plants will produce ash, which is a “better” version than the ash from coal plants (it doesn’t take much), but will still need attention.

The role of Integrated Assessment Models

The origin story for BECCS has been told elsewhere, but how did we end up in a situation where the large majority of models point to this one problematic solution? These models are called Integrated Assessment Models, and come in two main varieties: simple and complex.

The complex ones are mostly used for investigating technology choices. The simple ones are often used to explore what the cost of carbon could be. This year’s Nobel Prize winner in economics, Bill Nordhaus, works with these simple models.

The overall weaknesses of these models have been covered in compelling and entertaining ways. Given the depth of the complex models, it is difficult to be sure why BECCS dominates. Most would agree that there are three likely possibilities.

First, these models discount future benefits and costs to a large extent. That is, they assume that future benefits and costs are much less in the future than they are today. The default rate at which models discount is 5% per year, meaning that to avoid $100 of climate damage in 2100 is only worth $3 to us today. Many have argued that this is much too high, ethically inappropriate, and misleading.

I know of only one study which performs a sensitivity analysis using so-called discount rates. It finds that carbon dioxide removal is significantly reduced with lower discount rates.

Second, these models are very sensitive to prices and since a very low price for BECCS is assumed, this is the technology that dominates. The problem is that we don’t actually know what these prices might be, especially on a large scale.

Third, these models have a difficult job estimating the damage from climate change. The risk from emitting now and paying later is fat-tailed – there is a non-negligible increased risk of catastrophe even if we do manage to implement choice two at a large scale.

Taking off the BECCS blinders

Are there technologies other than BECCS? If we must hypothesise backstop technologies, then direct air capture is a possibility. As the name implies, it sucks carbon directly from the air.

Although it doesn’t generate energy in the process (in fact it uses large amounts of energy), it doesn’t have as many of the problems faced by BECCS. A possible future consists of solar-powered direct air capture in the Middle Eastern desert pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pumping it underground into reservoirs from which oil was once pumped. This is speculative though, comes with it’s own big problems, and as yet doesn’t feature much in modelling efforts due to its high cost (though they are coming down quickly though).

Read more:
The science is clear: we have to start creating our low-carbon future today

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of studies which take a non-backstop approach. These still use integrated assessment modelling, but investigate other options, like very low-energy demand scenarios and large-scale behaviour change (for example to plant-based diets) which reduce other, non-CO₂ gases quickly.

There is nothing to be lost by committing to the first choice as fast as possible. In fact, many of the important solutions are better for our health too (such as using bikes instead of cars, plant-based diets, and insulating houses). And if we end up needing BECCS, then so be it, but the earlier we start moving to low-carbon economies, the more potential catastrophes we avoid.The Conversation

Paul Behrens, Assistant Professor of Energy and Environmental Change, Leiden University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pacific nations aren’t cash-hungry, minister, they just want action on climate change

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Environment Minister Melissa Price is accused of insulting Kiribati’s former president, saying he was only in Australia “for the cash”.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Katerina Teaiwa, Australian National University

Environment Minister Melissa Price has been trending on Twitter this week – and not for any good environmental reasons.

Price was introduced to the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, during a dinner at a Canberra restaurant hosted by Labor Senator Pat Dodson. Tong has brought global attention to his country because of the existential challenges it faces from climate change and rising sea levels.

According to Dodson, Price made what many have deemed an insulting comment to Tong:

I know why you’re here. It’s for the cash. For the Pacific it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?

Others at the restaurant verified Dodson’s version of the incident. For his part, Tong said he has some hearing problems and others closer to Price could better hear what she said.

My response on Twitter was that in Kiribati, it’s rude to call out bad behaviour in public.

Maybe Price thought she was making a good Aussie joke. Or maybe she’d observed other members of her party laughing at the expense of the Pacific and wanted to crack one like the rest of the boys.

Read more:
For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence

Peter Dutton’s foray into comedy in 2015 springs to mind. In response to a quip by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott about how islanders are not good at being on time, Dutton said:

Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.

Water lapping at the door apparently doesn’t translate into concern over climate change and global warming – a matter of urgency for the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.

Rather than share the concerns of Pacific leaders on this issue, some Australian politicians have chosen to trivialise them and accuse Pacific nations of only being interested in a cash grab.

Just last month, Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald also accused Pacific nations of swindling money from Australia to address the effects of rising sea levels. The Sydney Morning Herald reported him saying:

They might be Pacific islanders, but there’s no doubting their wisdom and their ability to extract a dollar where they see it.

If Macdonald had been listening to the Canberra speech last month by Dame Meg Taylor, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, he would have heard a very different message:

It is absolutely essential that we work together to move the discussion with Australia to develop a pathway that will minimise the impacts of climate change for the future of all … including Australia.

So far this call has fallen on deaf ears.

Australia’s history of phosphate extraction

Australians know well how polite and friendly Pacific people are. Flights to Fiji during school holidays are packed with families seeking sun, sand and true island hospitality. But both the shallow view of the Pacific as a paradise, and political slurs of cash-hungry islanders, reveal a deep Australian ignorance of Pacific histories, environments, peoples and cultural values, and of Australia’s projects of colonial extraction in the region.

For over a century, Australia has had an intense social and cultural relationship with Oceania, paralleling its economic and geo-strategic interests, and not just with Papua New Guinea or Melanesian states.

From the start of the 20th century, Australian mining companies began extracting phosphate as fast as they could from Nauru and Banaba island (in what is now Kiribati) in order to grow the country’s agricultural industry.

Australian mining officials and workers on Banaba.
National Archives of Australia/Author provided

And grow it did, exponentially, while consuming the landscapes of much smaller Pacific islands. Pacific phosphate – and the superphosphate fertiliser it produced – was the magic dust of Australian agriculture. Little could have been grown here without it, as Australia has always been “a continent of soils with a low plant nutrient supply”.

But decades of phosphate mining on Banaba stripped away about 90% of the island’s surface. By the late 1970s, when the mining operations ended, 22 million tons of land had been removed. The island wasn’t rehabilitated and all the mining infrastructure was left to rust and decay.

Read more:
Pacific pariah: how Australia’s love of coal has left it out in the diplomatic cold

Many Banabans were relocated to Rabi Island in Fiji over the years, including my grandfather. It was a migration that foreshadows future relocations that many Pacific islanders face due to climate change.

It’s hypocritical for Australian leaders to accuse the Pacific of being solely after money, when Australia exploited Banaba and other Pacific islands in this way. At a time, when the future of many Pacific nations is under threat, a little compassion, responsibility and real action on climate change is in order, not jokes or barbs at islanders’ expense.The Conversation

Katerina Teaiwa, Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Morrison government’s biggest economic problem? Climate change denial

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The government’s stubborn commitment to coal is alienating it from its natural supporters in the business community.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Last week Peter Costello accused Malcolm Turnbull of failing to develop an economic narrative to unite the Coalition. Turnbull promised this when he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but, said Costello, it never came, and the result is a government struggling to manage deep differences over social issues. There was “jobs and growth”, but this is really just a goal without much of a story about how to get there, except for the company tax cuts.

The big question, though, is why the government does not have a coherent economic narrative.

One possible answer is that it has been too preoccupied with social issues such as religious freedom and before that, same-sex marriage, to give the economy sufficient attention. There is something in that.

But this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the inability of the Coalition to face the reality of climate change and its stubborn determination to live in a parallel universe of business as usual. It is climate change denial that is preventing the government from developing a coherent economic narrative.

Read more:
The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian

To be sure, those who doubt the seriousness of climate change are now more likely to describe themselves as sceptics rather than outright deniers, but the effects are the same. Doubting the risks of climate change, opposing serious counter measures and believing in coal’s long-term future is an identity issue for many Coalition politicians.

Then-treasurer Scott Morrison brings a lump of coal to question time in February 2017. Climate change denial is holding back the government from a clear economic strategy.
AAP/Mick Tsiakis

As an identity issue, it is largely impervious to evidence, as we saw in government ministers’ hasty dismissal of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – before they had even read it, one suspects. Identity issues are also resistant to the normal processes of bargaining and compromise with which many political conflicts are resolved. The National Energy Guarantee was the last of the government’s energy policies to founder on the suspicion that a market mechanism might damage coal. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target met the same fate.

So now, some members of the party of private enterprise and the free market, which argued for and oversaw the privatisation of most of Australia’s power utilities, are seriously advocating that the government develop a coal-fired power station. Barnaby Joyce has been at it again in recent weeks.

When AGL announced the planned closure of its ageing Liddell coal-fired power station last year, the government strenuously tried to dissuade it, keep it running for longer or to sell it to rival power company Alinta. The pressure was very public on AGL to “do the right thing”, but also private, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ringing AGL Chairman Graeme Hunt. It was to no avail, and AGL persisted with its commercially based decision to close the plant and invest instead in the generation of renewable energy, as it had every right to do.

Read more:
The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open

To state the obvious, the stubborn commitment to coal is pulling the government’s economic policy towards the sort of state socialism it is supposed to abhor. No wonder it is having difficulty developing a coherent economic narrative.

Further, it is alienating the government, and the Liberal Party in particular, from its natural supporters in the business community. With the collapse of the NEG, the government has no energy policy to provide certainty to business and investors. The focus of the new minister for energy, Angus Taylor, has contracted to reducing power prices for consumers. Climate policy has been shifted back into the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, separating energy from emissions and further demonstrating the identity denialism that distorts the government’s economic narrative. Faced with doubts about Australia’s capacity to meet its agreed to Paris targets, the government blithely says we are “on track”.

Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)

But most big business outside the fossil fuel industries is not in denial about the real risks of climate change, nor the imperatives of international action. Since Turnbull walked away from the NEG in a vain attempt to appease his critics and save his leadership, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia have both been discussing ways to “go it alone” on emissions reduction.

Australian Financial Review journalist Phil Coorey last week quoted a member of the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee:

Someone has got to do something. This has to be industry-led unless government wants to take over the markets.

Industry needs certainty to invest, and to maintain and create the jobs that are central to the government’s focus on “jobs and growth”. That certainty needs to last beyond the tenure of one government or even two, and have bipartisan support.

Read more:
Big firms voice lack of faith in ‘cumbersome’ and ‘impractical’ Emissions Reduction Fund

Yet the government is unwilling to provide that certainty. As Angus Taylor told an AFR National Energy Summit last week:

There is no room for bipartisanship when we have a 26% [reduction target] and the other side has 45%.

But because climate policy has become an identity issue for some members of the Coalition, and they fight on it tooth and nail, is has been removed from the normal processes of policy formation.

No wonder the government can’t develop a coherent economic narrative.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.