Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University

The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu this week has ended in open division over climate change. Australia ensured its official communique watered down commitments to respond to climate change, gaining a hollow victory.

Traditionally, communiques capture the consensus reached at the meeting. In this case, the division on display between Australia and the Pacific meant the only commitment is to commission yet another report into what action needs to be taken.

The cost of Australia’s victory is likely to be great, as it questions the sincerity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment to “step up” engagement in the Pacific.




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Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


Australia’s stance on climate change has become untenable in the Pacific. The inability to meet Pacific Island expectations will erode Australia’s influence and leadership credentials in the region, and provide opportunities for other countries to grow influence in the region.

An unprecedented show of dissent

When Morrison arrived in Tuvalu, he was met with an uncompromising mood. In fact, the text of an official communique was only finished after 12 hours of pointed negotiations.

While the “need for urgent, immediate actions on the threats and challenges of climate change”, is acknowledged, the Pacific was looking for action, not words.

What’s more, the document reaffirmed that “strong political leadership to advance climate change action” was needed, but leadership from Australia was sorely missing. It led Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga to note:

I think we can say we should’ve done more work for our people.

Presumably, he would have hoped Australia could be convinced to take more climate action.

In an unprecedented show of dissent, smaller Pacific Island countries produced the alternative Kainaki II Declaration. It captures the mood of the Pacific in relation to the existential threat posed by climate change, and the need to act decisively now to ensure their survival.

And it details the commitments needed to effectively address the threat of climate change. It’s clear nothing short of transformational change is needed to ensure their survival, and there is rising frustration in Australia’s repeated delays to take effective action.

Australia hasn’t endorsed the alternative declaration and Canberra has signalled once and for all that compromise on climate change is not possible. This is not what Pacific leaders hoped for and will come at a diplomatic cost to Australia.




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Canberra can’t buy off the Pacific

Conflict had already begun brewing in the lead up to the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific Islands Development Forum – the brainchild of the Fijian government, which sought a forum to engage with Pacific Island Nations without the influence of Australia and New Zealand – released the the Nadi Bay Declaration in July this year.

This declaration called on coal producing countries like Australia to cease all production within a decade.

But it’s clear Canberra believes compromise of this sort on climate change would undermine Australia’s economic growth and this is the key stumbling block to Australia answering its Pacific critics with action.

As Sopoaga said to Morrison:

You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia […] I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.

And a day before the meeting, Canberra announced half a billion dollars to tackle climate change in the region. But it received a lukewarm reception from the Pacific.

The message is clear: Canberra cannot buy off the Pacific. In part, this is because Pacific Island countries have new options, especially from China, which has offered Pacific island countries concessional loans.




Read more:
As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


China is becoming an attractive alternate partner

As tension built at the Pacific Island Forum meeting, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters argued there was a double standard with respect to the treatment of China on climate change.

China is the world’s largest emitter of climate change gasses, but if there is a double standard it’s of Australia’s making.

Australia purports to be part of the Pacific family that can speak and act to protect the interests of Pacific Island countries in the face of China’s “insidious” attempts to gain influence through “debt trap” diplomacy. This is where unsustainable loans are offered with the aim of gaining political advantage.

But countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is Australia’s prime security interest, and is a secondary issue for the Pacific.

But unlike Australia, China has never claimed the moral high ground and provides an attractive alternative partner, so it will likely gain ground in the battle for influence in the Pacific.

For the Pacific Island Forum itself, open dissent is a very un-Pacific outcome. Open dissent highlights the strains in the region’s premier intergovernmental organisation.

Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand’s dominance has often been a source of criticism, but growing confidence among Pacific leaders has changed diplomatic dynamics forever.




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This new pacific diplomacy has led Pacific leaders to more steadfastly identify their security interests. And for them, the need to respond to climate change is non-negotiable.

If winning the geopolitical contest with China in Pacific is Canberra’s priority, then far greater creativity will be needed as meeting the Pacific half way on climate change is a prerequisite for success.The Conversation

Michael O’Keefe, Head of Department, Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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

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Climate explained: why plants don’t simply grow faster with more carbon dioxide in air



Fast-growing plantation trees store less carbon per surface area than old, undisturbed forests that may show little growth.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Sebastian Leuzinger, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

Carbon dioxide is a fertiliser for plants, so if its concentration increases in the atmosphere then plants will grow better. So what is the problem? – a question from Doug in Lower Hutt

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) is warming our climate, but it also affects plants directly.

A tree planted in the 1850s will have seen its diet (in terms of atmospheric carbon dioxide) double from its early days to the middle of our century. More CO₂ generally leads to higher rates of photosynthesis and less water consumption in plants. So, at first sight, it seems that CO₂ can only be beneficial for our plants.

But things are a lot more complex than that. Higher levels of photosynthesis don’t necessarily lead to more biomass production, let alone to more carbon dioxide sequestration. At night, plants release CO₂ just like animals or humans, and if those respiration rates increase simultaneously, the turnover of carbon increases, but the carbon stock doesn’t. You can think of this like a bank account – if you earn more but also spend more, you’re not becoming any richer.

Even if plants grow more and faster, some studies show there is a risk for them to have shorter lifespans. This again can have negative effects on the carbon locked away in biomass and soils. In fact, fast-growing trees (e.g. plantation forests) store a lot less carbon per surface area than old, undisturbed forests that show very little growth. Another example shows that plants in the deep shade may profit from higher levels of CO₂, leading to more vigorous growth of vines, faster turnover, and, again, less carbon stored per surface area.




Read more:
Want to beat climate change? Protect our natural forests


Water savings

The effect of CO₂ on the amount of water plants use may be more important than the primary effect on photosynthesis. Plants tend to close their leaf pores slightly under elevated levels of CO₂, leading to water savings. In certain (dry) areas, this may indeed lead to more plant growth.

But again, things are much more complex and we don’t always see positive responses. Research we published in Nature Plants this year on grasslands around the globe showed that while dry sites can profit from more CO₂, there are complex interactions with rainfall. Depending on when the rain falls, some sites show zero or even negative effects in terms of biomass production.

Currently, a net amount of three gigatons of carbon are thought to be removed from the atmosphere by plants every year. This stands against over 11 gigatons of human-induced release of CO₂. It is also unclear what fraction of the three gigatons plants are taking up due to rising levels of CO₂.

In summary, rising CO₂ is certainly not bad for plants, and if we restored forested land at a global scale, we could help capture additional atmospheric carbon dioxide. But such simulations are optimistic and rely on conversion of much needed agricultural land to forests. Reductions in our emissions are unavoidable, and we have very strong evidence that plants alone will not be able to solve our CO₂ problem.




Read more:
Exaggerating how much CO₂ can be absorbed by tree planting risks deterring crucial climate action


The Conversation


Sebastian Leuzinger, Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology

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

How recycling is actually sorted, and why Australia is quite bad at it


Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology

Recycling in Australia used to be fairly simple. Our older readers may remember bottle drives, paper and cardboard collections, and the trip to the scrap metal merchant to sell metals.

This is called, in recycling parlance, sorting the “streams”. It creates very clean recycling that requires little sorting at a plant.

But recycling got more complicated. As councils organised kerbside collection, it made less economic sense to sort at the kerb. Instead, trucks collected mixed recycling and took it to centralised sorting facilities.

The materials also changed, with glass often replaced by plastics. Plastics like the PET in drink bottles and HDPE in milk bottles were easy to separate and had a ready recycling market.

Then, when developing countries like China opened the floodgates to paper and plastics, there was no need to separate the seven categories of plastics. It was cheaper and easier for Australian companies to bundle it all up and send it to China for “recycling” – in 2017, some 600,000 tonnes.




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When China found they were the world’s dumping ground they shut the door and demanded only clean, separated plastics – and then only the ones that had a secondary market in China.

Suddenly Australia was expected to separate more carefully – and this cost money. Now the federal government has pledged A$20 million to boost Australia’s recycling industry.

But what is Australia’s recycling industry?

Right now, there are 193 material recovery facilities in Australia. Most are hand-sorted; nine are semi-automated, and nine are fully automated. These are nowhere near sufficient to sort Australia’s annual recycling.

There are two basic ways to sort recycling: mechanical-biological treatment plants, which sort mixed waste into low-grade recycling, and material recovery facilities, which have a stronger focus on extracting reusable stuff.

Here’s how they work.

Mechanical-biological treatment

MBT plants are in various stages of development in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. These plants take the rubbish we generate every day and inject it into a rotary drum (a bioreactor) that spins and is heated to 60–70℃.

The process shreds the waste and the organic wastes are stabilised and homogenised. Most of the water evaporates through a fermentation process in which microorganisms break down the organic material and release heat – much like a composting system.




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The material then leaves the reactor and passes over a screen that separates the organic waste. The organic waste then fermented and composted, then separated again using a smaller mesh screen. The smallest particles are sent back to the bioreactor drum to provide the microorganisms.

Meanwhile, the larger material from the first screening is sent to a wind separator where the lightweight material, like plastics, are blown the furthest, medium-weight materials, such as textiles, fall in the middle and the heaviest, like metal, glass and stone, fall immediately. The heaviest fraction is sent along a conveyor and metals are separated by a magnetic separator.

The remaining material is sent to another wind separator, along with any remaining material from the other fractions that cannot be separated, which separates combustibles and debris.

The debris (about 10% of the original waste) goes to landfill, and combustibles are sent to a facility that compresses the material into blocks for industrial fuel.




Read more:
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


Material recovery facilities

Material recovery facilities accept mixed recycling. The first step is putting recyclables on a conveyor belt where they are carried up to a sorting line.

In the more mechanical processes, people line up along the belt and rip open bags and remove contaminants such as non-recyclable plastic, used nappies and other rubbish, which then goes to landfill.

In the more automated systems, ripping open the bags can be done by machines and the sorting is done in the next stage.



The material then goes onto a scalping screen that sorts out the small foreign objects before passing over a screen in which flat materials such as cardboard pass over and the others drop down. The paper and cardboard go off to storage. Meanwhile, the material that has dropped through hits another screen that breaks any glass, which drops through the screen and is taken by conveyor belt to a recovery bin.

The leftover material goes to fibre quality-control stations where the fibre materials (such as paper) pass by operators who pick off any contaminants before the paper goes into another bin for baling and recycling.

This leaves the cans and plastic containers. Passing this stream over a magnet means any steel cans will be removed from the stream and collected.

Next, any fibre that has made it through the process is removed manually and the plastics are then sorted manually into individual types. The bottles are perforated mechanically so they do not explode when compressed.

With the plastic containers removed, the next step is to divert the aluminium. Powerful magnetic fields created by an eddy current separator throws non-iron metals, like aluminium, forward from the belt into a product bin and non-metals fall off the belt into a separate bin. Finally most of the materials are compressed and baled for efficient transport.

Automated sorting systems

The nine more modern facilities in Australia use optical sorting systems to take out the manual and mechanical sorting. The optical sorters detect anywhere between three and eight varieties of material.

A new facility in New South Wales can detect eight different types of material: aluminium, cardboard, glass, HDPE plastic, mixed paper, newspaper, PET plastic, and steel. The combined stream passes through a light beam which then instructs a set of high pressure air jets to direct the material to one of eight collection bins.




Read more:
Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve


As worldwide demand for high quality, clean recycling material increases, Australia must upgrade its technology. Incentives and financial help for recycling companies may be necessary to see Australia develop a viable domestic recycling industry.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

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