In Australia, climate policy battles are endlessly reheated


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


It might feel like the past decade of climate policy wars has led us into uncharted political waters. But the truth is, we’ve been sailing around in circles for much longer than that.

The situation in the late 1990s bore an uncanny resemblance to today: a Liberal-led government; a prime minister who clearly favours economic imperatives over environmental ones; emerging internal splits between hardline Liberal MPs and those keen to see stronger climate action; and a Labor party trying to figure out how ambitious it can be without being labelled as loony tree-huggers.

The striking parallels between now and two decades ago tell us something about what to expect in the months ahead.




Read more:
Ten years of backflips over emissions trading leave climate policy in the lurch


After a brief flirtation with progressive climate policy in the 1990 federal election, the Liberals had, by the final years of the 20th century, become adamant opponents of climate action.

In March 1996, John Howard had come to power just as international climate negotiations were heating up. In his opinion, even signing the United Nations climate convention in Rio in 1992 had been a mistake. He expended considerable effort trying to secure a favourable deal for Australia at the crunch Kyoto negotiations in 1997.

Australia got a very generous deal indeed (and is still talking about banking the credit to count towards its Paris target), and Howard was able to keep a lid on climate concerns until 2006. But it was too little, too late, and in 2007 his party began a six-year exile from government as Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd took the climate policy helm, with acrimonious results.

When Tony Abbott swept to power in 2013, his first act was to abolish the Labor-appointed Climate Commission, which resurrected itself as the independent Climate Council. Next, he delivered his signature election campaign promise: to axe the hated carbon tax (despite his chief of staff Peta Credlin’s later admission that the tax wasn’t, of course, actually a tax).




Read more:
Obituary: Australia’s carbon price


Abbott also reduced the renewable energy target, and sought (unsuccessfully) to keep climate change off the agenda at the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane.

Abbott and his environment minister Greg Hunt did preside over some policy offerings – most notably the Direct Action platform, with the A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund at its heart, dishing out public money for carbon-reduction projects. The pair also announced an emissions reduction target of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, which Australia took as its formal pledge to the crucial 2015 Paris climate talks.

But by the time nations convened in Paris, Malcolm Turnbull was in the hot seat, having toppled Abbott a few months earlier. Many observers hoped he would take strong action on climate; in 2010 he had enthused about the prospect of Australia going carbon-neutral. But the hoped-for successor to the carbon price never materialised, as Turnbull came under sustained attack from detractors within both his own party and the Nationals.

Then, in September 2016, a thunderbolt (or rather, a fateful thunderstorm). South Australia’s entire electricity grid was knocked out by freak weather, plunging the state into blackout, and the state government into a vicious tussle with Canberra. The dispute, embodied by SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s infamous altercation with the federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg, spilled over into a wider ideological conflict about renewable energy.




Read more:
A year since the SA blackout, who’s winning the high-wattage power play?


With tempers fraying on all sides, and still no economy-wide emissions policy in place, business began to agitate for increasingly elusive investment certainty (although they had played dead or applauded when Gillard’s carbon price was under attack).

In an era of policy on the run, things accelerated to a sprinter’s pace. Frydenberg suggested an emissions intensity scheme might be looked at. Forty-eight hours later it was dead and buried.

Turnbull commissioned Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to produce a report, which included the recommendation for a Clean Energy Target, prompting it to be vetoed in short order by the government’s backbench.

Within three months Frydenberg hurriedly put together the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), which focused on both reliability and emissions reduction in the electricity sector. The policy gained support from exhausted business and NGOs, but not from the Monash Forum of Tony Abbott and cohorts, who preferred the sound of state-funded coal instead. And then, in August 2018, the NEG was torpedoed, along with Turnbull’s premiership.

The next man to move into the Lodge, Scott Morrison, was previously best known in climate circles for waving a lump of coal (kindly provided, with lacquer to prevent smudging, by the Minerals Council of Australia) in parliament.




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


Morrison’s problems haven’t eased. His energy minister Angus Taylor and environment minister Melissa Price have each come under attack for their apparent lack of climate policy ambition, and Barnaby Joyce and a select few fellow Nationals recently endangered the fragile truce over not mentioning the coal.

Meanwhile, Labor, with one eye on the Green vote and another on Liberal voters appalled by the lack of action on climate change, are trying to slip between Scylla and Charybdis.

Shorten’s offering

While Labor has decided not to make use of a Kyoto-era loophole (taking credit for reduced land-clearing), its newly released climate policy platform makes no mention of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, dodges the thorny issue of the Adani coalmine, and has almost nothing to say on how to pay the now-inevitable costs of climate adaptation.

What will the minor parties say? Labor’s policy is nowhere near enough to placate the Greens’ leadership, but then the goal for Labor is of course to peel away the Greens support – or at least reduce the haemorrhaging, while perhaps picking up the votes of disillusioned Liberals.

Overall, as Nicky Ison has already pointed out on The Conversation, Labor has missed an “opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action”.




Read more:
Labor’s climate policy: a decent menu, but missing the main course


And so the prevailing political winds have blown us more or less back to where we were in 1997: the Liberals fighting among themselves, business despairing, and Labor being cautious.

But in another sense, of course, our situation is far worse. Not only has a culture war broken out, but the four hottest years in the world have happened in the past five, the Great Barrier Reef is suffering, and the Bureau of Meteorology’s purple will be getting more of a workout.

We’ve spent two decades digging a deeper hole for ourselves. It’s still not clear when or how we can climb out.The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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

Advertisements

The swamp foxtail’s origin is hidden in its DNA



File 20190405 123431 tb8724.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Swamp foxtail is prized in ornamental gardens across Australia.
John Tann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Roderick John Fensham, The University of Queensland

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


Swamp foxtail (Cenchrus purpurascens) is a delightful grass that forms a neat tussock up to a metre tall with a distinctive fluffy spikelet that resembles a fox’s tail.

Foxtails are widely used in horticulture. The purple forms are particularly popular in ornamental gardens and some have even become invasive weeds.

The foxtail grasses are more commonly seen in these cultivated settings, which has led to much confusion about swamp foxtails’ origins in Australia. The species is simultaneously an exotic weed from Asia, the dominant grass in an endangered Australian ecosystem and a rare native species in isolated desert springs.



The Conversation

Is it native?

It was uncertain for a while whether swamp foxtail is actually native to Australia. Although Europeans collected it near Sydney, it was possible the seeds had come with livestock on the early ships.

This theory was put to rest by genetic studies that found small populations have existed in inland Queensland for hundreds of thousands of years.

The species spread southward and was first recorded in Victoria in the 1970s.

European records

Robert Brown, the botanist who accompanied Matthew Flinders as he circumnavigated the continent, made the the earliest European collections of the swamp foxtail near Sydney in 1802.

Despite the early date of the collections, it is feasible that the swamp foxtail was brought to Sydney within 14 years of settlement as a byproduct among grain or hay. However, while the species occurs naturally in Asia, the Javanese ports were not on the typical travelling route from Europe.




Read more:
Spinifex grass would like us to stop putting out bushfires, please


The intrepid adventurer Ludwig Leichardt later collected this species near the Gwydir River region. This collection provides more convincing evidence the swamp foxtail is native to Australia. It seems unlikely that, in the early years of colonisation, the swamp foxtail had been transported overland with the squatters who were spreading out from their successful properties in the Hunter Valley.

The spread southward

The history of herbarium records, from collections in the late 1800s and early 1900s, suggests swamp foxtail might have been native to Queensland and New South Wales.

Collections south of these locations happened after 1940. The species was not recorded in Victoria until the 1970s. It seems almost certain the swamp foxtail spread southward during the 20th century, in some places as an undesirable weed.

Unusual and isolated habitats

Aboriginal fire management possibly maintained natural grassy openings among the northern NSW rainforests. The curious “grasses”, as they were named, are well documented on early survey plans of the Big Scrub country. Many a place name, Howards Grass Road and Lagoon Grass Road among them, bear testament to their existence.

An extremely isolated population of the swamp foxtail at Elizabeth Springs in western Queensland.
Rod Fensham

The surveyors provided detailed recordings of the dominant grass on the valley floors: the “foxtail”. The swamp foxtail is now rather rare on the valley floors of the Richmond and the Tweed River valleys, replaced by crops on prime agricultural land. It managed to survive in a few locations west of Murwillumbah and on springs, but large expanses of the foxtail grasslands have succumbed to the plough.

A particularly unusual habitat for the swamp foxtail is the artesian springs that feed permanent wetlands in the semi-deserts of inland Queensland. The swamp foxtail occurs there in very local populations separated by hundreds of kilometres.

This raises the question: is the swamp foxtail a recent arrival on these tiny, strange and isolated ecosystems, or are these ancient populations?

Genetic studies have provided conclusive evidence of an ancient origin. The oldest lineage is the population at Elizabeth Springs to the south of Boulia. Its molecular signature suggests this population has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years.

Where swamp foxtail does occur at springs, it is always accompanied by rare species that are seen only in those unusual wetlands.




Read more:
Grass trees aren’t a grass (and they’re not trees)


Crossing continents and climates

Swamp foxtail demonstrates the complexity of defining a species’ origin. This species probably evolved in Asia, because this is where most of its relatives are found. It found its way to Australia, possibly through a migratory bird that dropped a seed in a desert spring.

It then had a second migration, either from the springs or from a repeat dispersal from Asia, and found a niche in the valley floors of subtropical landscapes. It was abundant in these moist and fertile habitats when Europeans colonised the continent in 1788.

Since then, the swamp foxtail has spread to temperate climates where it has become invasive and, in some situations, a minor pest. Quite a journey.The Conversation

Roderick John Fensham, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland

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

Mercury pollution from decades past may have been re-released by Tasmania’s bushfires



File 20190405 114905 1kz1fq7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Tasmania’s fires may have released mercury previously absorbed by trees.
AAP Image

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

Tasmania’s bushfires may have resulted in the release of significant amounts of mercury from burnt trees into the atmosphere. Our research shows that industrial mercury pollution from decades past has been locked up in west Tasmanian trees.

Mercury occurs naturally in Earth’s crust. Over the past 200 years, industrial activities have mobilised mercury from the crust and released it into the atmosphere. As a consequence, atmospheric mercury concentrations are now three to four times higher than in the pre-industrialisation era.

Mining is the largest source of the global atmospheric mercury, accounting for 37% of mercury emissions. When Europeans first arrived in Australia, there was, of course, no Environmental Protection Act in place to limit emissions from industrial activities. In western Tasmania, where mining has occurred for more than a century, this meant mercury was being released without control into the local atmosphere until changes in technology, market conditions, and later, regulation, conspired to reduce emissions.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


Because mercury is also very persistent in the environment, past mining activity has generated a reservoir of mercury that could be released to the atmosphere under certain conditions. This is a concern because even small amounts of mercury may be toxic and may cause serious health problems. In particular, mercury can threaten the normal development of a child in utero and early in its life.

Tree rings can reveal past mercury contamination

How much mercury has been released into the Australian environment and when has remained largely unknown. However, in a new study we show how mercury levels in Tasmania have dramatically changed over the past 150 years due to mining practices. Long-lived Huon pine, endemic to western Tasmania, is one of the most efficient bioaccumulators of mercury in the world. This makes it a good proxy for tracking mercury emissions in western Tasmania. If concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere are high in a given year, this can be detected in the annual ring of Huon pine for that year.

Mercury pollution from past mining practices in western Tasmania has left a lasting environmental legacy. The sampled trees contained a significant reservoir of mercury that was taken up during the peak mining period in Queenstown. Changes in mercury concentrations in the annual rings of Huon pine are closely aligned with changes in mining practices in the region.

Increased concentrations coincide with the commencement of pyritic copper smelting in Queenstown in 1896. They peak between 1910 and 1920 when smelting was at its height. In 1922, concentrations begin to decline in parallel with the introduction of a new method to separate and concentrate ores. This method required only one small furnace instead of 11 large ones. In 1934, a new dust-collection apparatus was installed in the smelter’s chimney, coinciding with the further decrease in mercury concentrations in nearby Huon pine.

Temporal tree rings of Huon pine, revealing historical mercury pollution.
Author provided

Toxic elements or compounds taken up by vegetation can also be released back into the local environment. Bushfires that burn trees that have accumulated mercury may release this mercury as vapour, dust or fine ash, potentially exposing people and wildlife to the adverse effects of mercury. It is estimated that bushfires release 210,000kg of mercury into the global atmosphere each year. As these fires become more frequent and ferocious in Australia, mercury concentrations in the atmosphere are likely to increase. Mercury released by bushfires can persist in the atmosphere for a year, allowing for long-distance transportation depending on wind strength and direction. This means that mining activity from over a century ago may have regional implications in the near future. The Tasmanian fires in December-February burned almost 200,000 hectares, including areas around Queenstown.

It is not currently possible to know how much mercury has been released by these recent fires. Our results simply highlight the potential risk and the need to better understand the amount of mercury taken up by vegetation that may one day be released back to the atmosphere via bushfires.

Re-release of historical mercury emissions by bushfires.
Author provided



Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Although there is no simple way to remove bio-accumulated mercury from trees, the history of mercury contamination recorded in tree rings provides important lessons. Decreased uptake of mercury after upgrades to the Queenstown copper smelter operations demonstrates the positive impact that good management decisions can have on the amount of mercury released into the environment.

To control mercury emissions globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Its primary goal is to protect human health and the environment from the negative effects of mercury. Australia has signed the convention and but has yet to ratify it. Once ratified, Australia would be required to record sources of mercury and quantify emissions, including those from bushfires.

But to do this, the government must first be able to identify environmental reservoirs of mercury. Our study, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, shows that the long-lived Huon pine can be used to for this purpose. Further work to determine what other tree species record atmospheric emissions of mercury and other toxic elements in other regions of Australia is required.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, Academic, Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

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