NZ’s environmental watchdog challenges climate policy on farm emissions and forestry offsets



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The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has warned that afforestation is a risky approach to combatting climate change.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, University of Otago

The greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, from burping and urinating livestock, account for about half of New Zealand’s total emissions. These agricultural emissions have been the elephant in the room of New Zealand climate policy for some time.

A report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) this week suggests New Zealand should treat biological emissions differently from carbon dioxide emissions. It also says afforestation is a risky approach to combating climate change if planting trees is used to offset carbon emissions.

The report threatens to turn environmental policy and its principal policy tool, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), on its head.




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Emissions trading in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, established by Helen Clark’s Labour administration in 2008, was meant to be a bold first in the world. It was going to cover all greenhouse-gases and all sectors and include forestry as an emissions sink. Critically, it was to include agriculture and the related biological emissions.

But the election of John Key’s National administration in 2009, with their rural electorate, meant agriculture never entered the scheme and was therefore “given a free ride” in the decade or so since. To put this “free ride” into context, the rest of the economy could buy cheap, and in some cases dubious, international carbon units for the bulk of that period.

After international trading was stopped, they could buy relatively cheap domestic forestry units. In truth, it was never much of a free ride for agriculture since no one was working particularly hard to mitigate anyhow.

The PCE report challenges the scheme’s architecture. It makes a number of recommendations. First, it suggests that biological emission should be treated differently to carbon dioxide emissions, with a zero target on carbon dioxide and a much lower but unspecified target for biological emissions.

The second recommendation is to no longer allow forestry sinks to be used to offset carbon dioxide emission, but to continue using them to offset biological emission.

This shifts the burden of mitigation away from biological emissions in agriculture towards carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and transport.

The PCE’s recommendations

The report provides an alternative vision to the “all gasses and all sectors” flexibility envisioned for the original NZ ETS. It differentiates between carbon dioxide and biological emissions since carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas, but biological emissions include the long-lived nitrous oxide and the shorter-lived but potent methane.

The recommendation that afforestation sinks should no longer be used to offset carbon dioxide emissions represent a radical departure. It is likely to be opposed by foresters and those not wanting to create too much uncertainty in the NZ ETS. These are fair points that must be balanced against the logic behind the recommendation.

Using afforestation to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions is risky because forests may burn down (especially in a warming world) and release the carbon again. Commercial plantation forests only hold the carbon until the next harvesting cycle, and ultimately the land available for tree planting is limited and may crowd out other land uses.

Using afforestation to tackle carbon dioxide reductions also means we do not work hard enough to decarbonise the economy in more fundamental ways, including switching to electric vehicles, building houses for passive solar heating and making process heat renewable.

The search for cross-party consensus

Overall, the report signals a fundamentally different approach to climate policy from that envisioned for the NZ ETS over a decade ago. Differentiating carbon and biological emissions is sensible both from a science and a political expediency perspective.

The latter is particularly important if we are to have a political consensus behind the proposed Zero Carbon Act. Ultimately, the opposition National party will not back anything that unduly affects its agricultural electorate. Reducing reliance on carbon sinks also seems sensible as it pushes the cost of mitigation into the future, imposing it on future generations.




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A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Does this mean a free ride for agriculture once more? Probably not, but the devil will be in the detail. What the reduction targets for biological emissions should be is not clear. The report cites a range of between 22% to 48% by 2050 as potentially feasible with investment in research and development.

The degree to which afforestation can be used to offset agricultural emissions also needs to be thought about. Unlimited forestry offsets could lead to landscapes that are either planted in trees or relatively intensive dairy farming, with little else in between. This is undesirable as it could lead to changes in biological diversity and water quality and ultimately damage New Zealand’s green and clean brand.

Clearly, there needs to be strong incentives to reduce biological emissions beyond the offset option that push towards more sustainable forms of farming. There is a strong case to limit offsets for agriculture as well, but this might depress the forestry sector.

Finally, to remove the carbon offset option from the market immediately or in the next few years would be unfair to foresters and companies that have been planning to use offsets based on the current architecture. A transition period would be needed to lessen the regulatory shock.The Conversation

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, Associate Professor of Finance & Director, Climate and Energy Finance Group, University of Otago

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

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Labor pledges $14m funding boost to Environmental Defenders Offices – what do these services do?


Amelia Thorpe, UNSW

The federal Labor Party announced this week that, if elected, it will restore funding to Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs) across Australia, in a package worth $14 million over four years.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek explained:

These organisations ensure that ordinary Australians have proper access to the law. We know that big corporations have deep pockets and they’re able to employ expensive legal teams but ordinary Australians – farmers, indigenous communities, ordinary citizens – should have just the same access to the law as anybody with the most expensive lawyers in the country.

What are EDOs?

The first EDO was established in New South Wales in 1985, following the passage of a suite of environmental laws in the late 1970s covering heritage protection, environmental planning approvals, and establishing the Land and Environment Court.

With growing public interest in planning and development, including the celebrated Green Bans movement, those laws introduced new requirements for environmental impact assessment, heritage protection and public participation. They also gave everyone the right to take legal action by bringing environmental matters to court.

Even the best legislation is of little value, however, if people don’t have the means to make use of it. That is where the EDO comes in.

In 1981, shortly after the opening of the new Land and Environment Court, a group of lawyers began working to establish an organisation to empower the community to make use of these new laws to protect the environment. After four years of planning and fundraising, the NSW EDO opened with a staff of one: solicitor Judith Preston.

The idea spread. EDOs were set up in Victoria and Queensland in the early 1990s, and eventually established in all eight states and territories, with an additional office in North Queensland. The various EDOs have always remained separate, each managed by an independent board, although since 1996 they have shared advice and support through a national network.

Punching above their weight

Despite their shoestring budgets, EDO lawyers have proved effective, developing impressive programs of litigation and legal education. With grants from groups such as the Myer Foundation and, later, recurrent funding from state and federal governments, EDOs were a well established part of the Australian legal landscape by the early 2000s.

NSW, Queensland and Victoria were particularly effective in securing funding, each boasting dozens of staff at their peak in the mid-2000s. Thanks to large grants from the NSW Public Purpose Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, the NSW EDO’s staff included not just lawyers but also environmental scientists, an Indigenous solicitor working specifically on Indigenous matters, and a team working from a new regional office in Lismore.

Despite salaries well below market rates, EDO lawyers have consistently punched above their weight. Landmark wins have included defending the WA tourist town of Margaret River against coal mining, and helping the Goolarabooloo community challenge approvals for a liquefied natural gas hub at James Price Point, north of Broome. In 2015 the NSW EDO successfully overturned the approval of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland, although the federal government later reapproved it.




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With success, particularly against Adani, came criticism. After almost 20 years of bipartisan support, the Abbott government abruptly cut funding to EDOs in 2013 amid allegations of activist “lawfare”. Coalition governments in several states followed suit, prompting staff cuts, restructures, and an increase in fundraising efforts among the EDO network. EDO Victoria became Environmental Justice Australia, the Lismore office closed, and EDOs generally reduced the scale and scope of their work.

While EDOs are best known for their litigation – running high-profile cases on issues such as climate change, conservation and alleged water theft in the Murray-Darling Basin – their work is much broader than this. All EDOs provide free legal education and advice, both via telephone and through community workshops and seminars, many in rural and remote areas. They publish plain-language explanations of a complex range of state and federal environmental laws, a vital resource used by government departments and universities as well as members of the public. EDOs also undertake law reform work, making submissions to parliamentary inquiries and giving expert evidence.




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This work remains vital. As in the 1980s, laws are only as effective as the people who enforce them. As the Productivity Commission explained in its inquiry into access to justice (see page 711 here), “The rationales for government support for environmental matters are well recognised.”

Legal education, outreach, advice and, occasionally, public interest litigation, are essential for environmental justice and should be funded accordingly.The Conversation

Amelia Thorpe, Associate Professor, UNSW

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

Old man’s beard is a star climber for Australian gardens



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John Tann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.


Clematis aristata is a gem of a native climbing plant. Commonly known as Australian clematis, goatsbeard or old man’s beard, these names and the species name aristata (Latin for bearded) all refer to the bristle-like appendages to the fruit.

Although there are more than 300 Clematis species worldwide, only six are native to Australia. Old man’s beard’s flowers are a little more modest than its cousins.




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Clematis aristata is widely distributed in southeastern Australia and has been recorded in all of the eastern mainland states, as well as in Tasmania and South Australia. There is a record of it in Western Australia from around a century ago, but this has not been confirmed in recent times.

With such a wide natural range, it is not surprising that in occurs in many different habitats and soil types. Herein lies one of the great attributes of C. aristata: it has many local forms and is easy to propagate and grow in almost any climate or soil type.



The Conversation, CC BY

Its flowers are white or cream-coloured, and while they are only 2-3cm across they occur in such great numbers they make a fine show. As a climber, they do have the capacity to smother a host, but more often than not the two plants live long lives together without doing harm. In the garden, with a little careful management and pruning, old man’s beard can grow for decades without causing problems while putting on a fine floral display each spring.

One of the wonders of seeing old man’s beard in it natural habitat is the diverse places and spaces it occupies. In the tall wet forests of the east coast you can see it flowering high in the canopies of 60-metre eucalypts, but on the clays of the windswept basalt plains, it appears as flowering orb growing over a shrubby acacia or grevillea. You can also find it growing on an old fence, a rocky outcrop, or simply growing as a scrambler.




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In some parts of Australia, the roots of the species were used as a food source by Indigeneous communities. Its sinuous branches were used like string or laces by some early settlers, and it is hard to imagine that Indigenous people did not use it in this way on some occasions. However, it breaks easily and becomes quite brittle as it dries, and so is useful only in short lengths and for short periods.

It is easy to propagate from seed, and in some places it self-seeds readily and young seedlings can be dug up and grown on with good success rates. It can also be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings in a good propagating mix and a little shelter. You may have heard old man’s beard likes cool roots, good sun and moist soil, but this depends on where you source your plants and seeds.

Clematis aristata growing in Werribee Gorge State Park, Victoria.
Rexness/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Different populations of old man’s beard have adapted to their local environments and so it is always worth getting your plants and seeds from your local native nursery.

The old man’s beard from the temperate forest of the east coast does not do well on the basalt plains, but then again the plants from the basalt plains do not grow well on good soils in cooler, rainy sites. One of the joys of working with old man’s beard is that if you use locally indigenous plants, they will grow quickly without the need for much care and they are usually free of pests and disease. In the poorly structured clay soils of the great basalt plain, with the annual rainfall often below 600mm, it is amazing to see it grow so well without the need for irrigation.




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Like most plants, if you are growing old man’s beard in garden beds it will benefit from a 75-100mm layer of organic mulch containing both fine and coarse material – a mix of native plant leaf litter and twigs will do nicely. Once they have flowered, they can look a bit untidy and some people do not like the look of the bristly fruits as they dry, so a bit of light pruning can be beneficial. Annual pruning will also keep old man’s beard growing where you want it and ensure it is not causing problems to other plants in your garden.

So if you want a native climbing plant that will give you years of spectacular and worry-free flowering, give C. aristata some thought. All you have to do is get hold of a locally growing variant, plant it, and step back before it starts growing over you!


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.. Read previous instalments here.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

Deadly frog fungus has wiped out 90 species and threatens hundreds more



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The Mossy Red-eyed Frog is among hundreds of species threatened with extinction at the hands of chytrid fungus.
Jonathan Kolby/Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and Claire Foster, Australian National University

It started off as an enigma. Biologists at field sites around the world reported that frogs had simply disappeared. Costa Rica, 1987: the golden toad, missing. Australia, 1979: the gastric brooding frog, gone. In Ecuador, Arthur’s stubfoot toad was last seen in 1988.

By 1990, cases of unexplained frog declines were piling up. These were not isolated incidents; it was a global pattern – one that we now know was due to chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that was infecting and killing a huge range of frogs, toads and salamanders.

Our research, published today in Science, reveals the global number of amphibian species affected. At least 501 species have declined due to chytrid, and 90 of them are confirmed or believed extinct.




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When biologists first began to investigate the mysterious species disappearances, they were at a loss to explain them. In many cases, species declined rapidly in seemingly pristine habitat.

Species declines typically have obvious causes, such as habitat loss or introduced species like rats. But this was different.

The first big breakthrough came in 1998, when a team of Australian and international scientists led by Lee Berger discovered amphibian chytrid fungus. Their research showed that this unusual fungal pathogen was the cause of frog declines in the rainforests of Australia and Central America.

However, there were still many unknowns. Where did this pathogen come from? How does it kill frogs? And why were so many different species affected?

After years of painstaking research, biologists have filled in many pieces of the puzzle. In 2009, researchers discovered how chytrid fungus kills frogs. In 2018, the Korean peninsula was pinpointed as the likely origin of the most deadly lineage of chytrid fungus, and human dispersal of amphibians suggested as a likely source of the global spread of the pathogen.

Yet as the mystery was slowly but surely unravelled, a key question remained: how many amphibian species have been affected by chytrid fungus?

Early estimates suggested that about 200 species were affected. Our new study reveals the total is unfortunately much larger: 501 species have declined, and 90 confirmed or suspected to have been killed off altogether.

The toll taken by chytrid fungus on amphibians around the world. Each bar represents one species; colours reveal the extent of population declines.
Scheele et al. Science 2019

Devastating killer

These numbers put chytrid fungus in the worst league of invasive species worldwide, threatening similar numbers of species as rats and cats. The worst-hit areas have been in Australia and Central and South America, which have many different frog species, as well as ideal conditions for the growth of chytrid fungus.

Large species and those with small distributions and elevational ranges have been the mostly likely to experience severe declines or extinctions.

Together with 41 amphibian experts from around the world, we pieced together information on the timing of species declines using published records, survey data, and museum collections. We found that declines peaked globally in the 1980s, about 15 years before the disease was even discovered. This peak coincides with biologists’ anecdotal reports of unusual amphibian declines that occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1980s.

Encouragingly, some species have shown signs of natural recovery. Twelve per cent of the 501 species have begun to recover in some locations. But for the vast majority of species, population numbers are still far below what they once were.

Most of the afflicted species have not yet begun to bounce back, and many continue to decline. Rapid and substantial action from governments and conservation organisations is needed if we are to keep these species off the extinct list.




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Saving amphibians from a deadly fungus means acting without knowing all the answers


In Australia, chytrid fungus has caused the decline of 43 frog species. Of these, seven are now extinct and six are at high risk of extinction due to severe and ongoing declines. The conservation of these species is dependent on targeted management, such as the recovery program for the iconic corroboree frogs.

The southern corroboree frog: hopefully not a disappearing icon.
Corey Doughty

Importantly, there are still some areas of the world that chytrid has not yet reached, such as New Guinea. Stopping chytrid fungus spreading to these areas will require a dramatic reduction in the global trade of amphibians, as well as increased biosecurity measures.

The unprecedented deadliness of a single disease affecting an entire class of animals highlights the need for governments and international organisations to take the threat of wildlife disease seriously. Losing more amazing species like the golden toad and gastric brooding frog is a tragedy that we can avoid.The Conversation

Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and Claire Foster, Research Fellow in Ecology and Conservation, Australian National University

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