1,600 years ago, climate change hit the Australian Alps. We studied ancient lake mud to learn what happened


Shutterstock

Zoë Thomas, UNSW; Haidee Cadd, University of Wollongong, and Larissa Schneider, Australian National UniversityIf you’ve ever visited Australia’s highest peak — Mount Kosciuszko — you might remember the long uphill trek to the summit past some of Australia’s most picturesque and rugged landscapes. Vibrant snow gums, boardwalks with meadows of exquisite alpine plants, and blinding patches of snow.

As you approach the summit, a quartet of stunning blue lakes appear, created by glaciers during the last ice age that carved new valleys out of the mountain.

Lakes like these are windows to the past, offering an opportunity to understand how our climate and environment has changed over hundreds to thousands of years. One such lake, Club Lake — so-named for its resemblance to a suit in a deck of cards — was the focus of our new study.

After studying the lake’s sediment, we learned the Australian Alps experienced a sudden climate change about 1,600 years ago that brought a long spell of warmer conditions. What makes this sudden warming event particularly interesting is that it bears striking similarity to today.

Climate change in the Australian Alps

The Australian alpine region is the traditional home of a number of Aboriginal groups, including the Ngarigo, Walgalu and Djilamatang people. It is also home to highly diverse flora and fauna that occur nowhere else, from billy buttons (Craspedia costiniana) known for their vibrant yellow rosette of tiny flowers, to the broad-toothed rat and its chubby cheeks.

But this unique wildlife is under immense threat from climate change.

By 2100, Australia may warm by at least 4℃, with bushfires becoming more frequent and devastating. The fragile alpine ecosystem will be hit particularly hard by these changes.




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Many of Australia’s alpine species are already near their climatic limits, and are constrained by altitude. They’re at risk of becoming regionally extinct if their climatic thresholds are exceeded. As the temperature warms, treelines move upslope to cooler temperatures, pushing alpine flora and fauna to higher elevations. At some point they can go no higher — they’re squeezed out of their niche.

The critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum, for example, relies on the seasonal snowpack for winter hibernation, but increased temperatures are limiting this habitat.

A dip into the past

Our study showed Club Lake holds vital clues to the link between rising temperatures, loss of native plant species and more frequent fires in the Snowy Mountains.

Lake sediments are used all over the world as indicators of climate and environmental change because of the unique way they trap material. A body of water can act as a seal that ensures sediments are largely undisturbed over time.

We extracted sediments from the bottom of Club Lake to a depth of 35 centimetres. This equates to about 3,500 years of history, approximately 100 years for each centimetre.

Club-shaped lake in the mountains
Club Lake in Mt Kosciuszko.
Shutterstock

To work out how temperatures have changed over this time, we looked for the presence of molecular fossils, called “lipid biomarkers”. Analysing these biomarkers in the laboratory can tell us what the temperature in the environment was like, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

In the 3,500 years we examined, we detected a gradual warming trend. Superimposed on this, we found a sudden warming event that started 1,600 years ago, and lasted about six centuries. We suspect it was due to an atmospheric phenomenon linking higher tropical sea surface temperatures to southeastern Australia.

We’re not yet sure how much of Australia was affected by this warming, but other research from 2018 measured similar temperature changes in stalagmites from the Yarrangobilly caves 50 kilometres away.

Alpine snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora)
Zoë Thomas

What happened during this climate change?

During this unusual warmth, alpine herbs and shrubs declined, while the abundance of trees, particularly eucalyptus, increased. We know this by looking at grains of pollen preserved at different depths within the lake sediment samples, which indicates what types of plants were growing nearby.

We also found small particles of charcoal, produced by bushfires, embedded within the sediment layers. This showed the changes in vegetation also coincided with greater fire activity.

What surprised us most, however, was discovering a large increase in mercury at this time.

Mercury, which occurs naturally in the environment, is the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature, and is particularly sensitive to temperature changes. Higher temperatures enhance mercury deposition from the atmosphere, and our study shows a five-fold increase in mercury flux 1,600 years ago.

Alpine herbfields.
Nicola Pain

Industrial activities over the last 150 years, such as burning coal, have increased the abundance of mercury significantly. Our findings suggest future climate change is likely to increase the risk of mercury exposure not just in cities, but also in the seemingly remote Australian alpine environment.

Mercury contamination is a significant public health and environmental problem. At certain levels it’s poisonous to the nervous system, and it does not easily degrade.




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What can we do?

Insights from the past can help governments, environmental agencies, and scientists come up with effective strategies to protect the vulnerable flora and fauna of the Australian Alps. But it’s not just changes in climate they’ll have to contend with in future.

There are other perils, such as soil erosion and habitat fragmentation from the legacy of sheep and cattle grazing, and tourism. Invasive pests and pathogens are likely to further reduce the resilience of these alpine ecosystems.

Feral horses graze near a tree
Feral horses are a significant threat to native wildlife in Australia’s alpine region.
Shutterstock

Restoration programs over the last 50 years have aimed to revitalise the natural vegetation in the Kosciuszko National Park following 135 years of grazing — finally banned in 1969 — and the environmental damage caused by the Snowy River Hydro-Electric scheme.

More recently, the federal government has committed A$3.5 million towards recovery from the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires. Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management is essential for tackling future crises.

This is the critical time for climate action to protect this unique and iconic Australian landscape.




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The Conversation


Zoë Thomas, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW; Haidee Cadd, Research associate, University of Wollongong, and Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University

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

This bird’s stamina is remarkable: it flies non-stop for 5 days from Japan to Australia, but now its habitat is under threat


David Bassett, Author provided

Birgita Hansen, Federation University AustraliaImagine having to fly non-stop for five days over thousands of kilometres of ocean for your survival. That’s what the Latham’s Snipe shorebird does twice a year, for every year of its life.

This migratory shorebird, similar in size to a blackbird, completes this gruelling migration to warmer climes, where it prepares itself for its return flight and the next breeding season.

Unfortunately, their wetland habitat is now being lost to development and other pressures, putting this tough little bird at risk.

A Latham's Snipe flies past.
The Latham’s Snipe arrives at its destination severely malnourished and spends the Australian summer months build up its strength and body fat to complete its long return flight.
David Sinnott/instagram.com/birdsbydave/, Author provided



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A feat of incredible endurance

Latham’s Snipe breeds in northern Japan and parts of eastern Russia during May-July and spends its non-breeding season (September to March) along Australia’s eastern coast.

Like other migratory shorebirds, it has incredible endurance, undertaking a non-stop, over-ocean flight between its breeding and non-breeding grounds.

It arrives at its destination severely malnourished and spends the Australian summer months building up its strength and body fat to complete its long return flight.

Unlike many other migratory shorebird species in Australia, you won’t find Latham’s Snipe in large flocks enjoying picturesque estuaries and bays. Instead, it hides away in thickly vegetated wetlands during the day to avoid local predators.

Their characteristic brown mottled feathers help them hide in wetlands.

Large eyes high on their heads allow them to see far and wide. Their exceptional eyesight helps them constantly scan for dangers at night, when they forage for food in open wet and muddy areas.

Latham’s Snipe is the ultimate sun-seeker. It breeds in the northern hemisphere when the snows have melted and the weather is warm, then returns to the southern hemisphere to take advantage of spring rains, warmer weather and food-rich wetlands.

It spends its entire time in Australia feeding, resting and growing new flight feathers in preparation for the long haul back to Japan in autumn.

The Latham’s Snipe’s characteristic brown mottled feathers help it hide in wetlands.
Mark Lethlean, Author provided

No food and nowhere to rest

Latham’s Snipe, formerly known as the Japanese Snipe, was once a popular game bird. Hunting and wetland loss during the 20th century have contributed to a decline in Latham’s Snipe in south-eastern Australia.

The signing of the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement in 1981 has stopped snipe hunting in both countries. However, their wetland habitat continues to be lost due to land development and drying of wetlands.

Imagine flying for five days straight, arriving at your destination emaciated and exhausted, only to find your habitat has disappeared. No food and nowhere to rest. This is the crisis facing Latham’s Snipe and many other migratory shorebird species.

No formal protection for many of its wetlands

Under the Australian government Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, any grouping of 18 or more snipe at a wetland site is considered nationally important. Unfortunately, however, development on snipe habitat still occurs.

In 2014 — triggered by a plan to allow housing construction on an important snipe wetland area — a team of passionate researchers and citizen scientists banded together to initiate a monitoring program of Latham’s Snipe in south-west Victoria.

After the first year of the monitoring, the Latham’s Snipe Project expanded to other parts of the country with help from a large number of dedicated volunteers and professionals.

The story from this monitoring is still unfolding but two clear patterns are emerging:

  1. Latham’s Snipe often congregate in urban wetlands; and
  2. the majority of these important wetlands have no formal protection from development or disturbance.

7,000km, non-stop, in three days

Between 2016 and 2020, the Latham’s Snipe Project started tagging snipe with small electronic devices to try and learn about their migratory routes.

The team uncovered an amazing migration from a female snipe captured in Port Fairy. She left her breeding grounds in northern Japan and flew directly to south-east Queensland in three days, a non-stop flight of around 7,000km. A trip that might normally take around five days, this incredible individual did in three.

This is one of the fastest bird migrations on record and highlights how demanding these over-ocean migrations are. It also shines the spotlight on the critical importance of good quality wetland habitat when the snipe return to Australia.

Urban development continues to threaten Latham’s Snipe habitats. Several snipe sites in eastern Australia are at risk from housing developments and large infrastructure projects.

However, a different way of doing things is possible.

Eco-friendly developments like the Cape Paterson Ecovillage in Victoria provide hope. Here, researchers and citizen scientists have worked with the developer to help design conservation areas within the development to protect and restore wetlands for snipe.

Such progress is heartening, but a critically important next step is to make changes to local planning schemes that explicitly recognise wetlands for Latham’s Snipe.

Imagine flying for five days straight, arriving at your destination emaciated and exhausted, only to find your habitat has disappeared.
Mark Lethlean, Author provided



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The Conversation


Birgita Hansen, Senior Research Fellow, Federation University and Better Data for Better Decisions Constellation Leader, Food Agility CRC, Federation University Australia

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

These 3 energy storage technologies can help solve the challenge of moving to 100% renewable electricity


Energy storage can make facilities like this solar farm in Oxford, Maine, more profitable by letting them store power for cloudy days.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Kerry Rippy, National Renewable Energy LaboratoryIn recent decades the cost of wind and solar power generation has dropped dramatically. This is one reason that the U.S. Department of Energy projects that renewable energy will be the fastest-growing U.S. energy source through 2050.

However, it’s still relatively expensive to store energy. And since renewable energy generation isn’t available all the time – it happens when the wind blows or the sun shines – storage is essential.

As a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I work with the federal government and private industry to develop renewable energy storage technologies. In a recent report, researchers at NREL estimated that the potential exists to increase U.S. renewable energy storage capacity by as much as 3,000% percent by 2050.

Here are three emerging technologies that could help make this happen.

Longer charges

From alkaline batteries for small electronics to lithium-ion batteries for cars and laptops, most people already use batteries in many aspects of their daily lives. But there is still lots of room for growth.

For example, high-capacity batteries with long discharge times – up to 10 hours – could be valuable for storing solar power at night or increasing the range of electric vehicles. Right now there are very few such batteries in use. However, according to recent projections, upwards of 100 gigawatts’ worth of these batteries will likely be installed by 2050. For comparison, that’s 50 times the generating capacity of Hoover Dam. This could have a major impact on the viability of renewable energy.

Batteries work by creating a chemical reaction that produces a flow of electrical current.

One of the biggest obstacles is limited supplies of lithium and cobalt, which currently are essential for making lightweight, powerful batteries. According to some estimates, around 10% of the world’s lithium and nearly all of the world’s cobalt reserves will be depleted by 2050.

Furthermore, nearly 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Congo, under conditions that have long been documented as inhumane.

Scientists are working to develop techniques for recycling lithium and cobalt batteries, and to design batteries based on other materials. Tesla plans to produce cobalt-free batteries within the next few years. Others aim to replace lithium with sodium, which has properties very similar to lithium’s but is much more abundant.

Safer batteries

Another priority is to make batteries safer. One area for improvement is electrolytes – the medium, often liquid, that allows an electric charge to flow from the battery’s anode, or negative terminal, to the cathode, or positive terminal.

When a battery is in use, charged particles in the electrolyte move around to balance out the charge of the electricity flowing out of the battery. Electrolytes often contain flammable materials. If they leak, the battery can overheat and catch fire or melt.

Scientists are developing solid electrolytes, which would make batteries more robust. It is much harder for particles to move around through solids than through liquids, but encouraging lab-scale results suggest that these batteries could be ready for use in electric vehicles in the coming years, with target dates for commercialization as early as 2026.

While solid-state batteries would be well suited for consumer electronics and electric vehicles, for large-scale energy storage, scientists are pursuing all-liquid designs called flow batteries.

Flow battery diagram.
A typical flow battery consists of two tanks of liquids that are pumped past a membrane held between two electrodes.
Qi and Koenig, 2017, CC BY

In these devices both the electrolyte and the electrodes are liquids. This allows for super-fast charging and makes it easy to make really big batteries. Currently these systems are very expensive, but research continues to bring down the price.

Storing sunlight as heat

Other renewable energy storage solutions cost less than batteries in some cases. For example, concentrated solar power plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, which heats up hundreds or thousands of tons of salt until it melts. This molten salt then is used to drive an electric generator, much as coal or nuclear power is used to heat steam and drive a generator in traditional plants.

These heated materials can also be stored to produce electricity when it is cloudy, or even at night. This approach allows concentrated solar power to work around the clock.

Man examines valve at end of large piping network.
Checking a molten salt valve for corrosion at Sandia’s Molten Salt Test Loop.
Randy Montoya, Sandia Labs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

This idea could be adapted for use with nonsolar power generation technologies. For example, electricity made with wind power could be used to heat salt for use later when it isn’t windy.

Concentrating solar power is still relatively expensive. To compete with other forms of energy generation and storage, it needs to become more efficient. One way to achieve this is to increase the temperature the salt is heated to, enabling more efficient electricity production. Unfortunately, the salts currently in use aren’t stable at high temperatures. Researchers are working to develop new salts or other materials that can withstand temperatures as high as 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (705 C).

One leading idea for how to reach higher temperature involves heating up sand instead of salt, which can withstand the higher temperature. The sand would then be moved with conveyor belts from the heating point to storage. The Department of Energy recently announced funding for a pilot concentrated solar power plant based on this concept.

Advanced renewable fuels

Batteries are useful for short-term energy storage, and concentrated solar power plants could help stabilize the electric grid. However, utilities also need to store a lot of energy for indefinite amounts of time. This is a role for renewable fuels like hydrogen and ammonia. Utilities would store energy in these fuels by producing them with surplus power, when wind turbines and solar panels are generating more electricity than the utilities’ customers need.

Hydrogen and ammonia contain more energy per pound than batteries, so they work where batteries don’t. For example, they could be used for shipping heavy loads and running heavy equipment, and for rocket fuel.

Today these fuels are mostly made from natural gas or other nonrenewable fossil fuels via extremely inefficient reactions. While we think of it as a green fuel, most hydrogen gas today is made from natural gas.

Scientists are looking for ways to produce hydrogen and other fuels using renewable electricity. For example, it is possible to make hydrogen fuel by splitting water molecules using electricity. The key challenge is optimizing the process to make it efficient and economical. The potential payoff is enormous: inexhaustible, completely renewable energy.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Kerry Rippy, Researcher, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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

Australia has failed greater gliders: since they were listed as ‘vulnerable’ we’ve destroyed more of their habitat


Josh Bowell , Author provided

Darcy Watchorn, Deakin University and Kita Ashman, Deakin UniversityIn just five years, greater gliders — fluffy-eared, tree-dwelling marsupials — could go from vulnerable to endangered, because Australia’s environmental laws have failed to protect them and other threatened native species.

Our new research found that after the greater glider was listed as vulnerable to extinction under national environment law in 2016, habitat destruction actually increased in some states, driving the species closer to the brink. Now, they meet the criteria to be listed as endangered.

Despite this, the federal government has put forward a bill that would further weaken Australia’s environment laws.

If Australia wants to ditch its shameful reputation as a global extinction leader, our environmental laws must be significantly strengthened, not weakened.

Why is the greater glider losing its home?

At about the size of a cat, greater gliders are the largest gliding marsupial in the world, and can glide up to 100 metres through the forest canopy. They nest in the hollows of big old trees and, just like koalas, they mostly eat eucalypt leaves.

A dark morph greater glider in a patch of old growth forest in Munruben, Logan City, south of Brisbane.
Josh Bowell

Greater gliders were once common throughout the forests of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. However, destructive practices, such as logging and urban development, have cut down the trees they call home. The rapidly warming climate and increasingly frequent and severe bushfires are also a major threat.

Together, these threats are causing the greater glider to rapidly disappear.

For our new study, we calculated the amount of greater glider habitat destroyed in the two years before the species was listed as vulnerable under Australia’s environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) Act. We then compared this to the amount of habitat destroyed in the two years after listing.

In Victoria, we measured the amount of habitat that was logged. In Queensland and NSW, we measured the amount of habitat cleared for all purposes, including logging, agriculture, and development projects.

What we found

The amount of greater glider habitat logged in Victoria remained consistently high, with a total of 4,917 hectares logged before listing compared to 4,759 hectares after listing. And of all forest logged in Victoria after listing, more than 45% was mapped as greater glider habitat by the federal government, according to our research paper.

State-owned forestry company VicForests is responsible for the lion’s share of native forest logging in Victoria. The Conversation contacted VicForests to respond to the arguments in this article. A spokesperson said:

There are 3.7 million hectares of potential Greater Glider habitat in Victoria under the official habitat model. The most valuable areas of this habitat are set aside in conservation reserves that can never be harvested.

The total area harvested by VicForests in any year is around 0.04% of this total potential habitat.

A small bulldozer used for tree ‘thinning’ in Queensland, May 2017.
WWF-Australia

In Queensland, habitat clearing increased by almost 300%, from a total of 3,002 hectares before listing compared to 11,838 hectares after listing. The amount of habitat cleared in NSW increased by about 5%, from a total of 15,204 hectares to 15,890 hectares.

We also quantified how much greater glider habitat was affected by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, and found approximately 29% of greater glider habitat was burnt. Almost 40% of this burnt at high severity, which means few gliders are likely to persist in, or rapidly return to, these areas.

As a result, earlier this year — just five years after listing — an assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee found the greater glider is potentially eligible for up-listing from vulnerable to endangered.

A greater glider found in burnt bushland, Meroo National Park, NSW, December 2019.
George Lemann, WWF-Australia

Why was habitat allowed to be cleared?

Development projects can take decades to be implemented after they’ve been approved under the EPBC Act. Therefore, a lot of the habitat cleared in NSW and Queensland was likely to have been approved before the greater glider was listed as vulnerable, and before the 2019-2020 bushfires.

Once a project is approved, it is not reassessed, even if a species becomes vulnerable and a wildfire burns much of its habitat.

This means the impact of clearing native vegetation can be far greater than when initially approved. It also means it can take many years after a species is listed until its habitat is finally safe.

This young greater glider was displaced by clearing near Chinchilla on the Darling Downs, Queensland. It was rescued by a fauna spotter/catcher who was present.
Briano, WWF-Australia

In Victoria and parts of NSW, the forestry industry is allowed to log greater glider habitat under “regional forest agreements”. These agreements allow logging to operate under a special set of rules that bypasses federal environmental scrutiny under the EPBC Act.

The logging industry is required to comply only with state regulations for threatened species protection, which are are often inadequate.




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In 2019, the Victorian government updated the protection measures for greater gliders in logged forests. However, these still allow logging of up to 60% of a forested area authorised for harvest, even when greater gliders are present at high densities.

The spokesperson for VicForests said the company prioritises live, hollow-bearing trees wherever there are five or more greater gliders per spotlight kilometre (a 1 kilometre stretch of forest surveyed with torches). But this level of protection is limited and is unlikely to halt greater glider decline, as the species is highly sensitive to disturbance.

Recently logged native forest from the Central Highlands, Victoria.
Darcy Watchorn

In May 2020 the Federal Court found VicForests breached state environmental laws when they failed to implement protection measures and destroyed critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider habitat.

Despite this, earlier this year, the Federal Court upheld an appeal by VicForests to retain their exemption from the EPBC Act. This ruling means VicForests will not be held accountable for destroying threatened species habitat, even when it is found in breach of state requirements.




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The spokesperson for VicForests said the company takes sustainable harvesting seriously.

VicForests operations are subject to Victorian laws, and enforced by the Office of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) and Victorian courts when necessary. The recent federal court appeal decision has not changed that fact.

They add that VicForests surveys show greater gliders continue to persist in recently harvested areas, under its current practices.

VicForests has not seen any evidence that even a single Greater Glider has died as a result of our new harvesting approach.

The government isn’t learning its lesson

The EPBC Act is currently undergoing a once in a decade assessment that considers how well it’s operating, with a recent independent review criticising the EPBC Act for no longer being fit for purpose. Our new research reinforces this, by showing the act has failed to protect one of Australia’s most iconic and unique animals.

And yet, the federal government wants to weaken the act further by implementing a streamlined model, which would rely on state governments to approve actions that would impact threatened species.

There’s a raft of reasons why this would be problematic.




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For one, state environmental laws operate independently, and don’t consider what developments have been approved in other states. Cutting down trees may seem insignificant in certain areas, but without considering the broader impacts, many small losses can accumulate into massive declines, like a death by a thousand cuts.

As a case in point, despite the devastation of greater glider habitat from the Black Summer fires in NSW, the Queensland government have recently approved a new coal mine, which will destroy over 5,500 hectares of greater glider and koala habitat.

What needs to change?

The greater glider is edging towards extinction, but there is still no recovery plan for this iconic marsupial. Adding to this, new research suggests there are actually three species of greater glider we could be losing, rather than just one as was previously thought. Significant effort must be invested to create a clear plan for their recovery.

Because Australia has such a rich diversity of wildlife, we have a great responsibility to protect it. Australia must make important changes now to strengthen — not weaken — its environmental laws, before greater gliders, and many other species, are gone forever.The Conversation

Darcy Watchorn, PhD Candidate, Deakin University and Kita Ashman, Threatened Species & Climate Adaptation Ecologist, Deakin University

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

‘Do-gooders’, conservatives and reluctant recyclers: how personal morals can be harnessed for climate action


Jacqueline Lau, James Cook University; Andrew Song, University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Brock UniversityThere’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the need to act urgently on climate change. Most recently, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed Earth has warmed 1.09℃ since pre-industrial times and many changes, such as sea-level rise and glacier melt, cannot be stopped.

Clearly, emissions reduction efforts to date have fallen abysmally short. But why, when the argument in favour of climate action is so compelling?

Decisions about climate change require judging what’s important, and how the world should be now and in future. Therefore, climate change decisions are inherently moral. The rule applies whether the decision is being made by an individual deciding what food to eat, or national governments setting goals at international climate negotiations.

Our research reviewed the most recent literature across the social and behavioural sciences to better understand the moral dimensions of climate decisions. We found some moral values, such as fairness, motivate action. Others, such as economic liberty, stoke inaction.

graph with arrow leading upwards
Those who prioritise economic liberty may be less willing to take climate action.
Shutterstock

Morals as climate motivators

Our research uncovered a large body of research confirming people’s moral values are connected to their willingness to act on climate change.

Moral values are the yardstick through which we understand things to be right or wrong, good or bad. We develop personal moral values through our families in childhood and our social and cultural context.

But which moral values best motivate personal actions? Our research documents a study in the United States, which found the values of compassion and fairness were a strong predictor of someone’s willingness to act on climate change.

According to moral foundations theory, the value of compassion relates to humans’ evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel and dislike the pain of others.

Fairness relates to the evolutionary process of “reciprocal altruism”. This describes a situation whereby an organism acts in a way that temporarily disadvantages itself while benefiting another, based on an expectation that the altruism will be reciprocated at a later time.




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Conversely, a study in Australia found people who put a lower value on fairness, compared to either the maintenance of social order or the right to economic freedom, were more likely to be sceptical about climate change.

People may also use moral “disengagement” to justify, and assuage guilt over, their own climate inaction. In other words, they convince themselves that ethical standards do not apply in a particular context.

For example, a longitudinal study of 1,355 Australians showed over time, people who became more morally disengaged became more sceptical about climate change, were less likely to feel responsible and were less likely to act.

Our research found the moral values driving efforts to reduce emissions (mitigation) were different to those driving climate change adaptation.

Research in the United Kingdom showed people emphasised the values of responsibility and respect for authorities, country and nature, when talking about mitigation. When evaluating adaptation options, they emphasised moral values such as protection from harm and fair distribution of economic costs.

people on crowd hold signs
Moral reasoning helps shape climate beliefs, including climate scepticism.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Framing climate decisions

How government and private climate decisions are framed and communicated affects who they resonate with, and whether they’re seen as legitimate.

Research suggests climate change could be made morally relevant to more people if official climate decisions appealed to moral values associated with right-wing political leanings.

A US study found liberals interpreted climate change in moral terms related to harm and care, while conservatives did not. But when researchers reframed pro-environmental messages in terms of moral values that resonated with conservatives, such as defending the purity of nature, differences in the environmental attitudes of both groups narrowed.

Indeed, research shows moral reframing can change pro-environmental behaviours of different political groups, including recycling habits.

In the US, people were found to recycle more after the practice was reframed in moral terms that resonated with their political ideology. For conservatives, the messages appealed to their sense of civic duty and respect for authority. For liberals, the messages emphasised recycling as an act of fairness, care and reducing harm to others.




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person opens lid of recycling bin
Reframing of messages can help encourage habits such as recycling.
James Ross/AAP

When moralising backfires

Clearly, morals are central to decision-making about the environment. In some cases, this can extend to people adopting – or being seen to adopt – a social identity with moral associations such as “zero-wasters”, “voluntary simplifiers” and cyclists.

People may take on these identities overtly, such as by posting about their actions on social media. In other cases, a practice someone adopts, such as cycling to work, can be construed by others as a moral action.

Being seen to hold a social identity based on a set of morals may actually have unintended effects. Research has found so-called “do-gooders” can be perceived by others as irritating rather than inspiring. They may also trigger feelings of inadequacy in others who, as a self-defense mechanism, might then dismiss the sustainable choices of the “do-gooder”.

For example, sociologists have theorised that some non-vegans avoid eating a more plant-based diet because they don’t want to be associated with the social identity of veganism.

It makes sense, then, that gentle encouragement such as “meat-free Mondays” is likely more effective at reducing meat consumption than encouraging people to “go vegan” and eliminate meat altogether.

Looking ahead

Personal climate decisions come with a host of moral values and quandaries. Understanding and navigating this moral dimension will be critical in the years ahead.

When making climate-related decisions, governments should consider the moral values of citizens. This can be achieved through procedures like deliberative democracy and citizen’s forums, in which everyday people are given the chance to discuss and debate the issues, and communicate to government what matters most to them.




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The Conversation


Jacqueline Lau, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Andrew Song, Lecturer / ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow (DECRA), University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Assistant Professor, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University

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

How would planting 8 billion trees every year for 20 years affect Earth’s climate?


Planting 8 billion trees a year would replace about half of the 15 billion cut down annually.
Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty Images

Karen D. Holl, University of California, Santa Cruz

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.


If we planted 8 billion trees a year for 20 years, what would happen on Earth? – Shivam K., age 14, Nawada, Bihar, India


Politicians, business leaders, YouTubers and celebrities are calling for the planting of millions, billions or even trillions of trees to slow climate change.

There are currently almost 8 billion people on Earth. If every single person planted a tree each year for the next 20 years, that would mean roughly 160 billion new trees.

Could massive tree planting actually slow climate change?

Trees and carbon

Carbon dioxide is the main gas that causes global warming. Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbohydrates, which they use to make stems, leaves and roots.

The amount of carbon a tree can store varies a great deal. It depends on the tree species, where it is growing and how old it is.

Let’s say the average tree takes up 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. If a person planted a tree every year for 20 years – and each one survived, which is highly unlikely – those 20 trees would take up about 1,000 pounds, or half a ton, of carbon dioxide per year.

The average person in the United States produces a whopping 15.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year compared with 1.9 tons for an average person in India. This means that if each person in the U.S. planted one tree per year it would offset only about 3% of the carbon dioxide they produce each year, after all 20 trees had matured. But, it would offset 26% for somebody in India.

Planting trees is certainly part of the solution to climate change, but there are more important ones.

Aerial view of patchwork deforestation of rainforest.
Clearing the Amazon rainforest for livestock farms in Brazil in 2017.
Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Protecting the trees we have

There are about 3 trillion trees on Earth, which is only half as many as 12,000 years ago, at the start of human civilization.

People cut down an estimated 15 billion trees each year. A lot of those trees are in tropical forests, but deforestation is happening all over the planet.

Protecting existing forests makes sense. Not only do they absorb carbon dioxide in the trees and the soil, but they provide habitat for animals. Trees can provide firewood and fruit for people. In cities, they can offer shade and recreational spaces.

But trees should not be planted where they didn’t grow before, such as in native grasslands or savannas. These ecosystems provide important habitat for their own animals and plants – and already store carbon if they are left undisturbed.

Doing more

To slow climate change, people need to do much more than plant trees. Humans need to reduce their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions quickly by transitioning to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. People should also reduce the amount they drive and fly – and eat less meat, as meat has a much larger carbon footprint per calorie than grains and vegetables.

It is important that everybody – businesses, politicians, governments, adults and even kids – do what they can to reduce fossil fuel emissions. I know it can seem pretty overwhelming to think about what you as one person can do to help the planet. Fortunately, there are many options.

Volunteer with a local conservation organization, where you can help protect and restore local habitats. Discuss with your family new lifestyle choices, like biking, walking or taking public transit rather than driving.

Two Girl Scouts take a stand against deforestation.

And don’t be afraid to lead an effort to protect trees, locally or globally. Two 11-year-old Girl Scouts, concerned about the destruction of rainforests for palm oil plantations, led an effort to eliminate palm oil in Girl Scout cookies.

Sometimes change is slow, but together people can make it happen.


Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

Karen D. Holl, Professor of Restoration Ecology, University of California, Santa Cruz

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

As the world battles to slash carbon emissions, Australia considers paying dirty coal stations to stay open longer


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Tim Nelson, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Griffith UniversityA long-anticipated plan to reform Australia’s electricity system was released on Thursday. One of the most controversial proposals by the Energy Security Board (ESB) concerns subsidies which critics say will encourage dirty coal plants to stay open longer.

The subsidies, under a so-called “capacity mechanism”, would aim to ensure reliable energy supplies as old coal plants retire.

Major coal generators say the proposal will achieve this aim. But renewables operators and others oppose the plan, saying it will pay coal plants for simply existing and delay the clean energy transition.

So where does the truth lie? Unless carefully designed, the proposal may enable coal generators to keep polluting when they might otherwise have closed. This is clearly at odds with the need to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise Earth’s climate.

firefighter and bushfire engulfing house
Extending the life of coal plants is at odds with climate action efforts.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Paying coal stations to exist

The ESB provides advice to the nation’s energy ministers and comprises the heads of Australia’s major energy governing bodies.

Advice to the ministers on the electricity market redesign, released on Thursday, includes a recommendation for a mechanism formally known as the Physical Retailer Reliability Obligation (PRRO).

It would mean electricity generators are paid not only for the actual electricity they produce, which is the case now, but also for having the capacity to scale up electricity generation when needed.

Electricity prices on the wholesale market – where electricity is bought and sold – vary depending on the time of day. Prices are typically much higher when consumer demand peaks, such as in the evenings when we turn on heaters or air-conditioners. This provides a strong financial incentive for generators to provide reliable electricity at these times.

As a result of these incentives, Australia’s electricity system has been very reliable to date.

But the ESB says as more renewables projects come online, this reliability is not assured – due to investor uncertainty around when coal plants will close and how governments will intervene in the market.




Read more:
IPCC report: how to make global emissions peak and fall – and what’s stopping us


Under the proposed change, electricity retailers – the companies everyday consumers buy energy from – must enter into contracts with individual electricity generators to make capacity available to the market.

Energy authorities would decide what proportion of a generator’s capacity could be relied upon at critical times. Retailers would then pay generators regardless of whether or not they produce electricity when needed.

Submissions to the ESB show widespread opposition to the proposed change: from clean energy investors, battery manufacturers, major energy users and consumer groups. The ESB acknowledges the proposal has few supporters.

In fact, coal generators are virtually the only groups backing the proposed change. They say it would keep the electricity system reliable, because the rapid expansion of rooftop solar has lowered wholesale prices to the point coal plants struggle to stay profitable.

The ESB says the subsidy would also go to other producers of dispatchable energy such as batteries and pumped hydro. It says such businesses require guaranteed revenue streams if they’re to invest in new infrastructure.

Man gives thumbs up in front of hydro project
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Snowy Hydro project. Such generators would also be eligible for the proposed subsidy.
Lukas Coch/AAP

A questionable plan

In our view, the arguments from coal generators and the ESB require greater scrutiny.

Firstly, the ESB’s suggestion that the existing market is not driving investment in new dispatchable generation is not supported by recent data. As the Australian Energy Market Operator recently noted, about 3.7 gigawatts of new gas, battery and hydro projects are set to enter the market in coming years. This is on top of 3.2 gigawatts of new wind and solar under construction. Together, this totals more than four times the operating capacity of AGL’s Liddell coal plant in New South Wales.

It’s also difficult to argue the system is made more reliable by paying dispatchable coal stations to stay around longer.

One in four Australian homes have rooftop solar panels, and installation continues to grow. This reduces demand for coal-fired power when the sun is shining.

The electricity market needs generators that can turn on and off quickly in response to this variable demand. Hydro, batteries and some gas plants can do this. Coal-fired power stations cannot – they are too slow and inflexible.

Coal stations are also becoming less reliable and prone to breakdowns as they age. Paying them to stay open can block investment in more flexible and reliable resources.

Critics of the proposed change argue coal generators can’t compete in a world of expanding rooftop solar, and when large corporate buyers are increasingly demanding zero-emissions electricity.

There is merit in these arguments. The recommended change may simply create a new revenue stream for coal plants enabling them to stay open when they might otherwise have exited the market.

Governments should also consider that up to A$5.5 billion in taxpayer assistance was allocated to coal-fired generators in 2012 to help them transition under the Gillard government’s (since repealed) climate policies. Asking consumers to again pay for coal stations to stay open doesn’t seem equitable.

Steam billows from coal plant
Coal plants have already received billions in subsidies.
Shutterstock

The ultimate test

The nation’s energy ministers have not yet decided on the reforms. As usual, the devil will be in the detail.

For any new scheme to improve electricity reliability, it should solely reward new flexible generation such as hydro, batteries, and 100% clean hydrogen or biofuel-ready gas turbines.

For example, reliability could be improved by establishing a physical “reserve market” of new, flexible generators which would operate alongside the existing market. This generation could be seamlessly introduced as existing generation fails and exits.

The ESB has recommended such a measure, and pivoting the capacity mechanism policy to reward only new generators could be beneficial.

The Grattan Institute
has also proposed a scheme to give businesses more certainty about when coal plant will close. Together, these options would address the ESB’s concerns.

This month’s troubling report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was yet another reminder of the need to dramatically slash emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Energy regulators, politicians and the energy industry owe it to our children and future generations to embrace a zero-emissions energy system. The reform of Australia’s electricity market will ultimately be assessed against this overriding obligation.




Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns


The Conversation


Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University

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

From jet fuel to clothes, microbes can help us recycle carbon dioxide into everyday products


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Jamin Wood, The University of Queensland; Bernardino Virdis, The University of Queensland, and Shihu Hu, The University of QueenslandThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released earlier this month sounded a “code red for humanity”. At such a crucial time, we should draw on all possible solutions to combating global warming.

About one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the manufacture of the products we use. While a small number of commercial uses for carbon dioxide exist — for instance in the beverage and chemical industries — the current demand isn’t enough to achieve meaningful carbon dioxide reduction.

As such, we need to find new ways to transform industrial manufacturing from being a carbon dioxide source to a carbon dioxide user.

The good news is that plastics, chemicals, cosmetics and many other products need a carbon source. If we could produce them using carbon dioxide instead of fossil hydrocarbons, we would be able to sequester billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.

How, you may ask? Well, biology already has a solution.




Read more:
There aren’t enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be


Gas fermentation

You may have heard of microscopic organisms, or microbes — we use them to make beer, spirits and bread. But we can also use them to create biofuels such as ethanol.

They typically need sugar as an input, which competes with human food consumption. However, there are other microbes called “acetogens” which can use carbon dioxide as their input to make several chemicals including ethanol.

Acetogens are thought to be one of the first life-forms on Earth. The ancient Earth’s atmosphere was very different to the atmosphere today — there was no oxygen, yet plentiful carbon dioxide.

Acetogens were able to recycle this carbon using chemical energy sources, such as hydrogen, in a process called gas fermentation. Today, acetogens are found in many anaerobic environments, such as in animals’ guts.

Not being able to use oxygen makes acetogens less efficient at building biomass; they are slow growers. But interestingly, it makes them more efficient producers.

For example, a typical food crop’s energy efficiency (where sunlight is turned into a product) may be around 1%. On the other hand, if solar energy was used to provide renewable hydrogen for use in gas fermentation (via acetogens), this process would have an overall energy efficiency closer to 10-15%.

This means acetogens are potentially up to twice as efficient as most current industrial processes — which makes them a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option. That is, if we can bring the technology to scale.

About one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from the manufacture of everyday products, while one-third come from electricity generation and another one-fifth come from transport.

Sustainable carbon recycling

Gas fermentation is scaling up in China, the United States and Europe. Industrial emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrogen are being recycled into ethanol to commercially produce aviation fuel from 2022, plastic bottles from 2024 and even polyester clothes.

In the future this could be expanded to produce chemicals needed to make rubber, plastics, paints and cosmetics, too.

But gas fermentation currently isn’t done commercially with carbon dioxide, despite this being a much larger emission source than carbon monoxide. In part this is because it poses an engineering and bioengineering challenge, but also because it’s expensive.

We recently published an economic assessment in Water Research to help chart a pathway towards widespread acetogen-carbon dioxide recycling.

We found economic barriers in producing some products, but not all. For instance, it is viable today to use carbon dioxide-acetogen fermentation to produce chemicals required to make perspex.

But unlike current commercial operations, this would be enabled by renewable hydrogen production. Increasing the availability of green hydrogen will greatly increase what we can do with gas fermentation.

Looking ahead

Australia has a competitive advantage and could be a leader in this technology. As host to the world’s largest green-hydrogen projects, we have the capacity to produce low-cost renewable hydrogen.

Underused renewable waste streams could also enable carbon recycling with acetogens. For instance, large amounts of biogas is produced at wastewater treatment plants and landfills. Currently it’s either burned as waste, or to generate heat and power.

Past research shows us biogas can be converted (or “reformed”) into renewable hydrogen and carbon in a carbon-neutral process.

And we found this carbon and hydrogen could then be used in gas fermentation to make carbon-neutral products. This would provide as much as 12 times more value than just burning biogas to generate heat and power.

The IPCC report shows carbon dioxide removal is required to limit global warming to less than 2℃.

Carbon capture and storage is on most governments’ agendas. But if we change our mindset from viewing carbon as a waste product, then we can change our economic incentive from carbon disposal to carbon reuse.

Carbon dioxide stored underground has no value. If we harness its full potential by using it to manufacture products, this could support myriad industries as they move to sustainable production.




Read more:
Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air


The Conversation


Jamin Wood, PhD Candidate at the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology (formerly Advanced Water Management Centre), The University of Queensland; Bernardino Virdis, Senior Researcher at the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology (formerly Advanced Water Management Centre), The University of Queensland, and Shihu Hu, Senior Research fellow at the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology (formerly Advanced Water Management Centre), The University of Queensland

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

Monarch butterflies raised in captivity can still join the migration


Migrating monarch butterflies rest at Pismo Beach, Calif. on their way to Mexico.
(Shutterstock)

Alana Wilcox, University of Guelph and Ryan Norris, University of GuelphEach year, thousands of hobbyists and educators across North America collect monarch eggs or caterpillars from the wild to raise indoors and patiently wait for butterflies to emerge. Raising monarch butterflies indoors has become an increasingly popular activity that can have numerous benefits.

Captively reared monarchs provide a unique opportunity for people to learn about the complex life cycle of butterflies and, at the same time, help raise awareness about monarch conservation. However, rearing monarchs (and other butterflies) must be done responsibly and in moderation to make sure that it does not have a negative effect on the population.

Monarch butterflies undergo a multi-generational migration in spring and summer that will bring them as far north as Canada and then, in the fall, a new generation of monarchs undergo a unique transformation that prepares them for a single-bout long-distance migration south. These larger, stronger monarch butterflies will travel more than 4,500 kilometres to congregate and overwinter by the millions in the tree canopies high in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.

A PBS Nature special on overwintering monarch butterflies in Mexico.

Population decline

The overwintering population of eastern monarch butterflies, however, has been dwindling from an occupancy level of 44.95 hectares in 1997 to 14.95 hectares in 2019 to five hectares this year. Some causes of this decline are thought to be loss of milkweed on which caterpillars feed, long-term changes in climate and deforestation at their overwintering sites. This has caused concern about the likelihood of extinction and the loss of the migratory phenomenon.

Rearing monarchs indoors has been touted as a way to help bolster population numbers and mitigate declines. In reality, indoor rearing probably does little to supplement the wild population, but arguably goes a long way towards awareness and education.

The practice of indoor rearing is not without controversy and has been considered potentially harmful due to the negative impact it could have on butterfly health and the risk it could pose to the butterflies’ ability to migrate to Mexico.

However, our recent research provides some evidence that monarchs raised indoors may still be able to migrate south to their overwintering grounds.

Monarch butterfly with a radio-tracking tag
Monarch butterfly with a radio-tracking tag.
(Wilcox), Author provided

Disoriented butterflies

Our team at the University of Guelph raised monarch caterpillars on milkweed indoors in controlled environmental conditions that approximated what monarchs would experience naturally in the wild. Once butterflies emerged from their cocoons, they were tested in a flight simulator, a large open vessel with a digital sensor that recorded which direction the monarchs attempted to fly.

The results from this experiment were consistent with previous research showing that indoor-reared monarchs, on average, did not orient in the proper direction for migration to Mexico.

Monarch butterflies’ inability to orient in the flight simulator could be the result of a lack of exposure to natural and direct sunlight during development. Many animals are equipped with an internal clock that tells the animal when to perform certain activities. For monarch butterflies, this internal clock is located in their antennae and, when coupled with visual information on the sun’s position, tells the monarch which direction it should fly each fall.

an infographic showing the results of the experiment — monarchs released in the wild could re-orient themselves
Monarch butterflies hatched in captivity but released in the wild were found to join the southward migration.
(Wilcox, Newman, Raine, Mitchell and Norris), Author provided

Recalibration in natural light

Given this, our research team went one step further to determine if indoor-reared monarchs exposed to natural environmental conditions and sunlight after they were released could calibrate their internal compass and fly south.

To do so, our team attached tiny radio transmitters to a second group of indoor-reared monarchs and released the butterflies into the wild. The radio transmitters emit a signal during migration and, if a monarch flies close enough, can be received at one of several hundred automatic radio receiving towers scattered across North America, called the Motus telemetry array.

We detected 29 butterflies at the beginning of migration and found that, given some time outdoors, these butterflies were able to get their bearings and fly southward. This suggests that under certain controlled conditions, raising monarchs indoors may not affect their orientation and ability to start migration.

Indoor rearing offers a valuable tool for learning and fostering a connection to nature. Our results help curb concern that indoor rearing negatively impacts monarch orientation.

While more research needs to be conducted to determine how monarchs perform under different indoor conditions and at different rearing locations in North America, our research suggests that monarch enthusiasts may be able to continue enjoying the wonderful experience of raising these butterflies at home.The Conversation

Alana Wilcox, Researcher, Conservation biology, University of Guelph and Ryan Norris, Associate Professor, Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, University of Guelph

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

Bushfire survivors just won a crucial case against the NSW environmental watchdog, putting other states on notice


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Laura Schuijers, The University of MelbourneThis week was another big one in the land of climate litigation.

On Thursday, a New South Wales court compelled the state Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the first time an Australian court has ordered a government organisation to take more meaningful action on climate change.

The case challenging the EPA’s current failures was brought by a group of bushfire-affected Australians. The group’s president said the ruling means those impacted by bushfires can rebuild their homes, lives, and communities, with the confidence the EPA will also work to do its part by addressing emissions.

The group’s courtroom success shows citizens can play an important role in bringing about change. And it continues a recent trend of successful climate cases that have held government and private sector actors to account for their responsibility to help prevent climate-related harms.

Who are the bushfire survivors?

Members of the group, the Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, identify as survivors, firefighters and local councillors impacted by bushfires and the continued threat of bushfire posed by climate change.

Their stories paint a picture of devastating loss, and fear of what might be to come. One member, who lost her home, tells of harrowing hours looking for friends and family amid a dark, alien moonscape. Another, a volunteer firefighter, describes the smell of charred and burnt flesh and the silence of the incinerated forests that haunted him.

A person stands in a burnt-out home
Fiona Lee, a member of the Bushfire Survivors group, stands in the ruins of her home after a bushfire swept through.
Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action

The group argues that because the NSW EPA is required, by law, to protect the environment through quality objectives, guidelines and policies, these instruments also need to cover greenhouse gas emissions.

Their reasoning is hard to fault: climate change is one of the environment’s most significant threats. In today’s world, you can’t protect the environment without addressing climate change.

To establish this point, the bushfire survivors presented the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was released while the trial was being heard. The report describes how the temperature rise in Australia could exceed the global average, and predicts increasingly hotter and drier conditions.




Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns


An unperformed duty

The EPA’s statutory duty to protect the environment was already known before the litigation began. That’s because the duty is contained within the EPA’s own legislation.

Bushfire survivors hold signs in front of Parliament House
The Bushfire Survivors brought their case to the NSW Land and Environment Court.
Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action

The EPA protects the environment from other types of pollutants by issuing environment protection licences, monitoring compliance, and imposing fines and clean-up orders. The bushfire survivors were seeking to force the EPA to address greenhouse gas emissions as well.

The EPA unsuccessfully tried to establish it is not required to address any specific environmental problem — i.e. climate change. And it argued that even if it is, it has already done enough.

But the court agreed with the bushfire survivors that the EPA’s instruments already in place aren’t sufficient, leaving the duty “unperformed”.

The court didn’t specify exactly how the EPA should remedy the fact it isn’t adequately addressing climate change, meaning the EPA can decide how it develops its own quality objectives, guidelines and policies, in a way that leads to fewer emissions. It is not the court’s job to make policy.

The EPA might, for example, target the highest-emitting industries and activities, via controls or caps on greenhouse gases.

Importantly, however, the court said the EPA doesn’t have to match its actions with a particular climate scenario, such as a global temperature rise of 1.5℃.

Other states on notice

Although this ruling is specific to NSW, other state environment protection authorities also have legal objectives to protect the environment.

This case may cause other Australian environmental authorities to consider whether their regulatory approaches match what the law requires them to do. This might include a responsibility to protect the environment from climate change.

Another thing we know from the NSW case is that simply having policies and strategies isn’t enough.

The court made it clear aspirational and descriptive plans won’t cut the mustard if there’s nothing to “set any objectives or standards, impose any requirements, or prescribe any action to be taken to ensure the protection of the environment”.

The EPA tried to point to NSW’s Climate Change Framework and Net Zero Plan as a way of showing climate change action. But neither of these was developed by the EPA.

The EPA also presented documents it did develop, including a document about landfill guidelines, a fact sheet on methane, and a regulatory strategy highlighting climate change as a challenge for the EPA.

The court found these weren’t enough to address the threat of climate change and discharge the EPA’s duty, calling the regulatory strategy’s description of climate change “general and trite”.

An Australian first, but not an anomaly

Globally, climate litigation is playing a role in filling gaps in domestic climate governance. Cases in Europe, North and South America, and elsewhere have led to courts pushing governments to do more.




Read more:
In a landmark judgment, the Federal Court found the environment minister has a duty of care to young people


One of the world’s first major successful climate change cases, Massachusetts v EPA, was similar to the bushfire survivors’ case. Back in 2007, the state of Massachusetts, along with other US states, sued the federal US EPA. They were seeking to force regulatory action on greenhouse gas emissions, and a recognition of carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

While the NSW case comes 14 years after the US case, there has been plenty of courtroom action in Australia in the meantime, with cases against the financial sector, government actors, and corporations.

The top of the Santos building in front of a sunny blue sky
The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility just filed a lawsuit against Santos.
Shutterstock

In fact, on the same morning as the bushfire survivors’ case, a lawsuit was filed against oil and gas giant Santos in the Federal Court.

The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility will argue statements made in Santos’s annual report are misleading and deceptive. These statements include that natural gas is a “clean fuel” and that it has a “clear and credible” plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040.

Climate change is an inevitable problem, and one that will be costly. Lawsuits seeking to force action now aim to limit how great the costs will be down the track. By targeting those most responsible, they are a means of seeking justice.The Conversation

Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, The University of Melbourne

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