Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




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New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




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The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




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As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

Climate explained: will the tropics eventually become uninhabitable?


Flickr/, CC BY-NC-ND

James Shulmeister, 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


What is the impact of temperature increases in the tropics? How likely is it that regions along the Equator will be uninhabitable due to high wet bulb temperatures such as 35℃ and more in places like Singapore? Do we have models that suggest how likely this is and at what time frames?

More than 3.3 billion people live in the tropics, representing about 40% of the world’s population. Despite some areas of affluence, such as Singapore, the tropics are also home to about 85% of the world’s poorest people and are therefore particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

The tropics are expected to experience rising temperatures and changes to rainfall, and the question is whether this could make this region uninhabitable. How would this happen?

Heat stress

Humans regulate their body temperature in warm conditions through sweating. The sweat evaporates and cools the skin. But if conditions are humid, sweating and evaporation are much less effective.

Humans can survive and function in quite high temperatures if humidity is low, but as humidity increases our ability to function decreases rapidly. This effect is measured by a heat stress index which shows the apparent temperature you feel under different relative humidity conditions.

From a human health point of view, the wet bulb temperature is critical. This is the temperature a thermometer covered in a wet cloth would measure, and it reflects the maximum amount of cooling that can be achieved by evaporation.

High wet bulb temperatures are more problematic to human health than high absolute temperatures. Wet bulb temperatures above 35℃ are life-threatening because they cause hyperthermia, which means the body cannot cool down and the internal body temperature exceeds 40℃.

Climate modelling predictions used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the period from 2080-2100 suggest warming in the tropics of about 1.6℃ under mid-range emissions scenarios and up to 3.3℃ under high emissions scenarios, with error margins of about 0.5℃ on both predictions.




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Different parts of the world respond in different ways to warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The projected warming in the tropics represents about 40% of the expected temperature rise in the Arctic.

High-latitude regions – far north or south of the Equator – warm more rapidly than the global average because excess heat in the tropics creates a temperature and pressure gradient. This drives heat up to higher elevations and higher latitudes through an atmospheric circulation called the Hadley cell.

The stronger the gradient, the more heat is exported.

Hot in the city

There is one additional factor: urbanisation. Singapore is a good place to look at actual climate change in the tropics.

A Singapore skyline with clouds and some sun breaking through.
Cities such as Singapore will get hotter.
Flickr/Mohammad Hasan, CC BY-NC

Records from Singapore indicate temperatures have increased by 1.1℃ over 42 years to 2014. This is nearly twice the average global rate of warming over recent decades and is opposite to expectations.

The difference appears to be due to a heat island effect caused by the city itself. This is important because changes in land use amplify background global climate change and put tropical cities at greater risk of extreme heat. As populations are concentrated in cities, this increases the risk to human health.

The mean average temperature for Singapore is about 27℃, whereas Jakarta in Indonesia is slightly warmer. At the scale of predicted mean annual temperature change, neither of these cities would become uninhabitable. But even a small temperature increase would make life more challenging.

This is made worse in at least some parts of the tropics, because total rainfall is increasing, suggesting a long-term rise in humidity. For example, average rainfall in Singapore increased by more than 500mm from 2,192mm in 1980 to 2,727mm in 2014.




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Deadly heat

People working outdoors are at higher risk, as are vulnerable populations, including the elderly. Under the IPCC’s high-emission trajectory, heat-related deaths in Jakarta in August are expected to rise from about 1,800 in 2010 to nearly 27,000 in 2050.

People unloading cargo in the outdoors at Jakarta port.
Working outdoors in the increased heat and humidity will get harder.
Flickr/Jorien, CC BY-NC

Even allowing for a significant increase in elderly people as the Indonesian population ages, this means about 15,000 excess deaths in this month. Estimates under high-emission predictions for the tropics and mid-latitudes suggest about a 40% decline in the ability to undertake manual work during the warmest month by 2050.

These impacts will be stronger in the seasonally wet tropics (such as the Northern Territory of Australia), where more extreme warming is expected than in the equatorial zone.

Predictions for Darwin, in northern Australia, suggest an increase in days with temperatures above 35℃ from 11 days a year in 2015 to an average of 43 days under the mid-range emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP4.5 scenario) by 2030 and an average of 111 (range 54-211) days by 2090. Under the higher emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP8.5), an average of 265 days above 35℃ could be reached by 2090.

In summary, while absolute temperatures are expected to rise more slowly in the tropics when compared with higher latitudes and polar regions, the combination of heat and rising humidity will make life challenging, but not impossible.The Conversation

James Shulmeister, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Canterbury

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

Andrew Forrest’s high-tech plan to extinguish bushfires within an hour is as challenging as it sounds



Warren Frey/AAP

James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

The philanthropic foundation of mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has unveiled a plan to transform how Australia responds to bushfires.

The Fire Shield project aims to use emerging technologies to rapidly find and extinguish bushfires. The goal is to be able to put out any dangerous blaze within an hour by 2025.

Some of the proposed technology includes drones and aerial surveillance robots, autonomous fire-fighting vehicles and on-the-ground remote sensors. If successful, the plan could alleviate the devastating impact of bushfires Australians face each year.

But while bushfire behaviour is an extensively studied science, it’s not an exact one. Fires are subject to a wide range of variables including local weather conditions, atmospheric pressure and composition, and the geographical layout of an area.

There are also human factors, such as how quickly and effectively front-line workers can respond, as well as the issue of arson.




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A plan for rapid bushfire detection

The appeal of the Fire Shield plan is in its proposal to use emerging fields of computer science to fight bushfires, especially AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) network.

While we don’t currently have details on how the Fire Shield plan will be carried out, the use of an IoT bushfire monitoring network seems like the most viable option.

The IoT network is made of many wireless connected devices. Deploying IoT devices with sensors in remote areas could allow the monitoring of changes in soil temperature, air temperature, weather conditions, moisture and humidity, wind speed, wind direction and forest density.

The sensors could also help pinpoint a fire’s location, predict where it will spread and also where it most likely started. This insight would greatly help with the early evacuation of vulnerable communities.

Data collected could be quickly processed and analysed using machine learning. This branch of AI provides intelligent analysis much quicker than traditional computing, or human reckoning.

Water bomber puts out a blaze from the sky.
Water bomber helicopters were used in NSW earlier this year as almost 150 bushfires burnt across the state at one point.
Bianca De Marchi/AAP

A more reliable network

A wireless low power wide area network (LPWAN) would be the best option for implementing the required infrastructure for the proposal. LPWAN uses sensor devices with batteries lasting up to 15 years.

And although a LPWAN only allows limited coverage (10-40km) in rural areas, a network with more coverage would need batteries that have to be replaced more often — making the entire system less reliable.

In the event of sensors being destroyed by fire, neighbouring sensors can send this information back to the server to build a sensor “availability and location map”. With this map, tracking destroyed sensors would also help track a bushfire’s movement.

Dealing with logistics

While it’s possible, the practicalities of deploying sensors for a remote bushfire monitoring network make the plan hugely challenging. The areas to cover would be vast, with varying terrain and environmental conditions.

Sensor devices could potentially be deployed by aircrafts across a region. On-ground distribution by people would be another option, but a more expensive one.

However, the latter option would have to be used to distribute larger gateway devices. These act as the bridge between the other sensors on ground and the server in the cloud hosting the data.

Gateway devices have more hardware and need to be set up by a person when first installed. They play a key role in LPWAN networks and must be placed carefully. After being placed, IoT devices require regular monitoring and calibration to ensure the information being relayed to the server is accurate.

Weather and environmental factors (such as storms or floods) have the potential to destroy the sensors. There’s also the risk of human interference, as well as legal considerations around deploying sensors on privately owned land.




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Unpredictable interruptions

While statisticians can provide insight into the likelihood of a bushfire starting at a particular location, bushfires remain inherently hard to predict.

Any sensor network will be counter-acted by unpredictable environmental conditions and technological issues such as interrupted network signals. And such disruptions could lead to delays in important information reaching authorities.

Potential solutions for this include using satellite services in conjunction with an LPWAN network, or balloon networks (such as Google’s project Loon) which can provide better internet connectivity in remote areas.

But even once the sensors can be used to identify and track bushfires, putting a blaze out is another challenge entirely. The Fire Shield plan’s vision “to detect, monitor and extinguish dangerous blazes within an hour anywhere in Australia” will face challenges on several fronts.

It may be relatively simple to predict hurdles in getting the technology set up. But once a bushfire is detected, it’s less clear as to what course of action could possible extinguish it within the hour. In some very remote areas, aerial firefighting (such as with water bombers) may be the only option.

That begs the next question: how can we have enough aircrafts and controllers ready to be dispatched to a remote place at a moment’s notice? Considering the logistics, it won’t be easy.The Conversation

James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

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

No, Prime Minister, gas doesn’t ‘work for all Australians’ and your scare tactics ignore modern energy problems


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The federal government today announced it will build a new gas power plant in the Hunter Valley, NSW, if electricity generators don’t fill the energy gap left by the Liddell coal-fired station when it retires in 2023.

The government says it’s concerned that when the coal plant closes, there’ll be insufficient dispatchable power (that can be used on demand) because the energy sector is focused on accelerating renewable energy at the expense of reliability. So electricity generators are required to come up with a plan to inject 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy into the national grid.




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This is tantamount to an ultimatum: if we must have renewables, then prove they generate the same amount of electricity as fossil fuel or we will go back to fossil fuel.

The government’s joint media release has this to say:

This is about making Australia’s gas work for all Australians. Gas is a critical enabler of Australia’s economy.

But under a rapidly changing climate, the issue is not just about keeping the lights on. We not only want energy, we also want to breathe clean air, have enough food, have clean and available water supplies, preserve our habitat and live in a sustainable community. So no, gas doesn’t “work for all Australians”.

Adapting to a new energy future is a complex process our national government must not only support, but progress. It should not be hijacked by fossil fuel politics.

Scare-tactics won’t resolve the climate emergency

The government’s scare tactic completely ignores the two fundamental imperatives of modern energy.




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The first is the critical importance of decarbonisation. Energy production from fossil fuels is the most carbon intensive activity on the planet. If we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and stay within 2℃ of global warming, we cannot burn fossil fuels to produce energy.

The government shouldn’t revert to outdated fossil fuel rhetoric about “reliable, dispatchable power” during an accelerating climate emergency.

The second is it’s in the public interest to support and invest in energy that’s not only environmentally sustainable for the future, but also economically sustainable. Demand for fossil fuels is in terminal decline across the world and investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure may lead to stranded assets.

We need to address the ‘energy trilemma’

The question the government should instead focus on is this: how can the government continue to supply its citizens with affordable, reliable electricity but also maintain a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and high air quality standards?

Answering this question involves addressing a three-part set of tensions, known as the “energy trilemma”:

  1. sustainable generation that is not emission intensive
  2. infrastructure reliability and
  3. affordability.

The energy trilemma is a well-known tool in the sector that powerfully communicates the relative positioning of each tension. No single axis is necessarily more important than the other two. The aim is to try to balance all three.

Constructing a new gas plant seeks to address the second pillar at the expense of the first. This isn’t good enough in the face of the climate emergency.

Gas fired electricity can emit methane. Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, and 28 times more effective over 100 years.




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The affordability pillar is also important. Morrison says constructing the plant will prevent energy price spikes. But research clearly confirms renewable energy generation is cheapest.

What is it with the federal government and gas?

After first informing us gas will help bolster the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, this new announcement makes it clear the federal government is firmly wedded to gas.

This may be because the federal government regards adherence to gas as a compromise between the renewable sector and the demands of the fossil fuel industry.

In any case, we cannot and must not revert to fossil fuel energy generation. We must abandon past behaviours if we’re to adapt to a changing climate, which is set to hit the economy much harder than this pandemic.

Most Australians have derived their assumptions about energy security from fossil fuel dependency, because this is what they have known. The good news is this is changing.

Increasingly, the global community understands it’s not sustainable to burn coal or gas to generate energy just because we want to be “sure” we can turn the lights on. Consumer preference is shifting.




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This is something BP recognises in its 2020 Energy Outlook report, which outlines three scenarios for the global energy system in next 30 years.

Each scenario shows a shift in social preferences and a decline in the share of hydrocarbons (coal, oil and natural gas) in the global energy system. This decline is matched by an increase in the role of renewable energy.

I’ll say it again: renewable energy is the future

The technology underpinning renewable energy production from clean, low-cost generation such as wind, solar, hydro-electricity, hydrogen and bio-mass is advancing.

Renewable energy generation is sustainable, better for the environment, low in emissions, and affordable. Reliability is improving at a rapid rate. A recent report indicates electricity generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind farms from 2026 will overtake the combined power production from coal and gas.

The combined solar and wind capacity will grow to an estimated 41.4 gigawatts in 2023 from 26.4 gigawatts this year. By contrast, coal and gas capacity will shrink to 35.3 gigawatts in 2023 from 39.1 gigawatts this year.

The report is based on the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) Step Change Scenario, which models a shift to renewables. It includes rapid adjustments in technology costs and a “well below 2℃” scenario as part of its 20-year planning blueprint.




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Yes, there are challenges in shifting from a centralised grid and developing new transmission capacity.

But these are the challenges we need to be investing in. Not a new gas plant that’s likely to be a stranded asset in the not-too-distant future.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.