Even after the rains, Australia’s environment scores a 3 out of 10. These regions are struggling the most


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Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Australian National UniversityImproved weather conditions have pulled Australia’s environment out of its worst state on record, but recovery remains partial and precarious, new research reveals.

Each year, we collate a vast number of measurements on the state of our environment. The data are collected in many different ways – including satellites, field stations and surveys – then combined to produce an overall national score.

A year ago, after prolonged drought and devastating bushfires, Australia’s environment scored a shocking 0.8 out of ten. Our new research shows nature started its long road to recovery in 2020, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Some of the regions with the poorest scores have high levels of social disadvantage, which risks being further entrenched by environmental disasters such as drought, bushfire and heatwaves.

Nationally, Australia’s environmental condition score increased by 2.6 points last year, to reach a (still very low) score of 3.2. But overall conditions across large swathes of the country remain poor.

Environmental Condition Score for 2020 by state and territory.
ANU Fenner School

Scores rising but still in the red

From a long list of environmental indicators we report on, seven are selected to calculate an overall score for each region, as well as nationally.

These indicators – high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover – are chosen because they allow a comparison against previous years. See the graphic below to find the score for your region.

The largest improvements occurred in NSW and Victoria thanks to good rains. The poorest conditions occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where there was little solace from dry conditions.

Comparing local government areas, the best conditions occurred in Nillubik Shire on the northern edge of Melbourne. In contrast, the worst conditions occurred in Katherine in the Northern Territory and in the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku in remote WA.



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From drought to rain

2020 started as badly as 2019 ended – with extreme temperatures, drought and fires, especially in Australia’s southeast. The Sydney suburb of Penrith was the hottest place on Earth on January 4 and, following the bushfires, Canberra had the most dangerous air quality in the world for several days. Clearly, climate change is already affecting our cities and nature.

By the end of summer, the high temperatures also caused another mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef – the third such event in five years.

Only in February-March did the weather turn, providing good and in some areas very plentiful rains – for example along the NSW coast. Later in the year officials declared an La Niña event – an ocean circulation pattern that normally encourages rainfall in Australia.

While rainfall was not extraordinarily high, it lifted most regions in eastern Australia out of extreme drought. Some parts of northern and western Australia missed out, however, and in some areas the drought deepened.

Taken as an average over the year and over the country, rainfall was 10% above the average for the previous two decades. The number of hot days – those reaching 35℃ – was 11% or nine days more than the 20-year average.

Values for 15 environmental indicators in 2020, expressed as the change from average 2000-2019 conditions. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
ANU Fenner School

The improved rainfall helped replenish dried soils, and national average soil moisture was close to average. Growth conditions for the NSW wheatbelt were the best in many years and tree cover increased in northern and eastern Australia.

The rain refilled many dams and reservoirs, especially in Canberra and Sydney. It also made some eastern rivers flow again, including the Darling River in NSW. But with such dry starting conditions, wetlands in inland eastern Australia filled only modestly and waterbird numbers remained low.

Drought persisted across large swathes of inland northern and western Australia, where in some parts, vegetation growth conditions were the worst in decades. And the surplus rain was often not enough to reach wetlands, which continued to shrink.




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New shoots in forest after fire
Signs of life: some parts of Australia have benefited from recent rain.
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Bushfires: few but locally severe

Fire activity in vast areas of inland Australia was very low, because a run of dry years did not leave much dry grass to burn.

Nationally, the total area burnt was 17 million hectares – 90% below the 20-year average. This led to 80 million tonnes of carbon emissions (43% below average).

Fire activity was not low everywhere. In southeast Australia, fires in southern NSW, East Gippsland and the ACT severely damaged forests and other ecosystems as well as people and property.

The full ecological damage of the Black Summer fires was not entirely apparent in 2020. That’s partly because COVID-19 restrictions made the situation difficult to assess.

The fires burned more than 80% of the habitat of 30 threatened species, and may have been the death blow for several. Food shortages and feral cats further reduced populations of surviving animals in the burnt ecosystems.

But some wildlife proved unexpectedly resilient. For example, a great effort by citizen scientists showed frogs rebounded well after the rains.

Another 15 species were added to the Threatened Species List in 2020. In good news, three species were removed from the list, including two species of tree frogs that recovered from the global chytrid fungus.




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Stopping the slow train wreck

The accelerating impacts of climate change will not stop here. New records will inevitably be broken. Heat, drought and fire will again damage our environment and lives. Some ecosystems will be lost forever. But even worse outcomes can be avoided – if the world can rein in greenhouse gas pollution.

There’s cause for cautious optimism. International pressure may force the Morrison government’s hand on climate action. Several states and territories have already taken decisive climate action. Low-emission energy and transport are advancing quickly. As individuals we can fly and drive less, get solar panels and divest from fossil fuel companies.

In the meantime, we must adapt to inevitable climate change and reduce other pressures on our ecosystems. Citizen scientists have proven essential in monitoring how individual species are faring – so download that app and enjoy nature even more. And plant a few trees to help nature along.

Finally, pressure your local, state and national politicians. Ask them: how are you addressing vegetation loss, invasive pests and over-extraction from rivers? If you don’t like the answer, tell them, or try to vote them out.

With greater urgency and some luck, there is still much to be salvaged.

The full report and a video summary are available here.




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This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University; Marta Yebra, Associate Professor in Environment and Engineering, Australian National University, and Shoshana Rapley, Research assistant, Australian National University

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

To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial



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Don Driscoll, Deakin University; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

The independent review of Australia’s main environment law, released last week, provided a sobering but accurate appraisal of a dire situation.

The review was led by Professor Graeme Samuel and involved consultation with scientists, legal experts, industry and conservation organisations. Samuel’s report concluded Australia’s biodiversity is in decline and the law (the EPBC Act) “is not fit for current or future environmental challenges”.

The findings are no surprise to us. As ecologists, we’ve seen first hand how Australia’s nature laws and governance failure have permitted environmental degradation and destruction to the point that species face extinction. Even then, continued damage is routinely permitted.

And the findings aren’t news to many other Australians, who have watched wildlife and iconic places such as Kakadu and Kosciuszko national parks, and the Great Barrier Reef, decline at rates that have only accelerated since the act was introduced in 1999. Even globally recognisable wildlife, such as the platypus, now face a future that’s far from certain.

To reverse Australia’s appalling track record of protecting biodiversity, four major reforms recommended by Samuel must be implemented as a package.

1. Setting standards

One of the many failings of Australia’s environmental laws is there has never been a point beyond which no further impacts are acceptable.

The government almost never says “enough!”, whether it’s undermining wetlands for a new mine, or clearing woodlands for agriculture. Species continue to suffer death by a thousand cuts.




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For example, the original distribution of the endangered southern black-throated finch of southern and central Queensland has shrunk to less than 10% due to land clearing and habitat degradation. Yet, further clearing was approved for coal mines, housing developments and sugar cane farms.

Biodiversity offsets, which aim to compensate for environmental damage by improving nature elsewhere, have for the most part been dreadfully ineffective. Instead they have been a tool to facilitate biodiversity loss.

Two black-throated finches on a branch, one flying, against a blue sky.
Land clearing and cattle grazing are among the threats black-throated finches face.
Stephanie Todd, Author provided

The centre piece of Samuel’s report are proposed new National Environmental Standards. These would provide clear grounds for drawing a line in the sand on environmental damage.

Legal, rigorous enforcement of these standards could turn around Australia’s centuries-long record of destroying its natural heritage, and curb Australia’s appalling extinction rate — while also providing clarity and certainty for business.

Vital features of the standards Samuel recommends include:

  • avoiding impacts on the critical habitat of threatened species

  • avoiding impacts that could reduce the abundance of threatened species with already small and declining populations

  • no net reduction in the population size of critically endangered and endangered species

  • cumulative impacts must be explicitly considered for threatened species and communities

  • offsets can only be used as a last resort, not as a routine part of business like they are at the moment.

Under the proposed National Environmental Standards, any new developments would need to be in places where environmental damage is avoided from the outset, with offsets only available if they’re ecologically feasible and effective.

2. Greater government accountability

The federal environment minister can make decisions with little requirement to publicly justify them.

In 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt controversially approved an exemption to the EPBC Act for Western Australia’s shark cull. This was despite evidence the cull wouldn’t make people safer, would harm threatened species and would degrade marine ecosystems. Hunt could shirk the evidence, deny the impacts and make a politically expedient decision, with no mechanisms in place to call him to account.

Tiger shark swimming near the sea bed
Tiger sharks and white sharks were targeted in the WA cull.
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Samuel’s report states the minister can make decisions that aren’t consistent with the National Environmental Standards — but only as a “rare exception”. He says these exceptions must be “demonstrably justified in the public interest”, and this justification must be published.




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Why we’re opposing Western Australia’s shark cull: scientists


We think this epitomises democracy. Ministers can make decisions, but they must be open to public and robust scrutiny and explain how their decisions might affect environments and species.

Improved accountability will be one of the many benefits of Samuel’s proposed independent Environment Assurance Commissioner, which would be backed up by an Office of Compliance and Enforcement. Samuel says these must be free from political interference.

These are absolutely critical aspects of the reforms. Standards that aren’t audited or enforced are as worthless as an unfunded recovery plan.

3. Decent funding

Samuel urges improved resourcing because to date, funding to protect species and the environment has been grossly inadequate. For example, experts recently concluded up to 11 reptile species are at risk of extinction in the next 50 years in Australia, and limited funding is a key barrier to taking action.

A small lizard sitting on a human hand
Victoria’s grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is one of 11 reptile species identified as at risk of extinction.
Michael Mulvaney/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

And it has been proven time and again that lack of action due to under-resourcing leads to extinction. The recent extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys were all attributable, in large part, to limited funding, both in the administration of the threatened species listing process, and in delivering urgent on-ground action.




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Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink


We need only look to the COVID pandemic to know when faced with emergencies, the government can rapidly deploy substantial sums of money for urgent interventions. And we are well and truly in an environmental emergency.

Spending to care for the environment is not a cost that delivers no return. It’s an investment that delivers substantial benefits, from creating jobs to cleaner water and healthier people.

4. Increase ecological knowledge

Engaging experts is key to achieving Samuel’s long-overdue proposed reforms. He calls for the immediate creation of expert committees on sustainable development, Indigenous participation, conservation science, heritage, and water resources. This will help support the best available data collection to underpin important decisions.

Ultimately, though, much more investment in building ecological knowledge is required.

Australia has more than 1,900 listed threatened species and ecological communities, and most don’t even have active recovery plans. Ecologists will need to collect, analyse and interpret new, up-to-date data to make biodiversity conservation laws operational for most threatened species.

For example, while we know logging and fires threaten greater gliders, there’s still no recovery plan for this iconic forest possum. And recent research suggests there are actually three — not simply one — species of greater glider. Suspected interactions between climate change, fire and logging, and unexplained severe population declines, means significant new effort must be invested to set out a clear plan for their recovery.




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Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


Samuel recommends Regional Recovery Plans be adequately funded to help develop some knowledge. But we suggest substantial new environmental capacity is needed, including new ecological research positions, increased environmental monitoring infrastructure, and appropriate funding of recovery plans, to ensure enough knowledge supports decision making.

Cherry picking recommendations condemns our species

Samuel’s report has provided a path forward that could make a substantial difference to Australia’s shocking track record of biodiversity conservation and land stewardship.

But Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response so far suggests the Morrison government plans to cherry pick from Samuel’s recommendations, and rush through changes without appropriate safeguards.

If the changes we outlined above aren’t implemented as a package, our precious natural heritage will continue to decline.




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The Conversation


Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne; Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

Taking care of business: the private sector is waking up to nature’s value



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Megan C Evans, UNSW

For many businesses, climate change is an existential threat. Extreme weather can disrupt operations and supply chains, spelling disaster for both small vendors and global corporations. It also leaves investment firms dangerously exposed.

Businesses increasingly recognise climate change as a significant financial risk. Awareness of nature-related financial risks, such as biodiversity loss, is still emerging.

My work examines the growth of private sector investment in biodiversity and natural capital. I believe now is a good time to consider questions such as: what are businesses doing, and not doing, about climate change and environmental destruction? And what role should government play?

Research clearly shows humanity is severely damaging Earth’s ability to support life. But there is hope, including a change in government in the United States, which has brought new momentum to tackling the world’s environmental problems.

Koala lies dead after a bushfire tears through forest
Now’s a good time to talk about how humans are wrecking the planet.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Poisoning the well

An expert report released last week warned Australia must cut emissions by 50% or more in the next decade if it’s to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Meeting this challenge will require everyone to do their bit.

Climate change is a major threat to Australia’s financial security, and businesses must be among those leading on emissions reduction. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

The finance sector, for example, contributes substantially to climate change and biodiversity loss. It does this by providing loans, insurance or investment for business activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions or otherwise harm nature.

In fact, a report last year found Australia’s big four banks loaned A$7 billion to 33 fossil fuel projects in the three years to 2019.

Protest banner on coal pile at terminal
Australia’s big banks have been criticised for investing in fossil fuels.
Dean Sewell/Greenpeace

A pushback for nature

Promisingly, there’s a growing push from some businesses, including in the finance sector, to protect the climate and nature.

Late last year, Australian banks and insurers published the nation’s first comprehensive climate change reporting framework. And the recently launched Climate League 2030 initiative, representing 17 of Australia’s institutional investors with A$890 billion in combined assets, aims to act on deeper emissions reductions.




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Some companies are starting to put serious money on the table.
In August last year, global financial services giant HSBC and climate change advisory firm Pollination announced a joint asset management venture focused on “natural capital”. The venture aims to raise up to A$1 billion for its first fund.

Globally too, investors are starting to wake up to the cost of nature loss. Last month, investors representing US$2.4 trillion (A$3.14 trillion) in assets asked HSBC to set emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement. And in September last year, investor groups worth over $US103 trillion (A$135 trillion) issued a global call for companies to accurately disclose climate risks in financial reporting.

HSBC sign lit at night
HSBC’s investors are pushing for stronger climate action.
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Climate change is not the only threat to global financial security. Nature loss – the destruction of plants, animals and ecosystems – poses another existential threat. Last year, the World Economic Forum reported more than half of the global economy relies on goods and services nature provides such as pollination, water and disease control.

Efforts by the finance sector to address the risks associated with biodiversity loss are in their infancy, but will benefit from work already done on understanding climate risk

Of course, acknowledging and disclosing climate- and nature-related financial risks is just one step. Substantial action is also needed.

Businesses can merely “greenwash” their image – presenting to the public as environmentally responsible while acting otherwise. For example, a report showed in 2019, many major global banks that pledged action on climate change and biodiversity loss were also investing in activities harmful to biodiversity.

Logs felled in timber operation
The global economy depends on the goods and services nature provides.
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Getting it right

In the financial sector and beyond, there are risks to consider as the private sector takes a larger role in environmental action.

Investors will increasingly seek to direct capital to projects that help to reduce their exposure to climate- and nature-related risks, such ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture.

Many of these projects can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon and deliver benefits for local communities. But it’s crucial to remember that private sector investment is motivated, at least in part, by the expectation of a positive financial return.

Projects that are highly risky or slow to mature, such as restoring highly threatened species or ecosystems, might struggle to attract finance. For example, the federal government’s Threatened Species prospectus reportedly attracted little private sector interest.

That means governments and philanthropic donors still have a crucial role in the funding of research and pilot projects.




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Governments must also better align policies to improve business and investor confidence. It is nonsensical that various Australian governments send competing signals about whether, say, forests should be cleared or restored. And at the federal level, biodiversity loss and climate change come under separate portfolios, despite the issues being inextricably linked.

Private-sector investment could deliver huge benefits for the environment, but these outcomes must be real and clearly demonstrated. Investors want the benefits measured and reported, but good data is often lacking.

Too-simple metrics, such as the area of land protected, don’t tell the whole story. They may not reflect harm to local and Indigenous communities, or whether the land is well managed.

Finally, as the private sector becomes more aware of nature and climate-related risks, a range of approaches to addressing this will proliferate. But efforts must be harmonised to minimise confusion and complexity in the marketplace. Governments must provide leadership to make this a smooth process.

Swift parrot flies through treetops
Threatened species habitat restoration may struggle to attract private sector funding.
Eric Woehler

The power to change

Last week, a major report was released highlighting grave failures in Australia’s environmental laws. The government’s response suggested it is not taking the threat seriously.

Businesses and governments hold disproportionate power that can be used to either delay or accelerate transformative change.

And although many businesses wield undue influence on government decisions, it doesn’t have to be this way.

By working together and seizing the many opportunities that present, business and government can help arrest climate change and nature loss, and contribute to a safer, more liveable planet for all.




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The Conversation


Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW

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

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky



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Peter Burnett, Australian National University

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley
Environment Minister Sussan Ley appears hellbent on pushing through the government’s agenda.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.




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Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

Boy takes photo of burnt bush
Australians feel the EPBC Act is failing the environment.
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A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes

  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s

  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner

  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species

  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Land cleared for development
The system of environmental offsets, which compensates for damage to nature, should be overhauled.
Shutterstock

Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.




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The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Indigenous women
Indigenous knowledge should be heard and respected.
Richard WainwrightT/AAP

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A koala in a tree
Australia’s iconic places and species are headed for extinction.
Shutterstock

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.




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But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.The Conversation

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

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

Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp



Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face.
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Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

What’s more, positive change can be impeded by governments rejecting or ignoring scientific advice, and ignorance of human behaviour by both technical experts and policymakers.

More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.

Numbers don’t lie

Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:

  • a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface

  • About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent




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What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


  • about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions

  • 85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans

  • a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.

State of the Earth's environment
Major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage relative to intact baseline. Red indicates percentage of category damaged, lost or otherwise affected; blue indicates percentage intact, remaining or unaffected.
Frontiers in Conservation Science

A bad situation only getting worse

The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.

High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.




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Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Essentially, humans have created an ecological Ponzi scheme. Consumption, as a percentage of Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, has grown from 73% in 1960 to more than 170% today.

High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.

Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.

people walking on a crowded street
The human population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
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The danger of political impotence

Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.

Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.

Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Changing course

Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:

  • abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth

  • revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing

  • rapidly eliminating fossil fuels

  • regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy

  • reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives

  • educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.

A coal plant
The true cost of environmental damage should be borne by those responsible.
Shutterstock

Don’t look away

Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.

Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.

Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.




Read more:
Mass extinctions and climate change: why the speed of rising greenhouse gases matters


The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

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

Fences have big effects on land and wildlife around the world that are rarely measured



Australia’s dingo fences, built to protect livestock from wild dogs, stretch for thousands of kilometers.
Marian Deschain/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Alex McInturff, University of California Santa Barbara; Christine Wilkinson, University of California, Berkeley, and Wenjing Xu, University of California, Berkeley

What is the most common form of human infrastructure in the world? It may well be the fence. Recent estimates suggest that the total length of all fencing around the globe is 10 times greater than the total length of roads. If our planet’s fences were stretched end to end, they would likely bridge the distance from Earth to the Sun multiple times.

On every continent, from cities to rural areas and from ancient to modern times, humans have built fences. But we know almost nothing about their ecological effects. Border fences are often in the news, but other fences are so ubiquitous that they disappear into the landscape, becoming scenery rather than subject.

In a recently published study, our team sought to change this situation by offering a set of findings, frameworks and questions that can form the basis of a new discipline: fence ecology. By compiling studies from ecosystems around the world, our research shows that fences produce a complex range of ecological effects.

Some of them influence small-scale processes like the building of spider webs. Others have much broader effects, such as hastening the collapse of Kenya’s Mara ecosystem. Our findings reveal a world that has been utterly reorganized by a rapidly growing latticework of fences.

Conservationists and scientists have raised concerns about the ecological effects of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, most of which is essentially a fence.

Connecting the dots

If fences seem like an odd thing for ecologists to study, consider that until recently no one thought much about how roads affected the places around them. Then, in a burst of research in the 1990s, scientists showed that roads – which also have been part of human civilization for millennia – had narrow footprints but produced enormous environmental effects.

For example, roads can destroy or fragment habitats that wild species rely on to survive. They also can promote air and water pollution and vehicle collisions with wildlife. This work generated a new scientific discipline, road ecology, that offers unique insights into the startling extent of humanity’s reach.

Our research team became interested in fences by watching animals. In California, Kenya, China and Mongolia, we had all observed animals behaving oddly around fences – gazelles taking long detours around them, for example, or predators following “highways” along fence lines.

We reviewed a large body of academic literature looking for explanations. There were many studies of individual species, but each of them told us only a little on its own. Research had not yet connected the dots between many disparate findings. By linking all these studies together, we uncovered important new discoveries about our fenced world.

Vintage ad for barbed wire.
Early advertisement for barbed wire fencing, 1880-1889. The advent of barbed wire dramatically changed ranching and land use in the American West by ending the open range system.
Kansas Historical Society, CC BY-ND

Remaking ecosystems

Perhaps the most striking pattern we found was that fences rarely are unambiguously good or bad for an ecosystem. Instead, they have myriad ecological effects that produce winners and losers, helping to dictate the rules of the ecosystems where they occur.

Even “good” fences that are designed to protect threatened species or restore sensitive habitats can still fragment and isolate ecosystems. For example, fences constructed in Botswana to prevent disease transmission between wildlife and livestock have stopped migrating wildebeests in their tracks, producing haunting images of injured and dead animals strewn along fencelines.

Enclosing an area to protect one species may injure or kill others, or create entry pathways for invasive species.

One finding that we believe is critical is that for every winner, fences typically produce multiple losers. As a result, they can create ecological “no man’s lands” where only species and ecosystems with a narrow range of traits can survive and thrive.

Altering regions and continents

Examples from around the world demonstrate fences’ powerful and often unintended consequences. The U.S.-Mexico border wall – most of which fits our definition of a fence – has genetically isolated populations of large mammals such as bighorn sheep, leading to population declines and genetic isolation. It has even had surprising effects on birds, like ferruginous pygmy owls, that fly low to the ground.

Australia’s dingo fences, built to protect livestock from the nation’s iconic canines, are among the world’s longest man-made structures, stretching thousands of kilometers each. These fences have started ecological chain reactions called trophic cascades that have affected an entire continent’s ecology.

The absence of dingoes, a top predator, from one side of the fence means that populations of prey species like kangaroos can explode, causing categorical shifts in plant composition and even depleting the soil of nutrients. On either side of the fence there now are two distinct “ecological universes.”

Our review shows that fences affect ecosystems at every scale, leading to cascades of change that may, in the worst cases, culminate in what some conservation biologists have described as total “ecological meltdown.” But this peril often is overlooked.

Map showing the density of fencing in the western U.S.
The authors assembled a conservative data set of potential fence lines across the U.S. West. They calculated the nearest distance to any given fence to be less than 31 miles (50 kilometers), with a mean of about 2 miles (3.1 kilometers).
McInturff et al,. 2020, CC BY-ND

To demonstrate this point, we looked more closely at the western U.S., which is known for huge open spaces but also is the homeland of barbed wire fencing. Our analysis shows that vast areas viewed by researchers as relatively untrodden by the human footprint are silently entangled in dense networks of fences.

Do less harm

Fences clearly are here to stay. As fence ecology develops into a discipline, its practitioners should consider the complex roles fences play in human social, economic and political systems. Even now, however, there is enough evidence to identify actions that could reduce their harmful impacts.

There are many ways to change fence design and construction without affecting their functionality. For example, in Wyoming and Montana, federal land managers have experimented with wildlife-friendly designs that allow species like pronghorn antelope to pass through fences with fewer obstacles and injuries. This kind of modification shows great promise for wildlife and may produce broader ecological benefits.

Another option is aligning fences along natural ecological boundaries, like watercourses or topographical features. This approach can help minimize their effects on ecosystems at low cost. And land agencies or nonprofit organizations could offer incentives for land owners to remove fences that are derelict and no longer serve a purpose.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

Nonetheless, once a fence is built its effects are long lasting. Even after removal, “ghost fences” can live on, with species continuing to behave as if a fence were still present for generations.

Knowing this, we believe that policymakers and landowners should be more cautious about installing fences in the first place. Instead of considering only a fence’s short-term purpose and the landscape nearby, we would like to see people view a new fence as yet another permanent link in a chain encircling the planet many times over.The Conversation

Alex McInturff, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of California Santa Barbara; Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D. Candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, and Wenjing Xu, PhD Candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley

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

How green is your Christmas tree?


Paolo Paradiso / shutterstock

Ian D. Rotherham, Sheffield Hallam University

There’s no way around the fact that Christmas has a large carbon footprint, from the travelling we do to the presents we give and the large amounts of food we eat. But it is possible to at least reduce the negative impacts. With climate change and carbon dioxide levels now major sources of concern, surely it is time to see what can be done to be friendlier to the environment, and the Christmas tree is a good place to start.

As editor of an academic journal on arboriculture – the cultivation of trees – this is something I know a bit about. There are various aspects to assess: how the trees are grown, how many years they are used for, and how they are disposed of or recycled. For artificial trees, we also need to consider what they are made of and how and where they are manufactured.

For real trees, there is a question of where they comes from and how they were grown. Sourcing your tree locally will cut down on transportation costs and emissions and support local jobs too. Habitat may be another issue, since trees grown on moors, heaths, and peat bogs are hugely damaging with massive losses of peat-carbon and biodiversity, and increased downstream flooding. It’s better to instead choose trees grown on arable fields or “improved” grassland of little ecological interest.

Don’t worry about the emissions

When buying a Christmas tree, people may worry about carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere when it is cut down and then, once used, disposed of. But there are issues and complications with this. Yes, you are cutting down a young tree which will either be thinned from a plantation of larger trees or be part of a single-aged crop all cut down at the same time. In the first instance, the loss of your tree will make no difference whatsoever to the carbon balance of the plantation since the other trees nearby will grow in compensation because competition for light and nutrients is reduced.

Even when a tree has been harvested as part of a single-aged crop, a proportion of its organic matter (and carbon) will remain as the dead root material and fallen leaves to be reincorporated into the soil’s carbon-bank. And if you recycle the tree after use as woodchip, then all that material is returned to the soil as well, and only a small proportion will return immediately to the atmosphere.

If you burn the old tree, then clearly both carbon dioxide and other pollutants go immediately into the air. However, even in this scenario, your tree can only return to the atmosphere the carbon which it took out in the first place – so there is zero net carbon loss. Our real concerns for carbon release are from burning of fossil fuels from below ground, and from damage to long-term carbon storage in peat bogs and fens. Disposal at landfill is much more damaging than incineration.

There is not much to choose between the different species of Christmas tree, at least in terms of carbon impact. There are issues, though, in terms of how trees are grown and particularly the use of pesticides in their cultivation, and potential damage to precious wildlife habitats. A recent example is the damage wrought to a peat bog in Cumbria by inappropriate planting of conifer trees.

An artificial tree, on the other hand, can have a relatively significant carbon footprint depending on what it is made from, and most of all, how many years it remains in service. Spread over ten years, the impact is negligible, but if it has been manufactured abroad, then the immediate carbon footprint is considerable.

How to reduce your tree’s footprint:

1) Buy a real tree, put it in a pot and use it over several years and finally plant it outside to live on. That way you will even mop up a little of your carbon footprint from other Christmas celebrations.

2) Recycle your real tree after use as woodchip or compost. Don’t bin or burn it.

3) Buy local and from a charity.

4) Avoid trees brought in from a distance and especially from an environmentally damaging source – ask the retailer where they are from. Better still, go direct to a local farm shop or National Trust site that is both producing and selling trees.

5) Ask for organically grown trees if possible.

6) Some growers make a donation per tree to an environmental charity – so ask when you buy.

Any “consumption” of goods has environmental impacts, but that is an unavoidable part of life. Christmas trees provide lots of pleasure for many people – just try to boost the good aspects and avoid or minimise the bad ones.The Conversation

Ian D. Rotherham, Professor of Environmental Geography and Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change, Sheffield Hallam University

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

We found a huge flaw in Australia’s environment laws. Wetlands and woodlands will pay the price



Lorraine Oliver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Deborah Bower, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, University of New England

From ethereal kelp forests off the south east Australian coast to grassy woodlands and their stunning wildflowers, many ecological communities are under threat in Australia.

But national environment legislation — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — has so far been ineffective at protecting them.

In our recent paper, we identify a major flaw in the current approach to listing threatened ecological communities for protection under the EPBC Act: the requirement to meet unrealistic condition thresholds.

In other words, where areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, they’re considered too degraded to warrant conservation and aren’t protected under the EPBC Act.

A seadragon in a kelp forest
The giant kelp marine forest of south east Australia is among 85 threatened ecological communities listed under the EPBC Act.
Shutterstock

What’s an ecological community anyway?

An ecological community is a group of species that co-exist in a specific type of habitat and interact with each other. For example, a mangrove community is clearly different in structure and the types of plants and animals is supports, compared to what you would see in a salt marsh community nearby.

Just like individual species, ecological communities can occur over thousands of kilometres, even though examples of this type of community may only be found in small and patchy areas across that range.

There are currently 85 threatened ecological communities listed in the EPBC Act, and the majority of them are listed as critically endangered or endangered.

Major threats to these communities include land clearing and development, which can increase their risk of extinction.




Read more:
How drought-breaking rains transformed these critically endangered woodlands into a flower-filled vista


For example, less than 5% of the box gum grassy woodlands remain in good condition. This critically endangered community is home to a number of threatened plant and animal species, such as the spotted-tailed quoll, but many areas have been degraded and cleared for farming, threatening their survival.

The flaw in the law

Most listings of threatened ecological communities contain very specific “condition thresholds”. These thresholds were introduced to the legislation in 2005 in an effort to prioritise habitats considered higher quality.

Condition thresholds are usually defined in consultation with experts and often involve very specific descriptive characteristics, such as minimum patch sizes or numbers of species.

A lagoon beneath a blue sky
Thomas Lagoon in Arding, NSW. These communities support different wildlife depending on the season.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

If areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, it means a landholder doesn’t require approval to clear or develop parts of a community, if those parts are perceived to be “poor quality” habitat.

For example, the condition thresholds for Coolibah-black box woodlands suggest protection only applies to woodland patches larger than five hectares. This ignores the ecological importance of smaller patches that increase the connectivity of habitat in the landscape.

What’s more, condition thresholds make it hard to justify conservation funding to restore areas that don’t meet those criteria.

Wildflowers strewn across a dry lagoon on a cloudy day
Little Llangothlin Lagoon in Llangothlin, NSW, is one of the 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Unrealistic thresholds threaten wildlife

This is bad for biodiversity conservation in Australia for two reasons.

First, excluding examples of a threatened ecological community from protection because they don’t meet restrictive condition thresholds assumes these areas have no ecological value.

This is clearly a flawed assumption, as small, disturbed or degraded remnants can still be important to conservation. They could, for instance, be a target for restoration, a source of regeneration for nearby areas of the community as part of a larger natural corridor, or a habitat for threatened species.

Let’s take the critically endangered ecological community of the Cumberland plain woodland in the Sydney Basin as an example. Only 9% of the woodlands’ original extent remains today.

Despite providing habitat for threatened squirrel gliders, bats, and land snails, urban development in areas containing the woodland were continually approved during the 2000s — a death by a thousand cuts for the species and communities in patchy conditions.

A lagoon during drought
Saumarez Lagoon in NSW during the drought last year, and wouldn’t meet the protection thesholds.
Manu Saunders, Author provided

Second, restrictive condition thresholds aren’t appropriate for conservation and management of communities that naturally change over seasons and years. This is particularly a problem for dynamic ecosystems like wetlands that cycle through natural dry and wet phases.

Wetlands can support completely different groups of plant and animal species in different phases, from waterbird breeding events when they are wet, to kangaroos and butterflies when they are dry.




Read more:
Why a wetland might not be wet


These dynamic systems rarely exist in a state that would warrant protection under the restrictive thresholds.

For example, the listing for upland wetlands of the New England tablelands and the Monaro plateau excludes farm dams and domestic water storages.

This is a problem, because most remaining examples of these wetlands are on private property and almost all have been modified by humans in some way, including damming. Few of these modified wetlands would technically qualify for protection.

Yet some of these modified wetlands still support diverse plants and animals and are important sites for migratory waterbirds, such as Latham’s snipe.

Because this threatened community has such a small distribution and very few examples remain (only 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands), excluding even a few because of unrealistic condition thresholds greatly increases their risk of extinction.

Latham’s snipe uses threatened upland wetlands.
JJ Harrison/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

New attitudes in a changing world

It’s clear governance frameworks have struggled to keep up with the changes in ecosystems that human activity causes.




Read more:
Climate-driven species on the move are changing (almost) everything


These frameworks are often based on a flawed assumption: that natural systems remain essentially the same over time. To prevent further biodiversity loss, we need better understanding of how, when and why ecological communities shift between different states.

Importantly, we need to change our approach to environmental governance frameworks, including seriously rethinking condition thresholds in the EPBC Act, to ensure we can continue to protect biodiversity as it rapidly changes before us.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Lecturer, University of New England; Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, Adjunct Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, Senior research fellow, University of New England

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

You’ve probably heard of the Green New Deal in the US — is it time for one in Australia?


Kate Crowley, University of Tasmania

After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.

We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?




Read more:
Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic


In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.

The Greens’ proposal echoes Labor, business, unions and environmental groups, and even some conservatives, who think green policies are vital to strengthen the economy post-pandemic.

And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.

What is a Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.

It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Adam Bandt on Greens’ hopes for future power sharing


The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.

Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.

Green New Deals around the world

In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.

Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.

In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.




Read more:
‘Green Deal’ seeks to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050


However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.

In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.

Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.

Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.




Read more:
South Korea’s Green New Deal shows the world what a smart economic recovery looks like


It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?

Australia risks being left behind

The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.

It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.

Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.

The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to

place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.

Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.

This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.




Read more:
‘Backwards’ federal budget: Morrison government never fails to disappoint on climate action


However, the government’s COVID advisory commission — led by a former mining executive, and criticised by independent MP Zali Steggall for lack of transparency — is recommending a gas-led, not green-led, recovery.

If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.The Conversation

Kate Crowley, Associate Professor, Public and Environmental Policy, University of Tasmania

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

Which ‘milk’ is best for the environment? We compared dairy, nut, soy, hemp and grain milks



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Dora Marinova, Curtin University and Diana Bogueva, Curtin University

Making eco-conscious choices at the shops can be tricky when we’re presented with so many options, especially when it comes to milk. Should we buy plant-based milk, or dairy? We’ve looked at the evidence to help you choose.




Read more:
Soy, oat, almond, rice, coconut, dairy: which ‘milk’ is best for our health?


Dairy has the biggest environmental footprint, by far

Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of water and land. All available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point this out.

A 2018 study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than plant-based milks.

In the case of cow’s milk, its global warming potential — measured as kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk — varies between 1.14 in Australia and New Zealand to 2.50 in Africa. Compare this to the global warming potential of plant-based milks, which, on average, is just 0.42 for almond and coconut milk and 0.75 for soy milk.

What’s more, dairy generally requires nine times more land than any of the plant-based alternatives. Every litre of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square metres per year, compared to 0.8 for oat, 0.7 for soy, 0.5 for almond and 0.3 for rice milk.

Water use is similarly higher for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water for every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk.

Milks from nuts

Milk can be made from almost any nuts, but almond, hazelnut and coconut are proving popular. Not only do nut milks generally require smaller land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass.

Still, there are vast differences in the geographical conditions where various nut trees are grown.

A cluster of hazelnuts on a tree.
Hazelnuts, and other nuts, grow on trees which require smaller land areas.
Shutterstock

Almond

California is the largest producer of almond milk in the world, followed by Australia.

Compared to other plant-based milk options, its water use is much higher and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One kernel of California almond requires 12 litres of water, which raises questions about the industrial production of these nuts in water-scarce areas.




Read more:
Almonds don’t lactate, but that’s no reason to start calling almond milk juice


However the biggest environmental concern with almond production in the US is the high mortality of bees, used for tree cross-pollination. This might be because the bees are exposed to pesticides, including glyphosate, and the intensive industrial agriculture which drastically transforms nature’s fragile ecosystems.

In Australia, where almond orchards are smaller-scale and less industrialised, beekeepers do not experience such problems. Still, millions of bees are needed, and fires, drought, floods, smoke and heat damage can threaten their health.

Coconut

Generally, the environmental performance of coconut milk is good – coconut trees use small amounts of water and absorb carbon dioxide.

Yet as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, the industrial production of this milk can destroy wildlife habitat. Increasing global demand for coconut milk is likely to put further pressure on the environment and wildlife, and deepen these conflicts.

Hazelnut

Hazelnut is a better option for the environment as the trees are cross-pollinated by wind which carries airborne dry pollen between neighbouring plants, not bees.

Hazelnuts also grow in areas with higher rainfall around the Black Sea, Southern Europe and in North America, demanding much less water than almond trees.

Hazelnut milk is already commercially available and although its demand and production are rising, the cultivation of the bush trees is not yet subjected to intensive large-scale operations.

Milks from legumes

Soy milk has been used for millennia in China and has already an established presence in the West, but the hemp alternative is relatively new.

All legumes are nitrogen fixing. This means the bacteria in plant tissue produce nitrogen, which improves soil fertility and reduces the need for fertilisers. Legumes are also water-efficient, particularly when compared with almonds and dairy.

Soy

Soy milk has a very good environmental performance in terms of water, global warming potential and land-use.

The US and Brazil are the biggest suppliers of soybeans, and the plant is very versatile when it comes to its commercial uses, with a large share of the beans used as livestock feed.




Read more:
Soy versus dairy: what’s the footprint of milk?



However, a major environmental concern is the need to clear and convert large swathes of native vegetation to grow soybeans. An overall reduction in the demand for meat and animal-based foods could potentially decrease the need to produce large amounts of soybeans for animal feed, but we’re yet to witness such changes.

Hemp

The environmental benefits of hemp milk make it a game-changer.

Its seeds are processed for oil and milk, but the plant itself is very versatile — all its parts can be used as construction material, textile fibres, pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics.

Its roots grow deep, which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi. It’s also resistant to diseases, and it produces a lot of shade, which supresses the growth of weeds. This, in turn, cuts down the need for herbicides and pesticides.

Hemp requires more water than soy, but less than almond and dairy. Despite being one of the oldest crops used, particularly in Europe, hemp is produced in very low quantities.

Milks from grains

We can produce plant-based milk from almost any grains, but rice and oat are proving popular. However, they require more land compared with nut milks.

Rice

Rice milk has a big water footprint. More notably, it’s associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to the other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies.

In some cases, rice milk may contain unacceptable levels of arsenic. And applying fertilisers to boost yields can pollute nearby waterways.




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Are we eating too much arsenic? We need better tests to know


Oat

Oat milk has been becoming increasingly popular around the world because of its overall environmental benefits.

But similar to soy, the bulk of oat production is used for livestock feed and any reduction in the demand for animal-based foods would decrease the pressure on this plant.

Currently grown in Canada and the US, most oat operations are large-scale monoculture, which means it’s the only type of crop grown in a large area. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection.

Oat milk carton beside a coffee
Oat production is mostly used to feed livestock.
Kaffee Meister/Unsplash, CC BY

Oats are also typically grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which tarnishes its environmental credentials because it can cause glyphosate-resistant plant, animal and insect pathogens to proliferate.

The final message: diversify your choices

Organic versions of all these plant-based milks are better for the environment because they use, for example, fewer chemical fertilisers, they’re free from pesticides and herbicides, and they put less pressure on the soils. Any additives, be it fortifiers, such as calcium or vitamins, flavours or additional ingredients, such as sugar, coffee or chocolate, should be taken into account separately.

Packaging is also very important to consider. Packaging contributes 45% of the global warming potential of California’s almond milk. And it’s worth keeping in mind that wasting milk has a much bigger environmental footprint, and questions the ethics of how humans exploit the animal world.




Read more:
Recycling is not enough. Zero-packaging stores show we can kick our plastic addiction


If, as a consumer you are trying to reduce the environmental footprint of the milk you drink, the first message is you should avoid dairy and replace it with plant-based options.

The second message is it’s better to diversify the plant-based milks we use. Shifting to only one option, even if it’s the most environmentally friendly one for the time being, means the market demand may potentially become overexploited.The Conversation

Dora Marinova, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University and Diana Bogueva, Postdoctoral Researcher, Curtin University

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