Seabirds are today’s canaries in the coal mine – and they’re sending us an urgent message


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David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast; Brian Allan Hoover, Chapman University, and William Sydeman, University of California San DiegoJust as caged canaries once warned coal miners of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, free-flying seabirds are now warning humanity about the deteriorating health of our oceans.

Seabirds journey vast distances across Earth’s seascapes to find food and to breed. This exposes them to changes in ocean conditions, climate and food webs. This means their biology, particularly their breeding successes, can reveal these changes to us on a rare, planet-wide scale.

We collated and analysed the world’s largest database on seabird breeding. Our findings reveal a key message: urgency in the Northern Hemisphere and opportunity in the south.

The Northern Hemisphere ocean systems are degraded and urgently need better management and restoration. Damage to Southern Hemisphere oceans from threats such as climate change and industrial fishing is accelerating, but opportunities remain there to avoid the worst.

northern gannet pair with offspring
Seabird breeding success is a good indicator of ocean health.
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Oceans at a crossroads

Seabirds often travel far across the planet. For example, many sooty shearwaters breed in New Zealand, yet travel each year to the productive waters of the northeast Pacific. Arctic terns migrate even further, travelling each year between the Arctic and Antarctic.

Scientists often use satellite-derived data sets to determine, for example, how the oceans’ surfaces are warming or how ocean food webs are changing. Few such data sets span the globe, however, and this is where seabirds come in.

Over its long journey, a seabird eats fish and plankton. In doing so, it absorbs signals about ocean conditions, including the effects of pollution, marine heatwaves, ocean warming and other ecological changes.

Seabird breeding productivity (the number of chicks produced per female per year) depends on the food resources available. In this way, seabirds are sentinels of change in marine ecosystems. They can tell us which parts of oceans are healthy enough to support their breeding and which parts may be in trouble.




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Shearwater floats on water
Many sooty shearwaters breed in New Zealand then migrate to the northeast Pacific.
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Deciphering seabird messages

In some cases, seabirds tell us directly about major distress in the oceans. This was the case in 2015-16, when around a million emaciated common murres died, many washing up on beaches from California to Alaska. The seabirds experienced severe food shortages caused by an acute marine heatwave.

In other cases, seabird health can hint at longer-term and more subtle disruption of ocean ecosystems, and we are left to decipher these messages.

In this task, seabird breeding provides important clues about marine food webs that are otherwise difficult or impossible to measure directly, especially at global scales. Thankfully, seabird scientists around the world have consistently measured breeding productivity over decades.

Our research team included 36 of these scientists. We collated a database of breeding productivity for 66 seabird species from 46 sites around the world, from 1964 to 2018. We used the data to determine whether seabirds were producing relatively more or fewer chicks over the past 50 years, and whether the risk of breeding failure was increasing or decreasing.

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In the Southern Hemisphere, there’s still time to reverse the oceans’ plight.
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Striking findings

In the Northern Hemisphere, breeding productivity of plankton-eating birds such as storm petrels and auklets increased strongly over 50 years, but breeding productivity of fish-eating birds declined sharply.

In the Southern Hemisphere, by contrast, breeding productivity of plankton-eating seabirds declined weakly, but increased strongly for fish eaters.

In short, fish-eating seabirds in the north are in trouble. Decreasing breeding productivity leads to population declines, and the low breeding rate of seabirds (many species only have one chick per year) means populations recover slowly.

More worrying, though, were our findings on the risk of breeding failure.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the probability of breeding failure was low throughout the study period. The same was true for Northern Hemisphere plankton feeders. But fish eaters in the north showed dramatically increasing risk of breeding failure, most acutely in the years since 2000.

Importantly, increasing risk of breeding failure was also much higher for seabirds that feed at the ocean’s surface, such as black-legged kittiwakes, compared with those that feed at greater depths, such as puffins.




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Risk of breeding failure was higher for seabirds that feed at the ocean’s surface.
©Eric J Woehler

What this tells us

Unfortunately, these results match what we know about human-caused damage to the ocean.

First, many pollutants such as plastics collect close to the ocean surface. They are often eaten by surface-feeding seabirds, potentially hampering their ability to produce chicks.

Similarly, the rate of ocean warming has been more than three times faster, and the change in number of marine heatwave days twice as large, on average, in the Northern than Southern Hemisphere over the past 50 years.

Likewise, northern oceans have sustained industrial fisheries for far longer than those in the south. This has likely reduced food supplies to Northern Hemisphere fish-eating seabirds over longer periods, causing chronic disruptions in their breeding success.

But human impacts in the Southern Hemisphere are accelerating. Ocean warming and marine heatwaves are becoming more intense, and industrial fisheries and plastic pollution are ever-more pervasive.

Rate of warming of the surface ocean over the past 50 years.

We must heed the warnings from our seabird “canaries”. With careful planning and marine reserves that take account of projected climate change, the Southern Hemisphere might avoid the worst consequences of human activity. But without action, some seabird species may be lost and ocean food webs damaged.

In the Northern Hemisphere, there is no time to waste. Innovative management and restoration plans are urgently needed to avoid further deterioration in ocean health.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Watch for new articles ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November. Brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation

David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Brian Allan Hoover, Postdoctoral Fellow, Chapman University, and William Sydeman, Adjunct associate, University of California San Diego

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

Climate change will cost a young Australian up to $245,000 over their lifetime, court case reveals


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Liam Phelan, University of Newcastle and Jacquie Svenson, University of NewcastleThe Federal Court today dismissed a bid by a group of Australian teenagers seeking to prevent federal environment minister Sussan Ley from approving a coalmine extension in New South Wales.

While the teens’ request for an injunction was unsuccessful, a number of important developments emerged during the court proceedings. This included new figures on the financial costs of climate change to young Australians over their lifetimes.

An independent expert witness put the loss at between A$125,000 and A$245,000 per person. The calculation was a conservative one, and did not include health impacts which were assessed separately.

The evidence was accepted by both the federal government’s legal team and the judge. That it was uncontested represents an important shift. No longer are the financial impacts of climate change a vague future loss – they’re now a tangible, quantifiable harm.

Three teens involved in the case embrace outside the Federal Court
The Federal Court dismissed the teens’ request for an injunction against a mine.
James Gourley/AAP

Calculating climate costs

The case involved a proposed extension to Whitehaven’s Vickery mine near Gunnedah in northwest NSW. The expansion would increase the total emissions over the life of the mine to 366 million tonnes.

To help in its deliberations, the court called on an independent expert witness, Dr Karl Mallon, to estimate the extent to which climate change would harm the eight young Australians aged 13 to 17, and by extension all children in Australia.

Mallon is chief executive of Climate Risk, a consultancy specialising in climate risk and adaptation software which advises governments and businesses around the world. This is the first time anywhere in the world this technique for quantifying harm in climate litigation has been applied and accepted.

Mallon first assumed a level of ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, with reference to standard scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scenarios range from futures with ambitious emissions reductions to those with very little.

So Mallon used the IPCC’s high-end emissions scenario known as RCP8.5 – the only one consistent with increasing coal production.

Second, Mallon drew on atmospheric modelling to provide projections for Australia on climate effects such as changes in temperature and rainfall. He then quantified the financial and health costs of those changes across three “epochs”, or time periods, in the futures of young people today.

coal plant with emissions from chimneys
The proposed mine expansion would mean increased coal production, and emissions.
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Epoch 1: loss of property wealth

The first epoch spanned the decade to 2030. Mallon limited his analysis to how climate change will affect housing markets, leading to the loss of family property wealth.

Some homes are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and climate risks such as bushfires, flooding, coastal inundation, cyclones and subsidence. Mallon’s modelling found about 5% of family homes would be affected damaged by climate change and associated extreme weather events this decade.

Already in some areas insurance premiums are becoming unaffordable and the problem will likely worsen as climate change unfolds. This will reduce the market value of high-risk properties.

Mallon estimated an average loss to the value of family homes by 2030 at about A$40-85,000 per child.

Home burnt to rubble by fire
Fire risk will make some homes uninsurable.
James Gourley/AAP

Epoch 2: reduced earnings

This epoch spanned the years 2040 to 2060, when the applicants would be aged between 20 and 58 years. This part of Mallon’s analysis focused first on loss to prosperity – how climate change would affect a young person’s ability to work.

On hot days, the body must expend extra energy dissipating heat (usually by sweating). As the International Labour Organisation has noted, exposure to these conditions for extended periods is risky, and to endure them people must drink water and take regular breaks, leading to lower productivity.

Rising temperatures under climate change will increase the number of days where the ability to work outside safely will be hampered. Mallon found around 30% of today’s children will work in climate-vulnerable jobs, such as agriculture and construction.

People in these jobs will be less productive, and the cost to employers will eventually be passed to employees through lower wages. Mallon estimated this means a loss of about A$75,000 over a young person’s working life.

Climate change and associated extreme weather will also disrupt the infrastructure businesses rely on, such as electricity, telecommunications and transport. Again, these productivity losses will eventually be reflected in employee wages.

In Mallon’s opinion, repeated extreme weather damage to business continuity will lead to an estimated average A$25,000 annual loss per person over the working life of a child today.

Climate change will also deliver general “hits” to the economy. Mallon’s analysis here focused only on agricultural and labour productivity, and drew on existing research to estimate losses of about A$60,000 per person over their lifetimes.

The bottom line? Mallon’s partial, conservative calculations found today’s children will forego between A$125,000 and A$245,000 each due to the climate impacts noted above. He puts the most likely cost at around A$170,000 for each child.

Three girls wade through floodwaters
Natural disasters such as flood and fire will lead to economic disruption.
Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Epoch 3: risks to health

The third epoch spanned 2070 to 2100, when today’s young people will be in the later stages of their lives. Here, Mallon’s analysis focused on the health impacts of higher temperatures. These will lead to increased heat stress, ambulance call outs, presentations to emergency departments and hospitalisations.

Older people are more vulnerable to the health effects of higher temperatures, and also more likely to die. Mallon found one in five of today’s children will likely be hospitalised due to heat stress in their senior years.

Act hard and fast

In Australia and around the world, people concerned about climate change are increasingly using litigation in a bid to force governments to act.

This means we can expect to quantification of the financial costs of climate change being presented more often in our courts.

Mallon’s calculations do not cover all harm that will be caused by climate change – only that for which detailed accessible modelling exists. The full financial and health costs will inevitably be far greater than the scope of his assessment.

Global emissions must urgently be cut to net-zero to avert the most disastrous climate change impacts. The arguments in favour of radical mitigation action, including the personal financial risks, grow ever-more compelling by the day.




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This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Liam Phelan, Senior Lecturer, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Jacquie Svenson, Clinical Teacher/Solicitor, University of Newcastle

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

Australia’s threatened species plan sends in the ambulances but ignores glaring dangers


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Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney, and Don Driscoll, Deakin UniversityAustralia is unquestionably in the midst of an extinction crisis. Some 34 native mammal species have been driven to extinction since European invasion, and threatened species and ecological communities now number more than 1,900.

On Friday, federal environment minister Sussan Ley released Australia’s second Threatened Species Strategy – a roadmap for combating threats to native plants, animals and ecological communities.

The ten-year plan builds on the first strategy launched in 2015, and contains welcome changes. But there remain serious questions about how the plan will be funded and implemented – and quite possibly undermined by other federal government policies.

In essence, the strategy sends a few extra ambulances to the bottom of the cliff, rather than installing a fence at the top to stop species tumbling over.

orange bellied parrot
The plan to save threatened species, such as the orange-bellied parrot, contains both improvements and concerns.
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First, the good news

It would be useful when assessing the new strategy to know how the previous one measured up. Unfortunately, federal environment officials have not yet released the last report card for that strategy, which makes it hard to identify what worked and what didn’t.

Nonetheless, the second strategy differs from the first in important ways.

The first strategy was criticised for its heavy focus on feral cats. Other problems which are just as (and often more) threatening to vulnerable species were not given the same attention. These include altered fire regimes, land clearing and other invasive species such as weeds and rabbits. Importantly, the new strategy recognises a greater number of key threats to wildlife and their habitats.

It also expands the number of actions for threatened species recovery from four to eight. Such actions may include tackling weeds and diseases, relocating species and identifying climate refuges.

The first strategy was rightly questioned for a somewhat myopic focus on 20 mammal, 20 bird and 30 plant species. It also lacked a transparent and evidence-based process for determining how a species was selected as a priority.

The new strategy could expand the types of species targeted for conservation to include fish, amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species. Also, the process for prioritising species for action promises to be more rigorous – assessed against six principles supported by science and existing conservation frameworks.

Significantly, priority places in need of conservation will likewise be assessed through a formal process. This is welcome if it ultimately protects habitats and broader ecosystems, an essential element of avoiding species extinctions.




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Tropical savanna in good condition.
Suzanne Prober

But challenges remain

The strategy talks of improving species trajectories, but it’s unclear what would constitute success in this regard.

If a threatened species’ population numbers were declining at a slower rate due to an intervention, would that intervention be deemed a success? Will successful actions be attributed to the strategy (and, by association, the federal government), even if they were entirely funded by philanthropic or community efforts?

Scientists have gone to great lengths to improve our knowledge about trends in threatened bird, mammal and plant species for which monitoring programs exist. However data for threatened species remains deficient, due to funding cuts for monitoring and associated infrastructure.

This means measuring progress on the strategy will be difficult, because we simply don’t have enough reliable data. And the strategy does not appear to remedy this situation with funding.

The strategy makes references to six important principles to guide decisions on which species are to be prioritised for assistance. These include how close a species is to extinction, a species’ ‘uniqueness’, the likelihood an intervention will work and whether the species is culturally significant. But these principles should not be applied in isolation from each other.

For example, it may be more cost efficient to save species with both a high chance of extinction and relatively cheap and effective interventions. But the most unique species may not be the cheapest to save, and the most endangered species may not be the species of greatest importance to one sector of the community.

So prioritisation may require trade-offs between different principles. There is no magic “one size fits all” solution, but excellent scientific guidance exists on how to keep this process objective, transparent and, most of all, repeatable.

The strategy acknowledges major drivers of biodiversity decline and extinction, including climate change, habitat destruction and pollution. However, nowhere is there an explicit declaration that to conserve or recover our species and environments we must tackle the underlying causes of these drivers.

The strategy also fails to acknowledge the key role legislation plays in reining in – or enabling – threats such as land clearing. An independent review earlier this year confirmed federal environment laws are failing abysmally. But fundamental recommendations stemming from the review, such as independent oversight and adequate resourcing, are not included in the strategy.




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Without stronger laws and funding, the southern brown bandicoot’s future is uncertain.
Sarah Maclagan

A better deal for nature

To be effective, the strategy must chart a path to effective environmental law reform.

And saving our threatened species and ecosystems shouldn’t be seen as a cost, but rather a savvy investment.

Increased and targeted funding for on-ground actions, such as weed and pest animal control, species re-introductions, and Indigenous ranger programs, could generate many thousands of jobs. Such measures would also boost local economies and support industries such as tourism.

A 2019 study found Australia’s listed threatened species could be recovered for about A$1.7 billion a year.

The Morrison government recently announced it would spend A$7 billion setting up a military space division to better protect satellites from attack.

What’s our best defence for an uncertain future? We argue it’s ensuring Earth’s life support systems, including its remarkable species and landscapes, are also protected.




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The Conversation


Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney, and Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

A ‘100% renewables’ target might not mean what you think it means. An energy expert explains


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James Ha, Grattan InstituteIn the global effort to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, achieving a “100% renewables” electricity system is considered ideal.

Some Australian states have committed to 100% renewable energy targets, or even 200% renewable energy targets. But this doesn’t mean their electricity is, or will be, emissions free.

Electricity is responsible for a third of Australia’s emissions, and making it cleaner is a key way to reduce emissions in other sectors that rely on it, such as transport.

So it’s important we have clarity about where our electricity comes from, and how emissions-intensive it is. Let’s look at what 100% renewables actually implies in detail.

Is 100% renewables realistic?

Achieving 100% renewables is one way of eliminating emissions from the electricity sector.

It’s commonly interpreted to mean all electricity must be generated from renewable sources. These sources usually include solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, and exclude nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

But this is a very difficult feat for individual states and territories to try to achieve.

The term “net 100% renewables” more accurately describes what some jurisdictions — such as South Australia and the ACT — are targeting, whether or not they’ve explicitly said so.

These targets don’t require that all electricity people use within the jurisdiction come from renewable sources. Some might come from coal or gas-fired generation, but the government offsets this amount by making or buying an equivalent amount of renewable electricity.

A net 100% renewables target allows a state to spruik its green credentials without needing to worry about the reliability implications of being totally self-reliant on renewable power.

Solar panels on roofs
East coast states are connected to the National Electricity Market.
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So how does ‘net’ 100% renewables work?

All east coast states are connected to the National Electricity Market (NEM) — a system that allows electricity to be generated, used and shared across borders. This means individual states can achieve “net 100% renewables” without the renewable generation needing to occur when or where the electricity is required.

Take the ACT, for example, which has used net 100% renewable electricity since October 2019.

The ACT government buys renewable energy from generators outside the territory, which is then mostly used in other states, such as Victoria and South Australia. Meanwhile, people living in ACT rely on power from NSW that’s not emissions-free, because it largely comes from coal-fired power stations.

This way, the ACT government can claim net 100% renewables because it’s offsetting the non-renewable energy its residents use with the clean energy it’s paid for elsewhere.

SA’s target is to reach net 100% renewables by the 2030s. Unlike the ACT, it plans to generate renewable electricity locally, equal to 100% of its annual demand.

At times, such as especially sunny days, some of that electricity will be exported to other states. At other times, such as when the wind drops off, SA may need to rely on electricity imports from other states, which probably won’t come from all-renewable sources.




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So what happens if all states commit to net 100% renewable energy targets? Then, the National Electricity Market will have a de-facto 100% renewable energy target — no “net”.

That’s because the market is one entire system, so its only options are “100% renewables” (implying zero emissions), or “less than 100% renewables”. The “net” factor doesn’t come into it, because there’s no other part of the grid for it to buy from or sell to.

How do you get to “200% renewables”, or more?

It’s mathematically impossible for more than 100% of the electricity used in the NEM to come from renewable sources: 100% is the limit.

Any target of more than 100% renewables is a different calculation. The target is no longer a measure of renewable generation versus all generation, but renewable generation versus today’s demand.

Gas plant
Australia could generate several times more renewable energy than there is demand today, but still use a small and declining amount of fossil fuels during rare weather events.
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Tasmania, for example, has legislated a target of 200% renewable energy by 2040. This means it wants to produce twice as much renewable electricity as it consumes today.

But this doesn’t necessarily imply all electricity consumed in Tasmania will be renewable. For example, it may continue to import some non-renewable power from Victoria at times, such as during droughts when Tasmania’s hydro dams are constrained. It may even need to burn a small amount of gas as a backup.

This means the 200% renewable energy target is really a “net 200% renewables” target.

Meanwhile, the Greens are campaigning for 700% renewables. This, too, is based on today’s electricity demand.

In the future, demand could be much higher due to electrifying our transport, switching appliances from gas to electricity, and potentially exporting energy-intensive, renewable commodities such as green hydrogen or ammonia.

Targeting net-zero emissions

These “more than 100% renewables” targets set by individual jurisdictions don’t necessarily imply all electricity Australians use will be emissions free.

It’s possible — and potentially more economical — that we would meet almost all of this additional future demand with renewable energy, but keep some gas or diesel capacity as a low-cost backstop.

This would ensure continued electricity supply during rare, sustained periods of low wind, low sun, and high demand, such as during a cloudy, windless week in winter.




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The energy transition is harder near the end — each percentage point between 90% and 100% renewables is more expensive to achieve than the previous.

That’s why, in a recent report from the Grattan Institute, we recommended governments pursue net-zero emissions in the electricity sector first, rather than setting 100% renewables targets today.

For example, buying carbon credits to offset the small amount of emissions produced in a 90% renewable NEM is likely to be cheaper in the medium term than building enough energy storage — such as batteries or pumped hydro dams — to backup wind and solar at all times.

The bottom line is governments and companies must say what they mean and mean what they say when announcing targets. It’s the responsibility of media and pundits to take care when interpreting them.The Conversation

James Ha, Associate, Grattan Institute

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