3 reasons meeting climate targets and dumping Kyoto credits won’t salvage Australia’s international reputation


Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

Today, the Morrison government released updated projections of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, which indicate Australia is on track to meet 2030 Paris targets without using “carryover” credits earned from the Kyoto Protocol period.

Australia’s plan to use Kyoto carryover credits to meet Paris targets have long been contentious. The government claims that because emissions fell by more than Australia had committed to under the Kyoto Protocol, they should be allowed to carry these “credits” forward to the Paris agreement. Yet legal experts and other governments have suggested there’s no basis for applying these to the Paris agreement, which is a separate agreement.

The new modelling is good news for the Morrison government, which has been under increasing domestic and international pressure over its climate policy. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison is likely to announce this development proudly at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum on Friday night.

So are the latest projections enough to salvage Australia’s reputation on this issue? That appears unlikely.

Dumping credits

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia committed to reducing emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. This target has been widely criticised for years for being too meagre, but previous modelling had suggested even meeting this target was unlikely unless carryover credits were used.




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The latest modelling suggests if the recently-announced technology roadmap — a policy which will support new and emerging clean energy technologies — is taken into account, then Australia would beat its 2030 target by 145 million tonnes. In other words, by 2030 Australia could be 29% under 2005 levels, without using carryover credits.

Morrison had flagged he would announce that Australia will dump the Kyoto credits at a global leaders’ climate summit at the weekend. However, it’s unlikely he’ll be given a speaking slot by the hosts, a reflection of his failure to make meaningful climate commitments. This is why he’ll probably make the announcement to Pacific leaders tomorrow night instead.

But even if Morrison announces he’ll scrap the controversial carryovers tomorrow, our international counterparts will still regard Australia as a climate change laggard. There are three big reasons why.

1. Our Paris target is still unambitious

A reduction of 26-28% by 2030 from 2005 levels is well below the commitments of other countries under the Paris Agreement. And under the Paris Agreement, states were encouraged to ratchet up their commitments to emissions over time.

Yet unlike other countries, Australia has not made any indication of a plan to outline a more ambitious contribution ahead of the CoP26 meeting in Glasgow next year.




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It’s also worth recalling Australia’s 2005 baseline is a comparatively easy starting point. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia was one of only two developed countries allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2008-12.

This means most other developed countries had already reduced emissions in sectors where it was easiest for them to do so — the “low hanging fruit”. This makes further commitments under Paris more challenging for those countries than Australia.

2. Improved projections are no thanks to federal policy

If we don’t have to use Kyoto carry-over credits to meet Paris targets, it may be despite — rather than because — of federal government policy.

Simply put, much of the decline in (projected) emissions can be attributed to the actions of state governments, which have more actively supported the renewable energy sector.

Wind turbines against a sunet
The revision in the 2020 projections partly reflects new measures to speed up development and deployment of low emissions technologies in the recent budget.
Shutterstock

By contrast (and despite claims to the contrary) the government continues to commit billions of dollars to subsidising the fossil fuel industry. Yet there are clear indications of a declining future market for coal in particular.




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While the technology investment roadmap, a federal policy, may serve to further drive down emissions, this is still far from clear.

3. There’s still no commitment to a net zero emissions timetable

The European Union has had a long-standing commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. More recently it has been joined by other major emitters in Japan and South Korea, while emissions giant China has committed to net zero emissions by 2060.

US President-elect Joe Biden has also committed the US to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and to return the US to the Paris agreement.

And yet, the Morrison government continues to baulk at setting a net zero emissions timetable, preferring to describe this as a general ambition rather than endorse a specific target or date.




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The response from the Pacific will be telling

Australia consistently ranks among the worst performers internationally on the Climate Change Performance Index, and there are indications already that other states will actively pressure Australia on climate ambition and action in the lead up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26).

Combined with steadily growing domestic pressure to act on climate change and weakening financial prospects for Australia’s coal exports, international pressure may contribute to a perfect storm for the Morrison government on climate policy.

The response Morrison receives at the virtual Pacific Islands Forum to this position will be telling.




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The region has long been deeply critical of Australia’s climate policy, and is at the frontlines of climate change impacts such as sea level rises, natural disasters and ocean acidification.

While Morrison may avoid the same diplomatic fallout from the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum on this issue, he’s unlikely to find an audience wholly convinced Australia now recognises the scale of the threat climate change poses.The Conversation

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

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

The Blue Mountains World Heritage site has been downgraded, but it’s not too late to save it


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University; Anthony Capon, Monash University, and Leo Robba, Western Sydney University

Twenty years ago, UNESCO inscribed the greater Blue Mountains area on the World Heritage List for having “outstanding universal value”.

If you’ve travelled to the Blue Mountains, with its rugged sandstone cliff faces, hidden waterfalls and rich diversity of life, this value is undeniable. The Dharug and Gundungurra traditional owners long understood this value as they lived within and cared for Country (Ngurra) and, in turn, were nourished by it.

But after fires ripped through 71% of the greater Blue Mountains area, the condition of the World Heritage site has officially been downgraded.




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Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the official advisor to UNESCO — rated the site as being of “significant concern”, a drop from “good with some concerns”. It’s now in the second-lowest category.

The news may be grim, but there are signs of hope. Despite threats of climate change, bushfires and decades of pollution, efforts are being made to minimise lingering impacts, and results are encouraging.

Ancient trees and unique animals

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area covers just over one million hectares, divided into eight protected areas.

Regent honeyeater
Clearing of the regent honeyeater’s woodland habitat has led to numbers declining and their range contracting.
Shutterstock

The largest protected area is Wollemi National Park (499,879 ha) in the north. This park is, famously, home to the last wild population of Wollemi Pine. These trees have a deeply ancient lineage tracing back to when the Earth’s land masses were all part of the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago.




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The World Heritage area harbours 1,500 plant species, and 127 of them are rare or threatened. And in an outstanding example of the area’s uniqueness, it also contains more than 90 Eucalypt species — 13% of the global total.

The World Heritage area is also an important habitat for many rare and threatened animal species.

One celebrated seasonal visitor is the critically endangered regent honeyeater. Also under threat, and unique to the Blue Mountains, is the leura skink, which survives only in a handful of sensitive and vulnerable wetland communities.

Current threats

In its new report, the IUCN lists eight current threats undermining the greater Blue Mountains area. The most worrying – those considered “very high threats” in the report — are climate change and bushfires.

The severe fires of last summer inflicted long-lasting damage to many Blue Mountains species that contribute to the unique biodiversity of the area. And climate change is an emerging environmental pressure threatening the delicate ecology of the region through rising temperatures and changes to rainfall.

The IUCN also rated invasive plant and animal species, such as foxes, feral cats, horses, cattle and deer, as a high threat. Mining and quarrying, habitat alteration and several specific aspects of climate change (storms, drought, temperature extremes) were also listed.

The IUCN also named potential threats from planned operations, including future noise pollution from the new international airport in Western Sydney. Another is the impact of periodic flooding from a proposal to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam for flood mitigation purposes.

Blackened Blue Mountains bushland
The Black Summer bushfires decimated 71% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area.
Shutterstock

Cleaning up their act

Climate change and bushfires require massive, coordinated national and international responses, but some major issues in the Blue Mountains can start to be resolved on relatively smaller scales.

For decades, the Blue Mountains have been flogged by a number of human pressures, such as an outdated sewage system from the City of the Blue Mountains and pollution from coal mining. While the environment hasn’t fully recovered, we’re pleased to see successes in the recovery efforts.

For decades, inadequate sewerage systems polluted multiple streams and rivers in the Blue Mountains.

In 1987, the Sydney Water Corporation started a 25-year, $250 million scheme to reduce water pollution from this inadequately treated sewage. And by 2010, a massive upgrade to the region’s sewage system closed 11 antiquated treatment plants.

All Blue Mountains wastewater is now treated to a higher standard at Winmalee in the lower Blue Mountains and is released away from waterways in the World Heritage area.

Another important pressure in the Greater Blue Mountains Area is from coal mining, with UNESCO expressing concerns in 2001 about water pollution from mines, such as the one operated by Clarence Colliery.

The author, Ian Wright, sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
The author, Ian Wright, sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright, Author provided

This mine is in state forest adjacent to the World Heritage area boundary. Research from 2017 found wastewater discharging from the mine was severely contaminating water quality of the Wollangambe River and damaging the ecology for more than 20 kilometres.




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Two years earlier, Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal, was prosecuted after more than 2,000 tonnes of coal material (a slurry of water and coal particles) spilled into the Wollangambe River.

Centennial Coal agreed to comply with a new EPA licence in 2017 requiring the disposal of less polluting wastes.

The latest results from October of this year are very encouraging. They show an enormous reduction (more than 95%) in the zinc concentration in mine waste, compared to 2012 levels.




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Embracing ‘planetary health’

For an internationally important site like this, which is home to more than 80,000 residents, all levels of government must adopt the concept of “planetary health”. This recognises that human health entirely depends on the health of natural systems and embraces Indigenous knowledge.

Wentworth Falls.
Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. Embracing planetary health, a more holistic way of thinking about the environment, is the only way we can protect it.
Shutterstock

We’re pleased to see the Blue Mountains City Council is already on board. It recently announced plans to establish a planetary health leadership centre in Katoomba in partnership with universities and other educational institutions.

So while there is much to grieve, we can celebrate small successes in the Blue Mountains’ journey, which show it is indeed possible for a diverse array of parties and the broader community to work cooperatively, and start to better protect it.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University; Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Leo Robba, Lecturer, Visual Communications / Social Design, Western Sydney University

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

Alan Finkel: how a late-night phonecall in 2016 triggered ‘incredible progress’ on clean energy


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

Like so much of what I have done as Australia’s Chief Scientist, the electricity market review of 2017 was unexpected.

I was driving home after delivering a speech late one night in October 2016 when then federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg called and asked if I would chair a review of the National Electricity Market.

The urgent need had arisen as a consequence of the South Australian power blackout and ongoing concerns about the evolution of the electricity market. The call was brief; the task was huge.

This was new territory for me. While I have a PhD in electrical engineering, I had no specific interest in power systems. I had previously taken a business interest in green technologies. I had started a green lifestyle magazine, I had invested early in green technology stocks (and lost a small fortune), been involved in an electric car charging company, and I drove an electric car. I was an engineer but my work was in micro-electronics, at the scale of brain synapses. Large-scale power engineering had been my least favourite subject.

Now, it is close to my favourite. Work on low-emissions technologies has occupied a significant portion of my five-year term as Chief Scientist, which finishes at the end of this month.

Energy is a complex, vitally important topic, on which everyone has an opinion. The physics of human-induced global warming is irrefutable and a fast reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is urgent. Last summer’s bushfires were a grim reminder.




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People often ask me whether climate policy is destined to destroy political leaders in Australia. Call me an optimist, but what I have seen is progress. When my proposed Clean Energy Target met its maker in October 2017, I was disappointed, but I was honestly excited the Australian, state and territory governments agreed to 49 out of 50 recommendations of our review.

Many of these recommendations ensured the electricity system would retain its operating strength as ever more solar and wind generation was added, and others ensured better planning processes for long-distance interconnectors and renewable energy zones. The public narrative that climate progress is moribund overlooks this ongoing work.

In early 2018, as I began to better understand the full potential of hydrogen in a low-emission future, I informally briefed Frydenberg, who responded by asking me to prepare a formal briefing paper for him and his state and territory counterparts. With support from government, industry, research and public interest colleagues, it developed last year into the National Hydrogen Strategy, which explored fully the state of hydrogen technology internationally and its potential for Australia.




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The next step came this year with the Low Emissions Technology Statement, which articulates a solid pathway to tackle some of the pressing and difficult challenges en route to a clean economy. This was developed by Frydenberg’s successor, Angus Taylor, supported by advice from a panel I chaired.




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When I was appointed Australia’s Chief Scientist in 2015, my predecessor Ian Chubb took me for a drink at Canberra’s Monster Bar. He had a prepared brief for me and we flicked through it. But Ian didn’t offer prescriptive advice, given the reality that the specifics of the role are defined by each chief scientist in line with requests from the government of the day.

I came to the role with a plan no more detailed than to work hard, do things well, be opportunistic, and always say yes – despite the device that sits on my desk and barks “no” whenever you hit the red button, a gift from my staff keen to see a more measured response to the many calls on my time.

I am most proud of my initiatives in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education. These include the Australian Informed Choices project that ensures school students are given wise advice about core subjects that will set them in good stead for their careers; the STARPortal one-stop shop for information on extracurricular science activities for children; a report to the national education ministers on how businesses and schools can work together to provide context to science education; and the Storytime Pledge that acknowledges the fundamental importance of literacy by asking scientists to take a pledge to read to children.

But many of the high-profile tasks have arrived unexpectedly – the energy and low-emissions technology work, helping CSIRO with its report on climate and disaster resilience, and my work this year to help secure ICU ventilators and most recently, to review testing, contact tracing and outbreak management in the coronavirus pandemic.




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The incoming Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley, will no doubt find, as I did, the job brings big surprises and unexpected turns. I expect she will also find government more receptive than ever to taking advice from experts in health, the physical sciences and the social sciences.

That doesn’t mean gratuitous advice. The advice we offer as scientists must be relevant and considered. Much of my advice has been in the form of deep-dive reviews, such as the report on national research facilities that was funded in the 2018 budget. But this year, amid the pandemic, we began something quite different: the Rapid Research Information Forum, which gives fast, succinct advice to government on very specific questions. This has been a highly effective way to synthesise the most recent research results with a very quick turnaround.

Nor does advice mean criticism. The Chief Scientist’s job is not to be the chief scientific critic of government policy. It is to advise ministers with the best that science has to offer. In turn, their job is to weigh that advice alongside inputs from other sectors and interests.

For me, working with the government has delivered results. Ministers have been receptive, have never told me what to say, and have agreed to the vast majority of my work being made public. In the energy sphere, we’ve made incredible progress. I am delighted to be staying on in an advisory role on low-emissions technologies.

When Frydenberg called late that evening in 2016, I had no idea where to begin to assess the state of the electricity market. And I had no idea that three years later we would be taking the first steps towards a clean hydrogen economy.

Now I am confident we will achieve the dramatic reduction in emissions that is necessary. Because of the immensity of the energy, industrial, agricultural and building systems, it will be slow and enormously difficult in a technical sense, politics aside.

Anyone who believes otherwise has not looked in detail at the production process for steel and aluminium. Converting these industries to green production is a mammoth task. But the political will is there. Industry is on the job, as is the scientific community, and the work has started.

The beginning of my term coincided with one of the most momentous scientific breakthroughs in a century: the detection of gravitational waves, literally ripples in the fabric of spacetime. This confirmed a prediction made by Einstein 100 years ago and was the final piece in the puzzle of his Theory of General Relativity.

As I finish my term, the contribution of Australian scientists to that discovery has just been recognised in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. As chair of the Prizes selection committee, this was a nice bookend for me. More importantly, it’s a reminder we are playing the long game.The Conversation

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

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