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Would you please explain how the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) works in simple terms? Who pays and where does the money go?
Every tonne of emissions causes damages and a cost to society. In traditional market transactions, these costs are ignored. Putting a price on emissions forces us to face at least some of the cost of the emissions associated with what we produce and consume, and it influences us to choose lower-emission options.
An emissions trading scheme (ETS) is a tool that puts a quantity limit and a price on emissions. Its “currency” is emission units issued by the government. Each unit is like a voucher that allows the holder to emit one tonne of greenhouse gases.
The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) is the government’s main tool to meet our target under the Paris Agreement. In a typical ETS, the government caps the number of units in line with its emissions target and the trading market sets the corresponding emission price.
In New Zealand, the price for a tonne of greenhouse gases is currently slightly below NZ$25, which is not in line with our target. We are still waiting for the government to set a cap on the NZ ETS, which is (hopefully) coming.
In the past, we had no limit on the number of emission units in the system, which is why emission prices stayed low, our domestic emissions continued to rise, and the system accumulated a substantial number of banked units.
The government decides which entities (typically companies) in each sector (e.g. fossil fuel producers and importers, industrial producers, foresters, and landfill operators) will be liable for their emissions. In some cases (e.g. fossil fuel producers and importers), liable entities are not the actual emitters but they are responsible for the emissions generated when others use their products.
There is a trading market where entities can buy units to cover their emissions liability and sell units they don’t need. The trading price depends on market expectations for supply versus demand. Steeper targets mean lower supply and higher emissions mean higher demand; both mean higher emission prices and more behaviour change.
Each liable entity is required to report emissions and surrender to the government enough units to cover the amount of greenhouse gases they release. The companies that have to surrender units pass on the associated cost to their customers, like any other production cost. In this way, the emission price signal flows across the economy embedded in the cost of goods and services, influencing everyone to make more climate-friendly choices.
There are several ways for entities to get units.
First, some get free allocation from the government. Currently, these free allocations are granted to trade-exposed industrial producers (for products such as steel, aluminium, methanol, cement and fertiliser) as a way of preventing the production and associated emissions from shifting to other countries without reducing global emissions. Producers who emit beyond their free allocation need to buy more units, whereas those who improve their processes and emit less can sell or bank their excess units.
Second, entities can earn units by establishing new forests or through industrial activities that remove emissions. By stripping emissions from the atmosphere, such removal activities make it possible to add units to the cap without increasing net emissions. The government publishes information on ETS emissions and removals every year.
Third, entities can buy units from the government through auctioning. In this case, market demand still sets the price. The NZ ETS does not yet have auctioning, but again this is (hopefully) coming. The government currently does allow emitters to buy uncapped fixed-price units at NZ$25.
In the past, entities had a fourth option – buying offshore units – but this stopped in mid-2015. This option is not currently available under the Paris Agreement. If that changes in the future, quantity and quality limits will be needed on offshore units.
The entities that surrender units to the government directly face the price of emissions – either because they had to buy units from other entities or the government, or because they lost the opportunity to sell freely allocated units.
When the government sells units – through auctioning or the fixed-price mechanism – it earns revenue. In 2018, the New Zealand government sold 16.82 million fixed-price units and received NZ$420 million in revenue. When selling fixed-price units that allow the market to emit more, the government has to compensate through more action to reduce domestic emissions (like reducing fossil fuel use or planting more trees) or purchasing emission reductions from other countries – and these actions have a cost.
When ETS auctioning is introduced (potentially in late 2020), the government will receive more significant revenue. It has signalled that any revenue from pricing agricultural emissions (methane and nitrous oxide) will be returned to the sector to help with a transition to lower emissions.
What will happen with NZ ETS auction revenue from other sectors is an open policy question. So are the questions of how large the NZ ETS cap, and how high the emission price, should be. This will be determined under the Zero Carbon Bill and future amendments and regulations to the ETS.
This article was prepared in collaboration with Bronwyn Bruce-Brand and Ceridwyn Roberts at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.
The fishermen have stopped fishing and turned to tourism, feeding whale sharks tiny amounts of krill to draw them closer to shore so tourists can snorkel or dive with them.
Oslob is the most reliable place in the world to swim with the massive fish. In calm waters, they come within 200m of the shore, and hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to see them. Former fishermen have gone from earning just a US$1.40 a day on average, to US$62 a day.
Our research involved investigating what effect the whale shark tourism has had on livelihoods and destructive fishing in the area. We found that Oslob is one of the world’s most surprising and successful alternative livelihood and conservation projects.
Illegal and destructive fishing, involving dynamite, cyanide, fish traps and drift gill nets, threatens endangered species and coral reefs throughout the Philippines.
Much of the rapidly growing population depend on fish as a key source of protein, and selling fish is an important part of many people’s income. As well as boats fishing illegally close to shore at night, fishermen use compressors and spears to dive for stingray, parrotfish and octopus. Even the smallest fish and crabs are taken. Catch is sold to tourist restaurants.
Despite legislation to protect whale sharks, they are still poached and finned alive, and caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries. “We have laws to protect whale sharks but they are still killed and slaughtered,” said the mayor of Oslob.
“Finning” is a particularly cruel practice: sharks’ fins are cut off and the shark is thrown back into the ocean, often alive, to die of suffocation. Fins are sold illegally to Taiwan for distribution in Southeast Asia. Big fins are highly prized for display outside shops and restaurants that sell shark fin products.
To protect the whale sharks on which people’s new tourism-based livelihoods depend, Oslob pays for sea patrols by volunteer sea wardens Bantay Dagat. Funding is also provided to manage five marine reserves and enforce fishery laws to stop destructive fishing along the 42km coastline. Villagers patrol the shore. “The enforcement of laws is very strict now,” said fisherman Bobong Lagaiho.
Destructive fishing has declined. Fish stocks and catch have increased and species such as mackerel are being caught for the first time in Tan-awan, the marine reserve where the whale sharks congregate.
The decline in destructive fishing, which in the Philippines can involve dynamite and cyanide, has also meant there are more non-endangered fish species for other fishers to catch.
The project in Oslob was designed by fishermen to provide an alternative to fishing at a time when they couldn’t catch enough to feed their families three meals a day, educate their children, or build houses strong enough to withstand typhoons.
“Now, our daughters go to school and we have concrete houses, so if there’s a typhoon we are no longer afraid. We are happy. We can treat our children to good food, unlike before,” said Carissa Jumaud, a fisherman’s wife.
Creating new forms of income is an essential part of reducing destructive fishing and overfishing in less developed countries. Conservation donors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in various projects, however research has found they rarely work once funding and technical expertise are withdrawn and can even have negative effects. In one example, micro-loans to fishermen in Indonesia, designed to finance new businesses, were used instead to buy more fishing equipment.
In contrast, Oslob earned US$18.4 million from ticket sales between 2012 and 2016, with 751,046 visitors. Fishermen went from earning around US$512 a year to, on average, US$22,699 each.
Now, they only fish in their spare time. These incredible results are the driving force behind protecting whale sharks and coral reefs. “Once you protect our whale sharks, it follows that we an have obligation to protect our coral reefs because whale sharks are dependant on them,” said the mayor.
Feeding whale sharks is controversial, and some western environmentalists have lobbied to shut Oslob down. However, a recent review of various studies on Oslob found there is little robust evidence that feeding small amount of krill harms the whale sharks or significantly changes their behaviour.
Oslob is that rare thing that conservation donors strive to achieve – a sustainable livelihoods project that actually changes the behaviour of fishermen. Their work now protects whale sharks, reduces reliance on fishing for income, reduces destructive fishing, and increases fish stocks – all while lifting fishermen and their families out of poverty. Oslob is a win-win for fishermen, whale sharks and coral reefs.
Increasingly acidic oceans are putting algae at risk, threatening the foundation of the entire marine food web.
Our research into the effects of CO₂-induced changes to microscopic ocean algae – called phytoplankton – was published today in Nature Climate Change. It has uncovered a previously unrecognised threat from ocean acidification.
In our study we discovered increased seawater acidity reduced Antarctic phytoplanktons’ ability to build strong cell walls, making them smaller and less effective at storing carbon. At current rates of seawater acidification, we could see this effect before the end of the century.
Carbon dioxide emissions are not just altering our atmosphere. More than 40% of CO₂ emitted by people is absorbed by our oceans.
While reducing the CO₂ in our atmosphere is generally a good thing, the ugly consequence is this process makes seawater more acidic. Just as placing a tooth in a jar of cola will (eventually) dissolve it, increasingly acidic seawater has a devastating effect on organisms that build their bodies out of calcium, like corals and shellfish.
Many studies to date have therefore taken the perfectly logical step of studying the effects of seawater acidification on these “calcifying” creatures. However, we wanted to know if other, non-calcifying, species are at risk.
Phytoplankton use photosynthesis to turn carbon in the atmosphere into carbon in their bodies. We looked at diatoms, a key group of phytoplankton responsible for 40% of this process in the ocean. Not only do they remove huge amounts of carbon, they also fuel entire marine food webs.
Diatoms use dissolved silica to build the walls of their cells. These dense, glass-like structures mean diatoms sink more quickly than other phytoplankton and therefore increase the transfer of carbon to the sea floor where it may be stored for millennia.
This makes diatoms major players in the global carbon cycle. That’s why our team decided to look at how climate-change-driven ocean acidification might affect this process.
We exposed a natural Antarctic phytoplankton community to increasing levels of acidity. We then measured the rate at which the whole community used dissolved silica to build their cells, as well as the rates of individual species within the community.
The more acidic the seawater, the more the diatom communities were made up of smaller species, reducing the total amount of silica they produced. Less silica means the diatoms aren’t heavy enough to sink quickly, reducing the rate at which they float down to the sea bed, safely storing carbon away from the atmosphere.
On examining individual cells, we found many of the species were highly sensitive to increased acidity, reducing their individual silicification rates by 35-80%. These results revealed not only are communities changing, but species that remain in the community are building less-dense cell walls.
Most alarming, many of the species were affected at ocean pH levels predicted for the end of this century, adding to a growing body of evidence showing significant ecological implications of climate change will take effect much sooner than previously anticipated.
These losses in silica production could have far reaching consequences for the biology and chemistry of our oceans.
Many species affected are also an important component of the diet of the Antarctic krill, which is central to the Antarctic marine food web.
Fewer diatoms sinking to the ocean floor mean significant changes in silicon cycling and carbon burial. In a time when carbon drawn down by our ocean is crucial to helping sustain our atmospheric systems, any loss from this process will exacerbate CO₂ pollution.
Our new research adds yet another group of organisms to the list of climate change casualties. It emphasises the urgent need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.
The only course of action to prevent catastrophic climate change is to stop emitting CO₂. We need to cut our emissions soon, if we hope to keep our oceans from becoming too acidic to sustain healthy marine ecosystems.
In the wake of a damning royal commission and an ABC Four Corners investigation, the federal government has created an Inspector General for the Murray-Darling Basin, to combat water theft, ensure water recovery and efficiency projects are delivered properly, and essentially make sure everyone is acting as they should.
While this is a laudable aim, the Inspector General – currently former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mike Keelty – cannot hope to do this job without knowing how much water is being used in the Basin, by whom it is used, and where.
We urgently need a comprehensive audit to track the water in the Murray Darling Basin, so Inspector General Keelty can effectively investigate what he has already described as a “river ripe for corruption”.
Back in 2004 all governments in Australia agreed to track and provide information on water in terms of planning, monitoring, trading, environmental management, and on-farm management.
But water accounts still lack many essential features including double-entry accounting. When applied to water, double-entry accounts means that when one person consumes more water, someone else must consume less.
The technology to track this already exists: satellites that can quantify surface water are successfully being used used in the United States.
If we had monthly water consumption measurements, we could see how much water is being used, by whom, when and where. This would help decision makers see problems before they emerge, such as the mass fish deaths in the Darling River, and respond in real time.
As a recent report from the Natural Resources Commission shows, without proper accounting, too much water is taken upstream – seriously harming downstream communities.
An independent Basin-wide water audit is supported by communities and some irrigators.
In July NSW farmers voted in support of a federal royal commission into “the failings of the Murray Darling Basin Plan”. In our view, this vote shows many farmers support much greater transparency about how much water is being consumed, and by whom.
Double-entry water consumption accounts would help identify whether the billions of dollars planned in subsidies to increase irrigation efficiency will actually deliver value for money. But irrigation improvements only generate public benefits when more water is left or returns to flow in streams and rivers. Such flows are essential to healthy rivers and sustainable Basin communities.
Irrigators’ crops benefit from increased efficiency, so subsidies help farmers greatly – but it is very unclear whether they do anything for the public good. In fact, they seem to reduce the amount of water that finds its way back into the rivers. Research also shows infrastructure subsidies to improve irrigation efficiency typically increases water consumption at the Basin level.
Our research, published earlier this year in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources shows federal irrigation infrastructure subsidies may have reduced net stream and river levels. This is even after accounting for the water entitlements irrigators provided to the government in exchange for these subsidies.
Just like financial accounts, water accounts must be independently audited.
For the average taxpayer, who has to justify every dollar they get from the government, it’s hard to imagine how some corporations can be given millions of dollars in subsidies without actual measurements (before and after) of the claimed water savings.
If Newstart recipients need to report and manage their income and have a job plan, as part of a system of appropriate checks and balances, shouldn’t the Australian government also be checking whether billions spent on subsidies for irrigators actually saves water?
A water audit would cost less than 1% of the money already spent on water infrastructure subsidies in the Basin. Unlike irrigation infrastructure subsidies, a water audit is value for money.
Importantly, independent water consumption accounts would allow the Inspector General for the Murray-Darling Basin to effectively manage our most critical nature resource, water.
Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and John Williams, Adjunct Professor Environment and Natural Resources, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
Jaco Le Roux, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, Stellenbosch University
Earth is seeing an unprecedented loss of species, which some ecologists are calling a sixth mass extinction. In May, a United Nations report warned that 1 million species are threatened by extinction. More recently, 571 plant species were declared extinct.
But extinctions have occurred for as long as life has existed on Earth. The important question is, has the rate of extinction increased? Our research, published today in Current Biology, found some plants have been going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical average – with devastating consequences for unique species.
“How many species are going extinct” is not an easy question to answer. To start, accurate data on contemporary extinctions are lacking from most parts of the world. And species are not evenly distributed – for example, Madagascar is home to around 12,000 plant species, of which 80% are endemic (found nowhere else). England, meanwhile, is home to only 1,859 species, of which 75 (just 4%) are endemic.
Areas like Madagascar, which have exceptional rates of biodiversity at severe risk from human destruction, are called “hotspots”. Based purely on numbers, biodiversity hotspots are expected to lose more species to extinction than coldspots such as England.
But that doesn’t mean coldspots aren’t worth conserving – they tend to contain completely unique plants.
We are part of an international team that recently examined 291 modern plant extinctions between biodiversity hot- and coldspots. We looked at the underlying causes of extinction, when they happened, and how unique the species were. Armed with this information, we asked how extinctions differ between biodiversity hot- and coldspots.
Unsurprisingly, we found hotspots to lose more species, faster, than coldspots. Agriculture and urbanisation were important drivers of plant extinctions in both hot- and coldspots, confirming the general belief that habitat destruction is the primary cause of most extinctions. Overall, herbaceous perennials such as grasses are particularly vulnerable to extinction.
However, coldspots stand to lose more uniqueness than hotspots. For example, seven coldspot extinctions led to the disappearance of seven genera, and in one instance, even a whole plant family. So clearly, coldspots also represent important reservoirs of unique biodiversity that need conservation.
We also show that recent extinction rates, at their peak, were 350 times higher than historical background extinction rates. Scientists have previously speculated that modern plant extinctions will surpass background rates by several thousand times over the next 80 years.
So why are our estimates of plant extinction so low?
First, a lack of comprehensive data restricts inferences that can be made about modern extinctions. Second, plants are unique in – some of them live for an extraordinarily long time, and many can persist in low densities due to unique adaptations, such as being able to reproduce in the absence of partners.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where we only have five living individuals of Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) left in the wild. These iconic trees of Madagascar are one of only nine living species of their genus and can live for hundreds of years. Therefore, a few individual trees may be able to “hang in there” (a situation commonly referred to as “extinction debt”) but will inevitably become extinct in the future.
Finally, declaring a plant extinct is challenging, simply because they’re often very difficult to spot, and we can’t be sure we’ve found the last living individuals. Indeed, a recent report found 431 plant species previously thought to be extinct have been rediscovered. So, real plant extinction rates and future extinctions are likely to far exceed current estimates.
There is no doubt that biodiversity loss, together with climate change, are some of the biggest challenges faced by humanity. Along with human-driven habitat destruction, the effects of climate change are expected to be particularly severe on plant biodiversity. Current estimates of plant extinctions are, without a doubt, gross underestimates.
However, the signs are crystal clear. If we were to condense the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year-old history into one calendar year, then life evolved somewhere in June, dinosaurs appeared somewhere around Christmas, and the Anthropocene starts within the last millisecond of New Year’s Eve. Modern plant extinction rates that exceed historical rates by hundreds of times over such a brief period will spell disaster for our planet’s future.
Jaco Le Roux, Associate Professor, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Researcher, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Postdoctoral research fellow, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Catedrático de universidad en el área de Botánica, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, Emeritus professor, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, PhD Candidate, Stellenbosch University
Record fires are raging in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, with more than 2,500 fires currently burning. They are collectively emitting huge amounts of carbon, with smoke plumes visible thousands of kilometres away.
Fires in Brazil increased by 85% in 2019, with more than half in the Amazon region, according to Brazil’s space agency.
This sudden increase is likely down to land degradation: land clearing and farming reduces the availability of water, warms the soil and intensifies drought, combining to make fires more frequent and more fierce.
The growing number of fires are the result of illegal forest clearning to create land for farming. Fires are set deliberately and spread easily in the dry season.
Ironically, farmers may not need to clear new land to graze cattle. Research has found a significant number of currently degraded and unproductive pastures that could offer new opportunities for livestock.
New technical developments also offer the possibility of transforming extensive cattle ranches into more compact and productive farms – offering the same results while consuming less natural resources.
The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world.
The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.
Since 2014, the rate at which Brazil has lost Amazonian forest has expanded by 60%. This is the result of economic crises and the dismantling of Brazilian environmental regulation and ministerial authority since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.
Bolsonaro’s political program includes controversial programs that critics claim will threaten both human rights and the environment. One of his first acts as president was to pass ministerial reforms that greatly weakened the Ministry of the Environment
Regulations and programs for conservation and traditional communities’ rights have been threatened by economic lobbying.
Over the last months, Brazil’s government has announced the reduction and extinction of environmental agencies and commissions, including the body responsible for combating deforestation and fires.
Although Brazil’s national and state governments are obviously on the front line of Amazon protection, international actors have a key role to play.
International debates and funding, alongside local interventions and responses, have reshaped the way land is used in the tropics. This means any government attempts to further dismantle climate and conservation policies in the Amazon may have significant diplomatic and economic consequences.
For example, trade between the European Union and South American trading blocs that include Brazil is increasingly infused with an environmental agenda. Any commercial barriers to Brazil’s commodities will certainly attract attention: agribusiness is responsible for more than 20% of the country’s GDP.
Brazil’s continued inability to stop deforestation has also reduced international funding for conservation. Norway and Germany, by far the largest donors to the Amazon Fund, have suspended their financial support.
These international commitments and organisations are likely to exert considerable influence over Brazil to maintain existing commitments and agreements, including restoration targets.
Brazil has already developed a pioneering political framework to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in 2004, but dramatically reduced following environmental governance, and supply change interventions aiming to end illegal deforestation.
Moreover, private global agreements like the Amazon Beef and Soy Moratorium, where companies agree not to buy soy or cattle linked to illegal deforestation, have also significantly dropped clearing rates.
We have financial, diplomatic and political tools we know will work to stop the whole-sale clearing of the Amazon, and in turn halt these devastating fires. Now it is time to use them.
In February, about 600,000 cattle were killed by catastrophic flooding across north Queensland’s Carpentaria Gulf plains.
The flood waters rose suddenly, forming a wall of water up to 70km wide. Record depths were reached along 500km of the Flinders River, submerging 25,000 square kilometres of country. Cattle were stranded. Many drowned.
Even though cattleman Harry Batt lost 70% of his herd, he was more concerned about the wildlife. He said, “all the kangaroos, and bloody little marsupial mice and birds, they couldn’t handle it”.
Harry was right to be concerned. As our research, published today in Austral Ecology, reveals, floods sweeping Australia’s plains have disrupted native species for millions of years. Now, as climate change drives more intense flooding, we will see this effect intensify.
February’s flood came ten years to the day after a far bigger flood on the adjoining river systems that submerged an area larger than Ireland. It was this flood that first drew our attention to the plight of native species.
Noel was asked by Northern Gulf Resource Management Group to survey wildlife in areas affected by the 2009 flood. Over the following four years, he found almost no ground-dwelling reptiles, despite them occurring elsewhere in the region. They appeared to have been washed away or drowned.
Biologists have long known that many species’ ranges are interrupted by the Gulf Plains. Hence, these floodplains are considered one of Australia’s most important biogeographic barriers: the Carpentarian Gap.
Many closely related species with a common ancestor are separated by this Gap, including the Golden-shouldered Parrot of Cape York Peninsula and the Hooded Parrot of the Northern Territory. They are thought to have separated around 7 million years ago.
The Gap also separates many other species, including birds, mammals, reptiles and butterflies, at the subspecies or genetic level. Even more species found on either side are just absent from the Gulf Plains.
When biologists first tried to find a reason for these patterns, they only considered aridity. They proposed Australia’s arid zone expanded to the Gulf of Carpentaria during ice ages.
There is no evidence for this, but the misunderstanding is completely understandable.
Any dry-season visitor to the Gulf Plains will find a dry, inhospitable environment with few trees or shrubs for shade, cracked clay soils, and lots of flies. European explorers described the region as “God-forsaken”.
But it can be quite a different place in the wet season.
Rains in the Gulf are caused by the summer monsoonal troughs or cyclones. About once a decade, these generate massive downpours. Historical records show at least 14 major floods since 1870.
So, to us, it seemed floods rather than aridity could be the cause of the odd distributions of plants and animals.
We set out to see whether Noel’s findings could have been caused by flooding or whether other factors such as soil, vegetation or climate were more important.
We also wanted to know what other effects floods might have on the region’s ecosystem. Could floods, by eliminating trees and shrubs, be responsible for the hostile appearance of the region? Could ground-dwelling reptiles and birds be underrepresented, not just at Noel’s sites, but on floodplains across the area?
To find out, we divided the area into floodplains and higher-altitude land, and generated 10,000 random sites across the Gulf Plains. We extracted soil, vegetation and rainfall data from national information sources, and examined the patterns.
We found trees and shrubs were significantly less common on floodplains than on land above the flood zone, regardless of soil or rainfall, and tree cover was further reduced on cracking clays. We concluded the plain’s open, hostile appearance is caused by a combination of soils and flooding.
We then examined all gecko, skink and bird records from the Atlas of Living Australia.
We found ground-living reptiles and birds were much less common on the floodplains, regardless of vegetation or soil. As expected, reptiles were more sensitive to flooding than birds, which can fly to safety during floods.
Finally, we found the sites affected by the 2009 flood had significantly fewer geckos and skinks than other sites across the Gulf Plains.
Our findings have evolutionary significance that extends into the future. Repeated disruption of species across their distributions affects gene flow and ultimately produces new species. If floods become more frequent, as expected under climate change, so might the rates at which new species form.
They also have serious land management implications. Climate change planning emphasises conserving river corridors as safe refuges from arid conditions. However, periodic scouring of many of the nation’s floodplains – expected to increase under climate change – means that this approach needs rethinking.
We conclude that on the most arid occupied continent on Earth, unpredictable floods may cause the most disruption to the Australian plant and animal life.
This week, the ABC revealed that the Australian Defence Force wants to roll out military technology in Antarctica.
The article raises the issue of what is, or is not, legitimate use of technology under the Antarctic Treaty. And it has a lot to do with how technology is used and provisions in the treaty.
The Antarctic Treaty was negotiated in the late 1950s, during the Cold War. Its purpose was to keep Antarctica separate from any Cold War conflict, and any arguments over sovereignty claims.
The words used in the treaty reflect the global politics and technologies back then, before there were satellites and GPS systems. But its provisions and prohibitions are still relevant today.
The opening provision of the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, says:
Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, [among other things], any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.
The treaty also prohibits “any nuclear explosions in Antarctica” and disposal of radioactive waste. What the treaty does not do, however, is prohibit countries from using military support in their peaceful Antarctic activities.
Many Antarctic treaty parties, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the US, Chile and Argentina, rely on military support for their research. This includes the use of ships, aircraft, personnel and specialised services like aircraft ground support.
In fact, the opening provision of the treaty is clarified by the words:
the present Treaty shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.
It would be a breach of the treaty if “military exercises” were being conducted in Antarctica, or if military equipment was being used for belligerent purposes. But the treaty does not deal specifically with technology. It deals with acts or actions. The closest it gets to technology is the term “equipment” as used above.
So-called “dual use” technology – which that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes – is allowed in Antarctica in support of science.
The term is often used to describe technology such as the widely-used GPS, which relies on satellites and a worldwide system of ground-based receiving stations. Norway’s “Trollsat”, China’s “Beidou”, and Russia’s “GLONASS” systems are similar, relying on satellites and ground stations for their accuracy.
What’s more, modern science heavily relies on satellite technology and the use of Antarctic ground stations for data gathering and transmission.
And scientific equipment, like ice-penetrating radars, carried on aircraft, drones, and autonomous airborne vehicles are being used extensively to understand the Antarctic continent itself and how it’s changing.
Much, if not all, of this technology could have “dual use”. But its use is not contrary to the Antarctic Treaty.
In fact, the use of this equipment for “scientific research” or a “peaceful purpose” is not only legitimate, it’s also essential for Antarctic research, and global understanding of the health of our planet.
The technologies Australia deploys in Antarctica all relate to its legitimate Antarctic operations and to science.
There are also facilities in Antarctica used to monitor potential military-related activities elsewhere in the world, such as the monitoring stations used under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The circumstances under which modern technology would, or could be, used against the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty have not been tested. But the activity would have to go beyond “dual purpose” and not be for science or peaceful purposes.
Science in Antarctica is very diverse, from space sciences to ecosystem science, and 29 countries have active research programs there.
And since Antarctica plays a significant role in the global climate system, much modern Antarctic research focuses on climate science and climate change.
But there has been speculation about whether Antarctica is crucial to the development of alternatives to GPS (for example, by Russia and China) that could also be used in warfare as well as for peaceful purposes. It’s unclear whether using ground stations in Antarctica is essential for such a purpose.
For instance, Claire Young, a security analyst writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the accuracy of China’s Beidou satellite has already been improved by international testing, so testing in Antarctica will make very little difference.
This leads to another important provision of the Antarctic Treaty.
The treaty foreshadowed compliance problems in the remote and hostile continent by including an open ended provision for any Antarctic Treaty Party to inspect any Antarctic facility.
In other words, any party has complete freedom to access all parts of Antarctica at any time to inspect ships, aircraft, equipment, or any other facility, and even use “aerial observations” for inspection. This means the activities of all parties, and all actions in Antarctica, are available for open scrutiny.
This inspection regime is important because inspections can be used to determine if modern technology on the continent is, in fact, being used for scientific or peaceful purposes, in line with the provisions of the treaty.