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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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.




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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.




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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.

We developed tools to study cancer in Tasmanian devils. They could help fight disease in humans



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Andrew S. Flies, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, University of Tasmania

Emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, usually come from non-human animals. However our understanding of most animals’ immune systems is sadly lacking as there’s a shortfall in research tools for species other than humans and mice.

Our research published today in Science Advances details cutting edge immunology tools we developed to understand cancer in Tasmanian devils. Importantly, these tools can be rapidly modified for use on any animal species.

Our work will help future wildlife conservation efforts, as well as preparedness against potential new diseases in humans.

The fall of the devil

Tasmanian devil populations have undergone a steep decline in recent decades, due to a lethal cancer called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) first detected in 1996.

A decade after it was discovered, genetic analysis revealed DFT cells are transmitted between devils, usually when they bite each other during mating. A second type of transmissible devil facial tumour (DFT2) was detected in 2014, suggesting devils are prone to developing contagious cancers.

A Tasmanian devil with devil facial tumour disease.
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

In 2016, researchers reported some wild devils had natural immune responses against DFT1 cancers. A year later an experimental vaccine for the original devil facial tumour (DFT1) was tested in devils artificially inoculated with cancer cells.

While the vaccine didn’t protect them, in some cases subsequent treatments were able to induce tumour regression.

But despite the promising results, and other good news from the field, DFT1 continues to suppress devil populations across most of Tasmania. And DFT2 poses an additional threat.




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Deadly disease can ‘hide’ from a Tasmanian devil’s immune system


Following a blueprint requires tools

In humans, there has been incredible progress in treatments targeting protein that regulate our immune system. These treatments work by stimulating the immune system to kill cancer cells.

Our team’s analyses of devil DNA showed these immune genes are also present in devils, meaning we may be able to develop similar treatments to stimulate the devil immune system.

But studying the DNA blueprint for devils takes us only so far. To build a strong house, you need to understand the blueprint and have the right tools. Proteins are the building blocks of life. So to build effective treatments and vaccines for devils we have to study the proteins in their immune system.

Until recently, there were few research tools available for this. And this problem was all too familiar to researchers studying immunology and disease in species other than humans, mice or rats.

Into the FAST lane

You could build a house with just a saw, hammer and nails – but a better and faster build requires a larger, more versatile toolbox.

In our new research, we’ve added more than a dozen tools to the toolbox for understanding tumours in Tasmanian devils. These are Fluorescent Adaptable Simple Theranostic proteins – or simply, FAST proteins.

The term “theranostic” merges therapeutic and diagnostic. FAST proteins can be used as a therapeutic drug to treat a disease, or as a diagnostic tool to determine its cause and better understand it.

A key feature of FAST proteins is they can be tagged with a fluorescent protein marker, and can be released from the cells that we engineered in the lab to make them.

This way, we can collect and observe how the proteins attach and interact with other proteins without needing to add a tag later in the process.

To understand this, imagine trying to use a tiny key in a tiny lock in the dark. It would be difficult, but much easier if both were tagged with a coloured light. In the context of the immune system, it’s easier to understand what we need to turn on or off if we can see where the proteins are.

By mapping how proteins within the devil’s immune system interact, we can find better ways to stimulate the immune system.

An overview of the FAST protein system. Fluorescent proteins and immune system proteins from different species can be rapidly swapped to make new FAST proteins.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

The FAST system is also adaptable, meaning new targets can be cut-and-pasted into the system as they’re identified, like changing the bits on a drill. Therefore, it’s useful for studying the immune systems of other animals too, including humans.

Also, the system is simple enough that most people with basic cell culture and molecular biology experience could use it.




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Needle in a haystack

Cancer cells in humans and animals can travel via the bloodstream to spread, or “metastasise”, throughout the body. Identifying single tumour cells in blood can shed light on how cancer invades devils’ organs and kills them.

Using FAST tools, we discovered CD200 – a protein that inhibits anti-cancer responses in humans – is highly expressed in devils. With FAST tools, we were able to mix DFT2 cancer cells into devil blood and pick them out, despite there being about one cancer cell for every 1,000 blood cells.

CD200 is a powerful “off switch” for the immune system, so identifying this off switch allows us it can help us produce a vaccine that disables the switch.

A devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2) cell, with the cell nucleus shown in blue.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

By rapidly sifting out the best ways to stimulate the devil’s immune system, FAST tools are accelerating our research into developing a preventative vaccine to protect devils from DFT.

Why study animal immune systems?

COVID-19 has once again brought emerging infectious diseases onto the global stage. The ability to rapidly develop immunology tools for new species means we can jump into action when a new virus jumps into humans.

Additionally, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, and wildlife disease is increasingly threatening conservation efforts.

Understanding how the immune systems of other animals fight diseases could provide a blueprint for developing vaccines and therapeutics to help them.The Conversation

Andrew S. Flies, Senior Research Fellow in Immunology, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, , University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, , University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, Professional Research Fellow, University of Tasmania

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.

Avoiding single-use plastic was becoming normal, until coronavirus. Here’s how we can return to good habits



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Kim Borg, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Monash University

As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.

But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.

We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.




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But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.

The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.

As we needed to protect ourselves with masks, we added to the waste crisis.
Shutterstock

Avoidance was more normal than we realised

In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.

We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.

Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.




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While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.

On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.

Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.

Some single-use is necessary during a pandemic

Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.

Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.

Cafes have refused reusable cups to try to maintain better hygiene.
Shutterstock

Overseas and in Australia, some government departments delayed upcoming bans on single-use plastics and others overturned existing single-use plastic bag bans.

So even if consumers want to avoid single-use plastics, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Avoiding plastic can still be part of the new normal

It is still possible to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic right now. We just need to get creative and focus on items within our control.

We can still pack shopping in reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup, carry reusable straws when we go out – just make sure to wash reusables between each use.




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Many Victorians can even order delivery take-away food in reusable containers, thanks to the partnership between Deliveroo and Returnr, the reusable packaging scheme. Boomerang Alliance also produced guidelines for sustainable take-away options, including practical tips for contactless transfer of food.

Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.

There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.

Using reusable wraps for your food is a much better alternative than single-use cling wrap.
Shutterstock

But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.

Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.




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Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.

Many are calling on governments, businesses and individuals to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how we used to do things and ask – is there a better way?

When it comes to single use plastics during COVID-19, we can’t control everything. But our actions can help shape what the new normal looks like.The Conversation

Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Research Fellow in Behaviour Change, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Professor of sociology, Monash University

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

Let’s fix Australia’s environment with any pandemic recovery aid – the Kiwis are doing it



Leah Anne Thompson/Shutterstock

Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, University of Newcastle, and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant economic challenges for Australia. With April figures showing more than 800,000 people unemployed and last month 1.6 million on JobSeeker payments, a key focus will be job creation.




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Lessons should be learned from what’s happening in New Zealand, where the government is funding projects that revive the environment. Unfortunately, Australia seems to be going the other way.

New Zealand gets it

As part of New Zealand’s innovative Wellbeing Budget the government will invest NZ$50 billion in a direct COVID-19 recovery response.

Of that, NZ$1.1 billion will be spent on creating 11,000 “nature jobs” to combat unemployment and supplement pandemic-affected sectors.

This unique investment will be delivered in a number of targeted environmental programs.

These include NZ$433 million for regional environmental projects that will provide 4,000 jobs in conserving and managing waterways. This will help restore fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, rivers and catchments.

There’s NZ$315 million for weed and feral animal control, including possums, pigs, deer and wallabies. This will provide employment through partnerships between the community, Māori land managers and government departments.

New Zealanders hate possums as they’re an invasive pest.
Flickr/Geof Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND

A further NZ$200 million will deliver jobs on public conservation land through the Department of Conservation for various management actions. These include predator control, restoration, regenerative planting and maintenance of tracks, huts and other assets.

Some of these investments will not only provide jobs but also conserve New Zealand’s environment. They will maintain agricultural productivity and advance existing environmental initiatives such as Predator Free New Zealand.

They will also provide households with income that will in turn help stimulate local economies.

This is a win for New Zealand’s environment and wildlife, particularly native fish species and unique birds. It’s also a win for people and the economy.

Australia’s destructive COVID-19 recovery

In contrast, the Australian federal and some state governments have resorted to environmentally destructive projects and policies to stimulate economic activity and support employment.




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For example, the New South Wales government in March granted approval to extend coalmining under Sydney’s Woronora reservoir and in May approved the controversial Snowy Hydro 2.0 project.

Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute pristine Snowy Mountains rivers.
Schopier/Wikimedia

In Victoria, the government delayed key improvements to environmental protection laws and amended legislation to allow onshore gas extraction.

Federally, wider plans exist for an apparent fossil-fuel-led national recovery through gas expansion, fast-tracked by relaxing environmental regulations. This includes a proposed exemption from additional approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The relaxing of environmental legislation and protections (commonly referred to as cutting “green tape”) has been pushed by business and industry lobby groups and some quarters of the media.

Even politicians such as federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley see it as a way to promote economic recovery.

A better way to recovery

Nature groups, environmental scientists, economists and political parties such as the Greens are proposing an alternative approach.

Some state and territory departments, including in the ACT and the Northern Territory, recognise environmental management and protection as a source of high employment opportunity.

They all see investment in conservation and land management as a key feature of any economic recovery.

An opportunity for Australia

Economic stimulus through conservation and land management is not yet recognised as a way for Australia to respond to both the COVID-19 crisis and long-standing conservation needs.

Australian governments, if they invested similarly to New Zealand, could create jobs in the short term in any desired target region, based on economic and environmental need.

This flexibility would allow jobs to be created in regions with already fragile local economies, particularly those made worse by COVID-19. This includes regional areas that usually have high tourism, bushfire-affected communities, drought-affected regions, as well as Indigenous communities.




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Conservation and land management jobs could include dealing with feral pests, such as cats, foxes, rabbits, pigs, deer and horses.

It could feature restoration activities such as tree planting, weed removal, hazard-reduction burning, and wildlife restoration and monitoring.

This type of employment is hands-on, labour-intensive and has low overhead costs. Investment is likely to be cost-effective, with most of it going straight to the worker.

Let’s stimulate the economy and the environment

Projects can be up and running quickly, so the economic stimulus is immediate.

The benefits of direct household stimulus are well understood. This form of spending provides localised economic benefits as money is likely to stay in the local community.




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There is an opportunity to support the hard-hit university sector. It could get funds for research to design, monitor and assess the effectiveness of any interventions.

Such investment would have lasting and much-needed environmental benefits through the conservation of landscapes recently ravaged by bushfire that contain unique and declining wildlife species.

Could the much-hyped “new normal” be one where Australia’s environment and economy are not seen as incompatible?The Conversation

Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle & CEO FAUNA Research Alliance, University of Newcastle, and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

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

Yes, carbon emissions fell during COVID-19. But it’s the shift away from coal that really matters



Flickr/David Clarke

Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Australian National University

Much has been made of the COVID-19 lockdown cutting global carbon emissions. Energy use has fallen over recent months as the pandemic keeps millions of people confined to their homes, and businesses closed in many countries. Projections suggest global emissions could be around 5% lower in 2020 than last year.

What about Australia? Here we’ve seen sizeable reductions in electricity sector emissions, but mostly from the sustained expansion in solar and wind power rather than the lockdown.

That is good news. It means our electricity sector emissions will not bounce back once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, as they might in other parts of the world.

But on the other hand, a prolonged recession could cloud the outlook for new investments in the power sector, including renewables.

What’s clear right now is this: COVID-19 restrictions matter far less to Australia’s power sector emissions this year than the shift away from coal and towards renewables.

A recession would dampen investment in new power projects, including renewables.
AAP

Small fall in electricity demand

We examined Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) in the seven weeks from March 16 (when national restrictions came into force) to May 4 this year. We compared the results to the same period in 2019.

The NEM covers all states and territories except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Total electricity demand was 3% lower during the first seven weeks of the lockdown, compared with the same period in 2019. About 2% of this was due to an actual fall in electricity use. The rest was due to extra rooftop solar panels installed since May 2019 which lowered demand on the grid.




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Some of the 2% reduction may be due to cooler weather this autumn, leading to lower air conditioning use.

So while COVID-19 restrictions have hammered the economy in recent weeks, they haven’t had a big effect on electricity use. Most industrial and business power use has continued uninterrupted. Most office buildings have not fully shut down, although many people are working from home and use more electricity there.

A hefty drop in emissions

Despite the modest fall in electricity demand in the first seven weeks of lockdown, emissions fell substantially – by 8.5%. Comparing the first quarter of 2020 and 2019, emissions fell by 7%.

This is primarily because more renewable energy is now supplying the grid. Output from solar farms increased by 55% and from wind parks by 19% compared with the first quarter of 2019, reflecting massive amounts of new installed capacity coming online. Output from hydroelectricity increased by 18%, likely reflecting higher rainfall.

More renewables supply combined with falling demand means less output from fossil fuel power plants. Coal plant output fell 9% compared to the same period in 2019, entirely due to lower output by black coal plants in New South Wales and Queensland. Gas fired power output fell by 8%.

Electricity prices plunge

Meanwhile, wholesale prices in the NEM have fallen dramatically. The average price was 60% lower in the seven weeks since March 16 compared with the same period in 2019. A marked reduction in prices was evident from November 2019.

Why? One reason is that prices for natural gas are much lower and hence gas-fired power stations can make lower bids for electricity. Gas prices fell through much of 2019, and dropped further in the first quarter of 2020, associated with the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Gas plants often set the prices for everyone in the market, so this has a big effect on the market overall.




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Also, coal and hydropower plants lowered their bids in this more competitive environment.

The outlook for wholesale prices remains flat. Gas prices seem unlikely to rebound soon. More wind and solar power will come into the market and there is no underlying growth trend in electricity demand.

Relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions is unlikely to make a big difference. What may drive prices up once again is the next large coal plant closure. The last one to close was Victoria’s Hazelwood plant in 2017.

What does this mean for coal and renewables?

Low wholesale electricity prices are good for consumers – in particular industry, where the wholesale price is a bigger proportion of the total charges for electricity supply. On the flip side, they mean less money for power generators.

Across the National Electricity Market, revenue for generators was about A$160 million per week lower during the first seven weeks of lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

This revenue fall makes coal plants less profitable, and makes life uncomfortable for plants with relatively high costs for fuel and maintenance. It’s likely to push older plants closer to closure.




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Lower prices also make investment in new renewable power less attractive. In recent years, average wholesale prices were well above the typical lifetime average costs of producing electricity from newly built solar and wind parks. There is also uncertainty around how prices will be set in power markets in the future, and how congestion of power transmission lines will be managed.

Nevertheless, the longer term prospects for renewables in Australia remain very good. Solar and wind power are the cheapest of all new generation technologies producing power, and solar power is expected to become even cheaper. A new coal-fired power plant, if one was ever built, would have far higher costs per megawatt hour. Costs for a nuclear plant would be higher still.

A drop in revenue during COVID-19 is bad news for coal-fired power generators.
Wikimedia

The way forward

The numbers show Australia does not need a painful recession to drive carbon emissions down. It needs sustained investment in new, clean technology.

The better the Australian economy recovers, the more private businesses will invest in new energy supply. But if the world falls into a deep and lasting recession, and the Australian economy with it, then the prospects for private investment in new power plants will suffer.

In that case, governments may be well advised to invest public funds in clean energy, more so than they have in the past.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Research Fellow, Australian National University

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

Environmental activism goes digital in lockdown – but could it change the movement for good?



Greta Thunberg talks with Professor Johan Rockström about the coronavirus and the environment at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, April 21 2020.
EPA-EFE/Jessica Gow

William Finnegan, University of Oxford

The environmental movement’s past recently collided with its future. April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, a milestone for environmentalism. A few days later, a global school strike was organised by Fridays for Future, the international coalition of young people inspired by Greta Thunberg’s protests against climate change. But after months of careful planning, both occasions were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic – and went online instead.

So when social distancing measures are eased, will protests return to the streets, or do these events mark a turning point?

In 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans (10% of the US population at the time) participated in the first Earth Day. Back then, US senator Gaylord Nelson conceived of a national “teach-in” to raise environmental awareness and recruited Harvard law student Denis Hayes to organise the event.




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Teach-ins had emerged in the mid-1960s as a hybrid of student sit-ins and informal lectures in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rather than going on strike, teachers and students occupied classrooms instead. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, 1,500 universities and 10,000 schools held Earth Day teach-ins in April 1970, “nurturing a generation of activists.”

A postage stamp issued to commemorate the first Earth Day, April 1970.
Michael Rega/Shutterstock

In the decades that followed, the environmental movement grew into a political and cultural force. Yet subsequent Earth Days failed to capture the urgency and grassroots passion of the original.

The 50th anniversary Earth Day sought to address this by going back to its roots. Teach-ins were planned for classrooms and campuses across the world, but COVID-19 closed schools. The day of action evolved into a 12-hour live-stream during which actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, and even Pope Francis shared messages of environmental stewardship and climate action.

The school climate strikes originated in August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg skipped school to protest inaction on climate change outside the Swedish parliament.

Within little more than a year, seven million students and their supporters were joining school strikes around the world and Thunberg was making headlines for her scathing speeches at the UN climate conference in Poland and [World Economic Forum in Davos]. Another global strike was scheduled for April 2020, but COVID-19 again pushed the event online.

The school strikes and annual Earth Day celebrations reflect different generations of environmental activism and different philosophies of protest. Yet both have been guided by the environmental slogan “think globally, act locally”. During the pandemic, environmental activists are now thinking globally and acting digitally.

‘Clicktivism’ and digital natives

I’m researching climate change education and youth climate activism in the UK. Like the protesters, I’ve been forced to adapt my plans and have been exploring the digital side of climate activism.

Online activism has been called “clicktivism”, or, disparagingly, “slacktivism”. It’s been characterised as impulsive, noncommittal and easily replicated, emphasising the lower risks and costs of political expression on social media versus protest and political engagement in the real world. But the relationship between digital technology and social movements is more complicated.

Researchers are split on the precise role of digital activism. From one perspective, campaigners can use social media to “supersize” their public engagement. This helps them to reach more people and bypass traditional media channels. Other researchers emphasise the power of the internet to help activists self-organise. Without the structure or hierarchy of traditional organisations, digital platforms can allow completely new forms of activism to flourish.




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A recent study found that climate advocacy groups that started on the internet, such as 350.org, have different online strategies, tactics and theories of change compared to older environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Founded in 2008, 350.org (which is both a URL and reference to the safe level of 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) led the first wave of internet-savvy, youth-driven environmental organisations.

Successful digital campaigns at 350.org have been described as a virtuous cycle where online tools spur offline action – the results of which can be documented and shared online to inspire further action.

Modern activists can film demonstrations using smartphones and share them online, reaching a much wider audience.
Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock

It’s too early to say how the school climate strikes of 2019 have influenced the broader movement, but current research is exploring how climate strikers are using Instagram and how collective identities on social media may drive collective action. As “digital natives”, these young climate activists grew up with the internet, smartphones and social media. Their movement uses memes and hashtags across YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, where Thunberg has more than four million followers.

While COVID-19 prevents offline action, thousands of #ClimateStrikeOnline social media posts show solitary protesters around the world armed with handmade signs, a virtual echo of where the movement started. When it comes to climate activism, digital natives are now leading the way. The revolution will be live-streamed.The Conversation

William Finnegan, PhD Candidate in Climate Education and Activism, University of Oxford

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

Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic



shutterstock

Anna Skarbek, Monash University

It will be tempting for some to overlook the climate change challenge in the rush to restart the economy after the pandemic.

Federal energy minister Angus Taylor has flagged he wants to develop Australia’s gas-fired power to help boost the economy. And conservative political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby recently argued business survival is more important than environment, social and governance matters.




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In the United States, the Trump administration is reportedly contemplating a coronavirus rescue package tailored specifically to oil and natural gas producers, while the Chinese government is trying to stimulate its economy by allowing polluters to bypass environmental regulations.

But the pandemic is not a reason to weaken the commitments to net zero emissions. In fact, climate action is a vital protection against further global shocks, especially as governments plan their post-pandemic stimulus packages.

The economic shock from climate change

The devastation the virus has inflicted is a reminder of our vulnerability and the importance of prevention and mitigation.

It’s a point bolstered by fresh evidence about the scale of economic shock we might face if we fail to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.

A major study published in Nature Communications last month put a dollar value on the cost of climate inaction. If we don’t prevent the planet warming, we can expect a bill of between US$150 trillion and US$792 trillion by 2100. That’s up to A$1,231 trillion in Australian dollars.




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The predicted “global shock” would be even more financially catastrophic than coronavirus.

The research, however, also points out some good news. The limitation of global warming to 1.5℃ would deliver a corresponding boost, with the global economy growing by US$616 trillion compared to inaction.

Big businesses on board

The economic cost of the shutdowns imposed to address the coronavirus pandemic have not been compared to the value of the lives saved.

Climate change action, on the other hand, has repeatedly been found to pass traditional cost-benefit tests. The solutions are known to already be available and effective if deployed in time.

What’s more, new research – with Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and leading climate economist Nicholas Stern at the helm – shows climate mitigation actions deliver maximum economic growth multiplier benefits from a stimulus perspective.

It found spending on new green energy projects generates twice as many jobs for every dollar invested, compared with equivalent allocations to fossil fuel projects.

Climate action, then, is vital for the economy. That’s why a remarkable list of business leaders have just added their names to a call for stimulus funds to be invested in what they call “the economy of the future”.

This includes chief executives, chairs and senior executives from major organisations including Rio Tinto, BP, Shell, Allianz and HSBC, together with the Energy Transitions Commission (a global group of companies and experts working towards low-carbon energy systems).

They’re urging for massive investments in renewable power systems, a boost for green buildings and green infrastructure, targeted support for innovative low-carbon activities and other similar measures.

In Europe, a coalition of chief executives, politicians and academics is calling for major investment in projects to make the European Union the “world’s first climate-neutral continent” by 2050.

They say the need for state intervention in the wake of the pandemic provides an unparalleled chance to build economies that are sustainable, resilient and dynamic.

Representatives of global companies have signed the “green recovery” platform. These include PepsiCo, Microsoft, Enel, E.ON, Volvo Group, L’Oréal, Danone, Ikea and more.

Technology is getting better

Boosting the economy with climate action is a message our recent research from ClimateWorks Australia reinforces. It shows how we can achieve the Paris targets with technologies already available.




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But we can only do it if government, business and consumer decisions support the accelerated deployment of these technologies, and only if we roll out mature zero-emissions technology solutions more quickly across all sectors (not just electricity), and invest in development and commercialisation of emerging solutions in harder-to-abate sectors.

Across all sectors of the Australian economy, technology provides opportunities to decarbonise, and has rapidly improved.

For example, advances in lithium ion technology mean high-tech batteries cost only a fifth of what they did ten years ago. So it’s easier and cheaper to store electricity than ever before – even as renewables now offer a consistently cheaper source of generation than fossil fuels.

Lithium ion batteries have come a long way in a short time.
Shutterstock

Innovations like that have changed the game. A new Australian Energy Market Operator study makes clear that, within five years, Australia can run a power grid in which 75% of electricity comes from wind and solar.

A clean stimulus package

Measures these pathways involve are ideally suited to a stimulus package. Governments could create jobs and spur industry, while modernising the economy for the challenges ahead.

How? By building charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles powered by renewables; encouraging investment in sustainable agriculture, fertiliser management and carbon forestry; deploying PV and battery systems across city buildings; or embracing any number of other “shovel ready” solutions.

Through this pandemic we’ve witnessed how people have learned new approaches and switched mindsets almost as quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions began.

Just as we’re remembering to wash our hands more than we used to, coming out of the pandemic, it will pay to be more attentive about remembering to choose the zero-emissions option at every step.




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We stand at a crossroads. If government stimulus packages around the world favour carbon-intensive practices and miss the moment to modernise and decarbonise, we will lock ourselves into a warming future.

If, however, we rise to the challenge, we can use the recovery from one crisis to simultaneously address another.The Conversation

Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

No, Aussie bats won’t give you COVID-19. We rely on them more than you think



Justin Welbergen, CC BY-SA

Pia Lentini, University of Melbourne; Alison Peel, Griffith University; Hume Field, The University of Queensland, and Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University

In this pandemic it’s tempting to look for someone, or something, to blame. Bats are a common scapegoat and the community is misled to believe getting rid of them could be a quick fix. But are bats really the problem?

Australian bats have been in the news recently for two main reasons: the misplaced fear they might carry COVID-19, and overblown reports they carry a koala-killing virus.

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This recent bad press has seen increased incidences of disturbing cruelty against Australia’s bats, as well as calls to cull or “move on” bats that live close to people. Because fewer bats would mean less disease, right? Wrong. Here’s why.

Debunking bad press

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This virus is one of thousands of coronaviruses found in mammals all over the world, most with no impact on people.

A closely related virus has previously been identified in a species of horseshoe bat in China, so it’s probable the ancestor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in bats.




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While several coronaviruses have been detected in various Australian bat species, none are closely related to those viruses associated with zoonotic (animal-borne) diseases like COVID-19, SARS and MERS. And none have been recorded to infect people.

More contact between humans and wildlife, through activities such as unregulated wildlife trade can lead to potentially harmful novel viruses spilling over from their natural hosts into new species.
Hume Field, Author provided

Australian bats also recently appeared in the news because of the discovery of a retrovirus in black flying-foxes related to koala immune deficiency syndrome. Some news outlets have falsely suggested bats pose a risk to koala populations.

But the original scientific paper clearly stated the proposed transmission from bats to koalas happened long ago, on evolutionary time scales. What we see in these species today are two separate viruses – there’s no evidence the virus detected in today’s bats can infect koalas, let alone cause disease.

Aussie bats have had it tough

There are about 1,400 species of bats worldwide, including 81 in Australia.

All of our bat species are native and unique. Most are small, nocturnal, and call outside of the human hearing range, so the average Australian would be lucky to see more than a couple of species in their lifetime.

This is important to remember when it comes to thinking about how often they actually interact with people.

A selection of Australia’s bat diversity (Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; southern myotis; Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat)
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Most Australians tend to think of “bats” as the two species of flying-foxes (or “fruit bats”) we commonly see in our cities: grey-headed flying-foxes (in the south) and black flying-foxes (in the north).

Flying-foxes have had a tough few months. Many Eucalypts failed to flower, so food shortages saw thousands of flying-foxes perish from starvation, and then many more died en masse in this summer’s extreme heat.

They were also heavily affected by the summer bushfires that burnt large tracts of the bats’ winter feeding areas.

What are bats doing in urban areas?

Flying-foxes show up in urban areas in search of food. Many residents equate seeing more flying-foxes to the species increasing in numbers, and are frustrated that the bats are classified as threatened.

In fact, grey-headed flying-foxes have experienced substantial population declines in recent years. While there are currently hundreds of thousands, historical data indicate that there were once millions.

Part of a flying-fox colony, asleep during the day before they fly out for breakfast at dusk.
Justin Welbergen, Author provided

Nonetheless, bats are not always easy to live close to. Their fly-outs make for spectacular shows, but colonies can also create a lot of noise, smell and mess.

This, plus misunderstandings around disease risks, including from COVID-19, has meant loud voices are calling for the eviction of bats from urban areas by any means possible.




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Why can’t we just move or cull them?

Managing bats in urban environments is no straightforward matter. Flying-foxes have complex movement dynamics, which makes “dispersing” them from urban areas extremely difficult.

Those who advocate for dispersals to be carried out often cite the Sydney and Melbourne Botanic Gardens as examples of successes. But these took place over months and years, large areas, and cost more than A$2 million each. Relatively cheaper dispersals have also been attempted, but ultimately failed.




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Culling is an equally impractical and extremely controversial suggestion. Most Australians accept that needless killing and harming of native wildlife is unacceptable, and our laws reflect this.

There are the obvious animal ethics issues, but from a practical perspective, proposing we could cull (by shooting) flying-foxes in densely-populated urban areas to effectively reduce populations is also completely unrealistic.

What’s more, attempts at both dispersals and culling are known to have the undesirable effect of splintering colonies, and driving stressed bats into surrounding areas (parks, residential backyards, school grounds). Essentially, increasing people’s exposure to bats.

Physiological stress could also promote viral shedding. Flying-fox populations are already struggling to recover from severe food shortages, extreme heat events and bushfires. So advocating such actions is misguided, with the potential to amplify, rather than alleviate disease risk.

A Mexican free-tailed bat with insect prey, and a Christmas Island flying-fox covered in pollen.
Flickr: US Department of Agriculture (left); Carol de Jong (right)

Are bats to blame?

No, bats are our friends – we rely on them more than most people realise.

Many bats are voracious predators of insects and their service to the global agricultural industry is worth billions of dollars each year.

Flying-foxes also help maintain the integrity of forests by providing long-distance pollination and seed-dispersal services. That makes them integral to the recovery of Australia’s forests from last summer’s fires.




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The fundamental issue is not the viruses in bats. SARS-CoV-2 is now a human virus, and we are responsible, knowingly or not, for its global spread.

The “epidemiological bridges” that we’ve inadvertently created – which increase our contact with wildlife through encroachment into natural areas, habitat destruction, and unregulated wildlife trade – are what’s really to blame.The Conversation

Pia Lentini, Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Alison Peel, Senior Research Fellow in Wildlife Disease Ecology, Griffith University; Hume Field, Science and Policy Advisor for China & Southeast Asia, EcoHealth Alliance | Honorary Professor, School of Veterinary Science, The University of Queensland, and Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University

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

Can’t go outside? Even seeing nature on a screen can improve your mood



Damon Hall/Unsplash, CC BY

Cris Brack, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli

Are you feeling anxious or irritated during the coronavirus lockdown? Do you constantly want to get up and move? Maybe you need a moment to engage with nature.

Getting into the great outdoors is difficult at right now. But our research soon to be published in Australian Forestry shows you can improve your mood by experiencing nature indoors. This could mean placing few pot plants in the corner of your home office, or even just looking at photos of plants.

Our work adds to a compelling body of research that shows being around nature directly benefits our mental health.

Virtual images of nature have similar effects to being in the physical presence of nature.
Kishoor Nishanth/Unsplash, CC BY

Biophilia

Public gardens and parks, street verges with trees and bushes, and even rooftop gardens bring us a broad range of benefits – boosting physical health, reducing air pollution, and even lowering crime rates.




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But inside, in your hastily constructed home office or home school room, you may be unable to take full advantage of urban nature.

Natural products such as wooden furniture can also improve working conditions.
Noemi Macavei Katocz/Unsplash, CC BY

Embracing the notion of “biophilia” – the innate human affinity with nature – while locked down inside may improve your productivity and even your health.

The biophilia hypothesis argues modern day humans evolved from hundreds of generations of ancestors whose survival required them to study, understand and rely on nature. So a disconnection from nature today can cause significant issues for humans, such as a decline in psychological health.

In practice at home, connecting with nature might mean having large windows overlooking the garden. You can also improve working conditions by having natural materials in your office or school room, such as wooden furniture, natural stones and pot plants.

Indoor plants

Our research has demonstrated that even a small number of plants hanging in pockets on along a busy corridor provide enough nature to influence our physiological and psychological perceptions.

These plants even caused behavioural differences, where people would change their route through a building to come into contact with the indoor plants.

We surveyed 104 people, and 40% of the respondents reported their mood and emotions improved in the presence of indoor plants.

They felt “relaxed and grounded” and “more interested”. The presence of indoor greenery provides a place to “relax from routine” and it made the space “significantly more pleasant to work in”.

Our study showed the benefits of indoor greenery.
Author provided

As one person reported:

When I first saw the plants up on the wall brought a smile to my face.

Whenever I walk down the stairs or walk past I mostly always feel compelled to look at the plants on the wall. Not with any anxiety or negative thoughts, rather, at how pleasant and what a great idea it is.

Looking at wildlife photography

Our research also explored whether viewing images, posters or paintings of nature would make a difference.

We photographed the plants from viewpoints similar to those the corridor users experienced. Survey responses from those who only viewed these digital images were almost the same as those who experienced them in real life.

While we can’t say for sure, we can hypothesise that given the importance of vision in modern humans, an image that “looks” like nature might be enough to trigger a biophilic response.




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However, physically being in the presence of plants did have some stronger behavioural effects. For example corridor users wanted to linger longer looking at the plants than those who viewed the photographs, and were more likely to want to visit the plants again. Maybe the other senses – touch, smell, even sound – created a stronger biophilic response than just sight alone.

So the good news is if you can’t get to a nursery – or if you have a serious inability to keep plants alive – you can still benefit from looking at photographs of them.

Looking at photos of nature can improve your mood.
Bee Balogun/Unsplash, CC BY

If you haven’t been taking your own photos, search the plethora of images from wildlife photographers such as Doug Gimesy, Frans Lanting and Tanya Stollznow.

Or check out live camera feeds of a wide range of environments, and travel to far-flung places without leaving the safety of home.

While we haven’t tested the mood-boosting effects of live videos, we hypothesise their physiological and psychological effects will be no different than digital photographs.

Here are seven places to help you get started.

  • The Bush Blitz citizen science app launched a new online tool today. The species recovery program encourages children to explore their backyard to identify different species.

  • “From the bottom of the sea direct to your screen”: watch this underwater live stream of Victoria’s rocky reef off Port Phillip Bay

  • The Coastal Watch website offers live camera feeds on beaches around Australia.

  • Watch the running water, trees and occasional fauna in California’s Redwood Forest River.

  • In pastoral Australia, go on a four-hour drive through the country side along tree-lined roads.

  • Zoos Victoria has set up live cameras that show its animals in natural (and nature-like) environments from Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo.

  • Yellowstone National Park may be closed right now, but webcams are stationed in various locations throughout the park.




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The Conversation


Cris Brack, Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli, Graduate student

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