Why we’re not giving up the search for mainland Australia’s ‘first extinct lizard’



A grassland earless dragon at Jerrabomberra, NSW, November 1991. The search is now on for this species’ Victorian cousin.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Jane Melville, Museums Victoria

You may have seen news in recent days of the suspected demise of the Victorian grassland earless dragon – now thought to be the first lizard species to be driven to extinction by humans in mainland Australia.

That suspicion arose on the basis of a newly published study in Royal Society Open Science by our research team, in which we discovered that the grassland earless dragons of southeastern Australia are not a single species, but four distinct ones: one that lives around Canberra, two in New South Wales, and one restricted to the Melbourne region.

The most recent confident sighting of the Melbourne species was 50 years ago, in 1969 – hence the fears that the Victorian species has already succumbed.

But despite this worrying news, we’re not leaving this lizard for dead just yet. Conservationists are now combing remaining grassland around Melbourne in a search for survivors.




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Although no lizard species have previously been declared extinct on the Australian mainland, the grassland earless dragons (Tympanocryptis) of southeastern Australia have long been the subject of conservation concern. Even before being split into four separate species, they were already officially listed as endangered.

The Victorian grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is known only to occur in the native grasslands around Melbourne. A review of historical collections at Museums Victoria show that it was found at several locations including Sunbury, Maribyrnong River (then called “Saltwater River”), and as far west as the Geelong area until the late 1960s.

Although there is little information available about the ecology of this species, it was described by Lucas and Frost in 1894 as:

Inhabiting stony plains and retreating into small holes, like those of the ‘Trap-door Spider,’ in the ground when alarmed […] Often met with under loose basalt boulders.

The last confirmed sighting was near Geelong in July 1969.

First mainland extinction?

Globally, 31 reptiles have been listed as extinct or extinct in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List, the global authority on the status of species. Two skinks and one gecko species have been declared extinct in the wild on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. But until now there have been no recorded reptile extinctions on the Australian mainland.

Yet it is too early to give up on the Australian grassland earless dragon. Zoos Victoria researchers have completed a mapping analysis of potential grassland habitats. But this doesn’t give us enough information to say whether or not any grassland earless dragons remain.

There are several factors that leave open the possibility that the Victorian grassland earless dragon is still clinging to survival. There are some remaining habitat areas that have not yet been surveyed, and this species is small, secretive and hard to find. We urgently need more surveys to try and find any remaining populations.




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If these lizards are not yet extinct, their protection will clearly become an urgent conservation priority. But it is hard to develop a conservation program without knowing where the target species actually lives, or indeed whether it is still alive at all.

Zoos Victoria is now leading a campaign, alongside expert ecologists and local communities, to try and confirm the presence or absence of the Victorian grassland earless dragon. This involves various methods, including habitat mapping, camera trapping, and active searching. The team is also working to identify unsurveyed areas that might potentially be home to these elusive lizards.

Last year the team deployed a series of small pitfall traps at two locations in Little River. Unfortunately, no earless dragons were detected during the survey and few lizards of any species were caught, despite the fact that these locations seemed to offer appropriate food and habitat.

The team is not giving up yet and is committed to continuing the search, with Zoos Victoria researchers having identified sites with suitable habitat both within and outside of the historical distribution, which they aim to survey intensively over the coming years. Meanwhile, reptile keepers at Zoos Victoria are developing husbandry techniques to help look after the grassland earless dragon species from Canberra and NSW.

The conservation challenge has got harder, because where previously we were tasked with looking after one species, we now have to safeguard at least three – and hopefully four!


This article is based on a blog post that originally appeared here. It was coauthored by Adam Lee and Deon Gilbert of Zoos Victoria.The Conversation

Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

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

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China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Macquarie University

From an appalling environmental scorecard 20 years ago, China has pioneered a “global green shift” towards renewable energy and recycling. The country’s drive to dominate renewables manufacturing benefits both China and the world, by sending technology prices plummeting.

Many have attributed this success to China’s authoritarian political regime.

Unlike a democracy, this line of reasoning goes, the state can override special interest groups or opposition parties to impose “authoritarian environmentalism”. This allows a rapid and encompassing response to severe environmental threats.

We take a different view. As the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council Discovery Project examining East Asia’s clean energy shift, we are examining why and how some East Asian countries – including China – are pursuing ambitious renewable energy transformations, and what Australia might learn from these countries’ experiences.

We argue China’s success in greening and growing its economy is not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government.




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Not that different

China’s approach to greening shares much in common with democratic countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. All have ambitious programs to rapidly build domestic clean energy industries and “green” their power generation.

As such, our project emphasises the link between China’s green shift and what we call “developmental environmentalism”.

Developmental environmentalism refers to a state approaching greening as an opportunity to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. It helps explain both the drivers of the green shift and the means of its execution.

The “means” are less about authoritarianism and more about the state’s capacity to induce the private sector into a cooperative relationship.

This type of negotiated relationship between the state and industry is the exact opposite of authoritarianism, which pursues its goals irrespective of the wishes of the private sector. Indeed, the pages of history tell us authoritarian leaders are far more likely to misuse their concentrated economic power, resulting in developmental failure.

Democratic successes

China is not alone in its green shift. In fact, some of the world’s most ambitious national greening programs have sprung to life in democratic settings.

Germany

The clearest example is Germany and its widely admired Energiewende (“energy transition”). Germany took an early lead in the development of solar devices through government-sponsored industrial programs.

Then in 2011, in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

Countries around the world are now emulating Germany’s Energiewende.

South Korea

In one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea, the election of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 signalled a shift from intensive fossil-fuel development to “low-carbon, green growth”.

Lee’s focus was on greening the economy by investing in renewables and related infrastructure such as smart grids. His successor in 2013, President Park Geun-hye, continued this approach.

Finally, after President Moon Jae-in swept into power in 2017, South Korea committed to scaling down its use of nuclear energy.

Taiwan

Taiwan provides another fascinating example of a proudly democratic country that has followed in Germany’s footsteps. National efforts to establish a renewables industry began in 2009 under President Ma Ying-jeou. These initiatives targeted various clean energy industries for promotion, including generating solar and wind facilities and batteries.

However, just like Korea, the country’s over-reliance on nuclear energy (facilitated by a state-owned monopoly in the power sector) prevented the growth of a market for renewables.

A breakthrough in the country’s highly contentious debate over nuclear energy came with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who committed to the complete shutdown of nuclear reactors in the country.

Developmental environmentalism in action

These examples provide a clue that China’s ability to green its economy stems from something other than its authoritarian political system. We argue China’s success in greening stems from developmental environmentalism in action.

This does not simply mean a state that is “pro-development” and “pro-environment”. Rather, policymakers see greening the economy as chance to gain a competitive edge over other countries. The pursuit of strategic industry development goals involves nurturing – not displacing, as would occur in an authoritarian setting – “governed interdependence” with the private sector.

Best depicted by the Korean example, developmental environmentalism as a policy initially emerged as a response to threats to national industrial competitiveness. These included acute dependence on fossil-fuel imports, which are highly volatile, and global competitive pressures in the race to gain an early lead in the green economy.

Developmental environmentalism is also a strategic response to domestic challenges, such as the need to drive new sources of economic growth.

Lessons for Australia

If an authoritarian government provides little to no advantage for coordinating a green shift, what lessons might these countries have for Australian policymakers?

The key lesson is it’s not about designing the perfect constellation of policies or about pouring more money into entire industries.

Developmental environmentalism involves the political will to take big risks. Policymakers must target technologies – or segments of the economy – where government support could build national competitiveness.

Of course, this means creating a strategic, long-term approach to industry development, coordinated with the private sector.

Despite political gridlock, Australia is well placed to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing clean energy industry.

As the nation’s leaders engage in a fruitless debate over building new coal-fired power stations, Australian companies with world-class strengths in clean energies are emerging. Nowhere is this growing confidence more evident than in the blossoming of companies that have commercially ready smart microgrid and energy-storage solutions.

It would be a great shame – if not a national tragedy – if these companies were allowed to be picked off one by one by foreign multinational enterprises. This is the sad and familiar story of Australian manufacturing: highly innovative companies – a testament to our wealth of knowledge – are bought out, intellectual property rights absorbed, and manufacturing eventually outsourced. Often, shells of our prized national assets (typically the marketing and sales divisions) are all that remain.




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Yet, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy that focuses on building a national value chain or ecosystem of upstream and downstream players – as the Koreans and Taiwanese have done in smart microgrids – this future appears all but settled.The Conversation

Sung-Young Kim, Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University

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

Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago



Legislative action regarding vehicle emissions is overdue, and needs urgent attention by the federal government.
Shutterstock

Robin Smit, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, University of Technology Sydney

When it comes to road transport, Australia is at risk of becoming a climate villain as we lag behind international best practice on fuel efficiency.

Road transport is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions and represented 16% of Australia’s total carbon dioxide emissions in 2000, growing to 21% in 2016. Total CO₂ emissions from road transport increased by almost 30% in the period 2000-16.

Fuel efficiency (CO₂ emission) standards have been adopted in around 80% of the global light vehicle market to cap the growth of transport emissions. This includes the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea and India – but not Australia.




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If Australia had introduced internationally harmonised emissions legislation three years ago, households could have made savings on fuel costs to the tune of A$1 billion.

This shocking figure comes from our preliminary calculations looking at the effect of requiring more efficient vehicles to be sold in Australia.

A report, published yesterday by Transport Energy/Emission Research, looked at what Australia has achieved in vehicle fuel efficiency and CO₂ standards over the past 20 years. While Australia has considered and tried to impose standards a number of times, sadly these attempts were unsuccessful.

Legislative action on vehicle CO₂ emissions is long overdue and demands urgent attention by the Australian government.

Australian consumers are increasingly buying heavier vehicles with bigger emissions.
Shuterstock

How did Australia get here?

The most efficient versions of vehicle models offered in Australia are considerably less efficient than similar vehicles in other markets.

Australia could increasingly become a dumping ground for the world’s least efficient vehicles with sub-par emissions performance, given our lack of fuel efficiency standards. This leaves us on a dangerous path towards not only higher vehicle emissions, but also higher fuel costs for passenger travel and freight.

Australia has attempted to impose CO₂ or fuel efficiency standards on light vehicles several times over the past 20 years, but without success. While the federal government was committed to addressing this issue in 2015, four years later we are still yet to hear when – or even if – mandatory fuel efficiency standards will ever be introduced.

The general expectation appears to be that average CO₂ emission rates of new cars in Australia will reduce over time as technology advances overseas. In the absence of CO₂ standards locally, it is more likely that consumers will continue to not be offered more efficient cars, and pay higher fuel costs as a consequence.

Estimating the fuel savings

Available evidence suggests Australian motorists are paying on average almost 30% more for fuel than they should because of the lack of fuel efficiency standards.

The Australian vehicle fleet uses about 32 billion litres of fuel per year.

Using an Australian fleet model described in the TER report, we can make a conservative estimate that the passenger vehicle fleet uses about half of this fuel: 16 billion litres per year. New cars entering the fleet each year would represent about 5% of this: 800 million litres per year.

So assuming that mandatory CO₂ standards improve fuel efficiency by 27%, fuel savings would be 216 million litres per year.

In the last three years, the average fuel price across Australia’s five major cities is A$1.33 per litre. This equates to a total savings of A$287 million per year, although this would be about half the first year as new cars are purchased throughout the year and travel less, and would reduce as vehicles travel less when they age.

The savings are accumulative because a car purchased in a particular year continues to save fuel over the following years.

The table below shows a rough calculation of savings over the three year period (2016-2018), for new cars sold in the same period (Model Years 2016, 2017 and 2018).

As a result, over a period of three years, A$1.3 billion in potential savings for car owners would have accumulated.

Policy has come close, but what are we waiting for?

The Australian government is not progressing any measures to introduce a fuel efficiency target. In fact, it recently labelled Labor’s proposed fuel efficiency standard as a “car tax”.

But Australia has come close to adopting mandatory vehicle CO₂ emission standards in the past.

In late 2007, the Labor government committed to cutting emissions to achieve Australia’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, instructed the Vehicle Efficiency Working Group to:

… develop jointly a package of vehicle fuel efficiency measures designed to move Australia towards international best practice.

Then, in 2010, the Labor government decided mandatory CO₂ emissions standards would apply to new light vehicles from 2015. But a change in government in 2013 meant these standards did not see the light of day.

The amount of fuel that could have been saved is A$287 million per year.
Shutterstock

Things looked promising again when the Coalition government released a Vehicle Emissions Discussion Paper in 2016, followed by a draft Regulation Impact Statement in the same year.

The targets for adopting this policy in 2025, considered in the draft statement, were marked as “strong” (105g of CO₂ per km), “medium” (119g/km) and “mild” (135g/km) standards.

Under all three targets, there would be significant net cost savings. But since 2016, the federal government has taken no further action.

It begs the question: what exactly are we waiting for?

The technical state of play

Transport Energy/Emission Research conducted preliminary modelling of Australian real-world CO₂ emissions.

This research suggests average CO₂ emission rates of the on-road car fleet in Australia are actually increasing over time and are, in reality, higher than what is officially reported in laboratory emissions tests.

In fact, the gap between mean real-world emissions and the official laboratory tests is expected to grow from 20% in 2010 to 65% in 2025.

This gap is particularly concerning when we look at the lack of support for low-emissions vehicles like electric cars.




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Given that fleet turnover is slow, the benefits of fuel efficiency standards would only begin to have a significant effect several years into the future.

With continuing population growth, road travel will only increase further. This will put even more pressure on the need to reduce average real-world CO₂ emission rates, given the increasing environmental and health impacts of the vehicle fleet.

Even if the need to reduce emissions doesn’t convince you, the cost benefits of emissions standards should. The sale of less efficient vehicles in Australia means higher weekly fuel costs for car owners, which could be avoided with the introduction of internationally harmonised emissions legislation.The Conversation

Robin Smit, Adjunct professor, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, Lecturer in Environmental Engineering, University of Technology Sydney

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