Sure, no-one likes a blackout. But keeping the lights on is about to get expensive



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Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne and Anne Kallies, RMIT University

A new official report shows blackouts in eastern Australia’s grid this summer are unlikely. While that’s welcome news, it casts doubt on the wisdom of a recent government decision to tighten electricity reliability standards – a decision that will cost consumers.

The report from the Australian Energy Market Operator, published this morning, is known as the Electricity Statement of Opportunities. It says no “unserved energy” is expected this summer and tight reliability standards will be met for the foreseeable future. This is largely due to increased installations of renewable generation, the return to service of a few coal plants after maintenance and lower electricity demand due to COVID-19.

For the first time, reliability was assessed against new standards substantially tighter than the last. State and federal energy ministers quietly agreed to tighten the standard earlier this year, and just last week the change was finalised.

While electricity supply is expected to be fine this summer, beyond that reliability will deteriorate, particularly for New South Wales, as old power plants close. That’s when the new standard will bite: a grid without power cuts is impossible and expensive.

Adelaide during blackout in 2016.
Adelaide during blackout in 2016. Eliminating outages entirely is expensive.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

What is electricity reliability?

In electricity systems, reliability is a measure of the ability of electricity generation infrastructure to meet consumer demand.

When users require more energy than generators can supply, this can cause outages or blackouts. However, this is a rare cause of blackouts: more than 96% are caused by faults or other incidents on the network, such as trees falling on power lines.

In the National Electricity Market, which covers the eastern states, the term “unserved energy” is used to measure the ability (or not) of the power system to meet consumer demand. Unserved energy occurs through “load shedding”, when electricity to large groups of customers is cut to keep the overall system running.




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The former reliability standard required expected unserved energy be no more than 0.002% in a given year. In other words, the system was expected to deliver 99.998% of the electricity consumers demanded.

The new interim reliability standard reduces this to 0.0006%, out to 2023 when it will be reviewed. The tighter standard will cost energy companies money, which will be recouped from customers.

A $50 note sticking out of a power socket.
The cost of tighter reliability standards will be passed onto consumers.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why has the reliability standard changed?

It’s important to understand the extent to which consumers care about electricity reliability over affordability.

Last December, the Australian Energy Regulator published a review of reliability “values”. It found in general, residential electricity customers valued reliability slightly less in 2019 than in 2014, with the exception of customers in suburban Adelaide (presumably due to the statewide blackouts there in 2016).

So why has the reliability standard been tightened? Blackouts and outages are politically sensitive issues. Politicians, and the market operator for that matter, have strong incentives to ensure reliability, and yet don’t have to pay to achieve it.

For this reason, the reliability standard is supposed to be reviewed and set by an independent reliability panel . The reliability panel has not recommended an increase to the standard.




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Tightening of reliability standards is not a theoretical problem. In particular, we’ve seen the repercussions in the network sector – otherwise known as the “poles and wires”. Following network outages in NSW and Queensland in early 2004, both states rushed in tighter standards for network reliability. This contributed to multibillion-dollar network infrastructure upgrades which consumers have been paying off for years.

Tightening of the reliability standard will similarly increase the costs of generation. From next year, retailers may be required to enter contracts with electricity generators to meet their share of expected peak demand. Or the market operator may secure more electricity capacity when needed – such as by asking large energy users to power down, or bringing diesel or gas generators online.

In either case, the costs are passed on to consumers.

Workers perform maintenance on power lines.
Consumers were still paying for huge infrastructure upgrades to poles and wires in NSW.
Jason Lee/Reuters

Silver lining?

There may be a thin silver lining. The promise of “demand response” measures – when electricity consumers reduce their electricity demand to help supply and demand match during extreme peaks – could lower the cost of meeting the new reliability standard. This is because with less energy being used, fewer more expensive measures may be needed to maintain supply.

The government-appointed Energy Security Board has said tightening the standard may in fact encourage more demand response measures. Supporting demand response is an admirable goal, but tightening the reliability standard is an odd way to go about it.

While the outlook for reliability this summer looks good, the changes in reliability standard ring alarm bells for the future. Consumers are generally happy with their reliability, and the vast majority of outages are not the result of demand outstripping supply. The changes don’t appear well justified or targeted, and they will come at a cost. Things are going to get expensive.




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The Conversation


Dylan McConnell, Research Fellow at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne and Anne Kallies, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University

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

Need a mood lift? We’ve tracked 4 ways Australia’s environment has repaired itself in 2020



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Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

When the clock ticked over to 2020, Australia was in the grip of a brutal drought and unprecedented bushfires. But in the months since, while many of us were indoors avoiding the pandemic, nature has started its slow recovery. That is the message of our new analysis released today.

Every year, my colleagues and I collate a vast number of measurements made by satellites, field sensors and people. We process the data and combine them into a consistent picture of the state of our environment.

Our 2019 report documented a disaster year of record heat, drought, and bushfires. We repeated the analysis after the first half of 2020, keen to see how our environment was recovering.

It’s not all good news. But encouragingly, our results show most of the country has started to bounce back from drought and fire. Here are four ways that’s happening.

1. Rain

Whether a region is in drought depends on the measure used: rainfall, river flows, reservoir storage, soil water availability or cropping conditions. On top of that, Australia is a vast country with large differences between regions.

By most measures, and for most of the country, wetter weather in 2020 helped ease drought conditions – although with caveats and notable exceptions.

Halfway through January, rain-blocking conditions in the Indian Ocean finally relented. This allowed the long-awaited monsoon to reach northern Australia, and encouraged more rainfall across the rest of the continent. February and March brought much needed rains in southeast Australia.

A young girl checks a rain gauge
A young girl checks a rain gauge as her mum watches on at the family farm in February this year. Recent rainfall has eased drought conditions in parts of Australia.
Peter Lorimer/AAP

2. Water availability

Across the continent, the volume of water flowing into rivers in the first half of 2020 was almost four times greater than the previous year – although still below average. Good rains fell in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. Some made it into the town and irrigation water supplies that ran empty during the drought, and storage levels showed a modest improvement by the end of June to 17% of capacity.

The flows were also enough to fill wetlands such as Narran Lakes and the Paroo and Bulloo River wetlands, west of Bourke. There were enough flood waters left to send a modest flood pulse down the Darling River in March for the first time since 2016.

Maximum measured daily flow in the Darling River at Wilcannia (left) and the maximum extent of wetland inundation in the 12 months up to June 2020, compared to the period 2000–2019.

Reservoir water storage across the entire the Murray-Darling Basin improved from 36% of capacity at the end of June 2019 to 44% a year later. Even so, by June 2020 dry conditions still persisted in the tributaries and wetlands of the middle and southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Storage in urban water supply systems increased for Sydney (52% to 81%) and Melbourne (50% to 64%) while remaining stable for Brisbane (66%), Canberra (55%) and Perth (41%).

Meanwhile, lake and wetland extent across much of Western Australia remained at record or near-record low levels. Due to the poor northern monsoon, Lake Argyle – the massive dam lake supplying the Ord irrigation scheme in northern Australia – shrank to 38% of capacity, a level not seen for several decades.




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3. Soil moisture

Soil moisture acts like a bank account: rainfall makes deposits and plant roots make withdrawals. This makes soil moisture a useful measure of drought condition.

Average soil water availability across the country was far below average at the start of 2020, but returned closer to average conditions from March 2020 onwards. Very to extremely low soil water availability across most of northwest and southeast Australia had eased by June 2020.

By the end of June, rains had also improved growing conditions in southeast Queensland, western New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. However, recovery in these regions is, literally, shallow. Soil water remains low in the deeper soil layers and groundwater from which trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation draw their water. Drought conditions also persist in the dry inland of Australia.

Average soil water availability and vegetation condition by local government area at the end of June 2020 in comparison to 2000−2019 conditions.

4. Vegetation growth

Vegetation condition is measured by estimating leaf area from satellite observations. National leaf area reached its lowest value in December 2019 due to drought and bushfires, but improved once the rains returned from February onwards. It’s remained very close to average since.

Autumn rains also brought the best growth conditions in many years across much of the eastern wheat and sheep belt. But in the Western Australian wheat belt, which did not see much rain, cropping conditions are average or below average.

We separately measured vegetation recovery across areas in southeast Australia burnt at different times during the 2019-20 fire season.

In the central and northern NSW regions which burnt earlier in the fire season and received plentiful rains, recovery was relatively swift – more than 63% of lost leaf area had returned by June 2020.

Recovery of vegetation leaf area in areas burnt in Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec 2019 and in Jan/Feb 2020, respectively.

But in the areas burnt in early 2020, recovery has been slow. The burnt forests in the far south of NSW and East Gippsland did not receive good rains until very recently. Also, much of areas burnt in early 2020 are found in the mountains of the NSW-Victoria border region, where cool autumn and winter temperatures have paused plant growth until spring.

Leaf area recovery is not a good measure of biodiversity. Much of the increase will have been due to rapid leaf flush from fire tolerant trees and undergrowth, including weeds. Some damage to ecosystems and sensitive species will take many years to recover, while some species may well be lost forever.

Blackened tree trunks and shoots of green
Australia’s environment is bouncing back from a horrendous 2019.
Marta Yebra/ANU

Climate change: the biggest threat

Rainfall after June has been average to good across much of Australia, and La Niña conditions are predicted to bring further rain. So there is reason to hope our environment will get a chance to recover further from a horrendous 2019.

In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our agriculture and ecosystems. Ever-increasing summer temperatures kill people, livestock and wildlife, dry out soil and vegetation, and increase fire risk. In 2020, high temperatures also caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years.

Decisive climate action is needed, in Australia and worldwide, if we’re to protect ourselves and our ecosystems from long-term decline.




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The Conversation


Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

Under Biden, the US would no longer be a climate pariah – and that leaves Scott Morrison exposed



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Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is campaigning on a platform that puts climate action front and centre. At the Democratic National Convention last week, he outlined a US$2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, a commitment to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

This contrasts starkly with the agenda of President Donald Trump, which has involved rolling back climate regulations and plans for a US withdrawal from the Paris deal.

Clearly, a Biden election win would bring a climate policy sea change in the US – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter and a key player in any international agreement.

The Trump presidency has been a godsend for an Australian government apparently uninterested in significant climate action. But with Trump behind in the polls, a Biden presidency would further expose the Morrison government’s lack of climate ambition – a position that was already fast becoming indefensible.

Donald Trump addressing supporters.
US President Donald Trump signalled the US’ intention to exit the Paris Agreement.
Steve Helber/AP

Climate policy: Australia in the world

In international terms, Australia’s emissions reduction commitments are clearly at the lower level of ambition.

It’s pledged a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, and plans to “carry over” carbon credits earned during the Kyoto protocol period to substantially reduce the emissions reduction task under Paris. Even given this modest goal, and the emissions slowdown during the pandemic, it’s still not certain Australia will meet its target.

But unlike the US, at least Australia can point to its continued commitment to the Paris Agreement itself. And the Morrison government’s claim that Australia’s emission reduction will have little global impact is easier to make when a major emitter is refusing to take substantive climate action.




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But that state of play will change under a Biden presidency. Importantly, the new administration will likely use its re-entry to the global climate action “tent” to push other countries to increase their ambition.

This would put pressure on Australia ahead of COP26 – the next round of United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, in November 2021. The central focus of these talks – postponed from 2020 – will be new national commitments on emissions reduction.

Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, countries have to ratchet up their commitments every five years. So far, there is no indication Australia will comply but ahead of the next COP, host nation the UK will be among a group of nations pushing the Morrison government to go harder. Under Biden, the US would likely join the chorus.

Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament
Scott Morrison is a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Pressure from all directions

Even without a Biden presidency, other forces are making Australia’s climate position less tenable.

Pressure from Australia’s near neighbours has been significant. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum, the Morrison government was roundly chastised for its climate inaction – an issue central to the concerns of Pacific island states. Indeed, it seems clear Australia’s climate policy is undermining the Morrison government’s so-called Pacific step up, making effective engagement with the region much more challenging.




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At home, the devastating effects of the last bushfire season brought Australian climate action into sharp focus. Under climate change, natural disasters such as bushfires will become more frequent and severe.

In 2019, Australians identified climate change as the biggest threat to our vital national interests. The 2020 Lowy Poll saw a slight decline in concern for climate change as the effects of the coronavirus took hold, but support for strong action was still well above 50%.

The National Farmers Federation, historically a relatively conservative voice on climate policy, last week called for Australia to commit to the same target as Biden – net-zero emissions by 2050.

Cows lined up against a fence
The National Farmers Federation wants Australia’s economy to transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.
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This target is also a feature of the federal opposition’s position on climate policy, together with a 40% emissions reduction by 2030. Current Labor infighting over the policy after its 2019 election loss casts some doubt on that commitment. But the party’s climate change spokesman Mark Butler, and others in Labor pushing Australia to do more, will surely be empowered by the dynamics noted above.

If the case for emissions reduction needed strengthening further, a Greenpeace report released on Monday, reviewed by scientists, found pollution from Australia’s 22 coal-fired power stations is responsible for 800 premature deaths each year.

Added to this, research has found more coal power generation closed than opened around the world this year. And the International Energy Agency says renewable electricity may be the only energy source to withstand the COVID-19 demand shock.

Combined with the falling cost of renewables technology, the Morrison government’s dogged support for the fossil fuel industry is increasingly unjustifiable.

No silver bullet

A Biden presidency won’t be a silver bullet for Australian climate policy. The Morrison government has shown itself willing to shrug off international condemnation and view climate action primarily through the lens of mining exports and electricity prices. And for that, they’ve arguably been rewarded at the ballot box.

But domestic and international pressure for Australia to do more is increasing. A Biden election victory would certainly make it that bit harder for Australia to keep its head stuck in the sand.




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The Conversation


Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

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

4 reasons why a gas-led economic recovery is a terrible, naïve idea



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Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia’s leading scientists today sent an open letter to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, speaking out against his support for natural gas.

Finkel has said natural gas plays a critical role in Australia’s transition to clean energy. But, as the scientists write:

that approach is not consistent with a safe climate nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.

And yet, momentum in the support for gas investment is building. Leaked draft recommendations from the government’s top business advisers support a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. They call for a A$6 billion investment in gas development in Australia.

This is a terrible idea. Spending billions on gas infrastructure and development under the guise of a COVID-19 economic recovery strategy — with no attempt to address pricing or anti-competitive behaviour — is ill-considered and injudicious.

It will not herald Australia’s economic recovery. Rather, it’s likely to hinder it.

The proposals ignore obvious concerns

The draft recommendations — from the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission — include lifting the moratorium on fracking and coal seam gas in New South Wales and remaining restrictions in Victoria, and reducing red and “green tape”.

It also recommends providing low-cost capital to existing small and medium market participants, underwriting costs at priority supply hubs, and investing in strategic pipeline development.

But the proposals have failed to address a range of fundamental concerns.

  1. gas is an emissions-intensive fuel

  2. demand for fossil fuels are in terminal decline across the world and investing in new infrastructure today is likely to generate stranded assets in the not-too-distant future

  3. renewable technology and storage capacity have rapidly accelerated, so gas is no longer a necessary transition resource, contrary to Finkel’s claims

  4. domestic gas pricing in the east coast market is unregulated.

Let’s explore each point.

The effect on climate change

Accelerating gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately half of Australian gas reserves need to remain in the ground if global warming is to stay under 2℃ by 2030.

Natural gas primarily consists of methane, and the role of methane in global warming cannot be overstated. It’s estimated that over 20 years, methane traps 86 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.




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And fast-tracking controversial projects, such as the Narrabri Gas Project in northern NSW, will add an estimated 500 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Accelerating such unconventional gas projects also threatens to exacerbate damage to forests, wildlife habitat, water quality and water levels because of land clearing, chemical contamination and fracking.

These potential threats are enormous concerns for our agricultural sector. Insurance Australia Group, one of the largest insurance companies in Australia, has indicated it will no longer provide public liability insurance for farmers if coal seam gas equipment is on their land.

Fossil fuels in decline

Investing in gas makes absolutely no sense when renewable energy and storage solutions are expanding at such a rapid pace.

It will only result in stranded assets. Stranded assets are investments that don’t generate a viable economic return. The financial risks associated with stranded fossil fuel assets are prompting many large institutions to join the growing divestment movement.




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Solar, wind and hydropower are rolling out at unprecedented speed. Globally, renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50% between 2019 and 2024, led by solar PV.

Solar PV alone accounts for almost 60% of the expected growth, with onshore wind representing one-quarter. This is followed by offshore wind capacity, which is forecast to triple by 2024.

Domestic pricing is far too expensive

Domestic gas in Australia’s east coast market is ridiculously expensive. The east coast gas market in Australia is like a cartel, and consumers and industry have experienced enormous price hikes over the last decade. This means there is not even a cost incentive for investing in gas.

Indeed, the price shock from rising gas prices has forced major manufacturing and chemical plants to close.

The domestic price of gas has trebled over the last decade, even though the international price of gas has plummeted by up to 40% during the pandemic.




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As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Simms declared in the interim gas report released last week, these price issues are “extremely concerning” and raise “serious questions about the level of competition among producers”.

To date, the federal government has done very little in response, despite the implementation of the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism in 2017.

This mechanism gives the minister the power to restrict LNG exports when there’s insufficient domestic supply. The idea is that shoring up supply would stabilise domestic pricing.

But the minister has never exercised the power. The draft proposals put forward by the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission do not address these concerns.

A gas-led disaster

There is no doubt gas producers are suffering. COVID-19 has resulted in US$11 billion of Chevron gas and LNG assets being put up for sale.

And the reduction in energy demand caused by COVID-19 has produced record low oil prices. Low oil prices can stifle investment in new sources of supply, reducing the ability and incentive of producers to explore for and develop gas.




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It’s clear the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’s recommendations are oriented towards helping gas producers. But investing in gas production and development won’t help Australia as a whole recover from the pandemic.

The age of peak fossil fuel is over. Accelerating renewable energy production, which coheres with climate targets and a decarbonising global economy, is the only way forward.

A COVID-19 economic strategy that fails to appreciate this not only naïve, it’s contrary to the interests of broader Australia.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



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Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
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Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




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The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




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Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




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The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

How Bob Brown taught Australians to talk about, and care for, the ‘wilderness’



AAP/supplied

Libby Lester, University of Tasmania

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, looking at the way they changed the nature of debate, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. You can also read the rest of our pieces here.


To understand Bob Brown’s impact on Australian political debate, watch Tasmanian commercial television and stay on the couch during the ad breaks.

Here’s an advertisement for “wilderness tours”, another for small businesses on the “Tarkine coast”. Few of the audience, let alone the businesses paying for the ads, would know these terms came into common use because of the way Bob Brown does politics.

Anywhere known as “wilderness” was best avoided before the late 1970s when Brown, then leader of the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River from damming, started deliberately including the term in almost every public statement he made about the threatened area. He understood the symbolic power of the term.

His political and media opponents quickly learned also. The Hobart Mercury – a strong supporter of the Hydro Electric Commission and its political masters – rarely let the word onto its pages. This was different from, for example, the Melbourne Age, which opposed the damming.

NO DAM headline on The Launceston Examiner in 1983.
The High Court decision to block the Franklin River dam was very significant and divisive.
Tasmanian Electoral Commission

The Tasmanian media’s approach changed shortly after the High Court decision to block the damming in July 1983, when the commercial potential of “wilderness” began to emerge. Even the Mercury was promoting a calendar of “wilderness” images by the end of 1983.

Beginning in the 1990s, Brown applied the same patient strategy to the campaign to protect the area between the Arthur and Pieman rivers in north-west Tasmania. The Tarkine, with its forest and mineral resources, might still not be fully protected – earlier this year there were more arrests of members of the Bob Brown Foundation. But it is probably a lot closer than it would be if Brown had stuck to calling it the Arthur-Pieman.

Originally from regional New South Wales, Brown moved to Tasmania during the ultimately failed Lake Pedder campaign of the early 1970s. On the advice of Richard Jones, president of what is now recognised as the world’s first Green party, the United Tasmania Group, the openly gay young GP in ill-fitting suits started standing for Tasmanian parliament in 1972. After a decade of trying, he won the lower house seat of Denison (now renamed Clark; Brown might have come up with something less predictable) in 1983.

The shift from protest camps to the formal political arena proved challenging to Brown’s way of doing politics. As a young journalist covering Tasmanian parliament in the mid-1980s, I watched as the ever-polite-if-firm Brown inadvertently almost outlawed lesbianism as he tried to make Tasmania’s appalling anti-homosexuality laws symbolically nonsensical.

Ironically, the notoriously conservative members of the Legislative Council rejected his amendment, saving Tasmania’s lesbians from becoming criminals. While the mistake was memorable, more so was Brown’s willingness to acknowledge what he still describes as the worst moment of his political career.

However, some members of the Australian Greens, the party Brown was instrumental in forming in 1992, might suggest his worst political moment was publicly supporting the partial sale of Telstra in return for environmental gains before the party had debated the move internally.

Brown’s occasional failure to respect his party’s way of coming to decisions is forgivable. After all, consensus politics only really works when a strong leader guides the way, and Brown – as is increasingly obvious for the Greens – was exactly that.

Brown was elected to the Senate in 1996, after ten years in the lower house of Tasmania’s state parliament. He was re-elected to the Senate twice, in 2001 and again in 2007 when he won the highest personal vote of any Tasmanian senator.

The 2010 election resulted in nine Greens in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. Negotiations with Brown and the Greens led to Julia Gillard and the ALP forming government in return for an ever-elusive carbon plan.

As a senator, Brown continued his play with the symbolic that he had learned so well as a protester. He made international headlines in 2003, not only for interjecting during US President George W. Bush’s speech to the Australian parliament, but for shaking the president’s hand afterwards. Bush responded to the heckling by saying: “I love free speech.”

Woodchip giant Gunns expressed exactly the opposite sentiment the following year when it launched a A$6.3 million law suit against Brown and 19 other activists just before Christmas to silence them over its pulp mill plans. Gunns should have known Brown was always going to out-survive it. The company collapsed in 2012, taking with it one of the worst reputations in Australian corporate history.

Brown stepped down as leader of the Australian Greens and retired from the Senate in 2012. After forming the Bob Brown Foundation, he has sparked more recent debate over whether the Adani convoy in 2019 was in fact his worst political moment, turning Queensland voters and thus the most recent federal election to the LNP.

For some critics, the convoy led by Brown was a misguided attempt to redeploy old tactics and relive past glories. Given the protest involved a convoy of fossil-fuelled vehicles travelling to oppose fossil fuel extraction, it does seem on the surface, at least, that Brown’s ability to harness the symbolic deserted him in this case.

However, a deeper play with the symbolic was under way, one I suspect Brown knows will be recognised with time, if it hasn’t been already. Brown is not afraid of being seen as an outsider – perhaps he has had no choice in a country where blokiness is a common character trait of political insiders. Nor has he ever pandered to the small-town politics that puts local rights over what he considers the greater good.

The Adani convoy was meant to be seen exactly as it was – an invasion by outsiders. If it contributed to the election loss for the ALP, so be it. Brown is playing a long game.

Brown may have affected the way politics is debated in Australia, but he has not yet changed that politics.

As Brown’s career has highlighted, ours is a politics where economic growth and environmental protection are still largely in conflict: jobs versus conservation, social needs versus ecological futures, left versus right. These tensions remain as evident in the political party Brown formed as in the responses of his political opponents, in media commentary and in voter choices.

Australia’s inability to act on carbon emissions exemplifies both the enduring nature of this politics and how long a game Brown has always been willing to play. In Brown’s maiden speech in the Senate in 1996, he said:

One has only to look again at the reality that if we do not rein in the greenhouse gas phenomenon one billion people on this planet will be displaced if the oceans rise by a metre at the end of the next century. This for a planet on which the wealthy ones who fly between here and London put, on average per passenger, five tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Thirteen years later, when the Greens led by Brown voted against Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – and hence still carry the blame for Kevin Rudd’s failure to respond to “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – Brown’s argument for his party’s opposition to the scheme was “that it locked in failure” by “providing polluters billions of dollars and setting targets way too low”.

Like Gunns, the major parties can’t say they weren’t warned. Another thing Brown had said in his first speech in the Senate, quoting British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, was: “the future will either be green or not at all”.

Brown is indeed playing a long game, and we can only guess what name he will give politics if he wins.The Conversation

Libby Lester, Director, Institute for Social Change, University of Tasmania

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

Forest Wind and Australia’s renewables revolution: how big clean energy projects risk leaving local communities behind



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Tom Morton, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, University of Technology Sydney

On top of announcing three Renewable Energy Zones this week the Queensland Parliament paved the way for an exclusive deal to build one of the biggest onshore wind farms in the Southern Hemisphere.

With up to 226 wind turbines in state-owned pine plantations, the 1,200 megawatt Forest Wind project could power one in four Queensland homes and help the state meet its target of 50% renewable-generated electricity by 2030.

The turbines will be a minimum of three kilometres from the nearest town. Because they’re sited in an exotic pine plantation, impacts on native flora, fauna, and habitats will be minimised. At first sight, Forest Wind looks like a model project. But look a little closer, and Forest Wind embodies many of the contradictions at the heart of Australia’s renewable energy revolution.

The current pace of Australia’s energy transition is breathtaking. But big projects like Forest Wind need to take local communities with them, and build a social licence for the energy transition from the ground up.

A community ‘kept in the dark’

As our research in the German state of Brandenburg shows, building towers 160 metres high – that’s higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge – anywhere near settlements tends to lead to community opposition and lengthy delays.

Affected communities are much more likely to accept a massive wind farm on their doorstep if they feel they’ve been listened to by project developers, and can see clear benefits.

The three-kilometre “exclusion zone” for Forest Wind is twice the 1,500 metre minimum distance from settlements required under Queensland law. And project developers argue its location amid dense pine trees will provide “a natural buffer between Forest Wind and local residences”.

Wind turbines with red tips
Wind turbines near Rosenthal Brandenburg. Our research in Germany found building wind farms near towns causes opposition and delays.
Lothar Michael Peter, Author provided

But local residents told a parliamentary committee in June they’d been kept in the dark about the project, claiming “it was kept secret from 2016 until the public announcement in December 2019”. They also expressed concern about its visual impact and proximity to bird migration corridors.

The developers and the state government seem to have followed the well-known and widely criticised “DAD” approach: Decide, Announce, Defend.

“DAD” may be common in current planning processes, but the people of the nearby Wide Bay community may feel that, so far, there’s not enough in it for them.

The Conversation contacted Forest Wind Holdings for a response to this article. A spokesperson said the project will provide the local community a long and ongoing opportunity to continually provide input.

Forest Wind is pleased to have received feedback from hundreds of people so far including at information days, online forums, letters and over the phone. […] Since the project’s announcement, COVID-19 has certainly impacted community consultation activities, as local halls have been closed and a planned wind farm tour has had to be cancelled.

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, Forest Wind is establishing a Community Reference Group […] Forest Wind intends to work closely through the Community Reference Group to continue to understand the needs and interests of the local community and work in a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach to address community concerns and develop initiatives that leverage the Project and deliver community benefits.

Few community benefits

The Forest Wind website lists no concrete community benefits, no benefit sharing programs, concrete training or education initiatives, and hardly any community engagement besides standard consultation meetings and newsletters.

Elsewhere it’s becoming common for government-led renewable energy auctions to stipulate socio-economic objectives other than just capacity or price. In Victoria, one preference was to use labour and components from the state. In the ACT, one outcome was wider benefit sharing in the form of community co-investment.




Read more:
Climate explained: are we doomed if we don’t manage to curb emissions by 2030?


The Queensland government has fast-tracked Forest Wind through its Exclusive Transactions Framework, which gives preferential treatment to large-scale infrastructure projects. In other words, it’s picked a winner.

Forest Wind Holdings did not have to go through a competitive tender or auction process. Given the sheer size of the project, the state government had plenty of scope to negotiate better-than-average benefits for Wide Bay and the state.

Then there’s a further issue: jobs. According to the project website, 50% of the jobs in the construction phase (around 200) and 90% during operations (about 50) can be filled by people in the Wide Bay region.

A Forest Wind spokesperson said there are “vast benefits” for the local people in Wide Bay, including job opportunities in the concrete and construction sector.

These are all real jobs, for which on-the-job training and on-the-job management and mentoring can benefit workers to skill-up in working on Forest Wind, on future wind farms, and increase the opportunity to apply skills and qualifications in other areas of the economy.

Forest Wind was originated by local Queenslanders and the development team are based in this local area of Queensland. Already there are real local jobs, with more local jobs to come as the project develops – this is a positive.

But local communities need to see more lasting job creation from big renewable projects, not just “the circus coming to town”.

Consulting with native title holders

One clearly innovative aspect of Forest Wind is the requirement for an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which provides negotiation rights for titleholders and compensation. Under legislation passed this week, the developer must negotiate a land use agreement where native title exists, and “the project cannot proceed without the free and informed consent of these individuals and communities”.

Part of Forest Wind is located on native title lands held by the Butchulla People, whose native title is well-established. Another part is on the land of the Kabi Kabi people, whose native title claim is pending. Forest Wind states it is consulting with native title holders and looks forward to partnerships with them.




Read more:
Why most Aboriginal people have little say over clean energy projects planned for their land


In contrast, last year the Queensland government extinguished native title over land in the Galilee Basin to make way for the Adani coal mine.

And the Adani mine is now only expected to offer only 100 to 800 ongoing jobs.

So let’s be clear: we should applaud Queensland’s decision to throw its weight behind the energy transition.

A recent report estimates that, with the right stimulus measures now, by 2030 there could be 13,000 Queenslanders working long-term in the renewable sector, and tens of thousands more short term jobs in construction.

Some 75% of those jobs would be in regional Queensland. The challenge is to ensure enough of them go to regions like Wide Bay.

And at a national level, Australia should look to Germany as a model.

Community energy projects

Renewables now employ 304,000 people in Germany. That compares with about 60,000 in the coal industry.

Germany built its energy transition over 30 years. The German experience shows how fostering citizen involvement and ownership will strengthen long-term social acceptance for renewable energy.

This means encouraging community energy, energy cooperatives, community owned retailers or community-based Virtual Power Plants. Community energy projects are estimated to have higher employment impacts and can better prioritise local contractors than corporate-led projects.

A greater focus on energy democracy would build a stronger foundation for the energy transition Australia has to have.




Read more:
Really Australia, it’s not that hard: 10 reasons why renewable energy is the future


The Conversation


Tom Morton, Associate Professor, Journalism, Stream Leader, Climate Justice Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney; James Goodman, Professor in Political Sociology, University of Technology Sydney; Katja Müller, Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Riikka Heikkinen, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney

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

Australia’s farmers want more climate action – and they’re starting in their own (huge) backyards



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Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne

The National Farmer’s Federation says Australia needs a tougher policy on climate, today calling on the Morrison government to commit to an economy wide target of net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050.

It’s quite reasonable for the farming sector to call for stronger action on climate change. Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate, and the sector is on its way to having the technologies to become “carbon neutral”, while maintaining profitability.

Agriculture is a big deal to Australia. Farms comprise 51% of land use in Australia and contributed 11% of all goods and services exports in 2018–19. However, the sector also contributed 14% of national greenhouse gas emissions.

A climate-ready and carbon neutral food production sector is vital to the future of Australia’s food security and economy.

A tractor plowing a field.
Agriculture comprises 51% of Australia’s land use.
Shutterstock

Paris Agreement is driving change

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 196 countries pledged to reduce their emissions, with the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Some 119 of these national commitments include cutting emissions from agriculture, and 61 specifically mentioned livestock emissions.

Emissions from agriculture largely comprise methane (from livestock production), nitrous oxide (from nitrogen in soils) and to a lesser extent, carbon dioxide (from machinery burning fossil fuel, and the use of lime and urea on soils).




Read more:
UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases


In Australia, emissions from the sector have fallen by 10.8% since 1990, partly as a result of drought and an increasingly variable climate affecting agricultural production (for example, wheat production).

But the National Farmers’ Federation wants the sector to grow to more than A$100 billion in farm gate output by 2030 – far higher than the current trajectory of $84 billion. This implies future growth in emissions if mitigation strategies are not deployed.

Farm machinery spreading fertiliser
Farm machinery spreading fertiliser, which is a major source of agriculture emissions.
Shutterstock

Runs on the board

Players in Australia’s agriculture sector are already showing how net-zero emissions can be achieved.

In 2017, the Australian red meat sector committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. A number of red-meat producers have claimed to have achieved net-zero emissions including Arcadian Organic & Natural’s Meat Company, Five Founders and Flinders + Co.

Our research has shown two livestock properties in Australia – Talaheni and Jigsaw farms – have also achieved carbon neutral production. In both cases, this was mainly achieved through regeneration of soil and tree carbon on their properties, which effectively draws down an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to balance with their farm emissions.




Read more:
Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way


Other agricultural sectors including dairy, wool and cropping are actively considering their own emission reduction targets.

Carbon neutral wine is being produced, such as by Ross Hill, and Tulloch and Tahbilk.

Most of these examples are based on offsetting farm emissions – through buying carbon credits or regenerating soil and tree carbon – rather than direct reductions in emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide.

But significant options are available, or emerging, to reduce emissions of “enteric” methane – the result of fermentation in the foregut of ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats.

Wine grapes growing on a vine
Some Australian wineries have gone carbon neutral.
Shutterstock

For example, livestock can be fed dietary supplements high in oils and tannins that restrict the microbes that generate methane in the animal’s stomach. Oil and tannins are also a byproduct of agricultural waste products such as grape marc (the solid waste left after grapes are pressed) and have been found to reduce methane emissions by around 20%.

Other promising technologies are about to enter the market. These include 3-NOP and Asparagopsis, which actively inhibit key enzymes in methane generation. Both technologies may reduce methane by up to 80%.

There are also active research programs exploring ways to breed animals that produce less methane, and raise animals that produce negligible methane later in life.

On farms, nitrous oxide is mainly lost through a process called “denitrification”. This is where bacteria convert soil nitrates into nitrogen gases, which then escape from the soil into the atmosphere. Options to significantly reduce these losses are emerging, including efficient nitrogen fertilisers, and balancing the diets of animals.

There is also significant interest in off-grid renewable energy in the agricultural sector. This is due to the falling price of renewable technology, increased retail prices for electricity and the rising cost to farms of getting connected to the grid.

What’s more, the first hydrogen-powered tractors are now available – meaning the days of diesel and petrol consumption on farms could end.

Wind turbine on a farm
Renewable energy on farms can be cheaper and easier than grid connection.
Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Sipa

More work is needed

In this race towards addressing climate change, we must ensure the integrity of carbon neutral claims. This is where standards or protocols are required.

Australian researchers have recently developed a standard for the red meat sector’s carbon neutral target, captured in simple calculators aligned with the Australian national greenhouse gas inventory. This allow farmers to audit their progress towards carbon neutral production.

Technology has moved a long way from the days when changing the diet of livestock was the only option to reduce farm emissions. However significant research is still required to achieve a 100% carbon neutral agriculture sector – and this requires the Australian government to co-invest with agriculture industries.

And in the long term, we must ensure measures to reduce emissions from farming also meet targets for productivity, biodiversity and climate resilience.




Read more:
IPCC’s land report shows the problem with farming based around oil, not soil


The Conversation


Richard Eckard, Professor & Director, Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, University of Melbourne

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

The Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction as a ‘large predator’ – but it was only half as heavy as we thought



Smithsonian Institution/colourised by D.S. Rovinsky

Douglass Rovinsky, Monash University; Alistair Evans, Monash University, and Justin W. Adams, Monash University

Until it was hunted to extinction, the thylacine – also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf – was the world’s largest marsupial predator. However, our new research shows it was in fact only about half as large as previously thought. So perhaps it wasn’t such a big bad wolf after all.

Although the thylacine is widely known as an example of human-caused extinction, there is a lot we still don’t know about this fascinating animal. This even includes one of the most basic details: how much did the thylacine weigh?

An animal’s body mass is one of the most fundamental aspects of its biology. It affects nearly every facet of its biology, from biochemical and metabolic processes, reproduction, growth, and development, through to where the animal can live and how it moves.

For meat-eating predators, body mass also determines what the animal eats – or more specifically, how much it has to eat at each meal.

Catching and eating other animals is hard work, so a predator has to weigh the costs carefully against the benefits. Small predators have low hunting costs – moving around, hunting, and killing small prey doesn’t cost much energy, so they can afford to nibble on small animals here and there. But for bigger predators, the stakes are higher.

Almost all large predators – those weighing at least 21  kilograms – focus their efforts on prey at least half their own body size, getting more bang for the buck. In contrast, small predators below 14.5 kg almost always catch prey much smaller than half their own size. Those in between typically take prey less than half their size, but sometimes switch to a larger meal if some easy prey is there for the taking – or if the predator is getting desperate.

The mismeasure of the thylacine

Scan of article from Launceston Examiner
The March 14, 1868 edition of the Launceston Examiner featured tales of a ‘hyena’ that managed to kill 25 sheep.
trove.nla.gov.au

Few accurately recorded weights exist for thylacines – only four, in fact. This lack of information has made estimating their average size difficult. The most commonly used average body mass is 29.5kg, based on 19th-century newspaper accounts.

This suggests the thylacine would probably have taken relatively large prey such as wallabies, kangaroos and perhaps sheep. However, studies of thylacine skulls suggest they didn’t have strong enough skulls to capture and kill large prey, and that they would have hunted smaller animals instead.

This presented a problem: if the thylacine was as big as we thought, it shouldn’t be able to live solely on small prey. But what if we’ve had the weight wrong the whole time?




Read more:
Why did the Tasmanian tiger go extinct?


Weighing an extinct animal

Man taking a scan of a stuffed thylacine
Ben Myers of Thinglab scans a Museums Victoria thylacine.
CREDIT, Author provided

Our new research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, addresses this weighty issue. Our team travelled throughout the world to museums in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, and 3D-scanned 93 thylacines, including whole mounted skeletons, taxidermy mounts, and the only whole-body ethanol-preserved thylacine in the world, in Sweden.

Based on these scans, we created new equations to estimate a thylacine’s mass, based on how thick their limbs were – because their legs would have had to support their entire weight.

We also compared the results of these equations with a new method of digitally weighing 3D specimens. Based on a 3D scan of a mounted skeleton, we digitally “filled in the spaces” to estimate how much soft tissue would have been present, and then used our new formula to calculate how much this would weigh. Taxidermy mounts were easier as there was no need to infer the amount of soft tissue. The most artistic member of our team digitally sculpted lifelike thylacines around the scanned skeletons, and we weighed them, too.

Building and weighing a thylacine. Scanned skeletons (lop left) were surrounded by digital ‘convex hulls’ (top right), which then had their volume and mass calculated. The skeletons were then used in digitally sculpting lifelife models (bottom left), each with their own unique stripes (bottom right).
Rovinsky et al.

Our calculations unanimously told a very different story from the 19th-century periodicals, and from the commonly used estimate. The average thylacine weighed only about 16.7 kg – not 29.5 kg.




Read more:
Friday essay: on the trail of the London thylacines


Tall tales on the tiger trail

This means the previous estimate, based on taking 19th-century periodicals at face value, was nearly 80% too large. Looking back at those old newspaper reports, many of them in retrospect have the hallmarks of “tall tales”, told to make a captured thylacine seem bigger, more impressive and more dangerous.

It was based on this suspected danger that the thylacine was hunted and trapped to extinction, with private bounties already placed on them by 1840, and government-sponsored extermination by the 1880s.

Graphic showing the size of thylacines relative to a woman
Thylacines were much smaller in stature than humans or grey wolves.
Rovinsky et al., Author provided

The thylacine was much smaller than previously thought, and this aligns with the smaller prey size suggested by the earlier studies. Predators below 21 kg – in which we should now include the thylacine – all tend to hunt prey smaller than half their size. The “Tasmanian wolf” probably wasn’t such a danger to Tasmanian farmers’ sheep after all.

By rewriting this fundamental aspect of their biology, we are closer to understanding the role of the thylacine in the ecosystem – and to seeing exactly what was lost when we deliberately hunted it to extinction.The Conversation

Douglass Rovinsky, PhD Candidate, Monash University; Alistair Evans, Associate Professor, Monash University, and Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University

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

In a land of ancient giants, these small oddball seals once called Australia home


Artwork by Peter Trusler, Author provided

James Patrick Rule, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Monash University

When most of us think of the prehistoric past, we envision a world of bizarre, often fearsome giants. From dinosaurs to mammoths and even penguins, life then seemed larger than life today.

Millions of years ago in Australia, giant goannas, kangaroos and diprotodontids (wombat relatives) roamed the landscape. The seas teemed with gargantuan predators such as the infamous “megalodon” shark and so-called giant killer sperm whales.

Fossils from this lost world can be found in sandstone rocks, between five million and six million years old, at Beaumaris – a bayside suburb in Melbourne and one of Australia’s most significant urban fossil sites. Here, fossils of ancient marine animals often wash ashore, eroded out of rocks by the tides.

However, some of these fossils are now revealing “jumbo” was not the only size for extinct animals. Our team’s research, published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, reports nine new seal fossils from Beaumaris, which we suspect came from nine different individuals.

The findings paint a picture of a relatively small animal, making its way through a world of giants.




Read more:
Meet the giant wombat relative that scratched out a living in Australia 25 million years ago


More than doubling the seal fossil record

Melburnians have been collecting fossils from Beaumaris for more than 100 years. Yet it continues to produce remarkable and scientifically important finds.

A beach foreshore in Melbourne.
The fossils we studied were found on the foreshore of Beaumaris, Melbourne.
Erich Fitzgerald, Author provided

This includes extremely rare fossils of animals such as seals. Previously, scientists had studied only one seal fossil from this site.

The nine new fossils detailed in our research were collected and donated to Museums Victoria by local scientists and citizen scientists over the past 88 years. They have more than doubled the known fossil record of seals in Australia.

These fossils represent the oldest evidence of seals in Australia and were identified as “true seals”, a group mostly known from the Arctic and Antarctic. True seals belong to a different group to Australia’s fur seals and sea lions (eared seals), which only arrived in the region about 500,000 years ago.

Seal fossil specimens
In total, we found nine seal fossil specimens from Beaumaris, from potentially nine different individuals.
Erich Fitzgerald and James Rule, Author provided

In particular, one of the fossils we identified is a monachine (a southern true seal). Today, these are represented by animals such as leopard or elephant seals in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic, to which they are related.

Size estimates found the Beaumaris monachines to have been quite small, at only 1.7 metres long. This is similar to the size of today’s Northern Hemisphere seals such as the harbour seal.

However, the Beaumaris seal’s living relatives are much larger – usually 3m long or more. Modern leopard seals can grow to more than 3m long, while elephant seals can reach up to a gigantic 5m in length.

Most fossil whales found at Beaumaris are also smaller than their living counterparts.

This is the opposite trend to many other animal groups with fossils found there, including some sharks and seabirds, wherein the extinct animals were much larger than those alive today.

The extinct Beaumaris seal was much smaller than its living relatives today.
Art by Peter Trusler, Author provided

An uncertain future for marine life

Why is finding small seals at Beaumaris important?

Five million years ago, before the ice ages, the average annual temperature in southeast Australia was about 2–4°C warmer than it is today, with sea levels up to 25m higher.

These warmer oceans supported a greater diversity of marine megafauna than today, with longer but less energy-efficient food chains. These chains only had room for a few large top predators, such as megalodon sharks. And this may have limited the size of other top predators, including seals.

This chart shows the history of seals’ size evolution in Australia, compared to large sharks.
Peter Trusler and James Rule, Author provided

This is important. It suggests the large size of Antarctic seals living in the Southern Ocean today is due to colder oceans with more energy-efficient food chains, in which more food is available for marine animals.

If climate change continues to warm the oceans, food chains may once again start to become less energy efficient, resulting in a loss of the resources today’s large seals rely on for survival.

The discovery of seal fossils at Beaumaris has implications for not only unlocking the past, but also for contextualising the future.

It shows the biodiversity and ecology of marine megafauna off southern Australia originated during the long-term transition from a warmer to colder world – a process that only recently began changing trajectory.

To this day, the fossil site at Beaumaris continues to reveal scientifically important finds, thanks to members of the public working with scientists from Museums Victoria.




Read more:
The Meg: the ocean’s fossil record is a treasure trove for potential monster movies


The Conversation


James Patrick Rule, Palaeontology PhD Candidate, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator, Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University

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