Thousands of city trees have been lost to development, when we need them more than ever


Thami Croeser, RMIT University; Camilo Ordóñez, University of Melbourne, and Rodney van der Ree, University of Melbourne

Climate change is on everyone’s lips this summer. We’ve had bushfires, smoke haze, heatwaves, flooding, mass protests and a National Climate Emergency Summit, all within a few months. The search is on for solutions. Trees often feature prominently when talking about solutions, but our research shows trees are being lost to big developments – about 2,000 within a decade in inner Melbourne.

Big development isn’t the only challenge for urban tree cover. During the period covered by our newly published study, the inner city lost a further 8,000 street trees to a variety of causes – vandals, establishment failures of young trees, drought, smaller developments and vehicle damage.

Still, thanks to a program that plants 3,000 trees a year, canopy growth has kept just ahead of losses in the City of Melbourne.




Read more:
Our cities need more trees, but some commonly planted ones won’t survive climate change


Canopy cover is crucial for keeping urban areas liveable, shading our streets to help us cope with hot weather and to counter the powerful urban heat island effect. Trees can also be a flood-proofing tool.

Trees add beauty and character to our streets, and (so far) they’re not a political wedge issue in the ongoing culture war that is Australian climate policy. In short, they’re a very good idea, at just the right time.

Counting the trees lost to development

The thing is, this good idea happens in the midst of a construction boom. In Melbourne alone, this includes thousands of new dwellings and billions of dollars of new infrastructure. Many of the new buildings are very large – there’s a handy open database that shows these developments.

This map shows the scale of development under way in the inner city.
City of Melbourne

Next time you’re walking past a large construction site, look for empty tree pits – the square holes in footpaths where trees have been removed. Maybe you’ve already seen these and wondered what all the construction means for our trees. Well, now we know.

Our study puts a number on the impact of major development on city trees. In the City of Melbourne – that’s just the innermost suburbs and the CBD – major developments cost our streets about 2,000 trees from 2008-2017.

Using council databases and a mapping tool, we tracked removals of trees within ten metres of hundreds of major developments. We found much higher rates of tree removal around major development sites than in control sites that weren’t developed.

An example of our analysis, comparing tree losses around sites with major development (orange) to control sites (blue). Trees within 10m of major developments were much more likely to be removed.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scs.2020.102096

Even with the City of Melbourne’s robust tree-protection rules, trees can be removed or damaged due to site access needs, scaffolding, compacted soil, root conflicts with services access, and even the occasional poisoning.

The City of Melbourne invited artist Louise Lavarack to create a roadside memorial to a poisoned plane tree, which was then shrouded in gauze bandages.
Tony & Wayne/Flickr, CC BY-NC



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Tree protection limits losses

The silver lining in this story is that the city council’s tree-protection policy seems to be quite effective at saving our bigger trees. The vast majority of removals we saw were of trees with trunks less than 30cm thick. Only one in 20 of the trees lost was a large mature tree over 60cm thick.

This may partly reflect the fact that the council charges developers for not only tree replacement but also the dollar equivalent of lost amenity and ecological values. It gets very expensive to remove a large tree once you factor in all the valuable services it provides. When a tree is a metre thick, costs can exceed $100,000 – and that’s if there are no alternatives to removal.

The protection of bigger trees means Melbourne retained canopy fairly well, despite losing over 2,000 trees. Only 8% of city-wide canopy losses during our study period happened near major development sites. This modest loss is still serious, as removals are having more of an impact on future canopy growth than current cover.




Read more:
How tree bonds can help preserve the urban forest


Lessons for our cities

While Melbourne-centric, there are lessons in this study for cities everywhere. Robust policies to protect and retain trees backed up by clear financial incentives are valuable, as even well-resourced councils with strong policy face an uphill battle when development gets intense.

Our findings highlight that retaining and establishing young trees is especially difficult. This is troubling given these are the trees that must deliver the canopy that will in future shelter the streets in which we live and work.




Read more:
Keeping the city cool isn’t just about tree cover – it calls for a commons-based climate response


Improved investments in how young trees are planted and how long we look after them can help. For example, in a promising local study, researchers showed that trees planted in a way that catches rainwater run-off from roads grow twice as fast, provided planting design avoids waterlogging.

Finally, in the context of rapid development, buildings themselves can play a positive role. Green roofs, green walls and rain gardens are just a few of the ways developments can help our cities deal with both heat and flooding.

There are plenty of precedents overseas. In Berlin, laws requiring building greening have resulted in 4 million square metres of green roof area – three times the area of Melbourne’s Hoddle Grid. In Singapore, developments must include vegetation with leaf area up to four times the development’s site area, using green roofs and walls. Tokyo has required green roofs on new buildings for nearly 20 years.

The solutions are out there, and urban greening is rising in profile. Recent commitments in Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide are promising. Our study findings are a reminder that, even for the willing, we’ll have to take two steps forward, because there’s inevitably going to be one step back.




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For green cities to become mainstream, we need to learn from local success stories and scale up


The Conversation


Thami Croeser, Research Officer, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Camilo Ordóñez, Research Fellow, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Rodney van der Ree, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of BioSciences. National Technical Executive – Ecology, WSP Pty Ltd, University of Melbourne

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

Equinor has abandoned oil-drilling plans in the Great Australian Bight – so what’s next?



DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

Madeline Taylor, University of Sydney and Tina Soliman Hunter

This week’s decision by Norwegian company Equinor to abandon a A$200 million plan to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight surprised both its critics and backers.

Equinor says it abandoned the project off the remote South Australian coast because it was not “commercially competitive”.

But the plan was flawed from its inception. It was out of step with the investment community’s reduced appetite for frontier fossil fuel exploration, and growing concern about financial exposure to carbon risk. A broad section of the community opposed it on environmental grounds, including the potential for a possibly catastrophic oil spill.




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Drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight would be disastrous for marine life and the local community


Equinor is the third major oil company to abandon plans to drill in the bight, following BP and Chevron. But the company will remain active in Australia, pointing to an offshore exploration permit off Western Australia. There is also speculation that another company may take over its permit in the bight.

Equinor’s decision is an important win for many Australians, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Reform of Australia’s offshore petroleum laws is urgently required to permanently protect our precious marine environment.

The Great Australian Bight is a unique ecosystem and must be protected.
Sascha Grant/Flickr, CC BY

A risky endeavour

In May last year, a group of multi-disciplinary experts, including the authors of this article, made a submission to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), highlighting the risks inherent in Equinor’s proposal.

Exploratory drilling has taken place in the Bight since the 1960s. However, Equinor’s proposal involved drilling 370km off the coast in waters up to 2,500 metres deep. This brought extra technical complexity and made the proposal very expensive and environmentally risky.

Equinor’s well would have been located in the Ceduna sub-basin, off southern Australia.
NOPSEMA

Equinor’s environment plan also made overly optimistic assumptions and was inadequate in many ways, including the following:

– Environmental risk

Equinor said it was committed to ecologically sustainable development and would adhere to relevant environment regulations.

However, we believe the company did not comprehensively demonstrate how it would mitigate impacts on endangered species found within its well area.

Many species listed as threatened may have been affected by the drilling activities. These include a total of 28 listed migratory species, 20 listed marine species (including the endangered southern right whale, sea lions, dolphins, southern bluefin tuna and sharks) and five listed cetacean species.

Among the shortcomings in the environment plan, it did not outline how drilling would indirectly and directly affect the capacity of listed threatened species to restore their poulations, as is required under the Commonwealth Environment Act.

The Conversation contacted Equinor for a response to this criticism. Equinor said its environment plan “was accepted by the independent regulator in December 2019. The plan submitted and accepted demonstrated our ability to drill the exploration well safely”.

– Public consultation

Equinor conducted only limited public consultation – within a 40-kilometre radius of the well site. This excluded many relevant parties with a shared concern for the local environment.

The consultation approach also ignored the fact that if a significant accident occurred, such as the worst-case oil spill, there was a risk of harm to communities thousands of kilometres away.

It was particularly egregious that Equinor failed to consult any Indigenous organisations despite numerous Indigenous sea and land title claims that may have been affected by a spill.

Equinor also excluded 18 coastal councils from consultation, as well as conservation groups.

In response to this criticism, Equinor said it “engaged broadly with the community to provide information about our company and our plans for the Stromlo-1 exploration well, holding more than 400 meetings with stakeholders”. It said the consultation process complied with relevant legislation.

– Oil spill modelling

Equinor took a very conservative approach to oil spill modelling. Its modelling of the “worst case discharge scenario” predicted a far lower oil flow rate than modelling by BP in 2016 for the same well location.

But the scenarios Equinor developed would still have amounted to a catastrophic and unprecedented environmental event: a discharge of 42,387 barrels per day until the well was killed after 102 days, or 4,323,478 barrels of oil in total. This is a similar to the amount of oil estimated to have entered the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In response, Equinor said its oil spill maps “do not represent what a single spill would look like, or the area it would affect. To make sure we have planned for anything that could possibly happen, regardless of how unlikely it is, legislation requires us to form a single map by superimposing 100 different simulations of a worst-case oil spill under varying weather conditions”.

Why did Equinor jump ship?

Equinor says it abandoned its plans for commercial reasons – the same reason cited by BP and Chevron.

The company’s decision came just weeks after the federal regulator granted environmental approval to the company’s proposed Stromlo-1 well after three failed attempts.

So after pouring so much money and effort into the project, why would Equinor jump ship now? We believe other factors were also at play.




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First, the project failed to gain a social licence. Public surveys showed 60% of people nationally and 68% of people in South Australia opposed Equinor’s plans.

Second, it faced ongoing legal hurdles. The Wilderness Society had mounted a Federal Court challenge to the environmental approval over Equinor’s failure to consult relevant parties.

Third, and more broadly, much of the world is moving away from fossil fuels. The European Investment Bank is phasing out fossil fuel financing and the International Energy Agency has called on oil and gas companies to lower their emissions, warning that not doing so “could threaten their long-term social acceptability and profitability”.

Europe is moving away from oil, in a move that threatens the offshore petroleum industry.
DIAMOND OFFSHORE DRILLING INTERNATIONAL

So what now?

Australia’s oil and gas industry is not going away. So in light of the risks, how do we protect marine life into the future? The answers may come from Equinor’s home country Norway.

The Norwegian government owns a two-thirds stake in Equinor. The government’s pension fund has announced plans to divest A$17 billion worth of fossil fuel stocks, and Equinor itself aims to reduce emissions from offshore fields and onshore plants in Norway by 40% by 2030, and to near zero by 2050.




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It’s time to speak up about noise pollution in the oceans


In Norway, oil wells are operated in accordance with a standard requiring companies to demonstrate “fitness to drill” before work begins. This is not required under Australian regulations, which apply the lesser standard of “good oilfield practice”.

In developing petroleum resources, The Norwegian Petroleum Act requires titleholders to take “a long-term perspective for the benefit of Norwegian society as a whole”. This requires contributions to the welfare, employment and improved environment of the nation.

Australia’s Equinor experience has made one thing very clear: in protecting both our environment and the interests of future generations of Australians from the effects of fossil fuel extraction, this nation still has a lot to learn.

Greg Bourne contributed to this article.The Conversation

Madeline Taylor, Academic Fellow, University of Sydney and Tina Soliman Hunter, Professor of Petroleum and Resources Law

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

Morrison government will use purchasing power to encourage plastics recycling


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government will use its procurement policy to encourage the recycling of plastics, as well as committing financial assistance for upgrading infrastructure to boost the capacity for this waste to be reused.

Scott Morrison will announce the initiatives to a national conference in Canberra on Monday that is looking at the challenge of dealing with this escalating and environmentally destructive problem. The meeting is attended by industry, government and community representatives.

The prime minister, who has previously highlighted better management of plastics waste as a priority for his government, will emphasise that for major change “the only way forward is in partnership – working with our neighbours; state, territory and local governments; industry, our manufacturing sector and supermarkets; waste operators, and with consumers and communities”.

In a speech circulated ahead of delivery he proposes “three pillars” for tackling the problem: taking responsibility for the waste; encouraging demand for recycled products; and expanding industry capability.

Plastics “are choking our oceans. Scientists estimate that in just 30 years’ time the weight of plastics in our oceans will exceed the weight of fish in our oceans. That’s appalling.

“Taking responsibility means recognising the problems we are contributing to – and it also means keeping faith with the Australian people who recycle,” Morrison says.

“Only 12% of plastic put out in the yellow bin for recycling is actually recycled. Australians don’t expect their waste to be exported to someone’s village or waterway.”

Morrison will meet state and territory leaders at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) next month to finalise a ban on the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

He stresses this isn’t to ban the export of value-added recyclable materials.

Morrison says more investment is much needed in the recycling industry; this and collection systems are under “severe strain”. Investment is needed in “technological innovation that maximises the value of the recycled product and minimises the costs as well”. Only 8% of the $2.6 billion states and territories collected in waste levies over 2018-19 has been reinvested in infrastructure and technology.

“The Commonwealth stands ready to co-invest in these critical facilities with state and territory governments, and with industry”, he says. “We will invest with governments and with industry on a 1 to 1 to 1 basis.” Details will come closer to the May budget, Morrison said.

The waste sector employs 50,000 and generates more than $15 billion annually, Morrison says.

“For every 10,000 tonnes of waste sent to landfill, 2.8 direct jobs are created. But if we recycle the same waste, 9.2 direct jobs are created.

“According to the Australian Council of Recycling, recycling more domestically could create more than 5,000 new jobs.”

With a ban on waste plastic being exported, there will be more in Australia to reuse – which means finding ways of encouraging demand for recycled products. Both industry and government need to do this, Morrison says.

As the first of a number of measures the government will take, its procurement guidelines will be rewritten “to make sure every procurement undertaken by a Commonwealth agency considers environmental sustainability and use of recycled content as a factor in determining value for money”.

He instanced a number of examples of innovative recycling, These included “recycled plastic into asphalt … a one kilometre, two-lane stretch [of road] uses up to half a million plastic bags”, as well as into picnic tables, bollards and gardening products.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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