Decaying forest wood releases a whopping 10.9 billion tonnes of carbon each year. This will increase under climate change


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Marisa Stone, Griffith University; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Kurtis Nisbet, Griffith University, and Sebastian Seibold, Technical University of MunichIf you’ve wandered through a forest, you’ve probably dodged dead, rotting branches or stumps scattered on the ground. This is “deadwood”, and it plays several vital roles in forest ecosystems.

It provides habitat for small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects. And as deadwood decomposes it contributes to the ecosystem’s cycle of nutrients, which is important for plant growth.

But there’s another important role we have little understanding of on a global scale: the carbon deadwood releases as it decomposes, with part of it going into the soil and part into the atmosphere. Insects, such as termites and wood borers, can accelerate this process.

The world’s deadwood currently stores 73 billion tonnes of carbon. Our new research in Nature has, for the first time, calculated that 10.9 billion tonnes of this (around 15%) is released into the atmosphere and soil each year — a little more than the world’s emissions from burning fossil fuels.

But this amount can change depending on insect activity, and will likely increase under climate change. It’s vital deadwood is considered explicitly in all future climate change projections.

An extraordinary, global effort

Forests are crucial carbon sinks, where living trees capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to regulate climate.
Deadwood — including fallen or still-standing trees, branches and stumps — makes up 8% of this carbon stock in the world’s forests.

Our aim was to measure the influence of climate and insects on the rate of decomposition — but it wasn’t easy. Our research paper is the result of an extraordinary effort to co-ordinate a large-scale cross-continent field experiment. More than 30 research groups worldwide took part.

White boxes on the forest floor
We used mesh cages to keep insects away from some deadwood to test their effect on decay.
Marisa Stone, Author provided

Wood from more than 140 tree species was laid out for up to three years at 55 forest sites on six continents, from the Amazon rainforest to Brisbane, Australia.
Half of these wood samples were in closed mesh cages to exclude insects from the decomposition process to test their effect, too.

Some sites had to be protected from elephants, another was lost to fire and another had to be rebuilt after a flood.

What we found

Our research showed the rate of deadwood decay and how insects contribute to it depend very strongly on climate.

We found the rate increased primarily with rising temperature, and was disproportionately greater in the tropics compared to all other cooler climatic regions.

In fact, deadwood in tropical regions lost a median mass of 28.2% every year. In cooler, temperate regions, the median mass lost was just 6.3%.

More deadwood decay occurs in the tropics because the region has greater biodiversity (more insects and fungi) to facilitate decomposition. As insects consume the wood, they render it to small particles, which speed up decay. The insects also introduce fungal species, which then finish the job.




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Wood beetles are nature’s recyclers – with a little help from fungi


Of the 10.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released by deadwood each year, we estimate insect activity is responsible for 3.2 billion tonnes, or 29%.

Let’s break this down by region. In the tropics, insects were responsible for almost one-third of the carbon released from deadwood. In regions with low temperatures in forests of northern and temperate latitudes — such as in Canada and Finland — insects had little effect.

Mushrooms growing on a log
After insects break deadwood into smaller pieces, fungi are responsible for the final stages of decay.
Marisa Stone, Author provided

What does this mean in a changing climate?

Insects are sensitive to climate change and, with recent declines in insect biodiversity, the current and future roles of insects in deadwood are uncertain.

But given the vast majority of deadwood decay occurs in the tropics (93%), and that this region in general is set to become even warmer and wetter under climate change, it’s safe to say climate change will increase the amount of carbon deadwood releases each year.

Close-up of three termites in wood
Termites and other insects can speed up deadwood decay in warmer climates.
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It’s also worth bearing in mind that the amount of carbon dioxide released is still only a fraction of the total annual global deadwood carbon stock. That is, 85% of the global deadwood carbon stock remains on forest floors and continues to store carbon each year.

We recommend deadwood is left in place — in the forest. Removing deadwood may not only be destructive for biodiversity and the ability of forests to regenerate, but it could actually substantially increase atmospheric carbon.




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For example, if we used deadwood as a biofuel it could release the carbon that would otherwise have remained locked up each year. If the world’s deadwood was removed and burned, it would be release eight times more carbon than what’s currently emitted from burning fossil fuels.

This is particularly important in cooler climatic regions, where decomposition is slower and deadwood remains for several years as a vital carbon sink.

Lush, green forest
Deadwood is essential for a healthy forest ecosystem.
Milk tea/Unsplash, CC BY

What next?

The complex interplay of interactions between insects and climate on deadwood carbon release makes future climate projections a bit tricky.

To improve climate change predictions, we need much more detailed research on how communities of decomposer insects (such as the numbers of individuals and species) influence deadwood decomposition, not to mention potential effects from insect diversity loss.

But insect diversity loss is also likely to vary regionally and would require long-term studies over decades to determine.

For now, climate scientists must take the enormous annual emissions from deadwood into account in their research, so humanity can have a better understanding of climate change’s cascading effects.




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Trees can’t save us from climate change – but society will always depend on forests – podcast


The Conversation


Marisa Stone, Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, Griffith University; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Kurtis Nisbet, Scientific Officer, Griffith University, and Sebastian Seibold, Adjunct Teaching Professor, Technical University of Munich

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

As the world battles to slash carbon emissions, Australia considers paying dirty coal stations to stay open longer


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Tim Nelson, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Griffith UniversityA long-anticipated plan to reform Australia’s electricity system was released on Thursday. One of the most controversial proposals by the Energy Security Board (ESB) concerns subsidies which critics say will encourage dirty coal plants to stay open longer.

The subsidies, under a so-called “capacity mechanism”, would aim to ensure reliable energy supplies as old coal plants retire.

Major coal generators say the proposal will achieve this aim. But renewables operators and others oppose the plan, saying it will pay coal plants for simply existing and delay the clean energy transition.

So where does the truth lie? Unless carefully designed, the proposal may enable coal generators to keep polluting when they might otherwise have closed. This is clearly at odds with the need to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise Earth’s climate.

firefighter and bushfire engulfing house
Extending the life of coal plants is at odds with climate action efforts.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Paying coal stations to exist

The ESB provides advice to the nation’s energy ministers and comprises the heads of Australia’s major energy governing bodies.

Advice to the ministers on the electricity market redesign, released on Thursday, includes a recommendation for a mechanism formally known as the Physical Retailer Reliability Obligation (PRRO).

It would mean electricity generators are paid not only for the actual electricity they produce, which is the case now, but also for having the capacity to scale up electricity generation when needed.

Electricity prices on the wholesale market – where electricity is bought and sold – vary depending on the time of day. Prices are typically much higher when consumer demand peaks, such as in the evenings when we turn on heaters or air-conditioners. This provides a strong financial incentive for generators to provide reliable electricity at these times.

As a result of these incentives, Australia’s electricity system has been very reliable to date.

But the ESB says as more renewables projects come online, this reliability is not assured – due to investor uncertainty around when coal plants will close and how governments will intervene in the market.




Read more:
IPCC report: how to make global emissions peak and fall – and what’s stopping us


Under the proposed change, electricity retailers – the companies everyday consumers buy energy from – must enter into contracts with individual electricity generators to make capacity available to the market.

Energy authorities would decide what proportion of a generator’s capacity could be relied upon at critical times. Retailers would then pay generators regardless of whether or not they produce electricity when needed.

Submissions to the ESB show widespread opposition to the proposed change: from clean energy investors, battery manufacturers, major energy users and consumer groups. The ESB acknowledges the proposal has few supporters.

In fact, coal generators are virtually the only groups backing the proposed change. They say it would keep the electricity system reliable, because the rapid expansion of rooftop solar has lowered wholesale prices to the point coal plants struggle to stay profitable.

The ESB says the subsidy would also go to other producers of dispatchable energy such as batteries and pumped hydro. It says such businesses require guaranteed revenue streams if they’re to invest in new infrastructure.

Man gives thumbs up in front of hydro project
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Snowy Hydro project. Such generators would also be eligible for the proposed subsidy.
Lukas Coch/AAP

A questionable plan

In our view, the arguments from coal generators and the ESB require greater scrutiny.

Firstly, the ESB’s suggestion that the existing market is not driving investment in new dispatchable generation is not supported by recent data. As the Australian Energy Market Operator recently noted, about 3.7 gigawatts of new gas, battery and hydro projects are set to enter the market in coming years. This is on top of 3.2 gigawatts of new wind and solar under construction. Together, this totals more than four times the operating capacity of AGL’s Liddell coal plant in New South Wales.

It’s also difficult to argue the system is made more reliable by paying dispatchable coal stations to stay around longer.

One in four Australian homes have rooftop solar panels, and installation continues to grow. This reduces demand for coal-fired power when the sun is shining.

The electricity market needs generators that can turn on and off quickly in response to this variable demand. Hydro, batteries and some gas plants can do this. Coal-fired power stations cannot – they are too slow and inflexible.

Coal stations are also becoming less reliable and prone to breakdowns as they age. Paying them to stay open can block investment in more flexible and reliable resources.

Critics of the proposed change argue coal generators can’t compete in a world of expanding rooftop solar, and when large corporate buyers are increasingly demanding zero-emissions electricity.

There is merit in these arguments. The recommended change may simply create a new revenue stream for coal plants enabling them to stay open when they might otherwise have exited the market.

Governments should also consider that up to A$5.5 billion in taxpayer assistance was allocated to coal-fired generators in 2012 to help them transition under the Gillard government’s (since repealed) climate policies. Asking consumers to again pay for coal stations to stay open doesn’t seem equitable.

Steam billows from coal plant
Coal plants have already received billions in subsidies.
Shutterstock

The ultimate test

The nation’s energy ministers have not yet decided on the reforms. As usual, the devil will be in the detail.

For any new scheme to improve electricity reliability, it should solely reward new flexible generation such as hydro, batteries, and 100% clean hydrogen or biofuel-ready gas turbines.

For example, reliability could be improved by establishing a physical “reserve market” of new, flexible generators which would operate alongside the existing market. This generation could be seamlessly introduced as existing generation fails and exits.

The ESB has recommended such a measure, and pivoting the capacity mechanism policy to reward only new generators could be beneficial.

The Grattan Institute
has also proposed a scheme to give businesses more certainty about when coal plant will close. Together, these options would address the ESB’s concerns.

This month’s troubling report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was yet another reminder of the need to dramatically slash emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Energy regulators, politicians and the energy industry owe it to our children and future generations to embrace a zero-emissions energy system. The reform of Australia’s electricity market will ultimately be assessed against this overriding obligation.




Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns


The Conversation


Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University

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

Today’s decisions lock in industry emissions for decades — here’s how to get them right


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Alison Reeve, Grattan InstituteThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear there’s little time left to reach net zero emissions and hold the global temperature rise to 1.5C.

If Australia is to do its bit, emissions need to fall across the economy.

The states and territories all have net-zero targets for 2050, and the prime minister says the national target is also net zero emissions, preferably by 2050.

2050 feels a long way off. It’s ten election cycles for prime ministers, seven for state premiers. Does that mean there’s plenty of time to come up with mechanisms to get us there?

Unfortunately, no. Here’s why.

For net zero, 2050 is sooner than you think

Around 30% of Australia’s emissions come from the industrial sector — from facilities such as coal mines, liquefied natural gas platforms, steel smelters, and zinc processing plants.

These facilities have long operating lives — up to 30 to 40 years, sometimes more.

This means facilities that start up tomorrow will probably still be operating in 2050. Older facilities have only one replacement cycle between now and 2050.

Companies don’t have ten chances to get on the pathway right. They have one.




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Planning to replace an ageing asset starts well before it is due to end its life, and companies can only consider realistic options.

They can’t assess costs and risks on technologies that are still in the lab.

If low-emissions technologies aren’t available or commercially feasible when decisions are made, what firms do install will lock in decades of future emissions.

Decisions made today will extend beyond 2050

Consider a coal-powered cement plant that will reach the end of its design life in 2030. The owner is considering three options

  • like-for-like replacement that still uses coal but is slightly more efficient, with costs and risks well understood
  • a new plant that uses gas as well as coal, whose costs and risks can be forecast with some certainty
  • an experimental ultra-low-emissions technology, expected to be commercially ready in 2040, with hard to quantify costs and risks, and bigger upfront cost

Taking the third option (waiting) might mean squeezing another 10 years out of an ageing plant, with a risk it might not make the distance.

This chart shows emissions between now and the end of the new plant’s life for each option.


Towards Net Zero: practical policies for the industrial sector
Grattan analysis of public data for various Australian cement facilities.
Towards Net Zero: practical policies for the industrial sector

Like-for-like replacement locks in considerable emissions between 2030 and 2050, and the risk of having to buy carbon offsets between 2050 (when Australia moves to net zero) and the end of the plant’s life in 2070.

A changed fuel mix reduces the lock-in and the likely burden of offsets, but they are still material.

Waiting until 2040 (and running the risk that the old plant might not have an extra 10 years life in it) will mean less emissions after 2040 and less liability for carbon offsets, but much more emissions before then.




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From an emissions perspective, the best decision may be a halfway house — running the old plant for an extra five years, and installing the new technology before it is fully commercial, if someone else is willing to share the risk.

Without a signal from either a state or federal government the cement plant owner is likely to go with option one or two.

Government can help

Our report, Towards Net Zero: practical policies for the industrial sector, outlines three things the federal government can do now to tilt companies’ decisions in favour of something like option three.

First, it can signal that it expects all new facilities to avoid locking in long tails of emissions.

The best way to do this would be to fulfil its 2015 commitment to set best-practice benchmarks for new facilities. They were meant to be in place by 2020.

Second, it should set up an Industrial Transformation Future Fund in order to share the risk of new technologies with industry.




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Third, it should adjust its safeguard mechanism under which big emitters have to report and adhere to emissions intensity standards to require them to start cutting emissions immediately.

This would level the field between new and old facilities. It would mean some older facilities closed earlier than planned, but it would mean they would be replaced by cleaner facilities.

It is important these policies start now. Every decision we make from now on will affect our chance of reaching net zero and escaping catastrophic climate change.The Conversation

Alison Reeve, Deputy Program Director, Energy and Climate Change, Grattan Institute

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

Australia is at risk of taking the wrong tack at the Glasgow climate talks, and slamming China is only part of it


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Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityBuried within the prime minister’s response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is just about everything we’re at risk of getting wrong at the Glasgow climate talks in October.

After slamming China — whose emissions per person are half of Australia’s — for not doing more to cut emissions, Scott Morrison said the Glasgow talks were the “biggest multilateral global negotiation the world has ever known”.

If he treats the talks as just another (big) negotiation, we’re in trouble.

The way the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade usually treats negotiations is hold something back, hold out the prospect of “giving it up,” and then only make the concession if the other side gives something in return. Even if holding back damages Australia.

Cars are a case in point. From an economic point of view, there is no reason whatsoever to continue to impose tariffs (special taxes) on the import of cars — none, not even in the eyes of those who support the use of tariffs to protect Australian jobs. Australia no longer makes cars.

Yet the tariff remains, at 5%, making it perhaps A$1 billion harder than it should be for Australians to buy new cars (although nowhere near as hard as it was in the days when the tariff was 57.5%).

The tariff seems to be in place largely to give the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade something to negotiate away in trade agreements: for use as what the Productivity Commission calls “negotiating coin”.

Australia removed tariffs on cars from Korea but kept them in place more broadly.
Tricky_Shark/Shutterstock

Here’s how it worked in the 2014 Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Australia agreed to remove the remaining 5% tariff on Korean cars, “with consumers and businesses to benefit from downward pressure on import prices”.

But Australia didn’t remove the tariff on car imports altogether, which would have given us a much bigger benefit but denied the department negotiating coin.

The next year the department did it again, agreeing to give up the tariff on imported Japanese cars in the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (but not on other cars) so Australians could “benefit from lower prices and/or greater availability of Japanese products”.

Two years later, it did it again, with cars from China.

When the UK and European agreements are negotiated, it’ll do it there too.

Australia holds back reforms

Eventually Australians will get what they are entitled to. But the point is that rather than advancing the cause of free trade, the department has held back, treating a win for the other side as a loss for us, when it wasn’t.

The Centre for International Economics believes the much bigger earlier set of tariff cuts lifted the living standard of the average Australian family by A$8,448.

Had our trade negotiators been in charge, we would still be waiting. Instead the Hawke and then the Keating governments pushed through unilateral reductions, asking for nothing in return.




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As former Trade Minister Craig Emerson put it, this gave Australia “credibility in international trade negotiations way beyond the relative size of our economy”.

Does that sound like the sort of thing Australia might need at Glasgow, to have enough credibility to urge even bigger emitters to deliver the kind of cuts on which our futures and future temperatures depend?

It won’t work with China

The prime minister is right to say that China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, even though its emissions per person are low. Its high population means it accounts for 28% of all the greenhouse gases pumped out each year. The next biggest emitter, the United States, accounts for 15%

But China’s status is new. Until 2006 it pumped out less per year than the United States. Because the US has had mega-factories and heating and so on for so much longer, it is responsible for by far the biggest chunk of the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere: 25%, followed by the European Union with 22%.



China might reasonably feel that countries like the US that have done the most to create the problem should do the most to fix it.

Like Australia, the US pumps out twice as much per person as China and has much more room to cut back.

On the bright side, China knows that being big means it is in a position to make a difference to global emissions in a way that other countries cannot on their own. And that’s a position that can benefit its citizens.

China’s latest five-year plan, adopted in March, commits it to cut its “carbon intensity” (emissions per unit of GDP) by 18%. If it beats that five-year target by just a bit (and it has beaten its previous five-year targets) its emissions will turn down from 2025.

It is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2060.

Australia needs China’s help

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that Australia is especially susceptible to global warming. We’re facing less rain in winter, longer heatwaves, drier rivers, more arid soil and worse droughts.

We are right to want China to do more, but the worst way to achieve it is to say “we won’t lift our ambition until you lift yours”.

Hardly ever a worthwhile strategy, it is particularly ineffective when we don’t have bargaining power.




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Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns


The only power we’ve got is to set an example, unilaterally, as we did with tariffs. And to ramp up our ambition.

If Australia said it would do more, and didn’t quibble, it might just count for something.

It’s all we can do, and it’s the very best we can do.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Complicated, costly and downright frustrating: Aussies keen to cut emissions with clean energy at home get little support


Hugo Temby, Australian National University and Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Australian National UniversityEven after A$4,000 in repairs, Heather’s $18,000 rooftop solar and battery system is still not working.

Heather worked as a nurse until a workplace accident caused her to leave the workforce. She put most of her compensation towards making a switch to clean energy, hoping to bring down her energy costs and increase her comfort.

But a solar company sold her a system that wasn’t suited to her needs. They also didn’t clearly explain how the system worked or how to maintain it.

Heather’s battery failed after roughly two years. Her system’s complexity, and the limited handover provided by the company, meant she didn’t notice its failure during the short warranty period. Reflecting on the technical written information provided to her, Heather told us it was “way over my head”.

As a result, she is fully responsible for the cost of repairs, which she cannot afford. And she has since been told the battery is irreparable.

Heather’s story is one of many featured in our new report published today. It shows household clean energy technologies — such as rooftop solar, household batteries and electric vehicles — can be unnecessarily complicated, time consuming and costly.

Switching to clean energy at home

The aim of our report was to better understand stories like Heather’s to inform a Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman review of the various new energy technology regulatory frameworks in Australia. These frameworks have not kept up with the pace of technological change.

We held in-depth interviews in 2020 and 2021 with 68 householders, businesses and industry experts based mainly in Victoria and South Australia. We asked why people were purchasing new energy technology, if it was meeting their expectations, and the issues people were encountering.

Old radiator against a wall
Switching to clean energy technologies from old, emissions-intensive ones shouldn’t be this hard.
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Nearly all householders we spoke with were motivated to some degree by environmental concerns, particularly the desire to reduce their emissions, and many expected some financial returns. Community mindedness, enthusiasm for technology and comfort were other common motivators.

And many wanted greater independence from untrusted energy companies. Distrust of the sector has multiple facets, but it often boils down to a sense the sector doesn’t have the long-term interests of the public in mind.

Going it alone

New energy technologies can be highly complex. It’s not always clear what differentiates one solar panel product from another. Some services, such as virtual power plants or battery aggregation, require a basic understanding of how the broader energy system works, which even energy insiders can struggle to understand.

Some householders told us they found it difficult to source reliable information about different electric vehicle products, which they felt weren’t being sufficiently well covered in mainstream car magazines.




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Meanwhile, many householders felt alone and unsupported in dealing with their new technology. Heather, for example, has gone through four different electricians.

Most told us they were investing significant time, effort and funds into researching, choosing, configuring and operating their technologies, with different technologies often interacting and various energy tariffs on offer.

Increasingly, people are being seen as idealised “prosumers” in a “two-sided market”. In other words, rather than asking people how they might like to engage with the energy system, householders are given narrow options revolving around solely financial mechanisms.

Electric cars charging
Australians need support to cut transport emissions with electric vehicles.
Shutterstock

Most Australians don’t have the time and resources to do this work. Without a whole-of-sector strategy to ensure all Australians benefit from new energy technologies, we risk leaving people behind. This includes renters, apartment dwellers, people who can’t afford high up-front costs, or people who simply don’t have the time to do all the extra “digital housework” to maintain these technologies.

Alternative models, such as social enterprises or community energy, could make technology more accessible to renters and low income households. One example of this is solar gardens, where people can buy a share in a solar array located nearby, which in turn provides them with a discount on their bill.

But arguably, such options wouldn’t be required if our emerging energy system had resolved the energy trilemma in the first place.

Why this is so concerning

We know householders are a key part of the solution for climate mitigation, together with businesses and government.

There are many ways householders can decarbonise their electricity and transport. While not all involve buying new energy products, we consistently heard frustration about the lack of a coherent framework for different ways they could contribute.




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According to the federal government, it will be “technology, not taxes” that will get us to our Paris emissions reduction commitments.

But this assumes new technology uptake will be straightforward and downplays potential risks. It also implies new technology is always preferable to alternatives like reducing consumption.

A narrow focus on technology also ignores the rebound effect. Research has shown that without deeper engagement with Australians about the energy system, it’s possible lower electricity costs from new energy technologies could actually increase energy use and emissions.

Person installing rooftop solar
The federal government’s ‘technology not taxes’ approach to energy policy assumes new tech uptake will be straightforward.
Shutterstock

Where do we go from here?

Our new research shows we need better support for the nearly 2.8 million (and growing) Australian households and businesses that have already purchased new, clean energy technologies.

To make this happen, we need coordinated, climate wise policy across all levels of government with an engaged, evidence-based and equitable energy policy. This would help rebuild trust in Australia’s energy system.

If our national climate policy is to rely on new energy technology, it will be critical to ensure the technology – and its implementation – is better aligned with people’s needs and aspirations.




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The Conversation


Hugo Temby, Doctoral Researcher, Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program, Australian National University and Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Research Fellow, College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University

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

More livestock, more carbon dioxide, less ice: the world’s climate change progress since 2019 is (mostly) bad news


Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney; Christopher Wolf, Oregon State University, and William Ripple, Oregon State UniversityBack in 2019, more than 11,000 scientists declared a global climate emergency. They established a comprehensive set of vital signs that impact or reflect the planet’s health, such as forest loss, fossil fuel subsidies, glacier thickness, ocean acidity and surface temperature.

In a new paper published today, we show how these vital signs have changed since the original publication, including through the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, while we’ve seen lots of positive talk and commitments from some governments, our vital signs are mostly not trending in the right direction.

So, let’s look at how things have progressed since 2019, from the growing number of livestock to the meagre influence of the pandemic.

Is it all bad news?

No, thankfully. Fossil fuel divestment and fossil fuel subsidies have improved in record-setting ways, potentially signalling an economic shift to a renewable energy future.

The graph on the left shows an increase in fossil fuel divestment by 1,117 organisations based on data from 350.org, and the graph on the right shows a decrease in subsidies for fossil fuels based on the International Energy Agency subsidies database. The red lines show changes since our original publication in 2019.

However, most of the other vital signs reflect the consequences of the so far unrelenting “business as usual” approach to climate change policy worldwide.

Especially troubling is the unprecedented surge in climate-related disasters since 2019. This includes devastating flash floods in the South Kalimantan province of Indonesia, record heatwaves in the southwestern United States, extraordinary storms in India and, of course, the 2019-2020 megafires in Australia.

In addition, three main greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — set records for atmospheric concentrations in 2020 and again in 2021. In April this year, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million, the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded.

Time series of three climate-related responses. The red lines show changes since our original publication in 2019.

Last year was also the second hottest year in recorded history, with the five hottest years on record all occurring since 2015.

Ruminant livestock — cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats — now number more than 4 billion, and their total mass is more than that of all humans and wild mammals combined. This is a problem because these animals are responsible for impacting biodiversity, releasing huge amounts of methane emissions, and land continues to be cleared to make room for them.

There are now more than 4 billion livestock on Earth.
Flickr

In better news, recent per capita meat production declined by about 5.7% (2.9 kilograms per person) between 2018 and 2020. But this is likely because of an outbreak of African swine fever in China that reduced the pork supply, and possibly also as one of the impacts of the pandemic.

Tragically, Brazilian Amazon annual forest loss rates increased in both 2019 and 2020. It reached a 12-year high of 1.11 million hectares deforested in 2020.

Ocean acidification is also near an all-time record. Together with heat stress from warming waters, acidification threatens the coral reefs that more than half a billion people depend on for food, tourism dollars and storm surge protection.

Map of land-ocean temperature index anomaly in June, relative to the 1951-1980 baseline.
Oregon State/NASA

What about the pandemic?

With its myriad economic interruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic had the side effect of providing some climate relief, but only of the ephemeral variety.

For example, fossil-fuel consumption has gone down since 2019 as did airline travel levels.

But all of these are expected to significantly rise as the economy reopens. While global gross domestic product dropped by 3.6% in 2020, it is projected to rebound to an all-time high.

So, a major lesson of the pandemic is that even when fossil-fuel consumption and transportation sharply decrease, it’s still insufficient to tackle climate change.

There is growing evidence we’re getting close to or have already gone beyond tipping points associated with important parts of the Earth system, including warm-water coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

Warming waters are threatening West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.
Flickr

OK, so what do we do about it?

In our 2019 paper, we urged six critical and interrelated steps governments — and the rest of humanity — can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change:

  1. prioritise energy efficiency, and replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewable energy
  2. reduce emissions of short-lived pollutants such as methane and soot
  3. curb land clearing to protect and restore the Earth’s ecosystems
  4. reduce our meat consumption
  5. move away from unsustainable ideas of ever-increasing economic and resource consumption
  6. stabilise and, ideally, gradually reduce human populations while improving human well-being especially by educating girls and women globally.

These solutions still apply. But in our updated 2021 paper, we go further, highlighting the potential for a three-pronged approach for near-term policy:

  1. a globally implemented carbon price
  2. a phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels
  3. strategic environmental reserves to safeguard and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity.

A global price for carbon needs to be high enough to induce decarbonisation across industry.

And our suggestion to create strategic environmental reserves, such as forests and wetlands, reflects the need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue.

By stopping the unsustainable exploitation of natural habitats through, for example, creeping urbanisation, and land degradation for mining, agriculture and forestry, we can reduce animal-borne disease risks, protect carbon stocks and conserve biodiversity — all at the same time.

A kangaroo in burnt bushland
There has been a worrying number of disasters since 2019, including Australia’s megafires.
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Is this actually possible?

Yes, and many opportunities still exist to shift pandemic-related financial support measures into climate friendly activities. Currently, only 17% of such funds had been allocated that way worldwide, as of early March 2021. This percentage could be lifted with serious coordinated, global commitment.

Greening the economy could also address the longer term need for major transformative change to reduce emissions and, more broadly, the over-exploitation of the planet.

Our planetary vital signs make it clear we need urgent action to address climate change. With new commitments getting made by governments all over the world, we hope to see the curves in our graphs changing in the right directions soon.




Read more:
11,000 scientists warn: climate change isn’t just about temperature


The Conversation


Thomas Newsome, Academic Fellow, University of Sydney; Christopher Wolf, Postdoctoral Scholar, Oregon State University, and William Ripple, Distinguished Professor and Director, Trophic Cascades Program, Oregon State University

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

‘One of the most damaging invasive species on Earth’: wild pigs release the same emissions as 1 million cars each year


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Christopher J. O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; Jim Hone, University of Canberra; Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland, and Nicholas R Patton, University of CanterburyWhether you call them feral pigs, boar, swine, hogs, or even razorbacks, wild pigs are one of the most damaging invasive species on Earth, and they’re notorious for damaging agriculture and native wildlife.

A big reason they’re so harmful is because they uproot soil at vast scales, like tractors ploughing a field. Our new research, published today, is the first to calculate the global extent of this and its implications for carbon emissions.

Our findings were staggering. We discovered the cumulative area of soil uprooted by wild pigs is likely the same area as Taiwan. This releases 4.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year — the same as one million cars. The majority of these emissions occur in Oceania.

A huge portion of Earth’s carbon is stored in soil, so releasing even a small fraction of this into the atmosphere can have a huge impact on climate change.

The problem with pigs

Wild pigs (Sus scrofa) are native throughout much of Europe and Asia, but today they live on every continent except Antarctica, making them one of the most widespread invasive mammals on the planet. An estimated three million wild pigs live in Australia alone.

A herd of wild pigs
Wild pigs are one of the most widespread invasive animals on Earth.
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It’s estimated that wild pigs destroy more than A$100 million (US$74 million) worth of crops and pasture each year in Australia, and more than US$270 million (A$366 million) in just 12 states in the USA.

Wild pigs have also been found to directly threaten 672 vertebrate and plant species across 54 different countries. This includes imperilled Australian ground frogs, tree frogs and multiple orchid species, as pigs destroy their habitats and prey on them.

Their geographic range is expected to expand in the coming decades, suggesting their threats to food security and biodiversity will likely worsen. But here, let’s focus on their contribution to global emissions.

Their carbon hoofprint

Previous research has highlighted the potential contribution of wild pigs to greenhouse gas emissions, but only at local scales.

One such study was conducted for three years in hardwood forests of Switzerland. The researchers found wild pigs caused soil carbon emissions to increase by around 23% per year.

Similarly, a study in the Jigong Mountains National Nature Reserve in China found soil emissions increased by more than 70% per year in places disturbed by wild pigs.

Wild pigs turn over 36,214 to 123,517 square kilometres of soil each year.
Shutterstock

To find out what the impact was on a global scale, we ran 10,000 simulations of wild pig population sizes in their non-native distribution, including in the Americas, Oceania, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

For each simulation, we determined the amount of soil they would disturb using another model from a different study. Lastly, we used local case studies to calculate the minimum and maximum amount of wild pig-driven carbon emissions.

And we estimate the soil wild pigs uproot worldwide each year is likely between 36,214 and 123,517 square kilometres — or between the sizes of Taiwan and England.

Most of this soil damage and associated emissions occur in Oceania due to the large distribution of wild pigs there, and the amount of carbon stored in the soil in this region.




Read more:
Feral pigs harm wildlife and biodiversity as well as crops


So how exactly does disturbing soil release emissions?

Wild pigs use their tough snouts to excavate soil in search of plant parts such as roots, fungi and invertebrates. This “ploughing” behaviour commonly disturbs soil at a depth of about five to 15 centimetres, which is roughly the same depth as crop tilling by farmers.

Wild pigs uproot soil in search of food, such as invertebrates and plant roots.
University of Kentucky, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Forestry Extension.

Because wild pigs are highly social and often feed in large groups, they can completely destroy a small paddock in a short period. This makes them a formidable foe to the organic carbon stored in soil.

In general, soil organic carbon is the balance between organic matter input into the soil (such as fungi, animal waste, root growth and leaf litter) versus outputs (such as decomposition, respiration and erosion). This balance is an indicator of soil health.

When soils are disturbed, whether from ploughing a field or from an animal burrowing or uprooting, carbon is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

This is because digging up soil exposes it to oxygen, and oxygen promotes the rapid growth of microbes. These newly invigorated microbes, in turn, break down the organic matter containing carbon.

Wild pigs have a rapid breeding rate, which makes controlling populations difficult.
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Tough and cunning

Wild pig control is incredibly difficult and costly due to their cunning behaviour, rapid breeding rate, and overall tough nature.

For example, wild pigs have been known to avoid traps if they had been previously caught, and they are skilled at changing their behaviour to avoid hunters.




Read more:
Dig this: a tiny echidna moves 8 trailer-loads of soil a year, helping tackle climate change


In Australia, management efforts include coordinated hunting events to slow the spread of wild pig populations. Other techniques include setting traps and installing fences to prevent wild pig expansion, or aerial control programs.

Some of these control methods can also cause substantial carbon emissions, such as using helicopters for aerial control and other vehicles for hunting. Still, the long-term benefits of wild pig reduction may far outweigh these costs.

Working towards reduced global emissions is no simple feat, and our study is another tool in the toolbox for assessing the threats of this widespread invasive species.




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Tiny Game of Thrones: the workers of yellow crazy ants can act like lazy wannabe queens. So we watched them fight


The Conversation


Christopher J. O’Bryan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Hone, Emeritus professor, University of Canberra; Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, School of Mathematics and Physics, The University of Queensland, and Nicholas R Patton, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Canterbury

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

Net zero by 2050? Even if Scott Morrison gets the Nationals on board, hold the applause


Peter Christoff, The University of MelbourneResurrected Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is back in the saddle, facing backwards. His determination to prevent the Morrison government from adopting a target of net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 will again delay the renovation of Australia’s climate policy.

The Nationals’ leadership spill reportedly followed growing disquiet about Morrison’s slow pivot towards a net-zero by 2050 goal. Many Nationals MPs have indicated they don’t back the target, and Joyce says he will be “guided by the party room” on the issue.

If Morrison eventually gets the 2050 target past Joyce and passed by the joint party room, there will be little cause for celebration. In fact, the achievement will be as exciting as watching a vaudeville magician wrench an old rabbit out of a moth-eaten hat.

Australia’s premiers will yawn in unison. Every state and territory in the country has already adopted this target, or better. Yet at the end of the day, net-zero by 2050 is a risky and inadequate goal, especially for wealthy nations such as Australia.

two men and a woman
Barnaby Joyce, centre, says the Nationals’ stance on a zero-emissions target will be guided by the party room.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A target is nothing without a plan to get there

All G7 states and 11 G20 members are aiming for net-zero emissions by mid-century. These include the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, the Republic of Korea, Italy, the European Union, Argentina and the United States. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to net-zero by 2060.

However, as international environment law expert Professor Lavanya Rajamani has argued, net-zero targets should not automatically be applauded. First, they should be checked for their credibility, accountability and fairness. On these measures, a net-zero by 2050 target for Australia is nothing to cheer.

Why? First, because a target is nothing without an effective strategy to get there – something Australia is sorely lacking.

To successfully achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, tough short- and medium-term targets are essential to staying on track. Victoria, for example, has pledged to halve carbon emissions by 2030. The UK is aiming for a 78% reduction by 2035, reflecting its confidence in existing and emerging technologies.




Read more:
‘Failure is not an option’: after a lost decade on climate action, the 2020s offer one last chance


The Morrison government’s 2030 target – a 26-28% reduction below 2005 emissions levels – is not credible. Experts say a 2030 target of between 50% and 74% is needed to put Australia in line with keeping warming below 2℃ and 1.5℃ respectively – the goals of the Paris Agreement.

So what about Australia’s actual emissions-reduction measures? The Morrison government’s technology-first approach falls short of what’s needed to drive quick and deep emissions cuts.

Reaching net-zero requires substantial government funding and tax relief for investors in renewable technologies. Morrison’s announcement of an additional A$540 million for new technologies is insufficient and partly misdirected.

For instance, the government is investing in carbon capture and storage. As others have argued, the technology is increasingly commercially unviable and encourages further fossil fuel use.

In the meantime, the government is failing to assist the uptake of proven technologies such as electric vehicles, despite transport being Australia’s third-worst sector for emissions.

Close up of words on car reading 'zero emissions'
The Morrison government has failed to invest in electric vehicles.
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2050 goal is risky business

Even if Australia adopted a goal of net-zero by 2050, and measures to get there comfortably, the target is risky.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the potentially catastrophic impacts of exceeding 1.5℃ global warming. In the same report it established the idea of “net zero” as a global aim, saying achieving the target by 2050 was needed to stay below that warming threshold.

The IPCC described the emissions-reduction pathways required, but failed to emphasise crucial assumptions underlying them. Most depended on “negative emissions” – drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.

Many of those presumed drawdown measures involve land use measures that potentially threaten biodiversity or food security, for instance by requiring farmland and virgin forests to be used for growing “carbon crops”. Others involve geo-engineeering technologies which are yet to be tested or proven safe at scale.

It’s a risky strategy to avoid rapid, substantial and real emissions cuts in favour of gradual mitigation pathways that rely on such future carbon drawdown. It locks us into technologies which are problematic or don’t yet exist. To limit these risks, Australia must aim for net-zero well before 2050, predominantly via actual emissions cuts.




Read more:
Even without new fossil fuel projects, global warming will still exceed 1.5℃. But renewables might make it possible


bleached coral
The IPCC warned of catastrophic climate impacts, such as coral bleaching.
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A matter of fairness

The matter of equity is another where policymakers have been inattentive to nuance. The undifferentiated call for net-zero by 2050 shifts the burden and costs of effort onto poorer countries. No wonder so many developed countries have been happy to adopt it!

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement each require developed countries to cut emissions faster than poorer countries – and to assist poorer countries in their efforts. This recognises the fact developed nations are largely responsible for global warming, and have the wealth and technological capacities to act.

Developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as those in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Africa, are mostly below global average wealth. Forcing them to meet the same net-zero timeframe as rich nations is patently unfair.

And for the international community to achieve even the 2050 goal, China – a global emissions giant – must increase its ambition to at least net-zero by 2050 (rather than its current 2060 timeframe).

smoggy city skyline
China must accelerate its climate efforts.
Shutterstock

Morrison’s bind

It’s clear that rich developed countries must both aim for net-zero emissions well before 2050, and provide climate finance to assist poorer countries to do the same. Anything less will almost certainly guarantee Earth overshoots an already risky target.

Australia, given its wealth and technological means, must certainly aim for net-zero well before 2050. A report in April this year suggested reaching net-zero in 2035, to make a “fair and achievable contribution to the global task” and given our vulnerability to extreme weather.

The issue of climate finance was on the agenda at this month’s G7 summit, but critics say the final commitment – meeting an overdue spending pledge of US$100 billion a year – is inadequate considering the urgency of the task.

Just months out from a crucial UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, Scott Morrison is caught in a bind. On the global stage, he’s under increasing pressure to commit to a net-zero emissions target or face carbon tariffs. At home, he’s forced to assuage a minor coalition partner now led by a man who will reportedly push for a new coal-fired power station, and for agriculture – and potentially mining – to be exempt from emissions targets.

The looming general election will test whether rural voters are prepared to endure Joyce’s climate antics or will swing to savvy independents. And it remains to be seen whether urban voters will tolerate a prime minister whose transactional politics leaves Australia increasingly exposed at home and abroad.The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor, Melbourne Climate Futures initiative, The University of Melbourne

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