Extreme heat and rain: thousands of weather stations show there’s now more of both, for longer



ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Jim Salinger, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, UNSW

A major global update based on data from more than 36,000 weather stations around the world confirms that, as the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall are now more frequent, more intense, and longer.

The research is based on a dataset known as HadEX and analyses 29 indices of weather extremes, including the number of days above 25℃ or below 0℃, and consecutive dry days with less than 1mm of rain. This latest update compares the three decades between 1981 and 2010 to the 30 years prior, between 1951 and 1980.

Globally, the clearest index shows an increase in the number of above-average warm days.


Author provided

For Australia, the team found a country-wide increase in warm temperature extremes and heatwaves and a decrease in cold temperature extremes such as the coldest nights. Broadly speaking, rainfall extremes have increased in the west and decreased in the east, but trends vary by season.

In New Zealand, temperate regions experience significantly more summer days and northern parts of the country are now frost-free.




Read more:
The world endured 2 extra heatwave days per decade since 1950 – but the worst is yet to come


Extreme temperatures

Unusually warm days are becoming more common throughout Australia. When we compare 1981-2010 with 1951-80, the increase is substantial: more than 20 days per year in the far north of Australia, and at least 10 days per year in most areas apart from the south coast. The increase occurs in all seasons but is largest in spring.

This increase in temperature extremes can have devastating impacts for human health, particularly for older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Excessive heat is not only an issue for people living in cities but also for rural communities that have already been exposed to days with temperatures above 50℃.

New Zealanders are also experiencing more days with temperatures of 25℃ or more. The climate stations show the frequency of unusually warm days has increased from 8% to 12% from 1950 to 2018, with an average of 19 to 24 days a year above 25℃ across the country. Unusually warm days, defined as days in the top 10% of historic records for the time of year, are also becoming more common in both countries.

During the summers of 2017-18 and 2018-19, marine heatwaves delivered 32 and 26 (respectively) days above 25℃ nationwide in New Zealand, well above the average of 20 days. This led to accelerated glacial melting in the Southern Alps and major disruption to marine ecosystems, with die-offs of bull kelp around the South Island coast and salmon in aquaculture farms in the Marlborough Sounds.




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Farmed fish dying, grape harvest weeks early – just some of the effects of last summer’s heatwave in NZ


More heat, more rain, less frost

In many parts of New Zealand, cold extremes are changing faster than warm extremes.

Between 1950 and 2018, frost days (days below 0℃) have declined across New Zealand, particularly in northern parts of the country which has now become frost-free, enabling farmers to grow subtropical pasture grasses. At the same time, crops that require winter frosts to set fruit are no longer successful, or can only be grown with chemical treatments (currently under review) that simulate winter chilling.

Across New Zealand, the heat available for crop growth during the growing season is increasing, which means wine growers have to shift varieties further south.

In Australia, the situation is more complicated. In many parts of northern and eastern Australia, there has also been a large decrease in the number of cold nights. But in parts of southeast and southwest Australia, frost frequency has stabilised, or even increased in places, since the 1980s.

These areas have seen a large decrease in winter rainfall in recent decades. The higher number of dry, clear nights in winter, favourable for frost formation, has cancelled out the broader warming trend.




Read more:
Droughts & flooding rains: what is due to climate change?


In Australia, extreme rainfall has become more frequent in many parts of northern and western Australia, especially the northwest, which has become wetter since the 1960s. In eastern and southern Australia the picture is more mixed, with little change in the number of days with 10mm or more of rain, even in those regions where total rainfall has declined.

In New Zealand, more extremely wet days contribute towards the annual rainfall total in the east of the North Island, with a smaller increase in the west and south of the South Island. For Australia, there are significant drying trends in parts of the southwest and northeast, but little change elsewhere.

Extremes of temperature and precipitation can have dramatic effects, as seen during two marine heatwaves in New Zealand and the hottest, driest year in Australia during 2019.The Conversation

Jim Salinger, Honorary Associate, Tasmanian Institute for Agriculture, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, Chief Investigator ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and Associate Professor Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

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

Global report gives Australia an A for coronavirus response but a D on climate


John Thwaites, Monash University

The global Sustainable Development Report 2020, released this week in New York, ranks Australia third among OECD countries for the effectiveness of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, beaten by only South Korea and Latvia.

Yet Australia trundled in at 37th in the world on its overall progress in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which cover a range of economic, social and environmental challenges – many of which will be crucial considerations as we recover from the pandemic. Australia’s worst results are in climate action and the environment, where we rate well below most other OECD countries.




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4 ways Australia’s coronavirus response was a triumph, and 4 ways it fell short


South Korea tops the list of effective COVID-19 responses, whereas New Zealand (which declared the coronavirus eliminated on June 8, albeit with a few sporadic cases since) is ranked ninth. Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom and several other Western European countries rank at the bottom of the list.

Nations’ COVID-19 responses, ranked by the UN.
United Nations, Author provided

South Korea, Latvia and Australia did well because they not only kept infection and death rates low, but did so with less economic and social disruption than other nations. Rather than having to resort to severe lockdowns, they did this by testing and tracing, encouraging community behaviour change, and quarantining people arriving from overseas.

Using smartphone data from Google, the report shows that during the severe lockdown in Spain and Italy between March and May this year, mobility within the community – including visits to shops and work – declined by 62% and 60%, respectively. This shows how much these countries were struggling to keep the virus at bay. In contrast, mobility declined by less than 25% in Australia and by only 10% in South Korea.

Australia outperformed the OECD average on COVID-19 reponse.
Author provided

Why has Australia performed well?

There are several reasons why Australia’s COVID-19 response has been strong, although major challenges remain. National and state governments have followed expert scientific advice from early in the pandemic.

The creation of the National Cabinet fostered relatively harmonious decision-making between the Commonwealth and the states. Australia has a strong public health system and the Australian public has a history of successfully embracing behaviour change. We have shown admirable adaptability and innovation, for example in the radical expansion of telehealth.

We should learn from these successes. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful framework for planning to “build back better”.




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The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all countries in 2015, encompass a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to be met by 2030. Among the central aims are economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. They are arguably even more important than before in considering how best to shape our post-pandemic world.

As the report points out, the fallout from COVID-19 is likely to have a highly negative impact on achievement of many of the goals: increased poverty due to job losses (goal 1), disease, death and mental health risks (goal 3), disproportionate economic impacts on women and domestic violence (goal 5), loss of jobs and business closures (goal 8), growing inequality (goal 10), and reduction in use of public transport (goal 11). The impact on the environmental goals is still unclear: the short-term reduction in global greenhouse emissions is accompanied by pressure to reduce environmental safeguards in the name of economic recovery.

How do we ‘build back better’?

The SDGs already give us a roadmap, so really we just need to keep our sights set firmly on the targets agreed for 2030. Before COVID-19, the world was making progress towards achieving the goals. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 10% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2018. Access to basic transport infrastructure and broadband have been growing rapidly in most parts of the world.

Australia’s story is less positive, however. On a composite index of performance on 115 indicators covering all 17 goals, the report puts Australia 37th in the world, but well behind most of the countries to which we like to compare ourselves. Sweden, Denmark and Finland top the overall rankings, followed by France and Germany. New Zealand is 16th.

It is not surprising, in light of our performance during the pandemic, that Australia’s strongest performance is on goal 3: good health. The report rates Australia as on track to achieve all health targets.




Read more:
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Australia also performs strongly on education (goal 4), and moderately well on goals relating to water, economic growth, infrastructure and sustainable cities. However, we perform extremely poorly in energy (goal 7), climate change (goal 13) and responsible consumption and production (goal 12), where our reliance on fossil fuels and wasteful business practices puts us near the bottom of the field.

On clean energy (goal 7), the share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply (including electricity, transport and industry) is only 6.9%. In Germany it is 14.1%, and in Denmark an impressive 33.4%.

Australia rates poorly on goal 12, responsible consumption and production, with 23.6kg of electronic waste per person and high sulfur dioxide and nitrogen emissions.

Australia’s performance on goal 13, climate action, is a clear fail. Our annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are 14.8 tonnes per person – much higher than the 5.5 tonnes for the average Brit, and 4.3 tonnes for the typical Swede.




Read more:
Climate action is the key to Australia achieving the Sustainable Development Goals


And whereas in the Nordic countries the indicators for goal 15 — biodiversity and life on land — are generally improving, the Red List measuring species survival is getting worse in Australia.

There are many countries that consider themselves world leaders but now wish they had taken earlier and stronger action against COVID-19. Australia listened to the experts, took prompt action, and can hopefully look back on the pandemic with few regrets.

But on current form, there will be plenty to regret about our reluctance to follow scientific advice on climate change and environmental degradation, and our refusal to show anything like the necessary urgency.


The original version of this article reported that New Zealand was ranked sixth for its coronavirus response. It was in fact ranked ninth. This has been corrected.The Conversation

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

45,000 renewables jobs are Australia’s for the taking – but how many will go to coal workers?



Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, University of Technology Sydney

As the global renewables transition accelerates, the future for coal regions has become a big worry. This raises an important question: can renewables create the right jobs in the right places to employ former coal workers?

According to our new research, the answer in many cases is “yes”. Renewable energy jobs provide a good match for existing coal jobs across a range of blue and white-collar occupations, including construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, site administrators and mechanical technicians.

But about one-third of coal workers, such as drillers and machine operators, cannot simply switch over to renewables jobs. So as our economy pivots to renewables, planning and investment is needed to help coal regions survive.

Some renewables jobs could be filled by coal workers.
Tim Wimbourne/AAP

Renewables jobs: a snapshot

Our research, commissioned by the Clean Energy Council, is the first large-scale survey of renewable energy employment in Australia.

We surveyed more than 450 Australian renewable energy businesses, covering large scale wind, solar and hydro, rooftop solar and batteries. We wanted to find out how many people were employed, and in what jobs.




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We then projected employment until 2035 using three scenarios for the future of the electricity market, developed by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Our results suggest renewable energy can be a major source of jobs in the next 15 years. But the trajectories are very different depending on government COVID-19 stimulus measures and wider energy policy.

Policy crossroads

We found the renewable energy sector currently employs about 26,000 people. Temporary construction and installation jobs now comprise 75% of the renewable energy labour market, but as the sector grows, this will change (more on that later).

Australia’s renewable energy target was reached last year, and has not been replaced. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia this caused renewables investment to fall by 50% last year compared to 2018. Under a “central” scenario where these policies continued, 11,000 renewable jobs would be lost by 2022.

Under the right policies, there could be an average of 35,000 renewables jobs annually in Australia until 2035.
Michael Buholzer/Reuters

We then examined a “step change” scenario where Australian policy settings were in line with meeting the Paris climate agreement. This would create a jobs boom: renewable energy employment would grow to 45,000 by 2025 and average around 35,000 jobs each year to 2035. Up to two-thirds are in regional areas.

Under all scenarios, job growth is strongest in rooftop solar and wind. Most are in the construction and installation phase, comprising both ongoing and project-based jobs in trades, as well as technicians and labourers. But by 2035, as many as half of renewable energy jobs could be ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance.




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Renewable energy jobs will be higher than our projections. We excluded employment areas such as building electricity transmission networks, bioenergy, professional services, renewable hydrogen, growth in minerals needed for renewable energy, and jobs in heavy industry such as “green” steel.

Renewables vs coal jobs

All up, coal mining in Australia employs about 40,000 people. As mentioned above, renewable energy jobs could grow to 45,000 by 2025 – and more once other sectors are included.

Australia’s renewable energy industry already employs considerably more people than the 10,500 working in the domestic coal sector – mostly thermal coal mining and power generation.

About 75% of coal mined in Australia is exported. About 24,000 people work in thermal coal mining for both domestic use and export – slightly fewer than the current renewable energy workforce.

Employment in renewable energy and coal.
Author supplied

New renewables jobs in coal regions

Around two-thirds of renewable energy jobs could be created in regional areas. These would be distributed more widely than coal sector jobs.

The leading coal mining states, NSW and Queensland, have the biggest share of renewable energy jobs under all scenarios.

AEMO has identified “renewable energy zones” where most large-scale renewable energy is expected to be located. In both NSW and Queensland, some of these zones overlap with the coal workforce. In NSW, the Central West zone could also create employment in the Hunter region. In general, though, many renewable energy jobs will be located in other regions and the capital cities.




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In terms of occupations, there is overlap between coal and renewable energy. These include construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, mechanical trades, office managers and contract administrators and drivers.

The timing and location of these renewables jobs will influence whether they can be a source of alternative jobs for coal workers. Re-training of coal workers would also be required.

But there is no direct job overlap for the semi-skilled machine operators such as drillers, which account for more than one-third of the coal workforce.

Renewable Energy Zones and coal mining employment in Queensland.
Author supplied
Renewable energy zones and coal mining employment in NSW.
Author supplied

Planning for the decline

Renewable energy can meaningfully help in the transition for coal regions. But it won’t replace all lost coal jobs, and planning and investment is needed to avoid social and economic harm.

Coal regions need industry development plans and investment to diversify their economies to other industries, including renewables. Almost half our coal workers are aged under 40, so Australia will not be able to follow Germany and Spain’s lead by relying on early retirement schemes.

At some point, demand for our coal exports will collapse – be it due to the falling cost of renewables, or policies to address climate change. If we don’t start preparing now, the consequences for coal communities will be dire.The Conversation

Some coal workers can be retrained to work in renewables, but others cannot.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

The world endured 2 extra heatwave days per decade since 1950 – but the worst is yet to come



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Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

The term “heatwave” is no stranger to Australians. Defined as when conditions are excessively hot for at least three days in a row, these extreme temperature events have always punctuated our climate.

With many of us in the thick of winter dreaming of warmer days, it’s important to remember how damaging heatwaves can be.

In 2009, the heatwave that preceded Black Saturday killed 374 people. The economic impact on Australia’s workforce from heatwaves is US$6.2 billion a year (almost AU$9 billion). And just last summer, extreme temperature records tumbled, contributing to Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season.

What are heatwaves?

Our new study – the first worldwide assessment of heatwaves at the regional scale – found heatwaves have become longer and more frequent since 1950. And worryingly, we found this trend has accelerated.

We also examined a new metric: “cumulative heat”. This measures how much extra heat a heatwave can contribute, and the new perspective is eye-opening.

What is ‘extra heat’?

In southeast Australia’s worst heatwave season in 2009, we endured an extra heat of 80℃. Let’s explore what that means.

For a day to qualify as being part of a heatwave, a recorded temperature should exceed an officially declared “heatwave threshold”.

And cumulative heat is generally when the temperature above that threshold across all heatwave days are added up.

Let’s say, for example, a particular location had a heatwave threshold of around 30℃. The “extra heat” on a day where temperatures reach 35℃ would be 5℃. If the heatwave lasted for three days, and all days reached 35℃, then the cumulative heat for that event would be 15℃.

Another decade, another heatwave day

We found almost every global region has experienced a significant increase in heatwave frequency since 1950. For example, southern Australia has experienced, on average, one extra heatwave day per decade since 1950.




Read more:
Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


However, other regions have experienced much more rapid increases. The Mediterranean has seen approximately 2.5 more heatwave days per decade, while the Amazon rainforest has seen an extra 5.5 more heatwave days per decade since 1950.

The global average sits at approximately two extra heatwave days per decade.

The last 20 years saw the worst heatwave seasons

Since the 1950s, almost all regions experienced significant increases in the extra heat generated by heatwaves.

Over northern and southern Australia, the excess heat from heatwaves has increased by 2-3℃ per decade. This is similar to other regions, such as western North America, the Amazon and the global average.

Alaska, Brazil and West Asia, however, have cumulative heat trends of a massive 4-5℃ per decade. And, for the vast majority of the world, the worst seasons occurred in the last 20 years.

In the heatwave before Black Saturday, 374 people died.
Shutterstock

We also examined whether heatwaves were changing at a constant rate, or were speeding up or slowing down. With the exception of average intensity, we found heatwave trends have not only increased, but have accelerated since the 1950s.

Don’t be fooled by the maths

Interestingly, average heatwave intensity showed little – if any – changes since 1950. But before we all breathe a sigh of relief, this is not because climate change has stopped, or because heatwaves aren’t getting any warmer. It’s the result of a mathematical quirk.




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Climate change: 40°C summer temperatures could be common in UK by 2100


Since we’re seeing more heatwaves – which we found are also generally getting longer – there are more days to underpin the average intensity. While all heatwave days must exceed a relative extreme threshold, some days will exceed this threshold to a lesser extent than others. This brings the overall average down.

When we look at changes in cumulative heat, however, there’s just no denying it. Extra heat – not the average – experienced in almost all regions, is what can have adverse impacts on our health, infrastructure and ecosystems.

The Amazon has endured 5.5 more heatwave days per decade since 1950.
Shutterstock

Like nothing we’ve experienced before

While the devastating impacts of heatwaves are clear, it has been difficult to consistently measure changes in heatwaves across the globe. Previous studies have assessed regional heatwave trends, but data constraints and the spectrum of different heatwave metrics available have made it hard to compare regional changes in heatwaves.

Our study has closed this gap, and clearly shows heatwaves are on the rise. We are seeing more of them and they are generating more heat at an increasing pace.




Read more:
We’ve learned a lot about heatwaves, but we’re still just warming up


While Australia may be no stranger to heatwaves in the past, those we see in the future under these accelerating trends will certainly be foreign.

For example, a 2014 study found that depending on where you are in Australia, anywhere between 15 and 50 extra heatwave days will occur by 2100 compared to the second half of the 20th century.

We can still abate those trends if we work collectively, effectively and urgently to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, ARC Future Fellow, UNSW

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

Today, Australia’s Kyoto climate targets end and our Paris cop-out begins. That’s nothing to be proud of, Mr Taylor



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

Today marks the end of Australia’s commitments under the Kyoto climate deal as we move to its successor, the Paris Agreement. Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor on Wednesday was quick to hail Australia’s success in smashing the Kyoto emissions targets. But let’s be clear: our record is nothing to boast about.

Taylor says Australia has beaten Kyoto by up to 430 million tonnes — or 80% of one year of national emissions. On that record, he said, “Australians can be confident that we’ll meet and beat our 2030 Paris target”.




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The fact that Australia exceeded its Kyoto targets means it’s accrued so-called “carryover” carbon credits. It plans to use these to cover about half the emission reduction required under the Paris commitment by 2030.

But there’s been little scrutiny of why Australia met the Kyoto targets so easily. The reason dates back more than 20 years, when Australia demanded the Kyoto rules be skewed in its favour. Using those old credits to claim climate action today is cheating the system. Let’s look at why.

The Paris climate deal officially starts today.
Daniel Munoz/Reuters

Australian scorns the spirit of Paris

The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty negotiated in 1997. Industrialised nations collectively pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels. The reductions were to be made between 2008 and 2012.

Any surplus emissions reduction in the first Kyoto period could be carried over to the second period, from 2013 to 2020. In the name of climate action, five developed countries – Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK – voluntarily cancelled their surplus credits.

However, Australia held onto its credits. Now it wants to use them to meet its Paris target – reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is clearly not in the spirit of the Paris agreement. And importantly, the history of Kyoto shows Australia did not deserve to earn the credits in the first place.

Sneaky negotiations

Under Kyoto, each nation was assigned a target – measured against the nation’s specific baseline of emissions produced in 1990. During negotiations, Australia insisted on rules that worked in its favour.

Instead of reducing its emissions by 5.2%, it successfully demanded a lenient target that meant emissions in 2012 could be 8% more than they were in 1990.

Our negotiators argued we had special economic circumstances – that our dependence on fossil fuels and energy-intensive exports meant cutting emissions would be difficult. Australia threatened to walk away from the negotiations if its demand was not met.

Australia negotiated an advantageous deal under the UN Kyoto protocol.
Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Australia then waited until the final moments of negotiations – when many delegates were exhausted and translators had gone home – to make another surprising demand. It would only sign up to Kyoto if its 1990 emissions baseline (the year future reductions would be measured against) included emissions produced from clearing forests.

Here’s the catch. Australia’s emissions from forest clearing in 1990 were substantial, totalling about a quarter of total emissions, or 131.5 million tonnes of carbon.




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Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently


Forest clearing in Australia plummeted after 1990, when Queensland enacted tough new land clearing laws. So including deforestation emissions in Australia’s baseline meant we would never really struggle to meet – or as it turned out, beat – our targets. In fact, the rule effectively rewarded Australia for its mass deforestation in 1990.

This concession was granted, and became known as the Australia clause. It triggered international condemnation, including from the European environment spokesman who reportedly called it “wrong and immoral”.

Then prime minister John Howard declared the deal to be “splendid”.

John Howard was thrilled with Australia’s concessions under Kyoto.
LYNDON MECHIELSEN/AAP

A new round of Kyoto negotiations took place in 2010, for the second commitment period. Under the Gillard Labor government, Australia agreed to an underwhelming 5% decrease in emissions between 2013 and 2020.

Australia insisted on using the deforestation clause again, despite international pressure to drop it. It meant Australia’s carbon budget in the second period was about 26% higher than it would have been without the concession.

Had forest clearing not been included in the 1990 baseline, Australia’s emissions in 2017 were 31.8% above 1990 levels.

Forest clearing in 1990 made it easy for Australia to beat Kyoto targets.
Harley Kingston/Flickr

History repeats

At the Madrid climate talks last year, Australia reiterated its plans to use its surplus Kyoto credits under Paris. Without the accounting trick, Australia is not on track to meet its Paris targets.

Laurence Tubiana, a high-ranking architect of the Paris accord, expressed her disdain at the plan:

If you want this carryover, it is just cheating. Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system, because that is the way to destroy the whole Paris agreement.

Whether Australia will be allowed to use the surplus credits is another question, as the Paris rulebook is still being finalised.

Analysts say there is no legal basis for using the surplus credits, because Kyoto and Paris are separate treaties.

Australia appears the only country shameless enough to try the tactic. At Senate estimates last year, officials said they knew of no other nation planning to use carryover credits.

Protesters in Spain in January 2020, calling for global climate action.
JJ Guillen Credit/EPA

Nothing to be proud of

Some hoped Australia’s recent bushfire disaster might be a positive turning point for climate policy. But the signs are not good. The Morrison government is talking up the role of gas in Australia’s energy transition, and has so far failed to seize the opportunity to recharge the economy through renewables investment.

Crowing on Wednesday about Australia’s over-achievement on Kyoto, Taylor said the result was “something all Australians can be proud of”.

But Australia abandoned its moral obligations under Kyoto. And by carrying our surplus credits into the Paris deal, we risk cementing our status as a global climate pariah.




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The Conversation


Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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

What an ocean hidden under Antarctic ice reveals about our planet’s future climate



Craig Stevens, Author provided

Craig Stevens, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and Christina Hulbe, University of Otago

Jules Verne sent his fictional submarine, the Nautilus, to the South Pole through a hidden ocean beneath a thick ice cap. Written 40 years before any explorer had reached the pole, his story was nevertheless only half fiction.

There are indeed hidden ocean cavities around Antarctica, and our latest research explores how the ocean circulates underneath the continent’s ice shelves – large floating extensions of the ice on land that rise and fall with the tides.

These ice shelves buttress the continent’s massive land-based ice cap and play an important role in the assessment of future sea level rise. Our work sheds new light on how ocean currents contribute to melting in Antarctica, which is one of the largest uncertainties in climate model predictions.

The field camp on top of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Craig Stevens, Author provided



Read more:
Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf


An unexplored ocean

The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest floating slab of ice on Earth, at 480,000 square kilometres. The ocean cavity it conceals extends 700km south from Antarctica’s coast and remains largely unexplored.

We know ice shelves mainly melt from below, washed by a warming ocean. But we have very little data available about how the water mixes underneath the ice. This is often overlooked in climate models, but our new measurements will help redress this.

The only other expedition to the ocean cavity underneath the central Ross Ice Shelf goes back to the 1970s and came back with intriguing results. Despite the limited technology of the time, it showed the ocean cavity was not a static bathtub. Instead, it found fine layering of water masses, with subtly different temperatures and salinities between the layers.

Other ocean studies have been conducted from the edges or from high above. They have provided insight into how the system works but to really understand it, we needed to take measurements directly from the ocean under hundreds of metres of ice.

The team used a hot-water jet to drill through the ice to the ocean below.
Craig Stevens, Author provided

In 2017, we used a hot-water jet, modelled on a British Antarctic Survey design, to drill through 350 metres of ice to the ocean below. We were able to keep the hole liquid long enough to make detailed ocean measurements as well as leave instruments behind to continue monitoring ocean currents and temperature. These data are still coming in via satellite.

We found the hidden ocean acts like a massive estuary with comparatively warm (2℃) seawater coming in at the seabed to cycle close to the surface in a combination of meltwater and sub-glacial freshwater squeezed out from the ice sheet and Antarctica’s hidden rocky foundation.

The hundreds of metres of ice isolate the ocean cavity from the furious winds and freezing air temperatures of Antarctica. But nothing stops the tides. Our data suggest tides push the stratified ocean back and forth past undulations on the underside of the ice and mix parts of the ocean cavity.




Read more:
How solar heat drives rapid melting of parts of Antarctica’s largest ice shelf


Antarctica’s ice isolates the ocean cavity from furious winds and freezing air temperatures.
Craig Stevens, Author provided

Future projections

This sort of discovery is the ultimate challenge for climate science. How do we represent processes that work at daily scales in models that make projections over centuries? Our data show the daily changes can add up, so finding a solution matters.

For example, data collected outside the ocean cavity and computer models suggest that any given parcel of water spends one to six years making its way through the cavity. Our new data indicate the lower end of the range is more likely and that we should not be thinking in terms of one grand circuit anyway.

The Ross is not the ice shelf in most danger from warming oceans. But its sheer size and its relationship with the neighbouring Ross Sea means it is a vital cog in the planetary ocean system.




Read more:
Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather


The importance of these ice shelves for sea level rise over the next few centuries is very apparent. Research shows that if atmospheric warming exceeds 2℃, major Antarctic ice shelves would collapse and release ice flowing from the continent’s ice cap – lifting the sea level by up to 3 metres by 2300.

What is less well understood, but also potentially a massive agent for change, is the impact of meltwater on the global thermohaline circulation, an oceanic transport loop that sees the ocean cycle from the abyss off the coast of Antarctica to tropical surface waters every 1,000 years or so.

Antarctic ice shelves are like a pit stop in this loop and so what happens in Antarctica resonates globally. Faster melting ice shelves will change the ocean stratification, with repercussions for global ocean circulation – and one result of this appears to be greater climate variability.The Conversation

Craig Stevens, Associate Professor in Ocean Physics, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and Christina Hulbe, Professor and Dean of the School of Surveying (glaciology specialisation), University of Otago

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

Climate explained: will the COVID-19 lockdown slow the effects of climate change?



ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Simon Kingham, University of Canterbury


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


Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown will slow or possibly reverse the effects of climate change (due to decreased air travel, cars, fossil fuels being emitted)?

The COVID-19 lockdown has affected the environment in a number of ways.

The first is a reduction in air travel and associated emissions. Globally, air travel accounts for around 12% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and this was predicted to rise. An ongoing reduction in air travel would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The lockdown has also meant less travel by road, which has resulted in measurably lower vehicle emissions and cleaner air in New Zealand.

Worldwide, daily emissions of carbon dioxide had dropped by 17% by early April (compared with 2019 levels) and just under half of the reduction came from changes in land transport. The same study estimated the pandemic could reduce global emissions by between 4% (if the world returns to pre-pandemic conditions mid-year) and 7% (if restrictions remain in place until the end of 2020).

But even a 7% drop would mean emissions for 2020 will roughly be the same as in 2011. The long-term impact of the pandemic on climate change depends on the actions governments take as economies recover – they will influence the path of global carbon dioxide emissions for decades.




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Choosing how you travel

In New Zealand, the biggest reduction in emissions came from people not travelling as much, or at all. But as the lockdown lifted, these improvements seemed to be short term, with traffic volumes and the associated pollution now back at pre-COVID-19 levels.

There is significant uncertainty about all of the changes prompted by the pandemic lockdown, but international air travel is predicted to remain down in the short to medium term as the risk of inter-country transfer of COVID-19 remains high. For how long depends on the ability of other countries to effectively manage the virus or the availability of a vaccine.




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Land transport is more within our control in New Zealand. How, and how much, we choose to travel will determine our greenhouse gas emissions. While many people are returning to their cars, there are some lockdown changes that could lead to longer-term emissions reductions.

Firstly, people now realise it is possible to work from home and may want to continue doing so in the future.

Secondly, there is evidence some people walked and cycled more than they had done before during lockdown. Retailers are reporting increased demand for bicycles.

Keeping some lockdown changes

In many parts of the world, governments are implementing plans to lock in some of the reductions in traffic caused by the pandemic.

This includes allocating road space to walking and cycling and incentives for people to buy or maintain bikes (such as in France and the UK).

There are also initiatives to decarbonise the car fleet by replacing fossil fuelled vehicles with electric ones. In New Zealand, electric vehicles are exempt from road user charges and the government is investigating ways to increase the uptake of alternative fuels in the road freight industry.




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These measures are important and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not designed to reduce the number of people travelling, or the mode they use. Congestion is an ongoing issue in Auckland and is now estimated to cost more than NZ$1 billion per year.

Another challenge is the growing rate of obesity, with one in three New Zealanders now obese. This is at least partly a transport-related challenge. We know obesity rates are higher in places where more people travel by car. Increased use of public transport can reduce obesity – as well as making people happier.

How long-lasting the COVID-19 impact on emissions is depends on how much we want some of the temporary changes to continue. For example, COVID-19 showed more people walk and cycle if there are fewer cars, which supports evidence that safety is a big barrier to cycling and we need dedicated cycle ways to keep people away from traffic. We also know people are happy with a little inconvenience to have safer play-friendly streets.

Encouraging some of the lockdown behavioural changes could have additional benefits and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.The Conversation

Simon Kingham, Professor, University of Canterbury

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

New research shows the South Pole is warming faster than the rest of the world



Elaine Hood/NSF

Kyle Clem, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Climate scientists long thought Antarctica’s interior may not be very sensitive to warming, but our research, published today, shows a dramatic change.

Over the past 30 years, the South Pole has been one of the fastest changing places on Earth, warming more than three times more rapidly than the rest of the world.

My colleagues and I argue these warming trends are unlikely the result of natural climate variability alone. The effects of human-made climate change appear to have worked in tandem with the significant influence natural variability in the tropics has on Antarctica’s climate. Together they make the South Pole warming one of the strongest warming trends on Earth.




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The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is the Earth’s southern-most weather observatory.
Craig Knott/NSF

The South Pole is not immune to warming

The South Pole lies within the coldest region on Earth: the Antarctic plateau. Average temperatures here range from -60℃ during winter to just -20℃ during summer.

Antarctica’s climate generally has a huge range in temperature over the course of a year, with strong regional contrasts. Most of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula were warming during the late 20th century. But the South Pole — in the remote and high-altitude continental interior — cooled until the 1980s.

Scientists have been tracking temperature at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Earth’s southernmost weather observatory, since 1957. It is one of the longest-running complete temperature records on the Antarctic continent.

Our analysis of weather station data from the South Pole shows it has warmed by 1.8℃ between 1989 and 2018, changing more rapidly since the start of the 2000s. Over the same period, the warming in West Antarctica suddenly stopped and the Antarctic Peninsula began cooling.

One of the reasons for the South Pole warming was stronger low-pressure systems and stormier weather east of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddell Sea. With clockwise flow around the low-pressure systems, this has been transporting warm, moist air onto the Antarctic plateau.

South Pole warming linked to the tropics

Our study also shows the ocean in the western tropical Pacific started warming rapidly at the same time as the South Pole. We found nearly 20% of the year-to-year temperature variations at the South Pole were linked to ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, and several of the warmest years at the South Pole in the past two decades happened when the western tropical Pacific ocean was also unusually warm.

To investigate this possible mechanism, we performed a climate model experiment and found this ocean warming produces an atmospheric wave pattern that extends across the South Pacific to Antarctica. This results in a stronger low-pressure system in the Weddell Sea.

Map of the Antarctic continent.
National Science Foundation

We know from earlier studies that strong regional variations in temperature trends are partly due to Antarctica’s shape.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet, bordered by the South Atlantic and Indian oceans, extends further north than the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, in the South Pacific. This causes two distinctly different weather patterns with different climate impacts.

More steady, westerly winds around East Antarctica keep the local climate relatively stable, while frequent intense storms in the high-latitude South Pacific transport warm, moist air to parts of West Antarctica.

Scientists have suggested these two different weather patterns, and the mechanisms driving their variability, are the likely reason for strong regional variability in Antarctica’s temperature trends.




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What this means for the South Pole

Our analysis reveals extreme variations in South Pole temperatures can be explained in part by natural tropical variability.

To estimate the influence of human-induced climate change, we analysed more than 200 climate model simulations with observed greenhouse gas concentrations over the period between 1989 and 2018. These climate models show recent increases in greenhouse gases have possibly contributed around 1℃ of the total 1.8℃ of warming at the South Pole.

We also used the models to compare the recent warming rate to all possible 30-year South Pole temperature trends that would occur naturally without human influence. The observed warming exceeds 99.9% of all possible trends without human influence – and this means the recent warming is extremely unlikely under natural conditions, albeit not impossible. It appears the effects from tropical variability have worked together with increasing greenhouse gases, and the end result is one of the strongest warming trends on the planet.

The temperature variability at the South Pole is so extreme it masks anthropogenic effects.
Keith Vanderlinde/NSF

These climate model simulations reveal the remarkable nature of South Pole temperature variations. The observed South Pole temperature, with measurements dating back to 1957, shows 30-year temperature swings ranging from more than 1℃ of cooling during the 20th century to more than 1.8℃ of warming in the past 30 years.

This means multi-decadal temperature swings are three times stronger than the estimated warming from human-caused climate change of around 1℃.

The temperature variability at the South Pole is so extreme it currently masks human-caused effects. The Antarctic interior is one of the few places left on Earth where human-caused warming cannot be precisely determined, which means it is a challenge to say whether, or for how long, the warming will continue.

But our study reveals extreme and abrupt climate shifts are part of the climate of Antarctica’s interior. These will likely continue into the future, working to either hide human-induced warming or intensify it when natural warming processes and the human greenhouse effect work in tandem.The Conversation

Kyle Clem, Research Fellow in Climate Science, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Their fate isn’t sealed: Pacific nations can survive climate change – if locals take the lead


Rachel Clissold, The University of Queensland; Annah Piggott-McKellar, University of Melbourne; Karen E McNamara, The University of Queensland; Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast; Roselyn Kumar, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Ross Westoby, Griffith University

They contribute only 0.03% of global carbon emissions, but small island developing states, particularly in the Pacific, are at extreme risk to the threats of climate change.

Our study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides the first mega-assessment on the progress of community-based adaptation in four Pacific Island countries: the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu.




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Pacific Island nation communities have always been resilient, surviving on islands in the middle of oceans for more than 3,000 years. We can learn a lot from their adaptation methods, but climate change is an unprecedented challenge.

Effective adaptation is critical for ensuring Pacific Islanders continue living fulfilling lives in their homelands. For Australia’s part, we must ensure we’re supporting their diverse abilities and aspirations.

Short-sighted adaptation responses

Climate change brings wild, fierce and potentially more frequent hazards. In recent months, Cyclone Harold tore a strip through multiple Pacific countries, killing dozens of people, levelling homes and cutting communication lines. It may take Vanuatu a year to recover.

Expert commentary from 2019 highlighted that many adaptation responses in the Pacific have been short-sighted and, at times, even inadequate. The remains of failed seawalls, for example, litter the shorelines of many island countries, yet remain a popular adaptive solution. We cannot afford another few decades of this.




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International climate aid commitments from rich western countries barely scratch the surface of what’s needed, yet it’s likely funding will dry up for regions like the Pacific as governments scramble together money for their own countries’ escalating adaptation costs.

This includes Australia, that has long been, and continues to be, the leading donor to the region. Our government contributed about 40% of total aid between 2011 and 2017 and yet refuses to take meaningful action on climate change.

Understanding what successful adaptation should look like in developing island states is urgent to ensure existing funding creates the best outcomes.

Success stories

Our findings are based on community perspectives. We documented what factors lead to success and failure and what “best practice” might really look like.

We asked locals about the appropriateness, effectiveness, equity, impact and sustainability of the adaptation initiatives, and used this feedback to determine their success.




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The results were mixed. While our success stories illustrate what “best practice” involves, issues still emerged.

Our top two success stories centred on community efforts to protect local marine ecosystems in the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu. Nearby communities rely on these ecosystems for food, income and for supporting cultural practice.

One initiative focused on establishing a marine park with protected areas while the other involved training in crown-of-thorns starfish control. As one person told us:

we think it’s great […] we see the results and know it’s our responsibility.

Initiatives that focus on both the community and the ecosystem support self-sufficiency, so the community can maintain the initiatives even after external bodies leave and funding ceases.

Pele Island, Vanuatu. Can you see coral in the water? The community initiative was aiming to protect this coral ecosystem from crown-of-thorns starfish.
Karen McNamara, Author provided

In these two instances, the “community” was expanded to the whole island and to anyone who utilised local ecosystems, such as fishers and tourism operators.

Through this, benefits were accessible to all: “all men, all women, all pikinini [children],” we were told.

Standing the test of time

In Vanuatu, the locals deemed two initiatives on raising climate change awareness as successful, with new scientific knowledge complementing traditional knowledge.

And in the Federated States of Micronesia, locals rated two initiatives on providing tanks for water security highly. This initiative addressed the communities’ primary concerns around clean water, but also had impact beyond merely climate-related vulnerabilities.

This was a relatively simple solution that also improved financial security and minimised pollution because people no longer needed to travel to other islands to buy bottled water.

Aniwa, Vanuatu. A communal building in the village has a noticeboard, put up as part of one of the climate-awareness raising initiatives.
Rachel Clissold, Author provided

But even among success stories, standing the test of time was a challenge.

For example, while these water security initiatives boosted short-term coping capacities, they weren’t flexible for coping with likely future changes in drought severity and duration.




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Adaptation needs better future planning, especially by those who understand local processes best: the community.

Listening to locals

For an adaptation initiative to be successful, our research found it must include:

  1. local approval and ownership

  2. shared access and benefit for community members

  3. integration of local context and livelihoods

  4. big picture thinking and forward planning.

To achieve these, practitioners and researchers need to rethink community-based adaptation as more than being simply “based” in communities where ideas are imposed on them, but rather as something they wholly lead.

Communities must acknowledge and build on their strengths and traditional values, and drive their own adaptation agendas – even if this means questioning well-intentioned foreign agencies.

Being good neighbours

Pacific Islands are not passive, helpless victims, but they’ll still need help to deal with climate change.

Pacific Island leaders need more than kind words from Australian leaders.




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Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Last year, Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, took to Facebook to remind Australia:

by working closely together, we can turn the tides in this battle – the most urgent crisis facing not only the Pacific, but the world.

Together, we can ensure that we are earthly stewards of Fiji, Australia, and the ocean that unites us.

Together, we can pass down a planet that our children are proud to inherit.The Conversation

Rachel Clissold, Researcher, The University of Queensland; Annah Piggott-McKellar, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne; Karen E McNamara, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast; Roselyn Kumar, , University of the Sunshine Coast, and Ross Westoby, Research Fellow, Griffith University

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