‘Severely threatened and deteriorating’: global authority on nature lists the Great Barrier Reef as critical



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Jon C. Day, James Cook University and Scott F. Heron, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef is now in “critical” condition and the health of four other Australian World Heritage properties has worsened, according to a sobering report just released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The IUCN is the global authority on nature. Its third outlook report marks the first time the IUCN has declared an Australian property as critical, which means its values are severely threatened and deteriorating. The health of the Blue Mountains, Gondwana Rainforests, Shark Bay and the Ningaloo Coast has also been downgraded.




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The assessment, while chastening, is not surprising. The Great Barrier Reef has endured three mass coral bleaching events in five years, and last summer’s bushfires caused untold damage in the Blue Mountains and Gondwana Rainforests (not to mention the current fires at the reef’s Fraser Island).

Climate change remains the key issue for World Heritage places, not just in Australia but globally. In fact, the IUCN assessment found climate change threatens 11 of Australia’s 16 properties. This raises further questions over our national climate response.

World Heritage: the best of the best

The latest report builds on previous reports from 2014 and 2017, and shows the status and trends of World Heritage properties identified for their outstanding natural values. As the report states:

our ability to conserve these sites is thus a litmus test for the broader success of conservation worldwide.

To qualify for World Heritage listing for natural values, a place must meet one or more of four criteria: exceptional beauty, geology, ecological processes, and species and habitats.

Some properties are also recognised for cultural values and, if they have both, they’re referred to as “mixed”. Across the world there are 252 natural and mixed World Heritage properties, of which 16 are in Australia.

The IUCN is the official advisor on nature to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. The IUCN Outlook report involves assessments by hundreds of international experts, who examine the conservation prospects of all natural and mixed World Heritage properties. It focuses on their natural values, the threats to these values and the effectiveness of actions to protect them.

Threats to our iconic places

Climate change is now the most prevalent threat to natural World Heritage sites, and to many cultural sites.

Overall, the report assessed climate change as a high or a very high threat in 83 out of 252 global properties (33%). This rate is double in Australia, with climate change listed as a threat to 69% (11 of 16) of Australian properties.

And when considering the four natural criteria individually, climate change is the greatest threat to each. This is likely to get worse in future, as climate change is expected to affect more than three times the number of properties impacted by any other threat.

For many properties, the deteriorated conservation outlook is the result of accumulated threats. Impacts of climate change, like coral bleaching and bushfires, are often exacerbated by other threats. For example, the federal government’s 2019 Outlook Report for the Great Barrier Reef listed 45 threats including climate change. This included poor water quality from land-based runoff, coastal development and fishing.

Aerial view of seagrass meadows and headlands in Shark Bay
Seagrass meadows and headlands in the World Heritage-listed Shark Bay Conservation Area, now rated as ‘good with some concerns’.
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At the time of writing, the website which provides the full rationale behind the IUCN outlook was not yet publicly available. However the threats facing the five downgraded Australian sites are well documented.

These include marine heatwaves, which lead to coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo. In Shark Bay, marine heatwaves also cause seagrass — critical habitat for a vast diversity of species — to die-off. Poor water quality, such as from urban and agricultural run-off, is another big threat to the Great Barrier Reef.




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More frequent and intense bushfires are a problem for the Blue Mountains, Shark Bay, and Gondwana Rainforests. These ancient rainforests, along with Ningaloo and Shark Bay, also face threats of invasive species, diseases and storms.

Punching below our weight

While there have been some successes globally, the threats facing our heritage places are escalating.

Since the 2017 assessment, of the 252 properties analysed globally, 16 (6%) have deteriorated and only eight (3%) showed improvement. Notably, Australia is punching below its weight, with 31% of properties having deteriorated (5 of 16) and zero with improvement.




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All of Australia’s World Heritage properties are recognised as having “highly effective” or “mostly effective” protection and management activities.

But the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains, Gondwana Rainforests, Shark Bay and Ningaloo Coast casts doubt on whether these actions are an effective response to threats, especially climate change.

A whale shark
Western Australia’s Ningaloo Coast, now downgraded to ‘good with some concerns’, is famous for its vast diversity of wildlife, including whale sharks.
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Australia’s climate response has been widely criticised, most recently by Christiana Figueres, the former chief of the UN Climate Framework. In a keynote to open the Australian Emissions Reductions Summit yesterday, Figueres said:

I have been pretty vocal about my frustration for so many years of the completely unstable, volatile, unpredictable stand and position on climate change in Australia.

“Meeting and beating” Australia’s 2030 emissions targets has been the Morrison government’s catch-cry. But the target lacks ambition and the government hasn’t ruled out using Kyoto carry-over credits to help meet it. The government has also refused to commit to a target of net-zero emissions by mid century, in contrast to the policies of many of our international peers.

Management of non-climate stressors is, and will remain, essential to halt the decline of the values of our properties. But Australia must adopt more ambitious climate goals to avoid losing those values that make our heritage places special, preserving them for future generations.




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The Conversation


Jon C. Day, PSM, Post-career PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and Scott F. Heron, Associate professor, James Cook University

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

‘Unjustifiable’: new report shows how the nation’s gas expansion puts Australians in harm’s way



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Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

Australia’s latest emissions data, released this week, contained one particularly startling, and unjustifiable, fact. Against all odds, in a year when emissions fell in almost every sector, Australia’s export gas industry still managed to do more climate damage.

A new Climate Council report released today, to which I contributed, sheds more light on the problem of Australia’s expanding gas industry.

It reveals in alarming detail how gas emissions are cancelling out the gains won by Australia’s renewables boom. It also shows how gas emissions are almost certainly under-reported, and uncovers the misleading claims underpinning the Morrison government’s gas-led economic recovery.

This is clearly an unsustainable state of affairs. Australia has this year been in the grip of a climate crisis: unprecedented drought, the Black Summer bushfires and another mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The gas industry escalates this risk and puts more Australians in harm’s way.

The Jeeralang gas power station
The Jeeralang gas power station in Victoria. The gas industry is cancelling out gains won by renewables.
Climate Council

Gas: bucking the trend

As is now well known, COVID-19 restrictions helped trigger a fall in carbon dioxide emissions globally.

In Australia, emissions from transport dropped by 24% compared with April–June last year, as people stayed out of cars and planes.

Emissions from electricity dropped by around 5% in the quarter, compared with the corresponding quarter last year. This was mostly due to continued wind and solar expansion; demand for electricity dropped only marginally.

Overall, industrial demand for electricity was roughly the same as last year. Meanwhile, although office blocks and shopping centres were shuttered, power was needed in the domestic sector to heat homes and charge iPads for homeschooling.

Overall, almost every sector, including gas, also produced fewer emissions in the June quarter than in the same period the year before. Across the economy, emissions for the quarter were 7% lower than the same period last year. This result is represented in the graph below.

While emissions from the gas sector declined in the lockdown months, the sector’s poor emissions performance over the full 12 months to June meant it managed to increase its emissions over the year – one of the few sectors to do so.

Bar chart showing Australia's quarterly emissions since mid-2013.
Australia’s quarterly emissions since the 2013 election, highlighting the most recent quarter in orange.
Author supplied. Data source: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

How did gas get this bad?

Australia became the world’s largest exporter of liquefied gas in 2019. Our report shows almost three-quarters of gas extracted in Australia in 2019 was compressed and processed to send overseas, as shown below.

Remarkably, on top of this, in 2019 the Australian gas export industry was itself the second-largest user of gas in Australia for the first time. More than a quarter of gas consumed in Australia was used to liquefy and chill gas for export overseas.

So the Australian gas export industry uses or exports nearly 80% of the gas it extracts each year – four times the amount needed to service the country’s own needs. Clearly claims of a shortfall in domestic gas supplies, such as those used to justify the recent Narrabri Gas Project approval, are bogus.

Proportional representation of Australian gas use
Chart showing 72% of Australia’s gas is exported and 7.5% is used by the gas export industry to process exports.
Climate Council

A worse problem than we thought

The reports shows rising gas emissions are cancelling out gains made by Australia’s record build of solar and wind generation capacity. Between 2005 and 2018, emissions from the electricity sector fell by 15 million tonnes per year. Emissions from the gas sector increased by 25 million tonnes per year in the same period.

Our report also highlights serious problems with official estimates of gas emissions along the supply chain. These estimates are based on decades-old research designed for the US gas industry.




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Australia is also underestimating the harm caused by gas emissions. Methods used by the federal government to quantify the relative impact of methane are incomplete and ignore recent scientific advances. If methane’s effect was considered completely, this would further increase the assessed impact of the gas industry on Australia’s emissions.

Underpinning all this, the international gas market is in crisis as a result of a global oversupply. The drastic increase in Australia’s gas exports in recent years has left us dangerously exposed to international boom-and-bust market cycles, and subsequent job losses and power price volatility.

Most of Australia’s gas is expensive to produce compared to international competitors. The centrepiece of the federal government’s gas-led recovery, a stretch goal of A$4 per gigajoule for gas, has been described by the extraction industry’s own lobbyists as a “myth”. And several Australian export plants were recently declared by banking giant HSBC as “at risk”.

Cost curve highlighting the breakeven points for Queensland's APLNG, GLNG and QCLNG gas export facilities above projected gas market futures prices on the Japanese and European markets
Australia’s three east coast gas export facilities were recently declared ‘at risk’ by HSBC.
Climate Council

Seizing the opportunity

Fossil fuel extraction and consumption in Australia makes up 80% of our annual emissions. But as the Climate Council report shows, this figure is likely a gross underestimate. And of course, it does not account for the additional emissions produced when Australia’s gas exports are burned overseas.

COVID created a temporary blip in global emissions. If we don’t use it as an opportunity to consider a planet without coal, oil and gas consumption, the climate gains will amount to nothing.The Conversation

Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

From Hobart, to London, to Dhaka: using cameras and AI to build an automatic litter detection system



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Arianna Olivelli, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, CSIRO

It’s estimated about two million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans from rivers each year. But our waterways aren’t just conveyor belts transporting land waste to the oceans: they also capture and retain litter.

Currently, the most common method for monitoring litter relies on humans conducting on-ground visual counts. This process is labour-intensive and makes it difficult to monitor many locations simultaneously or over extended periods.

As part of CSIRO’s research to end plastic waste, we’ve been developing an efficient and scalable environmental monitoring system using artificial intelligence (AI).

The system, which is part of a larger pilot with the City of Hobart, uses AI-based image recognition to track litter in waterways.

Global insights help build a reliable model

The technology is underpinned by two branches of AI: computer vision and deep learning. Computer vision involves training computers to understand and interpret images and videos, whereas deep learning imitates how our brains process data.

Drawing on these capabilities, we worked in partnership with Microsoft (using its Azure cloud computing services) to develop an automated system for monitoring river litter.

We have been detecting and classifying items floating on the surface of Hobart’s stormwater channels, the River Thames in the UK and the Buriganga River in Bangladesh.

We’ve remotely analysed the amount of litter, the type of litter and how this changes across locations.

CSIRO research scientist Chris Wilcox setting up a fixed camera to monitor litter in Hobart.

Major damage from food packaging and bottles

Our work relies heavily on two applications of computer vision. These are “object detection” and “image classification”.

Object detection specifies the location of a particular object in an image and assigns it a label. Image classification assigns one or more labels to the image as a whole.

Before either of these models can be applied reliably, however, they have to be trained, tested and validated using a large number of labelled images. For this, we drew from our footage of river litter collected from Hobart, London and Dhaka.

Our dataset now contains more than 6,100 images with 14,500 individual items. The items are labelled across more than 30 categories including plastic bottles, packaging, beverage cans, paper and plastic cups.

Our data revealed food packaging, beverage bottles and cups were by far the most frequently spotted litter items across all three countries.

Aeriel view of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Buriganga river flows by Dhaka. It’s one of Bangladesh’s most polluted rivers due to the ongoing dumping of industrial waste (such as from leather tanneries) and human waste.
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Fake images aren’t always harmful

To build a well-performing machine learning model, we needed a balanced set of training images featuring all item categories — even if certain categories are more frequent in real life.

Introducing synthetic (computer generated) images to our dataset was a game changer.

These images were generated by Microsoft’s synthetics team based in Seattle. They rendered various objects and superimposed them over backgrounds obtained from our field photos.

Once the digital objects were created, the superimposition process was automatic. Thus, the team managed to produce thousands of synthetic pictures over just a few weeks, rapidly expanding our training dataset.

In this synthetic image, the transparent cup, face mask and aerosol container are digital renderings superimposed over an original photo taken by one of our cameras.

How are objects identified?

There are a few steps by which our system identifies litter objects in photos. First, the photos are all scored against a single-label (“trash”) object detector. This identifies items of litter in the frame and stores their coordinates as annotations.

These coordinates are then used to isolate the items and score them against an image classifier which includes all the litter categories.

Finally, the model presents the category it thinks the item most likely belongs to, along with a suggested probability for how accurate this guess is.

Here’s an example of the system detecting a water bottle and packaging as trash, and then placing both items into their respective categories. Probabilities are provided for the likely accuracy of the system’s guess regarding an item’s classification.

An AI-driven approach to litter management allows a quicker response than a manual system. But when it comes to litter, the major challenge lies in creating a model that can account for millions of different shapes, colours and sizes.




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We wanted to build a flexible model that could be transferred to new locations and across different river settings, including smaller streams (such as Hobart’s stormwater system) and large urban rivers (such as the River Thames or the Buriganga River).

This way, rather than building new models for each location, we only have to deploy more cameras. Data retrieved could help identify litter hot spots, implement better waste-related policies and improve waste management methods to make them safer, smarter and relatively cheaper.

Keeping an eye on Hobart’s litter

We’ve also been collaborating with the City of Hobart to develop an autonomous sensor network to monitor gross pollutant traps, such as floating barriers or litter socks.

These structures, integrated into Hobart’s stormwater drainage system, are supposed to prevent solid waste such as cans, bottles, tree branches and leaves from reaching the estuary and ocean.

We currently have a network of sensors and six cameras installed under bridges tracking litter in the traps. The system can inform an operator when a trap requires emptying, or other maintenance.

Once in full use, the technology will provide almost real-time monitoring of litter around Hobart — assisting efforts to reduce environmental harm caused by stagnant, and potentially hazardous, waste lost to the environment.




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The Conversation


Arianna Olivelli, Research Affiliate, CSIRO and Uwe Rosebrock, Senior Software Engineer, CSIRO

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