Australia wants to build a huge concrete runway in Antarctica. Here’s why that’s a bad idea



AAD

Shaun Brooks, University of Tasmania and Julia Jabour, University of Tasmania

Australia wants to build a 2.7-kilometre concrete runway in Antarctica, the world’s biggest natural reserve. The plan, if approved, would have the largest footprint of any project in the continent’s history.

The runway is part of an aerodrome to be constructed near Davis Station, one of Australia’s three permanent bases in Antarctica. It would be the first concrete runway on the continent.

The plan is subject to federal environmental approval. It coincides with new research published this week showing Antarctica’s wild places need better protection. Human activity across Antarctica has been extensive in the past 200 years – particularly in the coastal, ice-free areas where most biodiversity is found.

The area around Davis Station is possibly Antarctica’s most significant coastal, ice-free area. It features unique lakes, fjords, fossil sites and wildlife.

Australia has successfully operated Davis Station since 1957 with existing transport arrangements. While the development may win Australia some strategic influence in Antarctica, it’s at odds with our strong history of environmental leadership in the region.

The Vestfold Hills, the proposed site of the aerodrome.
Nick Roden

Year-round access

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), a federal government agency, argues the runway would allow year-round aviation access between Hobart and Antarctica.

Presently, the only Australian flights to Antarctica take place at the beginning and end of summer. Aircraft land at an aerodrome near the Casey research station, with interconnecting flights to other stations and sites on the continent. The stations are inaccessible by both air and ship in winter.




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The AAD says year-round access to Antarctica would provide significant science benefits, including:

  • better understanding sea level rise and other climate change impacts

  • opportunities to study wildlife across the annual lifecycle of key species including krill, penguins, seals and seabirds

  • allowing scientists to research through winter.

Leading international scientists had called for improved, environmentally responsible access to Antarctica to support 21st-century science. However, the aerodrome project is likely to reduce access for scientists to Antarctica for years, due to the need to house construction workers.

Australia says the runway would have significant science benefits.
Australian Antarctic Division

Australia: an environmental leader?

Australia has traditionally been considered an environmental leader in Antarctica. For example, in 1989 under the Hawke government, it urged the world to abandon a mining convention in favour of a new deal to ban mining on the continent.

Australia’s 20 Year Action Plan promotes “leadership in environmental stewardship in Antarctica”, pledging to “minimise the environmental impact of Australia’s activities”.

But the aerodrome proposal appears at odds with that goal. It would cover 2.2 square kilometres, increasing the total “disturbance footprint” of all nations on the continent by 40%. It would also mean Australia has the biggest footprint of any nation, overtaking the United States.

The contribution of disturbance footprint from countries in Antarctica measured from Brooks et al. 2019, with Australia’s share increasing to 35% including the aerodrome proposal.
Shaun Brooks

Within this footprint, environmental effects will also be intense. Construction will require more than three million cubic metres of earthworks – levelling 60 vertical metres of hills and valleys along the length of the runway. This will inevitably cause dust emissions – on the windiest continent on Earth – and the effect of this on plants and animals in Antarctica is poorly understood.

Wilson’s storm petrels that nest at the site will be displaced. Native lichens, fungi and algae will be destroyed, and irreparable damage is expected at adjacent lakes.

Weddell seals breed within 500 metres of the proposed runway site. Federal environment officials recognise the dust from construction and subsequent noise from low flying aircraft have the potential to disturb these breeding colonies.




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The proposed area is also important breeding habitat for Adélie penguins. Eight breeding sites in the region are listed as “important bird areas”. Federal environment officials state the penguins are likely to be impacted by human disturbance, dust, and noise from construction of the runway, with particular concern for oil spills and aircraft operations.

The summer population at Davis Station will need to almost double from 120 to 250 during construction. This will require new, permanent infrastructure and increase the station’s fuel and water consumption, and sewage discharged into the environment.

The AAD has proposed measures to limit environmental damage. These include gathering baseline data (against which to measure the project’s impact), analysing potential effects on birds and marine mammals and limiting disturbance where practicable.

But full details won’t be provided until later in the assessment process. We expect Australia will implement these measures to a high standard, but they will not offset the project’s environmental damage.

An Adélie penguin colony near Davis Station.
Nick Roden

Playing politics

So given the environmental concern, why is Australia so determined to build the aerodrome? We believe the answer largely lies in Antarctic politics.

Australian officials have said the project would “contribute to both our presence and influence” on the continent. Influence in Antarctica has traditionally corresponded to the strength of a nation’s scientific program, its infrastructure presence and engagement in international decision-making.




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Australia is a well-regarded member of the Antarctic Treaty. It was an original signatory and claims sovereignty over 42% of the continent. It also has a solid physical and scientific presence, maintaining three large year-round research stations.

But other nations are also vying for influence. China is constructing its fifth research station. New Zealand is planning a NZ$250 million upgrade to Scott Base. And on King George Island, six stations have been built within a 5km radius, each run by different nations. This presence is hard to justify on the basis of scientific interest alone.

A Weddell seal and her pup near Davis Station.
Nick Roden

Getting our priorities straight

We believe there are greater and more urgent opportunities for Australia to assert its leadership in Antarctica.

For example both Casey and Mawson stations – Australia’s two other permanent bases – discharge sewage into the pristine marine environment with little treatment. And outdated fuel technology at Australia’s three stations regularly causes diesel spills.

At Wilkes station, which Australia abandoned in the 1960s, thousands of tonnes of contaminants have been left behind.

Australia should fix such problems before adding more potentially damaging infrastructure. This would meet our environmental treaty obligations and show genuine Antarctic leadership.The Conversation

Shaun Brooks, University Associate, University of Tasmania and Julia Jabour, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania

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

Health care has a huge environmental footprint, which then harms health. This is a matter of ethics



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Anthony Capon, Monash University; Arunima Malik, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, University of Sydney

The health impacts of environmental change are now squarely on the radar. Australia’s recent intense wildfires is one glaring example. Spillover of the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic from animals to humans is another.

But less is known about the reverse: environmental harms from health care. This is what our study, the first global assessment of the environmental footprint of health care, aimed to do.




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We quantified resource consumption and pollution by the health-care sector in 189 countries, from 2000 to 2015. We found health care is harming the environment in ways that, in turn, harm health, thereby counteracting the primary mission of health care.

For example, we found the health-care sector causes a substantial share of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants: 4.4% of greenhouse gases, 2.8% of harmful particulate matter (air particles), 3.4% of nitrogen oxides and 3.6% of sulphur dioxide.

A vicious cycle

As part of broader economic systems, the health-care sector can inadvertently harm health through purchased resources, and the waste and pollution produced. In other words, it can unwittingly harm health in efforts to protect and improve it.

The aim of our study was not to assign blame to health care. Rather, as our dependence on health care increases, we need to support this sector to become more sustainable so we don’t enter a vicious cycle, where more health care means more environmental damage, and vice versa.




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Using a global supply-chain database, we measured direct and indirect environmental damage driven by health-care demand.

We focused on environmental stressors the health-care sector contributes to with known adverse feedback cycles for health, such as greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter (10 micrometers or less in diameter) and scarce water use.

We found health care causes environmental impacts that range between 1% and 5% of total global impacts, depending on the indicator. It contributes to more than 5% for some indicators at the individual country level.

For example, along with its contributions to greenhouse gases and air pollutants, health care uses 1.5% of scarce water in the world. Scarce water is measured as water consumption weighted by a “scarcity index”, which takes into account insufficient access to clean water in different countries.

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To begin addressing the problem, all health-care professionals should first understand how their work impacts the environment.

Polluting economies lead to polluting health care systems

For all stressors, countries with large populations, economies and health budgets (the US and China, for instance) dominate the results in absolute terms.

The key message is that we need to understand how these stressors are trending over time, and what measures can be taken to improve health and protect the environment at the same time.

For example, in South Korea emissions of greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care decreased by between 27% and 60% during 2000 and 2015.

Whereas in China, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care increased by between 91% and 173% in the same period.

For some indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter, a majority of impacts are hidden in upstream supply chains. Unravelling supply chain connections will help us understand the hotspots of environmental impacts, such as pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

A matter of ethics

The environmental impact of health care is both a practical and ethical issue for health-care professionals.

In 2015, more than 460,000 premature deaths were related to coal combustion globally. Frankly, why should any hospital purchase coal-fired energy when it produces toxic air pollution that harms health?

Some health professionals may baulk at this additional responsibility because they’re busy providing life-saving treatments and don’t have time to worry about the pollution they cause.

And some might say a global pandemic is not the time to burden health-care professionals with another responsibility.

We argue there’s no better time to raise this issue than when the eyes of the world are on health care. The pandemic has shown us we can achieve change at pace and scale if the evidence is clear and the collective will is shared.

The pandemic has brought attention to waste from single-use personal protective equipment. However, we are yet to develop consistent systems for monitoring these environmental impacts, and to implement effective strategies to reduce these impacts across the world.

Waste from single-use personal protective equipment has no doubt skyrocketed since the pandemic began.
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The way forward

Health-care organisations at every level (national, regional, hospital, primary care) should measure and track their environmental footprint over time, as they do for health outcomes and financial costs.




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All health-care professionals – from doctors and nurses, to managers and members of hospital boards – should understand the environmental footprint of the health care they provide and take steps to reduce it.

The purchasing power of health care should be harnessed to drive sustainability transitions in other sectors. For example, health-care organisations purchase large amounts of food for patients. The managers responsible for this food procurement should ensure the food is healthy, value for money and produced in sustainable ways.

Some health-care organisations are already making progress. Civil society organisations like Global Green and Healthy Hospitals are spreading the word. But there is an urgent need for all health organisations to step up.

As health professionals around the world increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure their own house is in order.The Conversation

Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Arunima Malik, Lecturer in Sustainability, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, Honorary Professor, Exeter UK / Adjunct Professor, Monash Sustainable Development Institute / Visiting Professor, Surrey UK, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Professor of Industrial Ecology and Climate Change, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, Professor of Sustainability Research, School of Physics, University of Sydney

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