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.
Three years after the Paris Agreement was struck, we now finally know the rules – or most of them, at least – for its implementation.
The Paris Rulebook, agreed at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, gives countries a common framework for reporting and reviewing progress towards their climate targets.
Yet the new rules fall short in one crucial area. While the world will now be able to see how much we are lagging behind on the necessary climate action, the rulebook offers little to compel countries to up their game to the level required.
The national pledges adopted in Paris are still woefully inadequate to meet the 1.5℃ or 2℃ global warming goals of the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to the Katowice talks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report detailing the urgent need to accelerate climate policy. Yet the summit ran into trouble in its efforts to formally welcome the report, with delegates eventually agreeing to welcome its “timely completion”.
Rather than directly asking for national climate targets to be increased, the Katowice text simply reiterates the existing request in the Paris Agreement for countries to communicate and update their contributions by 2020.
Much now hinges on the UN General Assembly summit in September 2019, to bring the much-needed political momentum towards a new raft of pledges in 2020 that are actually in line with the scientific reality.
Ratcheting up ambition
A key element of the Paris Agreement is the Global Stocktake – a five-yearly assessment of whether countries are collectively on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global warming.
The new rulebook affirms that this process will consider “equity and best available science”. But it does not elaborate specifically on how these inputs will be used, and how the outcomes of the stocktake will increase ambition.
This raises concerns that the rulebook will ensure we know if we are falling behind on climate action, but will offer no prescription for fixing things. This risks failing to address one of the biggest issues with the Paris Agreement so far: that countries are under no obligation to ensure their climate pledges are in line with the overall goals. A successful, ambitious and prescriptive five-yearly review process will be essential to get the world on track.
Transparency and accounting
One of the aims of the Katowice talks was to develop a common set of formats and schedules for countries to report their climate policy progress.
The new rules allow a degree of flexibility for the most vulnerable countries, who are not compelled to submit quantified climate pledges or regular transparency reports. All other countries will be bound to report on their climate action every two years, starting in 2024.
However, given the “bottom-up” nature of the Paris Agreement, countries are largely able to determine their own accounting rules, with guidelines agreed on what information they should provide. But a future international carbon trading market will obviously require a standardised set of rules. The newly agreed rulebook carries a substantial risk of double-counting where countries could potentially count overseas emissions reductions towards their own target, even if another country has also claimed this reduction for itself.
This issue became a major stumbling block in the negotiations, with Brazil and others refusing to agree to rules that would close this loophole, and so discussions will continue next year. In the meantime, the UN has no official agreement on how to implement international carbon trading.
Accounting rules for action in the land sector have also been difficult to agree. Countries such as Brazil and some African nations sought to avoid an agreement on this issue, while others, such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, prefer to continue existing rules that have delivered windfall credits to these countries.
The new rulebook defines what will constitute “climate finance”, and how it will be reported and reviewed.
Developed countries are now obliged to report every two years on what climate finance they plan to provide, while other countries in a position to provide climate finance are encouraged to follow the same schedule.
But with a plethora of eligible financial instruments – concessional and non-concessional loans, guarantees, equity, and investments from public and private sources – the situation is very complex. In some cases, vulnerable countries could be left worse off, such as if loans have to be repaid with interest, or if financial risk instruments fail.
Countries can voluntarily choose to report the grant equivalent value of these financial instruments. Such reporting will be crucial for understanding the scale of climate finance mobilised.
The Paris Agreement delivered the blueprint for a global response to climate change. Now, the Paris Rulebook lays out a structure for reporting and understanding the climate action of all countries.
But the world is far from on track to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The latest report from the UN Environment Programme suggests existing climate targets would need to be increased “around fivefold” for a chance of limiting warming to 1.5℃. The newly agreed rules don’t offer a way to put us on this trajectory.
Multilateral climate policy has perhaps taken us as far as it can – it is now time for action at the national level. Australia, as a country with very high per-capita emissions, needs to step up to a leadership position and take on our fair share of the global response. This means making a 60% emissions cut by 2030, as outlined by the Climate Change Authority in 2015.
Such an ambitious pledge from Australia and other leading nations would galvanise the international climate talks in 2020. What the world urgently needs is a race to the top, rather than the current jockeying for position.
Tony Abbott has called for Australia to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, in a swingeing attack on Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee.
Abbott said the NEG was not about reducing prices but about cutting emissions. “The only certainty that the National Energy Guarantee as it stands would provide is the certainty of emissions reduction.”
Delivering the Bob Carter Commemorative Lecture in Melbourne, Abbott said: “Withdrawing from the Paris agreement that is driving the National Energy Guarantee would be the best way to keep prices down and employment up – and to save our party from a political legacy that could haunt us for the next decade at least”.
“As long as we remain in the Paris agreement – which is about reducing emissions, not building prosperity – all policy touching on emissions will be about their reduction, not our well-being. It’s the emissions obsession that’s at the heart of our power crisis and it’s this that has to end for our problems to ease.”
Abbott played down the importance of the government’s much-vaunted tax cuts in comparison with the implications of energy policy.
“These are strange times in Canberra when there’s a hullaballoo over modest tax cuts that only take effect fully in six or seven years’ time, while mandatory emissions cuts that start sooner, that mean more for the economy, and whose ramifications will be virtually impossible to reverse are expected more or less to be waved through”.
In the party room last week Abbott had little support for his attack on the NEG. But his constant agitation is unhelpful for the government as it tries to win backing from the states and territories for the scheme. It also reinforces the impression of division in government ranks, even though the majority of the backbenchers now just want the energy policy settled.
Abbott said that his government in 2015 had set a 2030 emissions reduction target “on the basis that this was more or less what could be achieved without new government programs and without new costs on the economy.
‘’There was no advice then to the effect that it would take a Clean Energy Target or a National Energy Guarantee to get there,” he said.
“My government never put emissions reduction ahead of the wellbeing of families and the prosperity of industries”.
When the world’s leading country exited the Paris agreement “it can hardly be business as usual,” he said. “Absent America, my government would not have signed up to the Paris treaty, certainly not with the current target”.
Abbott said he could understand “the government would like to crack the so-called trilemma of keeping the lights on, getting power prices down and reducing emissions in line with our Paris targets – it’s just that there’s no plausible evidence all three can be done at the same time”.
“If you read the National Energy Guarantee documentation, there’s a few lines about lower prices, a few pages about maintaining supply, and page after impenetrable page about reducing emissions.
’‘The government is kidding us when it says it’s all about reducing prices when there ’s an emissions reduction target plus a reliability target but no price target”.
The government said it wanted to give certainty but the only certainty was that any NEG approved by state ALP governments at COAG would be “massively ramped up to deliver even more emissions reduction under the next Labor government”.
Abbott repeated his call for the government to subsidise the boosting of baseload power. He again suggested threatening to compulsorily acquire Liddell coal-fired power station, which AGL is refusing either to keep going or to sell.