Suddenly, at the level of central banks, Australia is regarded as an investment risk.
On Wednesday Martin Flodén, the deputy governor of Sweden’s central bank, announced that because Australia and Canada were “not known for good climate work”.
As a result the bank had sold its holdings of bonds issued by the Canadian province of Alberta and by the Australian states of Queensland and Western Australia.
Central banks normally make the news when they change their “cash rate” and households pay less (or more) on their mortgages.
But central banks such as Australia’s Reserve Bank and the European Central Bank, the People’s Bank of China and the US Federal Reserve have broader responsibilities.
There’s more to central banks than rates
As an example, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva warned last month that the necessary transition away from fossil fuels would lead to significant amounts of “stranded assets”.
Those assets will be coal mines and oil fields that become worthless, endangering the banks that have lent to develop them. More frequent floods, storms and fires will pose risks for insurance companies. Climate change will make these and other shocks more frequent and more severe.
In a speech in March the deputy governor of Australia’s Reserve Bank Guy Debelle said we needed to stop thinking of extreme events as cyclical.
We need to think in terms of trend rather than cycles in the weather. Droughts have generally been regarded (at least economically) as cyclical events that recur every so often. In contrast, climate change is a trend change. The impact of a trend is ongoing, whereas a cycle is temporary.
And he said the changes that will be imposed on us and the changes we will need might be abrupt.
The transition path to a less carbon-intensive world is clearly quite different depending on whether it is managed as a gradual process or is abrupt. The trend changes aren’t likely to be smooth. There is likely to be volatility around the trend, with the potential for damaging outcomes from spikes above the trend.
Australia’s central bank and others are going further then just responding to the impacts of climate change. They are doing their part to moderate it.
No more watching from the sidelines
Over thirty central banks (including Australia’s), and a number of financial supervisory agencies, have created a Network for Greening the Financial System.
Its purpose is to enhance the role of the financial system in mobilising finance to support the transitions that will be needed. The US Federal Reserve has not joined yet but is considering how to participate.
One of its credos is that central banks should lead by example in their own investments.
They hold and manage over A$17 trillion. That makes them enormously large investors and a huge influence on global markets.
As part of their traditional focus on the liquidity, safety and returns from assets, they are taking into account climate change in deciding how to invest.
The are increasingly putting their money into “green bonds”, which are securities whose proceeds are used to finance projects that combat climate change or the depletion of biodiversity and natural resources.
Over A$300 billion worth of green bonds were issued in 2018, with the total stock now over A$1 trillion.
Central banks are investing, and setting standards
While large, that is still less than 1% of the stock of conventional securities. It means green bonds are less liquid and have higher buying and selling costs.
It also means smaller central banks lack the skills to deal with them.
These problems have been addressed by the Bank for International Settlements, a bank owned by 60 of the central banks.
In September it launched a green bond fund that will pool investments from 140 (mostly central bank) clients.
Its products will initially be denominated in US dollars but will later also be available in euros. It will be supported by an advisory committee of the world’s top central bankers.
It is alert to the risk of “greenwashing” and will only buy bonds that comply with the International Capital Market Association’s Green Bond Principles or the Climate Bond Initiative’s Climate Bond Standard.
Launching the fund in Basel, Switzerland, the bank’s head of banking Peter Zöllner said he was
confident that, by aggregating the investment power of central banks, we can influence the behaviour of market participants and have some impact on how green investment standards develop
It’s an important role. Traditionally focused on keeping the financial system safe, our central banks are increasingly turning to using their stewardship of the financial system to keep us, and our environment, safe.
Stretching towards Antarctica lies a hidden natural oasis – a massive underwater plateau created when continents split more than 100 million years ago.
Straddling the Indian and Southern Oceans, the Kerguelen Plateau is three times the size of Japan. It’s farthest depths are four kilometres below the surface; its islands form one of the most isolated archipelagos on Earth. These include Heard Island and McDonald islands, Australia’s only active surface volcanoes.
Australia and France share a territorial border across the Kerguelen Plateau and work together to study it. The most recent findings, The Kerguelen Plateau: Marine Ecosystems and Fisheries, have been published by the Australian Antarctic Division.
The collaboration has fostered new knowledge of the Kerguelen Plateau as a unique living laboratory – and as the home to one of the world’s most expensive fish.
Tracking the Patagonian toothfish
Volcanic activity pumps vast amounts of minerals such as iron into the water, making the Kerguelen Plateau a biological hotspot.
The plateau hosts populations of Patagonian toothfish, or Dissostichus eleginoides, a predatory fish that lives and feeds near the bottom of the Southern Ocean. The brownish-grey fish grow up to 2 metres long, live for 60 years and can weigh 200kg. The species is often marketed as Chilean seabass.
Australia and France have worked together since the early 2000s to eliminate illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, to understand the toothfish’s population dynamics and surrounding ecology. As a long-lived top predator with a broad diet, they have a key role in the structure of communities inhabiting the seafloor.
The toothfish is also economically important. Its snow-white flesh is prized as rich, good at carrying flavour and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Catches command high market prices: prepared fillets have sold for more than A$100 per kg in recent years.
Approved commercial fishing vessels catch Patagonian toothfish around the plateau. Over the past few decades, scientific observers on fishing boats have tagged and released more than 50,000 toothfish at the Australian islands. This, along with annual surveys, biological sampling and data collection, has shed light on the species’ biology and population ecology.
This informs management measures such as total allowable catches and “move on” rules, where vessels must cease fishing in an area once a predetermined weight of non-target fish has been caught.
The nations continue to manage toothfish populations, as well as fish, seabirds and marine mammals that interact with fishing activity.
The shallow banks of the plateau support a spectacular diversity of long-lived sponges, brittle stars, anemones, soft and hard corals and crustaceans. These fragile and slow-growing communities are vulnerable to disturbance. Fishing gear fitted with automated video cameras helps locate and protect sensitive areas, and Australia and France have established marine reserves and managed areas across the plateau.
A unique underwater oasis
The plateau’s islands are incredibly isolated and provide the only breeding and land-based refuge for birds and seals in this part of the Southern Ocean.
Submarine volcanoes, some of them active, surround the islands and are particularly abundant around the younger McDonald Islands.
The plateau cuts across the strong current systems that sweep around the South Pole. This thrusts deep, cold water, enriched with volcanic minerals, to the surface then back to the seafloor. In turn, this powers a food chain stretching from small zooplankton to fish and predators such as Patagonian toothfish, penguins and albatross, and diving marine mammals such as elephant seals and sperm whales.
Carbon and nutrients returned to the seafloor support diverse communities of invertebrate and fish species that could not inhabit this location if not for the plateau.
The orientation and location of the Kerguelen Plateau make it a canary in the coalmine for understanding the southward shift in marine ecology due to climate change. As sea temperatures rise and ocean currents shift, plant and animal species will move south in search of cooler waters.
Recent modelling suggests those species most at risk from climate change in this region are those sedentary or slow-moving invertebrates, such as sea urchins.
Policy backed by science
Work continues to build comprehensive maps of the seafloor, deploy a network of ocean robots to collect physical and biological information, and use French and Australian fishing fleets for research.
The plateau’s waters are in the region overseen by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international treaty body. French-Australian research is presented to the commission at meetings in Hobart each year to guide management decisions.
The cross-country partnership is a model for international scientific cooperation and fisheries management. In the context of a changing climate, these efforts will provide insight into future impacts on natural systems throughout the Southern Ocean.