The announcement by BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, that it will dump more than half a billion dollars in thermal coal shares from all of its actively managed portfolios, might not seem like big news.
Announcements of this kind have come out steadily over the past couple of years.
Virtually all the major Australian and European banks and insurers, and many other global institutions, have already announced such policies.
According to the Unfriend Coal Campaign, insurance companies have stopped covering roughly US$8.9 trillion of coal investments – more than one-third (37%) of the coal industry’s global assets, and stopped offering reinsurance to 46% of them.
Blackrock matters because it is big
The announcement matters, in part because of Blackrock’s sheer size.
It is the world’s largest investor, with a total of $US7 trillion in funds under its control. Its announcement it will “put climate change at the center of its investment strategy” raises questions about the soundness of smaller financial institutions that remain committed to coal and to a carbon-based economy.
Blackrock is also important because its primary business is index funds, that are meant to replicate entire markets.
So far these funds are not affected by the divestment policy. BlackRock’s iShares United States S&P 500 Index fund, for instance, has nearly US$23 billion in assets, including as much as US$1 billion in energy investments.
But the contradiction between the company’s new activist stance and the passive replication of an energy-heavy index such as Australia’s is obvious. The pressure to find a solution will grow.
In time, the entire share market will be affected
One solution might be for large mining companies such as BHP to dump their coal assets in order to remain part of both Blackrock’s actively managed (stock picking) and passively managed (all stocks) portfolios.
Another might be the development of index funds from which firms reliant on fossil fuels are excluded. It is even possible that the compilers of stock market indexes will themselves exclude these firms.
The announcement has big implications for the Australian government.
Blackrock chief executive Laurence Fink noted that climate change has become the top issue raised by clients. He said it would soon affect all all investments – everything from municipal bonds to mortgages for homes.
Once investors start assessing government bonds in terms of climate change, Australia’s government will be in serious trouble.
Australia’s AAA rating will be at risk
The bushfire catastrophe and the government’s inadequate response have shown the world Australia is both among the countries most exposed to climate catastrophe and one of the worst in terms of contributions to solutions.
Once bond investors follow the lead of Blackrock and other financial institutions, divestment of Australian government bonds will follow.
This process has already started, with the decision of Sweden’s central bank to unload its holdings of Australian government bonds.
Taken in isolation, Sweden’s move had virtually no effect on Australia’s bond prices and yields. But the most striking feature of the divestment movement so far is the speed with which it has grown from symbolic gestures to a severe constraint on funding for the firms it touches.
The fact that the Adani corporation was unable to find a single bank willing to fund its Carmichael mine is an indication of the pressure that will come to bear.
It’ll make inaction expensive
Once there is a serious threat of large-scale divestment in Australian bonds, the agencies will be obliged to take this into account in setting Ausralia’s credit rating. The much-prized AAA rating is likely to be an early casualty.
That would mean higher interest rates for Australian government bonds which would flow through the entire economy, including the home mortgage rates mentioned in the Blackrock statement.
The government’s case for doing nothing about climate change (other than cashing in on past efforts) has been premised on the “economy-wrecking” costs of serious action.
But as investments associated with coal are increasingly seen as toxic, we run an increasing risk that inaction will cause greater damage.
Australian sea lions are in trouble. Their population has never recovered from the impact of the commercial sealing that occurred mainly in the 19th century.
Currently, the Australian sea lion is a threatened species (listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN) with the population estimated at 10,000 – 12,000. More than 80% of these animals live in the coastal waters of South Australia, where their numbers are estimated to have fallen by more than half over the past 40 years.
The sea lions’ survival is threatened by many factors, including bycatch in commercial fisheries, entanglement in marine debris and impacts related to climate change.
With time running out, the sea lions’ survival depends on informed management. One important step is to establish a low-risk way of quickly assessing the health of the current population. The results could help us identify how to stop the population declining.
One common way to get a quick idea of an animal’s health is to assess its body using a measure equivalent to the body mass index (BMI) for humans, which is calculated from a person’s mass divided by the square of their height. But using a tape measure and scales to obtain the size and mass of Australian sea lions is time consuming, costly and involves risky anaesthesia of endangered animals.
With our colleagues Dirk Holman and Aleks Terauds, we recently developed a technique to non-invasively estimate the body condition of Australian sea lions by using a drone to collect high-resolution photos of sedated sea lions. We then used the photos to digitally reconstruct a 3D model of each animal to estimate its length, width and overall volume – and compared these to physical measurements.
The technique, recently published in Biological Conservation, worked better than expected.
The measurements were accurate, and we found a strong correlation between the mass of an individual and the area and volume measurements derived from the drone pictures. These are the key ingredients needed to assess sea lion condition without handling animals.
Conserving an iconic species
While simple body condition measurements have limitations, they are useful for conservation because they provide rapid health insights across a species’ range.
Australian sea lions breed at around 80 known sites spanning more than 3,000 km of southern Australian coastline within the Great Southern Reef.
Our technique can be used to study free-ranging animals at colonies across this range, from Kangaroo Island in South Australia to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia, and test for differences in condition.
This can give us valuable information about how individual health and colony trends in abundance are related. For example, if a colony is in decline and its members are in poor condition, it could be that factors such as food availability and disease are driving the decline.
However, if there is no difference in the condition of animals from declining and recovering colonies, then declines may be due to direct human impacts such as bycatch in commercial fisheries and entanglement in marine debris. We could then target the most likely threats identified using this technique to better understand their impact and how to protect the sea lions against them.
This technique could be used to complete a population-wide survey of Australian sea lion condition and help ensure the species’ survival. It would build on past mitigation measures which include successfully reducing by-catch from gillnet fishing along the sea floor.
Australian sea lions are an icon of Australia’s Great Southern Reef. As an important top-order predator in these coastal waters, they are indicators of ocean health. Understanding and mitigating the causes of their decline will not only help the species recover, but it will also help to ensure the unique coastal ecosystems on which Australian sea lions depend remain intact and functional.
Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide; Lian Pin Koh, Professor, University of Adelaide, and Simon Goldsworthy, Principal Scientist, Ecosystem Effects of Fishing & Aquaculture, South Australian Research and Development Institute, and Affiliate Professor, University of Adelaide
In a fire-blackened landscape, signs of life are everywhere. A riot of red and green leaves erupt from an otherwise dead-looking tree trunk, and the beginnings of wildflowers and grasses peek from the crunchy charcoal below.
Much Australian flora has evolved to cope with fire, recovering by re-sprouting or setting seed. However, some plants are sensitive to fire, especially when fires are frequent or intense, and these species need our help to recover.
After announcing a A$50 million wildlife and habitat recovery package, the Morrison government recently met with Australia’s leading wildlife experts to steer recovery efforts.
Encouraging native flora to bounce back from these unprecedented fires requires targeted funding and actions to conserve and restore plants and ecological communities, including seed banking.
How do plants naturally recover from fire?
Many plants from fire-prone ecosystems have evolved strategies to survive, and even thrive, with fire. Some resprout after fire, with green shoots bursting from blackened stems. For others, fire stimulates flowering.
Seeds may wait in woody fruits stored on the plant. The fruits’ hard capsules shield the seeds from the fire, but the heat opens the capsules, releasing seeds into the soil below.
We can capitalise on this natural recovery by not disturbing the soil where the seeds are scattered, not clearing “dead” plants which may resprout and provide shelter for remaining wildlife, including perches for birds who may bring in seeds.
We should also stop vegetation clearing, especially unburnt vegetation home to threatened species and communities.
When do we need to intervene?
While Australian plants and ecosystems have evolved to embrace bushfires, there’s only so much drought and fire they can take.
Many plants and ecosystems, including alpine and rainforest species, are not resilient to fire, especially if drought persists or they have been burnt too frequently. Too frequent fires deplete the seed bank and put recovery at risk.
Fires which are intense and severe will outright kill other plants, or the plants will be very slow to recover – taking years or decades to reach maturity again. We need comprehensive monitoring to detect which species are not returning, with systematic field surveys starting immediately, and continuing after the first rains to identify which species emerge from the soil.
Invasive plants such as blackberry or veldt grass can also impede recovery after a fire by out-competing the natives. Feral herbivores – such as rabbits, goats and horses – can overgraze the native regrowth. So controlling the weeds and feral grazers with, for instance, temporary fencing and tree guards, is a priority post-fire.
And when ecosystems aren’t able to repair themselves, it’s up to us to intervene. For instance, land managers, supported by volunteer community groups, could sow seeds or plant seedlings in fire-affected areas. This act of restoring ecosystems can be an important healing process for those affected by the fires.
Do we have enough seeds?
But for that to happen, we need enough seeds to supply restoration efforts. With millions of hectares already burnt, few areas may be left for seed collection.
This means unburnt areas are at risk of over-collection from commercial and volunteer seed collectors. Stopping this from happening is possible, however. The agencies giving out permits for seed collection must record where seeds are being sourced and how much is collected. This ensures areas aren’t stripped of seeds, rendering them less resilient.
Another, more controversial issue, is whether seeds should be collected locally (perhaps within 20km or within the catchment), or from somewhere much further away and more suited to a potential future climate.
And what should we do if we lose a population of a threatened plant species? Establishing a new population or replacing a lost one using translocation is one option. Similar to capture-and-release or zoo breeding programs for reintroduction of threatened animals, translocation refers to deliberately moving plants or seeds to a new location.
How can we better prepare for next time?
With potentially more unprecedented bushfire seasons in our future, it’s important land managers are prepared.
They need data on the distribution of species and the fire frequency, severity and season they can tolerate. A nationwide database could identify which species and ecosystems are most at risk, and could be incorporated into fire and restoration planning – including seed collecting – to ensure plant material is available if species fail to recover.
Botanic gardens have a special role to play as many already have conservation seed banks of threatened species, and their living collections provide additional genetic material. Across Australia there is already a network of seed banks collaborating through the Australian Seed Bank Partnership that collect, store and undertake research to better support plant conservation.
However, restoration seed banks operate on a much larger scale than botanic gardens, and it’s important both approaches are conducted collaboratively. We need more ongoing investment in seed banks, particularly for threatened species and ecosystems least likely to recover from repeat fires like rainforests. Investment in skilled staff to run them is also critical, as well as national guidelines for seed use and training programs for staff and volunteers.
The recent bushfires will push many plant species to their limits. If we want to keep these species around – and the animals depend on them for food and habitat – we need to monitor their recovery and intervene where necessary.