Climate change means Australia may have to abandon much of its farming


Andrew Wait, University of Sydney and Kieron Meagher, Australian National UniversityThe findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest Australia may have to jettison tracts of the bush unless there is a massive investment in climate-change adaptation and planning.

The potential impacts of climate change on employment and the livability of the regions have not been adequately considered. Even if emissions are curtailed, Australia likely faces billions of dollars of adaptation costs for rural communities.

As the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (published last month) makes clear, the climate will change regardless of any mitigation actions taken now.

Even under its modest conservative projections, worldwide temperatures will rise by 1.5℃. That may not sound like much, but it will double the frequency of droughts — from once every 10 years to once every five.

Worse still, a 2℃ temperature rise — also a likely outcome without substantial emission reductions — will make droughts 2.5 times more frequent.




Read more:
IPCC says Earth will reach temperature rise of about 1.5℃ in around a decade. But limiting any global warming is what matters most


Farm profits are falling

Climate change is already hurting Australian farmers. Compared with historical averages, agricultural profits have fallen 23% over the 20 years to 2020. This trend will continue.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) predicts a likely scenario is that overall farm profit will fall by 13% by 2050. There will be significant differences between regions. Cropping profits in Western Australia, for example, are predicted to drop 32%.


Effect of 2001-2020 seasonal conditions on farm profit


ABARES

With higher emissions, the reductions will be worse. Estimates of the fall in farm profits range from 11% to 50%.

These changes go beyond the cycles of weather with which Australian farmers have always had to cope. Inconsistent water supplies, increased natural disasters and greater production risks will render agricultural production in many areas uneconomic.

Due to these climatic changes agricultural assets, both land and infrastructure, could become virtually worthless – so-called stranded assets.

No future without water

Vibrant regional communities aren’t just about farms. They are interdependent networks of businesses, towns, public infrastructure and people.

The effect of falls in farm income will ripple throughout these communities. Lower output will mean fewer jobs. If farms close, so will other regional businesses, leading to more stranded assets. Those affected could face displacement along with an inability to sell their homes and businesses.

And of course these communities can’t survive without water.

So far development planning in Australia has not adequately considered the potential impacts of the climate on livability, especially in rural communities.
This failure to account for climate change exacerbates the potential for stranded assets.

For example, the NSW Auditor General reported in September 2020 that the state government had “not effectively supported or overseen town water infrastructure planning in regional NSW since at least 2014”. This contributed during the intense drought of 2019 to at least ten regional NSW cities or towns coming close to “zero” water.




Read more:
Helping farmers in drought distress doesn’t help them be the best


Population pressures

In some areas these water problems are being compounded by population growth.

Consider, for instance, the NSW townships surrounding Canberra. In January 2020 the town of Braidwood (about halfway between Canberra and Batemans Bay) had to start trucking in water when its own water source, the Shoalhaven river, stopped flowing. Yet nearby Bungedore (about 50 km away) is building a new high school due to population growth.

This “tree-change” trend, with people leaving cities in search of a better lifestyle and more affordable housing, is widespread. It appears to have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, with figures showing net internal migration of people out of Sydney and Melbourne.

More investment in adaptation needed

There is an urgent need for a comprehensive assessment by all levels of government of risks to livelihoods in agriculture and regional communities, and of the default risk on stranded assets.

Budget projections need to account for climate-change adaptation and economic structural change.

In last year’s budget the federal government committed to investing A$20 billion “to ensure Australia is leading the way in the adoption of new low-emissions technologies while supporting jobs and strengthening our economy”.

As important as this is, we must start planning and spending on adaptation.




Read more:
Australian farmers are adapting well to climate change, but there’s work ahead


The A$1.2 billion over five years the federal budget allocated for natural disasters is just the beginning. In some regions changed farming practices, subsidised insurance and investment in water infrastructure may be enough. But proper infrastructure takes many years to plan, and to build.

Some areas are going to become unviable. We will need deal with the loss of entire communities, and internal climate refugees.

It is time to start budgeting for the costs of living with climate change, not just the costs of cutting emissions.The Conversation

Andrew Wait, Professor, University of Sydney and Kieron Meagher, Professor, Research School of Economics, Australian National University

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

A promising new dawn is ours for the taking – so let’s stop counting the coal Australia must leave in the ground


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Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Mark Howden, Australian National UniversityA study out today says the vast majority of Earth’s coal, including 95% of Australia’s, cannot be burned if global warming is to be limited to 1.5℃ this century. The findings are undoubtedly true. But examining how much fossil fuel the world can still use is not the question we should be asking.

Instead, the most useful questions are: how do we advance Australia’s economic future outside high-emissions industries? And how can we seize the opportunities presented by the declines of coal, and then gas, rather than watching the economy go underwater as we try to stem an unstoppable tide?

The world is moving away fossil fuels, and there’s nothing Australia can do about it. Racing to dig up and sell whatever fossil fuels we can before the timer stops is not a future-proof strategy. We need to prepare for the change and diversify the economy.

How much coal must remain in the ground is beside the point. Instead, we should grasp this moment – turning it into a positive step for the world community and future generations.

Boy with painted hands
The key question is, how do we turn this moment into an opportunity?
Neil Hall/EPA

The numbers game

The new study by researchers at University College London examines how much fossil fuel can still be burned if we hope to keep the global average temperature rises to within 1.5℃ – the ambitious end of the Paris Agreement goals. It compares this “budget” with the known stores of coal, oil and gas in various parts of the world.

The study finds the vast majority of remaining fossil fuels must remain in the ground – specifically 89% of coal, 59% of gas and 58% of oil. For Australia, that equates to 95% of our coal reserves and 35% of our gas.

The research is a follow-up to a well-known 2015 study based on the 2℃ warming scenario. Similar findings have also been made in other research.

While it’s long been clear that much of Earth’s fossil fuel deposits must stay in the ground, there are uncertainties around the numbers. These come from varying assumptions about:

  • the exact size of the remaining global carbon budget for any particular temperature increase
  • how the carbon budget might be distributed between coal, oil and gas (which depends on technology choices and costs)
  • the extent of carbon capture and storage (or carbon use) and removal of carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere
  • how much fossil fuel would be available for extraction.

The study released overnight offers results only from a single model and data set. The results remind us how little time remains to keep using fossil fuels, but we should not focus unduly on the headline numbers the study produced.




Read more:
Yes, it is entirely possible for Australia to phase out thermal coal within a decade


Vehicle carries coal at mine
It’s long been clear much of Earth’s coal deposits should stay in the ground.
Rob Griffith/AP

3 lenses on the end of the fossil fuel age

Just as the Stone Age didn’t end for a lack of stones, the fossil fuel age won’t end for a lack of coal, gas or oil.

So while humanity is not running out of fossil fuels, we are running out of options for the waste product, carbon dioxide – and running out of time to deal with it.

Countries that produce and export large amounts of fossil fuels must address this undeniable reality. We characterise three different ways they can do this.

The first is the “hell-for-leather” approach: extract, use and sell whatever fossil fuels you can while there’s still a market, and promote the global use of fossil fuels to extend the ride. This is the natural stance for companies focused solely on fossil fuel production.

Some countries that export fossil fuels are pursuing such strategies. In Australia, a statement by federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt this week can be interpreted along such lines.

In this mindset, remaining fossil fuel deposits should be exploited to the maximum, at whatever cost. It emphasises specific business interests, while defining national interests in narrow and short-sighted terms.

It also disregards the global climate change objective and international relations with countries that emphasise climate concerns. In short, it risks train wrecks down the track.




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


man in high-vis vest and blue shirt
Resources Minister Keith Pitt says the future of Australia’s coal sector is strong.
Aaron Bunch/AAP

A second approach is to concede fossil fuels are on a long-term downward trajectory, due to climate change concerns and rapid improvements in clean technologies. It accepts this change is driven by consumers and there is nothing fossil fuel exporters can do about it.

The logical consequence is to prepare for the inevitable decline and cushion the transition. That could include using some revenue from fossil fuels to invest in a socially and environmentally sensitive transition.

Under this approach, the amount of fossil fuel available underground is simply irrelevant. The deposits are redundant – just like all those stones were at the end of the Stone Age. The question of what proportion must remain unexploited is of no particular interest.

A third option is to understand the challenge as a positive one: take the global shift away from fossil fuels as an opportunity to modernise and massively diversify the economy.

Taking this perspective, leaving coal in the ground is a positive step that helps nations and regions evolve in desirable ways and helps the world community, and future generations, deal with climate change. Not mining coal, then, takes on an ethical dimension – perhaps it can be seen as “ethi-coal”.




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


two boys with arms around each other on cracked earth
The move away from fossil fuels can be seen as an opportunity to help future generations deal with climate change.
Shutterstock

Preparing for a post-fossil future

Whichever lens one chooses to look through, clean technologies will displace the burning of coal, oil and gas.

In Australia, large corporations (and to a lesser extent, some employees and public finances) have done well out of coal and gas. But that’s far from the only way we can derive large export revenues.

Australia is exceptionally well placed to build up an energy and processing industry based on its practically limitless renewable energy potential, coupled with experience with and predisposition towards large resource industries. This could include clean hydrogen and even green steel.

But to once again become dependent on just a few large industries, such as minerals or energy, should not be the goal here. Rather, we should use the global low-carbon transition as a platform for a large range of new industries. There are many opportunities in new technologies and practices.

So let’s keep our eye on the big picture: diversifying the economy into a broad range of activities with low environmental footprints, underpinned by modern infrastructure, top quality education and a strong social and health system.

Therein lies a desirable and economically sound future for Australia – one where we won’t be worrying one bit about all the coal left in the ground.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy and Head of Energy, Institute for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions, Australian National University and Mark Howden, Director, ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Australian National University

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

Photos from the field: why losing these tiny, loyal fish to climate change spells disaster for coral


Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

Catheline Y.M. Froehlich, University of Wollongong; Marian Wong, University of Wollongong, and O. Selma Klanten, University of Technology SydneyEnvironmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


If you’ve ever dived on a coral reef, you may have peeked into a staghorn coral and seen small fish whizzing through its branches. But few realise that these small fish, such as tiny goby fish, play a crucial role in helping corals weather the storm of climate change.

But alarmingly, our new research found gobies decline far more than corals do after multiple cyclones and heatwaves. This is concerning because such small fish — less than 5 centimetres in length — are critical to coral and reef health.

Unfortunately, the number of cyclones and heatwaves is on the rise. These disasters have begun to occur back-to-back, leaving no time for marine life to recover.

With the recent push by UNESCO to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”, the world is currently on edge about the status of coral reefs. We’re at a critical stage to take all the necessary measures to save coral reefs worldwide, and we must broaden our focus to understand how the important relationships between corals and fish are affected.

This five-lined coral goby (Gobiodon quinquestrigatus) is taking a break on a coral branch.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

Goby fish: the snack-sized friends of coral

In all environments, organisms can form relationships where they work together to improve each other’s health. This is called a mutual symbiosis, like a you-scratch-my-back principle.

In coral reefs, other examples of mutual symbioses include invisible zooxanthellae algae living within coral tissue, small cleaner fish removing parasites from big fish, and eels and groupers hunting together.

While this shark is taking a nap, small yellow fish are hiding under its fin, and it is also getting cleaned by a cleaner wrasse (slender black fish with neon blue outline).
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided
Living on the edge: some fish live inside branched corals, while others live around the perimeter of coral bommies like this.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

Gobies that live in corals are small, snack-sized fish that rarely venture beyond the prickly borders of their protective coral homes. The Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 20 species of coral gobies, which live in more than 30 species of staghorn corals.

In return for the coral’s protection, the gobies pluck off harmful algae growing on coral branches, produce a toxin to deter potential coral-eating fish, and reduce heat stress by swimming around the coral and stopping stagnant water build up.

The blue-spotted coral goby (Gobiodon erythrospilus) is holding its position by pushing its front pectoral fins against coral branches.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided
Paired romance: these lemon coral gobies (Gobiodon citrinus) live in monogamous pairs while also sharing their coral with a humbug damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus).
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

Even if their corals become stressed and bleached, they remain steadfast within the coral, helping it to survive. Without their full-time cleaning staff, corals would be more susceptible when threatened with climate change.

Unfortunately, just like Nemos (clownfish) living inside anemones, climate change threatens the mutual symbioses between gobies and corals.

Coral gobies in decline

While SCUBA diving, we surveyed corals and their goby friends over a four-year period (2014-17) of near-continuous devastation at Lizard Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. Over this time, two category 4 cyclones and two prolonged heatwaves wreaked havoc on this world-renowned reef.

Coral gobies are often hard to spot, so we use underwater flashlights to identify them correctly.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

What we saw was alarming. After the two cyclones, the 13 goby species (genus Gobiodon) and 28 coral species (genus Acropora) we surveyed declined substantially.

But after the two heatwaves, gobies suddenly fared even worse than corals. While some coral species persisted better than others, 78% no longer housed gobies.

Importantly, every single goby species either declined, or worse, completely disappeared. The few gobies we found were living alone, which is especially concerning because gobies breed in monogamous pairs, much like most humans do.

After cyclones and heatwaves, we found a lot of dead corals surrounding pockets of living corals and reef life at Lizard Island.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided
We surveyed coral and goby survival and often found a lot of coral debris after heatwaves.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

Without urgent action, the outlook is bleak

More and more studies are showing reef fish behave differently in warmer and more acidic water.

Warmer water is even changing reef fish on a genetic level. Fish are struggling to reproduce, to recognise what is essential habitat, and to detect predators. Research has shown clownfish, for example, could not tell predatory fish (rockcods and dottybacks) from non-predators (surgeonfishes and rabbitfishes) when exposed to more acidic seawater.

Finding Nemo swimming in anemone in Lizard Island. The bright pink surrounding it is the column of the anemone. Picture the column as your neck and the tentacles as your hair.
Abigail Shaughnessy, Author provided

The bigger picture looks bleak. Corals are likely to become increasingly vulnerable if their symbiotic gobies and other inhabitants continue to decline. This could lead to further disruptions in the reef ecosystem because mutual symbioses are important for ecosystem stability.

We need to broaden our focus to understand how animal interactions like these are being affected in these trying times. This is an emerging field of study that needs more research in the face of climate change.

Here, one of my assistants, Al Alder, is measuring the coral so that we can tell what happens to the size of corals after each climatic disaster.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided
Several fish that are not coral gobies are still found swimming about even after four years of climatic disasters at Lizard Island.
Catheline Froehlich, Author provided

On a global scale, multiple disturbances from cyclones and heatwaves are becoming the norm. We need to tackle the problem from multiple angles. For example, we must meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and stop soil erosion and agricultural runoff from flowing into the sea.

If we do not act now, gobies and their coral hosts may become a distant memory in this warming climate.The Conversation

Catheline Y.M. Froehlich, PhD Fellow, University of Wollongong; Marian Wong, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong, and O. Selma Klanten, Research Scientist, University of Technology Sydney

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