Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced



Authors provided

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, James Cook University

Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.

Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.

In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.

A scientist kneels by a stream
When scientists are free to communicate their knowledge, the public is kept informed.
University of Queensland/AAP

Code of silence

Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.

Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:

  • 88 working in universities
  • 79 working in local, state or federal government
  • 47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 who could not be classified.

In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.




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About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.

A video explaining the research findings.

‘Ministers are not receiving full information’

Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.

Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.

One government respondent said:

Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).

University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

One university respondent said:

I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).

vehicle operating at a coal mine
A university researcher was dissuaded from writing an article for The Conversation on mining.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Critical conservation issues suppressed

Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.

Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.

One government respondent said:

We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.

University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:

By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.

Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:

A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.

a dead koala in front of trees
Information suppression on threatened species was common.

The system is broken

Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.

One respondent said:

I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.

Another said:

As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.

a scientist tests water
Scientists want to have a positive impact on environmental outcomes.
Elaine Thompson/AP

Change is needed

We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.

But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.




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Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bob Pressey, Professor and Program Leader, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Noel D Preece, Adjunct Asssociate Professor, James Cook University

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

Morrison government plan to scrap water buybacks will hurt taxpayers and the environment



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Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.

Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.

The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.

The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.

A farmer stands in the dry river bed of the Darling River
The government will no longer buy water from farmers for the environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

A brief history of water buybacks

Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.

In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.

The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.




Read more:
Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks


In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.

The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.

The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.

Keith Pitt speaks in Parliament as Prime Minister Scott Morrison watches on
Water Minister Keith Pitt, pictured during Question Time, is the minister responsible for the new approach.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach

The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.

The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.




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The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.

So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:

Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.

Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.

In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.

Missing water

Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.

The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.

This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.

Dusk at Menindee Lakes in the Murray Darling Basin
The government took a strategic approach to water buybacks in the Murray Darling Basin.
Shutterstock

We deserve better

It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.

Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.

So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.




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The Conversation


Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it



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Laura Sonter, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, The University of Queensland

A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.

In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.

We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.

Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.

A wind farm
Renewable energy infrastructure such as wind farms are good for the planet – but it requires minerals extraction.
Shutterstock

Mining to prevent climate change

Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.

Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:

  • lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
  • zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
  • copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).

The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.

However, mining can seriously damage species and places. It destroys natural habitat, and surrounding environments can be harmed by the construction of transport infrastructure such as roads and railways.

An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia.
An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia. Mining can damage the environment if not done sustainably.
Dado Galdieri/AP

What we found

We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.

We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.

Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.

Areas around the world potentially influenced by mining
Areas potentially influenced by mining, including for the minerals needed in renewable energy production (shown in blue). See paper for detailed methodology and limitations.
Authors provided

Threats here and abroad

Australia is well positioned to become a leading supplier of materials for renewable energy. We are also one of only 17 nations considered ecologically “megadiverse”.

Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.

For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.




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Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.

It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.

In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.

The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.

A little red antechinus
The Pilbara has large lithium deposits and is also home to the little red antechinus.
Needpix

We need proactive planning

Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.

Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.

Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.

There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.

The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.The Conversation

Laura Sonter, Lecturer in Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, Director – WH Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre – The Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

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

Recovering water for the environment in the Murray-Darling: farm upgrades increase water prices more than buybacks



Murray Darling Junction, Wentworth NSW.
Hypervision Creative/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.

Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.

One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.

Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.

This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.

While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.

However, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences finds that – while beneficial for their participants – these programs push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector.

Two types of water recovery programs

The Murray-Darling Basin operates under a “cap and trade” system. Each year there is a limit on how much water can be extracted from the basin’s rivers, based on the available supply.

Water users (mostly farmers) hold rights to a share of this limit, and they can trade these rights on a market.

To date 1,230 gigalitres of these water rights have been bought from farmers via buyback programs at a cost of about A$2.6 billion.




Read more:
Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.

To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.


Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08

For infrastructure projects the financial year refers to the contract date. The actual transfer of entitlements may occur in a later financial year. The volume of water recovered is expressed in terms of the long-term average annual yield. The estimates do not include water recovered through state projects (160 gigalitres) or water gifted to the Commonwealth (15 gigalitres). Off-farm infrastructure includes water recovered through projects that are a combination of on-farm, off-farm and land purchases.
Sources: Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder

Water recovery has increased prices

As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.

While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.




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Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.


Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery

Price refers to volume weighted average annual water allocation prices across the southern Murray Darling Basin. Water recovery reflects the cumulative volume of buybacks and farm upgrades at each year. Water recovery began in 2007-08.
ABARES modelling

Farm upgrades increase prices more than buybacks

Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.

But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.

While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.

Less-wasteful irrigation can save water, as long as there’s no ‘rebound’

As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.

To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.

These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.

No easy answers

Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.

This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.

The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.




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Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.

However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.

Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.

Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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

Need a mood lift? We’ve tracked 4 ways Australia’s environment has repaired itself in 2020



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Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

When the clock ticked over to 2020, Australia was in the grip of a brutal drought and unprecedented bushfires. But in the months since, while many of us were indoors avoiding the pandemic, nature has started its slow recovery. That is the message of our new analysis released today.

Every year, my colleagues and I collate a vast number of measurements made by satellites, field sensors and people. We process the data and combine them into a consistent picture of the state of our environment.

Our 2019 report documented a disaster year of record heat, drought, and bushfires. We repeated the analysis after the first half of 2020, keen to see how our environment was recovering.

It’s not all good news. But encouragingly, our results show most of the country has started to bounce back from drought and fire. Here are four ways that’s happening.

1. Rain

Whether a region is in drought depends on the measure used: rainfall, river flows, reservoir storage, soil water availability or cropping conditions. On top of that, Australia is a vast country with large differences between regions.

By most measures, and for most of the country, wetter weather in 2020 helped ease drought conditions – although with caveats and notable exceptions.

Halfway through January, rain-blocking conditions in the Indian Ocean finally relented. This allowed the long-awaited monsoon to reach northern Australia, and encouraged more rainfall across the rest of the continent. February and March brought much needed rains in southeast Australia.

A young girl checks a rain gauge
A young girl checks a rain gauge as her mum watches on at the family farm in February this year. Recent rainfall has eased drought conditions in parts of Australia.
Peter Lorimer/AAP

2. Water availability

Across the continent, the volume of water flowing into rivers in the first half of 2020 was almost four times greater than the previous year – although still below average. Good rains fell in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. Some made it into the town and irrigation water supplies that ran empty during the drought, and storage levels showed a modest improvement by the end of June to 17% of capacity.

The flows were also enough to fill wetlands such as Narran Lakes and the Paroo and Bulloo River wetlands, west of Bourke. There were enough flood waters left to send a modest flood pulse down the Darling River in March for the first time since 2016.

Maximum measured daily flow in the Darling River at Wilcannia (left) and the maximum extent of wetland inundation in the 12 months up to June 2020, compared to the period 2000–2019.

Reservoir water storage across the entire the Murray-Darling Basin improved from 36% of capacity at the end of June 2019 to 44% a year later. Even so, by June 2020 dry conditions still persisted in the tributaries and wetlands of the middle and southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Storage in urban water supply systems increased for Sydney (52% to 81%) and Melbourne (50% to 64%) while remaining stable for Brisbane (66%), Canberra (55%) and Perth (41%).

Meanwhile, lake and wetland extent across much of Western Australia remained at record or near-record low levels. Due to the poor northern monsoon, Lake Argyle – the massive dam lake supplying the Ord irrigation scheme in northern Australia – shrank to 38% of capacity, a level not seen for several decades.




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3. Soil moisture

Soil moisture acts like a bank account: rainfall makes deposits and plant roots make withdrawals. This makes soil moisture a useful measure of drought condition.

Average soil water availability across the country was far below average at the start of 2020, but returned closer to average conditions from March 2020 onwards. Very to extremely low soil water availability across most of northwest and southeast Australia had eased by June 2020.

By the end of June, rains had also improved growing conditions in southeast Queensland, western New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. However, recovery in these regions is, literally, shallow. Soil water remains low in the deeper soil layers and groundwater from which trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation draw their water. Drought conditions also persist in the dry inland of Australia.

Average soil water availability and vegetation condition by local government area at the end of June 2020 in comparison to 2000−2019 conditions.

4. Vegetation growth

Vegetation condition is measured by estimating leaf area from satellite observations. National leaf area reached its lowest value in December 2019 due to drought and bushfires, but improved once the rains returned from February onwards. It’s remained very close to average since.

Autumn rains also brought the best growth conditions in many years across much of the eastern wheat and sheep belt. But in the Western Australian wheat belt, which did not see much rain, cropping conditions are average or below average.

We separately measured vegetation recovery across areas in southeast Australia burnt at different times during the 2019-20 fire season.

In the central and northern NSW regions which burnt earlier in the fire season and received plentiful rains, recovery was relatively swift – more than 63% of lost leaf area had returned by June 2020.

Recovery of vegetation leaf area in areas burnt in Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec 2019 and in Jan/Feb 2020, respectively.

But in the areas burnt in early 2020, recovery has been slow. The burnt forests in the far south of NSW and East Gippsland did not receive good rains until very recently. Also, much of areas burnt in early 2020 are found in the mountains of the NSW-Victoria border region, where cool autumn and winter temperatures have paused plant growth until spring.

Leaf area recovery is not a good measure of biodiversity. Much of the increase will have been due to rapid leaf flush from fire tolerant trees and undergrowth, including weeds. Some damage to ecosystems and sensitive species will take many years to recover, while some species may well be lost forever.

Blackened tree trunks and shoots of green
Australia’s environment is bouncing back from a horrendous 2019.
Marta Yebra/ANU

Climate change: the biggest threat

Rainfall after June has been average to good across much of Australia, and La Niña conditions are predicted to bring further rain. So there is reason to hope our environment will get a chance to recover further from a horrendous 2019.

In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our agriculture and ecosystems. Ever-increasing summer temperatures kill people, livestock and wildlife, dry out soil and vegetation, and increase fire risk. In 2020, high temperatures also caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years.

Decisive climate action is needed, in Australia and worldwide, if we’re to protect ourselves and our ecosystems from long-term decline.




Read more:
Yes, it’s been raining a lot – but that doesn’t mean Australia’s drought has broken


The Conversation


Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

National cabinet just agreed to big changes to environment law. Here’s why the process shouldn’t be rushed



Journey Beyond/AAP

Megan C Evans, UNSW and Peter Burnett, Australian National University

Federal and state governments on Friday resolved to streamline environment approvals and fast-track 15 major projects to help stimulate Australia’s pandemic-stricken economy.

The move follows the release this week of Professor Graeme Samuel’s preliminary review of the law, the 20-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Samuel described the law as “ineffective” and “inefficient” and called for wholesale reform.

At the centrepiece of Samuel’s recommendations are “national environmental standards” that are consistent and legally enforceable, and set clear rules for decision-making. Samuel provides a set of “prototype” standards as a starting point. He recommends replacing the prototypes with more refined standards over time.

By the end of August, the Morrison government wants Parliament to consider implementing the prototype standards.

But rushing in the new law is a huge concern, and further threatens the future of Australia’s irreplaceable natural and cultural heritage. Here, we explain why.

Aerial view of a Tasmanian forest
Rushing through changes to environment laws may damage nature in the long run.
Rob Blakers/AAP

Semantics matter

Samuel’s review said legally enforceable national standards would help ensure development is sustainable over the long term, and reduce the time it takes to have development proposals assessed.

We’ve identified a number of problems with his prototype standards.

First, they introduce new terms that will require interpretation by decision-makers, which could lead the government into the courts. This occurred in Queensland’s Nathan dam case when conservation groups successfully argued the term environmental “impacts” should extend to “indirect effects” of development.




Read more:
Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry


Second, there’s a difference in wording between the prototype standards and the EPBC Act itself, which might lead to uncertainty and delay. Samuel suggested a “no net loss” national standard for vulnerable and endangered species habitat, and “net gain” for critically endangered species habitat. But this departs from current federal policy, under which environmental offsets must “improve or maintain” the environmental outcome compared to “what is likely to have occurred under the status quo”.

Third, the outcomes proposed under the prototype standards might themselves cause confusion. The standards say, overall, the environment should be “protected”, but rare wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention should be “maintained”. The status of threatened species should “improve over time” and Commonwealth marine waters should be “maintained or enhanced”, but the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park needs to be “sustained for current and future generations”.

And fourth, the standards don’t rule out development in habitat critical to threatened species, but require that “no detrimental change” occurs. But in reality, can there be development in critical habitat without detrimental change?

The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef should be sustained for future generations.
Jurgen Freund/AP

Mind the gap

The escape clause in the prototype standards presents another problem. A small, yet critical recommendation in the appendix of Samuel’s report says:

These amendments should include a requirement that the Standards be applied unless the decision-maker can demonstrate that the public interest and the national interest is best served otherwise.

Which decision maker is he referring to here – federal or state? If it’s the former, will there be a constant stream of requests to the federal environment minister for a “public interest” exemption on the basis of jobs and economic development? If the latter, can a state decision-maker judge the “national interest”, especially for species found in several states, such as the koala?

Samuel says the “legally enforceable” nature of national standards are the foundation of effective regulation. But both he and Auditor-General Grant Hehir in his recent report found existing enforcement provisions are rarely applied, and penalties are low.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has already ruled out Samuel’s recommendation that an independent regulator take responsibility for enforcement. But the record to date does not give confidence that government officials will enforce the standards.

Temporary forever?

Both Ley and Samuel suggested the interim standards would be temporary and updated later. But history shows “draft” and “interim” policies have a tendency to become long-term, or permanent.

For example, federal authorities often allow a proponent to cause environmental damage, and compensate by improving the environment elsewhere – a process known as “offsetting”. A so-called “draft” offset policy drawn up in 2007 actually remained in place for five years until 2012, when it was finally replaced. And the federal environment department recently accepted offsets based on the 2007 “draft” rather than the current policy.

The best antidote is to ensure the first tranche of national standards is comprehensive, precise and strong. This can only occur if genuine consultation occurs, legislation is not rushed, and the government commits to improving the “antiquated” data and information systems the standards rely on.

Adult and baby koala on a pile of felled trees.
Environmental offsets allow a proponent to damage the environment in one location and improve it in another.
WWF

Negotiation to the lowest bar

According to the Samuel report, the proposed standards “provide a clear pathway for greater devolution in decision-making” that will enable states and territories to conduct federal environmental assessments and approvals. This proposed change has been strongly and consistently criticised by scientists and environmental lawyers.

Ley also appears to be wildly underestimating the time and effort required to negotiate the standards with the states and territories.




Read more:
Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government


Take the Gillard government’s attempts to overcome duplication between state and federal law by establishing a “one-stop-shop” approvals process. Prime Minister Julia Gillard pulled the plug on negotiations after a year, declaring the myriad agreements being sought by various states was the “regulatory equivalent of a Dalmatian dog”.

The Abbott government’s negotiations for a similar policy lasted twice as long but suffered a similar fate, lapsing with the dissolution of Parliament in 2016.

Samuel warned refining the standards should not involve “negotiated agreement with rules set at the lowest bar”. But vested interests will inevitably seek to influence the process.

Proceed with caution

We have identified significant problems with the prototype standards, and more may emerge.

Ley’s rush to amend the Act appears motivated more by wanting to cut so-called “green tape” than by evidence or environmental outcomes.

Prototypes are meant to be stress-tested. But if the defects are not corrected before hurrying into negotiations and legislative change, Australia might go another 20 years without effective environment laws.

Update: This article has been amended to reflect the national cabinet decision.




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


The Conversation


Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW and 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.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry



Graeme Samuel, left and Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

The Morrison government on Monday released a long-awaited interim review into Australia’s federal environment law. The ten-year review found Australia’s natural environment is declining and under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is “unsustainable” and the law “ineffective”.

The report, by businessman Graeme Samuel, called for fundamental reform of the law, know as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act, Samuel says:

[…] does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Samuel confirmed the health of Australia’s environment is in dire straits, and proposes many good ways to address this.

Worryingly though, Environment Minister Sussan Ley immediately seized on proposed reforms that seem to suit her government’s agenda – notably, streamlining the environmental approvals process – and will start working towards them. This is before the review has been finalised, and before public comment on the draft has been received.

This rushed response is very concerning. I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. I know the huge undertaking involved in reform of the scale Samuel suggests. The stakes are far too high to risk squandering this once-a-decade reform opportunity for quick wins.

A dead koala outside Ipswich. Federal environment laws have failed to protect threatened species.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



Read more:
Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government


‘Fundamental reform’ needed: Samuel

The EPBC Act is designed to protect and conserve Australia’s most important environmental and heritage assets – most commonly, threatened plant and animal species.

Samuel’s diagnosis is on the money: the current trajectory of environmental decline is clearly unsustainable. And reform is long overdue – although unlike Samuel, I would put the blame less on the Act itself and more on government failings, such as a badly under-resourced federal environment department.

Samuel also hits the sweet spot in terms of a solution, at least in principle. National environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, would switch the focus from the development approvals process to environmental outcomes. In essence, the Commonwealth would regulate the states for environmental results, rather than proponents for (mostly) process.




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Samuel’s recommendation for a quantum shift to a “single source of truth” for environmental data and information is also welcome. Effective administration of the Act requires good information, but this has proven hard to deliver. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.

Importantly, Samuel also called for a new standard for “best practice Indigenous engagement”, ensuring traditional knowledge and views are fully valued in decision-making. The lack of protection of Indigenous cultural assets has been under scrutiny of late following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Indigenous site Juukan caves. Reform in this area is long overdue.

And notably, Samuel says environmental restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Habitat, he says “needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment”.

Many in the public are concerned at the state of Australia’s environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Streamlined approvals

Samuel pointed to duplication between the EPBC Act and state and territory regulations. He said efforts have been made to streamline these laws but they “have not gone far enough”. The result, he says, is “slow and cumbersome regulation” resulting in significant costs for business, with little environmental benefit.

This finding would have been music to the ears of the Morrison government. From the outset, the government framed Samuel’s review around a narrative of cutting the “green tape” that it believed unnecessarily held up development.

In June the government announced fast-tracked approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects in response to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. And on Monday, Ley indicated the government will prioritise the new national environmental standards, including further streamlining approval processes.




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


Here’s where the danger lies. The government wants to introduce legislation in August. Ley said “prototype” environmental standards proposed by Samuel will be introduced at the same time. This is well before Samuel’s final report, due in October.

I believe this timeframe is unwise, and wildly ambitious.

Even though Samuel proposes a two-stage process, with interim standards as the first step, these initial standards risk being too vague. And once they’re in place, states may resist moving to a stricter second stage.

To take one example, the prototype standards in Samuel’s report say approved development projects must not have unacceptable impacts on on matters of national environmental significance. He says more work is needed on the definition of “unacceptable”, adding this requires “granular and specific guidance”.

I believe this requires standards being tailored to different ecosystems across our wide and diverse landscapes, and being specific enough to usefully guide the assessment of any given project. This is an enormous task which cannot be rushed. And if Samuel’s prototype were adopted on an interim basis, states would be free, within some limits, to decide what is “unacceptable”.

It’s also worth noting that the national standards model will need significant financial resources. Samuel’s model would see the Commonwealth doing fewer individual project approvals and less on-ground compliance. However, it would enter a new and complex world of developing environmental standards.

The government has said little about improving the environment on the ground.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia

More haste, less speed

Samuel’s interim report will go out for public comment before the final report is delivered in October. Ley concedes further consultation is needed on some issues. But in other areas, the government is not willing to wait. After years of substantive policy inaction it seems the government wants to set a new land-speed record for environmental reform.

The government’s fixation with cutting “green tape” should not unduly colour its reform direction. By rushing efforts to streamline approvals, the government risks creating a jumbled process with, once again, poor environmental outcomes.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.

Health care has a huge environmental footprint, which then harms health. This is a matter of ethics



Shutterstock

Anthony Capon, Monash University; Arunima Malik, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, University of Sydney

The health impacts of environmental change are now squarely on the radar. Australia’s recent intense wildfires is one glaring example. Spillover of the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic from animals to humans is another.

But less is known about the reverse: environmental harms from health care. This is what our study, the first global assessment of the environmental footprint of health care, aimed to do.




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We must rethink health care to include social and environmental costs of treatment


We quantified resource consumption and pollution by the health-care sector in 189 countries, from 2000 to 2015. We found health care is harming the environment in ways that, in turn, harm health, thereby counteracting the primary mission of health care.

For example, we found the health-care sector causes a substantial share of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants: 4.4% of greenhouse gases, 2.8% of harmful particulate matter (air particles), 3.4% of nitrogen oxides and 3.6% of sulphur dioxide.

A vicious cycle

As part of broader economic systems, the health-care sector can inadvertently harm health through purchased resources, and the waste and pollution produced. In other words, it can unwittingly harm health in efforts to protect and improve it.

The aim of our study was not to assign blame to health care. Rather, as our dependence on health care increases, we need to support this sector to become more sustainable so we don’t enter a vicious cycle, where more health care means more environmental damage, and vice versa.




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What happens to waste PPE during the coronavirus pandemic?


Using a global supply-chain database, we measured direct and indirect environmental damage driven by health-care demand.

We focused on environmental stressors the health-care sector contributes to with known adverse feedback cycles for health, such as greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter (10 micrometers or less in diameter) and scarce water use.

We found health care causes environmental impacts that range between 1% and 5% of total global impacts, depending on the indicator. It contributes to more than 5% for some indicators at the individual country level.

For example, along with its contributions to greenhouse gases and air pollutants, health care uses 1.5% of scarce water in the world. Scarce water is measured as water consumption weighted by a “scarcity index”, which takes into account insufficient access to clean water in different countries.

Shutterstock
To begin addressing the problem, all health-care professionals should first understand how their work impacts the environment.

Polluting economies lead to polluting health care systems

For all stressors, countries with large populations, economies and health budgets (the US and China, for instance) dominate the results in absolute terms.

The key message is that we need to understand how these stressors are trending over time, and what measures can be taken to improve health and protect the environment at the same time.

For example, in South Korea emissions of greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care decreased by between 27% and 60% during 2000 and 2015.

Whereas in China, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care increased by between 91% and 173% in the same period.

For some indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter, a majority of impacts are hidden in upstream supply chains. Unravelling supply chain connections will help us understand the hotspots of environmental impacts, such as pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

A matter of ethics

The environmental impact of health care is both a practical and ethical issue for health-care professionals.

In 2015, more than 460,000 premature deaths were related to coal combustion globally. Frankly, why should any hospital purchase coal-fired energy when it produces toxic air pollution that harms health?

Some health professionals may baulk at this additional responsibility because they’re busy providing life-saving treatments and don’t have time to worry about the pollution they cause.

And some might say a global pandemic is not the time to burden health-care professionals with another responsibility.

We argue there’s no better time to raise this issue than when the eyes of the world are on health care. The pandemic has shown us we can achieve change at pace and scale if the evidence is clear and the collective will is shared.

The pandemic has brought attention to waste from single-use personal protective equipment. However, we are yet to develop consistent systems for monitoring these environmental impacts, and to implement effective strategies to reduce these impacts across the world.

Waste from single-use personal protective equipment has no doubt skyrocketed since the pandemic began.
Shutterstock

The way forward

Health-care organisations at every level (national, regional, hospital, primary care) should measure and track their environmental footprint over time, as they do for health outcomes and financial costs.




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All health-care professionals – from doctors and nurses, to managers and members of hospital boards – should understand the environmental footprint of the health care they provide and take steps to reduce it.

The purchasing power of health care should be harnessed to drive sustainability transitions in other sectors. For example, health-care organisations purchase large amounts of food for patients. The managers responsible for this food procurement should ensure the food is healthy, value for money and produced in sustainable ways.

Some health-care organisations are already making progress. Civil society organisations like Global Green and Healthy Hospitals are spreading the word. But there is an urgent need for all health organisations to step up.

As health professionals around the world increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure their own house is in order.The Conversation

Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Arunima Malik, Lecturer in Sustainability, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, Honorary Professor, Exeter UK / Adjunct Professor, Monash Sustainable Development Institute / Visiting Professor, Surrey UK, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Professor of Industrial Ecology and Climate Change, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, Professor of Sustainability Research, School of Physics, University of Sydney

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

Climate explained: what if we took all farm animals off the land and planted crops and trees instead?



Kira Volkov/Shutterstock

Sebastian Leuzinger, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


I would like to know how much difference we could make to our commitment under the Paris Agreement and our total greenhouse gas emissions if we removed all cows and sheep from the country and grew plants in their place (hemp, wheat, oats etc). Surely we could easily become carbon neutral if we removed all livestock? How much more oxygen would be produced from plants growing instead? How would this offset our emissions? And what if we returned the land the animals were on to native forests or even pine plantations?

This is an interesting question and gives me the opportunity for some nice – albeit partly unrealistic – model calculations. Before I start, just two comments regarding the question itself.

Oxygen concentrations have been relatively stable at around 21% of the air we breathe for millions of years. This will not change markedly even if carbon dioxide emissions increase for years to come. Carbon dioxide concentrations, even in the most pessimistic emissions scenarios, will only get to around 0.1% of the atmosphere, hardly affecting the air’s oxygen content.

Secondly, grazing animals like cows and sheep emit methane — and that’s what harms the climate, not the grassland itself. Hemp or wheat plantations would have a similar capacity to take up carbon dioxide as grassland. But growing trees is what makes the difference.




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Climate explained: how different crops or trees help strip carbon dioxide from the air


Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation to work out how New Zealand’s carbon balance would change if all livestock were removed and all agricultural land converted to forest.

If New Zealand stopped farming cows and sheep, it would remove methane emissions.
Heath Johnson/Shutterstock

Converting pasture to trees

This would remove all methane emissions from grazing animals (about 40 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year).

New Zealand has about 10 million hectares of grassland. Let us assume that mature native bush or mature pine forests store the equivalent of roughly 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare.

If it takes 250 years to grow mature native forests on all former agricultural land, this would lock away 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide within that time span, offsetting our carbon dioxide emissions (energy, waste and other smaller sources) during the 250 years of regrowth. Because pine forest grows faster, we would overcompensate for our emissions until the forest matures (allow 50 years for this), creating a net carbon sink.

Note these calculations are based on extremely crude assumptions, such as linear growth, absence of fire and other disturbances, constant emissions (our population will increase, and so will emissions), ignorance of soil processes, and many more.

If agricultural land was used to grow crops, we would save the 40 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted by livestock in the form of methane, but we would not store a substantial amount of carbon per hectare.




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Steps towards a carbon-neutral New Zealand

How should we interpret this rough estimate? First, we must acknowledge even with our best intentions, we still need to eat, and converting all agricultural land to forest would leave us importing food from overseas — certainly not great for the global carbon budget.

Second, it shows if livestock numbers were at least reduced, and we all turned to a more plant-based diet, we could reduce our emissions substantially. The effect would be similar to reforesting large parts of the country.

Third, this example also shows that eventually, be it after 250 years in the case of growing native forests, or after about 50 years in the case of pine forests, our net carbon emissions would be positive again. As the forests mature, carbon stores are gradually replenished and our emissions would no longer be compensated. Mature forests eventually become carbon neutral.

Even though the above calculations are coarse, this shows that a realistic (and quick) way to a carbon-neutral New Zealand will likely involve three steps: reduction of emissions (both in the agricultural and energy sectors), reforestation (both native bush and fast growing exotics), and a move to a more plant-based diet.The Conversation

Sebastian Leuzinger, Professor, Auckland University of Technology

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

Actually, Mr Trump, it’s stronger environmental regulation that makes economic winners


Ou Yang, University of Melbourne

Donald Trump has ordered US federal agencies to bypass environmental protection laws and fast-track pipeline, highway and other infrastructure projects. Signing the executive order last month, the US president declared regulatory delays would hinder “our economic recovery from the national emergency”.

Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement for international climate action in 2017 for the same reason. The accord, he said, would undermine the US economy “and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world”.




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This idea that environmental regulation costs jobs and hurts the economy is deeply entrenched in pro-business discourse. But it is true?

To assess the impact of greater environmental policy on economic productivity we analysed data of 22 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) between 1990 and 2007. Our results show little evidence that environmental “green tape” inhibits economic growth over the long run. The opposite, in fact.

Comparing environmental policy stringency

Past studies of the economic impact of tougher environmental policies have tended to be limited by focusing on immediate effects and looking only at individual nations. Such results are of no help to understand the long-term effects and do not allow for straightforward cross-country comparison either.

This is why we analysed cross-country data stretching over a long period. We used data up to 2007 because that is the most recent year for which the OECD provides free access to all the information we needed for our analysis.

We rated nations’ environmental policies using the OECD’s Environmental Policy Stringency Index, developed in 2014. The index calculates a single score based on polices to limit air and water pollution, reduce carbon emissions, promote renewable energy and so on.




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All 22 nations improved their stringency scores to varying degrees between 1990 and 2007. The following shows the trajectory of a few example nations – Australia, Germany, Japan and United States against the OECD average. Germany had the second-highest average score over the 17 years. Australia had the worst.



Author provided

We then did complex calculations to measure what effect more stringent environmental policies had on economic productivity – the value of output obtained with one unit of input – both over the short run (one year) and the long run (after three years).

While results for individual nations varied – reflecting local circumstances – overall our results showed a consistent pattern.

In the short run environmental regulations did increase the cost of production. For example, a carbon tax would make coal more expensive, increasing the costs of things like steel production (which uses coal).

But in the long run tighter environmental policies were associated with greater productivity. This positive effect was greater in countries that took the lead on tougher environmental policies. Germany had the highest average economic productivity growth of the 22 nations.

Healthier environment

This positive association might be due to a cleaner environment in the long run increasing the quality of various “production inputs”, such as better health of workers.

For example, a significant 2017 study showed higher exposure to lead (once added to fuel and paint) in childhood was associated with lower intelligence and job status in adulthood. Bans on lead additives in the 1970s have thus contributed to a smarter workforce – a key input for economic growth, as shown by the work of 2018 Nobel economics laureate Paul Romer.

Environmental regulations may also prompt industries to focus on efficiency, improving their productivity in the long run.

Environmental winners

Our findings suggest stronger environmental protection is compatible with a stronger economy in the long run.

Indeed the evidence is mounting that not taking strong environmental action is likely to have serious economic consequences.

Research suggests, for example, that the continued destruction of natural habitats is making pandemics like COVID-19 more likely, due to pathogens crossing from wild animals to humans.




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Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Air and water pollution contributes to chemical body burden and disease. Industrialised farming practices have contributed to the loss of about a third of the world’s arable land over the past 40 years.

Then there’s climate change. The consequences of burning fossil fuel are no longer a distant concern. Countries around the world are counting the costs of increased or more catastrophic extreme weather events and other climate impacts.

The countries that show leadership on environmental protection will be the economic winners in the longer run. Those that don’t will be poorer for it in more ways than one.The Conversation

Ou Yang, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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