It’s the latest in a string of new state and federal laws designed to crack down on activists who trespass on farms – often to gather video evidence of alleged animal cruelty, which is later distributed to the public.
But amid the flurry of attention on activists, another group of trespassers on farms has largely escaped attention: illegal hunters.
Unauthorised access to farm properties can create many problems – not least, it runs the risk spreading disease such as African swine fever that can devastate farming industries.
It’s important that laws to tackle farm trespass are evidence-based. So let’s look at the evidence.
Media coverage of activists trespassing on farms has appeared regularly in recent years.
Over several months in 2018-19, activists targeted the Gippy Goat farm and cafe in Victoria – in one incident stealing three goats and a lamb. News reports covered the protests, claims by farmers that the fines issued to the activists was inadequate, and the eventual closure of the farm to the public.
In another example last year, the front page of rural newspaper the Weekly Times featured a family exiting the farming industry after alleged trespass and threats from animal activists.
Activists did not escape the attention of politicians. Ahead of Victoria’s new legislation this month, federal parliament last year passed a bill criminalising the “incitement” of both trespass, and damage or theft of property, on agricultural land.
Speaking in support of the bill, Attorney-General Christian Porter said trespass onto agricultural land could contaminate food and breach biosecurity protocols. He specifically cited “activists” when describing how the laws would work.
The New South Wales government last year also introduced significant fines for trespass on farms in the Right to Farm Act. And in South Australia, the government wants those who trespass or disrupt farming activities to face tougher penalties.
But as lawmakers crack down on animal activists, the problem of trespass by illegal hunters gets little political attention.
Illegal hunting includes hunting without a required licence and accessing private property without permission.
In 2015 and 2016, this article’s co-author Alistair Harkness surveyed 56 Victoria farmers about their experiences and perceptions of farm crime. Farmers reported that in recent years, illegal hunters had caused them economic loss and emotional anguish by:
A follow-up mail survey of 906 Victorian farmers in 2017 and 2018 asked them to rate the seriousness of a range of issues. Farmers reported the following issues as either serious or very serious: illegal shooting on farms (34.4%), animal activism (30.9%), and trespass (44.2%).
Lead author Kyle Mulrooney is conducting the NSW Farm Crime Survey 2020. The work is ongoing, but so far farmers have reported feeling victimised by trespassers generally, and fear about illegal hunters. Farmers were not specifically asked for their views on trespassing activists.
A submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry last year underscored the distress felt by farmers when hunters trespass on their properties. Farmer John Payne recalled:
Recently we had a period over several nights, where unknown persons trespassed on our property and callously killed a substantial number of our goat kids, in one case trussing one up before killing them. All just for fun and sport! […] This is one of several events where people have trespassed and shot our animals for fun, or hunted for pigs or wildlife, with little fear of detection, arrest and prosecution.
Figures supplied to us by NSW Police show in 2018, 513 incidents of criminal trespass on farms was recorded – up from 421 in 2014.
Giving evidence to the NSW parliamentary inquiry, Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside, the State Rural Crime Coordinator, said illegal hunting was “the most cited factor associated with the trespass” on farms.
Police action appears to be following the evidence. In communication with the lead author, Whiteside has said enforcement and operations focused on illegal hunting and trespass are a primary and current focus of the Rural Crime Prevention Team.
As African swine fever sweeps Asia, Australian pork producers have been urged to ramp up biosecurity efforts on their own properties. This reportedly includes restricting visitor numbers and separating visitor and farm vehicles.
There are fears that if the disease hits Australia, it could could shut down Australia’s A$5.3 billion pork industry, leading to mass job losses.
Given these risks, it’s important that policies to crack down on farm trespassers are guided by evidence, and don’t unduly target a single group.
And importantly, more research into the issue is needed – including into the social and economic impacts of farm trespass, in all its forms.
Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, Lecturer in Criminology, Co-director of the Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England and Alistair Harkness, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England
In box gum grassy woodlands, widely spaced eucalypts tower over carpets of wildflowers, lush native grasses and groves of flowering wattles. It’s no wonder some early landscape paintings depicting Australian farm life are inspired by this ecosystem.
But box gum grassy woodlands are critically endangered. These woodlands grow on highly productive agricultural country, from southern Queensland, along inland slopes and tablelands, into Victoria.
Many are degraded or cleared for farming. As a result, less than 5% of the woodlands remain in good condition. What remains often grows on private land such as farms, and public lands such as cemeteries or travelling stock routes.
Very little is protected in public conservation reserves. And the recent drought and record breaking heat caused these woodlands to stop growing and flowering.
But after Queensland’s recent drought-breaking rain earlier this year, we surveyed private farmland and found many dried-out woodlands in the northernmost areas transformed into flower-filled, park-like landscapes.
And landholders even came across rarely seen marsupials, such as the southern spotted-tail quoll.
These surveys were part of the Australian government’s Environmental Stewardship Program, a long-term cooperative conservation model with private landholders. It started in 2007 and will run for 19 years.
We found huge increases in previously declining native wildflowers and grasses on the private farmland. Many trees assumed to be dying began resprouting, such as McKie’s stringybark (Eucalyptus mckieana), which is listed as a vulnerable species.
This newfound plant diversity is the result of seeds and tubers (underground storage organs providing energy and nutrients for regrowth) lying dormant in the soil after wildflowers bloomed in earlier seasons. The dormant seeds and tubers were ready to spring into life with the right seasonal conditions.
For example, Queensland Herbarium surveys early last year, during the drought, looked at a 20 metre by 20 metre plot and found only six native grass and wildflower species on one property. After this year’s rain, we found 59 species in the same plot, including many species of perennial grass (three species jumped to 20 species post rain), native bluebells and many species of native daisies.
On another property with only 11 recorded species, more than 60 species sprouted after the extensive rains.
In areas where grazing and farming continued as normal (the paired “control” sites), the plots had only around half the number of plant species as areas managed for conservation.
Landowners also reported several unusual sightings of animals on their farms after the rains. Stewardship program surveyors later identified them as two species of rare and endangered native carnivorous marsupials: the southern spotted-tailed quoll (mainland Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial) and the brush-tailed phascogale.
The population status of both these species in southern Queensland is unknown. The brush-tailed phascogale is elusive and rarely detected, while the southern spotted-tailed quolls are listed as endangered under federal legislation.
Until those sightings, there were no recent records of southern spotted-tailed quolls in the local area.
These unusual wildlife sightings are valuable for monitoring and evaluation. They tell us what’s thriving, declining or surviving, compared to the first surveys for the stewardship program ten years ago.
Sightings are also a promising signal for the improving condition of the property and its surrounding landscape.
More than 200 farmers signed up to the stewardship program for the conservation and management of nationally threatened ecological communities on private lands. Most have said they’re keen to continue the partnership.
The landholders are funded to manage their farms as part of the stewardship program in ways that will help the woodlands recover, and help reverse declines in biodiversity.
For example, by changing the number of livestock grazing at any one time, and shortening their grazing time, many of the grazing-sensitive wildflowers have a better chance to germinate, grow, flower and produce seeds in the right seasonal conditions.
They can also manage weeds, and not remove fallen timber or loose rocks (bushrock). Fallen timber and rocks protect grazing-sensitive plants and provide habitat for birds, reptiles and invertebrates foraging on the ground.
So can we be optimistic for the future of wildlife and wildflowers of the box gum grassy woodlands? Yes, cautiously so.
Landholders are learning more about how best to manage biodiversity on their farms, but ecological recovery can take time. In any case, we’ve discovered how resilient our flora and fauna can be in the face of severe drought when given the opportunity to grow and flourish.
Climate change is bringing more extreme weather events. Last year was the warmest on record and the nation has been gripped by severe, protracted drought. There’s only so much pressure our iconic wildlife and wildflowers can take before they cross ecological thresholds that are difficult to bounce back from.
More government programs like this, and greater understanding and collaboration between scientists and farmers, create a tremendous opportunity to keep changing that trajectory for the better.
As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.
But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.
We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.
But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.
The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.
In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.
We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.
Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.
While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.
On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.
Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.
Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.
Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.
So even if consumers want to avoid single-use plastics, it’s not as easy as it used to be.
It is still possible to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic right now. We just need to get creative and focus on items within our control.
We can still pack shopping in reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup, carry reusable straws when we go out – just make sure to wash reusables between each use.
Many Victorians can even order delivery take-away food in reusable containers, thanks to the partnership between Deliveroo and Returnr, the reusable packaging scheme. Boomerang Alliance also produced guidelines for sustainable take-away options, including practical tips for contactless transfer of food.
Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.
There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.
But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.
Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.
Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.
Many are calling on governments, businesses and individuals to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how we used to do things and ask – is there a better way?
When it comes to single use plastics during COVID-19, we can’t control everything. But our actions can help shape what the new normal looks like.
Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Research Fellow in Behaviour Change, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Professor of sociology, Monash University
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This week, Climate Explained answers two similar questions.
If humans had not contributed to greenhouses gases in any way at all, what would the global temperature be today, compared to the 1800s before industrialisation?
My question is what happens when all the greenhouse gases are eliminated? What keeps the planet from cooling past a point that is good?
Earth’s atmosphere is a remarkably thin layer of gases that sustain life.
The diameter of Earth is 12,742km and the atmosphere is about 100km thick. If you took a model globe and wrapped it up, a single sheet of tissue paper would represent the thickness of the atmosphere.
The gases that make up Earth’s atmosphere are mostly nitrogen and oxygen, and small quantities of trace gases such as argon, neon, helium, the protective ozone layer and various greenhouse gases – so named because they trap heat emitted by Earth.
The most abundant greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere is water vapour – and it is this gas that provides the natural greenhouse effect. Without this and the naturally occurring quantities of other greenhouse gases, Earth would be about 33℃ colder and uninhabitable to life as we know it.
Since pre-industrial times, human activities have led to the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before the first industrial revolution some 250 years ago, to a new high since records began of just over 417ppm. As a result of continued increases, the global average temperature has climbed by just over 1℃ since pre-industrial times.
While these long-lived greenhouse gases have raised Earth’s average surface temperature, human activities have altered atmospheric composition in other ways as well. Particulate matter in the atmosphere, such as soot and dust, can cause health problems and degrades air quality in many industrialised and urban regions.
Particulate matter can partially offset greenhouse gas warming, but its climate effects depend on its composition and geographical distribution. Climate in the southern hemisphere has also been affected by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which led to the development of the Antarctic ozone hole.
If people had not altered the composition of the atmosphere at all through emitting greenhouse gases, particulate matter and ozone-destroying CFCs, we would expect the global average temperature today to be similar to the pre-industrial period – although some short-term variation associated with the Sun, volcanic eruptions and internal variability would still have occurred.
In a world that is about 1℃ warmer than during pre-industrial times, New Zealand is already facing the environmental and economic costs associated with climate change. The former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres, argues that with trillions of dollars being spent around the world in economic stimulus packages following the COVID-19 pandemic, we need strong commitments to a low-carbon future if the world is to limit warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels.
Greenhouse gases have long lifetimes – about a decade for methane and hundreds to thousands of years for carbon dioxide. We will need to reduce emissions aggressively over a sustained period, until their abundance in the atmosphere starts to decline.
When New Zealand entered the Level 4 coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, almost two weeks passed (the incubation period of the virus) before the number of new cases started to decline. Waiting for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to decrease, even while we reduce emissions, will be similar, except we’ll be waiting for decades.
It is very unlikely that we could ever reduce greenhouse gas concentrations to the point that it becomes dangerous for life as we know it. Doing so would involve overcoming the natural greenhouse effect.
Recent research into greenhouse gas emission scenarios provides guidance on what will need to happen to stabilise Earth’s temperature at 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. A rapid transition away from fossil fuels toward low-carbon energy is imperative; some form of carbon dioxide capture to remove it from the atmosphere may also be necessary.
Short-term and scattered climate policy will not be sufficient to support the transitions we need, and achieving 1.5℃ will not be possible as long as global inequalities remain high.
Amid the urgent need to slow climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency makes sense. But as Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel last week warned, we’re not “anywhere close to having that nailed”.
Energy efficiency means using less energy to achieve the same outcomes. It’s the cheapest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve our climate goals. Improving energy efficiency is also vital to achieving so-called “energy productivity” – getting more economic output, using the same or less energy.
But Australia’s national energy productivity plan, agreed by the nation’s energy ministers in 2015, has gone nowhere.
It set a goal of a 40% improvement in energy productivity by 2030. But my analysis, based on the most recent official data, shows that in the three years to 2017-18, energy productivity increased by a mere 1.1%.
Clearly, there is much work to do. So let’s take a look at the problem and the potential solutions.
Better energy efficiency lowers electricity bills, makes businesses more competitive and helps manage energy demand. Of course, it also means less greenhouse gas emissions, because fewer fossil fuels are burnt for energy.
Business, unions and green groups recognise the benefits. Last month they joined forces to call for a sustainable COVID-19 economic recovery, with energy efficiency at the core, saying:
In Australia, a major drive to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and industry could deliver over 120,000 job-years of employment […] Useful upgrades could be made across Australia’s private and public housing; commercial, community and government buildings; and industrial facilities.
The group said improvements could include:
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has suggested other measures for industry and manufacturing, such as:
And in transport, the IEA suggests incentives to get older, less efficient cars off the roads and encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.
In 2018 the IEA observed:
the power sector will be at the heart of Australia’s energy system
transformation […] International best practice suggests that both energy efficiency and renewable energy are key drivers of the energy transition.
Since then, renewable energy’s share of the electricity mix has increased. But energy productivity has stalled.
To understand how, we must define a few key terms.
Primary energy refers to energy extracted from the environment, such as coal, crude oil, and electrical energy collected by a wind turbine or solar panel.
Final energy is the energy supplied to a consumer, such as electricity delivered to homes or fuel pumped at a petrol station.
A lot of energy is lost in the process of turning extracted primary fuels into ready-to-use fuels for consumers. For example at coal-fired power stations, on average, one-third of the energy supplied by burning coal is converted to electricity. The remainder is lost as waste heat.
Until 2015, Australia and most other countries used final energy as a measure of how rapidly energy efficiency was improving. But the national productivity plan instead set goals around primary energy productivity – aiming to increase it by 40% between 2015 and 2030.
This has made it possible for governments to hide how badly Australia is travelling on improving energy efficiency. I analysed national accounts figures and energy statistics, to produce the below table. It reveals the governments’ sleight of hand.
Over the three years from 2014-15 to 2017-18, final energy productivity increased by only 1.1%, whereas primary energy productivity increased by 3.5%.
The reduced primary energy consumption is mostly due to a large increase in wind and solar generation. The efficiency of energy used by final consumers has scarcely changed.
The lack of progress on energy productivity is not surprising, given governments have shown very little interest in the issue.
As Finkel noted in his address, Australia’s energy productivity plan is absent from the list of national climate and energy policies. The plan’s 2019 annual report has not been released. And those released since 2015 have not monitored progress in energy productivity.
What’s more, the plan makes no mention of previous similar agreements, in 2004 and 2009, to accelerate energy efficiency with regulation and financial incentives. Since 2013, almost all Commonwealth programs supporting those agreements have been de-funded or abolished, and many state programs have also been cut back.
The IEA’s sustainable recovery plan, released last week, outlined what a sustainable global economic recovery might look like. In particular, it said better energy efficiency and switching to more efficient electric technologies will deliver triple benefits: increased employment, a more productive economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
In this carbon-constrained world, relatively easy and cheap opportunities such as energy efficiency must be seized. And as Australia spends to get its post-pandemic economy back on track, now is the time to act.
As we emerge from the lockdown phase of the pandemic, there are many lessons to learn. One is that when given credible warning of an existential threat, it is better to act early and risk doing too much than to delay acting and face a much bigger and harder to solve problem when the warnings turn out to be correct.
While the pandemic will pass, one way or another, the problem of global heating, and its many consequences, is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, and those of our children and grandchildren.
Already the world has had decades of warnings, and has done little to heed them.
To hold the increase in global temperatures to 2⁰C, the world needs to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 25% over the next decades, and cut them to zero by 2050.
Current commitments are inadequate to achieve this.
In Australia’s case, the unjustified use of “carryover credits” means the government is actually proposing an increase in emissions over the next decade, with even larger increases likely in the future.
Quite simply, there is no way of prevent catastrophic climate change unless we stop burning coal to generate electricity, and do it sooner rather than later.
As of 2020, coal-fired electricity generation is the only major use of carbon-based fuels for which we have a well-developed and affordable alternatives.
For most other uses of carbon-based fuels, alternatives rely on using electricity, as in the case of electric vehicles and “green” hydrogen.
These alternatives are helpful only if the electricity that powers them is coal-free.
But in Australia, any move to break with thermal coal runs up against the claim that jobs in coal mining and coal-fired power are essential for workers and for communities.
It is a claim I examine in a new report published by the Australia Institute entitled Getting off coal: Economic and social policies to manage the phase-out of thermal coal in Australia.
It finds that a transition from thermal coal mining could be managed fairly, without significant job losses and while protecting coal-dependent regions.
Contrary to widespread perceptions, thermal coal mining is not a major employer, and most workers in the industry are not miners in the ordinary understanding of the term.
According to the latest Labour Force Survey, in February 2020 coal mining employed about 43 300 people, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012.
Since Australia’s coal output is roughly evenly divided between coking and thermal coal, it seems likely that about 20-25,000 are employed producing the thermal coal that is used for heating and electricity generation.
This compares with a Bureau of Statistics estimate of about 26,850 in renewable energy. A successful transition to a decarbonised electricity sector would require at least a doubling of the current growth rate of renewables, implying more than 26 000 new jobs.
Many of the people employed in coal mining in February 2020 were not miners in the ordinary sense of the term. About 14% worked in white collar (managerial, professional and clerical) jobs.
A large portion of the remainder, such as carpenters, truck drivers and labourers, worked in trades not tied to mining.
The exception is the category known as Drillers, Miners and Shot Firers, which accounts for about 20% of total mining employment. If the same proportion applies in coal mining, there would be around 5,000 specialist drillers, miners and shot firers in producing thermal coal.
A transition program for these workers could be funded for less than the government’s recently announced HomeBuilder.
Advocates of coal mining point out that coal mining generally pays higher wages than other industries, including the renewable energy industry. This partly reflects high levels of unionisation, which could be encouraged more broadly.
More significant is probably its reliance on socially destructive fly-in, fly-out working arrangements, which necessitate high wages to offset family separations.
An indication that the wages earned by workers in the mining industry represent
compensation for poor conditions can be derived from evidence on workforce turnover.
The mining industry is characterised by annual turnover of 20% to 30%, substantially higher than that for the labour market as a whole.
Largely because of fly-in, fly-out, the number of communities that depend on coal as the primary source of their local employment is small.
Moreover, in many cases, these communities, such as those of the Bowen Basin, are well endowed with solar and wind resources.
With appropriate planning (instead of the current chaos in electricity policy) these communities could be given priority in the development of utility-scale solar and wind generation, along with the necessary transmission links.
The result might be be a net gain in local employment.
On Monday the Minerals Council of Australia announced a Climate Action Plan, proclaiming the need for action to reduce the risks of human-induced climate change and expressing support for “world-wide decarbonisation”.
What it did not do was suggest that the 25,000 or so Australians who work in coal mining could be switched to other industries.
That has been the conventional wisdom for some time – that a switch of 25,000 jobs from one industry to another would be too much for Australia to handle.
Yet when the coronavirus hit, we shut down industries employing three million Australians overnight, and dealt with the economic consequences impressively.
We have demonstrated our capacity to do the same for the much more dangerous, if less immediate, risk of catastrophic climate change.
The transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, pumping out almost 20% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. But everyday drivers can make a difference.
In particular, the amount of time you let your car engine idle can have a significant impact on emissions and local air quality. Engine idling is when the car engine is running while the vehicle is stationary, such as at a red light.
A new Transport Energy/Emission Research report found in normal traffic conditions, Australians likely idle more than 20% of their drive time.
This contributes 1% to 8% of total carbon dioxide emissions over the journey, depending on the vehicle type. To put that into perspective, removing idling from the journey would be like removing up to 1.6 million cars from the road.
Excessive idling (idling for longer than five minutes) could increase this contribution further, particularly for trucks and buses. When you also consider how extensive idling may create pollution hot spots around schools, this isn’t something to take lightly.
Reducing idling doesn’t just lower your carbon footprint, it can also lower your fuel costs up to 10% or more.
Drivers simply have to turn their engines off while parked and wait in their vehicle. Perhaps crack open a window to maintain comfortable conditions, rather than switching on the air conditioner.
Some idling is unavoidable such as waiting for a traffic light or driving in congested conditions, but other idling is unnecessary, such as while parked.
When many cars are idling in the same location, it can create poor local air quality. For example, idling has been identified overseas as a significant factor in higher pollution levels in and around schools. That’s because parents or school buses don’t turn off their engines when they drop off their kids or wait for them outside.
Even small reductions in vehicle emissions can have health benefits, such as reducing asthma, allergies and systemic inflammation in Australian children. In 2019, Australian researchers identified that even small increases of exposure to vehicle pollution were associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma and reduced lung function.
Overseas studies show anti-idling campaigns and driver education can help improve air quality around schools, with busses and passenger cars switching off their engines more frequently.
In the US and Canada, local and state governments have enacted voluntary or mandatory anti-idling legislation, to address complaints and reduce fuel use, emissions and noise.
The results have been promising. In California, a range of measures – including anti-idling policies – aimed at reducing school children’s exposure to vehicle emissions were linked to the development of larger, healthier lungs in children.
But in Australia, we identified almost no anti-idling initiatives or idle reduction legislation, despite calls for them in 2017.
Commercial vehicles can idle for long periods of time. In the US, typical long-haul trucks idle an estimated 1,800 hours per year when parked at truck stops, although a significant range of between 1,000 and 2,500 hours per year has also been reported.
Fleet operators and logistics companies are therefore in a good position to roll out idle reduction initiatives and save on operating (fuel) costs while reducing emissions.
In fact, fleet operators overseas have actively sought to reduce idling emissions. This is not surprising as fuel costs are the second-largest expense for fleets, behind driver wages, typically accounting for 20% of a trucking fleet’s total operating costs.
But unlike other developed countries, Australia doesn’t have fuel efficiency or carbon dioxide emission standards. This means vehicle manufacturers have no incentive to include idle reduction technologies (or other fuel-saving technologies) in vehicles sold in Australia.
For example, the use of stop-start systems is rapidly growing overseas, but it’s unclear how many stop-start systems are used in new Australian cars.
Emission reduction technologies also come with extra costs for the vehicle manufacturer, making them less appealing, although cost benefits of reduced fuel use would pass on to consumers. This situation probably won’t change unless mandatory emission standards are implemented.
In any case, it’s easy for drivers to simply turn the key and shut down the engine when suitable. Reducing idling doesn’t require technologies.
If reducing emissions or saving money at the fuel bowser is not enough incentive, then perhaps, in time, exposing children to unnecessary idling emissions will be regarded in the same socially unacceptable light as smoking around children.
And of course, there are other measures to reduce your transport carbon footprint. Drive a smaller car, and avoid diesel cars. Despite their reputation, Australian diesel cars emit, on average, about 10% more carbon dioxide per kilometre than petrol cars.
Or better yet, where possible, dust off that push bike, or walk.
Because we are rich in coal and gas, Australia has been plagued with two decades of wars over climate policy. The wars have claimed three prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. They have also, in the words of journalist Alan Kohler,
ruined Australia’s ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything.
The response to the pandemic shows that consensus and effective, evidence-based policy are not impossible for Australia’s politicians. Faced with a crisis of life and death, they can put aside ideology and stare down vested interests.
The optimists among us hope they can do this with the life and death crises humanity is facing as the planet heats, and that the terrible fires last summer will have convinced our leaders climate change is real, and effective action urgent. So far, the calls for urgent action are louder from business than from political leaders. Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, has linked restoring growth after the pandemic to the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050.
The federal government, by contrast, is championing gas as a “transition fuel” between coal and renewables. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked chair of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission, Nev Power, has strong links to the gas industry.
Calling gas a “transition fuel” at least admits the need for a transition. But gas also contributes to the planet’s heating, and the federal government has no plausible plan to meet Australia’s Paris target, nor to ramp it up, which must be done for a safe future.
The grip that coal and gas has on our political elites goes back to the 1960s, when minerals replaced wool as the mainstay of our commodity exports. Iron ore and coal led the way.
About the same time, mining’s social licence was being challenged by Indigenous Australians, who objected to mining on their traditional lands, and by environmentalists concerned about mining’s destructive impact on natural habitats. The miners’ response was a concerted public relations campaign to align their interests with the national interest by convincing Australians their prosperity depended on mining and should not be curtailed.
In this, the miners have been spectacularly successful. First, in the 1980s, they stymied the implementation of the Hawke Labor government’s plan for uniform land rights legislation, which would include protection of sacred sites, the right to royalties and a veto over mining on Indigenous land.
In Australia, unlike other common law countries, the Crown owns the minerals, so the veto would have given Indigenous owners more rights than freehold owners. Miners launched a furious public campaign centred on the argument that Indigenous Australians should not have special rights.
A decade later, after the High Court determined in the Mabo and Wik judgements that forms of native title had survived European settlement, the miners fought again to make sure the resulting legislation did not include any veto over mining; and it didn’t.
Second, they have delayed effective government action on climate change. At the end of the century, as pressure mounted for a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, Australia’s coal producers organised to prevent the federal government from signing international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Their core argument was that mining underpinned Australia’s wealth, but they also spread scepticism about climate change amongst conservative elites, turning it into an identity marker for the Australian right.
Under John Howard, fossil fuel advocates gained extraordinary access to government decision-making on climate and energy policy. This access was not given to environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) or climate scientists. So much for balance.
The power of the fossil fuel lobby was weaker after Howard lost the 2007 election. Later, it was unable to prevent the Gillard government from implementing a price on carbon and establishing a series of agencies to advance action on climate change.
But with Tony Abbott as prime minister, the industry’s power was back. Scepticism about climate science spread to science and expertise generally, undermining the federal government’s commitment to innovation and research. The fossil fuel lobby is not solely to blame for the Coalition’s philistinism under Abbott, but it bears some responsibility for its self-interested spreading of climate scepticism.
The mining lobby’s third success has been to capture the National Party and turn it into the party of coal and coal seam gas, even when extracting these destroys the good agricultural land on which our food security depends. This is an astonishing achievement.
In March 2019, on Network 10’s The Project, Waleed Aly asked Nationals leader Michael McCormack
Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict?
Off the top of his head, McCormack could not name one. Mining has so successfully aligned itself with perceptions of the national interest that the National Party now champions the jobs of miners more energetically than the livelihoods of the farmers it once regarded as the heart of the nation.
The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that governments are our risk managers of last resort. Ours, both state and federal, have been prepared to inflict massive economic pain on businesses and individuals to protect our health, and we are grateful.
As we face the much larger but more slow-moving crisis of the heating planet, governments must stare down the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, for all our sakes, even if this inflicts on them some economic pain.
If they can do it for the pandemic, they can do it for climate change.
Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is out today.
This month, federal authorities finally announced an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia. We are one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous.
Mercury is a toxic element that damages human health and the environment, even in low concentrations. In humans, mercury exposure is associated with problems such as kidney damage, neurological impairment and delayed cognitive development in children.
The ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year.
But Australia is yet to ratify an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions from other sources, such as the dental industry and coal-fired power stations. This is our next challenge.
Mercury became a popular pesticide ingredient for agriculture in the early 1900s, and a number of poisoning events ensued throughout the world.
They include the Iraq grain disaster in 1971-72, when grain seed treated with mercury was imported from Mexico and the United States. The seed was not meant for human consumption, but rural communities used it to make bread, and 459 people died.
In the decades since, most countries have banned the production and/or use of mercury-based pesticides on crops. In 1995 Australia discontinued their use in most applications, such as turf farming.
Despite this, authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease.
But this month, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority cancelled the approval of the mercury-containing active ingredient in Shirtan, methoxyethylmercuric chloride. The decision was made at the request of the ingredient’s manufacturer, Alpha Chemicals.
Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned.
Over the past 25 years, Australia’s continued use of Shirtan allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown.
What is known is that mercury can be toxic even at very low concentrations, and research is needed to understand its ecological impacts.
The use of mercury-based pesticide has also created a high risk of exposure for sugar cane workers. At most risk are those not familiar with safety procedures for handling toxic materials, and who may have been poorly supervised. This risk has been exacerbated by the use itinerant workers, particularly those from a non-English speaking background.
Further, in the hot and humid conditions of Northern Australia, it has been reported that workers may have removed protective gloves to avoid sweating. Again, research is needed to determine the implication of these practices for human health.
To this end, Mercury Australia, a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, has formed to address the environmental, health and other issues surrounding mercury use, both contemporary and historical.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to control mercury use and release into the environment. Australia signed onto the convention in 2013 but is yet to ratify it.
Until the treaty is ratified, Australia is not legally bound to its obligations. It also places us at odds with more than 100 countries that have ratified it, including many of Australia’s developed-nation counterparts.
Australia’s outlier status in this area is shown in the below table:
Mercury-based pesticide use was one of Australia’s largest sources of mercury emissions. But if Australia ratifies the convention, it would be required to control other sources of mercury emissions, such as dental amalgam and the burning of coal in power stations.
The three active power stations in the Latrobe Valley, for example, together emit about 1,200 kilograms of mercury each year.
If Australia ratified the Minamata Convention, it would provide impetus for a timely review and, if necessary, update of mercury regulations across Australia.
Emissions from coal-fired power stations in Australia are regulated by the states through pollution control licences. Some states would likely have to amend these licences if Australia ratified the convention. For example, Victorian licences for coal-fired power stations currently do not include limits on mercury emissions.
Pollution control technologies were introduced at Australian coal plants in the early 1990s. But they do not match state-of-the-art technologies applied to coal plants in North America and Europe.
Australian environment authorities have been examining the implications of ratifying the convention. But progress is slow.
The issue of mercury emissions does not attract significant public or political attention. But there is a global scientific consensus that coordinated international action is needed.
The pesticide phase-out and ban is an important step. But Australia still has a way to go.
Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University