Mining companies are required to return quarried sites to their ‘natural character’. But is that enough?


Shaun Rosier, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand has more than 1,100 registered quarries. Some of these mined sites are small, rural operations, but a significant number are large and complex, and within a city’s urban boundaries.

As part of the resource consent application for a mining project, quarry operators are usually issued with a quarry management plan, which outlines what needs to happen to the landscape once mining has finished.

Most local government bodies require quarry operators to do little more than smooth the altered landscape, redistribute topsoil across these slopes, plant some new vegetation, and manage any onsite waterways to prevent surface erosion.

But restoring the ecology of an extracted site isn’t enough any more.

My research at the Horokiwi Quarry in Wellington explores how design-led remediation projects can restore the ecology of a mined landscape as well as creating new public landscapes that can be used for recreation.

An open quarry site
The southern half of the Horokiwi Quarry has been reshaped and the massive bench to the left entirely removed.
Author provided

Conditions of remediation

Quarry management plans currently pay attention to returning the topography of a mined site to a “natural” condition during the remediation. Quarries and mines extract material from the earth, and by necessity alter the surface dramatically.




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Often a large amount of material has to be removed first to access the desired aggregate material or rare mineral. Once remediation begins, this material is spread across the site to create a natural appearance, suitable for revegetation. The landscape is smoothed over, pits filled in, and topsoil distributed.

Likewise, the revegetation strategy remains relatively simple. Most remediation projects rely on spraying a seed-fertiliser-mulch mix over these freshly contoured slopes. In difficult conditions, this is often paired with manual planting to establish cover for pioneer species.

These strategies typically use regionally specific plants, ideally sourcing the seed stock from the area to help establish a robust and appropriate ecology.




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Nature and culture

These processes are all used to restore a site back to a “natural character”, but what this means is left undefined. The Resource Management Act (RMA), under which mining resource consent applications have to be made, says miners have:

…a duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate any adverse effect on the environment arising from an activity.

While the RMA does not define this natural character condition that is to be preserved or restored, it provides some guidance in the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement.

Here, natural character is determined to be underpinned by natural processes, elements and patterns. But as some planners and designers have made clear, this is still an unclear position.

It relies on a problematic distinction between nature and culture, where nature is something different and unaltered from humans. Or, as US environmental historian William Cronon writes:

The place where we are is the place where nature is not.

Problematic results

Most remedial works are successful from a biological point of view, leading to full or partial restoration of ecological processes. For example, the limestone quarry at Cape Foulwind has been relatively successful in its biophysical remediation. But the site is close to local communities and on a major tourist route, and could play a bigger role as a public space.

On the other hand, the remediation of the Mikonui Valley mine, on conservation land on the West Coast, has arguably been a failure, described as a “moonscape” by conservationists. The company paid a bond to the Department of Conservation to allow it to mine on public land, but it has not remediated the land to an acceptable degree, and likely never will.

Behind this is the larger issue that remediation was only seriously considered at the end of the extraction process. Doing so left little room for other design options.




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Another approach to remediation

Recent research has called for a different approach, especially for quarries and mines within urban areas where landscape architects are involved throughout the entire extraction process.

Using their knowledge and skill sets could bring the extracted landscape significantly closer to a desirable outcome. It would also allow for new spaces, including parks, housing, recreation or ecological reserves.

A design plan for a remediation of the Horokiwi Quarry near Wellington
A proposal for the remediation of the Horokiwi Quarry would turn it into a regional park, connected to the surrounding suburbs and the cities of Wellington and Lower Hutt.
Author provided

This is an important shift for urban quarry sites. Establishing a design process that works in parallel with the extraction process would allow sites such as the Horokiwi Quarry to play a role in the public life of a city.

This large aggregate quarry has a remaining lifespan of 20-30 years, and presents an ideal case to develop remediation techniques that can bring the most out of this landscape.

The design proposal builds on the experience of a landscape of extreme scale and mass. Facilities such as sports fields, gathering spaces, relaxation and a mix of pathways all feed off the experience of the landscape.

At the same time, new ecological sites are established where appropriate to create a different relationship between visitors and the landscape.

A quarry near Wellington
Pathways are designed to give visitors a sense of the scale of the quarried site.
Author provided

Turning post-extraction landscapes such as the Horokiwi Quarry into public spaces confronts us with their scale and otherworldliness. It can change how we relate to the environment.

We have to remediate these sites in a way that moves us to recognise our relationship with extraction and consumption. This might not be pretty, but it is necessary.The Conversation

Shaun Rosier, Practice-based PhD Researcher in Landscape Architecture, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Humans are polluting the environment with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and I’m finding them everywhere



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Michelle Power, Macquarie University

Many of us are aware of the enormous threat of antibiotic- (or “antimicrobial”) resistant bacteria on human health. But few realise just how pervasive these superbugs are — antimicrobial-resistant bacteria have jumped from humans and are running rampant across wildlife and the environment.

My research is revealing the enormous breadth of wildlife species with superbugs in their gut bacterial communities (“microbiome”). Affected wildlife includes little penguins, sea lions, brushtailed possums, Tassie devils, flying foxes, echidnas, and a range of kangaroo and wallaby species.




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To combat antibiotic resistance, we need to use “One Health” — an approach to public health that recognises the interconnectedness of people, animals and the environment.

And this week’s appointment of federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to the world’s first One Health Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, brings me confidence we’re finally heading in the right direction.

Where we’ve found superbugs

Tackling antimicrobial resistance with One Health requires studying resistance in bacteria from people, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment.

Tasmanian devil standing on a rock
Tasmanian devils are among the species we’ve found harbouring resistant bacteria.
Shutterstock

Humans have solely driven the emergence and spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, mainly through the overuse, and often misuse, of antibiotics.

The spread of superbugs to the environment has mainly occurred through human wastewater. Medical and industrial waste, which pollute the environment with the antibiotics themselves, worsen the issue. And the ability for antibiotic-resistant genes to be shared between bacteria in the environment has propelled antimicrobial resistance even further.




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Generally, wildlife closer to people in urban areas are more likely to carry antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, because we share our homes, food waste and water with them.

For example, our recent research showed 48% of 664 brushtail possums around Sydney and Melbourne tested positive for antibiotic-resistant genes.

Brushtailed possum in a tree
Hundreds of possums around Sydney and Melbourne have resistant bacteria.
Shutterstock

Whether animals are in captivity or the wild also plays a role in their levels of antimicrobial resistance.

For example, we found only 5.3% of grey-headed flying-foxes in the wild were carrying resistance traits. This jumps to 41% when flying-foxes are in wildlife care or captivity.

Likewise, less than 2% of wild Australian sea lions we tested had antibiotic-resistant bacteria, compared to more than 40% of those in captivity. We’ve found similar trends between captive and wild little penguins, too.

And more than 40% of brush-tailed rock wallabies in a captive breeding program were carrying antibiotic resistance genes compared to none from the wild.

So why is this a problem?

An animal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be harder to treat with antibiotics if it’s injured or sick and ends up in care. But generally, we’re yet to understand their full impact – though we can speculate.

Grey-headed flying-foxes hanging from a branch
We’ve found new types of resistant genes in flying-fox communities.
Shutterstock

For wildlife, resistant bacteria are essentially “weeds” in their microbiomes. These microbial weeds may disrupt the microbiomes, impairing immunity or increasing the risk of infection by other agents.

Another problem relates to how antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can spread their resistant genes to other bacteria. Sharing genes between bacteria is a major driver for new resistant bacterial strains.

We’ve been finding more types of resistant genes in an animal’s microbiome than we do in comparison to commonly studied bacteria, such as Escherichia coli. This means some wildlife bacteria may have acquired resistance genes, but we don’t know which.

Many of the wildlife species we’ve examined also carry human-associated bacterial strains — strains known to cause, for instance, diarrhoeal disease in humans. In wildlife, these bacteria could potentially acquire novel resistance genes making them harder to treat if they spread back to people.

This is something we found in grey-headed flying-fox microbiomes, which had new combinations of resistant genes. These, we concluded, originated from the outside environment.

How do we mitigate this threat?

Antimicrobial stewardship — using the best antibiotic when a bacterial infection is diagnosed, and using it appropriately — is a big part of tackling this global health issue.

This is what’s outlined in Australia’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy: 2020 & Beyond, which the federal government released in March this year.

The 2020 strategy builds on a previous strategy by better incorporating the environment, in what should be a true “One Health” approach. The World Health Organisation’s appointment of Ley supports this.

Antimicrobial stewardship is equally important for those in veterinary fields as well as medical doctors. As Australia leads the world in wildlife rehabilitation, antimicrobial stewardship should be a major part of wildlife care.

For the rest of us, preventing our superbugs from spilling over to wildlife also starts with taking antibiotics appropriately, and recognising antibiotics work only for bacterial infections. It’s also worth noting you should find a toilet if you’re out in the bush (and not “go naturally”), and not leave your food scraps behind for wild animals to find.




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The 2020 strategy recognises the need for better communication to strengthen stewardship and awareness. This should include education on the issues of antimicrobial resistance, what it means for wildlife health, and how to mitigate it.

Citizens tackle antibiotic resistance in the wild.

This is something my colleagues and I are tackling through our citizen science project, Scoop a Poop, where we work with school children, community groups and wildlife carers who collect possum poo around the country to help us better understand antimicrobial resistance in the wild.

The power of working with citizens to better the health of our environment cannot be overstated.




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The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University

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

One of Australia’s most famous beaches is disappearing, and storms aren’t to blame. So what’s the problem?



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Thomas Murray, Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Griffith University

Storms or tropical cyclones usually get the blame when Australia’s beaches suffer severe erosion. But on the New South Wales north coast at Byron Bay, another force is at play.

Over the past six months, tourists and locals have been shocked to see Byron’s famous Main Beach literally disappearing, inundated with water and debris. In October, lifesavers were forced to temporarily close the beach because they couldn’t get rescue equipment onto the sand. Resident Neil Holland, who has lived in the area for 47 years, told the ABC:

It’s the first time I’ve seen it this bad in all the time that I’ve been here, and it hasn’t stopped yet. The sand is just being taken away by the metre.

So what’s happening? To find the answer, we combined a brief analysis of satellite imagery with previous knowledge about the process behind the erosion and how it has been occurring at Byron Bay. The erosion is due to a process known as “headland bypassing”, and it is quite different to erosion from storms.

What is headland bypassing?

Headland bypassing occurs when sand moves from one beach to another around a solid obstruction, such as a rocky headland or cape. This process is mainly driven by wave energy. Along the coast of southeast Australia, waves generate currents that move sand mostly northward along the northern NSW coastline, and on towards Queensland.

However, sand does not flow evenly or smoothly along the coast: when sand arrives at a beach just before a rocky headland, it builds up against the rocks and the beach grows wider. When there is too much sand for the headland to hold, or there’s a change in wave conditions, some sand will be pushed around the headland – bypassing it – before continuing its journey up the coast.




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This large lump of moving sand is called a “sand pulse” or “sand slug”. The sand pulse needs the right wave conditions to move towards the shore. Without these conditions, the beach in front of the pulse is deprived of sand and the waves and currents near the shore erode the beach.

Headland bypassing was first described in the 1940s. However, only about 20 years ago was it recognised as an important part of the process controlling sand moving along the coast. Since then, with better technology and more data, researchers have studied the process in more detail, and helped to shed light on how headland bypassing might affect long-term coastal planning.

Recent studies have shown wave direction is particularly important to headland bypassing. Importantly, weather patterns that produce waves are affected by climate drivers including the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. So, future changes in the way these drivers behave will affect the waves and currents that move sand along our coast, which in turn affects headland bypassing and beach erosion.

Man sitting near eroded beach
Byron Bay’s beaches have badly eroded in recent months.
Byron Shire Council

What’s happening at Byron Bay?

In October and November this year, a large amount of sand was present just north of Cape Byron, from Wategos Beach to The Pass Beach. As this sand pulse grew, Clarkes Beach, and then Main Beach, were starved of their usual sand supply and began to erode.

The sand pulse is visible on satellite images from around April 2020. Each month, it slowly moves westward into the bay. As the sand pulse grows, the beach ahead of the pulse gradually erodes. At present Main Beach is at the eroding stage.




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Similar erosion was observed at Main Beach in the early 1990s. The beach became wider again from 1995 to 2007. From 2009 onwards, the shoreline erosion slowly began again, and became very noticeable in the past six months.

The effect of sand pulses on beach erosion is not exclusive to Byron Bay. It has been described previously in other locations, such as NSW’s Kingscliff Beach in 2011. In that case, the erosion risked damaging a nearby holiday park and bowling club.

Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron
Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron.
Author provided

When will this end?

Mild waves from the east to northeast, which usually occur from October to April each year, will help some of the sand pulse move onto Clarkes Beach and then further along to Main Beach. This normally happens over several months to a year. But it’s hard to say exactly when the beach will be fully restored.

This uncertainty underscores the need to better forecast these processes. This would help us to predict when bypassing sand pulses will occur and to manage beach erosion.

Climate change is expected to affect wave conditions, although the exact impact on the headland bypassing process remains unclear. However, better predictions would allow the community to be informed early about expected impacts, and officials could better manage and plan for future erosion.

Meanwhile, Byron Bay waits and watches – knowing at least that the erosion problem will eventually improve.The Conversation

People walking along Main Beach
The sand at Main Beach at Byron Bay, pictured here under good conditions, will eventually return.
AAP

Thomas Murray, Research Fellow (Coastal Management), Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, PhD Candidate, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Research Fellow, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Director – Griffith Centre for Coastal Management, Griffith University

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

Silky oaks are older than dinosaurs and literally drip nectar – but watch out for the cyanide



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Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

As we come to the end of spring, look up from the footpath or at the park, and you may spot the fiery flowers of the silky oak, Grevillea robusta.

You may already be familiar with grevilleas – perhaps you have low- growing ground cover and shrub species in your garden.

Some people love the brilliant red, yellow, orange or white flowers of grevilleas. They’re also nesting and roosting havens for small native birds, and so people may plant them to attract wildlife.

Of all the grevillias, the silky oak is the one that catches my eye. It’s the largest and tallest of the species, reaching up to 30 metres. They’re now blooming along the east coast and in some inland places – like huge orange light bulbs dominating the skyline.

A bird feeding on silky oak flower
Silky oaks flowers are a magnet for birds and insects.
Shutterstock

Strong like oak

Grevilleas have an ancestry older than dinosaurs. They originated on the super-continent Gondwana, and are closely related to banksias, waratahs and proteas.

Today, the 360 species of grevilleas occur in Indonesia and Australia and are a diverse group. Their colourful, distinctive flowers lack petals and instead consist of a long tube known as a “calyx”, which splits into four “lobes”.




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Like most other grevillea, silky oak possesses proteoid or cluster roots, which are dense and fine. These roots greatly increase the absorbing surface area and allow plants to thrive in nutrient-deprived soils.

The word “robusta” refers to the fact that the timber is strong like real oak. The freshly split wood has a silky texture, and a pattern and light colour resembling English oak – hence the common name “silky oak”.

Silky oak timber
Grevillia robusta has a silky texture when split for timber.
Shutterstock

Watch out for the cyanide

Grevilleas literally drip nectar, much to the delight of native birds and bees. Aboriginal people enjoyed the sweet nectar straight from the plant or mixed with water — the original lolly water.

But you have to know which species to taste as some, including the silky oak, contain hydrogen cyanide that could make you ill.

Like other grevilleas the silky oak also contains tridecyl resorcinol, which causes an allergic reaction leading to contact dermatitis. The chemical is similar to the toxicodendron in poison ivy.

So when working with silky oaks, you’d be wise to wear gloves, a face mask, protective eye wear (or face shield) and long sleeved clothing. Washing hands and showering at the end of the day is also recommended.

gardening gloves
Wear gardening gloves when handling silky oak, just to be one the safe side.
Shutterstock

A prized timber

Silky oak timber was widely used in colonial times. Then it was marketed as “lacewood”, and that name persists today among some who use it.

Silky oak veneer was used widely in colonial table tops and other furniture. Over the years, silky oak has also been used to make window frames because it is resistant to wood rot.

Overseas, silky oak timber is still widely grown, in timber plantations and as windbreaks.




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But it’s not widely available in Australia, due to low market demand – the allergens and cyanide it contains means people are generally reluctant to work with it. However silky oak is still highly prized by those who make guitars, and wood turners who make bowls and cabinets.

Painted silky oak window frames
Silky oak timber is rot-resistant and was often used in window frames.
Shutterstock

In the garden

Although an evergreen tree, some specimens are almost semi-deciduous, losing most of their foliage just prior to flowering.

Some specimens of silky oak can be a bit scraggly in their canopy form. They can benefit enormously from a bit of formative pruning when they are young, and perhaps some structural pruning from a good arborist as they get older. A little attention at the right time will be amply rewarded with a safe and great looking tree that can live for 150 years or more.

Silky oak is drought-tolerant. In dry times they often flower a bit later than their usual October blooming, providing a big splash of colour in otherwise drab and difficult years.

The trees can be vulnerable to frost when young, but grow well once taller. This makes the silky oak a potential winner as climate change brings warmer, drier weather.

Silky oaks have been declared an environmental weed in parts of New South Wales and Victoria where it grows outside its native distribution range. They’re also considered an invasive or invader plant in Hawaii and South Africa. However Grevillea robusta is declining in its natural rainforest/wet forest habitat.

In some cities in China, silky oaks have been planted along roadsides with great success. The tree has also gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit for its performance in growing under United Kingdom conditions. That just shows you how one person’s weed is another’s treasure.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

Albanese is running out of time to solve Labor’s climate crisis. He needs a plan that works for two Australias



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Mark Kenny, Australian National University

During the recent American elections, the most eye-catching graphics were were the individual county tallies.

These showed that even when states appeared to be overwhelmingly Republican red, some still “flipped” to the Democrats on the strength of a smaller number of blue squares.

The trick? These azure islands denoted population clusters in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Phoenix.

The left-right chasm between urbanised Americans and the more sparsely distributed rural-regional ones was there to see in primary colours.

But the division itself was neither new, nor especially American.

Across England’s industrial north, British Labour’s Euro-centric cosmopolitanism cut little ice in the Brexit referendum of 2016, the same year once rusted-on working class Democrats first broke for Trump.

Labor struggling to reach ‘two Australias’

And of course in Australia, this trend is also well established.

Indeed, Coalition majorities have long been built on the need for niche-messaging. This sees Liberals garner the city vote, while mostly leaving the Nationals to reinterpret the conservative brand for bush sensibilities.

As a one-message-fits-all party, the ALP has struggled with this, and as the two Australias become more distinct and antagonistic, the strain is showing.

Labor’s primary vote nationally is stuck in the low-to-mid 30% range. In the resources states, it sits even lower. That’s too low to win a majority, prompting some in Labor to suggest a Liberal/National-style partnership with the Greens.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese looks glum in parliament.
Labor needs to boost its primary vote if it is to win government on its own.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

But it is far from clear how this would maximise the combined lower house seat haul, given they both court the same inner-city electors. What seems more obvious is that a joint Labor-Greens ticket would actually accelerate the drift of industrially-centred regional seats towards the Coalition.

Fitzgibbon and the coal dilemma

This is already happening.

According to Joel Fitzgibbon, who resigned last week from the shadow frontbench, Labor’s ambitious 45% by 2030 emissions cut at the last election proved this. After being pushed to preferences in 2019 on the back of a 14% primary vote slump, Fitzgibbon believes that “crazy” policy was kryptonite in his coal-dominated seat, and in regional communities up and down the eastern seaboard.




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The Hunter Valley-based MP, and others in Labor’s right faction, argue such communities feel abandoned by a party beholden to inner-city progressives.
There’s no doubt Labor MPs are increasingly pessimistic over their electoral prospects.

Some on the right insist the party is doomed unless it actively reconnects with its industrial roots, and that means dropping the climate change focus.

As Fitzgibbon told reporters when announcing his frontbench resignation,

We have to speak to, and be a voice for, all those who we seek to represent, whether they be in Surry Hills or Rockhampton. And that’s a difficult balance.

For Labor leader Anthony Albanese, this presents a near unsolvable puzzle. He needs to outflank the Greens on his capacity to form a government and deliver, and out-perform the Coalition on commitment. Now, he must also manage a rebellion inside his caucus from those who want to dump the party’s climate policy.

Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon
Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon is pressuring the party to adopt a less ambitious emissions plan.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Right-aligned MPs, buttressed by powerful unions, argue steering closer to the Coalition than the Greens is the only way to secure government.

But Labor’s paid-up membership and a majority of its MPs favour a clear acknowledgement of the scientific evidence — evidence that unambiguously calls for the phasing out of fossil fuels in the next decade or two.

In a sign of things to come, the blaze of publicity surrounding Fitzgibbon’s resignation completely derailed Labor’s attempt to highlight how the new Democratic White House had left the Morrison government exposed as the only serious economy explicitly not committed to a net-zero time-line.




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But Fitzgibbon, who claims to have substantial caucus support, wants Labor to simply tuck in behind the Morrison government and allow it to take any political heat for emissions targets not met and voters left frustrated.

Yet this too would be politically calamitous.

There could be an election next year

With an election possible within 12 months, time to reconcile these oil-and-water imperatives is fast running out.

It is a perfect storm. On the one hand, there is rising pessimism over Labor’s ability to compete with the Morrison government – especially during a pandemic. On the other, rising community impatience for decisive climate action.




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That the opposition has not yet named interim emissions targets for 2030 and 2035 despite a clear commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, speaks to its nervousness. Its rhetoric stresses urgency and purpose, but its detail reveals hesitation.

Insiders know any repeat of its 2019 each-way bet on the Adani coal-mine will be a gift to the Greens.

As the policy show-down looms, so too does the ever-present danger to Albanese of it morphing into a leadership stoush. The left’s Tanya Plibersek and the right’s Jim Chalmers are regarded as the most credible alternatives.

Labor MPs Jim Chalmers and Tanya Plibersek.
Leadership speculation has bubbled up again, as Labor struggles with its climate stance.
Samantha Manchee/AAP

While only a climate capitulation would satisfy right-wing malcontents, another school of thought favours a doubling down, based on the simple arithmetic that there are a dozen-plus Coalition seats held by margins of under 5% — more than enough to compensate for the loss of regional electorates.

Bold transition fund needed

Perhaps Labor’s only hope of keeping both sides in the tent is to propose a bold, generously funded transition fund.

This would not just talk about green jobs and retraining, but directly pay those workers who are displaced. It would include everything from the loss of income and retraining, to compensating for the loss of businesses, house values, and full family relocation costs.

Taking advantage of the low cost of borrowing, this multibillion brown-to-green transition fund could guarantee workers in phased-out sectors would not be left to carry the costs of what is a “national” responsibility and “national” economic reconfiguration.

This could this be Labor’s winning formula: representation, leading to reparation, enabling reform.The Conversation

Mark Kenny, Professor, Australian Studies Institute, Australian National University

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

Humans are changing fire patterns, and it’s threatening 4,403 species with extinction



The Leadbeater’s possum, one of thousands of species threatened by changing fire regimes.
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Luke Kelly, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, La Trobe University

Last summer, many Australians were shocked to see fires sweep through the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, where large and severe fires are almost unheard of. This is just one example of how human activities are changing fire patterns around the world, with huge consequences for wildlife.

In a major new paper published in Science, we reveal how changes in fire activity threaten more than 4,400 species across the globe with extinction. This includes 19% of birds, 16% of mammals, 17% of dragonflies and 19% of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.




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But, we also highlight the emerging ways we can help promote biodiversity and stop extinctions in this new era of fire. It starts with understanding what’s causing these changes and what we can do to promote the “right” kind of fire.

How is fire activity changing?

Recent fires have burned ecosystems where wildfire has historically been rare or absent, from the tropical forests of Queensland, Southeast Asia and South America to the tundra of the Arctic Circle.

Exceptionally large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of fire. For example, the 12.6 million hectares that burnt in eastern Australia during last summer’s devastating bushfires was unprecedented in scale.

The post-fire landscape in Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, three months after an extremely large and severe bushfire last summer.
Luke Kelly

This extreme event came at a time when fire seasons are getting longer, with more extreme wildfires predicted in forests and shrublands in Australia, southern Europe and western United States.

But fire activity isn’t increasing everywhere. Grasslands in countries such as Brazil, Tanzania, and the United States have had fire activity reduced.

Extinction risk in a fiery world

Fire enables many plants to complete their life cycles, creates habitats for a wide range of animals and maintains a diversity of ecosystems. Many species are adapted to particular patterns of fire, such as banksias — plants that release seeds into the resource-rich ash covering the ground after fire.

But changing how often fires occur and in what seasons can harm populations of species like these, and transform the ecosystems they rely on.

We reviewed data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and found that of the 29,304 land-based and freshwater species listed as threatened, modified fire regimes are a threat to more than 4,403.

Most are categorised as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity.

For example, the endangered mallee emu-wren in semi-arid Australia is confined to isolated patches of habitat, which makes them vulnerable to large bushfires that can destroy entire local populations.

Likewise, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was listed as critically endangered before it lost 95% of its habitat in the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires.

Large bushfires threaten many birds, such as the mallee emu-wren.
Ron Knight/Wikimedia, CC BY

However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn’t occur. Frequent fires are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment. This can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.

How humans change fire regimes

There are three main ways humans are transforming fire activity: global climate change, land-use and the introduction of pest species.

Global climate change modifies fire regimes by changing fuels such as dry vegetation, ignitions such as lightning, and creating more extreme fire weather.

What’s more, climate-induced fires can occur before the dominant tree species are old enough to produce seed, and this is reshaping forests in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Humans also alter fire regimes through farming, forestry, urbanisation and by intentionally starting or suppressing fires.

Introduced species can also change fire activity and ecosystems. For example, in savanna landscapes of Northern Australia, invasive gamba grass increases flammability and fire frequency. And invasive animals, such as red foxes and feral cats, prey on native animals exposed in recently burnt areas.




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Fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is teeming with feral cats. It’s bad news for this little marsupial


Importantly, cultural, social and economic changes underpin these drivers. In Australia, the displacement of Indigenous peoples and their nuanced and purposeful use of fire has been linked with extinctions of mammals and is transforming vegetation.

We need bolder conservation strategies

A suite of emerging actions — some established but receiving increasing attention, others new — could help us navigate this new fire era and save species from extinction. They include:

In Africa, reintroducing grazing animals such as rhinoceros create patchy fire regimes.
Sally Archibald, Author provided

Where to from here?

The input of scientists will be valuable in helping navigate big decisions about new and changing ecosystems.

Empirical data and models can monitor and forecast changes in biodiversity. For example, new modelling has allowed University of Melbourne researchers to identify alternative strategies for introducing planned or prescribed burning that reduces the risk of large bushfires to koalas.

New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead.

At the local and regional scale, Indigenous-led fire stewardship is an important approach for fostering relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and communities around the world.

Frank Lake, a co-author on our new paper, works with Yurok and Karuk fire practitioners, shown here burning under oaks.
Frank Lake, U.S Department of Agriculture Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.

And international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events. With more extreme fire events ahead of us, learning to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes has never been more important.




Read more:
The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


The Conversation


Luke Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Centenary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, Lecturer in Wildlife Management, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology, La Trobe University

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

After Biden’s win, Australia needs to step up and recommit to this vital UN climate change fund


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.

Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.




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But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.

Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.

Australia’s initial commitment to the Green Climate Fund

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.

In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.

Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Vice-President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Abbott government joined the fund in 2014.
The Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:

it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.

Australia steps back

Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.




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Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.

Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:

I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.

The cast has changed – will the script say the same?

Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.

Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?

There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.




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However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.

After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.

Global momentum on climate action

Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.

In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.

Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.

While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.




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In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.

This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.

And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.

The COVID-19 wild card

While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.

But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.

Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.

Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.




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The Conversation


Jonathan Pickering, Assistant Professor, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

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

Friday essay: how many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?



Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

Goodreads

This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.




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Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.

Goodreads

The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.
Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY



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Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda

Goodreads

No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.
Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.
Shutterstock



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Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.
Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

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

China’s Belt and Road mega-plan may devastate the world’s oceans, or help save them



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Mischa Turschwell, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Griffith University

China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.

The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.

All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?

Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.

A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
Shutterstock

Controversial deals

China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.

The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.




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Why is there so much furore over China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”

However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.

Dan Andrews in Beijing
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is committed to the Belt and Road initiative.
Twitter

Bigger ports and more ships

As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.

Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.




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Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.

A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.

Seagrass in the Pacific Ocean
Dredging can cause sediment to smother seagrass.
iStock

Ocean habitat destroyed

Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.

These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.

Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.

Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.

A manatee
Noise pollution from ships can affect threatened species such as manatees.
Shutterstock

But there are opportunities, too

Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.

In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.




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The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.

China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.The Conversation

Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University

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

San Francisco just banned gas in all new buildings. Could it ever happen in Australia?



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

Last week San Francisco became the latest city to ban natural gas in new buildings. The legislation will see all new construction, other than restaurants, use electric power only from June 2021, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

San Francisco has now joined other US cities in banning natural gas in new homes. The move is in stark contrast to the direction of energy policy in Australia, where the Morrison government seems stuck in reverse: spruiking a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natural gas provides about 26% of energy consumed in Australia — but it’s clearly on the way out. It’s time for a serious rethink on the way many of us cook and heat our homes.

Cutting out gas

San Francisco is rapidly increasing renewable-powered electricity to meet its target of 100% clean energy by 2030. Currently, renewables power 70% of the city’s electricity.

The ban on gas came shortly after San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must run on 100% renewable electricity by 2022.

Buildings are particularly in focus because 44% of San Franciscos’ citywide emissions come from the building sector alone.




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Following this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ban on gas in buildings. They cited the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, and recognised that natural gas is a major source of indoor air pollution, leading to improved public health outcomes.

From January 1, 2021, no new building permits will be issued unless constructing an “All-Electric Building”. This means installation of natural gas piping systems, fixtures and/or infrastructure will be banned, unless it is a commercial food service establishment.

Switching to all-electric homes

In the shift to zero-emissions economies, transitioning our power grids to renewable energy has been the subject of much focus. But buildings produce 25% of Australia’s emissions, and the sector must also do some heavy lifting.

A report by the Grattan Institute this week recommended a moratorium on new household gas connections, similar to what’s been imposed in San Francisco.

The report said natural gas will inevitably decline as an energy source for industry and homes in Australia. This is partly due to economics — as most low-cost gas on Australia’s east coast has been burnt.




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There’s also an environmental imperative, because Australia must slash its fossil fuel emissions to address climate change.

While acknowledging natural gas is widely used in Australian homes, the report said “this must change in coming years”. It went on:

This will be confronting for many people, because changing the cooktops on which many of us make dinner is more personal than switching from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.

The report said space heating is by far the largest use of gas by Australian households, at about 60%. In the cold climates of Victoria and the ACT, many homes have central gas heaters. Homes in these jurisdictions use much more gas than other states.

By contrast, all-electric homes with efficient appliances produce fewer emissions than homes with gas, the report said.

A yellow triangle sign that says 'no coal or coal seam gas' on a wooden fence.
Natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Shutterstock

Zero-carbon buildings

Australia’s states and territories have much work to do if they hope to decarbonise our building sector, including reducing the use of gas in homes.

In 2019, Australia’s federal and state energy ministers committed to a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings for Australia. The measures included “energy smart” buildings with on-site renewable energy generation and storage and, eventually, green hydrogen to replace gas.

The plan also involved better disclosure of a building’s energy performance. To date, Australia’s states and territories have largely focused on voluntary green energy rating tools, such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. This measures factors such as energy efficiency, water usage and waste management in existing buildings.

But in 2020, just 2% of buildings in Australia achieved the highest six-star rating. Clearly, the voluntary system has done little to encourage the switch to clean energy.

The National Construction Code requires mandatory compliance with energy efficiency standards for new buildings. However, the code takes a technology neutral approach and does not require buildings to install zero-carbon energy “in the absence of an explicit energy policy commitment by governments regarding the future use of gas”.

An economically sensible move

An estimated 200,000 new homes are built in Australia each year. This represents an opportunity for states and territories to create mandatory clean energy requirements while reaching their respective net-zero emissions climate targets.

Under a gas ban, the use of zero-carbon energy sources in buildings would increase, similar to San Francisco. This has been recognised by Environment Victoria, which notes

A simple first step […] to start reducing Victoria’s dependence on gas is banning gas connections for new homes.

Creating incentives for alternatives to gas may be another approach, such as offering rebates for homes that switch to electrical appliances. The ACT is actively encouraging consumers to transition from gas.




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Banning gas in buildings could be an economically sensible move. As the Grattan Report found, “households that move into a new all-electric house with efficient appliances will save money compared to an equivalent dual-fuel house”.

Meanwhile, ARENA confirmed electricity from solar and wind provide the lowest levelised cost of electricity, due to the increasing cost of east coast gas in Australia.

Future-proofing new buildings will require extensive work, let alone replacing exiting gas inputs and fixtures in existing buildings. Yet efficient electric appliances can save the average NSW homeowner around A$400 a year.

Learning to live sustainability, and becoming resilient in the face of climate change, is well worth the cost and effort.

Should we be cooking with gas?

Recently, a suite of our major gas importers — China, South Korea and Japan — all pledged to reach net-zero emissions by either 2050 or 2060. This will leave our export-focused gas industry possibly turning to the domestic market for new gas hookups.

But continuing Australia’s gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and few Australians support an economic recovery pinned on gas.

The window to address dangerous climate change is fast closing. We must urgently seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there’s no better place to start that change than in our own homes.




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The Conversation


Madeline Taylor, Lecturer, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, Professor of Global Governance, University of Sydney

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