I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
A Senate report this week recommended a ban on single-use plastics such as takeaway food containers and plastic-lined coffee cups by 2023.
This week will see Australians take a significant step towards that plastic-free future, with major supermarkets turning their backs on throwaway plastic bags, and an outright ban on free plastic bags at shops in Queensland and Western Australia.
It is remarkable how far we have already come in the effort to reduce our plastic pollution. We are rapidly reaching the point at which the relevant question is not “which plastics can we do without?”, but “which single-use plastics do we genuinely need?”
Most of us will get along just fine without throwaway plastic in our daily lives. But there are nevertheless many legitimate applications for single-use plastics.
Take medicine, for example, where single-use plastics are a key part of infection control. Having a blood test requires gloves made from plastic, a plastic syringe, and a plastic vial, all of which are single-use to control contamination and infection. While glass is often suggested as an alternative, this introduces challenges in cleaning, transport and availability, particularly in emergency situations where resources may be limited.
Single-use plastics also play a role in scientific research. Many scientists cringe as they look at their waste bin at the end of a session in the lab. Typically, it will be filled with pipettes, gloves, vials, sample bags, and the list goes on.
These items are used for their strength and resilience, and because they prevent cross-contamination of sampling. As with medical applications, many substitute materials do not provide the protection or stability that single-use plastics do.
Single-use plastics are often used to package food and water. While this is unnecessary in most settings, certain situations do require single-use packaging to ensure food and water safety. Domestic food aid, emergency responses, and international aid efforts all require food and water that can be stored without refrigeration and distributed when and where it’s needed. Often this means packaging it in lightweight, single-use plastics.
While the proposed bans on single-use plastics should be recognised and applauded as an important step forward in the global fight to prevent plastic pollution, we should ensure that we have thought through all the scenarios where single-use plastic may be a legitimate necessity.
Consider the case of someone with a disability who can only eat with the aid of a flexible plastic straw. Without appropriate exemptions, a federal legislative ban on single-use plastic straws could prevent people in need from accessing a basic medical aid.
Mass plastic begone
There is no doubt that single-use plastics are a major source of pollution. Recent research has shown plastic pollution to be as ubiquitous in the global environment as the more familiar pollutants like lead. Plastic has been found at the deepest depths of our oceans and the greatest heights of our mountains. No country on Earth is immune to plastic pollution, from tropical islands to deserts. All of this pollution has happened in less than a century.
As a society we are realising the damage that single-use plastic is doing to the environment. That’s why a carefully legislated ban on almost all single-use plastics is a good idea. From throwaway food containers, to drinking straws, to coffee cups – we can live without almost all of it.
If you take a stroll down a busy city block today, you will see a people clutching reusable coffee cups, or eating food wrapped in brown paper, or carrying a drink bottle that they can refill at a free public water station. We as a society are changing.
We are also seeing a shift in governance and policy. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a ban on single-use plastic products with readily available alternatives. Seattle has been on a path to ban single-use plastics for many years, with the latest efforts aimed at banning plastic utensils, straws and cocktail picks. The move away from single-use plastics has even been adopted by McDonald’s, which will trial plastic-free straws later this year.
Amid these trends, we need to ensure that we have the right strategy to accommodate those who still depend on single-use plastics. This would include thinking seriously and developing single-use products that have a reduced environmental impact and can be used in these applications.
For the rest of us who need to kick our single-use plastic addiction, you can start today (if you haven’t already) by saying no to plastic straws and taking a reusable cup to your favourite coffee cart.
The implications of climate change risks for corporate stakeholders are often poorly understood. Possibly least understood within this group is the role of those with financial expertise. We investigated and have produced a working paper on factors that influence accountants’ involvement in managing climate change risk in Australia.
Companies have been under greater pressure to disclose their exposure to risks of climate change since the 2014 G20 meeting in Australia. This created the Taskforce on Climate Change-Related Financial Risk Disclosure (TCFD. Its recommended disclosures were issued in June 2017.
In a speech this month, Australian Securities and Investments Commissioner John Price reinforced these recommendations. He made clear climate risk is an ASIC priority. Directors who fail to properly consider and disclose climate risks could face lawsuits, he warned.
So where do accountants come into this?
It can be argued that those with financial expertise, such as accountants, have the tools to provide crucial information to management on potential risks embedded in climate change.
Previous research found accountants had a limited role in assessing climate change risk. However, our comparative study reveals shifts in climate management towards those with financial expertise.
A principal conclusion from our research is that, together with engineers and other technical experts on climate change, those with financial expertise are significantly more intertwined in assessing and mitigating the risk than before.
The study involved semi-structured interviews with managers directly involved in emissions management for some of the largest Australian companies. These took place before and after the 2014 repeal of the carbon tax. In 2013, we interviewed 39 managers across 18 companies. In 2016 it was 14 managers and 11 companies.
Carbon tax repealed: experts respond
The key finding from the 2013 interviews was that engineers and environmental specialists dominated emissions management. Those with financial expertise had minimal involvement. Many interviewees claimed that, because of the complexity and technicalities, only professionals with engineering or environmental science backgrounds had the relevant expertise:
Because it’s quite a technical thing … it’s not just a number. You need to understand what’s behind the number, and why it’s there.
Importantly, in that period, one financial professional leading a team in the field asserted that accountants, as risk management experts, could bring significant value to their companies:
I think that accountants have a lot of credibility … because when it comes to emissions … I think I can put forward the business case of why it’s important … I think, that means … it’s better received within the company than if I was … an engineer or an environmental scientist.
Both financial and non-financial experts shared this view. One sustainability professional explained how a limited financial understanding leads to an inability to appropriately use techniques common in finance, such as target setting and performance evaluation.
Well, I think if you had the accounting knowledge … it [the target] would be far more accurate, and probably a lot higher than what we’ve set.
With our commitment to the Paris climate agreement, one might have expected companies to more urgently reduce emissions. In general, though, the second round of interviews reveals that companies’ emissions management (and momentum towards urgent action) has significantly diminished.
Financial expertise now coming to the fore
However, the involvement of those with financial expertise in climate change risk management has increased. Many viewed this as positive and potentially useful for boardrooms.
Whether it was the carbon tax that brought finance team attention, or organisational learning, more recent interviews found evidence of greater acceptance of climate change as a financial (and other) material risk. The ASIC commissioner’s speech advocating TCFD-type disclosures suggests the issue is not merely one of eco-efficiency, but one of commercial substance of relevance to company directors.
From the interview data, one possible explanation for increased collaboration between technical and financial expertise is greater acceptance of climate change issues as material risks to companies:
Management of carbon is fundamentally a risk-management exercise … It is a material risk … if we don’t think about the long-term risks … and what are the strategies that we need to mitigate…
The best way to present … climate-related information to … management … is in the risk-management process [including] … in terms of reputational risk, commercial risk, strategic risk … it’s all risk.
Barriers to collaboration between technical and financial experts still exist. These include geographic co-location and some accountants being unable to step outside traditional roles.
With regulators’ increased interest in measurement and disclosure of climate change risk, the landscape is changing again. We anticipate better integration of the assessment and mitigation of climate change risk with strengthened expertise being brought to bear. This includes greater involvement from the technical expert on the ground through to the boardroom.
Jayanthi Kumarasiri, Lecturer in Accounting, RMIT University; Christine Jubb, Professor of Accounting, Associate Director Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology, and Keith Houghton, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University
With Coles and Woolworths supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags at their checkout counters, and Queensland and Western Australia bringing in bans on single-use plastic bags for all retailers from July 1, a long overdue step is being taken towards reducing Australia’s plastic waste.
However, it is only a small step, and much still needs to be done to tackle the problem.
It is therefore useful to explore what strategies might be effective in informing the public about the issue, and in changing people’s consumption and littering behaviour.
Research shows that fear or shock tactics, or strategies based on shame and guilt, are generally not effective, and can even be counterproductive. High-threat fear appeals can be effective provided that the target audience is already taking positive steps toward the desired behaviour change, or feel that they can easily do so. Crucially, this means that campaigns not only need to tell people about an issue, but also provide straightforward advice on what do to about it.
In this context, campaigns such as “Hey Tosser!”, run by the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, are ill-conceived. The problem is that encouraging the public shaming of “tossers” creates an unhelpful stereotype that doesn’t actually exist. One study found that Australians are often unaware of their own littering, meaning the campaign might prompt people to identify themselves as “non-tossers” and therefore ignore the message.
The author and social behaviour change expert Les Robinson has suggested that rather than try to scare or shame people into changing, it is more useful to create a positive buzz around change, make new behaviours easy to adopt and sustain, and foster supportive communities to help with change.
This means that whether we want to tackle littering or reduce reliance on plastic bags, it is important to make people feel that they are part of an inclusive movement that is supported by the community and relevant to their own lives.
One example is the WA government’s “What’s your bag plan?” campaign, which urges shoppers to decide how they will carry their shopping after the demise of plastic bags, by becoming either a “bagger” (reusable bags), a “boxer” (cardboard boxes), or a “juggler” (neither!).
The good and the bad
A recent action by Greenpeace, in which overpackaged fruit and veg were labelled with a sticker saying “I’d like this product to be plastic free” and “We love plastic-free fruit and veg”, makes it easy for consumers to view those changes as positive. There is no blaming or shaming, but rather a focus on making it easier for consumers to ask supermarkets for more environmentally conscious options.
On Instagram and Twitter Greenpeace is encouraging consumers to share photos of excessive packaging, under the hashtag #RidiculousPackaging. This is a proactive way for consumers to take action, and for others to start noticing the overuse of plastic in supermarkets.
In contrast, other campaigns seek to emphasise the destructive effects of plastic waste. These can be eyecatching, but without a strong message that customers have the power to make a positive difference, they are unlikely to be effective in implementing sustained behaviour change.
The UK Marine Conservation Society’s campaign, showing a drinking straw lodged up a child’s nose (echoing a horrific viral video of a sea turtle enduring the same fate), is both shocking and thought-provoking. But with no clear, positive information showing people how they can directly address the problem through changes in their own lives, viewers may simply disengage.
Winning the war
One of the most powerful campaigns in Australia in recent times has been the ABC documentary series War On Waste. Its success can be attributed to a clever mix of shocking information tempered with entertaining and engaging storylines; a lack of blaming and shaming of individuals (although some corporations and politicians have received their share); clear and tangible solutions that viewers can implement; and a feeling of collaborative empowerment.
In combination, these elements have had a positive impact, with the sale of reusable takeaway coffee cups rising sharply after the series aired. If my experience at my local supermarket is any guide, shoppers have taken the message about recycling soft plastics firmly to heart.
Few people would argue against the reduction of plastic waste. Most people are ready and willing to change, and the agencies that are designing campaigns on the issue would do well to remember this. Positive encouragement and advice are preferable to fear, shame or shock tactics.
Jack Coates-Marnane, Griffith University; Joanne Burton, Griffith University; John Tibby, University of Adelaide; Jon Olley, Griffith University; Joseph M. McMahon, Griffith University, and Justine Kemp, Griffith University
New data recording the past 1,500 years of flows in the Brisbane River have revealed that South-East Queensland’s climate – once assumed to be largely stable – is in fact highly variable.
Until now, we have only had access to 200 years of weather records in South-East Queensland. But our new research used marine sediment cores (dirt from the bottom of the ocean) to reconstruct stream flows and rainfall over past millennia.
This shows that long droughts and regular floods are both prominent features in South-East Queensland’s climate.
This is concerning. Decisions about where we build infrastructure and how we use water have been based on the assumption that our climate – especially rainfall – is relatively stable.
Archives of past climates
Natural archives of climate are preserved within things such as tree rings, coral skeletons, ice cores, lake or marine sediments. Examining them lets us extend our climate records back beyond documented history.
We can then undertake water planning in the context of a longer record of climate, instead of our short-term instrumental records.
In this study, we used sediment cores from Moreton Bay (next to the mouth of the Brisbane River) to reconstruct the river’s flow over the past 1,500 years. In these cores we measured various indicators of fresh water to reconstruct a record of streamflow and regional rainfall.
At the turn of the last millennium the region was in the middle of a prolonged dry spell that lasted some six centuries, from roughly the year 600 to 1200. After about 1350 the region became gradually wetter, with peaks revealing a series of extreme floods in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Large floods in the 1700s have also been documented in the upper reaches of the catchment, in the Lockyer Valley.
These broad shifts in regional rainfall and streamflow are linked to drivers of global climates, including hemispheric cooling and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña
A cool La Niña-dominant climate that persisted from roughly 1350 until 1750 caused increased rainfall and reduced evaporation.
In addition, the southward displacement of monsoon troughs at this time may have increased the likelihood of cyclone-related weather systems reaching southern Queensland.
This information helps us contextualise the climate of the last 200 years and gives us some insights into how regional rainfall responds to shifts in global climate.
Wet and dry extremes
Over the past 20 years, South-East Queensland has experienced its fair share of extreme weather events. Severe floods have caused deaths and damaged infrastructure. Flooding cost the Australian economy some A$30 billion in 2011.
The millennium drought, which in this region was most severe from 2003-08, resulted in widespread water shortages. This prompted major investment in the South-East Queensland Water Grid, a connected network of dams, water treatment plants, reservoirs, pump stations and pipelines.
So far Queensland has coped with everything Mother Nature has thrown at it. But what if extreme floods and droughts became the norm rather than the exception?
Water quality is getting worse
The 2011 and 2013 floods highlighted the vulnerability to these extreme events of Brisbane’s major water treatment facility at Mt Crosby. The drinking water supply to the city in 2013 became too muddy for purification. The 2011 flood was also alarmingly muddy.
Such events also threaten the ecosystem health of downstream waterways, including the iconic Moreton Bay
Our reconstruction found that big floods over the past 1,500 years rivalled the size of floods in recorded history (1893, 1974 and 2011), but the level of sediment in the water of more recent floods seems to be unprecedented.
This indicates that historical and ongoing land-use changes in the Brisbane River catchment are contributing to more abrupt and erosive floods.
This will continue unless better land management techniques are adopted to improve the resilience of catchments to extreme weather events.
What does this mean for the future?
We are learning that over the last millennium natural climate and rainfall have been more variable than previously thought. This means that modern anthropogenic climate change may be exacerbated by a background of already high natural climate variability.
In addition, our water infrastructure has been built based on a narrow understanding of natural climate variability, limited to the last 200 years. This may mean the quantity of reliable long-term freshwater resources in eastern Australia has been overestimated.
Jack Coates-Marnane, Post-doctoral research fellow, Griffith University; Joanne Burton, Adjunct Research Fellow, Griffith University; John Tibby, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Change, University of Adelaide; Jon Olley, Professor of Water Science, Griffith University; Joseph M. McMahon, PhD candidate, Griffith University, and Justine Kemp, Senior Research Fellow in Geomorphology, Griffith University
As Australian cities grow and transform, we need to ensure we are not building the slums of the future by making buildings so tall and tight they turn our streets into stark canyons. Sydney’s Wolli Creek, where buildings dominate and tower over a transport hub, is an example of where this is happening. It is now considered one of the city’s densest areas.
Dense, high buildings limit the space available for urban greenery and, unfortunately, the current development boom privileges concrete and glass over vegetation. A more strategic approach to urban growth can ensure our cities maintain adequate green space and become low-carbon, efficient and affordable.
It’s also vital the community and individuals are enthusiastic drivers of such change, with shared ownership of it. Imaginative projects – at times described as urban acupuncture – can all play a role. This is where small-scale interventions (like green balconies) are applied to transform the larger urban context, improve the environment and make the city liveable.
Going up or out
Whether you go up (higher) or out (more), or both, there are always challenges and opportunities.
The drawback in going out is that we start creeping into our remaining open space, including important biodiversity hotspots.
Going out can also encroach on agricultural land. Farmers around the Sydney basin produced up to 20% of the area’s fresh food needs in 2011. But researchers have predicted urban sprawl and rising land prices will lead this to drop to 6% by 2031, losing both produce and jobs.
Going up is an approach driven by proximity to transport, utilities and employment, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. Major upward developments, like Wolli Creek, are logically being located around transport nodes. But these then become dense and concentrated areas, putting growing pressure on open space and community facilities.
Community consultation is key before any major project and redevelopment, as genuine dialogue supports shared ownership of the outcomes. Existing community projects must be celebrated. Having an engaged and empowered community leads to a healthier, happier population.
In Sydney, new precincts like Waterloo are ambitious and have good intentions. These areas aim to deliver new homes, shops, major transport services, community facilities, parks and open spaces over the next 20 years – and they’re located close to the urban centre.
Waterloo already has three community gardens, which bring together public housing residents through growing and sharing fresh produce. This approach is important to continue and initiate new projects.
Around the world there have also been successes with city farming where the community grows and sells agricultural produce locally. In skyscraper Singapore, they are farming vertically at Sky Greens, providing an alternative to importing food for this densely peopled city-state.
Green roofs are another alternative where communities can grow flowers and vegetables while providing training and jobs. A good example is the Uncommon Ground rooftop farm in Chicago.
In Australia, the Grounds is a former pie factory in the industrial heart of Sydney’s Alexandria. In 2012, the site began to metamorphose into a cafe, restaurant, bakery, organic mini-farm and more. This is a successful example of how a little greenery has turned a bleak post-industrial site into an enjoyable destination, where young and old from far and wide come to enjoy the plants, animals and coffee.
A domestic garden, a green balcony or a green wall can all play a role – but these need ongoing care and attention, which means individuals and engaged communities must drive the enthusiasm.
Nature in the city
So, for a start, let’s not build fast and furiously without grasping the place as a whole and making the most of what is already there. This means preserving mature trees and shrubs, leaving open space unpaved and protecting areas of deep soil for future planting.
Maintaining, enhancing and creating urban green space not only fulfils the requirements for urban acupuncture, but – to mix medical metaphors – provides a kind of urban vaccination against the emergence of slums, where nothing can grow and depression sets in.
We can combine building development with what Stefan Boeri Architects have described as “vertical densification of nature within the city” to achieve a new kind of urban nature – nature in the city to transform the nature of the city.
As the federal government aims to ink a deal with the states on the National Energy Guarantee in August, it appears still to be negotiating within its own ranks. Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has reportedly told his partyroom colleagues that he would welcome a new coal-fired power plant, while his former colleague (and now Queensland Resources Council chief executive) Ian Macfarlane urged the government to consider offering industry incentives for so-called “clean coal”.
Last month, it emerged that One Nation had asked for a new coal-fired power plant in north Queensland in return for supporting the government’s business tax reforms.
Is all this pro-coal jockeying actually necessary for our energy or economic future? Our analysis suggests that renewable energy is a much better choice, in terms of both costs and jobs.
Renewables and jobs
Virtually all new generation being constructed in Australia is solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind energy. New-build coal power is estimated to cost A$70-90 per megawatt-hour, increasing to more than A$140 per MWh with carbon capture and storage.
Solar PV and wind are now cheaper than new-build coal power plants, even without carbon capture and storage. Unsubsidised contracts for wind projects in Australia have recently been signed for less than A$55 per MWh, and PV electricity is being produced from very large-scale plants at A$30-50 per MWh around the world.
Worldwide, solar PV and wind generation now account for 60% of global net new power capacity, far exceeding the net rate of fossil fuel installation.
As the graph below shows, medium to large (at least 100 kilowatts) renewable energy projects have been growing strongly in Australia since 2017. Before that, there was a slowdown due to the policy uncertainty around the Renewable Energy Target, but wind and large scale solar are now being installed at record rates and are expected to grow further.
As the graph also shows, this has been accompanied by a rapid increase in employment in the renewables sector, with roughly 4,000 people employed constructing and operating wind and solar farms in 2016-17. In contrast, employment in biomass (largely sugar cane bagasse and ethanol) and hydro generation have been relatively static.
Although employment figures are higher during project construction than operation, high employment numbers will continue as long as the growth of renewable projects continues. As the chart below shows, a total of 6,400MW of new wind and solar projects are set to be completed by 2020.
The Queensland question
Australia’s newest coal-fired power plant was opened at Kogan Creek, Queensland in 2007. Many of the political voices calling for new coal have suggested that this investment should be made in Queensland. But what’s the real picture of energy development in that state?
There has been no new coal for more than a decade, but developers are queuing up to build renewable energy projects. Powerlink, which owns and maintains Queensland’s electricity network, reported in May that it has received 150 applications and enquiries to connect to the grid, totalling 30,000MW of prospective new generation – almost all of it for renewables. Its statement added:
A total of more than A$4.2 billion worth of projects are currently either under construction or financially committed, offering a combined employment injection of more than 3,500 construction jobs across regional Queensland and more than 2,000MW of power.
As the map below shows, 80% of these projects are in areas outside South East Queensland, meaning that the growth in renewable energy is set to offer a significant boost to regional employment.
Tropical North Queensland, in particular, has plenty of sunshine and relatively little seasonal variation in its climate. While not as windy as South Australia, it has the advantage that it is generally windier at night than during the day, meaning that wind and solar energy would complement one another well.
Renewable energy projects that incorporate both solar and wind in the same precinct operate for a greater fraction of the time, thus reducing the relative transmission costs. This is improved still further by adding storage in the form of pumped hydro or batteries – as at the new renewables projects at Kidston and Kennedy.
Remember also that Queensland is linked to the other eastern states via the National Electricity Market (NEM). It makes sense to build wind farms across a range of climate zones from far north Queensland to South Australia because – to put it simply – the wider the coverage, the more likely it is that it will be windy somewhere on the grid at any given time.
This principle is reflected in our work on 100% renewable electricity for Australia. We used five years of climate data to determine the optimal location for wind and solar plants, so as to reliably meet the NEM’s total electricity demand. We found that the most cost-effective solution required building about 10 gigawatts (GW) of new wind and PV in far north Queensland, connected to the south with a high-voltage cable.
Jobs and growth
This kind of investment in northern Queensland has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the coming decades. An SKM report commissioned by the Clean Energy Council estimated that each 100MW of new renewable energy would create 96 direct local jobs, 285 state jobs, and 475 national jobs during the construction phase. During operation those figures would be 9 local jobs, 14 state jobs and 32 national jobs per 100MW of generation.
Spreading 10GW of construction over 20 years at 500MW per year would therefore deliver 480 ongoing local construction jobs and 900 ongoing local operation jobs once all are built, and total national direct employment of 2,400 and 3,200 in construction and operations, respectively.
But the job opportunities would not stop there. New grid infrastructure will also be needed, for transmission line upgrades and investments in storage such as batteries or pumped hydro. The new electricity infrastructure could also tempt energy-hungry industries to head north in search of cheaper operating costs.
One political party with a strong regional focus, Katter’s Australia Party, understands this. Bob Katter’s seat of Kennedy contains two large renewable energy projects. In late 2017, he and the federal shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese took a tour of renewables projects across far north Queensland’s “triangle of power”.
Katter, never one to hold back, asked “how could any government conceive of the stupidity like another baseload coal-fired power station in North Queensland?” Judging by the numbers, it’s a very good question.