BlackRock is the canary in the coalmine. Its decision to dump coal signals what’s next


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, that it will dump more than half a billion dollars in thermal coal shares from all of its actively managed portfolios, might not seem like big news.

Announcements of this kind have come out steadily over the past couple of years.

Virtually all the major Australian and European banks and insurers, and many other global institutions, have already announced such policies.

According to the Unfriend Coal Campaign, insurance companies have stopped covering roughly US$8.9 trillion of coal investments – more than one-third (37%) of the coal industry’s global assets, and stopped offering reinsurance to 46% of them.

Blackrock matters because it is big

The announcement matters, in part because of Blackrock’s sheer size.

It is the world’s largest investor, with a total of $US7 trillion in funds under its control. Its announcement it will “put climate change at the center of its investment strategy” raises questions about the soundness of smaller financial institutions that remain committed to coal and to a carbon-based economy.


Exract from BlackRock’s letter to clients, January 14, 2020

Blackrock is also important because its primary business is index funds, that are meant to replicate entire markets.

So far these funds are not affected by the divestment policy. BlackRock’s iShares United States S&P 500 Index fund, for instance, has nearly US$23 billion in assets, including as much as US$1 billion in energy investments.

But the contradiction between the company’s new activist stance and the passive replication of an energy-heavy index such as Australia’s is obvious. The pressure to find a solution will grow.

In time, the entire share market will be affected

One solution might be for large mining companies such as BHP to dump their coal assets in order to remain part of both Blackrock’s actively managed (stock picking) and passively managed (all stocks) portfolios.

Another might be the development of index funds from which firms reliant on fossil fuels are excluded. It is even possible that the compilers of stock market indexes will themselves exclude these firms.

The announcement has big implications for the Australian government.




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Blackrock chief executive Laurence Fink noted that climate change has become the top issue raised by clients. He said it would soon affect all all investments – everything from municipal bonds to mortgages for homes.

Once investors start assessing government bonds in terms of climate change, Australia’s government will be in serious trouble.

Australia’s AAA rating will be at risk

The bushfire catastrophe and the government’s inadequate response have shown the world Australia is both among the countries most exposed to climate catastrophe and one of the worst in terms of contributions to solutions.

Once bond investors follow the lead of Blackrock and other financial institutions, divestment of Australian government bonds will follow.

This process has already started, with the decision of Sweden’s central bank to unload its holdings of Australian government bonds.

Taken in isolation, Sweden’s move had virtually no effect on Australia’s bond prices and yields. But the most striking feature of the divestment movement so far is the speed with which it has grown from symbolic gestures to a severe constraint on funding for the firms it touches.




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Climate change: why Sweden’s central bank dumped Australian bonds


The fact that the Adani corporation was unable to find a single bank willing to fund its Carmichael mine is an indication of the pressure that will come to bear.

The effects might be felt before large-scale divestment takes place. Ratings agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poors are supposed to anticipate risks to bondholders before they materialise.

It’ll make inaction expensive

Once there is a serious threat of large-scale divestment in Australian bonds, the agencies will be obliged to take this into account in setting Ausralia’s credit rating. The much-prized AAA rating is likely to be an early casualty.

That would mean higher interest rates for Australian government bonds which would flow through the entire economy, including the home mortgage rates mentioned in the Blackrock statement.

The government’s case for doing nothing about climate change (other than cashing in on past efforts) has been premised on the “economy-wrecking” costs of serious action.

But as investments associated with coal are increasingly seen as toxic, we run an increasing risk that inaction will cause greater damage.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

How an Aussie invention could soon cut 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions



Australian-designed technology will soon be responsible for 50% of all solar energy produced globally.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University

In the 1980s, a global race was underway: to find a more efficient way of converting energy from the sun into electricity.

Some 30 years ago, our research team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) came up with a breakthrough, called the PERC silicon solar cell. The cells have become the most widely deployed electricity generation technology in terms of capacity added globally each year – comfortably exceeding wind, coal, gas, hydro and others.




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PERC stands for Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell. By the end of this year, PERC technology will be mitigating about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal burning. Assuming that its rapid growth continues, it should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5% by the mid-2020s and possibly much more in later years.

The terrible bushfires in Australia this summer, enhanced by the hottest and driest year on record in 2019, underline the need for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. By far the most effective way is driving coal out of electricity systems through very rapid deployment of solar and wind.

Soon, our Aussie invention will be generating half the world’s solar power. It is a pertinent reminder of Australia’s capacity for finding transformative technical solutions to address climate change. But we need the right government support.

A solar farm near Canberra.
Lukas Coch/AAP

An Aussie invention

Solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity without moving parts. More efficient solar cells generally produce cheaper electricity because fewer solar cells, glass covers, transport, land and support structures are needed for a given solar power output.

By the early 1980s, the best laboratory cells around the world had reached 17% efficiency. This means that 17% of the sunlight was converted to electricity, and the rest (83%) of the solar energy was lost (as heat).

During the 1980s, our research team at UNSW led by Martin Green and myself created a series of world-record-efficient silicon solar cells. We reported 18% efficiency in 1984, 19% efficiency also in 1984, and the important milestone of 20% efficiency in 1986.




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In 1989 our group reported a new solar cell design called “PERC”, with a record efficiency of 22-23%.

This new, more efficient cell was better than the old ones because we eliminated some defects in the silicon crystal surface, which led to lower electronic losses. The PERC design also enabled us to capture the sunlight more effectively.

In the 1990s, further improvements to laboratory PERC cells were made at UNSW, leading to cells in the 24-25% efficiency range. The global silicon solar cell efficiency record remained at UNSW until recently.

There was a 25-year gap between development of the PERC cell and its rapid commercial adoption, which began in 2013. During this time, many people worked to adapt the PERC design to commercial production.

PERC cells are more efficient than previous commercial cells. Strong incentives for more efficient cells have recently arisen due to the continually falling share of cell costs as a proportion of total solar power system costs (including transport, land and mounting systems).

The big benefits of solar

Currently, solar power constitutes more than 40% of net new electricity generation capacity additions, with fossil, nuclear, wind, hydro and other renewables making up the balance.

Solar is growing faster than the other electricity generation technologies. Over time, as fossil-fuelled power stations are retired, solar (and wind) will dominate electricity production, with consequent large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar power has experienced sustained rapid exponential growth over decades, while other generation technologies are currently experiencing static, falling or negligible sales.
https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Mar/Renewable-Capacity-Statistics-2019

This year, enough PERC solar modules will be sold to generate 60-70 gigawatts of power. According to projections, PERC will reach three quarters of annual solar module sales in the mid-2020s, enough to match the generation capacity additions from all other technologies combined.

About A$50 billion worth of PERC modules have been sold to date. This is expected to reach several hundred billion Australian dollars later this decade.

Just imagine

Australian emissions (excluding those from bushfires) are falling because we are installing solar and wind four times faster per capita than the EU, US, Japan and China.

Our position as a global leader in renewables installation is uncertain because the Renewable Energy Target, which was achieved in 2019, has not been extended.




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With supportive policy, such as facilitating more transmission to bring solar and wind power to the cities, Australia could greatly increase the speed at which wind and solar are deployed, yielding rapid and deep cuts at about zero-net cost.

Such policy would entail stronger and sustained government support for renewables deployment, and research and development of new technologies.

Renewables must replace polluting coal-fired power if the world is to tackle climate change.
SASCHA STEINBACH/EPA

Looking ahead

Solar energy is vast, ubiquitous and indefinitely sustainable. Simple calculations show that less than 1% of the world’s land area would be required to provide all of the world’s energy from solar power – much of it on building roofs, in deserts and floating on water bodies.

Solar systems use only very common materials (we could never run out), have minimal need for mining (about 1% of that needed for equivalent fossil or nuclear fuels), have minimal security and military risks (we will never go to war over solar access), cannot have significant accidents (unlike nuclear), and have minimal environmental impact over unlimited time scales.

Australia is making major contributions to mitigating climate change both through rapid deployment of wind and solar and technology development such as our PERC cells. But with better government support, much more can be done – quickly and at low cost.The Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

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

Might the bushfire crisis be the turning point on climate politics Australian needs?



The bushfire crisis is big enough to change the government’s emissions policy, but it swill need more.
Shutterstock

John Daley, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Grattan Institute

Countries have long periods in which policies change little, and only by increments.

Occasionally there are turning points, when previously intractable policy problems are suddenly resolved, recasting policy for the long term.

Many are asking whether this summer’s environmental catastrophe might be such a turning point – a Port Arthur moment or Australia’s Sandy Hook, Chernobyl or Pearl Harbour.

The short answer is: it is too soon to tell, but the early signals from the federal government are not good.

Crises can provide a window for big policy changes. In such times, the normal political constraints are relaxed, although not for long.

Crisis can beget change

The need for revenue during World War I opened the way for the federal government to levy a national income tax. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 stimulated many changes concerned with national security.

Typically, a crisis only leads to substantial policy changes if there is also a broader understanding about the need to act, and the shape of the change needed.

The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes provided the basis for policies that ensured full employment during and after World War II.

The monetarist theories of Milton Friedman provided the means to limit inflation in the 1970s and 1980s.

A library of pre-existing publications on national security directed policy in the wake of 9/11.

Theory is needed as well

Crisis and economic theory were essential to some of the big reforms under the Hawke and Keating governments, including a new approach to Australian retirement incomes.

Superannuation had been a patchwork of individual employer arrangements since before federation.

The stagflation crisis of simultaneous unemployment and inflation in the 1970s created the conditions for a new approach. Inflation rose to 15%, unemployment to 6%. It led to government-union Accords and deferred wage increases that were the basis for Australia’s universal employee superannuation scheme.




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Many see the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as a turning point in ending the cold war and dismantling the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev acted decisively in the midst of a disaster that created a groundswell of support for change bringing in an system (capitalism) which had deep theoretical underpinnings.

Not every crisis leads to change

US President Obama hugs Mark Barden, whose seven year old son Daniel was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA

For decades, gun control has been contentious in the United States, where gun-related homicides are ten times the rates elsewhere. 26 people, including 20 children aged 6 and 7, in a gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

President Obama was personally committed to, and moved fast after the crisis to call for, tighter gun control. But change was stymied by powerful stakeholders.

By contrast, John Howard was successful in moving quickly after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre to tighten gun controls.

The Australian gun lobby lacked the political sophistication of America’s National Rifle Association, and Australia’s political system has fewer veto points than in the US.

The attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 brought World War II to America, mobilising huge levels of public support for American involvement. Within days, Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

The nation might not be ready

There are high levels of public support for action climate change in Australia, but can we say it is the same as “war fever”?

Australia’s emissions policy has been stuck for a long time. Australia was recently ranked as having the worst climate policy in the world, and some of the worst outcomes.

Australia’s annual emissions are not expected to change much between 2020 and 2030 – which doesn’t give Australia much chance of getting to near zero emissions by 2050, which is generally regarded as what’s needed to avoid runaway climate change.

Many in public policy have spent years developing credible policy responses to climate change. But Australia has repealed or failed to implement five versions of climate policy since 2007.




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There are reasons to believe the summer bushfire crisis won’t be any different.

No-one has accused the Prime Minister of moving too fast or too far in responding to the fires. In his interview with ABC at the weekend, he did not commit to tightening, or even reviewing, Australia’s carbon emissions targets in light of the fires.

Powerful stakeholders continue to deny the need for significant policy change: last month the federal resources minister, Matt Canavan, referred to the “bogeyman of climate change” as a distraction from “shortcomings in managing our land.”

Fake news on social media and in some sections of the mainstream media about an arson emergency has blunted the chance of a broad-based popular groundswell.

There’s hope, but not much

The proposed royal commission might be a means to find a way forward on climate change. But by the time it reports, the fires will be out, and the moment of crisis will have passed.

For now, the fires smoulder on. It’s not too late for the federal government to seize the opportunity for substantial change. State governments may well use the aftermath of the fires to coordinate their responses to climate change – possibly without the Commonwealth. For the moment, they are understandably preoccupied with responding to an ongoing emergency.




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There is a real possibility that Australia will have to wait for another crisis – with different leadership, and more public consensus – before there is significant change on emissions policy.

The bushfire smoke that chokes 10 million people in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and elsewhere will no doubt contribute to changing attitudes, and it might even shift the media’s coverage of climate change, but there’s no guarantee that it will be the policy turning point we need.The Conversation

John Daley, Chief Executive Officer, Grattan Institute and Emily Millane, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

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

I’ve won cases against the government before. Here’s why I doubt a climate change class action would succeed



Bushfire-related class action suits against the government have had little success in the past, but there are other benefits to pursuing a case.
Steven Saphore/AAP

George Newhouse, Macquarie University

This summer’s bushfire apocalypse has caused many Australians to express their fury at a federal government they feel is either in denial about the impact of climate change or failing to address it sufficiently.

To many, the fact the Morrison government did not act on warnings from former firefighting chiefs or take meaningful action to implement a natural disaster plan is further evidence of a broken political system and a political elite that isn’t listening.

When you consider the full impact of the bushfires, it is no wonder there are now calls for a class action lawsuit to hold our government accountable for these failures and its inaction on climate change.

I’ve brought several class action suits against the government on issues such as asylum seekers and breaches of privacy. Though climate change class actions might be possible elsewhere in the world, here in Australia, there are many obstacles to success.

Legal precedent for climate change suit

Many environmental activists have been emboldened by a significant legal victory by the Dutch environmental group, Urgenda Foundation. For seven years, the Urgenda Foundation has been fighting the Dutch government to force it to reduce Holland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

In December, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the finding of the Hague Court of Appeals that the government is obligated by the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights to take

suitable measures if a real and immediate risk to people’s lives or welfare exists and the state is aware of that risk.

The ruling further stated

the obligation to take suitable measures also applies when it comes to environmental hazards that threaten large groups or the population as a whole, even if the hazards will only materialise over the long term.

The case marked the first time a government has been required by the courts to take action against climate change.

Urgenda’s success has led to similar legal strategies in a host of countries, including Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, the UK and the US. Australia, however, is missing from the list.




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The reason is that a climate change class action is unlikely to succeed here because we do not have the equivalent of the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into our legal system.

Without a bill of rights or other laws that mandate precautionary measures to mitigate climate change, it is unimaginable that an Australian judge would make a ruling requiring our government to take measures to reduce carbon emissions.

Class action suits against companies

Nevertheless, our courts still have a role to play in cases related to natural disasters, particularly when the cause of damages is clearly identifiable.

There have been successful class action suits against businesses that were found to be responsible for igniting bushfires.

For instance, survivors of the devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria received a payout of A$500 million from the power company SP AusNet after the courts ruled the fires were caused by poorly maintained powerlines. It was the largest settlement in Australian legal history.

In the current bushfire crisis, however, there is no faulty powerline to point to as the cause of the destruction. And when it comes to suing the government for failing to take steps to prevent a bushfire, things get much trickier.

The 2009 Black Saturday fires killed 173 people and burned 450,000 hectares of land.
Andrew Brownbill/AAP

What is required to sue the state

For starters, it is doubtful the federal government would ever be held responsible for the current crisis because the states and territories are responsible under Australian law for bushfire fighting and land management.

Our courts are also reluctant to impose a duty or liability on any government regarding its policy-making functions – including how to prepare for a fire season. The courts have likewise been reluctant to mandate how a government allocates resources and how they make day-to-day fire management decisions.

As a result, claimants in bushfire cases have had to argue the government owed them a common law duty of care. And this can only be determined through a complex evaluation of the relationship between the person who is harmed and the state.




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When our courts have considered claims arising from bushfires in the past, they have tended to put limits on the ability of individuals to take action against the state.

For example, when the Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, one of the affected parties, Electro Optic Systems Pty Ltd, sued the state of NSW.

The case alleged the state’s Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service owed a duty of care to the plaintiffs and that its fire-fighting strategy was flawed. As a result, the state should be held responsible for any losses.

Because the direct cause of the fire was a lightning strike, the ACT Court of Appeal found the state did not owe a duty of care to property owners to prevent harm caused by the spread of the bushfire.

Prime Minister John Howard visits the bushfire-damaged Mount Stromlo Observatory in 2003.
David Foote/AAP

Why legal action is important, even if it fails

One final question remains: are our courts really the best place to address political inaction on climate change?

Court proceedings are slow and expensive. They will take years to reach finality, as the Urgenda case shows. And the climate crisis requires urgent action both locally and internationally.




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But despite the fact a successful class action along the lines of Urgenda is doubtful in Australia, there are some who may go forward with a case.

Many advocates believe that arguing for a reduction of CO₂ emissions in court would provide a compelling, fact-based case they could use to demand change from the government. And this process might give those who are concerned about our planet some hope in dark times.The Conversation

George Newhouse, Adjunct Professor of Law, Macquarie University

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

Shaming people for flying won’t cut airline emissions. We need a smarter solution



Swedish airport operator Swedavia reported passenger numbers at its ten airports in October 2019 were down 5% on the previous year.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Duygu Yengin, University of Adelaide and Tracey Dodd, University of Adelaide

“Fake news”, the chief executive of Lufthansa has called it. But his counterpart at Air France calls it the airline industry’s “biggest challenge”. So does the president of Emirates: “It’s got to be dealt with.”

What they’re talking about is “flight shame” – the guilt caused by the environmental impacts of air travel. Specifically, the carbon emissions.

It’s the reason teen climate-change activist Greta Thunberg refused to fly to New York to address the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, taking a 14-day sea voyage instead.

A publicity photo of Greta Thunberg on her way to New York aboard the yacht Malizia II in August 2019. The phrase ‘skolstrejk för klimatet’ means school strike for climate.
EPA

In Thunberg’s native Sweden, flight shame (“flygskam”) has really taken off, motivating people to not take off. Last year 23% of Swedes reduced their air travel to shrink their carbon footprint, according to a WWF survey. Swedish airport operator Swedavia reported passenger numbers at its ten airports in October were down 5% on the previous year.

The potency of this guilt is what put Lufthansa’s head, Carsten Spohr, on the defensive at an aviation industry conference in Berlin in November.




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“Airlines should not have to be seen as a symbol of climate change. That’s just fake news,” he declared. “Our industry contributes 2.8% of global CO₂ emissions. As I’ve asked before, how about the other 97.2%? Are they contributing to global society with as much good as we do? Are they reducing emissions as much as we do?”

Does he have a point? Let’s consider the evidence.

How bad are aviation CO₂ emissions?

The International Council on Clean Transportation (the same organisation that exposed Volkwagen’s diesel emissions fraud), estimates commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of all carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use in 2018.

So it’s true many other sectors contribute more.

It is also true airlines are making efforts to reduce the amount of carbon they emit per passenger per kilometre. Australia’s aviation industry, for example, has reduced its “emissions intensity” by 1.4% a year since 2013.

However, the ICCT estimates growth in passenger numbers, and therefore total flights, means total carbon emissions from commercial aviation have ballooned by 32% in five years, way faster than UN predictions. On that trajectory, the sector’s total emissions could triple by 2050.

Alternatives to fossil fuels

A revolution in aircraft design could mitigate that trajectory. The International Air Transport Association suggests the advent of hybrid electric aircraft propulsion (similar to how a hybrid car works, taking off and landing using electric power) by about 2030-35 could reduce fossil fuel consumption by up to 40%. Fully electric propulsion after that could eliminate fossil fuels completely.




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Even with the advent of electric airliners by mid-century, the huge cost and long lifespan of commercial jets means it could still take decades to wean fleets off fossil fuels.

A shorter-term solution might be replacing fossil fuels with “sustainable aviation fuels” such as biofuels made from plant matter. But in 2018 just 15 million litres of aviation biofuel were produced – less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. The problem is it costs significantly more than standard kerosene-based aviation fuel. Greater use depends on the price coming down, or the price of fossil fuels going up.

Research into biofuels made from algae and other plant matter could prove a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Right now, though, cost is a major hurdle to uptake.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Pricing carbon

This brings us to the role of economics in decarbonising aviation.

An economist will tell you, for most goods the simplest way to reduce its consumption is to increase its price, or reduce the price of alternatives. This is the basis of all market-based solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

One way is to impose a tax on carbon, the same way taxes are levied on alcohol and tobacco, to deter consumption as well as to raise revenue to pay the costs use imposes on society.

The key problem with this approach is a government must guess at the price needed to achieve the desired reduction in demand. How the tax revenue is spent is also crucial to public acceptance.




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In France, opposition to higher fuel taxes led the government to instead announce an “eco-tax” on flights.

This proposed tax will range from €1.50 (about A$2.40) for economy flights within the European Union to €18 (about A$29.30) for business-class flights out of the EU. Among those who think this price signal is too low to make any real difference is Sam Fankhauser, director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London.

Trading and offsets

Greater outcome certainty is the reason many economists champion an emissions trading scheme (also known as “cap and trade”). Whereas a tax seeks to reduce carbon emissions by raising the price of emission, a trading scheme sets a limit on emissions and leaves it to the market to work out the price that achieves it.

One advantage economists see in emissions trading is that it creates both disincentive and incentives. Emitters don’t pay a penalty to the government. They effectively pay other companies to achieve reductions on their behalf through the trade of “carbon credits”.

The European Union already has an emissions trading scheme that covers flights within the European Economic Area, but it has been criticised for limiting incentives for companies to reduce emissions because they can cheaply buy credits, such as from overseas projects such as tree-planting schemes.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport: Swedish data suggests voluntary action motivated by shame is unlikely to lead to any significant reduction in demand for international air travel.
http://www.shutterstock.com

This led to the paradox of scheme delivering a reported 100 million tonnes of “reductions/offsets” from Europe’s aviation sector between 2012 and 2018 even while the sector’s emissions increased.

A better solution might come from a well-designed international trading scheme. The basis for this may be the global agreement known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. Already 81 countries, representing three-quarters of international aviation activity, have agreed to participate.




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Carbon offsets can do more environmental harm than good


What seems clear is that guilt and voluntary action to reduce carbon emissions has its limits. This is suggested by the data from Sweden, the heartland of flight shame.

Behind the 5% reduction in passenger numbers reported by Swedavia is a major difference between domestic passengers (down 10%) and international passengers (down just 2%). That might have something to do with the limited travel alternatives when crossing an ocean.

For most of us to consider emulating Greta Thunberg by taking a sailboat instead, the price of a flight would have to be very high indeed.The Conversation

Duygu Yengin, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Adelaide and Tracey Dodd, Research Fellow, Adelaide Business School, University of Adelaide

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

Car accidents, drownings, violence: hotter temperatures will mean more deaths from injury



New research shows people will be more likely to die from accidents and injuries as the climate gets warmer.
From shutterstock.com

Liz Hanna, Australian National University

What we suspected is now official: 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record. The country’s average maximum temperature last year (30.69℃) was a scorching 2.09℃ hotter than the 1961-1990 average.

For the whole planet, 2019 is expected to come in second (behind 2016) making the last five years the hottest on record since 1880.

As we brace for increasingly hot summers, we are mindful extreme heat can pose significant health risks for vulnerable groups. But the effects of heat on the incidence of accidents and injury are less clear.

In research published today in Nature Medicine, researchers in the United States looked at the impact warmer temperatures will have on deaths from injury. They found if average temperatures warmed by 1.5℃, we could expect to see 1,600 more deaths each year across the US.

Given Australia is ahead of the global temperature curve, we could see an even greater number of deaths from injury per capita as a result of rising temperatures.




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Hot and bothered: heat affects all of us, but older people face the highest health risks


What the study did and found

The researchers analysed death and temperature data collected from 1980 to 2017 across mainland United States (so their results excluded the states of Alaska and Hawaii).

They looked at records from more than five million injury deaths from this 38-year period. They also identified temperature anomalies by county and by month, to understand how these deaths could relate to spikes in the weather.

Using a method called Bayesian Spatio-temporal modelling, the authors combined this information to estimate the rates at which injury deaths would rise with a 1.5℃ temperature increase.

Hotter temperatures have been associated with spikes in domestic and other violence.
From shutterstock.com

They categorised injury deaths as either unintentional (transport, falls and drownings) or intentional (assaults and suicides), and stratified results further by gender and age group.

They found deaths from drownings would increase by as much as 13.7% in men aged 15-24 years, whereas assaults and suicides would increase by less than 3% across all groups. Transport deaths would rise by 2% for men aged 25-34 years and 0.5% for women in the same age group.

Overall, these increased risks would account for 1,601 additional deaths per year from injury across the US, an annual rise of 0.75% in overall deaths from injury in the population. They indicate 84% of these deaths would occur in males.

Although the primary focus was on 1.5℃ warming, the researchers also looked at a rise of 2℃. The found this would result in 2,135 additional deaths from injury (a 1% increase).

Why do deaths from injury increase in hot weather?

Higher temperatures are associated with irritability, and increases in conflict and interpersonal violence.

Research has shown each degree celsius increase in annual temperatures is linked to nearly a 6% average increase in homicides. Another study showed domestic violence rates increased by 40% when the daily maximum temperature exceeded 34℃.




Read more:
How rising temperatures affect our health


Hyperthermia (abnormally high body temperature) can also lead to symptoms such as loss of concentration and fatigue. These factors can trigger incidents such as car accidents and faults operating mechanical equipment. So we can expect injuries to increase as we face more hot days.

A South Australian study of workers’ compensation claims found for every degree above 14℃, occupational injuries requiring more than three days off work increased modestly (0.2%).

Increases in drowning might occur due the higher proportions of people seeking relief in the water on hot days.

Being too hot can lead to a loss of concentration or fatigue, which can increase the risk of accidents.
From shutterstock.com

Importantly, climate change is heightening anxiety in rural communities, and more broadly throughout the population.

In Australia, heat is commonly associated with drought. Long droughts are known to be linked to spikes in suicide rates, especially among rural males.

We also know suicide rates rise in affected communities following bushfires, in the face of grief and trauma.




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The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


The reason for the gender disparity was not tested, but likely relates to the higher prevalence of risk-taking behaviour among males.

So what does this mean for Australia?

With global temperatures on course for a 3-5°C rise this century, limiting warming to 1.5℃ is optimistic. The effects are likely to be even greater than what is forecasted in this study.

This study assessed excess injury deaths with a level of warming Australia witnessed in 2019 alone.

Rising heat is possibly Australia’s number one threat from climate change. It leads to the catastrophic bushfires we’re seeing this summer, and pushes us beyond the temperatures our bodies can withstand.

When looking at deaths caused by heat, we need to look beyond those caused by heat-induced illness, and separate the many caused by injury.




Read more:
How can we avoid future ‘epidemics’ of heat deaths?


We must strengthen the nation’s climate change and human health research to provide specific details on when, where and how we can best ameliorate heat harm.

We need to ramp up our prevention efforts in this space. All Australians should be made aware of the dangers of a hotter world through a federally funded public education strategy, akin to the successful “Life. Be in it” campaign, which successfully promoted the importance of being active.

Most urgently, we must focus on prevention through climate change mitigation, which will be the best and most far-reaching prevention strategy we can deliver.The Conversation

Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University

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