Last week’s United Nations climate summit may go down in history – but not for the reasons intended. It was not the tipping point for action on global warming that organisers hoped it would be. It will instead probably be remembered for the powerful address by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who castigated world leaders on behalf of the generation set to bear the brunt of inaction.
Young people are not sitting back and waiting for older generations to act on the climate crisis. Days before the summit, school students led a climate strike attended by millions around the world. And at the first ever UN youth climate summit, more than 500 young people from 60 countries, including myself, explored how to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement.
This group of activists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers aged between 18 and 30 showcased potential solutions and put global political leaders on notice: they must fight off the climate crisis at the scale and pace required.
Youth aged 15 to 24 years represent 16% of the world population and will reach 1.3 billion people by 2030. Obviously the action (or otherwise) of today’s decision makers on climate change and other environmental threats will affect generations to come – a principle known as intergenerational equity.
Millions of young people around the world are already affected by climate change. Speaking at the youth summit, Fijian climate action advocate Komal Kumar said her nation was at the frontline of a crisis and worldwide, young people were “living in constant fear and climate anxiety … fearing the future”.
“Stop hindering the work [towards a sustainable future] for short term profits. Engage young people in the design of adaptation plans,” she said. “We will hold you accountable. And if you do not remember, we will mobilise to vote you out.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres attended the event and his deputy Amina Mohammed took part in a “town hall” with the attendees, alongside senior representatives from government and civil society.
Technological solutions presented by youth summit participants included 3D printing using plastic waste, data storage in plant DNA, a weather app for farmers and an accountability platform for sustainable fashion.
Participants learnt how to amplify their voices using Instagram and how to create engaging videos with their mobile phones. An art workshop taught youth how creativity can help solve the climate emergency, and a networking session showed ways that youth leaders to stay connected and support each other.
Elsewhere, you don’t have to look far to see examples of young climate warriors, including in the developing world.
Programs funded by the UN development program include in Kazakhstan where youth are helping implement an energy efficiency project in schools, and in Namibia where young people are being trained as tour guides in national parks and nature reserves. In Nepal, young people cultivate wild Himalayan cherry trees as a natural solution to land degradation.
Kenyan environmental activist Wanjuhi Njoroge told the youth summit of her nation’s progress in restoring the country’s forest cover.
Nature-based solutions to the climate crisis – such as conserving and restoring forests, grasslands and wetlands – were a key focus at the summit. Efforts to meet the Paris climate goals often focus on cutting fossil fuel use. But nature has a huge ability to store carbon as plants grow. Avoiding deforestation keeps this carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Thunberg and British writer George Monbiot released a film ahead on the New York summit calling on world leaders protect, restore and fund natural climate solutions.
To date, such solutions have received little by way of investments and funding support. For example in 2015, agriculture, forestry and land-use received just 3% of global climate change finance.
Appearing at the youth summit, the global Youth4Nature network told how it mobilises young people to advocate for nature-based solutions. Their strategy has included collecting and sharing youth stories in natural resources management in more than 35 countries.
When it comes to climate change, young people have specific demands that must be acknowledged – and offer solutions that other generations cannot.
But globally there is a lack of youth representation in politics, and by extension, they are largely absent from climate change decision-making.
Some youth summit participants reportedly questioned whether it achieved its aims – including the value of some workshops, why celebrities were involved and whether anything tangible was produced.
Certainly, there was little evidence that world leaders at the climate summit were listening to the demands of young people. This was reflected in the failure of the world’s biggest-polluting countries to offer credible emissions reduction commitments.
But the youth summit went some way to granting young people space and visibility in the formal decision-making process.
Pressure from young people for climate action will not subside. Thunberg said it best when she warned world leaders that youth “will be watching you”.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” she said. “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you”.
In Australia, renewable energy is growing at a per capita rate ten times faster than the world average. Between 2018 and 2020, Australia will install more than 16 gigawatts of wind and solar, an average rate of 220 watts per person per year.
This is nearly three times faster than the next fastest country, Germany. Australia is demonstrating to the world how rapidly an industrialised country with a fossil-fuel-dominated electricity system can transition towards low-carbon, renewable power generation.
We have analysed data from the regulator which tracks large- and small-scale renewable energy generation (including credible future projects), and found the record-high installation rates of 2018 will continue through 2019 and 2020.
While other analyses have pointed out that investment dollars in renewable energy fell in 2019, actual generation capacity has risen. Reductions in building costs may be contributing, as less investment will buy you more capacity.
Last year was a record year for renewable energy installations, with 5.1 gigawatts (GW) accredited in 2018, far exceeding the previous record of 2.2GW in 2017.
The increase was driven by the dramatic rise of large-scale solar farms, which comprised half of the new-build capacity accredited in 2018. There was a tenfold increase in solar farm construction from 2017.
We have projected the remaining builds for 2019 and those for 2020, based on data from the Clean Energy Regulator for public firm announcements for projects.
A project is considered firm if it has a power purchase agreement (PPA, a contract to sell the energy generated), has reached financial close, or is under construction. We assume six months for financial close and start of construction after a long-term supply contract is signed, and 12 or 18 months for solar farm or wind farm construction, respectively.
This year is on track to be another record year, with 6.5GW projected to be complete by the end of 2019.
The increase is largely attributable to a significant increase in the number of wind farms approaching completion. Rooftop solar has also increased, with current installation rates putting Australia on track for 1.9GW in 2019, also a new record.
This is attributed to the continued cost reductions in rooftop solar, with less than A$1,000 per kilowatt now considered routine and payback periods of the order of two to seven years.
Looking ahead to 2020, almost 6GW of large-scale projects are expected to be completed, comprising 2.5GW of solar farms and 3.5GW of wind. Around the end of 2020, this additional generation would deliver the old Renewable Energy Target of 41,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) per annum. That target was legislated in 2009 by the Rudd Labor government but reduced to 33,000GWh by the Abbott Coalition government in 2015.
There are strong prospects for continued high installation rates of renewables. Currently available renewable energy contracts are routinely offering less than A$50 per MWh. Long-term contracts for future energy supply have an average price of more than A$58 per MWh. This is a very reasonable profit margin, suggesting a strong economic case for continued installations. Wind and solar prices are likely to decline further throughout the 2020s.
State governments programs are also supporting renewable electricity growth. The ACT has completed contracts for 100% renewable electricity. Victoria and Queensland both have renewable energy targets of 50% renewable electricity by 2030. South Australia is expecting to reach 100% by 2025.
The main impediment to continued renewables growth is transmission. Transmission constraints have resulted in bottlenecks in moving electricity from some wind and solar farms to cities.
Tasmania’s strong wind resource requires a new connection to the mainland to unlock more projects. The limitations of current planning frameworks for this transition were recognised in Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, with strong recommendations to overcome these problems and, in particular, to strengthen the role of the Australian Energy Market Operator.
Now we need state and federal governments to unlock or directly support transmission expansion. For example, the Queensland government has committed to supporting new transmission to unlock solar and wind projects in the far north, including the Genex/Kidston 250MW pumped hydro storage system. The New South Wales government will expedite planning approval for an interconnector between that state and South Australia, defining it as “critical infrastructure”.
These investments are key to Australia maintaining its renewable energy leadership into the next decade.
Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University; Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University, and Ken Baldwin, Director, Energy Change Institute, Australian National University
Most of the 24 million annual visitors to Queensland don’t notice the series of seemingly innocuous yellow buoys at many popular beaches. Beneath the waves lies a series of baited drumlines and mesh nets that aim to make Queensland beaches safe from the ominous threat of sharks.
Earlier this week the Queensland government lost a legal challenge in the Federal Court to continue its shark culling program in protected areas of the Great Barrier Reef, and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner has written to the federal government to request legal changes to keep the program operating.
While proponents of the program argue the absence of human deaths at beaches with shark control gear is proof of the program’s success, leading shark experts are not so sure.
Through a series of baited drumlines and mesh nets, shark control programs aim to reduce local populations of large sharks, thereby reducing the number of times humans and shark meet along our coastline.
This approach assumes that the risk of shark bites directly correlates with the number of sharks, yet evidence for this is surprisingly lacking. As part of its safety at the beach program, the Queensland government states that:
Scientists believe that resident sharks may learn that nets and drumlines placed in their local areas represent an obstacle and actively avoid them. This in itself deters and reduces the local population of large sharks in that particular area.
There are two problems with this logic. First, large apex sharks are not local to individual beaches – satellite tracking data indicates they are highly mobile, moving thousands of kilometres across coasts, reefs and open oceans every year. Sharks tagged in the Whitsundays and Cairns have travelled thousands of kilometres throughout the Great Barrier Reef and beyond.
Second, there’s no clear evidence that sharks avoid drumlines. In fact, baited drumlines and nets actively attract, not deter, large sharks. Similar programs in Hawaii were stopped after an expert review concluded their effectiveness had been overstated.
Nets do not place an impenetrable barrier between swimmers and sharks. It is true only one death has occurred at beaches with nets and drumlines, but over the same period there were 26 unprovoked non-fatal incidents.
While a reduction in fatalities is often attributed to the success of the shark control program, it could also be that reduced response times and better medical interventions are more successful at saving lives in recent decades.
Culls, nets and baited drumlines are a blunt tool, unable to completely remove the threat of people and sharks meeting on our beaches. Advances in technology and improved education of swimmers may be a more effective way to create safer beaches in Queensland with less ecological cost.
Modern technology allows us to help people avoid sharks, by modifying our behaviour at beaches. Shark-detecting drones are being trialled on New South Wales beaches as part of that state’s A$16 million shark management strategy, allowing for real-time monitoring of popular coastal areas.
Underwater “clever buoys” installed at NSW beaches in place of baited drumlines allow for real-time detection of sharks using sonar technology, instantly notifying lifeguards of the location, size and direction of sharks. Solar-powered, beach-based shark warning systems operate on remote beaches in Western Australia, cutting the response time between shark sightings and authorities alerting beachgoers from nearly an hour to a matter of minutes.
Education about shark behaviour can also help. Sharks are more active in certain places, like river mouths, and at certain times, such as at dawn and dusk.
In fact, the Queensland government is prioritising research into shark and human behaviours. This research could support education that mitigates the risk of shark interactions, without causing ecological harm.
Earlier this year the Queensland government committed to a A$1 million annual funding boost towards trialling alternative technologies. Adoption of modern innovations and better education for the general public would improve beach safety while avoiding the expensive and ineffective methods of culls, baited drumlines, and nets.
While we will never have an exact idea of how many sharks used to roam the eastern coastline, historical estimates from shark control programs suggest that the number of large sharks has declined by 72-97% in Queensland and by as much as 82% in NSW since the middle of the 20th century.
NSW and Queensland shark control programs combined have removed more than 1,445 white sharks from the eastern Australian coastline since the middle of the 20th century. To put this in context, current estimates indicate that the eastern population of white sharks sits at around 5,460 individuals in total.
The idea that sharks numbers have boomed in recent years represents a classic example of shifting baseline syndrome. The number of sharks on our beaches may seem to have grown since the late 1990s, but it is a fraction compared with a 1960s baseline, and long-term trends indicate that declines are ongoing.
The number-one priority at our beaches is keeping swimmers safe. At the same time, we have a responsibility to protect threatened and endangered species. There are smarter ways to manage both humans and sharks that will make our beaches safer and help protect sharks.
Just before 7am on September 29, 2009, a magnitude 8 earthquake struck the sea floor in the central South Pacific, about 190kms south of Samoa. It was exactly the sort of earthquake – in fact, it was two almost simultaneous quakes – that create devastating tsunami.
The Earth’s crust tore apart, triggering a region-wide tsunami. Within minutes it inundated Samoa’s coastline, before rolling on to American Samoa and Tonga.
While a tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and relayed by Samoan officials, it was not rebroadcast everywhere. Regardless, the tsunami arrived too quickly for many to escape. In Samoa, 189 people died when the tsunami reached up to 14 metres above normal sea level and many more were injured across the region. Hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was done.
Ten years on from this tragedy, it’s time to look back at the lessons we learned – and how they can help us adapt to a rapidly changing climate, which is making similar natural disasters more and more likely.
As is common after a major disaster, Samoa’s government and emergency services quickly began assessing the damage and the needs of affected communities, to direct relief and recovery efforts. The government did an excellent job given the logistical challenges that face small island developing states after such events.
It is also common for researchers from a wide range of disciplines, from earth sciences to engineering to health studies, to visit impacted areas to study the causes and effects of such disasters, and make suggestions to improve future disaster management planning and practice.
Such researcher-led field reconnaissance surveys are usually small, comprising just a few individual researchers and usually from the same discipline. These expeditions are quickly organised, and the researchers get in and out fast – too often focused on their own interests, and not working with the government or scientists of the affected country. This means serious ethical issues can arise.
Making waves: the tsunami risk in Australia
After this earthquake and tsunami, I thought we could do better.
I proposed bringing incoming researchers from multiple disciplines, to collaborate with local communities and Samoan researchers and officials. This proposal was accepted, and I was quickly appointed to head up what became the largest ever international post-tsunami survey team.
Our team ended up comprising nearly 200 local and international participants working in multidisciplinary teams for up to a month between October and November 2009.
Critically, for the first time, the team negotiated between incoming scientists with specific questions, and local scientists and the government to ensure their research really did benefit Samoan communities.
As team leader, I reported daily to the prime minister and King of Samoa updating them on research findings, gave local TV and radio interviews on how things were going and worked with researchers to nudge field activity in directions that benefited everyone.
At the end of the survey the team provided a report to the prime minister and government on our findings. This set a new global benchmark for how post-disaster surveys could be done.
As a consequence of this approach, I was appointed by the United Nations to co-lead a global working group that rewrote the handbook on how post-disaster surveys should be organised and operated.
We learned so much from the Samoan survey team, and from continuing research efforts over the last ten years following other major disasters such as the 2011 Japan earthquake-tsunami and 2013 Philippines Typhoon Haiyan disasters. Key lessons include that:
geological studies show us these large hazard events occur much more frequently than we realised before
natural ecosystems on which humans depend exhibit both great vulnerability and resilience to the forces of nature, but human management of those ecosystems really affects resilience
different types of buildings experience damage and destruction in different ways. This knowledge can be used in land use zoning and improving building codes and design standards
despite continuing public education campaigns about natural hazards and disasters, individuals, families and communities still don’t always do what emergency management agencies want them to do (for example, evacuate to high ground if you feel a strong earthquake at the coast)
human beings are the most remarkable of species – capable of incredible resilience and generosity in the aftermath of disasters
there is still so much we do not understand about natural hazards and disasters
as a global community, we must work hard to reduce inequality which makes too many people vulnerable to disasters, and rise to the challenge presented by human-induced climate change.
90% of recorded major disasters caused by natural hazards from 1995 to 2015 were linked to climate and weather including floods, storms, heatwaves and drought.
A heart wrenching factor is the poorest people around the world always bear the greatest burden of loss to natural disasters due to inequality and poverty. Layered on top of the particular vulnerability of poorer people to disasters, global statistics show the Asian region experiences the most disasters of all types.
Earth is unique, dynamic, fragile and dangerous. Human activity is driving changes that, if not addressed soon, will result in disasters in the near future that are outside our experience and capacity to cope with.