Just a quick post to let everyone know that this Blog will be on a break from now, over the silly season and should return early in the New Year. This isn’t so much because of Christmas and the New Year directly, but because my work schedule is so great and I won’t have the time to put in on the Blog during this period. I would have liked to keep up the posts, but it has become clear I just can’t keep it up at the moment – it is far too busy at work and with increasing staff shortages over the next couple of weeks, it will not get any easier.
Let me also take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and safe Christmas, and New Year period. Enjoy this time with family and friends.
Last week, the Western Australian Government lifted its state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unconventional gas industries were given the green light to develop on existing petroleum leases, especially in WA’s vast Kimberley region.
Following the Northern Territory government’s April decision to lift its temporary fracking ban, this decision paves the way for future growth of the industry across much of northern Australia.
Fracking policies vary widely across Australia’s states and territories, and so do community attitudes. Our review of the literature on unconventional gas development in Australia reveals an inconsistent approach in how governments have responded to the industry. While coal seam gas extraction has proceeded almost unimpeded in Queensland, the industry was halted in its tracks in Victoria, with a permanent ban on fracking legislated in March this year.
Unconventional gas development in New South Wales – despite pressing energy needs – has been protracted owing to growing community opposition towards fracking, with exclusion zones created near residential areas and industries such as wine-making and horse breeding.
The WA government’s decision to leave in place localised bans in the state’s most populated areas, while allowing fracking in existing petroleum tenements elsewhere, echoes the position taken by the South Australian government in September. The latter’s policy imposes a ten-year fracking ban in SA’s agriculturally rich southeast, while allowing the practice to continue in the northeast.
Labelled as a “clean” alternative to coal by industry, unconventional gas is presented as a key “transition” fuel, capable of delivering reliable, lower-emission electricity – a stepping stone along the path to zero-carbon energy. Our research suggests that this clean image is pivotal to public support for the industry.
The unconventional gas industry has been hailed as an economic lifeline for regional Australia. Justification for its growth into new regions is tied closely to the purported domestic “gas crisis”. Others predict that fracking for unconventional gas could have negative economic consequences.
Many affected communities continue to question the capacity of the industry to operate with low risk to health and the environment. In the Kimberley and across Australia, opposition to fracking simmers.
WA and SA exemplify efforts to strike a balance between the unconventional gas industry and concerned community members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of attempts to secure fracking bans could relate to the political and economic muscle of affected communities. Our ongoing research seeks to analyse this development pattern.
The industry has argued that “fugitive emissions” of methane from Australian unconventional gas wells are relatively low. However, more recent studies warn that we may be underestimating the true climate risks of unconventional gas.
Indeed, Australia’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the expansion of unconventional gas production and exports. They underpinned a 13.7% increase in national fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to Australia recording its 15th consecutive quarter of greenhouse gas emission increases this year. These figures call into question Australia’s trajectory to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement.
The impacts of rising greenhouse emissions are becoming increasingly visible and costly, in the form of more frequent violent storms, intense rainfall, drought and bushfires. Last week, the Victorian Labor Government was re-elected on the back of
strong climate policy. With 15,000 children walking out of school on Friday, the youth “climate strike” rallies attest to the strength of community feelings on climate action and the role of fracking in this context.
Future of fracking?
For state and territory leaders, the job of balancing gas industry interests with those of increasingly vocal communities is becoming more of a juggling act than ever before. With climate concerns intensifying, renewable energy supported by battery power appears a promising option for meeting regional development and energy needs. This has potential to gain widespread public support and create “green-collar” jobs while helping to reduce Australia’s emissions.
In contrast, a reliance on unconventional gas as an interim energy solution may “frack” more than just deep rock formations – but potentially communities, politics … and not least the climate.
The recently released 2018 Living Planet report is among the most comprehensive global analyses of biodiversity yet. It is based on published data on 4,000 out of the 70,000 known species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Rather than listing species that have gone extinct, the report summarises more subtle information about the vulnerability of global biodiversity. The bottom line is that across the globe, the population sizes of the species considered have declined by an average of 60% in 40 years.
New Zealand is a relatively large and geographically isolated archipelago with a biota that includes many species found nowhere else in the world. One might think that it is buffered from some of the effects of biological erosion, especially since people only arrived less than 800 years ago. But as we show, the impact on wildlife has been catastrophic.
The diversity of life may seem incomprehensible. Carolus Linnaeus began his systematic work to describe earth’s biological diversity in the 18th century with about 12,000 plants and animals. Since then, 1.3 million species of multi-cellular creatures have been described, but the size of the remaining taxonomic gap remains unclear.
Species do not exist in isolation. They are part of communities of large and microscopic organisms that themselves drive diversification. Charles Darwin observed in his usual understated way:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Global decline of wild places
The main threat to biodiversity remains overexploitation of resources, leading to loss of habitat. Human overconsumption can only get worse in coming decades, and this will likely escalate the impact of invasive species, increase the rate of disease transmission, worsen water and air pollution and add to climate change.
This is the Anthropocene, the era of human domination of many global-scale processes. By the early 1990s, just 33 million of the earth’s 130 million square kilometres of ice-free land remained in wilderness. By 2016, it was down to 30 million. Most of this is either desert, taiga or tundra. In other words, humans and their cities, roads and farms occupy 77% of the available land on earth.
By 2050, wild lands are projected to contract to 13 million square kilometres, leaving ever less space for wild animals and plants. In terms of resources consumed, there is huge inequity. Preliminary estimates of the biomass of all life on earth reveal that humans, their pets and their farm animals outweigh wild land mammals by 50 to one. Poultry outweigh all wild birds 2.5 to one.
New Zealand: at the bottom of the cliff
In New Zealand, a lot of attention is paid to iconic, rare species, such as kiwi and kākāpo. However, in 2017, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environmentreported that the proportion of forest land occupied by birds found only in New Zealand had declined in the North Island from 16% to 5% between 1974 and 2002. In the South Island, it declined from 23% to 16%.
These figures are consistent with other studies on animal populations. For example, kiwi, which currently number 70,000, may have declined by two thirds in 20 years. Thus there is a risk that continued biodiversity decline overall will see more and more species requiring last-ditch efforts to save them, with healthy populations confined to heavily protected and often fenced sanctuaries.
New Zealand is unusual in that introduced, invasive predators are a major threat and are widely seen as the predominant threat to native animals. However, land use change in New Zealand has been rapid, extensive and catastrophic for biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. The New Zealand situation is at best the global story writ small.
As the last substantial land area to be settled by humans, the land experienced an alarming rate of habitat loss. Indeed, deforestation was considered a necessity and the “homestead system” in Auckland saw tenants turned off the land if they failed to clear sufficient native bush.
Native bush in New Zealand has been reduced by about three quarters from its former 82% extent across the landscape. What remains is heavily modified and not representative of former diversity. For example, in the Manawatū-Whanganui region, ancient lowland kahikatea forest has been reduced to less than 5% of its former extent, and between 1996 and 2012, 89,000 hectares of indigenous forest and scrub was converted to exotic forest and exotic pasture. When a habitat is removed, the organisms that live in it go, too.
Unfortunately, biodiversity threats are, if anything, even more pervasive and difficult to address than fossil fuel emissions. In climate change, it is broadly agreed that rising seas, acidifying oceans and destabilised weather patterns are bad. There is no such universal understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
To address this, the report details the importance of biodiversity to human health, food production and economic activity – the “ecosystem services” that nature provides to humans. The intrinsic value of nature to itself is hardly mentioned. This is not a new debate. The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity is founded on “the intrinsic value of biological diversity”, while the Rio Earth Summit of the same year stated that “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.”
The issue should not be confined to ecologists, philosophers, and diplomats. It needs to be addressed or we may find that future generations value nature even less than present ones do. In 2002, Randy Olsen popularised the concept of the shifting baseline, which means that people progressively adjust to a new normal and don’t realise what has been lost:
People go diving today in California kelp beds that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, “You should have seen it in the old days”.
Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan has described Adani as a “little Aussie battler” and praised the newly scaled-down project’s purported regional economic benefits.
The scaling down of the project has been extensive. Adani Mining chief executive Lucas Dow said the mine will cost A$2 billion and initially produce up to 15 million tonnes of thermal coal per year, with plans to ramp production up to 27.5 million tonnes per year.
That is far more modest than the A$16.5 billion investment in digging up 60 million tonnes of coal a year which the company first announced in 2010. The original plan was to transport the coal along a new 388km rail line to a specially built terminal at Adani’s Abbot Point coal port, for export to India. Under the scaled-down version of the project, Adani will need to secure access to existing rail infrastructure.
The economics barely stack up either. A recent IEEFA report indicated that coal is facing a terminal decline as Asian markets make the transition to cheaper and more efficient renewable alternatives. Existing thermal coal power in India costs US$60-80 per megawatt-hour, roughly double the cost of new renewable generation. The Mundra coal plant, where much of the Adani coal was destined, is already operating under capacity and has been closed for significant periods.
Adani has decided not to proceed with its initially planned 388km rail link, and will instead aim to use the existing Aurizon rail infrastructure. However, there is a 200km gap in this link which will cost a significant amount to bridge – albeit almost certainly much less than the A$2.3 billion cost of the originally planned railway. Aurizon Network is legally obliged to consider Adani’s access application, but has not yet assessed and approved it.
Environmental and Indigenous issues
Then there are the existing and significant concerns regarding Adani’s environmental management of issues such as water contamination in the Caley Valley Wetlands near the Abbot Point terminal. These will not disappear just because the project has been revised.
Gaining the consent of Traditional Owners will also be crucial, yet the 12-member native title representation group is split down the middle. Adani’s existing Indigenous Land Use Agreement has been appealed in the High Court by the Wangan and Jagalingou people, on the basis that the group has not genuinely consented to the agreement, and that overriding native title to make way for a coalmine is socially and culturally regressive. If the court does not uphold the agreement, this would create profound difficulties for the project as they may not be able to proceed with the development of the coal mine to the extent that it interferes with Indigenous landholdings.
So, while the decision of Adani to self-fund a scaled-down coalmine in Queensland might indicate determination, it also suggests a resistance to, and misunderstanding of, a rapidly changing energy sector and the broader social and environmental responsibilities that this change necessitates.
They are hoping to make progress on the Paris Agreement Work Programme, otherwise known as the Paris Rulebook – the guidelines needed to guide implementation of the Paris Agreement. That agreement was struck three years ago, but it is still not clear how the treaty’s goals to curb global warming will actually be achieved.
This requires all countries not only to slash global greenhouse emissions, but also to help the world adapt to the impacts of climate change. The agreement requires countries to develop national climate plans, to report back on their progress, and to ramp up their efforts in the coming years.
The ‘what’ and the ‘how’
Whereas the Paris Agreement talks about what needs to be done, the Paris Rulebook to be agreed at Katowice is about how nations can set about achieving it. Unlike the previous, more prescriptive Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement allows countries to choose their own approach to climate change. But it is important that actions taken by countries are done within an agreed, transparent framework of rules.
Rules need to be agreed about nations’ emissions targets, climate finance (including climate aid for developing countries), transparency, capacity building and carbon trading. Bringing all of this together is a huge challenge for negotiators. They need to establish a common set of rules applicable to all countries, while also maintaining the crucial principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” that underpins the UN climate process.
Already lagging behind
As well as being difficult, the task is also urgent. There is already evidence that countries are struggling to live up to their Paris commitments.
Although much of the focus has been on the challenge of bringing emissions targets into line with the Paris goals, our research suggests that climate adaptation efforts are also lagging behind.
Climate adaptation involves managing climate-related risks and deciding on how to manage and prepare for unavoidable impacts, such as increases in intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heatwaves and extreme storms, along with slow-onset impacts from sea level rise.
Many countries have developed climate adaptation policies as part of their climate change response. Our recent research analysed 54 of these national adaptation plans to understand how they match up to the intent of the Paris Agreement (as outlined in Article 7 of the Agreement).
We found that most adaptation plans only partially align with the Paris Agreement. Plans were largely focused on the social and economic aspects of adaptation, and were broadly aligned to countries’ existing policy priorities, especially around disaster management and economic development. For developing countries, there was a strong focus on linking adaptation and development.
However, countries are struggling to include environmental considerations into their planning. While the Paris Agreement clearly emphasises the important role that ecosystems play for climate adaptation, most plans are silent on this point.
What’s more, developed countries tended to take a less participatory approach to adaptation planning. Planning in developing countries was hampered by limited access to scientific knowledge but they made more use of local and traditional knowledge. The issue of resourcing and support for developing countries remains a challenge for climate change adaptation.
More work needed
Our results suggest that countries need to build on their existing adaptation plans to meet the ambitions in the Paris Agreement. There are good opportunities to better balance social and economic aspects with environmental and ecological considerations to improve planning.
Many countries, including Australia, have ratified the Paris Agreement, but few are delivering the ambitious action it requires. Besides pursuing deeper cuts to greenhouse emissions, countries need to revisit and update their adaptation strategies. Australia is well positioned to do so, given its economic wealth, its technical abilities, and the extensive climate adaptation research it has already undertaken.
Increasingly, we know what needs to be done to combat climate change. The Katowice summit will hopefully advance an agreement on how countries can do it. But actually doing it on a globally coordinated scale will be the biggest challenge, and there is some way to go to catch up.
There’s little doubt the information technology revolution has improved our lives. But unless we find a new form of electronic technology that uses less energy, computing will become limited by an “energy crunch” within decades.
Even the most common events in our daily life – making a phone call, sending a text message or checking an email – use computing power. Some tasks, such as watching videos, require a lot of processing, and so consume a lot of energy.
Because of the energy required to power the massive, factory-sized data centres and networks that connect the internet, computing already consumes 5% of global electricity. And that electricity load is doubling every decade.
Fortunately, there are new areas of physics that offer promise for massively reduced energy use.
Humans have an insatiable demand for computing power.
Smartphones, for example, have become one of the most important devices of our lives. We use them to access weather forecasts, plot the best route through traffic, and watch the latest season of our favourite series.
And we expect our smartphones to become even more powerful in the future. We want them to translate language in real time, transport us to new locations via virtual reality, and connect us to the “Internet of Things”.
The computing required to make these features a reality doesn’t actually happen in our phones. Rather it’s enabled by a huge network of mobile phone towers, Wi-Fi networks and massive, factory-sized data centres known as “server farms”.
For the past five decades, our increasing need for computing was largely satisfied by incremental improvements in conventional, silicon-based computing technology: ever-smaller, ever-faster, ever-more efficient chips. We refer to this constant shrinking of silicon components as “Moore’s Law”.
Moore’s law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who observed that:
the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while the costs are halved.
But as we hit limits of basic physics and economy, Moore’s law is winding down. We could see the end of efficiency gains using current, silicon-based technology as soon as 2020.
Our growing demand for computing capacity must be met with gains in computing efficiency, otherwise the information revolution will slow down from power hunger.
Achieving this sustainably means finding a new technology that uses less energy in computation. This is referred to as a “beyond CMOS” solution, in that it requires a radical shift from the silicon-based CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) technology that has been the backbone of computing for the last five decades.
Processing of information takes energy. When using an electronic device to watch TV, listen to music, model the weather or any other task that requires information to be processed, there are millions and millions of binary calculations going on in the background. There are zeros and ones being flipped, added, multiplied and divided at incredible speeds.
The fact that a microprocessor can perform these calculations billions of times a second is exactly why computers have revolutionised our lives.
But information processing doesn’t come for free. Physics tells us that every time we perform an operation – for example, adding two numbers together – we must pay an energy cost.
And the cost of doing calculations isn’t the only energy cost of running a computer. In fact, anyone who has ever used a laptop balanced on their legs will attest that most of the energy gets converted to heat. This heat comes from the resistance that electricity meets when it flows through a material.
It is this wasted energy due to electrical resistance that researchers are hoping to minimise.
Recent advances point to solutions
Running a computer will always consume some energy, but we are a long way (several orders of magnitude) away from computers that are as efficient as the laws of physics allow. Several recent advances give us hope for entirely new solutions to this problem via new materials and new concepts.
Very thin materials
One recent step forward in physics and materials science is being able to build and control materials that are only one or a few atoms thick. When a material forms such a thin layer, and the movement of electrons is confined to this sheet, it is possible for electricity to flow without resistance.
There are a range of different materials that show this property (or might show it). Our research at the ARC Centre for Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) is focused on studying these materials.
The study of shapes
There is also an exciting conceptual leap that helps us understand this property of electricity flow without resistance.
This idea comes from a branch of mathematics called “topology”. Topology tells us how to compare shapes: what makes them the same and what makes them different.
Image a coffee cup made from soft clay. You could slowly squish and squeeze this shape until it looks like a donut. The hole in the handle of the cup becomes the hole in the donut, and the rest of the cup gets squished to form part of the donut.
Topology tells us that donuts and coffee cups are equivalent because we can deform one into the other without cutting it, poking holes in it, or joining pieces together.
It turns out that the strange rules that govern how electricity flows in thin layers can be understood in terms of topology. This insight was the focus of the 2016 Nobel Prize, and it’s driving an enormous amount of current research in physics and engineering.
We want to take advantage of these new materials and insights to develop the next generation of low-energy electronics devices, which will be based on topological science to allow electricity to flow with minimal resistance.
This work creates the possibility of a sustainable continuation of the IT revolution – without the huge energy cost.