IPCC cities conference tackles gaps between science and climate action on the ground

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The IPCC’s first cities conference revealed the challenges in bridging the gaps between scientific knowledge and policy practice, and between cities in developed and developing nations.
Cities IPCC/Twitter

Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Some 600 climate scientists, urban researchers, policymakers and practitioners attended the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first ever conference on cities last week. Hosted in Edmonton, Canada, it was organised as a forum to share knowledge and advice in support of the sixth IPCC Assessment Report (AR6) due in 2021.

The significance of a UN-organised global scientific conference on climate change and cities should not be underestimated. Urbanisation has been a United Nations concern since 1963. Policy attention strengthened in the 1970s when the UN Habitat agency was established. This focus was redoubled in the mid-2000s when it was reported that more than half of the global population was now urban.

Climate change has been a topic of UN action since 1988, with policy attention intensifying in the late 1990s and mid-2010s. Appreciation has since grown that with 55% of the world’s people now living in cities, this is where where efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change must be focused.

Read more:
This is why we cannot rely on cities alone to tackle climate change

A collision of science, practice and politics

By venturing onto urban terrain the IPCC faces some interesting scientific questions. To a large degree biological or physical systems can be studied as objective phenomena that behave according to discoverable and predictable patterns. Carbon dioxide objectively traps solar radiation leading to climatic warming; biological species die at temperatures above their tolerance.

By contrast cities are riven with historical, social, economic, cultural and political dynamics. The theoretical and conceptual frames that scientists apply to cities are subject to many biases.

We certainly can calculate the emissions a city produces and chart the likely impacts on it from a changing climate. But the reasons why a city came to emit so much and how it responds to the need to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts are highly contingent. Objective validation and verification are difficult. Identifying causality and forward pathways is very difficult.

There is also a vast divide between the physical and social science of cities and the policymakers and practitioners who shape urban development. Research shows that most urban professionals simply do not read urban science. Instead they draw on practice knowledge acquired from peer practitioners via an array of non-scientific channels and networks.

These difficulties were observable at the IPCC cities conference. It was scientific in purpose but a subtle politics was at play. Rather than being convened by a scientific body, the conference was co-ordinated as an instrument of the world’s national polities and the IPCC, organised by a mix of UN organisations and NGO networks, and sponsored by a local, provincial and national government.

Fewer than two-thirds of delegates were scientists; the remaining 40 per cent were policy officials and practitioners. The problem of connecting scientific and practice knowledge was often on display.

Many cities have accepted the clear scientific evidence on climate change and accompanying global targets. These cities are striving at the local scale to cut emissions and adapt to changing climate patterns. For many, their main need is for knowledge of practical policies and programs, rather than more evidence of climate change impacts or mitigation technologies.

Often these cities are racing far ahead of slow and certain science. They are sharing practical experience of mitigation and adaptation strategies via self-organising peer-city networks. Finding ways to link inventive but unsystematic practice knowledge with the formal peer-reviewed processes of orthodox science will be a critical task for climate change scientists and policymakers.

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Policymakers are also grappling with how to implement global agreements within complex international arrangements. There face myriad tiers of national, regional, city and local governance, involving a plethora of discrete public, private and civic actors.

For this group, their priorities at the IPCC cities conference concerned policy processes and institutional design, political commitment and implementation instruments. Their needs are for policy, institutional and political science as much as for further scientific detail on climate change.

What did these encounters reveal?

The conference generated many fascinating insights. One major theme was the question of informality.

Many cities beyond the developed world are weakly governed. Multiple dimensions of urban life, including housing and infrastructure, are organised via informal institutions. Achieving effective action in these circumstances is a considerable policy problem.

A related problem is the gross geographical imbalance in scientific effort and focus on urban climate questions. Most research focuses on the cities of the developed West. And most of those are comparatively well resourced to respond to climate change.

In contrast, the cities of the developing world lack a systematic data and research base to enable effective and timely climate action. Yet these are the cities where many of the most severe climate impacts will be felt. Resolving this inequity is a fundamental international scientific challenge, as is growing the capacity to build a better evidence base.

Another question the IPCC needs to navigate is the boundary between science and politics in urban climate policy. During conference plenaries, the moderator — a former city mayor — excluded questions about specific political representatives’ stances on climate change according to apolitical IPCC rules. Yet questions about the effects on cities of neoliberalism were deemed permissible.

Urban scientists will require an especially nuanced framing of their research agenda if they are to address the very material politics of urban climate policy via theoretical abstraction alone.

Read more:
While nations play politics, cities and states are taking up the climate challenge

The conference also provided some memorable highlights. William Rees, the originator of ecological footprint theory, lambasted delegates for not adequately appreciating the absolute material limits to resource exploitation. And the youth delegates received a standing ovation as the cohort who will be grappling with urban climate effects long after their older peers have departed.

William Rees explains the origins of the ecological footprint.

An agenda for urban climate action

The conference released a research agenda. This outlines the urgent need for inclusive and socially transformative action on climate change, improved evidence and information to support climate responses, and new funding and finance mechanisms to make this possible. It’s a very high-level guide for climate and urban scientists seeking to better understand climate change impacts on cities.

The conference appears to have met the IPCC’s needs to compile and review a large volume of scientific and practice insight for its assessment reporting. Whether it will have a wider effect on climate policy and action in cities remains unclear.

The ConversationThe participating scientists and practitioners certainly shared a general commitment to advancing the urban climate agenda. But it remains uncertain whether methodical scientific processes will be timely enough to meet the accelerating and expanding demands of urgent urban climate action.

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How protons can power our future energy needs

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The proton battery, connected to a voltmeter.
RMIT, Author provided

John Andrews, RMIT University

As the world embraces inherently variable renewable energy sources to tackle climate change, we will need a truly gargantuan amount of electrical energy storage.

With large electricity grids, microgrids, industrial installations and electric vehicles all running on renewables, we are likely to need a storage capacity of over 10% of annual electricity consumption – that is, more than 2,000 terawatt-hours of storage capacity worldwide as of 2014.

To put that in context, Australia’s planned Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro storage scheme would have a capacity of just 350 gigawatt-hours, or roughly 0.2% of Australia’s current electricity consumption.

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Tomorrow’s battery technologies that could power your home

Where will the batteries come from to meet this huge storage demand? Most likely from a range of different technologies, some of which are only at the research and development stage at present.

Our new research suggests that “proton batteries” – rechargeable batteries that store protons from water in a porous carbon material – could make a valuable contribution.

Not only is our new battery environmentally friendly, but it is also technically capable with further development of storing more energy for a given mass and size than currently available lithium-ion batteries – the technology used in South Australia’s giant new battery.

Potential applications for the proton battery include household storage of electricity from solar panels, as is currently done by the Tesla Powerwall.

With some modifications and scaling up, proton battery technology may also be used for medium-scale storage on electricity grids, and to power electric vehicles.

The team behind the new battery. L-R: Shahin Heidari, John Andrews, proton battery, Saeed Seif Mohammadi.
RMIT, Author provided

How it works

Our latest proton battery, details of which are published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, is basically a hybrid between a conventional battery and a hydrogen fuel cell.

During charging, the water molecules in the battery are split, releasing protons (positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms). These protons then bond with the carbon in the electrode, with the help of electrons from the power supply.

In electricity supply mode, this process is reversed: the protons are released from the storage and travel back through the reversible fuel cell to generate power by reacting with oxygen from air and electrons from the external circuit, forming water once again.

Essentially, a proton battery is thus a reversible hydrogen fuel cell that stores hydrogen bonded to the carbon in its solid electrode, rather than as compressed hydrogen gas in a separate cylinder, as in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell system.

Unlike fossil fuels, the carbon used for storing hydrogen does not burn or cause emissions in the process. The carbon electrode, in effect, serves as a “rechargeable hydrocarbon” for storing energy.

What’s more, the battery can be charged and discharged at normal temperature and pressure, without any need for compressing and storing hydrogen gas. This makes it safer than other forms of hydrogen fuel.

Powering batteries with protons from water splitting also has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from globally scarce and geographically restricted resources. The carbon-based material in the storage electrode can be made from abundant and cheap primary resources – even forms of coal or biomass.

Read more:
A guide to deconstructing the battery hype cycle

Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs without further damaging our already fragile environment.

The time scale to take this small-scale experimental device to commercialisation is likely to be in the order of five to ten years, depending on the level of research, development and demonstration effort expended.

Our research will now focus on further improving performance and energy density through use of atomically thin layered carbon-based materials such as graphene.

The ConversationThe target of a proton battery that is truly competitive with lithium-ion batteries is firmly in our sights.

John Andrews, Professor, School of Engineering, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The freak warm Arctic weather is unusual, but getting less so

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Research Vessel Lance in the middle of broken Arctic sea ice after a large warm winter storm in February 2015.
Nick Cobbing, Author provided

Amelie Meyer, Norwegian Polar Institute; Erik W. Kolstad, Uni Research; Mats Granskog, Norwegian Polar Institute, and Robert Graham, Norwegian Polar Institute

The Arctic has been unusually warm since the beginning of 2018. In the past week air temperatures have hovered around 20℃ above normal or even higher. On February 25, the Cape Morris Jesup weather station in northern Greenland recorded 6.1℃, despite the fact that at this time of year, when the sun is still below the horizon, temperatures are typically around -30℃.

Daily Arctic temperatures in 2018 (thick red line), for 1958-2002 (thin lines) and the average for 1958-2002 (thick white line).
Zack Labe

A surprising feature of this warming event was how far into (and beyond) the Arctic it has penetrated. Warm air migrated north from the Atlantic Ocean, over the North Pole and towards the Pacific Ocean, bringing above-freezing air temperatures to large areas of the Arctic Ocean for more than 24 hours.

We have not seen a warm intrusion from the Atlantic Ocean on this scale since at least 1980.

Air temperatures at 3pm on February 25, 2018, based on GFS forecast. The warm air incursion is clearly visible in green.
ClimateReanalyzer.org/University of Maine

Is this unprecedented?

Warm events in the middle of the northern winter are not unheard of. Large winter storms can bring strong winds that pump warm air into the Arctic from lower latitudes.

For example, during the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s 1896 expedition aboard the icebreaker Fram, the crew observed temperatures of -3℃ on one midwinter’s day. More recently, in December 2015, an Arctic warming event brought temperatures of 2℃ to the North Pole, and the warm weather continued into early 2016.

Winter warming events at the North Pole. Number of days each winter when the air temperature exceeds a given threshold.
Graham et al., 2017

But, crucially, this type of event is becoming more common and longer in duration, with higher peak temperatures.

Record low sea ice extent

February 26 brought a new record low for sea ice extent: maximum sea ice extent on that day was 14.20 million square kilometres, which is 1.29 million km2 below the 1981-2010 average for that day. This follows several years with record low winter maximum sea ice extents in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Arctic sea ice extent for January and February 2018 (orange line), compared with the 1980s average (purple line), 1990s average (cyan line), and 2000s average (blue line).
Zack Labe/JAXA AMSR2

The current warm conditions in the Arctic have implications for sea ice year-round. Sea ice grows in winter and melts in summer. The warm air temperatures will slow down sea ice growth, and strong winds will push it around, breaking it up in places – as happened north of Greenland earlier this week.

Open water where the ice is broken will release extra heat into the atmosphere. By the time the spring sun comes around, the sea ice pack is thinned and weakened, and may melt more easily.

Cold weather in Europe

While the Arctic has been hot, Europe has been bitterly cold this week: London recorded -6℃; Berlin reached -14℃; and the Alps plunged to -27℃. Rome received 5-15cm of snow on Monday, and up to 40cm of snow fell in Britain on Wednesday.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but this cold weather is directly linked to the recent warming event in the Arctic.

Temperature anomalies for February 25, 2018, showing a warm Arctic and cold Europe and parts of Russia. Browns and reds indicate above-average temperatures; blues indicate below-average temperatures.
Climate Re-analyzer/University of Maine

Normally, the cold air above the polar region is contained in the Arctic by a ring-like band of strong winds called the polar vortex. But in the middle of February this year, the polar vortex split into two vortices: one over Eurasia and the other over North America.

Between these two features, a strong high-pressure system gradually formed. As a result, warm air was pumped up into the Arctic on the west side of the high, while cold air was channelled southwards to the east of it. Hence the exceptionally warm air in the Arctic and the cold snap in Europe.

Illustration of the Arctic polar vortex and northern hemisphere weather patterns.
XNR Productions

Is the polar vortex changing?

The polar vortex is driven by the strong temperature differences between the warm mid-latitudes and the cold Arctic. With the Arctic warming more rapidly than the mid-latitudes, this temperature difference is decreasing and some scientists believe that the polar vortex is weakening.

Research suggests that the polar vortex has become “wavier” as a result of this weakening. A wavier jet stream would lead to more frequent cold outbreaks of polar air at lower latitudes, and at the same time cause warm air to intrude into the Arctic. However, other researchers have argued that “large uncertainties regarding the magnitude of such an influence remain”.

Generally speaking, warming at every latitude makes cold spells at low latitudes less likely, and warm intrusions at high latitudes more likely, unless the Arctic warming leads to a fundamental change in the dynamics of the atmosphere.

Read more:
Climate shenanigans at the ends of the Earth: why has sea ice gone haywire?

Since 1979, Arctic warming events have grown more frequent. However, climate projections indicate that there will be fewer Arctic storms in the latter part of this century, and thus fewer Arctic warming events.

The ConversationAs scientists, we were startled by the extent of this week’s Arctic warming, and will be working hard to understand the short- and long-term implications. All eyes will be on the upcoming maximum winter Arctic sea ice extent, which is likely to happen in the next few weeks and could possibly set a new record low.

Amelie Meyer, Postdoctoral Researcher, Physical Oceanography, Norwegian Polar Institute; Erik W. Kolstad, Research professor, Uni Research; Mats Granskog, Senior research scientist, Norwegian Polar Institute, and Robert Graham, Postdoctoral Researcher, Climate Modelling, Norwegian Polar Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Nationals have changed their leader but kept the same climate story

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

After Barnaby Joyce’s demise as Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader, and his replacement by Michael McCormack, we might wonder what the junior Coalition partner’s leadership change means for Australia’s climate policy.

Perhaps the answer is “not a great deal”, given the apparent similarity between the two men’s outlooks. But then again, confident predictions about the future of Australian climate policy are a mug’s game.

Read more:
Shattered Nationals meet to chart their post-Barnaby course

Joyce joined the Senate back in July 2005, as part of the tranche that gave the Liberal and National Coalition absolute control. At the time, another new senator, the Greens’ Christine Milne, was ready to talk with the likes of Joyce, arguing that both of their parties should share common concerns about climate change, drought, salinity, loss of native vegetation, and more.

Joyce evidently didn’t see it that way. When federal Liberals Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer tried to get a debate going about the purported climate benefits of nuclear power, Joyce joined with Queensland’s Labor Premier Peter Beattie in arguing that nuclear power should not be on the agenda while Australia’s coal resources remained plentiful (although he opted against echoing Beattie’s “clean coal” push).

A year later, however, Joyce was more attuned to Milne’s concerns. In the context of the seemingly never-ending Millennium drought, and with Nationals leader Mark Vaile urging his cabinet colleagues to spend at least another A$750 million on drought relief, Joyce fearfully noted that:

The drought really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a case of creeks that haven’t run for months, sometimes years, (and) bores that are going dry. There is a real concern amongst a lot that maybe there is a final change in the climate. That’s really starting to worry people.

Six months later, with the “first climate change election” looming, Joyce used some leaping logic to describe proposed rail spending as a climate measure:

We can go up to every mother and father and ask them if they can drive their tree to work and see how they go… I think that rail is greenhouse friendly. It is going to be taking all prime-movers off the road.

Roast boast

Of course, this support for rural industry didn’t mean that Joyce supported any form of emissions trading put forward by either Liberal or Labor. He instead voiced fears that Australia “could soon resemble communism” unless farmers are paid properly for the carbon stored in their land.

In 2011 Joyce voted against Julia Gillard’s voluntary Carbon Farming Initiative, which in 2014 was absorbed into Tony Abbott’s Direct Action program. A 2017 report argues that it is now helping farmers, but not reducing emissions.

Perhaps his most (in)famous claim came in 2009, as Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme staggered towards its demise, bleeding credibility and support at every lobbyist-inspired softening. Joyce predicted that with the advent of carbon trading, the Sunday roast would cost A$150 (a figure that was later downgraded to a far more measured and believable 100 bucks).

The same year, Joyce told political journalist Laurie Oakes:

Everywhere there is a power point in your house, there is access to a new tax for the Labor Government – a new tax on ironing, a new tax on watching television, a new tax on vacuuming.

In November 2009, the Nationals told the Liberals that support for carbon pricing could lead to a split in the Coalition. The then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was challenged by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, the latter winning by a single vote. The rest is history.

Joyce joined in the ultimately fatal attack on Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme by upping the ante on his Sunday roast claims. Using some impressively creative reasoning, he argued that the A$23-a-tonne carbon price could lead abattoirs to end up being slugged A$575,000 for slaughtering a single cow.

A party of one mind

Of course, Joyce is far from alone among Nationals for baiting the greenies. Fellow backbencher George Christensen’s dangerous and lamentable Facebook post is just the latest in a long line of provocations.

Back in 1997 Tim Fischer, then Deputy Prime Minister, spoke at a conference in Canberra organised by climate denialists called Countdown to Kyoto. Years later, at about the same time that Joyce first entered the Senate, his party colleague Julian McGauran reportedly flipped the bird at Greens leader Bob Brown after the Coalition voted down a Senate motion criticising the government on climate change.

More recently still, the Nationals have joined in many Liberals’ hatred of renewable energy, despite the fact that it would make a lot of money for farmers.

Will anything change except the climate?

Joyce is gone, but the Nationals don’t exactly have hordes of tree-huggers waiting in the wings. The efforts of Farmers for Climate Action to influence the Nationals’ leadership succession seems to have amounted to nothing.

Michael McCormack (who was interviewed by Michelle Grattan for the Conversation) is already under Twitter scrutiny over his maiden speech in 2010, when he said:

When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly.

The journalist Paddy Manning has given an overview of his positions since then. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same (unlike the climate).

Read more:
Under McCormack, the Nationals need to accept they are a minority and preserve their independence

It is impossible to predict how and when the Nationals’ policies might change, especially in places where One Nation is waiting with open arms for any wavering voters.

The ConversationBut as ever, it is the voters who hold the key. If enough of Barnaby’s “weatherboard and iron” rural base decide that climate change is a serious, vote-deciding issue, that will be the day when the Nationals finally give up their cast-iron opposition to climate action.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund is almost empty. It shouldn’t be refilled

Ian A. MacKenzie, The University of Queensland

Australia’s flagship climate policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), has come in for fresh questions over whether the emissions allowances offered to big businesses will wipe out much of the progress made elsewhere.

This voluntary scheme – the central plank of Australia’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 – allows interested parties to reduce pollution in exchange for a proportion of the A$2.55 billion fund.

Read more:
The government is miscounting greenhouse emissions reductions

So far, through successive rounds of “reverse auctions”, the scheme has secured 191.7 million tonnes of emission reductions, at a price tag of A$2.28 billion.

As the budget for this scheme is nearly exhausted, it is important to ask whether it has been a success, or whether Australia’s carbon policy needs a radical rethink. Overall, the answer seems to be the latter.

Safeguards not so safe

Much of the problem stems from the ERF’s safeguard mechanism, which puts limits on the greenhouse emissions from around 140 large polluting businesses. Under the mechanism, these firms are not allowed to pollute more than an agreed “baseline”, calculated on the basis of their existing operations.

The mechanism is described as a safeguard because it aims to stop big businesses wiping out the emissions reductions delivered by projects funded by the ERF. But it doesn’t appear to be working.

The government has already increased the emission baselines for many of these businesses, for arguably specious reasons. Some firms have been given extra leeway to pollute simply because their business has grown, or even just because they blew their original baseline.

Worryingly, on February 21, 2018 the federal government released a consultation document which favours “updating baselines to bring them in line with current circumstances” and suggests that “to help prevent baselines becoming out-of-date in the future, they could be updated for production more often, for example, each year”.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if baselines are continually increased over time, the fixed benefits of the ERF will inevitably be wiped out.

This underlines the importance of having a climate policy that operates throughout the economy, rather than only in certain parts of it. If heavily polluting businesses can so readily be allowed to undo the work of others, this is a recipe for disaster.

Contract problems

Even within the ERF process itself, many emissions reduction contracts have already been revoked. This is worrying but also avoidable if the contracts are written correctly.

It is important to note that these contracts run for around seven years, and thus it is possible that the planned carbon reductions never eventuate. Currently only about 16% of the announced 191.7 million tonnes of emissions reduction have actually been delivered.

For the ERF to work effectively, the government needs to know the “counterfactual” emissions – that is, firms’ emissions if they decided not to participate in the ERF. Yet this is completely unknown.

This means that projects that successfully bid for ERF funding (typically the cheapest ones) may not be “additional”. In other words, they may have established these emissions reduction projects anyway, with or without funding from the taxpayer.

Another problem with the ERF is that it is skewed towards projects from lower-polluting sectors of the economy, whereas heavily polluting industries are underrepresented. The largest proportion of signed contracts have involved planting trees or reducing emissions from savannah burning.

Meanwhile, the firms covered by the safeguard mechanism are largely absent from the ERF itself, despite these firms accounting for around 50% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

The bare fact is that Australia’s flagship climate policy doesn’t target the prominent polluters.

A different way

Australia’s climate policy has had a colourful past. Yet the economics of pollution mitigation remain the same.

If we want to reduce pollution in a cost-effective way that actually works, then we must (re-)establish a carbon price.

This would provide the much-needed certainty about the cost of genuine pollution reduction. This in turn would allow all major polluters to make strategic, long-term investments that will progressively reduce emissions.

Instead of spending A$2.55 billion to pay for modest emissions reductions that might be cancelled out elsewhere, creating a carbon price will allow for the generation of tax revenue that can be used for a host of purposes.

For example, distortionary tax rates (such as income and corporation tax) could be lowered, or the revenue could be used to fund better schools and hospitals.

A clear example of such a success can be taken from the northeastern states of the US. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a cap-and-trade market that sells tradeable pollution permits to electricity companies. Estimates have shown that US$2.3 billion of lifetime energy bill savings will occur due to investments made in 2015.

To tax or cap?

If the ERF is to be replaced, what type of carbon price do we want? Do we want a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade market?

While advantages exist for both, most evidence shows that carbon taxes are more efficient at driving down emissions. Moreover, taxation avoids the potential problems of market power, which may exist with a small number of large polluters.

Read more:
Australia’s biggest emitters opt to ‘wait and see’ over Emissions Reduction Fund

A carbon price would also remove much of the political rent-seeking that is encouraged by Australia’s current policy settings. A simple, economy-wide carbon tax would be more transparent than the safeguard mechanism, under which individual firms can plead for leniency.

The ConversationWith the ERF fund almost empty, the federal government should ask itself a tough question. Should it spend another A$2.55 billion of taxpayers’ money while letting major polluters increase their emissions? Or should it embrace a new source of tax revenue that incentivises cleaner technologies in a transparent, cost-effective way?

Ian A. MacKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Economics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Health Check: how can extreme heat lead to death?

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Our climate is going to get warmer, and we need to protect ourselves from heat-related illness.
from shutterstock.com

David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Our climate is becoming hotter. This is our reality. Extreme heat is already responsible for hundreds of deaths every year. It’s a big environmental killer, and deaths from heatwaves in Australian cities are expected to double in the next 40 years.

Those most at risk are the elderly, people with chronic illness, those living in socioeconomic disadvantage, outdoor workers, and athletes who play their sport in brutally high temperatures. But extreme heat can affect anyone at any age.

So, what happens in our body during times of extreme heat? And how can it lead to fatal consequences?

Read more:
Australia’s ‘deadliest natural hazard’: what’s your heatwave plan?

How we lose and gain heat

Our core body temperature sits at around 37℃. If it rises or falls, a range of very efficient physiological mechanisms come into play. In good health, our body can usually cope well with deviations of about 3.5℃, but beyond that the body begins to show signs of distress.

In hot weather, the body maintains core temperature by losing heat in several ways. One is to transfer it to a cooler environment, such as surrounding air or water, through our skin. But if the surrounding temperature is the same or higher than the skin (greater than 35-37℃) the effectiveness of this mechanism is markedly reduced.

Blood vessels supplying blood to the skin dilate. This allows more warm blood to flow near the surface of the skin, where the heat can be lost to the air. That’s why some people’s skin looks redder in hot environments.

One way the body loses heat is by directly transferring it to a cooler environment.
from shutterstock.com

Evaporation (or sweat) is another way to lose heat from the body. If there is enough airflow and humidity is low enough, we can lose large amounts of heat through sweat. But on humid days, the rate of evaporation is reduced, as the air cannot absorb so much if it is already saturated with water vapour.

We can also reduce our heat production by resting. About 80% of the energy produced by working muscles is heat, so any activity will increase the amount of heat the body has to lose. This is why athletes and outdoor manual workers are at particular risk when performing at high levels of physical activity.

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Health Check: do cold showers cool you down?

What happens if the body can’t lose heat

Heat stress describes a spectrum of heat-related disorders that occur when the body fails to lose heat to maintain core temperature. Heat stress ranges from heat cramps to heat exhaustion (pale, sweating, dizzy and fainting). If the core temperature rises above 40.5℃, it can lead to heatstroke, which is a medical emergency, can occur suddenly and often kills.

The hypothalamus works as the body’s thermostat.
from shutterstock.com

Heatstroke is caused by a failure of the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that works as our thermostat and co-ordinates our physiological response to excessive heat. It’s what leads to mechanisms like sweating and rapid breathing, dilated veins and increased blood flow to the skin. So, when the hypothalamus fails, so does our ability to sweat and lose heat in other ways.

At temperatures higher than 41.5℃, convulsions are common. Irreversible brain damage can occur at temperatures above 42.5℃. Patients with heatstroke can show neurological signs such as lack of co-ordination, confusion, seizures and loss of consciousness.

Read more:
Health Check: how to exercise safely in the heat

When sweating stops, the skin may become hot and dry, heart rate and breathing increase and blood pressure is low. Cells and nerves in the body become damaged. Liver damage is also common, but may not manifest for several days. The kidneys stop working, normal blood clotting is impaired, the heart muscle can be damaged and skeletal muscles start breaking down.

Essentially, this is what we describe as multi-organ failure. People with heatstroke can die within a few hours, or several days or even weeks later from organ failure.

Protecting yourself

Heatstroke could be “exertional”, as with athletes, or “classic”, which occurs in patients with impaired thermostatic responses, as a result of age, illness or medications.

Heatstroke can be caused by exertion, such as with athletes putting their body through stress in extreme temperatures.
from shutterstock.com

Much of the increase in deaths during hotter temperatures occurs in older patients with a chronic illness. This is because they may have a poorly functioning central nervous system that cannot orchestrate the physiological changes needed to lose heat.

Older hearts may not be able to cope with the changes in circulation needed for more blood flow to go to the skin. Some medications can also interfere with the mechanisms for heat loss.

People experiencing any of the warning signs of heat stress (headache, nausea, light-headedness and fatigue) need to alter their behaviour to reduce it.

The best way to do this is to find a cool spot indoors or in the shade, put on light clothing, avoid physical exertion, put a damp cloth on your skin, immerse yourself in cold water and stay well hydrated.

But for some people, like children who are too young to make changes to their environment (such as those left in cars), this is not possible. Also, for the elderly, perhaps those with chronic mental illness or on certain medications that impair their ability to respond to increasing core temperature, these signs may not be apparent or noticed.

Read more:
Strategies for coping with extremely hot weather

This means we need safeguards to ensure the vulnerable stay cool. This is especially a problem for elderly people who live alone.

So, as our climate warms up, we need to do all we can to minimise the consequences of an increasingly hot environment. That means we must adapt our behaviour, our understanding of the issues, our urban environments, our sporting events and our systems that look out for the vulnerable in our community.

The ConversationThis article was co-authored by Dr Mark Monaghan, an emergency physician, and Dr Liz Bashford, an anaesthetist, who are both members of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Fixing cities’ water crises could send our climate targets down the gurgler

File 20180207 74501 hkvy6c.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Water treatment plants can’t afford not to think about electricity too.
CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Peter Fisher, RMIT University

Two cities on opposing continents, Santiago
and Cape Town, have been brought to their knees by events at opposing ends of the climate spectrum: flood and drought.

The taps ran dry for Santiago’s 5 million inhabitants in early 2017, due to contamination of supplies by a massive rainfall event. And now Cape Town is heading towards “day zero” on May 11, after which residents will have to collect their drinking water from distribution points.

Read more:
Cape Town is almost out of water. Could Australian cities suffer the same fate?

It’s probably little comfort that Santiago and Cape Town aren’t alone. Many other cities around the world are grappling with impending water crises, including in Australia, where Perth and Melbourne both risk running short.

In many of these places governments have tried to hedge their bets by turning to increasingly expensive and energy-ravenous ways to ensure supply, such as desalination plants and bulk water transfers. These two elements have come together in Victoria with the pumping of desalinated water 150km from a treatment plant at Wonthaggi, on the coast, to the Cardinia Reservoir, which is 167m above sea level.

But while providing clean water is a non-negotiable necessity, these strategies also risk delivering a blowout in greenhouse emissions.

Water pressure

Climate change puts many new pressures on water quality. Besides the effects of floods and droughts, temperature increases can boost evaporation and promote the growth of toxic algae, while catchments can be contaminated by bushfires.

Canberra experienced a situation similar to Santiago in 2003, when a bushfire burned through 98% of the Cotter catchment, and then heavy rain a few months later washed huge amounts of contamination into the Bendora Dam. The ACT government had to commission a A$40 million membrane bioreactor treatment plant to restore water quality.

At the height of the Millennium Drought, household water savings and restrictions lowered volumes in sewers (by up to 40% in Brisbane, for example). The resulting increase in salt concentrations put extra pressure on wastewater treatment and reclamation..

The energy needed to pump, treat, distribute and heat water – and then to convey, pump, reclaim or discharge it as effluent, and to move biosolids – is often overlooked. Many blueprints for zero-carbon cities underplay or neglect entirely the carbon footprint of water supply and sewage treatment.

Some analyses only consider the energy footprint of domestic water heating, rather than the water sector as a whole – which is rather like trying to calculate the carbon footprint of the livestock industry by only looking at cooking.

Yet the growing challenge of delivering a reliable and safe water supply means that energy use is growing. The United States, for example, experienced a 39% increase in electricity usage for drinking water supply and treatment, and a 74% increase for wastewater treatment over the period 1996-2013, in spite of improvements in energy efficiency.

As climate change puts yet more pressure on water infrastructure, responses such as desalination plants and long-distance piping threaten to add even more to this energy burden. The water industry will increasingly be both a contributor to and a casualty of climate change.

How much energy individual utilities are actually using, either in Australia or worldwide, will vary widely according to the source of supply – such as rivers, groundwater or mountain dams – and whether gravity feeds are possible for freshwater and sewage (Melbourne shapes up well here, for example, whereas the Gold Coast doesn’t), as well as factors such as the level of treatment, and whether or not measures such as desalination or bulk transfers are in place.

All of this increases the water sector’s reliance on the electricity sector, which as we know has a pressing need to reduce its greenhouse emissions.

Desalination plants: great for providing water, not so great for saving electricity.
Moondyne/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

One option would be for water facilities to take themselves at least partly “off-grid”, by installing large amounts of solar panels, onsite wind turbines, or Tesla-style batteries (a few plants also harness biogas). Treatment plants are not exactly bereft of flat surfaces – such as roofs, grounds or even ponds – an opportunity seized upon by South Australian Water.

But this is a large undertaking, and the alternative – waiting for the grid itself to become largely based on renewables – will take a long time.

A 2012 study found large variations in pump efficiency between water facilities in different local authorities across Australia. Clearly there is untapped scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing in our water sector, as is done in Spain and Germany, where water utilities have integrated with municipal waste services, and in the United States, where the water and power sectors have gone into partnership in many places.

The developing world

Climate change and population growth are seriously affecting cities in middle-band and developing countries, and the overall outlook is grim. Many places, such as Mexico City, already have serious water contamination problems. Indeed, in developing nations these problems are worsened by existing water quality issues. Only one-third of wastewater is treated to secondary standard in Asia, less than half of that in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a minute amount in Africa.

The transfer of know-how to these places is critical to reaching clean energy transitions. Nations making the energy transition – especially China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter – need to take just as much care to ensure they avoid a carbon blowout as they transition to clean water too.

Just as in the electricity sector, carbon pricing can potentially provide a valuable incentive for utilities to improve their environmental performance. If utilities were monitored on the amount of electricity used per kilolitre of water processed, and then rewarded (or penalised) accordingly, it would encourage the entire sector to up its game, from water supply all the way through to sewage treatment.

Read more:
This is what Australia’s growing cities need to do to avoid running dry

Water is a must for city-dwellers – a fact that Cape Town’s officials are now nervously contemplating. It would be helpful for the industry to participate in the strategic planning and land-use debates that affect its energy budgets, and for its emissions (and emissions reductions) to be measured accurately.

In this way the water industry can become an influential participant in decarbonising our cities, rather than just a passive player.

The ConversationThis article is based on a journal article (in press) co-authored by David Smith, former water quality manager for South East Water, Melbourne.

Peter Fisher, Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.