Australia’s bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it



Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem?
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Western Sydney University

Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America, and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.

As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency. The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous – spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.

Legal and policy frameworks – local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.

Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.
NEIL BENNETT/AAP

A short history of smoke

Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.

In Egypt and Peru, evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.

The Romans referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:

No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.




Read more:
Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock


Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died in the Great Smog of 1952.

In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon, outside human control.

Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia.
AFRIANTO SILALAHI

Where to point the finger?

Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.

Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year, winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.

In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.




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Watching our politicians fumble through the bushfire crisis, I’m overwhelmed by déjà vu


As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible – a slippery concept when climate change is involved.

The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.

Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.

Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Dan Peled/AAP

The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists and conservationists, for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.

There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.

The law has failed

The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017, from 60 to 1,260.

But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century – a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.




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This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.

Experts have argued that the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.

The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.

Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Looking ahead

Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.

As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.The Conversation

Eric Kerr, Lecturer, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

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

Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock



Throughout history, Australian bushfires have spread smoke over our cities. But this time it’s different.
David Mariuz/AAP

Nancy Cushing, University of Newcastle

Smoke from this season’s bushfires has turned the sun red, the moon orange and the sky an insipid grey. It has obscured iconic views tourists flock to see. Far more than an aesthetic problem, it has forced business shutdowns, triggered health problems and kept children indoors for weeks.

City dwellers in southeast Australia have been forced to take a crash course in the finer points of air pollution. We’ve learned about the dangers of inhaling tiny PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or fewer in diameter). We’ve learned that only a close-fitting P2 mask will do much to protect us.

Still, we wear disposable paper masks and hold handkerchiefs to our faces, hoping any amount of filtering is helpful.

A police officer wears a mask while on duty at Parliament House in Canberra.
NARENDRA SHRESTHA/AAP

Even for an historian of air pollution like me, this situation is a shock. It is not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality is unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent.

Historically, air pollution from smoke was considered outside human control and not subject to regulation. But these bushfires are clearly linked to global warming, for which government, corporations and individuals are responsible. It’s time to rethink the way we protect air quality.

The history of smoke

In recent weeks, apps such as AirVisual have confirmed what we city dwellers can already see and smell: since the fires on the north coast of NSW began in late October, our air quality has plummeted.

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached a choking 5,185 at 8pm on New Year’s Day.

Bushfire smoke has affected the cities of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory in the past. In late January 1926, when Canberra was just emerging as a city, a thick haze of smoke sat over the site. Fires came within metres of Yarralumla, the residence which, the following year, would become home to the Governor-General.

In several years in the mid 1930s, bushfires burning to the north of Sydney left the city air thick with smoke. In October 1936, bushfire smoke forced a motor liner arriving from Hong Kong to warily enter the harbour sounding its siren, because it was invisible to signallers on South Head.

A New Zealand pilot, flying into Sydney from Longreach the following month, had to fly blind in “great clouds of dense smoke” covering much of NSW. In 1939, Canberra was covered by what visiting writer HG Wells described as a “streaming smoke curtain”.




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In the summer of 1944, Sydney was again enveloped in a smoke haze, this time from fires in the Blue Mountains and (later Royal) National Park in November. Photographs published at the time show the Sydney Harbour Bridge barely visible through dust and smoke at midday. The ongoing fires were blamed for an increase in diseases of the ears, nose and throat, and for cases of influenza and pneumonia, leading to a shortage of hospital beds.

A satellite image showing fires burning on Australia’s east coast.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

In November 1951, all of NSW was said to be blacked out by bushfire smoke. In Sydney on the worst days, records show all four of the city’s airfields were closed because of “smoke-fog”.

A hazy legal framework

In each of these episodes, bushfire smoke disrupted transport, commerce, health and the enjoyment of the urban environment. But even as other forms of air pollution began to be regulated, smoke from bushfires escaped legislative attention.

What was understood as air pollution were the unwanted byproducts of industrial processes, whereas bushfire smoke was viewed as natural.




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In NSW in 1866, an act based on British legislation restricted smoke from mills, distilleries and gas works. Further limitations on smoke production in built-up areas were included in later acts governing public health (1902), motor traffic (1909) and local government (1919).

After World War II Newcastle, the site of the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, began to pay closer attention to managing air quality. This pioneering work was given added urgency after 4,000 people died in heavy London smog in 1952.

A woman seen wearing a face mask as smoke haze from bushfires blankets Sydney.
JOEL CARRETT/AAP

In 1958, a NSW parliamentary committee delivered a report into smoke abatement. It did not mention recent issues with bushfire smoke, and also dismissed the impact of domestically produced smoke. The subsequent 1961 Clean Air Act focused on air pollution from industry, transport and power generation.

Air pollution legislation continued to evolve in following decades, targeting motor vehicle emissions in the 1970s, backyard burning of waste in the 1980s, and wood fires used to heat homes in the 1990s.

These measures have been successful. A 2006 study found that between 1998 and 2003, on the limited occasions when standards for PM10 in six Australian cities were exceeded, the main sources were not industry or transport, but dust storms and bushfires (with the exception of Launceston, where heating fires were the main contributor).

A young man jumps from a rock in Sydney during smoke haze.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Looking ahead

Today, bushfire smoke is excluded from air quality regulations, despite its obvious role in pollution. It is still considered natural, and beyond human control.

However the link between the current fires and human-caused climate change, long predicted by climate scientists, suggests this exemption is no longer valid.




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As the Australian National University’s Tom Griffiths has written, the current fires in some ways repeat patterns of the past. But “the smoke is worse, more widespread and more enduring”.

When Australia begins the recovery from these fires, our business-as-usual approach requires a rethink. Measures to protect air quality should be a major part of this.

It is time that corporations, governments and societies which contribute to global heating be held to account for more frequent, intense and widespread bushfires, and the smoke which billows from them.The Conversation

Nancy Cushing, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

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

Climate explained: seven reasons to be wary of waste-to-energy proposals



Many developed countries already have significant waste-to-energy operations and therefore less material going to landfill.

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology


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

I was in Switzerland recently and discovered that they haven’t had any landfill since the early 2000s, because all of their waste is either recycled or incinerated to produce electricity. How “green” is it to incinerate waste in order to produce electricity? Is it something New Zealand should consider, so that 1) we have no more landfill, and 2) we can replace our fossil-fuel power stations with power stations that incinerate waste?

Burning rubbish to generate electricity or heat sounds great: you get rid of all your waste and also get seemingly “sustainable” energy. What could be better?

Many developed countries already have significant “waste-to-energy” incineration plants and therefore less material going to landfill (although the ash has to be landfilled). These plants often have recycling industries attached to them, so that only non-recyclables end up in the furnace. If it is this good, why the opposition?

Here are seven reasons why caution is needed when considering waste-to-energy incineration plants.




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Stifling innovation and waste reduction

  1. Waste-to-energy plants require a high-volume, guaranteed waste stream for about 25 years to make them economically viable. If waste-to-energy companies divert large amounts of waste away from landfills, they need to somehow get more waste to maintain their expensive plants. For example, Sweden imports its waste from the UK to feed its “beasts”.

  2. The waste materials that are easiest to source and have buyers for recycling – like paper and plastic – also produce most energy when burned.

  3. Waste-to-energy destroys innovation in the waste sector. As a result of China not accepting our mixed plastics, people are now combining plastics with asphalt to make roads last longer and are making fence posts that could be replacing treated pine posts (which emit copper, chrome and arsenic into the ground). If a convenient waste-to-energy plant had been available, none of this would have happened.

  4. Waste-to-energy reduces jobs. Every job created in the incineration industry removes six jobs in landfill, 36 jobs in recycling and 296 jobs in the reuse industry.

  5. Waste-to-energy works against a circular economy, which tries to keep goods in circulation. Instead, it perpetuates our current make-use-dispose mentality.

  6. Waste-to-energy only makes marginal sense in economies that produce coal-fired electricity – and then only as a stop-gap measure until cleaner energy is available. New Zealand has a green electricity generation system, with about 86% already coming from renewable sources and a target of 100% renewable by 2035, so waste-to-energy would make it a less renewable energy economy.

  7. Lastly, burning waste and contaminated plastics creates a greater environmental impact than burning the equivalent oil they are made from. These impacts include the release of harmful substances like dioxins and vinyl chloride as well as mixtures of many other harmful substances used in making plastics, which are not present in oil.




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Landfills as mines of the future

European countries were driven to waste-to-energy as a result of a 2007 directive that imposed heavy penalties for countries that did not divert waste from landfills. The easiest way for those countries to comply was to install waste-to-energy plants, which meant their landfill waste dropped dramatically.

New Zealand does not have these sorts of directives and is in a better position to work towards reducing, reusing and recycling end-of-life materials, rather than sending them to an incinerator to recover some of the energy used to make them.

Is New Zealand significantly worse than Europe in managing waste? About a decade ago, a delegation from Switzerland visited New Zealand Ministry for the Environment officials to compare progress in each of the waste streams. Both parties were surprised to learn that they had managed to divert roughly the same amount of waste from landfill through different routes.

This shows that it is important New Zealand doesn’t blindly follow the route other countries have used and hope for the same results. Such is the case for waste-to-energy.

There is also an argument to be made for current landfills. Modern, sanitary landfills seal hazardous materials and waste stored over the last 50 years presents future possibilities of landfill mining.

Many landfills have higher concentrations of precious metals, particularly gold, than mines and some are being mined for those metals. As resources become scarcer and prices increase, our landfills may become the mines of the future.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

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

New Zealand poised to introduce clean car standards and incentives to cut emissions



Australia and Russia could soon be the last remaining developed nations without fuel efficiency standards, with New Zealand proposing new rules and financial incentives to get more people driving cleaner cars.
http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The New Zealand government has proposed new fuel standards to cut greenhouse emissions, along with consumer rebates for cleaner cars – paid for by fees on high-polluting cars.

The long-awaited proposed changes would bring New Zealand in line with most other developed countries; apart from New Zealand, Russia and Australia are the last remaining OECD nations without fuel efficiency standards.

New Zealand’s long tradition of not regulating its car market, combined with substantial indirect subsidies for private cars, makes addressing emissions from the transport sector both challenging and highly significant.




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New Zealand’s second-rate car fleet

Land transport emissions – the single largest source of fossil carbon dioxide in New Zealand – grew 93% between 1990 and 2017. There are multiple causes. The population grew 44% during this period, mostly through immigration. The car ownership rate also grew rapidly, partly due to economic growth and deficiencies in public transport in the main cities. Car ownership in New Zealand is now the highest in the OECD and there are more motor vehicles than adults.

Fuel efficiency improved only slowly over this period, before stalling in recent years: at 180g CO₂/km, the emissions of newly imported vehicles in New Zealand are 50% higher than in Europe. Because of the lack of a fuel efficiency standard, importers provide less efficient versions of their bestsellers to the New Zealand market. Of the ten bestselling new vehicles, five are utes (which also benefit from a fringe benefit tax exemption, four are SUVs and one is a regular car.

In addition, half of all vehicles are imported secondhand, mostly from Japan. They are cheap, but less efficient than newer models. Emissions, and congestion, are likely to continue rising as the national vehicle fleet is increasing by 110,000 vehicles a year.

One bright spot in the present situation is the emergence of an electric vehicle segment, mostly driven by the availability of cheap second-hand Nissan Leafs from Japan and the construction of a fast-charging network by a private company. Although sales have stalled in the past year at a market share of 2%, there are now 15,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand. (Australia has around 10,000 electric vehicles.)

New Zealand’s history of fuel taxes

New Zealand does not have a strong record of taxing “bads”. The only goods subject to excise taxes are tobacco, alcohol and fuel. The fuel tax is moderate by international standards. Over the past decade, the fuel tax has been fully allocated to road construction and maintenance.

New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The current carbon price of NZ$25/tonne of carbon dioxide adds five cents per litre to the price of fuel. Clearly, any likely increases in the carbon price are not going to be enough to change car buying decisions. Research shows that consumers tend to focus on upfront costs, while underestimating future fuel and maintenance costs.

Despite that, a special Auckland fuel tax of 10 cents per litre that co-funds public transport investment provoked a brief but intense backlash from the public. Plans to extend the scheme to other centres were canned.

A two-pronged plan

The proposed fuel efficiency standard would require car importers to either meet it or pay a fine. The suggested standard is 150gCO₂/km in 2021, falling to 105gCO₂/km in 2025, with further falls thereafter. There are more than 3000 car importers in New Zealand, so this could prompt a major shakeup, including possible price adjustments.

The standards are similar to those proposed by the Australian Coalition government in 2016, which have not yet been taken any further. Internationally, fuel efficiency standards cover 80% of the light vehicle market.




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Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago


But the second component of the proposal, the clean car discount, has attracted more attention. Cars emitting less than the current threshold would received a discount, initially up to NZ$1800 for an efficient petrol car, up to NZ$4800 for a hybrid and up to NZ$8000 for a battery electric car. Cars costing more than NZ$80,000 would not receive a discount.

Known as a “feebate scheme”, those rebates would be paid for by increased fees for high-polluting cars, of up to NZ$3000. The amounts are designed so that the entire scheme would be revenue neutral to the government. Modelling suggests that the proposed standard and discount combined would save motorists NZ$12,000 over the life of a vehicle.

International clean car schemes and testing

There is international experience with similar schemes, and they have been broadly effective. France has been operating a “feebate” scheme since 2008 with periodic adjustments. New Zealand’s proposed scheme is similar to the French and Swedish schemes.

But there is also room to get it wrong. Tinkering with electric vehicle incentives has led to wild sales fluctuations in the Netherlands and Denmark.

The spread between tested and real-world fuel use has widened, up from 9% in 2001 to 42%. The new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure testing cycle, currently being adopted by Japanese and European manufacturers, is believed to be more representative of real-world fuel use, as is the test already in use in the United States.

But overall, the New Zealand proposal has been received positively by car makers and across political parties.

One possible weakness is that it is entirely based on carbon dioxide. Other pollutants, including nitrous and sulphur oxides and particulate matter (soot), that are responsible for most of the immediate health impacts of vehicle pollution and are worse in diesel than in petrol vehicles, are not targeted. Nor are the underlying subsidies to the car-based transport system, which make a transition to active and public transport more difficult.

Any decisions made now will have impacts for decades to come. Switching the fleet to electric is different from just switching to more fuel-efficient cars. It involves new charging infrastructure and some behavioural changes from the public, and these challenges (rather than simply cost) are stumbling blocks worldwide to more rapid adoption.

These arguments have persuaded many countries to bring in electric vehicle incentives beyond simply targeting carbon dioxide. Norway is a famous example, where electric vehicles avoid purchase taxes and market share is already 60%. The UK has recently exempted electric company cars from fringe benefit tax.

As the global market share of electric vehicles still stands at only 2%, eight years after they became widely available, and the number of fossil-fueled vehicles is increasing by 48 million a year, stronger action on vehicle emissions is clearly needed worldwide.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

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

Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago



Legislative action regarding vehicle emissions is overdue, and needs urgent attention by the federal government.
Shutterstock

Robin Smit, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, University of Technology Sydney

When it comes to road transport, Australia is at risk of becoming a climate villain as we lag behind international best practice on fuel efficiency.

Road transport is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions and represented 16% of Australia’s total carbon dioxide emissions in 2000, growing to 21% in 2016. Total CO₂ emissions from road transport increased by almost 30% in the period 2000-16.

Fuel efficiency (CO₂ emission) standards have been adopted in around 80% of the global light vehicle market to cap the growth of transport emissions. This includes the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea and India – but not Australia.




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Emissions standards on cars will save Australians billions of dollars, and help meet our climate targets


If Australia had introduced internationally harmonised emissions legislation three years ago, households could have made savings on fuel costs to the tune of A$1 billion.

This shocking figure comes from our preliminary calculations looking at the effect of requiring more efficient vehicles to be sold in Australia.

A report, published yesterday by Transport Energy/Emission Research, looked at what Australia has achieved in vehicle fuel efficiency and CO₂ standards over the past 20 years. While Australia has considered and tried to impose standards a number of times, sadly these attempts were unsuccessful.

Legislative action on vehicle CO₂ emissions is long overdue and demands urgent attention by the Australian government.

Australian consumers are increasingly buying heavier vehicles with bigger emissions.
Shuterstock

How did Australia get here?

The most efficient versions of vehicle models offered in Australia are considerably less efficient than similar vehicles in other markets.

Australia could increasingly become a dumping ground for the world’s least efficient vehicles with sub-par emissions performance, given our lack of fuel efficiency standards. This leaves us on a dangerous path towards not only higher vehicle emissions, but also higher fuel costs for passenger travel and freight.

Australia has attempted to impose CO₂ or fuel efficiency standards on light vehicles several times over the past 20 years, but without success. While the federal government was committed to addressing this issue in 2015, four years later we are still yet to hear when – or even if – mandatory fuel efficiency standards will ever be introduced.

The general expectation appears to be that average CO₂ emission rates of new cars in Australia will reduce over time as technology advances overseas. In the absence of CO₂ standards locally, it is more likely that consumers will continue to not be offered more efficient cars, and pay higher fuel costs as a consequence.

Estimating the fuel savings

Available evidence suggests Australian motorists are paying on average almost 30% more for fuel than they should because of the lack of fuel efficiency standards.

The Australian vehicle fleet uses about 32 billion litres of fuel per year.

Using an Australian fleet model described in the TER report, we can make a conservative estimate that the passenger vehicle fleet uses about half of this fuel: 16 billion litres per year. New cars entering the fleet each year would represent about 5% of this: 800 million litres per year.

So assuming that mandatory CO₂ standards improve fuel efficiency by 27%, fuel savings would be 216 million litres per year.

In the last three years, the average fuel price across Australia’s five major cities is A$1.33 per litre. This equates to a total savings of A$287 million per year, although this would be about half the first year as new cars are purchased throughout the year and travel less, and would reduce as vehicles travel less when they age.

The savings are accumulative because a car purchased in a particular year continues to save fuel over the following years.

The table below shows a rough calculation of savings over the three year period (2016-2018), for new cars sold in the same period (Model Years 2016, 2017 and 2018).

As a result, over a period of three years, A$1.3 billion in potential savings for car owners would have accumulated.

Policy has come close, but what are we waiting for?

The Australian government is not progressing any measures to introduce a fuel efficiency target. In fact, it recently labelled Labor’s proposed fuel efficiency standard as a “car tax”.

But Australia has come close to adopting mandatory vehicle CO₂ emission standards in the past.

In late 2007, the Labor government committed to cutting emissions to achieve Australia’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, instructed the Vehicle Efficiency Working Group to:

… develop jointly a package of vehicle fuel efficiency measures designed to move Australia towards international best practice.

Then, in 2010, the Labor government decided mandatory CO₂ emissions standards would apply to new light vehicles from 2015. But a change in government in 2013 meant these standards did not see the light of day.

The amount of fuel that could have been saved is A$287 million per year.
Shutterstock

Things looked promising again when the Coalition government released a Vehicle Emissions Discussion Paper in 2016, followed by a draft Regulation Impact Statement in the same year.

The targets for adopting this policy in 2025, considered in the draft statement, were marked as “strong” (105g of CO₂ per km), “medium” (119g/km) and “mild” (135g/km) standards.

Under all three targets, there would be significant net cost savings. But since 2016, the federal government has taken no further action.

It begs the question: what exactly are we waiting for?

The technical state of play

Transport Energy/Emission Research conducted preliminary modelling of Australian real-world CO₂ emissions.

This research suggests average CO₂ emission rates of the on-road car fleet in Australia are actually increasing over time and are, in reality, higher than what is officially reported in laboratory emissions tests.

In fact, the gap between mean real-world emissions and the official laboratory tests is expected to grow from 20% in 2010 to 65% in 2025.

This gap is particularly concerning when we look at the lack of support for low-emissions vehicles like electric cars.




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Given that fleet turnover is slow, the benefits of fuel efficiency standards would only begin to have a significant effect several years into the future.

With continuing population growth, road travel will only increase further. This will put even more pressure on the need to reduce average real-world CO₂ emission rates, given the increasing environmental and health impacts of the vehicle fleet.

Even if the need to reduce emissions doesn’t convince you, the cost benefits of emissions standards should. The sale of less efficient vehicles in Australia means higher weekly fuel costs for car owners, which could be avoided with the introduction of internationally harmonised emissions legislation.The Conversation

Robin Smit, Adjunct professor, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, Lecturer in Environmental Engineering, University of Technology Sydney

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

Eastern China pinpointed as source of rogue ozone-depleting emissions



Sunset at Australia’s Cape Grim observatory, one of the key global background monitoring sites for CFC-11.
Paul Krummel/CSIRO, Author provided

Paul Krummel, CSIRO; Bronwyn Dunse, CSIRO; Nada Derek, CSIRO; Paul Fraser, CSIRO, and Paul Steele, CSIRO

A mysterious rebound in the emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals – despite a global ban stretching back almost a decade – has been traced to eastern China.

Research published by an international team today in Nature used a global network of monitoring stations to pinpoint the source of the rogue emissions. According to these data, 40-60% of the increase in emissions seen since 2013 is due to possibly illegal industrial activity in the Chinese provinces of Shandong and Hebei.




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Chlorofluorocarbon-11 (CFC-11) is a powerful ozone-depleting chemical that plays a major role in the appearance, each spring, of the ozone “hole” over Antarctica.

In the past, CFC-11 had been used primarily as a propellant in aerosol products and as a foam plastic blowing agent. The production and consumption (use) of CFC-11 are controlled by the global Montreal Protocol. CFC-11 consumption has been banned in developed countries since 1996, and worldwide since 2010.

This has resulted in a significant decline of CFC-11 in the atmosphere. Long-term CFC-11 measurements at Cape Grim, Tasmania, show the amount in the atmosphere peaked in 1994, and fell 14% by 2018.

However, this decline has not been as rapid as expected under the global zero production and consumption mandated by the Montreal Protocol since 2010.

Background levels of CFC-11 measured at Australia’s Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, located at the north-west tip of Tasmania.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology

A 2014 study was the first to deduce that global emissions of CFC-11 stopped declining in 2002. In 2015, CSIRO scientists advised the Australian government, based on measurements compiled by the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), which includes those from Cape Grim, that emissions had risen significantly since 2011. The cause of this rebound in CFC-11 emissions was a mystery.

Global CFC-11 emissions based on atmospheric measurements compared with the expected decline of this compound in the atmosphere if compliance with the Montreal Protocol was adhered to.
CSIRO/AGAGE

An initial explanation came in 2018, when researchers led by Stephen Montzka of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysed the CFC-11 data collected weekly at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. They deduced that the increased emissions originated largely from East Asia – likely as a result of new, illegal production.

Montzka’s team concluded that if these increased CFC-11 emissions continued, the closure of the Antarctic ozone hole could be delayed, possibly for decades. This was a remarkable piece of detective work, considering that Mauna Loa is more than 8,000km from East Asia.

Suspicions confirmed

A still more detailed explanation is published today in the journal Nature by an international research team led by Matt Rigby of the University of Bristol, UK, and Sunyoung Park of Kyungpook National University, South Korea, together with colleagues from Japan, the United States, Australia and Switzerland. The new study uses data collected every two hours by the AGAGE global monitoring network, including data from Gosan, South Korea, and from an AGAGE-affiliated station at Hateruma, Japan. Crucially, Gosan and Hateruma are just 1,000km and 2,000km, respectively, from the suspected epicentre of CFC-11 emissions in East Asia.

The Korean and Japanese data show that these new emissions of CFC-11 do indeed come from eastern China – in particular the provinces of Shandong and Hebei – and that they have increased by around 7,000 tonnes per year since 2013.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AGAGE network has detected no evidence of increasing CFC-11 emissions elsewhere around the world, including in North America, Europe, Japan, Korea or Australia.

Yet while this new study has accounted for roughly half of the recent global emissions rise, it is possible that smaller increases have also taken place in other countries, or even in other parts of China, not covered by the AGAGE network. There are large swathes of the globe for which we have very little detailed information on CFC emissions.

Map showing the region where the increased CFC-11 emissions came from, based on atmospheric measurements and modelling.
University of Bristol/CSIRO

Nevertheless, this study represents an important milestone in atmospheric scientists’ ability to tell which regions are emitting ozone-depleting substances and in what quantities. It is now vital we find out which industries are responsible for these new emissions.

If the emissions are due to the manufacture and use of products such as foams, it is possible that, so far, we have seen in the atmosphere only a fraction of the total amount of CFC-11 that was produced illegally. The remainder could be locked up in buildings and chillers, and will ultimately be released to the atmosphere over the coming decades.




Read more:
Explainer: what is the Antarctic ozone hole and how is it made?


While our new study cannot determine which industry or industries are responsible, it does provide strong evidence that substantial new emissions of CFC-11 have occurred from China. Chinese authorities have identified, and closed down, some illegal production facilities over the past several years.

This study highlights the importance of undertaking long-term measurements of trace gases like CFC-11 to verify that international treaties and protocols are working. It also identifies shortcomings in the global networks for detecting regional emissions of ozone depleting substances. This should encourage expansion of these vital measurement networks which would lead to a capability of more rapid identification of future emission transgressions.The Conversation

Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO; Bronwyn Dunse, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Nada Derek, Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, CSIRO; Paul Fraser, Honorary Fellow, CSIRO, and Paul Steele, Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, CSIRO

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

Mercury pollution from decades past may have been re-released by Tasmania’s bushfires



File 20190405 114905 1kz1fq7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Tasmania’s fires may have released mercury previously absorbed by trees.
AAP Image

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

Tasmania’s bushfires may have resulted in the release of significant amounts of mercury from burnt trees into the atmosphere. Our research shows that industrial mercury pollution from decades past has been locked up in west Tasmanian trees.

Mercury occurs naturally in Earth’s crust. Over the past 200 years, industrial activities have mobilised mercury from the crust and released it into the atmosphere. As a consequence, atmospheric mercury concentrations are now three to four times higher than in the pre-industrialisation era.

Mining is the largest source of the global atmospheric mercury, accounting for 37% of mercury emissions. When Europeans first arrived in Australia, there was, of course, no Environmental Protection Act in place to limit emissions from industrial activities. In western Tasmania, where mining has occurred for more than a century, this meant mercury was being released without control into the local atmosphere until changes in technology, market conditions, and later, regulation, conspired to reduce emissions.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


Because mercury is also very persistent in the environment, past mining activity has generated a reservoir of mercury that could be released to the atmosphere under certain conditions. This is a concern because even small amounts of mercury may be toxic and may cause serious health problems. In particular, mercury can threaten the normal development of a child in utero and early in its life.

Tree rings can reveal past mercury contamination

How much mercury has been released into the Australian environment and when has remained largely unknown. However, in a new study we show how mercury levels in Tasmania have dramatically changed over the past 150 years due to mining practices. Long-lived Huon pine, endemic to western Tasmania, is one of the most efficient bioaccumulators of mercury in the world. This makes it a good proxy for tracking mercury emissions in western Tasmania. If concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere are high in a given year, this can be detected in the annual ring of Huon pine for that year.

Mercury pollution from past mining practices in western Tasmania has left a lasting environmental legacy. The sampled trees contained a significant reservoir of mercury that was taken up during the peak mining period in Queenstown. Changes in mercury concentrations in the annual rings of Huon pine are closely aligned with changes in mining practices in the region.

Increased concentrations coincide with the commencement of pyritic copper smelting in Queenstown in 1896. They peak between 1910 and 1920 when smelting was at its height. In 1922, concentrations begin to decline in parallel with the introduction of a new method to separate and concentrate ores. This method required only one small furnace instead of 11 large ones. In 1934, a new dust-collection apparatus was installed in the smelter’s chimney, coinciding with the further decrease in mercury concentrations in nearby Huon pine.

Temporal tree rings of Huon pine, revealing historical mercury pollution.
Author provided

Toxic elements or compounds taken up by vegetation can also be released back into the local environment. Bushfires that burn trees that have accumulated mercury may release this mercury as vapour, dust or fine ash, potentially exposing people and wildlife to the adverse effects of mercury. It is estimated that bushfires release 210,000kg of mercury into the global atmosphere each year. As these fires become more frequent and ferocious in Australia, mercury concentrations in the atmosphere are likely to increase. Mercury released by bushfires can persist in the atmosphere for a year, allowing for long-distance transportation depending on wind strength and direction. This means that mining activity from over a century ago may have regional implications in the near future. The Tasmanian fires in December-February burned almost 200,000 hectares, including areas around Queenstown.

It is not currently possible to know how much mercury has been released by these recent fires. Our results simply highlight the potential risk and the need to better understand the amount of mercury taken up by vegetation that may one day be released back to the atmosphere via bushfires.

Re-release of historical mercury emissions by bushfires.
Author provided



Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


Although there is no simple way to remove bio-accumulated mercury from trees, the history of mercury contamination recorded in tree rings provides important lessons. Decreased uptake of mercury after upgrades to the Queenstown copper smelter operations demonstrates the positive impact that good management decisions can have on the amount of mercury released into the environment.

To control mercury emissions globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Its primary goal is to protect human health and the environment from the negative effects of mercury. Australia has signed the convention and but has yet to ratify it. Once ratified, Australia would be required to record sources of mercury and quantify emissions, including those from bushfires.

But to do this, the government must first be able to identify environmental reservoirs of mercury. Our study, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, shows that the long-lived Huon pine can be used to for this purpose. Further work to determine what other tree species record atmospheric emissions of mercury and other toxic elements in other regions of Australia is required.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Allen, Academic, Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

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