Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way



Sue McIntyre, Author provided

Sue McIntyre, Australian National University

Last week we learned woody vegetation in New South Wales is being cleared at more than double the rate of the previous decade – and agriculture was responsible for more than half the destruction.

Farming now covers 58% of Australia, or 385 million hectares, and accounts for 59% of water extracted.

It’s painfully clear nature is buckling under the weight of farming’s demands. In the past decade, the federal government has listed ten ecological communities as endangered, or critically endangered, as a result of farming development and practices.

So how can we accommodate the needs of both farming and nature? Research shows us how – but it means accepting land as a finite resource, and operating within its limits. In doing so, farmers will also reap benefits.

Grassy eucalypt woodlands used for cattle farming in subtropical Queensland.
Tara Martin. Author provided.

Healthy grazing landscapes

In the 1990s, I worked as a research ecologist in the cattle country of sub-tropical Queensland. The prevailing culture valued agricultural development over conservation. Yet many of these producers lived on viable farms that supported a wealth of native plants and animals.

They made a living from the native grassy eucalypt woodlands, an ecosystem that extends from Cape York to Tasmania. In these healthy landscapes, vigorous pastures of tall perennial grasses protected the soil, enriched it with carbon and fed the cattle.




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NSW and Victoria have similar eucalypt grassy vegetation, but farming here has taken a very different path.

Fertilised legumes and grasses grown for livestock fodder have replaced hundreds of native grassland plants. Over time, native trees and shrubs stopped regenerating and remaining trees became unhealthy, destroying wildlife habitat. The transformation was hastened by aerial applications of fertiliser and herbicide.

By 2006, 4.5 million hectares of box-gum grassy woodland – or 90% – in temperate Australia had been destroyed.

Aerial delivery of fertiliser, seed and herbicide transformed grassy woodlands in NSW.
F. G. Swain. Author provided.

A template for sustainability

Back in Queensland in the 1990s, my colleagues and I devised a template for sustainable land use. Funded by the livestock industry and a now-defunct federal corporation, we worked with producers and government agencies to find the right balance between farm production and conserving natural resources.

Our research concluded that for farming to be sustainable, intensive land uses must be limited. Such intensive uses include crops and non-native pastures. They are “high input”, typically requiring fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and some form of cultivation. They return greater yields but kill native plants, and are prone to soil and nutrient runoff into waterways.

But our template was not adopted as conventional farming practice. In the past 20 years, Australia’s cropping area has increased by 18,200 square kilometres.

By 2019, 38,000 square kilometres of poplar box grassy woodland in Australia had been cleared – more than half the size of Tasmania. The ecosystem was listed as endangered in 2019. Until that point, it had been considered invasive native scrub in NSW – exempting it from clearing regulations – and was systematically cleared for agriculture in Queensland.

Farmers should conserve sufficient areas of landscape to support native plants and animals.
Sue McIntyre, Author provided

Regenerating the land

Hearteningly, our research was recently revived in a multidisciplinary study of regenerative grazing on the grassy woodlands of NSW. The template was used to assess the ecological condition of participating farms.

The study examined differences in profitability between graziers who had adopted regenerative techniques such as low-input pasture management, and all other sheep, sheep-beef and mixed cropping-grazing farmers in their region.




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It found regenerative grazing was often more profitable than other types of farming, especially in dry years. Regenerative farmers also experienced significantly higher than average well-being compared with other NSW farmers.

So what does our template involve? First, it identifies four types of land use relevant to farmed grassy woodland regions.

Second, it specifies the proportion of land that should be allocated to each use, in order to achieve landscape health (see pie chart below). The proportions can be applied to single farm, or entire districts or regions.

How to sustain production, natural resources and native flora and fauna on a landscape or farm.
Sue McIntyre

Intensive land use involves activities that replace nearly all native species. If these activities occupy more than 30% of the landscape, there’s insufficient habitat to maintain many native species, especially plants.

At least 10% of land must be devoted to nature conservation. The remaining 60% of the land should involve low-intensity activity such as grazed native pasture and timber production. If managed well, these land uses can support human livelihoods and a diversity of native species.

Within that split of land use, total native woodland should be no less than 30%. This guarantees connected habitats for native plants and animals, enabling movement and breeding opportunities.

Retaining grassy woodland ensures habitat for native animals.
Duncan McCaskill/Flickr

Respect the land’s limits

Australians ask a lot of our land. It must make space for our houses, businesses, and roads. It should support all species to prevent extinctions. And it must produce our food and fibre.

Global population growth demands a rapid rise in food production. But relying on intensive agriculture to achieve this is unsustainable. Aside from damaging the land, it increases greenhouse gas emissions though mechanisation, fertilisation, chemical use and tree clearing.




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To meet the challenges of the future we must ensure farmed landscapes retain their ecological functions. In particular, maintaining biodiversity is key to climate adaptation. And as many of Australia’s plants and animals march towards extinction, the need to reverse biodiversity loss has never been greater.

Farmers can be profitable while maintaining and improving the ecological health of their land. It’s time to look harder at farming models that respect the limits of nature, and recognise that less can be more.The Conversation

Sue McIntyre, Honorary Professor, Australian National University

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

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



Harley Kingston/Flickr

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

A long-awaited draft review of federal environment laws is due this week. There’s a lot riding on it – particularly in light of recent events that suggest the laws are in crisis.

Late last week, the federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir tabled a damning report on federal authorities’ handling of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Incredibly, he found Australia’s premier environmental law is administered neither efficiently or effectively.

It followed news last month that mining company Rio Tinto detonated the 46,000 year old Juukan rock shelters in the Pilbara. The decision was authorised by a 50 year old Western Australian law –and the federal government failed to invoke emergency powers to stop it.

Also last month we learned state-owned Victorian logging company VicForests unlawfully logged 26 forest coupes, home to the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. The acts were contrary both to its own code of practice, and the agreement exempting VicForests from federal laws.

As relentless as Hehir’s criticisms of the department are, let there be no doubt that blame lies squarely at the feet of government. As a society, we must decide what values we want to protect, count the financial cost, then make sure governments deliver on that protection.

Destruction of the Juukan caves drew condemnation.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

Shocking report card

I’ve been involved with this Act since before it began 20 years ago. As an ACT environment official reading a draft in 1998 I was fascinated by its complexity and sweeping potential. As a federal official responsible for administering, then reforming, the Act from 2007-2012, I encountered some of the issues identified by the audit, in milder form.

But I was still shocked by Hehir’s report. It’s so comprehensively scathing that the department barely took a trick.

Overall, the audit found that despite the EPBC Act being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since it began, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of the laws is neither efficient nor effective.




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While the government is focused on efficiency, the lack of effectiveness worries me most – especially findings concerning so-called “environmental offsets”. These are measures designed to compensate for unavoidable losses, such as creating a nature reserve near a site to be cleared.

In the early years of the law, offsets were rare. By 2015 they featured in almost 90% of decisions, dropping to about 75% last year. In effect, we now rely on offsets to protect the environment.

The Auditor-General found that the absence of guidance and quality control for offsets has led to “realised risks”.

the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards.
WWF Australia

For example, offsets must be mapped and disclosed publicly, to ensure their integrity. But not only did the department fail to create a public register, in 2019 it stopped loading offset data into its systems altogether. This makes it likely offsets will be forgotten and so either destroyed later, or put up a second time and thus double-counted.

Hehir cites one example where the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards. After negotiations with the developer and involvement from the Minister’s office, the department accepted the offsets. Worse, the developer secured a futher non-complying offset for a second development in 2018, arguing for consistency with the previous decision.

Apart from politicisation and failure to protect the environment, this case reveals a significant legal issue. Under administrative law, a decision is invalid if it has regard to an “irrelevant consideration”. An offset in one development in 2015 is surely irrelevant to an offset in another development in 2018.




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Offsets aside, the Auditor-General higlighted key risks such as high volumes of unapproved land clearing for agriculture, and non-compliance in residential and mining developments. The department had proposed actions to address the issues, but made no progress on them.

And the report found arrangements to monitor whether approval conditions had been met before work started on a project were inadequate, which “leaves the department poorly positioned to prevent adverse environmental outcomes”.

At the end of the day, the federal department doesn’t have the tools to distinguish whether an environmental effect is the result of its own regulations, or other factors such as state programs or extreme weather. Essentially, it doesn’t know if the Act is delivering any environmental benefits at all.

The corroborree frog, which is critically endangered.
Taronga Zoo

How did this happen?

The EPBC Act itself remains a powerful instrument. Certainly changes are needed, but the more significant problems lie in the processes that should support it: plans and policies, information systems and resourcing.

As I wrote last month, between 2013 and 2019 the federal environment department’s budget was cut by an estimated 39.7%.

And while effective administration of the Act requires good information, this can be hard to come by. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.




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Officials are constrained here. The audit scope does not extend to the government decisions shaping departmental performance. And the department loyally refrains from complaining that government decisions leave it few options.

So while the audit office and the department might believe extensive government cuts are the underlying problem, neither can say so. I’m not excusing the department’s poor performance, but it must manage with what it’s given. When faced with critical audit findings, it can only pledge to “reprioritise” resources.

Vicforests illegally logged Leadbeater’s possum habitat.
D. Harley/Flickr

A national conversation

There is a small saving grace here. Hehir says the department asked that his report be timed to inform Professor Graeme Samuel’s 10-year review of the EPBC Act. Hehir timed it perfectly – Samuel’s draft report is due by tomorrow. Let’s hope it recommends comprehensive action, and that the final report in October follows through.

Beyond Samuel’s review, we need a national conversation on how to fix laws protecting our environment and heritage. The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, unlawful logging of Victorian forests and the Auditor-General’s report are incontrovertible evidence the laws are failing.

I don’t believe we can lock nature up. But we must look after the things that enable nature to provide not just life, but quality of life. This includes a stable climate, our Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage and the resilience that comes from nature’s richness and diversity.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.

Mr Morrison, you can cut ‘green tape’ without harming nature – but it’ll take money and gumption



Lukas Coch/AAP

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week announced environmental approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects will be fast-tracked to accelerate investment as Australia emerges from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Under the current system, proponents must seek both state and federal approvals for big developments. The new “single touch” approvals process will involve teams of state and federal officials assessing the projects jointly.




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This is by no means the first attempt by governments to streamline environmental approvals. Morrison says the latest push will be informed by a ten-year review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, which has also been framed around cutting so-called “green tape” that slows developments. An interim report is due this month.

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. There are ways the laws can be streamlined without sacrificing the environment. But isolated from more comprehensive environmental reform, faster approval will bring significant environmental risk.

Faster environemnt approvals brings environmental risk.
WWF Australia

We’ve been here before

The first national agreement to streamline environmental approvals dates back to 1990, and Bob Hawke’s “New Federalism” push to reduce overlap between Commonwealth and state environmental laws.

More recently, the Gillard government in 2012, at the urging of business interests, sought to strike bilateral agreements with the states to reduce duplication in environmental approvals. The push was abandoned when each state demanded different arrangements, making the proposed system too messy and complex.

In 2014 the Abbott government revived this “one-stop shop” approach, but the move was blocked by the Senate.

A risky business

Environment advocates naturally oppose moves to streamline environmental laws and approval processes. They argue the regime already fails to protect threatened species and biodiversity, and the bar should not be lowered further.

It’s true that while governments may claim faster approvals won’t erode environmental standards, there aren’t many hard-and-fast standards to maintain.

Environmentalists argue current laws are already inadequate.
Larine Statham/AAP

Instead, EPBC Act decisions mostly hinge on the minister’s conclusion that assessed environmental impacts are “not unacceptable”, provided certain conditions, such as minimising a project’s physical size, are met. But this is no standard at all, because such decisions are arbitrary and no “bottom line” for a project’s environmental performance is set.

As things stand, the closest thing to an on-ground environmental standard is the environmental offsets policy, which allows environmental damage from a project to be compensated for by environmental improvements elsewhere. But policies are not binding, there is no public register of approved offsets and little evidence of them being monitored and enforced.




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The Act does include mechanisms for setting standards. These include “bioregional plans” intended to inform industry and decision-makers of the environmental values and objectives of a region, and how these should be met.

But since the Act commenced in 2000, just five such plans for marine areas have been developed, and none have been prepared for regions on land.

The Act also provides for recovery plans setting out the actions necessary to support listed threatened species. But as of 2018, fewer than half these species have recovery plans, and where they exist, the plans are often out of date and not specific enough.

Efficient approvals require proper resources

Morrison said his government wants to reduce Commonwealth assessment and approval times for major projects, from an average of 3.5 years to 21 months.
But to do that, his government must stop starving its own regulatory systems of resources.

Between 2013 and 2019, the federal environment department’s budget was cut by 39.7%, according to an assessment by the Australian Conservtaion Foundation. So it’s little wonder approval processes slowed.

In November last year the Morrison government announced A$25 million to reduce unnecessary delays in environmental assessments, including the establishment of a major projects team. In effect, this was merely a reversal of previous funding cuts by this government and some of its predecessors.

What’s more, an efficient approvals process needs good information, yet this can be hard to come by.

The much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information was established in 2010 “to improve the quality and accessibility of Australian environmental information”. It would have reduced the need for fieldwork in environmental assessments. But in my view it was never properly resourced, and it has since been abolished.

An expansion of BHP’s Olympic Dam mine site in Roxby Downs, South Australia, is among the priority infrastructure projects.
David Mariuz/AAP

But streamlining could work

There are ways the Commonwealth and states could cut environmental approval times without cutting corners.

The proposed joint assessment teams would have to be well-resourced. They would also have to be authorised to negotiate procedural or cultural obstacles to meeting both federal and state legal requirements.

When I was in the environment department, it was common for federal and state officials to complain their counterparts were not addressing the assessment and approval requirements of the other jurisdiction.

And if companies behind developments want faster approvals, they will have to provide information to officials in a timely fashion – something that doesn’t always happen now.




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Australia has learnt much during the pandemic – not only about cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states, but also between government and business. Success in this latest streamlining attempt will demand excellence in both.

The larger challenge is to speed up the process without lowering the environmental bar.

The federal government should commission independent monitoring and evaluation of the environmental outcomes of approvals under these new arrangements. In 2009 a Senate committee recommendedmore resources for monitoring and audits, but nothing has improved in the decade since.

Independent evaluation won’t win over the sceptics, but it might assuage their worst fears.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.

Putting stimulus spending to the test: 4 ways a smart government can create jobs and cut emissions



Flickr/Greenfleet Australia

Thomas Longden, Australian National University; Frank Jotzo, Australian National University, and Zeba Anjum, Australian National University

The COVID-19 recession is coming, and federal and state governments are expected to spend more money to stimulate economic growth. Done well, this can make Australia’s economy more productive, improve quality of life and help the low-carbon transition.

In a paper released today, we’ve developed criteria to help get this investment right. The idea is to stimulate the economy in a way that creates lasting economic value, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and brings broader social benefits.

An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) outlook report released this week predicts an economic slump this year in Australia and globally.

Governments will be called on to invest. In this article, we investigate how stimulus spending on infrastructure can simultaneously achieve environmental, economic and social goals.

Stimulus spending can help the economy, the environment and the community.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Best practice

Europe has already embraced a “green stimulus”. For example, Germany plans to spend almost one-third of its €130 billion stimulus package on renewable power, public transport, building renovations and developing the hydrogen and electric car industries.

In response to the pandemic, New South Wales and Victoria produced criteria for priority stimulus projects which include environmental considerations.

Whether the federal government will follow suit is unclear.




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Most federal stimulus spending has been on short-term JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments, plus the HomeBuilder scheme that will largely benefit the construction industry and those who can afford home improvements.

So how should governments decide what to prioritise in a COVID-19 stimulus package?

Our criteria

We developed a set of criteria to guide stimulus spending. We did this by comparing ten proposals and studies, including current proposals by international organisations and think tanks, and research papers on fiscal stimulus spending after the 2008 global financial crisis. Synthesising this work, we identified nine criteria and assessment factors, shown below.

Before the pandemic hit, Infrastructure Australia and other organisations had already identified projects and programs that were strong candidates for further funding.

We applied our criteria to a range of program/project categories to compare how well they perform in terms of achieving economic, social and environmental goals. We did not assess particular programs and projects.

The four most promising categories for public investment are shown in this table, and further analysed below.

1. Renewable energy and transmission

The electricity system of the future will be based on wind and solar power – now the cheapest way of producing energy from new installations. Australia’s renewables investment boom may be tailing off, and governments could step in.

The Australian Energy Market Operator, in its 2018 Integrated System Plan, assessed 34 candidate sites for Renewable Energy Zones – which are places with great wind and solar potential, suitable land and access to the grid.




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The NSW government has committed to three such zones. These could be fast-tracked, and other states could do the same.

Investment in power transmission lines is needed to better connect these zones to the grid. It’s clear where they should go. Governments could shortcut the normally lengthy approval, planning and commercial processes to get these projects started while the economy is weak.

Now is a good time for governments to invest in large-scale renewable energy.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

2. Energy efficiency in buildings

There’s a strong economic, social and environmental case for investment in retrofitting public buildings to improve their energy efficiency. Schools, hospitals and social housing are good candidates.

Building improvement programs are quick to start up, opportunities exist everywhere and they provide local jobs and business support. And better energy efficiency means lower energy bills, as well as reduced carbon emissions.




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One existing program is showing the way. Under the Queensland government’s Advancing Clean Energy Schools program, which involves solar installation and energy-saving measures, 80 state schools have been brought forward to the project’s first phase as part of COVID-19 stimulus.

A focus on public buildings will bring long-lasting benefits to the community, including low-income households. This would bring far greater public benefit than programs such as HomeBuilder.

3. Environmental improvements

Stimulus initiatives also provide an opportunity to boost our response to last summer’s bushfires. While the federal government has announced A$150 million of funding for recovery projects and conservation, more could be done.

The ACT has shown how. As part of COVID-19 stimulus, 26 people who’d recently lost their jobs were employed to help nature reserves recover after the fires. Such programs could be greatly scaled up.

In New Zealand, the government is spending NZ$1.1 billion on creating 11,000 “nature jobs” across a range of regional environmental projects.

In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s government has created
Daniel Hicks/AAP

4. Transport projects

Several transport projects on the Infrastructure Australia priority list are well developed, and some could be fast-tracked.

Smaller, local projects such as building or refurbishing footpaths and cycle paths, and improving existing transport infrastructure, can be easily achieved. The NSW government is already encouraging councils to undertake such projects.

Sound analysis and transparency is needed

Our analysis is illustrative only. A full analysis needs to consider the specifics of each project or program. It must also consider the goals and needs in particular regions or sectors – including speed of implementation, ensuring employment opportunities are spread equally, and social and environmental priorities.

This is the job of governments and agencies. It should be done diligently and transparently. Australian governments should lay out which objectives their stimulus investments are pursuing, the expected benefits, and why one investment option is chosen over another.

This should improve public confidence, and taxpayers’ acceptance of stimulus measures. This is good practice for governments to follow at any time. It’s even more important when they’re spending billions at the drop of a hat.The Conversation

Thomas Longden, Research Fellow, Crawford School, Australian National University; Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Australian National University, and Zeba Anjum, PhD student, Australian National University

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

NSW has approved Snowy 2.0. Here are six reasons why that’s a bad move



Lucas Coch/AAP

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University and Mark Lintermans, University of Canberra

The controversial Snowy 2.0 project has mounted a major hurdle after the New South Wales government today announced approval for its main works.

The pumped hydro venture in southern NSW will pump water uphill into dams and release it when electricity demand is high. The federal government says it will act as a giant battery, backing up intermittent energy from by wind and solar.

We and others have criticised the project on several grounds. Here are six reasons we think Snowy 2.0 should be shelved.

1. It’s really expensive

The federal government announced the Snowy 2.0 project without a market assessment, cost-benefit analysis or indeed even a feasibility study.

When former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled the Snowy expansion in March 2017, he said it would cost A$2 billion and be commissioned by 2021. This was revised upwards several times and in April last year, Snowy Hydro awarded a A$5.1 billion contract for partial construction.

Snowy Hydro has not costed the transmission upgrades on which the project depends. TransGrid, owner of the grid in NSW, has identified options including extensions to Sydney with indicative costs up to A$1.9 billion. Massive extensions south, to Melbourne, will also be required but this has not been costed.

The Tumut 3 scheme, with which Snowy 2.0 will share a dam.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

2. It will increase greenhouse gas emissions

Both Snowy Hydro Ltd and its owner, the federal government, say the project will help expand renewable electricity generation. But it won’t work that way. For at least the next couple of decades, analysis suggests Snowy 2.0 will store coal-fired electricity, not renewable electricity.

Snowy Hydro says it will pump the water when a lot of wind and solar energy is being produced (and therefore when wholesale electricity prices are low).




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But wind and solar farms produce electricity whenever the resource is available. This will happen irrespective of whether Snowy 2.0 is producing or consuming energy.

When Snowy 2.0 pumps water uphill to its upper reservoir, it adds to demand on the electricity system. For the next couple of decades at least, coal-fired electricity generators – the next cheapest form of electricity after renewables – will provide Snowy 2.0’s power. Snowy Hydro has denied these claims.

Khancoban Dam, part of the soon-to-be expanded Snowy Hydro scheme.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

3. It will deliver a fraction of the energy benefits promised

Snowy 2.0 is supposed to store renewable energy for when it is needed. Snowy Hydro says the project could generate electricity at its full 2,000 megawatt capacity for 175 hours – or about a week.

But the maximum additional pumped hydro capacity Snowy 2.0 can create, in theory, is less than half this. The reasons are technical, and you can read more here.

It comes down to a) the amount of time and electricity required to replenish the dam at the top of the system, and b) the fact that for Snowy 2.0 to operate at full capacity, dams used by the existing hydro project will have to be emptied. This will result in “lost” water and by extension, lost electricity production.



The Conversation, CC BY-ND

4. Native fish may be pushed to extinction

Snowy 2.0 involves building a giant tunnel to connect two water storages – the Tantangara and Talbingo reservoirs. By extension, the project will also connect the rivers and creeks connected to these reservoirs.

A small, critically endangered native fish, the stocky galaxias, lives in a creek upstream of Tantangara. This is the last known population of the species.

The stocky galaxias.
Hugh Allan

An invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, lives in the Talbingo reservoir. Water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer this fish to Tantangara.

From here, the climbing galaxias’ capacity to climb wet vertical surfaces would enable it to reach upstream creeks and compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.

Snowy 2.0 is also likely to spread two other problematic species – redfin perch and eastern gambusia – through the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Murray rivers.




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Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute our rivers and wipe out native fish


5. It’s a pollution risk

Snowy Hydro says its environmental impact statement addresses fish transfer impacts, and potentially serious water quality issues.

Four million tonnes of rock excavated to build Snowy 2.0 would be dumped into the two reservoirs. The rock will contain potential acid-forming minerals and other harmful substances, which threaten to pollute water storages and rivers downstream.

When the first stage of the Snowy Hydro project was built, comparable rocks were dumped in the Tooma River catchment. Research in 2006 suggested the dump was associated with eradication of almost all fish from the Tooma River downstream after rainfall.

Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute pristine Snowy Mountains rivers.
Schopier/Wikimedia

6. Other options were not explored

Many competing alternatives can provide storage far more flexibly for a fraction of Snowy 2.0’s price tag. These alternatives would also have far fewer environmental impacts or development risks, in most cases none of the transmission costs and all could be built much more quickly.

Expert analysis in 2017 identified 22,000 potential pumped hydro energy storage sites across Australia.

Other alternatives include chemical batteries, encouraging demand to follow supply, gas or diesel generators, and re-orienting more solar capacity to capture the sun from the east or west, not just mainly the north.

Where to now?

The federal government, which owns Snowy Hydro, is yet to approve the main works.

Given the many objections to the project and how much has changed since it was proposed, we strongly believe it should be put on hold, and scrutinised by independent experts. There’s too much at stake to get this wrong.




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The Conversation


Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University and Mark Lintermans, Associate professor, University of Canberra

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

Coronavirus is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. What we do now could change Earth’s trajectory



Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Felix Creutzig, Mercator Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Yuli Shan, University of Groningen

The numbers of people cycling and walking in public spaces during COVID-19 has skyrocketed. Cities from Bogota to Berlin and Vancouver have expanded bike lanes and public paths to accommodate the extra cycling traffic. In Australia, the New South Wales government is encouraging councils to follow suit.

Mandatory social distancing under COVID-19 is disrupting the way we live and work, creating new lifestyle patterns. But once the crisis is over, will – and should – the picture return to normal?

That’s one of many key questions emerging as the precise effect of the pandemic on carbon emissions becomes clear.




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Our research published today in Nature Climate Change shows how COVID-19 has affected global emissions in six economic sectors. We discovered a significant decline in daily global emissions – most markedly, on April 7.

The analysis is useful as we consider the deep structural change needed to shift the global economy to zero emissions.

Take, for example, our quieter streets. The fall in road traffic was a main driver of the global emissions decline. So, if we encourage cycling and working from home to continue beyond the current pandemic, our climate goals will become far more achievable.

Global daily fossil emissions of carbon dioxide in million tonnes. Dash lines represent different future scenarios in the evolution of the pandemic and confinement levels.

Crunching the numbers

At the end of each year we publish the Global Carbon Budget – a report card on global and regional carbon trends. But the unusual circumstances this year prompted us to run a preliminary analysis.

We calculated how the pandemic influenced daily carbon dioxide emissions in 69 countries covering 97% of global emissions and six economic sectors.

It required collecting new, highly detailed data in different ways, and from diverse sources.

For example, we examined surface and air transport activity using data from TomTom and Apple iPhone direction requests, highway traffic records and airport departures. We used daily data to estimate changes in electricity usage.

And we built an index showing the level and size of the population under confinement in each country, to extrapolate the available data worldwide.

The pandemic’s peak

In early April, the reduction in global activity peaked. On April 7, global emissions were 17% lower than an equivalent day in 2019.

Total daily emissions in early April were similar to those observed in 2006. The fact that the world now emits as much under “lockdown” conditions as it did under normal conditions just 14 years ago underscores the rapid emissions growth in that time.

Road traffic contributed the most to the emissions decline (43%). The next biggest contributors were the power sector (electricity and heat) and industry (manufacturing and material production such as cement and steel). These three sectors combined were responsible for 86% of the fall in daily emissions.

The peak daily fall in global aviation activity (60%) was the largest of any sector we analysed. But aviation’s contribution to the overall fall in emissions was relatively small (10%) because it makes up just 3% of global emissions.

As people stayed at home, we found a small increase in global emissions from the residential sector.

In Australia, our widespread, high-level confinement triggered an estimated fall in peak daily emissions of 28% – two-thirds larger than the global estimate of 17%.

The 2020 outlook

We assessed how the pandemic will affect carbon dioxide emissions over the rest of 2020. Obviously, this will depend on how strong the restrictions are in coming months, and how long they last.

If widespread global confinement ends in mid June, we estimate overall carbon emissions in 2020 will fall about 4% compared to 2019. If less severe restrictions remain in place for the rest of the year, the reduction would be about 7%.

If we consider the various pandemic scenarios and uncertainties in the data, the full range of emissions decline is 2% to 13%.




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Now for the important context. Under the Paris climate agreement and according to the United Nations Gap report, global emissions must fall by between 3% and 7% each year between now and 2030 to limit climate change well below 2℃ and 1.5℃, respectively.

Under our projected emissions drop, the world could meet this target in 2020 – albeit for the wrong reasons.

Stabilising the global climate system will require extraordinary changes to our energy and economic systems, comparable to the disruption brought by COVID-19.

Victoria’s Yallourn coal station. COVID-19 offers a chance to restructure energy systems.
Wikimedia

A fork in the road

So how could we make this byproduct of the crisis – the emissions decline in 2020 – a turning point?

A slow economic recovery might lower emissions for a few years. But if previous global economic crises are any indication, emissions will bounce back from previous lows.

But it need not be this way. The recent forced disruption offers an opportunity to change the structures underpinning our energy and economic systems. This could set us on the path to decarbonising the global economy.

Let’s consider again the extra people now walking and riding bikes. What if governments took the chance now to support such active, low-emissions travel, and make it permanent? What if we accelerate the rollout of electric cars, bikes and scooters, to both broaden transport options and save lives through cleaner city air?




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Encouragingly, the NSW government recently announced a A$15 million fund to help councils create bigger public thoroughfares and extra road crossings during the crisis. If the community embraces the changes, they may become permanent.

And Paris will invest €300 million (A$500 million) into a 650km bicycle network post-lockdown, including new “pop up” cycleways established during the pandemic.

The crisis has opened the way for other structural change. People and businesses have been able to test what travel is essential, and when alternative remote communication might be equally or more efficient.

Finally, energy and material consumption dropped during COVID-19. While such forced reductions are not a long-term answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lower consumption can be achieved in other ways, such as new types of energy efficiency, that allow both environmentally sustainable development and rising well-being, incomes and activity.

We can rapidly return to the old “normal”, and the emissions pathway will follow suit. But if we choose otherwise, 2020 could be the unsolicited jolt that turns the global emissions trend around.The Conversation

Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Felix Creutzig, Chair Sustainability Economics of Human Settlements, Mercator Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, globalcarbonproject.org, Stanford University, and Yuli Shan, Research Fellow, University of Groningen

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

Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws



Shutterstock

Chris McGrath, The University of Queensland

The fossil fuel lobby, led by the Minerals Council of Australia, seem pretty happy with the current system of environment laws. In a submission to a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, it “broadly” supports the existing laws and does not want them replaced.

True, the group says the laws impose unnecessary burdens on industry that hinder post-pandemic economic recovery. It wants delays and duplication in environmental regulation reduced to provide consistency and certainty.




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But for the fossil fuel industry to broadly back the current regime of environmental protection is remarkable. It suggests deep problems with the current laws, which have allowed decision-making driven by politics, rather than independent science.

So let’s look at the resources industry’s stance on environment laws, and what it tells us.

Cut duplication

The Minerals Council’s submission calls for “eliminating or reducing duplication” of federal and state laws.

The fossil fuel lobby has long railed against environmental law – the EPBC Act in particular – disparaging it as “green tape” that it claims slows projects unnecessarily and costs the industry money.

On this, the federal government and the mining industry are singing from the same songbook. Announcing the review of the laws last year, the government flagged changes that it claimed would speed up approvals and reduce costs to industry.

Previous governments have tried to reduce duplication of environmental laws. In 2013 the Abbott government proposed a “one-stop shop” in which it claimed projects would be considered under a single environmental assessment and approval process, rather than scrutinised separately by state and federal authorities.




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Explainer: one-stop-shop for environmental approvals


That proposal hit many political and other hurdles and was never enacted. But it appears to remain on the federal government’s policy agenda.

It’s true the federal EPBC Act often duplicates state approvals for mining and other activities. But it still provides a safety net that in theory allows the federal government to stop damaging projects approved by state governments.

The Commonwealth rarely uses this power, but has done so in the past. In the most famous example, the Labor party led by Bob Hawke won the federal election in 1983 and stopped the Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray building a major hydroelectric dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin River.

The High Court’s decision in that dispute laid the foundation for the EPBC Act, which was enacted in 1999.

In 2009 Peter Garrett, Labor’s then-federal environment minister, refused the Queensland Labor government’s proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River under the EPBC Act due to an unacceptable impact on threatened species.

The Conversation put these arguments to the Minerals Council of Australia, and CEO Tania Constable said:

The MCA’s submission states that Australia’s world-leading minerals sector is committed to the protection of our unique environment, including upholding leading practice environmental protection based on sound science and robust risk-based approaches.

Reforms to the operation of the EPBC Act are needed to address unnecessary duplication and complexity, providing greater certainty for businesses and the community while achieving sound environmental outcomes.

But don’t change the current system much

Generally, the Minerals Council and other resources groups aren’t lobbying for the current system to be changed too much.

The groups support the federal environment minister retaining the role of decision maker under the law. This isn’t surprising, given a succession of ministers has, for the past 20 years, given almost unwavering approval to resource projects.

For example, in 2019 the then-minister Melissa Price approved the Adani coal mine’s groundwater management plan, despite major shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and data about its impacts.




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Independent scientific advice against the mine over the last ten years was sidelined in the minister’s final decision.

Countless more examples demonstrate how the current system works in the favour of mining interests – even when the industry itself claims otherwise.

The Minerals Council submission refers to an unnamed “Queensland open-cut coal expansion project” to argue against excessive duplication of federal and state processes around water use.

I believe this is a reference to the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion project. I have acted since 2016 as a barrister for a local landholder group in litigation against that project.

When approached by The Conversation, the Minerals Council did not confirm it was referring to the New Acland project. Tania Constable said:

The case studies were submitted from a range of companies, and are representative of the regulatory inefficiency and uncertainty which deters investment and increases costs while greatly limiting job opportunities and economic benefits for regional communities from mining.

The New Acland mine expansion is on prime agricultural land on the Darling Downs, Queensland’s southern food bowl. Nearby farmers strongly opposed the project over fears of damage to groundwater, the creation of noise and dust, and climate change impacts.

But the Minerals Council fails to mention that since 2016, the mine has been building a massive new pit covering 150 hectares.

West Pit at the New Acland Coal Mine sprawling amid prime agricultural land in 2018. The right half of this pit is outside the area approved for mining under the EPBC Act in 2017 but no action has been taken by the Commonwealth to stop it.
Oakey Coal Action Alliance Inc, Author provided

When mining of this pit began, the mine’s expansion was still being assessed under state and federal laws. Half of the pit was subsequently approved under the EPBC Act in 2017.

But the Queensland environment department never stopped the work, despite the Land Court of Queensland in 2018 alerting it to the powers it had to act.

Based on my own research using satellite imagery and comparing the publicly available application documents, mining of West Pit started while Stage 3 of the mine was still being assessed under the EPBC Act. And after approval was given, mining was conducted outside the approved footprint.

The extent of West Pit on September 30, 2016 and relevant boundaries of the New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 expansion, then being assessed under the EPBC Act. At this time, West Pit had extended into the project area still being assessed. Stage 3 was approved in early 2017, and since then West Pit has continued south, outside the area applied for or approved under the EPBC Act.
Adapted from GoogleEarth by author.

Despite these apparent breaches, the federal environment department has taken no enforcement action.

The Conversation contacted New Hope Group, the company that owns New Acland mine, for comment, and they refuted this assertion. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Boyd said:

New Hope Group strongly deny any allegations that New Hope Coal has in any way acted unlawfully.

New Acland Coal had and still has all necessary approvals relating to the development of the pit Dr McGrath refers to. It is also not correct to say that the Land Court alerted the Department of its powers to act with regards to this pit.

The Department is obviously aware of its enforcement powers and was aware of the development of the pit well before 2018. Further, the Land Court in 2018 rejected Dr McGrath’s arguments and accepted New Acland Coal’s position that any issues relating to the lawfulness of the pit were not within the jurisdiction of the Land Court on the rehearing in 2018.

Accordingly, the lawfulness of the pit was irrelevant to the 2018 Land Court hearing.

Dr McGrath also fails to mention that his client had originally accepted in the original Land Court hearing (2015-2017) that the development of the pit was lawful only to completely change its position in the 2018.

State and federal environmental laws work in favour of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. “Regulatory capture” occurs when government regulators essentially stop enforcing the law against industries they are supposed to regulate.

This can occur for many reasons, including agency survival and to avoid confrontation with powerful political groups such as farmers or the mining sector.

In one apparent example of this, the federal environment department decided in 2019 not to recommend two critically endangered Murray-Darling wetlands for protection under the EPBC Act because the minister was unlikely to support the listings following a campaign against them by the National Irrigators Council.

Holes in our green safety net

Recent ecological disasters are proof our laws are failing us catastrophically. And they make the mining industry’s calls to speed-up project approvals particularly audacious.

We need look only to repeated, mass coral bleaching as the Great Barrier Reef collapses in front of us, or a catastrophic summer of bushfires.




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Both tragedies are driven by climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear Australia should be looking to fix the glaring holes in our green safety net, not widen them.The Conversation

Chris McGrath, Associate Professor in Environmental and Planning Regulation and Policy, The University of Queensland

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

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


Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock

Glenn Banks, Massey University


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

Almost every threat to modern humanity can be traced simply to our out-of-control population growth (think about arable land going to housing; continued growth in demand for petroleum fuels). Is anything being done to contain population growth on a national and international scale?

The question of population is more complex that it may seem – in the context of climate change as well as other issues such as biodiversity loss and international development.

As a starting point, let’s look at the statement “out-of-control population growth”. In fact, population growth is more “in control” than it has been for the past 50 years.




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Population isn’t growing everywhere

The global rate of population growth has been declining from just over 2% per year in 1970 to less than 1.1% in 2020 (and this estimate was made before COVID-19 erupted globally).

To put this in perspective, if the 2% growth rate had continued, the world’s population would have doubled in 35 years. At a 1.1% growth rate, it would now be set to double in 63 years – but the growth rate is still declining, so the doubling time will be lengthened again.

Population growth also varies significantly between countries. Among the 20 most populous countries in the world, three countries have growth rates of more than 2.5% – Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo – while Japan’s population is in decline (with a negative growth rate, -0.3%) and China, Russia, Germany and Thailand all have very low growth rates.

These growth rates vary in part because the population structures are very different across countries. Japan has an aged population, with 28% over 65 years and just 12% under 15 years. Nigeria has only 3% of people in the over-65 bracket and 44% under 15.

For comparison, 20% of New Zealanders are younger than 15 and 16% are older than 65. For Australia, the respective figures are 18% and 17%.

Migration also makes a significant contribution in some countries, propping up the working-age population and shaping the demographic structure. History and levels of economic development play an important role too: higher-income countries almost consistently have smaller families and lower growth rates.

Rise in consumption

It’s certainly valid to link population growth (even a more limited “in control” population growth) with climate change and loss of land. Everything else being equal, more people means more space taken up, more resources consumed and more carbon emitted.

But while population growth has slowed since the 1970s, resource consumption hasn’t. For example, there is no equivalent decline in fossil fuel use since the 1970s.

Fuel consumption varies throughout the world.
Flickr/Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

This is an area where not everyone is equal. If all people were to use the same amount of resources (fossil fuels, timber, minerals, arable land etc), then of course total resource use and carbon would rise. But resource use varies dramatically globally.

If we look at oil consumption per person in 2019, the average American used almost twice as much as someone in Japan, the second oil-thirstiest populous nation, and almost 350 times as much as a person living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is an easy out for us in the industrialised world to say “out-of-control population growth” is killing the planet, when instead it is equally valid – but more confronting – to say our out-of-control consumption is killing the planet.




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Population growth slows when women are educated

To come to the final part of the question: is anything being done to contain population growth, on a national or international scale?

Even if we set aside the argument above that population is not the only issue, or even the most significant one, in terms of threats to humanity, what factors might influence population growth in parts of the world where it is high?

Things are being done, but they may not be what most people expect. It has long been shown that as incomes rise and health care improves, more children survive and people tend to have smaller families.

This effect is not instantaneous. There is a lag where population growth rates might rise first before they begin to drop. This demographic transition is a relatively consistent pattern globally.

But, at the country level, the single most significant influence on reducing fertility rates, family size and overall population growth is access to education for girls and women.

Fertility rates drop when girls get access to education.
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

One study in 2016, drawing on World Bank population data across a wide range of countries, found:

… the main driver of overall fertility reduction is clearly the change in proportions of women at each education level.

In relation to climate change action, this study specifically notes:

It is education, or more specifically girls’ education, that is far more likely to result in lower carbon emissions than a shift to renewables, improved agricultural practices, urban public transport, or any other strategy now being contemplated.

Recent research looked at how the global population might change if we implemented the aspirations of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. It found the change would be significant and could even mean the global population stabilises by mid-century.The Conversation

Glenn Banks, Professor of Geography and Head of School, School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University

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

Environmental activism goes digital in lockdown – but could it change the movement for good?



Greta Thunberg talks with Professor Johan Rockström about the coronavirus and the environment at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, April 21 2020.
EPA-EFE/Jessica Gow

William Finnegan, University of Oxford

The environmental movement’s past recently collided with its future. April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, a milestone for environmentalism. A few days later, a global school strike was organised by Fridays for Future, the international coalition of young people inspired by Greta Thunberg’s protests against climate change. But after months of careful planning, both occasions were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic – and went online instead.

So when social distancing measures are eased, will protests return to the streets, or do these events mark a turning point?

In 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans (10% of the US population at the time) participated in the first Earth Day. Back then, US senator Gaylord Nelson conceived of a national “teach-in” to raise environmental awareness and recruited Harvard law student Denis Hayes to organise the event.




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Teach-ins had emerged in the mid-1960s as a hybrid of student sit-ins and informal lectures in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rather than going on strike, teachers and students occupied classrooms instead. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, 1,500 universities and 10,000 schools held Earth Day teach-ins in April 1970, “nurturing a generation of activists.”

A postage stamp issued to commemorate the first Earth Day, April 1970.
Michael Rega/Shutterstock

In the decades that followed, the environmental movement grew into a political and cultural force. Yet subsequent Earth Days failed to capture the urgency and grassroots passion of the original.

The 50th anniversary Earth Day sought to address this by going back to its roots. Teach-ins were planned for classrooms and campuses across the world, but COVID-19 closed schools. The day of action evolved into a 12-hour live-stream during which actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, and even Pope Francis shared messages of environmental stewardship and climate action.

The school climate strikes originated in August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg skipped school to protest inaction on climate change outside the Swedish parliament.

Within little more than a year, seven million students and their supporters were joining school strikes around the world and Thunberg was making headlines for her scathing speeches at the UN climate conference in Poland and [World Economic Forum in Davos]. Another global strike was scheduled for April 2020, but COVID-19 again pushed the event online.

The school strikes and annual Earth Day celebrations reflect different generations of environmental activism and different philosophies of protest. Yet both have been guided by the environmental slogan “think globally, act locally”. During the pandemic, environmental activists are now thinking globally and acting digitally.

‘Clicktivism’ and digital natives

I’m researching climate change education and youth climate activism in the UK. Like the protesters, I’ve been forced to adapt my plans and have been exploring the digital side of climate activism.

Online activism has been called “clicktivism”, or, disparagingly, “slacktivism”. It’s been characterised as impulsive, noncommittal and easily replicated, emphasising the lower risks and costs of political expression on social media versus protest and political engagement in the real world. But the relationship between digital technology and social movements is more complicated.

Researchers are split on the precise role of digital activism. From one perspective, campaigners can use social media to “supersize” their public engagement. This helps them to reach more people and bypass traditional media channels. Other researchers emphasise the power of the internet to help activists self-organise. Without the structure or hierarchy of traditional organisations, digital platforms can allow completely new forms of activism to flourish.




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A recent study found that climate advocacy groups that started on the internet, such as 350.org, have different online strategies, tactics and theories of change compared to older environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Founded in 2008, 350.org (which is both a URL and reference to the safe level of 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) led the first wave of internet-savvy, youth-driven environmental organisations.

Successful digital campaigns at 350.org have been described as a virtuous cycle where online tools spur offline action – the results of which can be documented and shared online to inspire further action.

Modern activists can film demonstrations using smartphones and share them online, reaching a much wider audience.
Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock

It’s too early to say how the school climate strikes of 2019 have influenced the broader movement, but current research is exploring how climate strikers are using Instagram and how collective identities on social media may drive collective action. As “digital natives”, these young climate activists grew up with the internet, smartphones and social media. Their movement uses memes and hashtags across YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, where Thunberg has more than four million followers.

While COVID-19 prevents offline action, thousands of #ClimateStrikeOnline social media posts show solitary protesters around the world armed with handmade signs, a virtual echo of where the movement started. When it comes to climate activism, digital natives are now leading the way. The revolution will be live-streamed.The Conversation

William Finnegan, PhD Candidate in Climate Education and Activism, University of Oxford

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

Cutting ‘green tape’ may be good politicking, but it’s bad policy. Here are 5 examples of regulation failure



The eastern tributary in the Woronora drinking water catchment
Ian Wright, Author provided

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

Debate about how Australia will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is heating up. As part of the economic recovery, business groups have renewed calls to cut “green tape” – environmental regulation that new projects, such as new mines, must follow.

In response, federal environment minister Sussan Ley wants to introduce new legislation to cut green tape and speed up project approvals.




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However a major ten-yearly review of the federal government’s key environment legislation is not due to be finished until October.

Cutting green tape is a long-held aim of the Morrison government, which claims excessive environmental regulation unfairly stifles businesses.

But this isn’t the case. In my 30 years of experience researching water pollution, “green tape” has not translated into effective environmental regulation of industry. In fact, I’m yet to see a coal mining operation that’s effectively regulated after approved through the NSW and federal environmental assessment processes.

Here are five examples that show how existing environmental regulations have done little to prevent pollution and toxic chemicals from entering the environment.

1. Closed mines pollute for decades

My research on water pollution from coal mines in the Sydney basin routinely reveals inadequate environmental regulation. I’ve repeatedly uncovered long-standing environmental issues the industry doesn’t seem to learn from, such as pollution continually leaching from active and closed mines.




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As part of my PhD research in 2002/3, I studied Canyon Colliery – a coal mine deep in the Blue Mountains that closed in 1997. The mine constantly releases large volumes of toxic zinc and nickel contaminated water from the flooded underground workings into an otherwise pristine mountain stream.

This caused ecological damage in the Grose River, including a steep reduction in species and numbers of river invertebrates below the entry of the mine wastes into the river.

Contaminated drainage washing out of the closed canyon mine in Blue Mountains National Park.
Ian Wright, Author provided

It’s now 23 years since the mining stopped, but the pollution continues – testimony of weak and ineffective environmental regulation. And it will probably last for centuries.

The Canyon Mine is just one of thousands of contaminated, derelict mining and industrial sites dotted around Australia lacking environmental controls.

2. Wollangambe River

Environmental regulation has become more stringent in the last 25 years thanks to legislation introduced by the Howard government in 1999, and NSW’s Protection of the Environment Operations Act introduced in 1997.

But despite this legislation, many new and active mines that lead to environmental damage have been assessed and approved.

Research by my team at Western Sydney University has documented pollution from an active Blue Mountains coal mine, Clarence Colliery.

The mine caused severe metal contamination and ecological damage to the Wollangambe, a World Heritage River. Our research led to the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) in 2017 imposing more effective restrictions on the release of toxic pollutants from the mine.

The author sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
Author provided

Despite approvals from both the NSW and federal governments, it seemed no one had noticed the magnitude of pollution from poorly treated mine wastes until our research was conducted. This caused ecological degradation to more than 20 kilometres of the highly “protected” Wollangambe River.

The Conversation contacted Centennial Coal, which owns Clarence Colliery, for comment. They directed us to their statements in 2017, when the EPA finished a five-year review of Clarence’s Environmental Protection Licence (EPL). Then, the company said:

As a result of this review Clarence will operate under a new EPL which will include agreed reductions in metal concentration limits for all water discharged to the Wollangambe. Salinity targets will also be set at 100 EC (electrical conductivity).

Clarence will also be required to comply with a Pollution Reduction Programme (PRP), also issued by the EPA, which will result in Centennial formalising options to address all water quality issues and to meet specific water quality milestones.

3. Georges River

In 2010 I made a submission as part of the environmental assessment for an extension of BHP Billiton’s Bulli Seam coal mining operations (now owned by South 32).

This involved reading thousands of pages of consultant reports explaining how the expanded operation would attempt to avoid or minimise impacts to the environment.

The mine extension was approved. Despite the many “green tape” hurdles, the approved mine was allowed to discharge wastes which our research discovered contained pollutants that were hazardous to river life in the Georges River. These included salt, nickel, zinc, aluminium and arsenic polluting the upper Georges River.

Environmental groups took the coal mine owner to court in 2012, and I provided my evidence for the court case to the NSW EPA.

The EPA has since worked with the coal miner to reduce pollution from the mine.

4. Coal mining under Sydney’s water supply

Many were stunned on March 16 this year, when the NSW government signed off on new coal mine “longwalls” directly under Woronora Reservoir, part of Sydney’s drinking water supply.

Longwall mining is the continuous mechanical removal of coal in underground mines that allows the roof of the mine to cave in after the coal is removed.

So what can they do to a river? Redbank Creek near Picton – 65 kilometres southwest of Sydney – provides a sad testimony.

Redbank Creek no longer flows normally, but has isolated pools of contaminated water.
Ian Wright, Author provided

For nearly a decade, I documented damage where falling ground levels (subsidence) caused by longwalls led to extensive damage to the creek channel.

The land surface fell more than one meter. This caused cracking, warping and buckling of the creek channel. It now rarely holds water in many stretches. Isolated stagnant pools in the creek now accumulate saline and metal-contaminated water containing little aquatic life except for mosquitoes.

The mine responsible for this damage, Tahmoor Colliery, is seeking to extend its operations and the NSW government is currently considering the development.

This mine also disposes of about four to eight megalitres of poorly treated wastes each day to the Bargo River, a popular freshwater swimming river for south-western Sydney.

5. PFAS contamination

Despite the existence of “green tape”, unforeseen problems have left Australia with many contaminated sites that may never be fully cleaned up.

We’ve seen this in the dozens of locations across Australia where toxic PFAS chemicals have contaminated land, water, ecosystems and people.




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These were previously regarded as safe chemical additives, for example in fire fighting foam, particularly at military bases.

Such contamination is very expensive to remediate and in February this year landholders near three defence bases reached a financial settlement for the PFAS damage to their property.

“Green tape” is an emotive word implying unnecessary and slow environmental regulation that delays major projects.

Given my own direct experience involved poorly regulated coal mines, I shudder to imagine the environmental degradation “fast-tracked” environmental regulation will lead to.


The Conversation also contacted SIMEC, which owns Tahmoor Colliery. A spokesperson said:

Mining in NSW is governed by stringent state and federal laws enforced by a number of government departments and regulators. SIMEC Mining acquired the Tahmoor Coking Coal Mine two years ago and takes its environmental, compliance and social responsibilities seriously.

Tahmoor Mine has been operating for well over 40 years. We acknowledge that historical mine activity did impact Redbank Creek and that this was self-reported to the regulator. Since then, SIMEC has worked closely with the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) to enact a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the creek. Recent rainfall has demonstrated the success of this work and we are confident that the rehabilitation works will restore the creek.

While our operations do produce water as part of the mining process, this is treated and monitored in accordance with our licence conditions. The quality of this water is mandated by our environment protection licence issued and monitored by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). Typically, the water monitoring results are well below those limits allowed by the licence. To further improve water quality, SIMEC Mining has committed to the installation of a new water treatment plant.

Water management has been a key focus for SIMEC in the planning of the proposed Tahmoor South extension. We have commissioned extensive specialist assessments to understand any potential impact on ground and surface water. If our extension is approved, these water assets will be carefully monitored throughout the life of the mine to ensure that should any issue occur, it is detected early and resolved efficiently.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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