5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


Barry Hart, Monash University and Martin Thoms, University of New England

The health of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest and most complex river system, is in rapid decline, and faces major challenges over the next 30 years as the climate changes.

In our view, there are still major problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. These must be addressed to make sure the system is resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of bouncing back from future shocks to the river’s ecosystems, particularly due to climate change.




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Here are five ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so the river system has a chance of surviving in the long term.

1. Allow the rivers to spill into the floodplain

There are restrictions in all states on deliberately using environmental water (water set aside to keep the rivers healthy) to go over the river bank and inundate the floodplain. When this happens, it’s known as “overbank flow”, and is restricted to areas and times of year when it’s permitted.

Overbank flow is the connection between rivers and their floodplain, and is essential for two reasons.

Populations of water birds like pelicans are not recovering as well as they used to after drought and flood cycles in the Basin.
Shutterstock

The first is to ensure floodplain wetlands and forests are resilient. For example, without additional water, the current red gum forests along the River Murray are likely to die and be replaced with black box trees, which need less water.

The second is for the exchange of nutrients and organic matter between rivers and floodplains. Without these inputs from the floodplain, the river system would only be able to support a much smaller number of fish.

Governments have been reluctant to work towards increased overbank flows, largely because of a potential backlash from landholders who don’t want their floodplain land to be flooded.




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But in several regions, such as the Edward-Wakool system in New South Wales, landowners and government officials are working through the issues that infrequent flooding has on riverside agricultural land, such as stock being unable to graze flooded areas, crops being innundated by floodwaters, and loss of access to parts of their property through road flooding.

We hope their discussions will lead to a balance, where overbank flows can still occur with minimum impact on landholders.

Still, without changes to state policies on overbank flows, parts of the Basin’s floodplain systems are unlikely to have sufficient resilience to absorb future stresses.

2. Better management of the rivers

The Commonwealth and states now have almost 3 trillion litres (3,000 gigalitres) of dedicated environmental water, purchased from irrigators, many of whom have made significant water savings by upgrading their irrigation equipment.

This is called “held” environmental water. Currently, there is around 3 trillion litres of held environmental water, and 13.7 trillion litres of water allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Management of this environmental water is relatively new, compared with the management of water for irrigators, which has been occurring for the better part of 80 years in rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee.

There is a major difference in when environmental and irrigation water is needed through the year. Farmers have their highest water demand for irrigation in late spring and summer, while the major environmental water demand is often highest in late winter and early spring. This is when high natural inflows would have filled river channels and spilled into floodplain forests and wetlands.

The use of the river channels to deliver irrigation water has lead to large flows in the summer when naturally the river flows would have been low. This has resulted in environmental problems, such as bank erosion and the wrong triggers for fish breeding.

3. A greater focus on river refuges

During periods of low or no flow, many of the Basin’s rivers exist as networks of waterholes. In such dry periods, these waterholes are vital habitats, or “refuges”, for fish, frogs, waterbugs, and other species that need permanent water.

Changes in land use, flow regimes and the condition of riverbank vegetation all threaten the ability for these waterholes to act as refuges for these species. These waterhole refuges also need a full set of structural habitats, such as snags and riverbank vegetation.




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Maintaining a “mosaic” of refuges with different levels of connection is required for the full suite of species to be able to survive droughts.

4. Better protection of planned environmental water

Runoff – rainwater that drains from the land and into the rivers – will be seriously affected by climate change.

A predicted 20% reduction in rainfall is expected in the southern Basin by 2050. This would translate to a 40-50% reduction in runoff, and would impact on all water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Disturbingly, the current policy in the Basin Plan safeguards the entitlements to irrigation water and held environmental water, but not the rest of the flow – which is largely also “environmental” water. Currently, this makes up around half of the total flow (32.5 trillion litres per year) in the Murray-Darling Basin a very large volume.

Drought stricken wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. We need a more coordinated management of all of the Basin’s natural resources.
Shutterstock

The effect varies over the basin, but by 2030, overall losses are predicted to be two to three times greater for water that is outside of these entitlements, compared with irrigation water and held environmental water.

Unless this policy is changed, climate change will have an excessive impact on the river’s health. Entitlement-holders will continue to take the same amount of water while the overall river flow drops dramatically. This deficiency must be addressed when the Basin Plan is reviewed by 2026.

5. Linking water and other natural resource management

The Basin’s water resources do not exist in isolation from other “natural capital”, such as riverbank habitats, floodplain land, and the surrounding catchments.

Before the Basin Plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission had in place an integrated natural resource management strategy, but this has now been discontinued.

River scientists know “the catchment rules the river”. But the water and catchments are now managed separately, despite many calls over the years for better integration.

Poor agricultural practices result in sediment, nutrients and salt entering the rivers in runoff. This reduces water quality and harms the Basin’s ability to provide essential “ecosystem services”, such as water quality improvement and the effective functioning of the ecosystem.




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We believe a more coordinated management of all natural resources in the Basin, and attention to other complementary measures, should be addressed when the current Basin Plan is reviewed in 2026.

We submit that continuing with the existing Basin Plan, it’s unlikely the Murray-Darling Basin will be resilient enough to withstand future climate impacts, and we will see major detrimental changes to the basin’s ecosystems.

At the very least, we must properly implement the current Basin Plan by addressing the first three issues above, and also make the necessary policy change to ensure the other two issues – protection of planned environmental water and better links with other natural resources – are addressed in the next Basin Plan in 2026.The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University and Martin Thoms, Professor – Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences , University of New England

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

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We wrote the report for the minister on fish deaths in the lower Darling – here’s why it could happen again


Robert Vertessy, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, University of Technology Sydney

Over the recent summer, three significant fish death events occurred in the lower Darling River near Menindee, New South Wales. Species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch and Bony Herring, with deaths estimated to be in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. These events were a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling region.

Our report for the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources examines the causes of these events and recommend actions to mitigate the potential for repeat events in the future.

The final report has just been released, summarising what we found and what we recommend.

Causes of the fish deaths

High-flow events in the Darling River in 2012 and 2016 filled the Menindee Lakes and offered opportunities for substantial fish breeding, further aided by the targeted use of environmental water.

The result was very large numbers of fish in the lakes, river channels and weir pools around Menindee. After the lake-filling rains of late 2016, two very dry years ensued, resulting in very low inflows into the Barwon-Darling river.

As the supply of water dried up, the river became a series of disconnected and shrinking pools. As the extremely hot and dry conditions in late 2018 took hold, the large population of fish around Menindee became concentrated within weir pools.

Hot weather, low rainfall and low flows provided ideal conditions for algal blooms and thermal stratification in the weir pools, resulting in very low oxygen concentrations within the bottom waters.

With the large fish population now isolated to the oxygenated surface waters of the pools, all that was needed for the fatal blow was a trigger for the water profile to mix. Such a trigger arrived on three separate occasions, with changes in the weather that brought sudden drops in temperature and increased wind that caused sudden turnover of the low-oxygen bottom waters.

Summary of the multiple causes of the 2018-19 fish death events in the lower Darling river.

With the fish already stressed by high temperatures, they were now unable to gain enough oxygen from the water to breathe, and a very large number of them died. As we write, the situation in the lower Darling remains dire, and there is a risk of further fish deaths if there are no significant inflows to the river.

Fish deaths caused by these sorts of turnover events are not uncommon, but the conditions outlined above made these events unusually dramatic.

So, how did such adverse conditions arise in the lower Darling river and how might we avoid their reoccurrence? We’ve examined four influencing factors: climate, water management, lake operations, and fish mobility.

Key influencing factors

We found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions.

Inflows to the water storages in the northern Basin over 2017-18 were the second lowest for any two-year period on record. Most of the Murray-Darling Basin experienced its hottest summer on record, exemplified by the town of Bourke breaking a new heatwave record for NSW, with 21 consecutive days with a maximum temperature above 40℃.

We concluded that climate change amplified these conditions and will likely result in more severe droughts in the future.

Changes in the water access arrangements in the Barwon–Darling River, made just prior to the commencement of the Basin Plan in 2012, exacerbated the effects of the drought. These changes enhanced the ability of irrigators to access water during low flow periods, meaning fewer flow pulses make it down the river to periodically reconnect and replenish isolated waterholes that provide permanent refuge habitats for fish during drought.

We conclude that the Lake Menindee scheme had been operated according to established protocols, and was appropriately conservative given the emerging drought conditions. But low connectivity in the lower Darling resulted in poor water quality and restricted mobility for fish.

Recommended policy and management actions

Given the right mix of policy and management actions, Basin governments can significantly reduce the risks of further fish death events and promote the recovery of affected fish populations.

The Basin Plan is delivering positive environmental outcomes and more benefits will accrue once the plan is fully implemented. But more needs to be done to enhance river connectivity and protect low flows, first flushes and environmental flow releases in the Barwon-Darling river.

Drought resilience in the lower Darling can be enhanced by reconfiguring the Lake Menindee Water Savings Project, modifying the current Menindee Lakes operating rules and purchasing high security water entitlements from horticultural enterprises in the region.

In Australia, water entitlements are the rights to a share of the available water resource in any season. Irrigators get less (or no) water in dry (or extremely dry) years.

A high-security water entitlement is one with a high chance of receiving the full water allocation. In some systems, although not all, this is expected to happen 95 per cent of the time. And these high-security entitlements are the most valuable and sought after.

Fish mobility can be enhanced by removing barriers to movement and adding fish passageways.

It would be beneficial for environmental water holders to place more of their focus on sustaining fish populations through drought sequences.

The river models that governments use to plan water sharing need to be updated more regularly to accurately represent the state of Basin development, configured to run on a whole-of-basin basis, and improved to more faithfully represent low flow conditions.

There are large gaps in water quality monitoring, metering of water extractions and basic hydro-ecologic knowledge that should be filled.

Risk assessments need to be undertaken to identify likely fish death event hot spots and inform future emergency response plans.

All of these initiatives need to be complemented by more sophisticated and reliable assessments of the impacts of climate change on water security across the Basin.

Governments must accelerate action

Responding to the lower Darling fish deaths in a prompt and substantial manner provides governments an opportunity to redress some of the broader concerns around the management of the Basin.

To do so, Basin governments must increase their political, bureaucratic and budgetary support for high value reforms and programs, particularly in the northern Basin.

All of our recommendations can be implemented within the current macro-settings of the Basin Plan and do not require a revisiting of the challenging socio-political process required to define Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).

Successful implementation will require a commitment to authentic collaboration between governments, traditional owners, local communities, and sustained input from the science community.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Daren Barma, Director of Barma Water Consulting, to this article.

A version of this article has been published in Pursuit.The Conversation

Robert Vertessy, Enterprise Professor, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Associate Research Professor (Fisheries and River Management), Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, Professor of Freshwater Ecology and Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

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

Bleaching has struck the southernmost coral reef in the world


Tess Moriarty, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, UNSW; Scott Heron, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, UNSW

This month corals in Lord Howe Island Marine Park began showing signs of bleaching. The 145,000 hectare marine park contains the most southerly coral reef in the world, in one of the most isolated ecosystems on the planet.

Following early reports of bleaching in the area, researchers from three Australian universities and two government agencies have worked together throughout March to investigate and document the bleaching.

Sustained heat stress has seen 90% of some reefs bleached, although other parts of the marine park have escaped largely unscathed.

Bleaching is uneven

Lord Howe Island was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. It is the coral reef closest to a pole, and contains many species found nowhere else in the world.

Coral bleaching observed at Lord Howe in March 2019.
Author provided

Two of us (Tess Moriarty and Rosie Steinberg) have surveyed reefs across Lord Howe Island Marine Park to determine the extent of bleaching in the populations of hard coral, soft coral, and anemones. This research found severe bleaching on the inshore lagoon reefs, where up to 95% of corals are showing signs of extensive bleaching.

However, bleaching is highly variable across Lord Howe Island. Some areas within the Lord Howe Island lagoon coral reef are not showing signs of bleaching and have remained healthy and vibrant throughout the summer. There are also corals on the outer reef and at deeper reef sites that have remained healthy, with minimal or no bleaching.

One surveyed reef location in Lord Howe Island Marine Park is severely impacted, with more than 90% of corals bleached; at the next most affected reef site roughly 50% of corals are bleached, and the remaining sites are less than 30% bleached. At least three sites have less than 5% bleached corals.

Healthy coral photographed at Lord Howe marine park in March 2019.
Author provided

Over the past week heat stress has continued in this area, and return visits to these sites revealed that the coral condition has worsened. There is evidence that some corals are now dying on the most severely affected reefs.

Forecasts for the coming week indicate that water temperatures are likely to cool below the bleaching threshold, which will hopefully provide timely relief for corals in this valuable reef ecosystem. In the coming days, weeks and months we will continue to monitor the affected reefs and determine the impact of this event to the reef system, and investigate coral recovery.

What’s causing the bleaching?

The bleaching was caused by high seawater temperature from a persistent summer marine heatwave off southeastern Australia. Temperature in January was a full degree Celsius warmer than usual, and from the end of January to mid-February temperatures remained above the local bleaching threshold.

Sustained heat stressed the Lord Howe Island reefs, and put them at risk. They had a temporary reprieve with cooler temperatures in late February, but by March another increase put the ocean temperature well above safe levels. This is now the third recorded bleaching event to have occurred on this remote reef system.

Satellite monitoring of sea-surface temperature (SST) revealed three periods in excess of the Bleaching Threshold during which heat stress accumulated (measured as Degree Heating Weeks, DHW). Since January 2019, SST (purple) exceeded expected monthly average values (blue +) by as much as 2°C. The grey line and envelope indicate the predicted range of SST in the near future.
Source: NOAA Coral Reef Watch

However, this heatwave has not equally affected the whole reef system. In parts of the lagoon areas the water can be cooler, due to factors like ocean currents and fresh groundwater intrusion, protecting some areas from bleaching. Some coral varieties are also more heat-resistant, and a particular reef that has been exposed to high temperatures in the past may better cope with the current conditions. For a complex variety of reasons, the bleaching is unevenly affecting the whole marine park.

Coral bleaching is the greatest threat to the sustainability of coral reefs worldwide and is now clearly one of the greatest challenges we face in responding to the impact of global climate change. UNESCO World Heritage regions, such as the Lord Howe Island Group, require urgent action to address the cause and impact of a changing climate, coupled with continued management to ensure these systems remain intact for future generations.


The authors thank ProDive Lord Howe Island and Lord Howe Island Environmental Tours for assistance during fieldwork.The Conversation

Tess Moriarty, Phd candidate, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, Coordinator, Coral Reef Watch, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, PhD Student, UNSW; Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, Associate professor, UNSW

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

NSW election: where do the parties stand on brumby culling?



File 20190321 93063 1k3xosw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Feral horses have severely damaged the landscape in Kosciuszko National Park.
Travelstine, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

The future management of New South Wales’s national parks is one of the issues on the line in Saturday’s state election. Other states will be watching the outcome closely.

Depending on who wins, the outcome for Kosciuszko National Park spans from restoration and recovery to ongoing environmental decay, with feral horses given priority over native species.




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All political parties have been well informed about the science behind feral horses in the Australian Alps. The peer-reviewed literature shows that:

  • feral horse impacts put multiple species at greater risk of extinction

  • streams and bogs are degraded, threatening water quality, and will require restoration

  • even small numbers of horses lead to cumulative environmental degradation

  • a range of high and low elevation areas are severely degraded by feral horses; it is not clear whether any areas can withstand horse impacts

  • rehoming and fertility control are not effective control methods when horses number in the thousands and are hard to reach

  • aerial culling is humane, effective, and cheaper than other methods.

But despite the clarity of recommendations emerging from research, political parties have taken a broad range of approaches.

A feral horse exclusion fence. But which side of the fence are the major parties on?
Author provided

Liberal/National Coalition

The Liberal/National coalition has pledged to enact its Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill, which was passed by the state parliament last year and aims to “recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park”.

This legislation would ensure several thousand feral horses remain in the park, potentially compromising the conservation goals of the park’s management plan.




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This month, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the government would “immediately” reduce horse numbers by 50%, through trapping, rehoming, fertility control, and relocating horses to “less sensitive” areas. Although he appeared to endorse an ultimate population target of 600 feral horses in front of an audience that was receptive to that idea, under pressure from the pro-brumby lobby, he later clarified that the coalition would aim to keep 3,000-4,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko.

Labor

Labor, along with the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, has pledged to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill if it wins the election, and has committed A$24 million to restore the national park.

Its six-point national parks restoration plan bans aerial culling, instead proposing to control horses using rehoming, while expanding research on fertility control.

Labor’s plan also mentions active management of feral horses in sensitive ecosystems, and ensuring large horse populations do not starve to death. It plans to achieve these two goals by trapping and rehoming brumbies. Labor also plans to keep a “smaller population” of feral horses in areas within the national park “where degradation is less critical”.

Greens

The NSW Greens has arguably the most evidence-based policy, aiming to reduce horse numbers by 90% in three years, with a longer-term goal of full eradication.

This means national parks would be managed for native Australian species. That is important in NSW, where only 10% of the state has been allocated to protected areas, well below international standards of 17%. They would achieve this reduction using all humane methods currently available, including trapping, rehoming, mustering, and ground-based and aerial shooting.

The Greens would also fund rehabilitation of damaged habitat, and has flagged substantial funding for conservation initiatives.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party supports immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers using humane methods, including ground shooting, but not aerial culling.

The party, which holds one lower house seat and has two upper house members, has announced no plans for restoration of the national park.

Animal Justice Party

The Animal Justice Party, which has just one upper house member in the parliament, has endorsed “non-lethal control measures” in areas that are clearly being degraded by feral horses. It says this should be achieved entirely using fertility control and relocation. The party has also described brumby culling proposals as “horrific” and called for urgent national legislation to protect them.




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There is pressure from pro-brumby lobbyists to keep feral horse populations in Guy Fawkes, Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Blue Mountains, and other NSW national parks. In Victoria, a pro-brumby pressure group will take Parks Victoria to the Federal court later this year to prevent removal of a small but damaging horse population on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park.

When NSW voters decide the fate of Kosciuszko National Park on Saturday, their verdict could have broader ramifications for protected areas throughout Australia.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

Landmark Rocky Hill ruling could pave the way for more courts to choose climate over coal



File 20190211 174883 r10bym.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A favourite argument of coal proponents is the idea that if their mine is knocked back, someone else will simply dig up coal elsewhere.
Mister Mackenzie/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Justine Bell-James, The University of Queensland

On Friday, Chief Judge Brian Preston of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court handed down a landmark judgement confirming a decision to refuse a new open-cut coal mine near Gloucester in the Hunter Valley. The proposed Rocky Hill mine’s contribution to climate change was one of the key reasons cited for refusing the application.

The decision has prompted celebration among environmentalists, for whom climate-based litigation has long been an uphill battle.




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Defeating a mining proposal on climate grounds involves clearing several high hurdles. Generally speaking, the court must be convinced not only that the proposed mine would contribute to climate change, but also that this issue is relevant under the applicable law.

To do this, a litigant needs to convince a court of a few key things, which include that:

  • the proponent is responsible for the ultimate burning of the coal, even if it is burned by a third party, and

  • this will result in increased greenhouse emissions, which in turn contributes to climate change.

In his judgement, Preston took a broad view and readily connected these causal dots, ruling that:

The Project’s cumulative greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to the global total of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. The global total of GHG concentrations will affect the climate system and cause climate change impacts. The Project’s cumulative GHG emissions are therefore likely to contribute to the future changes to the climate system and the impacts of climate change.

Other courts (such as in Queensland, where the proposed Adani coalmine has successfully cleared various legal hurdles) have tended to take a narrower approach to statutory interpretation, with climate change just one of numerous relevant factors under consideration. In contrast, Preston found climate change to be one of the more important factors to consider under NSW legislation.

To rule against a coalmine on climate grounds, the court also needs to resist the “market substitution” argument – the suggestion that if the proponent does not mine and sell coal, someone else will. This argument has become a common “defence” in climate litigation, and indeed was advanced by Gloucester Resources in the Rocky Hill case.

Preston rejected the argument, describing it as “flawed”. He noted that there is no certainty that overseas mines will substitute for the Rocky Hill coalmine. Given increasing global momentum to tackle climate change, he noted that other countries may well follow this lead in rejecting future coalmine proposals.

He also stated that:

…an environmental impact does not become acceptable because a hypothetical and uncertain alternative development might also cause the same unacceptable environmental impact.

What does the future now hold?

There should be no doubt that this is a hugely significant ruling. However, there are several caveats to bear in mind.

First, there are avenues of appeal. In the absence of a robust legislative framework prohibiting mining operations, it is ultimately up to a court to interpret legislation and weigh up the relevant factors and evidence. The NSW Land and Environment Court has a strong history of progressive judgements, and it is not certain that this example will be followed more widely in other jurisdictions. That said, Preston’s reasoning is firmly grounded in an analysis of the relevant scientific and international context, and should be a highly persuasive precedent.

Second, it is also important to remember that this judgement arose from an initial government decision to refuse the mine, whereas many other legal challenges have arisen from a mining approval.

Finally, climate change was not the only ground on which the mine was rejected. The proposed mine would have been close to a town, with serious impacts on the community.




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Nevertheless, this decision potentially opens up new chapter in Australia’s climate litigation history. Preston’s ruling nimbly vaults over hurdles that have confounded Australian courts in the past – most notably, the application of the market substitution defence.

It is hard to predict whether his decision will indeed have wider ramifications. Certainly the tide is turning internationally – coal use is declining, many nations have set ambitious climate goals under the Paris Agreement, and high-level overseas courts are making bold decisions in climate cases. As Preston concluded:

…an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time… the GHG emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.

Indeed, it is high time for a progressive approach to climate cases too. Hopefully this landmark judgement will signal the turning of the tides in Australian courts as well.The Conversation

Justine Bell-James, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

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

Murray-Darling report shows public authorities must take climate change risk seriously


Arjuna Dibley, Stanford University

The tragic recent events on the Darling River, and the political and policy furore around them, have again highlighted the severe financial and environmental consequences of mismanaging climate risks. The Murray-Darling Royal Commission demonstrates how closely boards of public sector corporate bodies can be scrutinised for their management of these risks.

Public authorities must follow private companies and factor climate risk into their board decision-making. Royal Commissioner Brett Walker has delivered a damning indictment of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s management of climate-related risks. His report argues that the authority’s senior management and board were “negligent” and fell short of acting with “reasonable care, skill and diligence”. For its part, the authority “rejects the assertion” that it “acted improperly or unlawfully in any way”.

The Royal Commission has also drawn attention to the potentially significant legal and reputational consequences for directors and organisations whose climate risk management is deemed to have fallen short of a rising bar.




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Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


It’s the public sector’s turn

Until recently, scrutiny of how effectively large and influential organisations are responding to climate risks has focused mostly on the private sector.

In Australia it is widely acknowledged among legal experts that private company directors’ duty of “due care and diligence” requires them to consider foreseeable climate risks that intersect with the interests of the company. Indeed, Australia’s companies regulator, ASIC, has called for directors to take a “probative and proactive” approach to these risks.

The recent focus on management of the Murray-Darling Basin again highlights the crucial role public sector corporations (or “public authorities” as we call them) also play in our overall responses to climate change – and the consequences when things go wrong.

Australia’s economy, once dominated by publicly owned enterprises, was reshaped by waves of privatisations in the late 20th century. However, hundreds of public authorities continue to play an important role in our economy. They build and maintain infrastructure, generate energy, oversee superannuation portfolios, provide insurance and manage water resources, among many other activities.

This means that, like their counterparts in the private sector, many face risks associated with climate change. Take Melbourne Water, for instance, a statutory water corporation established to manage the city’s water supply. It will have to contend with increasingly hot summers and reduced rainfall (a physical risk), and also with the risk that government policy in the future might impose stricter conditions on how water is used (a transition risk).

What duties do public authorities owe?

Our new research from the Centre for Policy Development, shows that, at the Commonwealth and Victorian level (and likely in other Australian jurisdictions), the main laws governing officials in public authorities are likely to create similar obligations to those imposed on private company directors.

For instance, a 2013 federal act requires public authority board members to carry out their duties with the degree of “due care and diligence” that a reasonable person would exercise if they were a Commonwealth official in that board position.

The concept of a “reasonable person” is crucial. There is ever-increasing certainty about the human contribution to climate change. New tools and models have been created to measure the impact of climate change on the economy. Climate risks are therefore reasonably foreseeable if you are acting carefully and diligently, and thus public authority directors should consider these risks.

The obligations of public authority directors may, in some cases, go beyond what is required of private company directors. The same act mentioned above requires Commonwealth officials to promote best practice in the way they carry out their duties. While there is still wide divergence in how private companies manage climate change, best practice in leading corporations is moving towards more systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks. Accordingly, a “best practice” obligation places an even higher onus on public sector directors to manage climate risk.

The specific legislation that governs certain public authorities may introduce different and more onerous requirements. For instance, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s governing legislation, the Water Act 2007, imposes a number of additional conditions on the authority. This includes the extent to which the minister can influence board decision-making.

Nonetheless, our laws set out a widely applicable standard for public authority directors.

Approaches to better manage public authority climate risks

While some public authorities are already carefully considering how physical and transition climate risks affect their work, our research suggests that standards vary widely.

As with the private sector, a combination of clear expectations for better climate risk management, greater scrutiny and more investment in climate-related capabilities and risk-management frameworks can all play a role in raising the bar. Our research highlights four steps that governments should consider:

  • creating a whole-of-government toolkit and implementation strategy for training and supporting directors to account for climate-risk in decision-making

  • using existing public authority accountability mechanisms – such as the public sector commissioner or auditor general’s office – to more closely scrutinise the management of climate-related financial risks

  • issuing formal ministerial statements of expectations to clarify how public authorities and their directors should manage climate-related risks and policy priorities

  • making legislative or regulatory changes to ensure consistent consideration, management and disclosure of climate risk by public sector decision-makers.




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Company directors can be held legally liable for ignoring the risks from climate change


Measures such as these would set clear expectations for more consistent, sophisticated responses to climate risks by public authorities. However, even without any changes, it should be clear that public authority directors have legal duties to consider climate risks – and that these duties must be taken seriously even when doing so is complicated, controversial or politically sensitive.The Conversation

Arjuna Dibley, Graduate Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

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