Australia’s pristine beaches have a poo problem



Raw sewage from 3,500 people in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs is discharged directly into the ocean.
Will Turner/Unsplash

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University; Andrew Fischer, University of Tasmania; Boyd Dirk Blackwell, University of Tasmania; Qurratu A’yunin Rohmana, University of Tasmania, and Simon Toze, CSIRO

Australians love our iconic coastal lifestyle. So many of our settlements are spread along our huge coastline. Real estate prices soar where we can catch a view of the water.

But where there are crowded communities, there is sewage. And along the coast it brings a suite of problems associated with managing waste, keeping the marine environment healthy, and keeping recreational swimmers safe.




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Sewage is not a sexy topic. People often have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. But where does sewage go, and is it treated and disposed of in the waters that we Australians love?

The bigger the coastal community, the bigger the volume of sewage. Disposal of human waste into the ocean might solve one problem, but we now realise that the “waste” is as precious as the ocean it pollutes.

We should be treating and recycling sewage to a drinkable level.
shutterstock

Understanding the problem from a national perspective

Such problems play out continuously along our coastline. Each isolated community and catchment issue arises and is resolved, often in ignorance of and isolation from similar issues somewhere else.

At present, places where sewage impacts are generating community concern include Merimbula, Warrnambool and, perhaps most bizarrely, Vaucluse and Diamond Bay in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs.

It’s hard to believe this location has raw and untreated sewage from 3,500 people discharged directly into the Tasman Sea. Sydney Water pledged in 2018 to fix this unsightly pollution by transferring the flow to the nearby Bondi sewage treatment plant.

Community group Clean Ocean Foundation has worked with the Marine Biodiversity Hub to start the process of viewing outfall pollution – where a drain or sewer empties into the sea – as part of a bigger picture. It’s a first step towards understanding from a national perspective.




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Together they have produced the National Outfall Database to provide the first Australia-wide comparison.

The best and worst offenders

Previously the information available to the public was sketchy and often not easily accessed. The database shows how differently Australia manages coastal sewage with information on the outfalls.

Clean Ocean Foundation CEO John Gemmill said:

Water authorities in the main do a great job with severe funding constraints. But they can be reticent to divulge information publicly.

One authority, suspicious of the research project, initially refused to give the location of the outfall, claiming it would be vandalised by enraged “surfies and fishermen”.

Sydney has Australia’s biggest outfall. It provides primary treatment at Malabar, New South Wales, and serves about 1.7 million people. The outfall releases about 499 megalitres (ML) per day of treated sewage, called “effluent”.

That’s about eight Olympic-sized swimming pools of effluent an hour. It is discharged to the Pacific Ocean 3.6 kilometres from the shoreline at a depth of 82 metres.

The cleanest outfall (after sustained advocacy over decades from the Clean Ocean Foundation) is Boags Rock, in southern Melbourne. It releases tertiary-treated sewage with Class A+ water. This means the quality is very suitable for reuse and has no faecal bacteria detected (Enterococci or E.coli).

Recycling sewage

Treated sewage is 99% water. The last 1% is what determines if the water will harm human and environmental health. Are we wasting a precious resource by disposing of it in the ocean?

As desalination plants are cranking up in Sydney and Melbourne to extract pure water from salty ocean, why shouldn’t we also recycle sewage?




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Clean Ocean Foundation has released a report showing it would pay to treat sewage more thoroughly and reuse it. This report finds upgrading coastal sewage outfalls to a higher level of treatment will provide tens of billions of dollars in benefits.

Industry analysis suggests that, for a cost outlay of between A$7.3 billion and A$10 billion, sewage treatment upgrades can deliver between A$12 billion and A$28 billion in net benefits – that is, the financial benefits above and beyond what it cost to put new infrastructure in place.

Then there are non-economic benefits such as improved ecological and human health, and improved recreational and tourism opportunities by use of suitable recycling processes.

What the rest of Australia can learn from WA

Clean Ocean Foundation president Peter Smith said Australia’s key decision-makers now, more than before, have a “golden opportunity” to adopt a sea change in water reform around coastal Australia based on good science and sound economic analysis.

In the context of the drought of southeast Australia, recycling water from ocean outfalls is an option that demands further debate.




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As expensive desalination plants are switched on, Sydney proposes to double the size of its desalination plant – just a few kilometres from massive ocean outfalls that could provide so much recycled water. And to our shame, NSW ocean outfalls are among the lowest in standards of treatment.

Western Australia, on the other hand, leads the push to recycle wastewater as it continues to struggle with diminishing surface water from climate change.

In fact, in 2017 the Water Corporation announced massive investment in highly treated sewage being used to replenish groundwater supplies. Perth now sources 20% of its drinking water from groundwater, reducing its reliance on two desalination plants. A key factor was successful engagement with affected communities.

The discharge of poorly treated sewage to rivers, estuaries and oceans is a matter of national environmental significance and the Commonwealth should take a coordinating role.

Our oceans do not respect state boundaries. The time is ripe for a deliberate national approach to recycling sewage and improved systems to manage outfalls.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University; Andrew Fischer, Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania; Boyd Dirk Blackwell, Adjunct Researcher, University of Tasmania; Qurratu A’yunin Rohmana, Research Analyst, University of Tasmania, and Simon Toze, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

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

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We asked people to do climate change maths. Their answers depended on their politics


Will J Grant, Australian National University

In an ideal world, people would look at issues with a clear focus only on the facts. But in the real world, we know that doesn’t happen often.

People often look at issues through the prism of their own particular political identity – and have probably always done so.

However, in an environment of fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers, it seems harder than ever to get people to agree about simple facts.

In research published today in Environmental Communication, my colleague Matthew Nurse and I report that even some of the smartest among us will simply refuse to acknowledge facts about climate change when we don’t like them.




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Skin cream versus climate change

The research took place just before Australia’s 2019 federal election.

We asked 252 people who were planning to vote for the Greens and 252 people who were planning to vote for One Nation to consider some data we’d put together. To understand that data, they would need to do some mental maths, just like you would when looking at a typical scientific report.

While there was no significant difference in the mathematical ability between the two groups of voters overall, it seemed that political affiliations can have an impact on how people answered a mathematical question, depending on the subject.

For example, in one experiment we told participants that data in the scientific report was about whether a new skin cream would cure a rash, as shown below.

We asked them to indicate whether the experiment shows that using the new cream is more likely to make the skin condition better or worse. Participants in our study got the correct mathematical answer 48% of the time.

However, when we showed them exactly the same data but said it was about whether closing coal-fired power stations would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the local area (by 30% or more), we got a very different set of answers.

For example, when the report showed CO₂ emissions would go down significantly, only 27% of One Nation supporters got the right answer.

When the report showed CO₂ emissions would not significantly go down, only 37% of Greens voters got it right.

So it seems our participants were less likely to answer a question correctly when it went against their political ideology.




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Spilt people according to maths ability

But what follows is really the interesting bit.

We decided to find out whether numeracy – maths ability – played a role in people getting the wrong answers. First, we looked at those with below-average numeracy.

We found many of these people just gave their preferred, ideologically aligned answers when it came to the climate change question. This is a well-known effect called motivated reasoning.

But surely the more numerate groups of people, those better at maths, would fare better? Well, not really.

The groups of people with above-average numeracy sometimes did worse than the less numerate groups. Some did no better than chance at 50%, and some did far, far worse than that, as the graph below shows.

More numerate people are more polarised about climate change data.
Matt Nurse, Author provided

When we showed people reports about CO₂ emissions, the more numerate people were much more politically polarised than any other group. For example, the participants considered a report showing that CO₂ would go down significantly, a One Nation supporter with a numeracy score of seven (out of nine) was only 5% as likely to provide the correct answer as a Greens supporter in the same numeracy category.

Motivations change brain function

This is counterintuitive, but this isn’t the first study to reveal this effect.

These findings build on research previously done by a Yale professor, Dan Kahan. The phenomenon is a type of motivated reasoning called motivated numeracy.

While Kahan’s previous research focused on the politically polarising issue of gun control in the United States, some people suggested the same thing might happen with other topics, particularly climate change.




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Our research is the first to confirm this.

These findings build on the theory that your desire to give an answer in line with your pre-existing beliefs on climate change can be stronger than your ability or desire to give the right answer.

In fact, more numerate people may be better at doing this because they are have more skills to rationalise their own beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.

So what?

You might ask whether it really matters if people sometimes get the wrong answer on questions like this.

We’d argue yes, it does matter. Successful democracies rely on a majority of voters being able to identify and understand risks, and make the appropriate voting choices.

If people remain entrenched in their ideological corners when threats come along, and are unwilling to face facts, societal problems can fester, potentially becoming much more difficult to resolve later.

Just imagine scientists had discovered human activity was damaging our atmosphere. They said this problem would cause Earth’s climate to get hotter and threaten our livelihoods. Politicians and the people they represented saw this as a legitimate issue worth acting on, regardless of their political views. Imagine the world united to fix this problem, even though it would cost a lot of money.

In fact, we don’t need to imagine too much, as this isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It actually happened when scientists found evidence the use of industrial chemicals was depleting the ozone layer.

In 1987, for the first and only time, all 197 members of the United Nations agreed to sign the Montreal Protocol regulating the man-made chemicals that destroy the ozone layer. More than 30 years later we can measure the benefits of this agreement in our planet’s atmosphere.

A matter of science, not politics

Unlike the current climate change debate, people largely saw this risk as a matter of science, not politics.

But it seems people are increasingly encouraged to see risks like this through a political frame. When this happens, facts can become irrelevant because no matter how smart people are, many will simply deny the evidence to protect their side of the political debate.




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Societies need to make good choices for their survival and those choices need to be based on facts, regardless of whether everyone likes them or not.


This research was conducted by Matthew Nurse as part of a master’s thesis at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.The Conversation

Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

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

There’s a looming waste crisis from Australia’s solar energy boom



Rooftop solar has boomed, but soalr panels only last about 20 years. What happens to the waste?
Flickr, CC BY-SA

Rodney Stewart, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Griffith University

As Australians seek to control rising energy costs and tackle the damaging impacts of climate change, rooftop solar has boomed.

To manage the variability of rooftop solar – broadly, the “no power at night” problem – we will also see a rapid increase in battery storage.

The question is: what will happen to these panels and batteries once they reach the end of their life?

If not addressed, ageing solar panels and batteries will create a mountain of hazardous waste for Australia over the coming decades.

Our research, published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production, looked at the barriers to managing solar panel waste, and how to improve it.

A potentially toxic problem

Solar panels generally last about 20 years. And lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, which will be the most common battery storage for solar, last between five and 15 years. Many solar panels have already been retired, but battery waste will start to emerge more significantly in 2025. By 2050 the projected amount of waste from retired solar panels in Australia is over 1,500 kilotonnes (kT).

Mass of end of life solar panels (a) and battery energy storage (b) 2020-2050.
Salim et al. 2019

Solar panels and batteries contain valuable materials such as metals, glass, ruthenium, indium, tellurium, lead and lithium.

Recycling this waste will prevent environmental and human health problems, and save valuable resources for future use.

Product stewardship

Australia has a Product Stewardship Act, which aims to establish a system of shared responsibility for those who make, sell and use a product to ensure that product does not end up harming the environment or people at the end of its life.

In 2016, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were added to a priority list to be considered for a scheme design. This includes an assessment of voluntary, co-regulatory and regulatory pathways to manage the waste streams.

Sustainability Victoria (on behalf of the Victorian state government and with the support of states and territories) is leading a national investigation into a system of shared responsibility for end-of-life solar photovoltaic systems in Australia. Our research project has supported the assessment process.

Industries play a crucial role in the success of any product stewardship scheme. As we move into assessing and testing possible schemes, Australia’s PV sector (and other stakeholders) will have critical input.

A preferred product scope and stewardship approach will be presented to environment ministers. Scheme design and implementation activities are tentatively set to start in 2020.

Moving towards a circular economy

Federal and state environment ministers recently agreed to update the National Waste Policy to incorporate the principles of a circular economy.

This approach aims to reduce the need for virgin raw materials, extend product life, maintain material quality at the highest level, prioritise reuse, and use renewable energy throughout the process.




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Businesses in Australia currently have little incentive to innovate and improve the recycling rate. By helping implement circular business models such as lease, refurbishment and product-service systems, we can boost recycling, reduce collection costs and prolong tech lifetimes.

Requiring system manufacturers, importers or distributors to source solar panels and batteries designed for the environment makes both economic and environmental sense. By doing so, recyclers will recover more materials and achieve higher recirculation of recovered resources.

Consumers need to be provided with proper guidance and education for responsible end-of-life management of solar panels and batteries.

Immature domestic recycling capability

Now that China is no longer accepting waste for recycling, Australia needs to rapidly develop its domestic recycling industry. This will also spur job creation and contribute to the green economy.

Given Australia is struggling to recycle simple waste, such as cardboard and plastics, in a cost-effective way, we need to question our capability to deal with more complex solar PV and battery waste.

Australia currently has little capacity to recycle both solar panels and batteries.

And even if China were to suddenly start accepting Australia’s waste – an unlikely proposition – we cannot simply export our problem. As a signatory to the Basel Convention, exporting hazardous materials requires permits.

A previous study suggests half of Australia’s scrap metal is exported for overseas processing, which indicates the lack of incentives for domestic recycling.

Even if we build domestic recycling capability for solar panels and batteries, it will be underused while landfills remain available as a low-cost disposal option.

It’s promising that South Australia and the ACT have banned certain e-waste categories from entering landfill, while Victoria will implement an all-encompassing e-waste landfill ban from July 1 2019. This means any end-of-life electrical or electronic device that requires an electromagnetic current to operate must be recycled.

Creating a circular economy for solar and battery waste will need a strong commitment from policymakers and industry. Ideally, we need to prioritise reuse and refurbishment before recycling.

If we combine sensible policies with proactive business strategy and education to promote recycling rates, we can have a reliable and truly sustainable source of renewable energy in this country.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Michael Dudley from Sustainability Victoria to this article.The Conversation

Rodney Stewart, Professor, Griffith School of Engineering, Griffith University; Hengky Salim, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, and Oz Sahin, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

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

How to answer the argument that Australia’s emissions are too small to make a difference


Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

After a recent foray into the debate over Australia’s so-called “climate election”, I received plenty of critical replies to my argument that Australians should take climate action more seriously. The most common rebuttal was that Australians were right to focus on other issues at the ballot box because Australia’s contribution to global climate change is small anyway.

This is precisely the argument Alan Jones advanced in a now notorious Sky News segment in which he used a bowl of rice to explain away Australia’s climate obligations.

Australia, Jones noted, contributes only 1.3% of global carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, which in turn represents just 3% of the overall amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere, which in turn makes up little more than 0.04% of the whole atmosphere. So why, he asked while triumphantly brandishing a single rice grain, are we so obsessed with Australia’s climate policy when the planet is so big and the consequences of our actions are so tiny?




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This is a powerful critique and, on the face of it, a simple and compelling line of argument, which is precisely why it’s so often used. Why bother, if we lack the power to do anything that makes a difference?

But there are at least three obvious responses to it.

The ‘per capita’ problem

The first and most obvious response is that Australia emits much more than our fair share.

Sure, our emissions are 1.3% of the global total. But our population is 0.3% of the global total.

This isn’t the only way to allocate national emissions targets. But if rich countries like Australia aren’t doing more to reduce their disproportionately high emissions, what possible incentive is there for developing countries to take the issue seriously? Nations such as India, Brazil and China can ask – as indeed they have at various climate talks – why they should reduce emissions when Australia does so little.

In this sense, Australia’s position on climate action is significant, not only for the 1.3% of greenhouse gases we produce, but for the potential influence on global policy.

As a nation so proud of “punching above its weight” in fields such as sport and technology, Australia is missing a big chance to show global leadership on climate.

The ‘coal exports’ problem

The 1.3% statistic is only true if we focus purely on greenhouse emissions within Australia itself. Fair enough, you might say, given that this is the way the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol before it, measures countries’ emissions.

But this approach excludes some significant factors.

First, it fails to take proper account of emissions created in one country while manufacturing goods for export to other countries. Emissions due to Chinese-produced goods destined for Australian consumers, for example, count towards China’s emissions, not Australia’s. If we take this “consumption shadow” into account, the climate impact of developed countries, including Australia, becomes much higher.

Second, there is a similar issue with coal exports. Coal dug up by one country but burned in another counts towards the latter’s emissions. As one of the world’s largest coal exporters, this is clearly important for Australia.

In 2012, the campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions estimated that if Australian coal was factored into Australia’s emissions, our contribution to global emissions would be 4% rather than 1.3%. This would make Australia the world’s sixth-largest contributor to climate change.

Are we responsible for what other countries do with Australian coal? According to the Paris treaty, the answer is no. But drug barons and arms dealers use similar arguments to wash their hands of drug addiction and war.

What’s more, Australia already limits a range of exports based on concerns about their use in importing countries, including weapons, uranium and even livestock.

So there’s certainly a precedent for viewing exports through the lens of our international responsibilities. And with the UN secretary-general joining recent calls to end all new coal power plants, a global coal treaty or even embargo might eventually force Australia’s hand.

The ‘capacity to respond’ problem

The third rebuttal to Alan Jones’s arguments is that Australia has far more capacity to take climate action than many other nations. Again, this works at two levels.

First, we’re rich. Australia is a top-20 world economy in terms of both size and average wealth. This means we are more able than most countries to manage the economic costs of moving away from fossil fuels.

Second, thanks to decades of relative climate policy inaction and modest targets, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for Australia to ratchet up its climate ambition. This applies most obviously to the renewable energy sector, but also to areas such as energy efficiency and transport.

Australia’s land-clearing rates are also among the highest in the world – we are the only developed nation to feature in a 2018 WWF list of deforestation hotspots. Reducing this would significantly cut emissions while also protecting important carbon stores.

As economist John Quiggin has noted, the longer we wait to move away from fossil fuels, the more expensive it will be.

What does this all mean for Australia?

Jones’s argument is a beguilingly simplistic response to a wicked problem. Climate change is a global problem that requires global action. But the calculations around who should take the lead, and how much constitutes each nation’s fair share, are fiendishly complex.

But, by almost any measure, a country like Australia should be leading the way on climate policy, not being dragged kicking and screaming to take action that falls far behind that of comparable nations.




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The current reluctance to act seriously on climate change appears at best self-serving and at worst an outright moral failing.

We should take the argument that Australia’s climate contribution is insignificant with a grain of salt. Or perhaps rice.The Conversation

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

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

How New Zealand’s well-being budget delivers for the environment



One of the government’s spending priorities is a transformation towards a low-emissions economy.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato

Internationally, the Ardern government is seen as a progressive beacon, and its recent budget was watched closely as a milestone in the “year of delivery” for Ardern’s well-being agenda.

The budget is a leap ahead of other Western democracies in that it replaces the gross domestic product (GDP) with a set of well-being measures and six focal areas to justify investment. Transforming the economy and society towards environmental sustainability is one of them.

The recently released state of the environment report highlighted deep concerns about trends in biodiversity conservation, greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater health. Budget 2019 signals a meaningful shift, but more in intention than sufficient funding.




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Two tactics for delivery

Two very different tactics are at play in the well-being budget, and both can be seen in areas related to the environment. First, in conservation, government officials know where support is needed and can use the budget to address historic underinvestment.

Where the path for delivery isn’t clear, the government has budgeted a minimum credible investment over four years and is working through the complexity of directing that investment. This second tactic dominates climate change, freshwater, and their convergence in sustainable land use.

To better understand how these tactics play out, it helps to look at the way information is presented in New Zealand’s budgets, which are seen as a model for transparency. Announcements describe investment of new money, typically over four years, but not necessarily how the money will be spread out across the years. More detailed information that appears with the budget helps to clarify when spending will occur, as well as whether spending will really happen.

A budget includes main estimates, estimated actuals and actuals, listed over three years. These reveal useful insights, including a persistent pattern through the past decade of underspending compared to what was announced in budgets.

Conservation spending

The conservation budget provides a typical example, showing how significant the signalled increases in funding will be. Expenditure increases from steady budget estimates of less than NZ$450 million from 2008 to 2018 to NZ$600 million in 2020.

But from 2010 through to 2016, there was a persistent pattern of underspending by NZ$30–49 million each year, relative to the budget announcements. The pattern ended after becoming controversial, but resulted in a cumulative underinvestment of NZ$275 million, which the latest budget aims to redress.

Budget 2019 also highlights major investments in biosecurity. By 2020, this budget will be nearly double the NZ$205 million spent in 2017. Historically, funding for biosecurity has been stable but low compared to the benefits of maintaining New Zealand’s natural isolation from pests and disease. Such benefits are hard to measure until they are lost following an incursion of a new pest or disease.

Several such cases are a main driver of increased funding for biosecurity, including Mycoplasma bovis infecting cattle throughout much of New Zealand, the arrival of myrtle rust and the disease-causing Kauri dieback.

Climate change and freshwater

The budget includes a sustainable land use package of NZ$229 million over four years, including several components. It addresses the mounting environmental challenges facing agriculture. The sector generates excess nutrient flows to iconic lakes and rivers, and roughly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.




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The government has committed to transforming the economy toward sustainability, but the budget signals only the broad direction of investment. One clear signal in the budget is an end to government subsidies for intensifying agriculture, confirming last year’s decision to end support for large irrigation projects, on which the previous government spent NZ$13 million in 2017.

But most components in the new package will not reach full funding levels until the 2021 financial year. The amounts of funding signal a credible start, but are unlikely to be enough. On an annual basis, the new package is only about 0.14% of the NZ$40 billion value of land-based primary sector exports.

Past budgets show that complex expenditure that depends on further planning, reorganisation or new structures is often delayed beyond initial projections. This applies to this budget, too. A major freshwater taskforce is now underway but was delayed from its original plan, which means its work is not reflected in this budget. Reform of the software platform that links farm management to environmental regulations will receive NZ$30.5 million, but there are no clear objectives.

Overall, spending with an environmental classification increased 40% from NZ$0.92 billion in 2017 to NZ$1.28 billion last year. However, with a decrease to NZ$1.17 billion estimated for this year, it may make sense to ask whether the projected increase to NZ$1.55 billion for 2020 will be achieved.

To understand the challenges of funding complex environmental issues, we can look to the history of items in the budget – officially called appropriations – containing the words climate change. Budget projections went as high as NZ$64 million to be spent in 2009. But actual spending peaked at NZ$49 million in 2010. This spending bottomed out under NZ$12 million in 2014, and is estimated to be NZ$30 million this year. Estimated expenditure for 2020 exceeds the 2009–10 peak for the first time, at nearly NZ$70 million.

Estimates overshot actual spending by an average of NZ$7 million each year from 2010 through 2018. It makes sense to assume this signals a backlog of work to figure out what needs to be done on climate change issues.

Overall, for science and the environment, a first glance suggests this is hardly a “year of delivery”. Despite a focus on transformation in six areas of spending, including natural and social capital rather than GDP, the budget kicks any real plans for change down the road. But it prioritised achievable goals fairly well, given the big constraints posed by past underinvestment combined with a political commitment to fiscal responsibility.

If the budget succeeds in delivering for New Zealand’s environment, it will be by spending wisely to reverse past underinvestment in specific areas and ensuring that degradation stops and reverses in the relevant areas of environmental well-being. Success can only come through the latter, if groups like the climate change commission and freshwater task force forge clear paths through the political constraints that will guide investment in future budgets.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

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

A parasite attack on Darwin’s finches means they’re losing their lovesong



A Small Tree Finch from the Galápagos Islands with an enlarged nostril caused by a parasite.
Katharina J Peters, Author provided

Katharina J. Peters, Flinders University and Sonia Kleindorfer, Flinders University

A parasite known to infect beaks in some iconic Darwin finches on the Galapagos Islands is changing the mating song of male birds.

Our research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals how the parasite deforms the beak. This has the effect of weakening the male bird’s mating call, and making it no longer clearly distinguishable from that of other closely related species.

A changed song can have an important effect on the male finch’s ability to find a mate.




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It’s another factor that could contribute to declining numbers of these already threatened birds on the Pacific archipelago, about 1,000km off the coast of South America.

A family song to impress

A male finch learns the mating song from his father, and produces the same song for the rest of his life.

It’s a simple tune consisting of one syllable repeated 3 to 15 times, depending on what species of finch he belongs to. Larger-bodied finch species produce a slower song with few syllable repeats, and smaller-bodied finch species produce faster song with many syllable repeats.

Whatever species of finch you belong to, hitting the high notes is important – because females prefer males who can produce such vocally challenging songs.

In the case of the Medium Tree Finch (Camarhynchus pauper), a critically endangered species that only occurs on Floreana Island of the Galapagos Islands, its species-typical song has a bright resonance that rings across the forest canopy.

Medium Tree Finch.
Author provided35.5 KB (download)

An accomplished male singer that can hit the high notes is quickly swooped up by a female looking to pair with a proficient singer.

The ‘Vampire’ parasite

The Vampire Fly – a suggested name for the parasite Philornis downsi given its blood feeding habits from dusk until dawn – was first discovered in a Darwin’s finch nest in 1997.

The parasitic Philornis larvae in a finch nest.
Sonia Kleindorfer, Author provided

Since then, the devastating impacts of its larval feeding habits on nestling birds have been coming to light. The adult fly is vegetarian, but the females lay their eggs into bird nests and their larvae feed on nestling bird beaks from the inside out.

Many Darwin’s finch species now have beaks with massively enlarged nostrils because of damage the feeding fly larvae have caused during the nestling stage. We discovered that a changed beak apparatus measurably affects the song of Darwin’s tree finches with consequences for pairing success.

A Medium Tree Finch male with extremely enlarged nostrils is unable to hit the high notes.

Medium Tree Finch with enlarged nostrils.
Author provided32.2 KB (download)

We found the same pattern in Small Tree Finches (C. parvulus) with enlarged nostrils.

Male finches that produce song with a narrower frequency bandwidth, because their song has a lower maximum frequency, have poor quality song. These males are less likely to be chosen by females, a pattern we documented in both the Medium Tree Finch and the Small Tree Finch.

Also, the song of Medium Tree Finches with enlarged nostrils sounds like the song of the Small Tree Finch.

Small Tree Finches.
Author provided29 KB (download)

When species merge

But confusion among the species and their mating songs may not necessarily be a bad thing for the future survival of individual finches – though it could herald the collapse of species lineages.

Previously, we discovered evidence of hybridisation in Darwin finches. This is where two separate species of finch breed which could potentially produce a new species, phase out one of the species, or cause the collapse of the two existing species into one.

We observed hybridisation driven by female Medium Tree Finches pairing with male Small Tree Finches.

When a female Medium Tree Finch inspects male Small Tree Finches in the forest, she pairs with one who produces high quality song, even if that male is from another species.

A Tree Finch with a normal beak and nostril size, so no infection from the parasite.
Katharina J Peters, Author provided

This female choice seems to be paying dividends, because hybrid pairs with greater genetic diversity also sustained fewer of the parasitic larvae in the nest. And that could lead to fewer birds with infected beaks.




Read more:
Galapagos species are threatened by the very tourists who flock to see them


There are concerted efforts underway to develop control and eradication methods for P. downsi on the Galapagos Islands, building on a collaborative relationship between the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Parks. The Philornis downsi Action Group is an international consortium of concerned scientists working to develop biological control methods.

Our new research is an important step towards understanding how this invasive fly may be changing the evolutionary pathway of Darwin’s finches by literally changing the beak of the finch.The Conversation

Katharina J. Peters, Postdoctoral fellow, Flinders University and Sonia Kleindorfer, Professor of Animal Behaviour, Flinders University

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

Why old-school climate denial has had its day



New South Wales, which was 100% drought-declared in August 2018, is already suffering climate impacts.
Michael Cleary

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

The Coalition has been re-elected to government, and after six years in office it has not created any effective policies for reducing greenhouse emissions. Does that mean the Australian climate change debate is stuck in 2013? Not exactly.

While Australia still lacks effective climate change policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It’s particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.

The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing greenhouse emissions don’t fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.

Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are not falling.
Department of Environment and Energy

The old denials

Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC’s 7.30 Report:

I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.

The theory and evidence base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.

Climate “sceptics” have always been very keen on cherrypicking data. They would make a big fuss about some unusually cold days, or alleged discrepancies at a handful of weather stations, while ignoring broader trends. They made claims of data manipulation that, if true, would entail a global conspiracy, despite the availability of code and data.

Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market “chartism” – but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.

That was the state of climate “scepticism” a decade ago, and frankly that’s where it remains in 2019. It’s old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.

Australians just cannot ignore the extended bushfire season, drought, and bleached coral reefs.

Partisans

Climate “scepticism” was always underpinned by politics rather than science, and that’s clearer now than it was a decade ago.

Several Australian climate contrarians describe themselves as libertarians – falling to the right of mainstream Australian politics. David Archibald is a climate sceptic, but is now better known as candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and (finally) Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party. The climate change denying Galileo Movement’s claim to be to be non-partisan was always suspect – and now doubly so with its former project leader, Malcolm Roberts, representing One Nation in the Senate.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe “there’s no such thing as climate change”.

Old-school climate change denial isn’t just unfounded, it’s also unpopular. Before last month’s federal election, Abbott bet a cafe patron in his electorate A$100 that “the climate will not change in ten years”. It reminded me of similar bets made and lost over the past decade. We don’t know whether Abbott will end up paying out on the bet – but we do know he lost his seat.

The shift

So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining climate science? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News “after dark” often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia’s rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely “plant food”.

As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a “corporate astrologer” with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.

Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.

Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used “absurd cost assumptions”.

Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.

Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland’s huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn’t stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.

That said, there are economic arguments against new coalmines and new mines may not deliver the number of jobs promised. Australian power companies, unlike government backbenchers and Clive Palmer, have little enthusiasm for new coal-fired power stations. But the fact remains that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.

Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.

Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian climate debate.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor in astronomy, Monash University

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