Carbon dioxide levels over Australia rose even after COVID-19 forced global emissions down. Here’s why



Shutterstock

Zoe Loh, CSIRO; Helen Cleugh, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, CSIRO, and Ray Langenfelds, CSIRO

COVID-19 has curtailed the activities of millions of people across the world and with it, greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, we are routinely asked: does this mean carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have fallen?

The answer, disappointingly, is no. Throughout the pandemic, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels continued to rise.

In fact, our measurements show more CO₂ accumulated in the atmosphere between January and July 2020 than during the same period in 2017 or 2018.

Emissions from last summer’s bushfires may have contributed to this. But there are several other reasons why COVID-19 has not brought CO₂ concentrations down at Cape Grim – let’s take a look at them.

Measuring the cleanest air in the world

Cape Grim is on the northwest tip of Tasmania. Scientists at the station, run by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, have monitored and studied the global atmosphere for the past 44 years.

The air we monitor is the cleanest in the world when it blows from the southwest, off the Southern Ocean. Measurements taken during these conditions are known as “baseline concentrations”, and represent the underlying level of carbon dioxide in the Southern Hemisphere’s atmosphere.

The Cape Grim station
The Cape Grim station measures the cleanest air in the world.
Bureau of Meteorology



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Forty years of measuring the world’s cleanest air reveals human fingerprints on the atmosphere


A drop in the CO₂ ocean

Emissions reductions due to COVID-19 started in China in January, and peaked globally in April. Our measurements show atmospheric CO₂ levels rose during that period. In January 2020, baseline CO₂ was 408.3 parts per million (ppm) at Cape Grim. By July that had risen to 410 ppm.

Since the station first began measurements in 1976, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by 25%, as shown in the graph below. The slowdown in the rate of carbon emissions during the pandemic is a mere tug against this overall upward trend.

The CO₂ increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and land use change such as deforestation which leaves fewer trees to absorb CO₂ from the air, and changes the uptake and release of carbon in the soils.

Baseline CO₂ record from Cape Grim.
Baseline CO₂ record from Cape Grim.
Author provided

Atmospheric transport

Large air circulation patterns in the atmosphere spread gases such as CO₂ around the world, but this process takes time.

Most emissions reduction due to COVID-19 occurred in the Northern Hemisphere, because that’s where most of the world’s population lives. Direct measurements of CO₂ in cities where strict lockdown measures were imposed show emissions reductions of up to 75%. This would have reduced atmospheric CO₂ concentrations locally.

But it will take many months for this change to manifest in the Southern Hemisphere atmosphere – and by the time it does, the effect will be significantly diluted.

Natural ups and downs

Emissions reductions during COVID-19 are a tiny component of a very large carbon cycle. This cycle is so dynamic that even when the emissions slowdown is reflected in atmospheric CO₂ levels, the reduction will be well within the cycle’s natural ebb and flow.

Here’s why. Global carbon emissions have grown by about 1% a year over the past decade. This has triggered growth in atmospheric CO₂ levels of between 2 and 3 ppm per year in that time, as shown in the graph below. In fact, since our measurements began, CO₂ has accumulated more rapidly in the atmosphere with every passing decade, as emissions have grown.

Annual growth in CO₂ at Cape Grim  since 1976. Red horizontal bars show the average growth rate in ppm/year each decade.
Annual growth in CO₂ at Cape Grim since 1976. Red horizontal bars show the average growth rate in ppm/year each decade.
Author provided

But although CO₂ emissions have grown consistently, the resulting rate of accumulation in the atmosphere varies considerably each year. This is because roughly half of human emissions are mopped up by ecosystems and the oceans, and these processes change from year to year.

For example, in southeast Australia, last summer’s extensive and prolonged bushfires emitted unusually large amounts of CO₂, as well as changing the capacity of ecosystems to absorb it. And during strong El Niño events, reduced rainfall in some regions limits the productivity of grasslands and forests, so they take up less CO₂.

The graph below visualises this variability. It shows the baseline CO₂ concentrations for each year, relative to January 1. Note how the baseline level changes through a natural seasonal cycle, how that change varies from year to year and how much CO₂ has been added to the atmosphere by the end of the year.

Daily baseline values for CO₂ for each year from 1977 relative to 1 January for that year
Daily baseline values for CO2 for each year from 1977 relative to 1 January for that year.
Author provided

The growth rate has been as much as 3 ppm per year. The black line represents 2020 and lines for the preceding five years are coloured. All show recent annual growth rates of about 2-3 ppm/year – a variability in the range of about 1 ppm/year.




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Research in May estimated that due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, global annual average emissions for 2020 would be between 4.2% and 7.5% lower than for 2019.

Let’s simplistically assume CO₂ concentration growth reduces by the same amount. There would be 0.08-0.23 ppm less CO₂ in the atmosphere by the end of 2020 than if no pandemic occurred. This variation is well within the natural 1 ppm/year annual variability in CO₂ growth.

CO₂ is released in industrial emissions
CO₂ levels in the atmosphere are increasing due to fossil fuel burning and land use change.
Shutterstock

The road ahead

It’s clear COVID-19 has not solved the climate change problem. But this fact helps us understand the magnitude of change required if we’re to stabilise the global climate system.

The central aim of the Paris climate agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5℃. To achieve this, global CO₂ emissions must decline by 3% and 7% each year, respectively, until 2030, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report.

Thanks to COVID-19, we may achieve this reduction in 2020. But to lock in year-on-year emissions reductions that will be reflected in the atmosphere, we must act now to make deep, significant and permanent changes to global energy and economic systems.


The lead author, Zoe Loh, discusses the CO₂ record from Cape Grim in Fight for Planet A, showing now on the ABC.




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The Conversation


Zoe Loh, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO; Helen Cleugh, Senior research scientist, CSIRO Climate Science Centre, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO, and Ray Langenfelds, Scientist at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, CSIRO

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

‘Majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre’: New Guinea has 13,634 species of plants, and these are some of our favourites



Bulbophyllum alkmaarense: New Guinea is home to more than 2,400 species of native orchids.
Andre Schuiteman/CSIRO

Bruce Webber, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, University of Zürich

Scientists have been interested in the flora of New Guinea since the 17th century, but formal knowledge of the tropical island’s diversity has remained limited.

To solve this mystery, our global team of 99 scientists from 56 institutions built the first ever expert-verified checklist to the region’s vascular plants (those with conductive tissue).

We found there are 13,634 formally described species of plants in New Guinea, of which a remarkable 68% are known to occur there and nowhere else. This richness trumps both Madagascar (11,488 species) and Borneo (11,165 species), making New Guinea the most floristically diverse island in the world.

From tarantula-like orchids to giant bananas, here we reveal some of the more mysterious plants on our checklist. Sadly, unsustainable logging and climate change threaten the conservation of many New Guinean species, and we highlight urgent solutions.




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The majestic flora of New Guinea

New Guinea is a land of evocative contrasts. As the world’s largest tropical island – made up of Papua New Guinea to the east and two Indonesian provinces to the west – its biological diversity spans habitats from fringing mangroves to alpine grasslands.

The flora is diverse, filled with the majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre. However, very little is known about the conservation status of many species in New Guinea, which remains relatively unexplored by scientists.

The high hoop pine with thin branches and a full canopy
High hoop pines tower over forest canopy.
Wikimedia, CC BY

There are the few remaining forests of 60 metres high hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and klinkii pine (A. hunsteinii), that tower majestically up to 30 metres above the already tall rainforest canopy.

Figs, with their copious sap, are present in diverse forms, from small shrubs to vines, or large canopy trees.

And the strongly irritant black sap of the Semecarpus tree, a distant relative of the American poison ivy, causing severe dermatitis, is something naive botanists must learn to avoid!

Three panels showing different parts of Ryparosa amplifolia
Ryparosa amplifolia maintains an intimate association with ants via hollow stems and food bodies.
Bruce Webber, Author provided

Then there’s the Ryparosa amplifolia, a rainforest tree that provides swollen hollow stems for ant colonies to live inside. The tree also produces energy rich “food bodies” – granule-like structures on the leaves that mimic animal tissue and provide the ants with sustenance. In return, the ants act as bodyguards, chasing away insect herbivores, and leaf cleaners.

A giant banana tree with an umbrella-like canopy and a thick trunk towers in a rainforest
The giant banana tree holds the record of being the largest and tallest non-woody plant in the world.
Rodrigo Camara, Author provided

Some of our most popular foods were domesticated from New Guinea, including sugarcane and bananas. But the giant banana, Musa ingens is a a highlight in montane forests. Its leaves can stretch to a length of 5 metres, the tree can grow more than 20 metres tall, and its fruits are massive.

With more than 2,400 species of native orchid species, New Guinea is one of the most spectacular floral gardens in the world. It includes fascinating species such as Bulbophyllum nocturnum, which is the first and only known example of a night-flowering orchid, and Bulbophyllum tarantula, with appendages that resemble the iconic spider.

A close-up of a green orchid with pink blotches and furry leg-like bits
Bulbophyllum tarantula gets its name from its tarantula-like appearance.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

An uncertain future

Despite New Guinea’s seemingly high number of plant species, at least 3,000 species remain to be discovered and formally described. This estimate is based on the rate of description of new species in the past decades.

Much of New Guinea, particularly the Indonesian part, has been extremely poorly studied, with very few plant species collected. Even within Papua New Guinea, the distribution of many species is inadequately known. This means our findings should be viewed as a baseline upon which to prioritise further work.

The biggest impact on forest conservation is from logging, both clear-felling and degradation. As land is predominantly under customary ownership, addressing subsistence-related forest loss is a long-term challenge. Climate change adds yet further threats, including increased burning of degraded forest due to drier weather.

This means there’s a high risk of the world losing entire species before they are even known.

Looking down on the jungles of Papua New Guinea
Unsustainable logging and climate change are the biggest threats to the flora of New Guinea.
Shutterstock

To this end, in 2018 the governors of Indonesia’s two New Guinea provinces announced the Manokwari Declaration, a pledge to conserve 70% of forest cover for the western half of the island.

Reversing funding shortfalls and declining engagement

Our work builds on many decades of effort by plant collectors whose countless nights under leaking canvas, grass huts and bark shelters have led to thousands of plant discoveries.

Their stories are astounding. These fearless adventurers have sampled water plants by jumping from helicopters hovering low over Lake Tebera, swam in the Purari River rapids to haul a disabled dugout canoe full of botanists and cargo to safety, and have fallen into beds of stinging plants in the mountains of Wagau without subsequent access to pain relief.

Taxonomy – the discipline of identifying, classifying, and understanding relationships between plants – is the key to unlocking the value of this collecting effort.


A yellow flower with small brown spots and three appendages
Bulbophyllum nocturnum: the first known example of an orchid species in which flowers open after dark and close in the morning.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

But the discipline is suffering from global funding shortfalls and declining engagement. For instance, 40% of our co-authors on this work are 55 years or older.

Future opportunities for botanical research with local New Guineans at the helm is also vital – only 15% of the scientific publications on the New Guinean flora over the past 10 years involved local co-authors.

Improved collaboration between taxonomists, scientific institutions, governments and New Guinean scientific agencies could address these critical urgent priorities.

Undoubtedly, the conservation of New Guinea’s unique flora will be challenging and require work on many fronts that transcend single disciplines or institutions. From what we know already, a world of botanical surprises awaits in the last unknown.

After all, as 19th century naturalist J.B. Jukes wrote:

I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results […] and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea.




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The Conversation


Bruce Webber, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, Researcher, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Researcher, University of Zürich

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

Climate explained: why does geothermal electricity count as renewable?



geothermal.

Susan Krumdieck, University of Canterbury


CC BY-ND

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 climate.change@stuff.co.nz


Geothermal electricity produces emissions but is categorised with wind and solar power as a renewable source of power. Why? Can we reduce the emissions geothermal plants produce?

Geothermal resources occur where magma has come up through the Earth’s crust at some point in the distant past and created large reservoirs of hot rock and water.

In New Zealand, the Taupo Volacanic Zone has 23 known geothermal reservoirs. Seven of these are currently used to generate more than 15% of New Zealand’s electricity supply.

New Zealand’s geothermal areas also include mineral pools and geysers.
Shutterstock/Dmitry Pichugin

Continuous but finite energy source

The geothermal reservoirs are vast in both size and stored energy. For example, the Ngatamariki reservoir extends over seven square kilometres and is more than a kilometre thick.

The geothermal resource is more consistent than hydro, solar and wind, as it doesn’t depend on the weather, but the geothermal heat in a reservoir is finite. Environment Waikato estimates that if the thermal energy in New Zealand were extracted to generate 420MW of electricity, the resource would likely last for 300 years. The current generation is more than twice this rate, so the reservoirs will last about half as long.

Geothermal energy is extracted by drilling up to 3km down into these hot zones of mineral-laden brine at 180-350℃. The engineering involves drilling a number of wells for extraction and re-injection of the brine, and the big pipes that connect the wells to the power plant.

A geothermal power plant converts heat into electricity.
Shutterstock/Joe Gough

The power plant converts the thermal energy into electricity using steam turbines. These plants generate nearly continuously and can last for more than 50 years.




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Greenhouse gas emissions

The brine contains dissolved gases and minerals, depending on the minerals in the rocks the water was exposed to. Some of these are harmless, like silica which is basically sand. But some are toxic like stibnite, which is antimony and sulphur.

Some gases like carbon dioxide and methane are not poisonous, but are greenhouse gases. But some are toxic. For example, hydrogen sulfide gives geothermal features their distinctive smell. The carbon dioxide dissolved in geothermal brine normally comes from limestone, which is fossilised shells of sea creatures that lived millions of years ago.

The amount of greenhouse gas produced per kWh of electricity generated varies, depending on the reservoir characteristics. It is not well known until the wells are in production.

The New Zealand Geothermal Association reports the greenhouse gas emissions for power generation range from 21 grams CO₂ equivalent per kWh to 341gCO₂(equiv)/kWh. The average is 76gCO₂(equiv)/kWh. For comparison, fossil fuel generation emissions range from 970 to 390gCO₂(equiv)/kWh for coal and gas combined cycle plants.

The gases have to be removed from the brine to use it in the plant, so they are released to the atmosphere. The toxic gases are either diluted and released into the atmosphere, or scrubbed with other substances for disposal. The Mokai power plant supplies carbon dioxide to commercial growers who use it in glasshouses to increase the growth rate of vegetables.




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Finding ways to use less energy

All energy-conversion systems can be made better by employing engineering expertise, investing in research and enforcing regulations, and through due diligence in the management of the waste products. All energy-conversion technology has costs and consequences. No energy resource should be thought of as unlimited or free unless we use very small quantities.

New Zealand is in a period of energy transition, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The production and use of coal is already in decline globally and oil and gas are expected follow.

We tend to think about energy transition in terms of technologies to substitute “bad” energy with “green” energy. But the transition of how energy is produced and consumed will require a massively complex re-engineering of nearly everything.

The installed capacity for wind and solar has been growing over the past decade. In 2018, however, New Zealand consumption of electricity generated by wind and solar was 7.72PJ, while oil, diesel and LPG consumption was 283PJ and geothermal electricity was 27PJ. Another consideration is lifetime; wind turbines and solar panels need to be replaced at least three times during the lifetime of a geothermal power plant.

A successful energy transition will require much more R&D and due diligence on products, buildings and lifestyles that need only about 10% of the energy we use today. An energy transition to build sustainable future systems is not only possible, it is the only option.The Conversation

Susan Krumdieck, Professor and Director, Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, University of Canterbury

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

A contentious NSW gas project is weeks away from approval. Here are 3 reasons it should be rejected



Ursula Da Silva/AAP

Madeline Taylor, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, University of Sydney

New South Wales planning authorities relied on flawed evidence when backing a highly controversial coal seam gas project that may endanger critical water supplies, farmland and threatened species, our analysis has found.

Early next month, the Independent Planning Commission NSW (IPC) is due to announce its decision on the future of the A$3.6 billion Narrabri Gas Project. The commission will presumably give substantial weight to an assessment report by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), which recommended the proposal be approved.

However, we contend DPIE has failed to substantiate its claims that the Narrabri Gas Project:

  • will improve gas security for NSW
  • does not pose a significant risk to important water resources
  • will not cause significant impacts to people or the environment.

Some 23,000 submissions were made on the Narrabri Gas Project, 98% of which opposed it. They include Australia’s former chief scientist Penny Sackett, who says the project is at odds with the nation’s Paris climate commitments.

The pending decision comes at a critical time for Australia’s gas industry. The Morrison government has flagged a gas-led economic recovery from COVID-19, and on Monday there were reports the October federal budget will contain support for the industry.

The experience of the Narrabri Gas Project so far shows government decisions on such proposals must be evidence-based and take full account of risks to the environment, people and the economy.

People protesting the gas project.
Community opposition to the Narrabri Gas Project is strong.
Paul Miller/AAP

What is the Narrabri Gas Project?

The Narrabri Gas Project aims to produce “unconventional” or coal seam gas, by sinking 850 wells in the Pilliga region near Narrabri in northwest NSW.

State authorities have spent four years assessing the project, and a decision by the IPC is due by September 4.




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Some 60% of the project is located in the Pilliga forest – the largest forest and woodlands in western NSW and home to threatened species including the koala. The remaining 40% of the project is next to prime farmland. It is also located on the traditional lands of the Gomeroi people.

As assessment by DPIE recommended the proposal be approved. We believe the evidence upon which the department based its decision was flawed. Here are three big problems we identified:

1. Gas security

DPIE says the Narrabri Gas Project is in the public interest because it will contribute to gas security for NSW. This assertion is based on a scenario in which Santos commits to providing all gas from the project solely to NSW, rather than the wider East Coast Gas Market.

Yet, DPIE’s recommended conditions for approval make no mention of Santos promising, or being legally compelled, to reserve gas for NSW consumers if the project is approved.

A woman stands in front of a gas burner.
Gas industry supporters say its expansion will shore up energy supplies.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

2. Water risks

The assessment fails to provide evidence showing the project does not pose significant risk to high-quality groundwater in a region and ecosystem highly dependent on it.

The project will drill extensively below the Great Artesian Basin, potentially contaminating groundwater, land and surface water. Despite Santos and the department’s assumptions that risks will be minimal, recent research shows methane contamination of groundwater occurs due to changes in pressures during water and gas extraction.

This risks human health and safety, and compromises water quality. Wastewater has already leaked in the proposed project area during pilot exploration and production, demonstrating the high risks involved.




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The department’s assessment of threats to the water table and management of waste brine is not robust. For example, the government’s own independent Water Expert Panel recommends brine be disposed of at landfill facilities. But brine and salt generated by the project would be highly soluble in comparison to standard landfill waste, and require robust storage management to prevent leaching and migration, according to our colleague and co-author of our assessment, Matthew Currell.

The department’s recommendation of an “adaptive management” approach – essentially “learning by doing” – is risky, given the highly complex potential impacts which are almost impossible to guard against.

Forest at the site of the proposed project
Forest at the site of the proposed project is home to threatened species.
Dean Lewins/AAP

3. Effect on people

DPIE’s assessment does not provide robust evidence that people will not be significantly harmed by the project.

Santos commissioned a social impact assessment, and the department engaged University of Queensland professor Deanna Kemp to review it. DPIE took the view that this review constitutes support for the project and states “overall, the negative social impacts of the project can be appropriately managed”.

However in correspondence with our colleague and co-author of our assessment Rebecca Lawrence, Professor Kemp expressed concern the department “misconstrued” her advice and misinterpreted it as giving the project a “green light”. Professor Kemp stated that her advice in no way constitutes a recommendation of approval of the project.




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We believe Professor Kemp was not commissioned by DPIE to comprehensively assess the social impact merits of the project, nor did she do so.

In a response to The Conversation, Professor Kemp said she did not contest the claims made by the authors of this article, and said “any suggestion that my review constitutes an approval of the project would be incorrect”.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest the social impacts in the short and long term will be unmanageable. These include social conflicts over the proposed gas project, loss of rural livelihoods from contamination of both groundwater and surface water, and effects on Aboriginal people and the broader Narrabri community – which is already socially disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Officials inspect the Narrabri Gas Project
Officials inspect the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga region of NSW.
Dean Lewins/AAP

A big decision

The Narrabri Gas Project presents considerable and significantly underestimated risks to the environment, sensitive water resources and communities.

The department’s argument that Narrabri gas will increase NSW’s energy security is highly unlikely and at present there’s nothing to suggest such a condition would be legally enforced. And its assertion the project would not harm people or the environment is not backed by evidence.

On this basis, we believe the Narrabri Gas Project is unsustainable, unviable and not in the public interest.


In response to this article, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said in a statement it “does not agree with any of these claims”, adding:

The Department’s comprehensive assessment of the proposal was informed by extensive community consultation, advice from the Narrabri Shire Council, government agencies and independent experts, including a Water Expert Panel,“ it said.

The assessment concluded that the project is critical for energy security and reliability in NSW, would deliver significant economic benefits to NSW and the Narrabri region, and has been designed to minimise environmental impacts.

Santos has made a commitment that the gas would be provided only to the domestic gas market and has agreed to accept a condition to this effect on any petroleum production lease granted for the project.

The Department’s assessment found the project is in the public interest and is approvable, subject to strict conditions.

Comment has been sought from Santos.The Conversation

Madeline Taylor, Lecturer, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, Associate Professor of International Relations, University of Sydney

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

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



Pexels, Author provided

Lily O’Neill, Australian National University; Brad Riley, Australian National University; Ganur Maynard, Australian National University, and Janet Hunt, Australian National University

Huge clean energy projects, such as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara, Western Australia, are set to produce gigawatts of electricity over vast expanses of land in the near future.

The Asian Renewable Energy Hub is planning to erect wind turbines and solar arrays across 6,500 square kilometres of land. But, like with other renewable energy mega projects, this land is subject to Aboriginal rights and interests — known as the Indigenous Estate.

While renewable energy projects are essential for transitioning Australia to a zero-carbon economy, they come with a caveat: most traditional owners in Australia have little legal say over them.

A red-dirt road through the WA desert, with a tree either side.
Wind turbines will be built across 6,500 square kilometres in the Pilbara.
Shutterstock

Projects on the Indigenous Estate

How much say Aboriginal people have over mining and renewable energy projects depends on the legal regime their land is under.

In the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) (ALRA) allows traditional owners to say no to developments proposed for their land. While the commonwealth can override this veto, they never have as far as we know.

In comparison, the dominant Aboriginal land tenure in Western Australia (and nationwide) is native title.

Native title — as recognised in the 1992 Mabo decision and later codified in the Native Title Act 1993 — recognises that Aboriginal peoples’ rights to land and waters still exist under certain circumstances despite British colonisation.




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But unlike the ALRA, the Native Title Act does not allow traditional owners to veto developments proposed for their land.

Both the Native Title Act and the the ALRA are federal laws, but the ALRA only applies in the NT. The Native Title Act applies nationwide, including in some parts of the NT.

Shortcomings in the Native Title Act

Native title holders can enter into a voluntary agreement with a company, known as an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, when a development is proposed for their land. This allows both parties to negotiate how the land and waters would be used, among other things.

If this is not negotiated, then native title holders have only certain, limited safeguards.

The strongest of these safeguards is known as the “right to negotiate”. This says resource companies must negotiate in good faith for at least six months with native title holders, and aim to reach an agreement.

But it is not a veto right. The company can fail to get the agreement of native title holders and still be granted access to the land by government.

For example, Fortescue Metals Group controversially built their Solomon iron ore mine in the Pilbara, despite not getting the agreement of the Yindjibarndi people who hold native title to the area.

In fact, the National Native Title Tribunal — which rules on disputes between native title holders and companies — has sided with native title holders only three times, and with companies 126 times (of which 55 had conditions attached).

There are also lesser safeguards in the act, which stipulate that native title holders should be consulted, or notified, about proposed developments, and may have certain objection rights.

Negotiating fair agreements

So how does the Native Title Act treat large-scale renewable energy developments?

The answer is complicated because a renewable energy development likely contains different aspects (for example: wind turbines, roads and HVDC cables), and the act may treat each differently.

Broadly speaking, these huge developments don’t fall under the right to negotiate, but under lesser safeguards.

Does this matter? Yes, it does. We know from experience in the mining industry that while some companies negotiate fair agreements with Aboriginal landowners, some do not.




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For example, two very similar LNG projects — one in Western Australia and the other in Queensland — resulted in land access and benefit sharing agreements that were poles apart. The WA project’s agreements with traditional owners were worth A$1.5 billion, while the Queensland project’s agreements were worth just A$10 million.

Likewise, Rio Tinto’s agreement for the area including Juukan Gorge reportedly “gagged” traditional owners from objecting to any activities by the company, which then destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelters.

A matter of leverage

We also know the likelihood of a new development having positive impacts for Aboriginal communities depends in part on the leverage they have to negotiate a strong agreement.




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And the best leverage is political power. This comes from the ability to wage community campaigns against companies to force politicians to listen, or galvanise nation-wide protests that prevent work on a development continuing.

Legal rights are also very effective: the stronger your legal rights are, the better your negotiation position. And the strongest legal position to be in is if you can say no to the development.

For land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, this ability to say no means traditional owners are in a good position to negotiate strong environmental, cultural heritage and economic benefits.

For land under the Native Title Act, traditional owners are in a weaker legal position. It is not a level playing field.

A just transition

To remedy this imbalance, the federal government must give native title holders the same rights for renewable energy projects as traditional owners have under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT.




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Or, at the very least, extend the right to negotiate to cover the types of large-scale renewable energy projects likely to be proposed for native title land in coming decades.

We must ensure the transition to a zero-carbon economy is a just transition for First Nations.The Conversation

Lily O’Neill, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Brad Riley, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Ganur Maynard, Visiting Indigenous Fellow, Australian National University, and Janet Hunt, Associate Professor, CAEPR, Australian National University

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