On a sunny day in Sydney last Sunday Tim Flannery, former Australian of the Year, appeared on a panel of international journalists convened to discuss the reporting of climate science. Kerry O’Brien kicked things off by asking about the prognosis. Flannery said he wouldn’t answer until the young people at the Sydney Opera House had been given a chance to leave. Things were so dire he feared for their mental health.
My first reaction was that Flannery had developed a taste for the theatrical. No. In the conversation that ensued it became clear that the world cannot avoid 1.5 degrees of warming and the devastating damage that entails, and many far worse scenarios were in play. Flannery’s deep anger and distress was palpable. He said that once he’d viewed climate sceptics with the same indulgence you might afford an eccentric uncle, but now the gloves were off. Deniers were destroying the lives of our children.
Many countries are gripped by policy paralysis, he said, Australia chief among them. And journalism has utterly failed to convey the urgency and magnitude of the problem. Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, told the Antidote festival audience that in 2018 the major TV news networks in the US aired just two and a half hours of climate coverage. In the three prime-time US general election debates in 2016 there was not a single question on the topic.
So how do responsible journalists sound the alarm without sounding alarmist? At The Conversation we are committed to bringing you the voices of scientists and researchers who understand the evidence. We think the proper role for journalism is to provide the clean information that is the lifeblood of democracy. But we also understand it’s vital that these messages gain traction beyond the academic communities from which they emanate.
With this in mind we have recently appointed a new editor to lead our coverage of Environment & Energy. Nicole Hasham is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who for the past four years has been based at Parliament House covering environment and energy for the Nine/Fairfax newspapers.
Nicole will remain in the Canberra press gallery for The Conversation, bridging the gap between policymakers and scientists, and promoting a more informed discussion based on evidence and solutions. She will work alongside the deputy section editor Madeleine De Gabriele and will build on the work of her predecessor Mike Hopkin, who is now our Science and Technology editor.
The Conversation Australia has also joined more than 170 other media outlets in an initiative called Covering Climate Now, co-founded by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation. The idea is to provide a single week of dedicated high quality coverage of climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23.
We see this as the beginning of a new phase in our climate coverage, a vital conversation between scientists and politicians. We don’t want to be alarmist, but if Flannery and the scores of scientists who share his view are right, we are sleepwalking toward disaster. We cannot rest until the scientists are being heard, and solutions are in place that can provide a secure future for all our children.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
I read somewhere that 1,000 square metres of grass absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide that one person produces. I then think about my small 10ha property. Does that mean that I am covering 100 peoples’ CO₂ emissions every day? What about those large 1,000ha properties then? Do they absorb thousands of tonnes of carbon every year?
In New Zealand, your average carbon footprint will be around four tonnes of carbon, emitted per year (based on the carbon contained in 16.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annual per-capita emissions). A 1,000-square-metre area of grass will take up around one tonne of carbon per year. So if you didn’t fly much, lived in a well insulated home, cycled to work etc, you might bring your overall footprint down to around one tonne of carbon per year, the equivalent of what a backyard lawn may take up per year. So far so good.
The big problem (causing tremendous confusion even among scientists) begins right here. In the above, we talk about fluxes, not pools. Using your bank account as an analogy, fluxes are transfers, pools are balances.
With your own carbon emissions, regardless whether they are one or four tonnes per year, you pay into the atmosphere’s account every year. This means that there is more and more carbon in the atmosphere.
That carbon comes from fossil fuels – an entirely different “account”. Regardless of whether you have 1,000 or 100,000 square metres, this is what grass is doing in this analogy: it takes carbon from the atmosphere every year, but that carbon is going straight back to where it was taken from when you mow the lawn and the biomass is broken down and returned to the atmosphere. In other words, your carbon footprint is a flux that leads to a permanent change in a pool (the atmosphere). This is a bit like a weekly salary. You don’t have to pay it back. What your lawn is doing however, is making payments that are returned a few weeks or months later (when you mow the lawn, a cow eats the grass, or when natural turnover takes place).
The bottom line is that short-term fluxes (as large as they might be) don’t matter if they are reciprocated by an equivalent but opposite flux. If you want, let’s do the experiment. You pay $1,000 onto my account ever odd week, and I pay $1,000 onto yours every even week. None of us will care – as little as the atmosphere will worry about the carbon that your grass patch briefly locks away from it.
So your grass won’t lock away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the long run. Neither will any grassland in New Zealand.
If you wait long enough, things can become a bit more complicated, namely if my payments back to you start to become a little less or a little more, causing dollars or carbon to accumulate on one account rather than the other. While this is the case in some ecosystems, such as a growing forest, New Zealand grassland is unlikely one of them. So your backyard isn’t helping, there is no way around reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
An article in The Australian recently claimed that on the east coast electric vehicles are responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than their petrol counterparts.
The findings were largely attributed to Australia’s reliance on coal-fired power to charge electric vehicles. The report on which the article was based has not been publicly released, making it difficult to examine the claim.
Battery electric vehicles have no exhaust emissions. Their emissions are primarily determined by the upstream emissions: that is, from the production and distribution of the energy used to charge them.
In a paper I co-authored late last year, we estimated that the typical Australian petrol vehicle generated 355 grams of CO₂-equivalent per kilometre in real-world fuel life cycle emissions.
By comparison, a typical electric vehicle charged using the average Australian electricity grid mix generated about 40% fewer emissions, at 213 grams of CO₂-equivalent per kilometre.
Even with dirty energy, electric cars are greener
Electric vehicle emissions vary depending on how dirty the region’s electricity is. By applying the 2019 National Greenhouse Accounts Factors to the same methodology used in our journal paper, electric vehicle emissions in each of Australia’s electricity grids were calculated (see Table 1, click to zoom).
Victoria has the most emissions-intensive grid in Australia due to its reliance on brown coal. However, even in that state, the real-world fuel life cycle emissions of a typical electric vehicle would still be 20% lower than a typical petrol vehicle. In Tasmania, which is dominated by renewable energy, electric vehicle emissions would be 88% lower than a comparable petrol vehicle.
Let’s examine four different sized electric vehicles in Australia to see how their fuel lifecycle emissions compare to petrol vehicle equivalents (see Table 2, click to zoom).
Even when large electric cars are charged using Victoria’s grid, emissions are 6-7% lower than a petrol vehicle equivalent.
Using both real-world emissions estimates and Green Vehicle Guide data, the shift from petrol to electric vehicles is shown to deliver a reduction in emissions – no matter where vehicles are charged in Australia (see Table 3, click to zoom).
And of course emissions from electric vehicles will fall further as grid electricity continues to become cleaner.
There is clearly a strong relationship between ownership of both electric vehicles and zero-emission rooftop solar.
In 2018 we surveyed more than 150 electric vehicle owners in Australia (representing 2% of the national fleet). We found that 80% of vehicle charging occurred at home, with 73% of respondents owning rooftop solar systems (compared to an average of 21.6% of homes nationally)).
Additionally, 22% of electric vehicle owners surveyed had stationary battery storage attached to their solar rooftop systems, with another 53% planning to install batteries in the near future.
Five more reasons to embrace electric vehicles:
Cost savings: Electric vehicles are 70-90% cheaper to operate, potentially saving households more than A$2,000 per year.
5) Health benefits: Noxious emissions from traditional vehicles also take a massive toll on our health by contributing to rates of asthma and other chronic illnesses. Vehicle pollution causes an estimated 40% to 60% more premature deaths than road accident fatalities in Australia. Electric vehicles provide a pathway to avoid these deaths.
Even international bank BNP Paribas sees the writing on the wall. In advice to investors last month it outlined that thanks to electric vehicles, the economics of oil for transport was “in relentless and irreversible decline, with far-reaching implications for both policymakers and the oil majors.”
*Note: The Green Vehicle Guide figures in Table 2 are based on a 1997 drive cycle – the New European Drive Cycle or NEDC – which significantly underestimates real-world emissions and efficiency. As a result, Green Vehicle Guide values for all vehicles are lower than the real-world emissions estimates we published in our 2018 paper. Despite this, the relative difference in emissions between electric and petrol vehicles is largely consistent with our estimates – see Table 3 – and therefore these figures are still useful for comparing different vehicles.
Spring has barely arrived, and bushfires are burning across Australia’s eastern seaboard. More than 50 fires are currently burning in New South Wales, and some 15,000 hectares have burned in Queensland since late last week.
It’s the first time Australia has seen such strong fires this early in the bushfire season. While fire is a normal part of Australia’s yearly cycle and no two years are alike, what we are seeing now is absolutely not business as usual.
And although these bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.
The basics of a bushfire
For some bushfire 101, a bushfire is “an uncontrolled, non-structural fire burning in grass, scrub, bush or forest”. This means the fire is in vegetation, not a building (non-structural), and raging across the landscape – hence, uncontrolled.
For a bushfire to get started, several things need to come together. You need fuel, low humidity (which also often means the fuel itself has a low moisture content and is easier to burn), and oxygen. It also helps to have an unusually high ambient temperature and winds to drive the fire forward.
In Australia, we divide bushfires into two types based on the shape and elevation of the landscape.
First are flat grassland bushfires. These are generally fast-moving, fanned by winds blowing across flattish open landscapes, and burn through an area in 5–10 seconds and may smoulder for a few minutes. They usually have low to medium intensity and can damage to crops, livestock and buildings. These fires are easy to map and fight due to relatively straightforward access.
Second are hilly or mountainous bushfires. These fires are slower-moving but much more intense, with higher temperatures. As they usually occur in forested, mountainous areas, they also have more dead vegetation to burn and are harder to access and fight.
They burn slowly, passing through an area in 2-5 minutes and can smoulder for days. Fires in upper tree canopies move very fast. Mountainous bushfires actually speed up as they burn up a slope (since they heat and dry out the vegetation and atmosphere in front of the fire, causing a runaway process of accelerating fire movement).
However, as bushfire risk is highest in warm to hot, dry conditions with low humidity, low soil and fuel load moisture (and are usually worse during El Niño situations) – all factors that climate change in Australia affects – climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires.
Different regions of Australia have traditionally experienced peak bushfire weather at different times. This has meant that individual households, communities and the emergency services have had specific periods of the year to prepare. These patterns now seem to be breaking down, and bushfires are happening outside these regular places and times.
New challenges for the emergency services
While experts recently forecast a worse-than-average coming bushfire season, the current emergency has essentially exploded out of nowhere.
Many Australian communities do know how to prepare but there is always some apathy at the start of bushfire season around getting households and communities bushfire-ready. When it’s still relatively cold and feeling like the last whisps of winter are still affecting us, bushfire preparation seems very far off.
Compounding our worsening bushfire conditions, we are increasingly building in bushfire-prone areas, exposing people and homes to fire. This tips the scales of risk further in favour of catastrophic losses. Sadly too, these risks always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable.
With such extensive fires over wide areas, the current emergency points to an extremely frightening future possibility: that emergency services become more and more stretched, responding to fires, floods, storms, tropic cyclones and a myriad other natural hazards earlier in each hazard season, increasingly overlapping.
Our emergency services do an amazing job but their resources and the energy of their staff and volunteers can only go so far.
Regularly the emergency services of one area or state are deployed to other areas to help respond to emergencies.
But inevitably, we will see large-scale disasters occurring simultaneously in multiple territories, making it impossible to share resources. Our emergency management workforce report they are already stressed and overworked, and losing the capacity to share resources will only exacerbate this.
Immediate challenges will be to continue funding emergency management agencies across the nation, ensuring the workforce has the necessary training and experience to plan and respond to a range of complex emergencies, and making sure local communities are involved in actively planning for emergencies.
The latest report card on Australia’s greenhouse gas production is the same old news: emissions are up again. We’ve heard it before, but the news should never stop being confronting.
It’s 2019. The first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which outlined the serious consequences of unmitigated climate change, was released the better part of 30 years ago. But Australia is still going backwards.
Emissions from one of the sunniest and windiest countries on the planet, blessed with every possible advantage when it comes to emissions reduction potential, are still rising. How do you justify that?
Energy and Emission Reduction Minister Angus Taylor tried to justify it by blaming gas. He said if you ignore the greenhouse gases released when producing gas for export, Australia is doing well because emissions in the March quarter fell by 0.3%.
It’s a bit like suggesting that if you ignore the cancer, smoking is completely fine. It’s untrue, and ignores the bigger part of the problem.
How does producing gas for export release fossil fuel emissions?
A mammoth share of the coal and gas that Australia produces goes to the international market.
The combustion of these fuels is not counted in Australia’s ledger, though.
This is because the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change counts emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the country where they are burned.
But the extraction process itself also releases fossil fuels in Australia’s backyard, both through the energy used in the extraction and through leaks. These emissions are included on Australia’s ledger.
It is disingenuous to use the production of gas exports to explain away Australia’s poor performance on emissions reduction.
In the 2018 financial year, around one in seven tonnes of greenhouse gas emitted from Australia was released in the process of making even more greenhouse gas, from both gas and coal extraction.
That means that six in every seven tonnes of greenhouse gas Australia emits can largely be attributed to the the total absence of a national climate policy.
This policy failure has big implications. Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement says the world must reach net-zero emissions over the entire period from 2050 to 2100. (And the IPCC says emissions must come down even faster than that if planetary warming is to stay below the critical 1.5℃ threshold).
Even if, disregarding export gas production, Australia cut emissions by 0.3% a year, at that rate net-zero emissions won’t be reached for another 333 years.
So while fossil fuel extraction is making things worse, our emissions elsewhere are hardly able to reach the net zero goal in the Paris agreement.
The minister and his department also made much of the idea that our gas is reducing emissions overseas. The quarterly report even contained a “special topic” talking up the benefits of Australia’s gas exports.
The logic is that by exporting gas, which is allegedly cleaner than coal, we are replacing a high emitting source with a relatively low emitting source. That logic does not hold and is not scientifically robust.
We may not know the whole story, but we do know it is not true in one of the largest purchasers of Australian gas, Japan. Since the Fukushima accident in 2011 took much of Japan’s zero-emissions nuclear energy out of the mix, it has been replaced by Australian gas, which is far worse for the climate.
Third, even if our gas is substituting coal, the benefits are very small. The same GISERA study indicated that “climate benefits of natural gas replacing coal are lost where fugitive emissions [leaking gas] … are greater than 3%”.
It burned because of methane bubbling up through it, purportedly from nearby unconventional gas extraction. These emissions, the result of leaks through natural fractures in the Earth, are difficult to predict and model. They are not accurately measured in Australia, and may make gas far worse for the climate than even coal.
The evidence of climate change is increasingly clear, yet Australia’s emissions continue to increase. Our political leaders are spinning the data and failing to act, putting our children’s future, our economy and the natural environment at risk.
Winter still has a few days to run, but it’s highly likely to be one of Australia’s warmest and driest on record. While final numbers will be crunched once August ends, this winter will probably rank among the top ten warmest for daytime temperatures and the top ten driest for rainfall.
While it was drier than average across most of the country, it was especially dry across South Australia, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Small areas of South Australia and New South Wales are on track for their driest winter on record.
In contrast, parts of southern Victoria, western Tasmania and central Queensland were wetter than usual.
Soil moisture normally increases during winter (except in the tropics, where it’s the dry season), and while we saw that in parts of Victoria, for most of Queensland and New South Wales the soil moisture actually decreased.
Dry soils leading into winter have soaked up the rain that has fallen, resulting in limited runoff and inflows into the major water storages across the country.
A glass half empty
Sydney’s water storages dropping below 50% received considerable public attention, and unfortunately a number of other regional storages in New South Wales and the Murray Darling Basin are much lower than that.
The winter ‘filling’ season in the southern Murray Darling Basin has been drier than usual for the third year in a row, and storages in the northern Murray Darling basin are extremely low or empty with no meaningful inflows.
Some rain in the west
Some regions did receive enough rainfall to grow crops this cool season. However, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland didn’t see an improvement in their severe year-to-date rainfall deficiencies over winter.
In fact, the area of the country that is experiencing year-to-date rainfall in the lowest 5% of historical records expanded.
In better news, the severe year-to-date deficiencies across southwest Western Australia shrank during winter.
Indian Ocean Dipole the culprit
Sustained differences between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD impacts Australian seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, much like the more well known El Niño–Southern Oscillation.
Warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical western Indian Ocean and cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, along with changes in both cloud and wind patterns, have been consistent with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole since late May.
International climate models, some of which forecast the positive IOD as early as February, agree that it is likely to continue through spring.
Typically, this means below average rainfall and above average temperatures for much of central and southern Australia, which is consistent with the current rainfall and temperature outlook from the Bureau’s dynamical computer model. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.
A dry end to 2019 likely
Chances are the remainder of 2019 will be drier than normal for most of Australia. The exceptions are western Tasmania, southern Victoria and western WA, where chances of a wetter or drier than average end to the year are roughly equal.
Warmer than average days are very likely (chances above 80%) for most of the country except the far south of the mainland, and Tasmania.
Nights too are likely to be warmer than average for most of the country. However, much of Victoria and Tasmania, and southern parts of South Australia and New South Wales have close to an even chance for warmer than average minimum temperatures.
The term weather describes conditions over shorter periods, such as from minutes to days, while the term climate describes the more slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere.
From today, the Bureau of Meteorology is closing the forecast gap between weather and climate information with the release of weekly and fortnightly climate outlooks.
For the first time, rainfall and temperature outlooks for the weeks directly after the 7-day forecast are available. One- and two-week outlooks have been added to complement the existing 1-month and 3-month outlooks.
Over the past seven years more than 100 research projects at the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, in collaboration with industry across Australia, have pondered a very big question: How do we build future cities that are sustainable, liveable and affordable?
This is exactly what Australians want, as the recent Greater Sydney Commission report, The Pulse of Greater Sydney, revealed. People want cities in which they live close to jobs and have reasonable commuting times. They want access to parks and green space, and relief from ever-increasing urban heat.
The good news is we already know what it will take to deliver on much of this wish list. Since 2012, I have headed the A$100 million Low Carbon Living CRC, which has brought together Australian businesses, industries, communities and many of our brightest researchers to work out how to steer change.
Our Cooling Sydney Strategy, for instance, is the result of years of research into how to combat urban heatwaves. The burden of this heat is unevenly spread across our cities.
While the recent winter sun might feel welcome, the negative impacts of increasingly hot cities on our health, lifestyle and energy use greatly outweigh any winter comfort.
So what are the solutions?
Our researchers have already found how we can offset increasing heat. The strategies includes cool and permeable pavements, water features and evaporative cooling, shade structures, vertical gardens, street trees and other plants – even special heat refuge stations.
Keeping cool inside, without huge power bills, is possible too. During last summer’s heatwave, our pilot 10-star energy-efficient house in Perth remained a comfortable 24°C inside, without air conditioning, when it was over 40°C outside. The exceptional thermal performance of the house was down to its evidence-based design.
This work is just one part of our wider remit. Our UNSW-based centre is on track to deliver independently verified cuts of 10 megatonnes of carbon emissions generated by Australia’s built environment by 2020. By integrating renewable energy systems, smart technologies, low-carbon materials and people-centred design into buildings and urban precincts, we have developed a sustainable, liveable and affordable urban blueprint for Australia. A PwC study (yet to be released) estimated cumulative economic benefits totalling A$684 million by 2027.
To put this another way, we have identified and verified evidence-based pathways to cut emissions equivalent to taking some 2.1 million cars off the road.
Some of the progress to date is not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Take an otherwise unremarkable stretch of road along the back way to Sydney Airport. Recently, a 30-metre section of concrete was installed, which looks more like an ad hoc road repair than an important scientific pilot study.
The geopolymer concrete developed through our research centre is a similarly high-performance product but its binder safely incorporates otherwise noxious industrial waste streams, such as fly ash from coal-fired power stations and slag from blast furnaces. Australia has stockpiled about 400 million tonnes of waste from coal-fired power generation and steelmaking.
In Alexandria, in collaboration with the City of Sydney, we are testing this low-carbon concrete as a road surface that could help clean up industrial waste while slashing emissions. Working with NSW Ports, we’ve also shaped it into low-carbon bollards to form a breakwater to protect the coastline at Port Kembla from extreme weather.
We now have the know-how to do better
There are many such success stories, but with 150 CRC Low Carbon Living projects the list is too long to detail. What’s more important, as our funding period comes to an end and Australia loses its only innovation hub committed to lowering carbon in the built environment, is to note how we got to where we are today.
The federal government’s Co-operative Research Centre program fosters co-operation and collaboration on a grand scale. Industries, businesses, government organisations and communities with a stake in solving big, complex challenges partner with researchers from a wide range of academic fields. This structure brings together sectors and people whose paths might otherwise rarely cross.
The cross-fertilisation of ideas, expertise and skills delivers innovative solutions. Research worldwide has consistently shown that collaboration drives innovation, and that innovation drives economic growth. Our experience confirms that as we partnered with organisations such as Multiplex, AECOM, BlueScope Steel, Sydney Water, ISCA, CSIRO and the United Nations Environment Program.
Cities are complex, exciting beasts, but we have the knowledge and expertise to live better, more comfortable urban lives in Australia while reducing demand for energy, water and materials. That is, we have the blueprint for low-carbon urban living. We must now choose to use it.
This article has been updated to correct the number of CRC Low Carbon Living projects to 150 and the amount of stockpiled waste from coal-fired power generation and steelmaking to 400 million tonnes.
Deo Prasad, Scientia Professor and CEO, Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, UNSW