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.




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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


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The move away from fossil fuels can be seen as an opportunity to help future generations deal with climate change.
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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.

Want to act on climate change but not sure how? Tweaking these 3 parts of your life will make the biggest difference


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Andreas Chai, Griffith UniversityLast month’s dire report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have left you feeling overwhelmed, or unsure what to do next. We often hear about ways everyday people can tackle climate change, but which acts will make the biggest difference?

The academic literature tells us three spheres of our lives contribute most to climate change: home energy use, transport, and food consumption. Together, these activities comprise about 85% of a household’s carbon footprint.

As one study showed, by adopting readily available practices, households in developed countries can cut their carbon footprint by 25% with little or no reduction in well-being.

Clearly, national governments must set, and meet, ambitious emissions-reduction targets. But 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to household consumption. So small changes at the household level really can make a world of difference. Here’s a guide to get you on the right path.

climate protest signs
Many people want to act on climate change at a household level, but where’s the best place to start?
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1. Home

Using energy in the home more efficiently is a good way to reduce your impact on the climate. Signing up to so-called “demand response” programs is a relatively new way to do this.

Demand response involves making changes to energy use to reduce stress on the electricity grid during times of high demand. In Australia, this often entails electricity companies offering financial incentives to households so they use less energy at peak times.

For example in Queensland, the state-owned company Energex offers up to A$400 to those who install a “PeakSmart” air conditioner. When the electricity system is under stress, the electricity network will remotely switch the air-conditioner into a lower performance mode.

Energy retailers have also been trialling demand response programs in other states. For example under AGL’s Peak Energy Rewards program, customers can choose to receive an SMS message prompting them to reduce their energy use at peak times. By turning up the temperature on the air conditioning or waiting to do the laundry, people can earn discounts on their energy bills.

Demand response leads to less electricity use and reduces the need for fossil-fuel electricity generation at times of high demand – and so, can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector.

hand holds remote control at air conditioner
Demand response programs encourage people to reduce energy use during peak times.
Shutterstock

2. Transport

If you drive a traditional petrol or diesel vehicle, try to reduce the amount of time your engine idles. Research last year found Australian motorists are likely to idle more than 20% of the time they’re driving. If idling was eliminated from all journeys, the emissions saved would equal that of removing up to 1.6 million cars from the road.

While some idling is unavoidable such as when stopped at traffic lights, drivers can turn their engines off while parked and waiting in their vehicle.

And drive smoothly, not aggressively. Driving with limited acceleration and braking has been found to significantly reduce emissions.

You might be thinking of making your next car an electric vehicle. While the cost of electric vehicles has traditionally been prohibitive for many people, the technology is expected to reach price parity with conventional cars in Australia in the next few years. And these days, you can even get a good second-hand deal.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about whether electric cars are a good choice for the planet. So where does the truth lie?

It’s true that electricity used to charge an electric vehicle’s battery is often sourced from fossil fuels. And energy is still required to make an electric vehicle – in particular, the battery.




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Want an electric car? Here’s how to buy second-hand


However, last year, research found in 95% of the world, electric vehicles were less emissions-intensive than traditional cars over their full life cycle – even accounting for the current emissions intensity of electricity generation.

If you buy an electric vehicle, it’s important to ensure potential emissions savings are realised. One way of doing this is by recharging during the middle of the day when renewable electricty is most abundant. And don’t forget, as renewable energy forms an ever-increasing share of the electricity mix, the climate benefits of electric vehicles become even greater.

And of course, don’t forget about the obvious low- or zero-emission ways to get around: walking, cycling, catching public transport and car pooling.

family unloads boot of electric car
Second-hand electric cars are a lower-cost option.
Good Car Co

3. Food

Research earlier this year showed food systems are responsible for a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. And recent studies show even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels immediately, emissions from the global food system could still push global temperatures over the 1.5℃ warming threshold.

Reducing meat consumption is a well-known way to cut your carbon footprint. In fact, recent research from Sweden showed just how high emissions from meat and dairy products are, compared with substitute products. It found:

  • lamb is 25 times more polluting than tofu
  • milk is five times as polluting as oat drink
  • dairy-based cheese is four times as polluting as vegan cheese.



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Ordinary people, extraordinary change: addressing the climate emergency through ‘quiet activism’


In Australia, the range of meat alternatives is growing quickly. In just one example, Sydney-based All G Foods is developing plant-based mince, sausages, chicken and bacon, as well as “cow-free” dairy products. Helped along by $5 million in federal government funding, the company’s first product launches this month.

Another food that promises to help cut your carbon footprint is seaweed. Australia is only just catching on to the benefits of commercial seaweed production, which can be grown with few environmental costs.

Australia’s first factory manufacturing food-grade seaweed products opened in New South Wales last year. It has the capacity to put seaweed into pastas, and even muesli!

seaweed in ocean
Commercial production of seaweed, a sustainable food source, is ramping up.
Shutterstock

Reduce, reuse, inspire

Reducing your climate footprint is not just about buying “green” stuff: it’s also about avoiding consumption in the first place. So try to buy less – and if you can’t avoid it, try and buy second-hand.

You never know, you might start a revolution. Evidence suggests people who observe their peers undertaking environmentally friendly behaviour often adopt similar actions.




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


The Conversation


Andreas Chai, Associate Professor, Griffith University

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

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


Albert Hyseni/Unsplash

John Quiggin, The University of QueenslandAustralia has received seemingly contradictory messages about coal this week.

In a UK study published today in Nature, scientists found Australia must keep 95% of coal in the ground if we have any hope of stopping the planet warming beyond the crucial limit of 1.5℃.

These findings echo the message of senior United Nations official Selwin Hart, who earlier this week urged Australia to end the use of coal by 2030. He warned if the world doesn’t boost climate action urgently, Australia can expect more frequent and severe climate disasters such as droughts, heatwaves, fires and floods.

Meanwhile, markets for coal seem to be sending the opposite message.

The price of Newcastle thermal coal recently reached a record high of US$180 per tonne due to rising electricity demand in India, China and other Asian countries. That seems to suggest whatever the consequences, Australia and the world are not going to give up on coal or other carbon-based fuels.

But it’s a mistake to place too much weight on fluctuations in coal markets. Earlier this year, the price was about US$50 per tonne and seemed likely to fall further. The current price tells us nothing about the choices we face in reducing emissions by 2030.

It’s entirely feasible for Australia to phase out thermal coal by 2030 — we just need political will.

World economies must decarbonise

The authors of the new modelling study in Nature examined the world’s reserves of oil, gas and coal, and determined how much would have to be left untouched for at least a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5℃.

Overall, it found nearly 60% of the world’s oil and fossil methane gas, and 90% of coal must remain unextracted by 2050. But the estimate for exporters like Australia is even higher.

This means production in most regions must peak now, or in the next decade, and that stronger policies are needed to restrict production and reduce demand.

The study reinforces how urgent it is to decarbonise economies. As Selwin Hart, the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Climate Action, noted in his speech to the Crawford Leadership Forum:

Decarbonisation of the global economy is quickly gathering pace. And there are huge opportunities to create more jobs, better health, and a stronger and fairer economy for those countries and companies that move first and fastest.

Is an end to coal feasible?

But would it really be possible for Australia to phase out coal by 2030, as Hart insists?

To consider this, it’s important to first distinguish between thermal coal and metallurgical coal. Thermal coal is used to generate electricity, while metallurgical coal is used in steelmaking.

Blast furnaces using metallurgical coal will ultimately be replaced by alternative technologies, such as using “green” hydrogen produced using clean electricity.




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‘Green steel’ is hailed as the next big thing in Australian industry. Here’s what the hype is all about


That process has begun, but it will take a long time, and can’t start until electricity generation is decarbonised. So, it makes sense to focus on phasing out thermal coal first.

But if decarbonisation of the global economy requires a rapid end to the use of thermal coal, why has its price suddenly surged?

A number of factors determine the thermal coal market, and fluctuations don’t tell us much about what the coal market will look like in 2030.

The recent increase in prices was caused by a combination of the rapid recovery from the pandemic recession, rising gas prices, weather-related disruptions to coal supply from Indonesia, and drought in China. It’s worth noting that despite high prices, the volume of seaborne thermal coal has actually declined.

95% of Australia’s coal must stay in the ground to cap the planet’s warming at 1.5℃
(AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File

Ending thermal coal in Australia would be easy

Given a modest amount of political will, or just the end of obstructionism from the federal government, Australia could easily replace coal-fired electricity generation with a combination of solar and wind, backed by storage.

Most of Australia’s coal-fired power plants were commissioned in the 20th century with obsolete sub-critical technology, and would be approaching the end of their operational lives even in the absence of climate change concerns.

Bringing those dates forward to 2030 or earlier could be almost costless. We could easily double our current rate of installation of utility-scale solar and wind generation, if the federal government got out of the way and let the states tackle the job.




Read more:
Australia’s states are forging ahead with ambitious emissions reductions. Imagine if they worked together


Only five coal plants have been commissioned this century. The Bluewater plant in Western Australia has already been written off as worthless because of competition from solar and wind power.

The remaining four, all in Queensland, have a total capacity of less than 3 gigawatts. Allowing for the fact solar photovoltaic (PV) only operates in daylight hours, this is about the same as one million 10-kilowatt rooftop solar installations (about average for new installations). Queensland already has more than 750,000 solar rooftops, and capacity for another million.

More notably, the cost of decarbonising electricity supply is a fraction of the amount we have collectively spent to respond to the problem of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only is COVID a smaller threat in the long run than climate change but a comprehensive response to pandemics requires us to stabilise the climate and stop the destruction of natural environments.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


Managing the transition for the coal workforce would be more challenging, but still entirely feasible, as countries such as Spain and Germany have shown.

In a report I prepared for the Australia Institute last year, I found Australia could successfully transition the workforce with a mixture of measures including early retirement, retraining, and investments in renewable energy targeted at coal-dependent regions.

The cost of this would be around A$50 million a year, over ten years. That’s less than the estimated cost of a week of COVID lockdown in Sydney.

But would this condemn developing countries to energy poverty?

The reality is it makes economic and environmental sense for all countries to shift away from coal.

The central government in China has committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060. But many provincial governments still see investment in coal plants and other polluting industries as an engine of growth, not to mention a lucrative source of kickbacks and donations.




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China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge


The picture in India is similarly complex. Coal remains the main source of electricity, but most electricity generation businesses have abandoned new investments in coal-fired power and many have stopped bidding for access to domestic coal supplies.

We can’t do much to influence energy policy in China and India. But a commitment to reduce and ultimately eliminate exports of thermal coal would not, as some have suggested, condemn these and other developing countries to poverty.

Rather, it would strengthen the hand of advocates of clean energy against the established interest groups that defend coal.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Decaying forest wood releases a whopping 10.9 billion tonnes of carbon each year. This will increase under climate change


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Marisa Stone, Griffith University; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Kurtis Nisbet, Griffith University, and Sebastian Seibold, Technical University of MunichIf you’ve wandered through a forest, you’ve probably dodged dead, rotting branches or stumps scattered on the ground. This is “deadwood”, and it plays several vital roles in forest ecosystems.

It provides habitat for small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects. And as deadwood decomposes it contributes to the ecosystem’s cycle of nutrients, which is important for plant growth.

But there’s another important role we have little understanding of on a global scale: the carbon deadwood releases as it decomposes, with part of it going into the soil and part into the atmosphere. Insects, such as termites and wood borers, can accelerate this process.

The world’s deadwood currently stores 73 billion tonnes of carbon. Our new research in Nature has, for the first time, calculated that 10.9 billion tonnes of this (around 15%) is released into the atmosphere and soil each year — a little more than the world’s emissions from burning fossil fuels.

But this amount can change depending on insect activity, and will likely increase under climate change. It’s vital deadwood is considered explicitly in all future climate change projections.

An extraordinary, global effort

Forests are crucial carbon sinks, where living trees capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to regulate climate.
Deadwood — including fallen or still-standing trees, branches and stumps — makes up 8% of this carbon stock in the world’s forests.

Our aim was to measure the influence of climate and insects on the rate of decomposition — but it wasn’t easy. Our research paper is the result of an extraordinary effort to co-ordinate a large-scale cross-continent field experiment. More than 30 research groups worldwide took part.

White boxes on the forest floor
We used mesh cages to keep insects away from some deadwood to test their effect on decay.
Marisa Stone, Author provided

Wood from more than 140 tree species was laid out for up to three years at 55 forest sites on six continents, from the Amazon rainforest to Brisbane, Australia.
Half of these wood samples were in closed mesh cages to exclude insects from the decomposition process to test their effect, too.

Some sites had to be protected from elephants, another was lost to fire and another had to be rebuilt after a flood.

What we found

Our research showed the rate of deadwood decay and how insects contribute to it depend very strongly on climate.

We found the rate increased primarily with rising temperature, and was disproportionately greater in the tropics compared to all other cooler climatic regions.

In fact, deadwood in tropical regions lost a median mass of 28.2% every year. In cooler, temperate regions, the median mass lost was just 6.3%.

More deadwood decay occurs in the tropics because the region has greater biodiversity (more insects and fungi) to facilitate decomposition. As insects consume the wood, they render it to small particles, which speed up decay. The insects also introduce fungal species, which then finish the job.




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Of the 10.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released by deadwood each year, we estimate insect activity is responsible for 3.2 billion tonnes, or 29%.

Let’s break this down by region. In the tropics, insects were responsible for almost one-third of the carbon released from deadwood. In regions with low temperatures in forests of northern and temperate latitudes — such as in Canada and Finland — insects had little effect.

Mushrooms growing on a log
After insects break deadwood into smaller pieces, fungi are responsible for the final stages of decay.
Marisa Stone, Author provided

What does this mean in a changing climate?

Insects are sensitive to climate change and, with recent declines in insect biodiversity, the current and future roles of insects in deadwood are uncertain.

But given the vast majority of deadwood decay occurs in the tropics (93%), and that this region in general is set to become even warmer and wetter under climate change, it’s safe to say climate change will increase the amount of carbon deadwood releases each year.

Close-up of three termites in wood
Termites and other insects can speed up deadwood decay in warmer climates.
Shutterstock

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the amount of carbon dioxide released is still only a fraction of the total annual global deadwood carbon stock. That is, 85% of the global deadwood carbon stock remains on forest floors and continues to store carbon each year.

We recommend deadwood is left in place — in the forest. Removing deadwood may not only be destructive for biodiversity and the ability of forests to regenerate, but it could actually substantially increase atmospheric carbon.




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For example, if we used deadwood as a biofuel it could release the carbon that would otherwise have remained locked up each year. If the world’s deadwood was removed and burned, it would be release eight times more carbon than what’s currently emitted from burning fossil fuels.

This is particularly important in cooler climatic regions, where decomposition is slower and deadwood remains for several years as a vital carbon sink.

Lush, green forest
Deadwood is essential for a healthy forest ecosystem.
Milk tea/Unsplash, CC BY

What next?

The complex interplay of interactions between insects and climate on deadwood carbon release makes future climate projections a bit tricky.

To improve climate change predictions, we need much more detailed research on how communities of decomposer insects (such as the numbers of individuals and species) influence deadwood decomposition, not to mention potential effects from insect diversity loss.

But insect diversity loss is also likely to vary regionally and would require long-term studies over decades to determine.

For now, climate scientists must take the enormous annual emissions from deadwood into account in their research, so humanity can have a better understanding of climate change’s cascading effects.




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The Conversation


Marisa Stone, Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, Griffith University; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Kurtis Nisbet, Scientific Officer, Griffith University, and Sebastian Seibold, Adjunct Teaching Professor, Technical University of Munich

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

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


Shutterstock

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

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

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

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

Climate change in the Australian Alps

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

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

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




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

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

A dip into the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alpine snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora)
Zoë Thomas

What happened during this climate change?

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

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

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

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

Alpine herbfields.
Nicola Pain

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

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




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What can we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Conversation


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Morals as climate motivators

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

Framing climate decisions

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

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

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

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

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




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

When moralising backfires

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead

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

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




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The Conversation


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

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