Open data shows lightning, not arson, was the likely cause of most Victorian bushfires last summer



Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Dianne Cook, Monash University

As last summer’s horrific bushfires raged, so too did debate about what caused them. Despite the prolonged drought and ever worsening climate change, some people sought to blame the fires largely on arson.

Federal Coalition MPs were among those pushing the arsonist claim. And on Twitter, a fierce hashtag war broke out: “#ClimateEmergency” vs “#ArsonEmergency”.

Fire authorities rejected the arson claims, saying most fires were thought to be caused by lightning.

We dug into open data resources to learn more about the causes of last summer’s bushfires in Victoria, and further test the arson claim. Our analysis suggests 82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson.

Lightning in the sky
Lightning, not arson, caused most Victorian bushfires last summer.
Twitter

What we did

We started with hotspots data taken from the Himawari-8 satellite, which shows heat source locations over time and space, in almost real time. We omitted hotspots unlikely to be bushfires, and used a type of data mining called “spatiotemporal clustering” – where time dimension is introduced to geographic data – to estimate ignition time and location.

We supplemented this with data from other sources: temperature, moisture, rainfall, wind, sun exposure, fuel load, as well as distance to camp sites, roads and Country Fire Authority (CFA) stations.




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Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) holds historical data on bushfire ignition from 2000 to the 2018-19 summer. The forensic research required to determine fire cause is laborious, and remotely sensed data from satellites may be useful and more immediate.

By training our model on the historical data, we can more immediately predict causes of last summer’s fires detected from satellite data. (Note: even though we were analysing events in the past, we use the term “predict” because authorities have not released official data.)

DELWP’s data attributes 41% of fires to lightning, 17% to arson, 34% to accidents and 7% to hazard reduction or back burning which escaped containment lines (which our analysis refers to as burning off).

Causes of fires from 2000-2019. Lightning is most common cause. The number of fires is increasing, and this is mostly due to accidents.
Own work

To make predictions for the 2019-20 bushfires, we needed an accurate model for causes in the historical data. We trained the model to predict one of four causes – lightning, accident, arson, burning off – using a machine learning algorithm.

The model performed well on the historical data: 75% overall accuracy, 90% accurate on lightning, 78% for accidents, and 54% for arson (which was mostly confused with accident, as would make sense).

The most important contributors to distinguishing between lightning and arson (or accident) ignition were distance to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and average wind speed.

As might be expected, smaller distances to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and higher than average winds, meant the fire was most likely the result of arson or accident. In the case of longer distances, where bush would have been largely inaccessible to the public, lightning was predicted to be the cause.

Spatial distribution of causes of fires from 2000-2019, and predictions for 2019-2020 season.
Own work

What we found

Our model predicted that 82% of Victoria’s fires in the summer of 2019-2020 were due to lightning. Most fires were located in densely vegetated areas inaccessible by road – similar to the historical locations. (The percentage is double that in the historical data, though, probably because the satellite hotspot data can see fire ignitions in locations inaccessible to fire experts).

All fires in February 2020 were predicted to be due to lightning. Accident and arson were commonly predicted causes in March, and early in the season. Reassuringly, ignition due to burning off was predicted primarily in October 2019, prior to the fire restrictions.

Spatio-temporal distribution of cause predictions for 2019-2020 season. Reassuringly, fires due to burning off primarily occurred in October, prior to fire restrictions. February fires were all predicted to be due to lightning.
Own work

Quicker fire ignition information

Our analysis used open-data and open-source software, and could be applied to fires elsewhere in Australia.

This analysis shows how we can quickly predict causes of bushfires, using satellite data combined with other information. It could reduce the work of fire forensics teams, and provide more complete fire ignition data in future.

The code used for the analysis can be found here. Explore the historical fire data, predictions for 2019-2020 fires, and a fire risk map for Victoria using this app.


This analysis is based on thesis research by Monash University Honours student Weihao Li. She was supervised by the author, and former Principal Inventive Scientist at AT&T Labs Research, Emily Dodwell. The Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers supported Emily’s travel to Australia to start this project. The full analysis is available here.

The Conversation

Dianne Cook, Professor of Business Analytics, Monash University

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

Victoria’s electric vehicle tax and the theory of the second-best



Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

One of the central ideas in tax policy is the principle of the second-best.

Economic theory gives us a good idea of what an ideal tax system would look like, given our objectives. But in real life, things fall short.

It might be thought that piecemeal reform, moving some taxes closer to the ideal, would be a step in the right direction.

But it needn’t be, if other taxes aren’t moved.

Here’s an example. Imagine that the goods and services tax exempted health products, both mainstream and alternative.

An ideal GST wouldn’t exempt health products (though the government might provide subsidised access to some products, as it does through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme).

Imagine is administratively possible to remove the exemption for mainstream health products, which would bring it closer to the ideal.

Now imagine that for jurisdictional reasons it isn’t as easy to remove the exemption for alternative products.

Second-best can make things worse

Removing the exemption for mainstream products, which can be done straight away, seems like a good idea because it would be one step closer to removing all exemptions.

But if it is actually done straight away, without waiting the removal of the exemption on alternative products, it would have unintended (and perhaps dangerous) consequences.

People would be encouraged to switch from mainstream to alternative health products.




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The same sort of issues arise with the plans to charge electric vehicles per kilometre driven in order to treat them more like conventionally-powered vehicles (which are taxed per kilometre driven through fuel excise).

South Australia and NSW have announced plans to do so. Victoria has announced details, and will introduce the charge from July 2021.

It will charge electric and other zero emission vehicles 2.5 cents per kilometre travelled and plug-in hybrids at cents per kilometre travelled.

Victoria justifies the charge this way:

Australian drivers pay fuel excise when they fill up their vehicle with petrol, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas. Zero and low emission vehicle owners currently pay little or no fuel excise but still use our roads.

Conventionally-powered car typically pay about 4.2 cents per kilometre through fuel excise and fuel-efficient cars about 2.1 cents.

This means Victoria will be charging electric vehicles as much or more than fuel-efficient vehicles, even though (at least when charged through rooftop solar) they won’t contribute to global warming.

Not only that, but conventionally-powered cars generate health and other costs through air and noise pollution, for which they are not charged.

What first-best would look like

The ideal system would include charges to cover the cost of

  • building and maintaining the roads

  • congestion

  • the injury, death and damage caused by car crashes

  • the health and other damage caused by air and noise pollution

  • the global price of carbon emissions

Right now we charge through fuel taxes, registration fees and tolls (mostly paid to private firms, but this is irrelevant in economic terms) along with a variety of minor fees.

However, because fuel excise was frozen by the Howard government in 2001 (and only began increasing again in 2014) the revenue from it is barely enough to cover the cost of constructing and maintaining roads and grossly insufficient to cover the broader costs of conventional vehicle use.

Conventional vehicles get things for free

Although there is much debate about how carbon can or should be priced, any serious attempt to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is likely to require a carbon price of $100/tonne, which corresponds to 23 cents a litre.

Estimates for local air pollution costs (including the cost of deaths from cancer and asthma) start at 10 cents a litre. Noise pollution costs are extra.

Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy generate hardly of these costs.

Put simply, just as much (or more than) the owners of electric vehicles, the owners of conventional vehicles pay a mere fraction of what they should.

Second-best would be worse

Increasing what the owners of electric-powered vehicles pay is a second-best solution that might move us further away from first best.

It might discourage the takeup of vehicles that impose fewer costs on society.

To end on a positive note, the 1997 decisions of the High Court that effectively prohibited states from taxing petrol forced the Commonwealth to collect the tax and pass it on to the states, exacerbating the problems of an unbalanced federal tax system.




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Wrong way, go back: a proposed new tax on electric vehicles is a bad idea


There appears to be no constitutional impediment to a tax on kilometres travelled (and nor a privacy impediment, Victoria will implement it by asking for odometer readings once a year rather than monitoring where cars travel).

It would help redress the tax imbalance.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Victoria just gave 2 billion litres of water back to Indigenous people. Here’s what that means for the rest of Australia



GLaWAC

Troy McDonald, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

For the first time in Victoria’s history, the state government has handed back water to traditional owners, giving them rights to a river system they have managed sustainably for thousands of years.

The two billion litres of water returned to the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) this month means traditional owners can now determine how and where water is used for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.

The decision recognises that water rights are crucial for Indigenous people to restore customs, protect their culture, become economically independent and heal Country.

The hand-back to Gunaikurnai people is the crucial first step in a bigger, statewide process of recognising Indigenous people’s deep connection to water. It also serves as an example to the rest of Australia, where Indigenous rights to water are grossly inadequate.

Water from the river has
Gunaikurnai woman Alice Pepper on the banks of the Mitchell River. Water from the river has been handed back to traditional owners.
GLaWAC

Water’s rightful home

Gunaikurnai people hold native title over much of Gippsland, from the mountains to the sea.

The water hand-back comes ten years since this native title was secured, and since Gunaikurnai people entered into the state’s first Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement with the government. Under this agreement, GLaWAC is a joint manager, with Parks Victoria, of ten parks and reserves in Gippsland, including the Mitchell River National Park.

Victorian water minister Lisa Neville said the hand-back was a key milestone in her government’s 2016 Aboriginal Water Policy. That plan aims to:

  • recognise Aboriginal values and objectives of water
  • include Aboriginal values and traditional ecological knowledge in water planning
  • support Aboriginal access to water for economic development
  • build capacity to increase Aboriginal participation in water management.

GLaWAC engages closely with government agencies that control how water is shared and used and these partnerships are highly valued. But it is only through owning water that traditional owners can really control how water is used to care for Country and for people.

For the moment, the water will be staying in the river. Its use will be decided after discussions between GLaWAC and Gunaikurnai community members.

The Mitchell River
Indigenous poeple must own water to control how they care for Country.
GLaWAC

Barriers to water ownership

In 2016, the Victorian government committed A$5 million to a plan to increase Aboriginal access to water rights, including funding for traditional owners to develop feasibility plans to support water-based businesses.

There are significant barriers to reallocating water to Victoria’s traditional owners. Water is expensive to buy, hold and use. Annual fees and charges can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars a year in some locations.

Using water to care for Country supports well-being, the environment and other water uses, including tourism and recreation. But, unlike using water for irrigation, there may not be any direct economic return from a water hand-back. This means water recovery for traditional owners must include ways to cover fees and charges.




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Victoria’s water entitlement framework is also consumption-based – it is designed for water to be taken out of rivers, not left in. This can make it hard for traditional owners to leave water in the river for the benefit of the environment. So water entitlements and rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners want to manage water.

Lastly, many traditional owners lack access to land where they can use the water. Or they may wish to use water in areas that, under natural conditions, would be watered when rivers flood, but which are now disconnected from the waterway. To help overcome this, traditional owners should be given access to Crown land, including joint management of parks. GLaWAC’s partnership agreements are a good example of how this might happen in future.

GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton.
GLaWAC water team Uncle Lloyd Hood and Tim Paton. Water rules should be changed to reflect how traditional owners manage water.
GLaWAC

Change is possible

While significant barriers to water access remain, this hand-back shows how real water outcomes for traditional owners can be achieved when there is political will and ministerial support.

The water is part of six billion litres on the Mitchell River identified as unallocated, meaning no-one yet has rights over it. The remaining four billion litres will be made available on the open market, for use by irrigators or other industries. It can be extracted only during the colder months from July 1 to October 31.

The extraction and use of the water by Gunaikurnai people will be linked to specific locations, and the licence is up for renewal every 15 years. GLaWAC will work with state agency Southern Rural Water to ensure that the licence conditions match the water plans of traditional owners.

This step is crucial. There have been many instances in other states where traditional owners have obtained water, but been unable to use it due to barriers on how it can be used, and annual fees and charges.

Mitchell River scene
Water extraction form the Mitchell River will be limited to colder months.
GLaWAC

Overcoming a history of injustice

Traditional owners across Australia never ceded their rights to water. Yet Aboriginal people own less than 1% of the nation’s water rights. Righting this wrong is the “unfinished business” of national water reform.

Even when political commitments are made, there has been little progress. For example, in 2018 the federal government committed A$40 million to acquire water rights for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin, but no purchase of water rights has yet occurred.

This woeful and unjust situation is also reflected in Victoria. Before the Gunaikurnai hand-back, only a tiny handful of Aboriginal-owned organisations and one traditional owner, Taungurung, owned water rights in Victoria, and the volumes were small. In these cases, water recovery was not a formal hand-back from the state, and included a donation from a farmer.

Across Australia, Aboriginal people are watching the Victorian water reform process with great interest. The water returned to Gunaikurnai people builds momentum, and increases pressure on governments across Australia to take water justice seriously.




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The Conversation


Troy McDonald, Chairman of Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Knowledge and Erin O’Donnell, Early Career Academic Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne

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

Think taxing electric vehicle use is a backward step? Here’s why it’s an important policy advance


Jago Dodson, RMIT University and Tiebei (Terry) Li, RMIT University

The South Australian and Victorian governments have announced, and New South Wales is considering, road user charges on electric vehicles. This policy has drawn scorn from environmental advocates and motor vehicle lobbyists who fear it will slow the uptake of less-polluting vehicles. But, from a longer-term transport policy perspective, a distance-based road user charge on electric vehicles is an important step forward.

Superficially, a charge on electric vehicle use seems misguided. Road sector emissions are the worst contributors to climate change. Electric vehicles powered by clean energy offer the promise of near-zero emissions.




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As electric vehicle and renewable energy costs decline we can expect a shift to full electrification of urban vehicles over the next 30 years. Surely accelerating this transition is an urgent climate task?

The downside lies not in the carbon benefits of these vehicles, but in their use as private passenger transport in congested urban areas and the costs this use imposes on cities. As renewable energy becomes cheaper, the marginal cost of every kilometre driven is likely to decline. As driving becomes cheaper, more of it is likely to occur.

More driving means more congestion. Inevitably, that increases demand for increasingly expensive road projects, such as Sydney’s WestConnex, or Melbourne’s Westgate Tunnel and North East Link. It certainly will run against the recognition in urban plans such as Plan Melbourne that we must shift to alternative transport modes.

If we don’t have a pricing regime that accounts for the cost of car use in cities, the transition to electric vehicles is likely to work against the wider goals of urban and transport policy.




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How would distance-based charging work?

Many urban transport policy advocates have called for distance-based road-user charging to be imposed on all vehicles in cities. This sounds great in theory, but in practice is difficult for technical and political reasons of privacy and surveillance. Such concerns will diminish over time as cars increasingly incorporate automated telematics that necessarily track their movement.

Distance-based road-user charging efficiently matches road use to its costs – of infrastructure, congestion, noise, pollution and deaths. It improves on fuel excise, which drivers can nearly completely evade by using a highly efficient vehicle. It also goes beyond tolling to fund major roads, which typically apply only to specific links.

Second, road-user charging can be varied in response to demand that exceeds road capacities. Higher rates can be applied at peak times to ensure free-flowing traffic and shift travel to other times and modes. Various taxation reviews, including the 2009 Henry Taxation Review and Productivity Commission reports, have promoted such policies.




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Exactly how big would the disincentive be?

Would imposing such charges on electric vehicles retard their uptake?

Based on our work with ABS Census journey-to-work data, in Melbourne the average daily round-trip commuting distance by car is about 25 kilometres. The proposed Victorian charge is 2.5 cents per kilometre. Thus, in Melbourne the average daily commuter’s road user charge is likely to be 63 cents – $3.13 for a typical five-day working week. Over a 48-week working year that totals A$150, hardly a large sum for most people.

By comparison, a commuter in a conventional vehicle with the average current fuel efficiency of 10.9 L/100km will use about 2.73 litres of fuel on which they pay 42.3 cents per litre in fuel excise. That’s about $1.15 a day, or $5.75 a week.

The average tax saving for electric vehicles compared to conventional vehicles will be about 2.1 cents per kilometre. Electric vehicle drivers will be taxed about 53 cents a day, or $2.64 a week, less for their car work travel. They’ll be about $126 a year better off.

Commuting trips make up about 25% of car use, so electric car users’ overall savings are likely to be even greater.

It is difficult to see how such savings on excise tax are a disincentive to electric vehicle uptake. Fears of a “great big new tax”, as the Australia Institute puts it, seem unfounded, as are concerns that road-user charges would “slam the brakes on sales”.

Let’s be clear, the big barrier is the upfront cost of electric vehicles, about $10,000 more than their conventional equivalents. Advocates for electric vehicles should focus on that difference, and the failures in Australian government policy, not state road-user charges.




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Why taxing actual road use matters

It needs to be recognised that, with lower marginal costs, electric vehicles are likely to be used more than conventional cars. That would increase pressure on urban road capacity. So while the new road-user charge of 2.5 cents per kilometre is flat across the time of day or the route driven, this will likely need to change.

Distance-based road-user charges have been politically controversial. Imposing a tiny charge on a minority vehicle type is an expedient way of introducing a needed reform. Fewer than 1.8% of vehicles in Australia are currently electric or hybrid. But as all cars become electric, distance-based road charges will become an increasingly powerful policy tool.

Thanks to advancing telematics, transport planners will eventually be able to impose variable road-user charging by time of day and route, similar to ride-hailing companies’ “surge” pricing. We could then apply novel approaches such as a cap-and-trade system. A city could allocate its motorists an annual kilometres quota, which is then traded to create a market for excess urban road use.

The private car could also be integrated into mobility-as-a-service models.

Road-user charges could be regressive for people with few alternatives to the car. But telematic tracking could allow for lower charges for less affluent households in dispersed outer suburbs with few other options.

Beyond fuel, private cars have high environmental costs in steel, plastic, aluminium, glass and rubber use. And about one-third of our increasingly valuable urban space is given over to cars in the form of roads and parking.




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To reduce this demand on resources and space, car use could be priced to shift travel to, and fund, more sustainable and city-friendly modes such as public transport, walking and cycling. We could even price the car out of cities completely. The most environmentally sustainable car, after all, is no car at all.The Conversation

Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University and Tiebei (Terry) Li, Research Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

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

In a land of ancient giants, these small oddball seals once called Australia home


Artwork by Peter Trusler, Author provided

James Patrick Rule, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Monash University

When most of us think of the prehistoric past, we envision a world of bizarre, often fearsome giants. From dinosaurs to mammoths and even penguins, life then seemed larger than life today.

Millions of years ago in Australia, giant goannas, kangaroos and diprotodontids (wombat relatives) roamed the landscape. The seas teemed with gargantuan predators such as the infamous “megalodon” shark and so-called giant killer sperm whales.

Fossils from this lost world can be found in sandstone rocks, between five million and six million years old, at Beaumaris – a bayside suburb in Melbourne and one of Australia’s most significant urban fossil sites. Here, fossils of ancient marine animals often wash ashore, eroded out of rocks by the tides.

However, some of these fossils are now revealing “jumbo” was not the only size for extinct animals. Our team’s research, published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, reports nine new seal fossils from Beaumaris, which we suspect came from nine different individuals.

The findings paint a picture of a relatively small animal, making its way through a world of giants.




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More than doubling the seal fossil record

Melburnians have been collecting fossils from Beaumaris for more than 100 years. Yet it continues to produce remarkable and scientifically important finds.

A beach foreshore in Melbourne.
The fossils we studied were found on the foreshore of Beaumaris, Melbourne.
Erich Fitzgerald, Author provided

This includes extremely rare fossils of animals such as seals. Previously, scientists had studied only one seal fossil from this site.

The nine new fossils detailed in our research were collected and donated to Museums Victoria by local scientists and citizen scientists over the past 88 years. They have more than doubled the known fossil record of seals in Australia.

These fossils represent the oldest evidence of seals in Australia and were identified as “true seals”, a group mostly known from the Arctic and Antarctic. True seals belong to a different group to Australia’s fur seals and sea lions (eared seals), which only arrived in the region about 500,000 years ago.

Seal fossil specimens
In total, we found nine seal fossil specimens from Beaumaris, from potentially nine different individuals.
Erich Fitzgerald and James Rule, Author provided

In particular, one of the fossils we identified is a monachine (a southern true seal). Today, these are represented by animals such as leopard or elephant seals in the Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic, to which they are related.

Size estimates found the Beaumaris monachines to have been quite small, at only 1.7 metres long. This is similar to the size of today’s Northern Hemisphere seals such as the harbour seal.

However, the Beaumaris seal’s living relatives are much larger – usually 3m long or more. Modern leopard seals can grow to more than 3m long, while elephant seals can reach up to a gigantic 5m in length.

Most fossil whales found at Beaumaris are also smaller than their living counterparts.

This is the opposite trend to many other animal groups with fossils found there, including some sharks and seabirds, wherein the extinct animals were much larger than those alive today.

The extinct Beaumaris seal was much smaller than its living relatives today.
Art by Peter Trusler, Author provided

An uncertain future for marine life

Why is finding small seals at Beaumaris important?

Five million years ago, before the ice ages, the average annual temperature in southeast Australia was about 2–4°C warmer than it is today, with sea levels up to 25m higher.

These warmer oceans supported a greater diversity of marine megafauna than today, with longer but less energy-efficient food chains. These chains only had room for a few large top predators, such as megalodon sharks. And this may have limited the size of other top predators, including seals.

This chart shows the history of seals’ size evolution in Australia, compared to large sharks.
Peter Trusler and James Rule, Author provided

This is important. It suggests the large size of Antarctic seals living in the Southern Ocean today is due to colder oceans with more energy-efficient food chains, in which more food is available for marine animals.

If climate change continues to warm the oceans, food chains may once again start to become less energy efficient, resulting in a loss of the resources today’s large seals rely on for survival.

The discovery of seal fossils at Beaumaris has implications for not only unlocking the past, but also for contextualising the future.

It shows the biodiversity and ecology of marine megafauna off southern Australia originated during the long-term transition from a warmer to colder world – a process that only recently began changing trajectory.

To this day, the fossil site at Beaumaris continues to reveal scientifically important finds, thanks to members of the public working with scientists from Museums Victoria.




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The Conversation


James Patrick Rule, Palaeontology PhD Candidate, Monash University; Erich Fitzgerald, Senior Curator, Vertebrate Palaeontology, Museums Victoria, and Justin W. Adams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Monash University

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

340,000 Melburnians have little or no parkland within 5km of their home


Ali Lakhani, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, Griffith University

Under the stage 4 restrictions enforced throughout metropolitan Melbourne, residents can exercise for one hour each day, within five kilometres of their home.

While such restrictions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they can potentially harm people’s physical and mental well-being.

Parks are great for exercising, getting fresh air, and getting close to nature, all of which boost our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, some Melburnians have little or no access to parkland within their permitted 5km radius, meaning they are likely to miss out on these benefits.

Space to breathe

Our map analysis looked at mesh blocks, the smallest geographical area defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, typically containing 30-60 homes.

For each mesh block zoned as residential, we tallied up the total area zoned as parkland within a 5-kilometre radius. The results are shown in the interactive map below, in which darker greens indicate a larger area of available parkland (very light green: 0-4.5 sq km; light green: 4.5-9.2 sq km; mid-green: 9.2-13.2 sq km; dark green: 13.2-19 sq km; very dark green: more than 19 sq km).

.embed-container {position: relative; padding-bottom: 80%; height: 0; max-width: 100%;} .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container iframe{position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%;} small{position: absolute; z-index: 40; bottom: 0; margin-bottom: -15px;}

Of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks currently under stage 4 restrictions, 3,496 have between 0 and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising.

On average, residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton have the least parkland within a 5km radius, whereas those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.

Haves and have-nots

Our findings confirm that some Melburnians are more fortunate than others in their ability to access urban green space during stage 4 lockdown.

For those less fortunate, the state government should consider replacing the blanket 5km rule with a special provision that allows people to travel outside this radius if they would otherwise be unable to access a park.




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Bespoke rules could also help others, such as residents with a disability or older Melburnians who use a mobility aid. While many members of these groups might have plentiful parks within their 5km radius, they may have problems accessing them. Issues can include uneven pavements, kerbs without ramps, or steeply sloped paths.

The state government could help these people by auditing public spaces to establish where structural barriers exist, and then work to remedy them. Alternatively, once again, the blanket 5km rule could be amended with a special provision that allows older Melburnians, or those with a disability, to travel outside their 5km radius to get to the most suitable nearby park.The Conversation

Ali Lakhani, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, Lecturer, Health Information Management, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Professor, The Hopkins Centre, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, PhD Researcher, Urban Studies and Planning, Griffith University

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

These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world’s great parks



Adrian Marshall, Author provided

Adrian Marshall, University of Melbourne

Volcanic plains stretching from Melbourne’s west to the South Australian border were once home to native grasslands strewn with wildflowers and a vast diversity of animals. Today, this grassland ecosystem is critically endangered.

To protect the last remaining large-scale patch, the Victorian government proposed the “Western Grassland Reserve”. But in June, a damning Auditor General’s report revealed this plan has fallen flat.




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EcoCheck: Victoria’s flower-strewn western plains could be swamped by development


With weeds choking the native grasses and many animals now locally extinct, the deteriorating reserve represents a failure of imagination.

Debate has raged about funding, timelines and bureaucratic processes. But what the debate is missing is a new vision, with funding and management models, for the Western Grassland Reserve, that recognises its deep culture and history, and its potential to be one of the great parks of the world.

Failing our flora and fauna

The Victorian government’s plan was to acquire 15,000 hectares of mostly farmland beyond Melbourne’s outer limit between 2010 and 2020. The money is coming from offsets, where developers are, in effect, charged a fee to be allowed to destroy federally protected remnant grassland within the urban growth boundary.

But the Auditor General’s report found a scant 10% of Western Grassland Reserve land has been purchased, with little offset money remaining for further purchases.

In addition, delays in purchasing land are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of rising land prices. A predicted substantial downturn in development further exposes the flaws of a funding model inadequate to its conservation task.




Read more:
Can we offset biodiversity losses?


We urgently need to investigate new funding and management models that embrace the reserve as a cultural landscape for people.

A quintessential Australian experience

As a patchwork of farms overlaid on traditional Wathaurong land, the Western Grassland Reserve could be shaped into one of the greatest large parks of the world – a cultural landscape capturing a quintessential Australian experience, speaking of Indigenous culture, our colonial past, and who we are today.

A well-designed reserve could show us the history of grassland pastoralism that gave rise to the saying “Australia rides on the sheep’s back”. It could immerse us in Dorothea MacKellar’s “land of sweeping plains”. It can give us back the immense flowered landscape that so stunned the explorer Thomas Mitchell, he coined the phrase “Australia Felix”, which means “happy Australia”.

And it could show us something of the profound knowledge Indigenous people hold. Few know this, but the Wurdi Youang stone circle near Little River – though as yet undated – may well be one of the oldest known astronomical structures in the world, far predating Stonehenge or the pyramids.

Dark boulders on grasslands represent the Wurdi Youang stone circle
Part of the Wurdi Youang stone circle, that may be one of the oldest astronomical structures in the world.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Imagine its potential

Imagine a picnic under a spreading gum beside an old farm dam. There’s a bluestone dairy repurposed to fine dining, a grand farmhouse for overnight stays, bike trails, and a series of regional playgrounds emphasising natureplay and adventure for all abilities.

With the right conservation, ephemeral wetlands and creeklines could be bursting with birdlife and ready to explore, and even working farms retained for school visits.

Nearby, at Mount Rothwell, a fenced conservation area contains almost extinct small marsupials – bandicoots, potoroos and apex predator quolls. These were once commonplace, and still a night visit is an unforgettable experience, yet one few Melburnians have enjoyed.

A small brown bird with a spotted neck walks on the ground
The critically endangered plains wanderer, the world’s most unique bird, once lived in these grasslands.
Shutterstock

Innovation in management

Part of a bigger picture for the Western Grassland Reserve is a new management model beyond a poorly-funded Parks Victoria asset being managed solely for environmental values.

Options abound for innovation and leadership here. We can create a well-coordinated network of different management approaches and protection levels with traditional publicly owned national parks, conservation reserves, private land covenants, private protected areas and Indigenous protected areas.

Funding for management also needs rethinking. Market-driven models can ensure performance-based outcomes. For example, farmers can be paid to graze sustainably. And a new model leveraging resources and expertise could encourage the involvement of NGOs, traditional owners and community groups, species-specific teams, the Royal Botanic Gardens, with research input by universities.

Built-in commercial seed production, which is fundamental to restoring degraded areas, can kick-start the native seed industry in a win–win for commerce and the environment.

These sorts of alternative management and funding have been achieved in the south of France, within the Carmague and the stony plains of Le Crau. There, 10,000 hectares of grassland and wetland complexes are managed by broad alliance of NGOs and conservation agencies across defence land, national parks and private protected areas.

And in the USA, the largest tallgrass prairie in the country is managed by Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy, with federal and philanthropic input. It also has an educational program that brings in more than 100 school and public events a year.

So what are we waiting for? The Great Ocean Road was built during the Great Depression, let the Western Grassland Reserve be a visionary project for these difficult times under COVID-19.The Conversation

Adrian Marshall, Academic, Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, University of Melbourne

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

The Leadbeater’s possum finally had its day in court. It may change the future of logging in Australia



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Julia Dehm, La Trobe University

The Federal Court last week ruled that VicForests – a timber company owned by the Victorian government – breached environmental laws when they razed the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the vulnerable greater glider.

Environmentalists welcomed the judge’s decision, which sets an important legal precedent.

Under so-called “regional forest agreements”, a number of logging operations around Australia are exempt from federal environment laws. This effectively puts logging interests above those of threatened species. The court ruling narrows these exemptions and provides an opportunity to create stronger forestry laws.

A legal loophole

Since 1971, the Leadbeater’s possum has been the faunal emblem of Victoria. But only about 1,200 adults are left in the wild, almost exclusively in the Central Highlands region.




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Official conservation advice identifies the greatest threat to the species as habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the collapse of hollow-bearing trees, wildfire, logging and climate change.

Australia’s federal environmental laws require environmental impact assessment of any action likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance, such as a listed threatened species.

But thanks to exemptions under regional forest agreements, logging has continued in the Central Highlands – even in the aftermath of this summer’s devastating bushfires.

So what are regional forest agreements?

Regional forest agreements were designed as a response to the so-called “forest wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995, after logging trucks blockaded parliament, then Prime Minister Paul Keating offered a deal to the states: the federal government would accredit state forest management systems, and in return federal law would no longer apply to logging operations. Drawing up regional forest agreements between state and federal governments achieved this.




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Between 1997 and 2001, ten different agreements were signed, covering logging regions in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. These agreements were for 20 years, which means many have now either expired and been renewed or extended, or are about to expire.

The agreements are supposed to satisfy a number of conditions. This includes that they’re based on an assessment of environmental and social values of forest areas. They should also provide for the ecologically sustainable management and use of forested areas, and the long-term stability of forest and forest industries.

But conservation experts argue the agreements have failed both to deliver certainty to forestry operations or to protect environmental values and ensure the conservation of biodiversity.

History of the court case

The legal proceedings against VicForests were initiated in 2017 by Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum, a small community group which relied on crowd funding to cover legal costs.

Initially, the group argued Victoria’s failure to undertake a required review of the Central Highlands regional forest agreements every five years meant the usual exemption to federal environment laws should not apply.




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But in early 2018, Justice Mortimer ruled against this. But she also rejected VicForests’ arguments that any operation in an area covered by a regional forest agreement is automatically exempt from federal law.

She ruled that the logging operations will only be exempt from federal law if they comply with Victoria’s accredited system of forest management. This includes the requirements for threatened species, as specified in official action and management plans.

In response to this ruling, Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum reformulated their claim.

They argued logging operations in 66 coupes (small areas of forest harvested in one operation) didn’t meet these requirements for threatened species, and so the exemption from federal laws didn’t apply.

The court ruling

In her ruling last week, the judge found VicForests unlawfully logged 26 coupes home to the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider, and that logging a scheduled 41 other sections would put them at risk.

The court found the company breached a number of aspects of the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014. This code is part of the Victorian regulatory system accredited by the regional forest agreement.

In particular, VicForests had not, as required, applied the “precautionary principle” in planning and conducting logging operations in coupes containing the greater glider.




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Nor had VicForests developed a comprehensive forest survey system, or engaged in a careful evaluation of management options to avoid dangers to these threatened species.

These failures meant the logging operations were not covered by the exemption from federal laws. As such, the court found VicForests had breached federal environmental law, as the logging operation had, or were likely to have, a significant impact on the two threatened species.

What now?

This case will have clear implications for logging operations governed by regional forest agreements.

In fact, the timber industry has called for state and federal governments to urgently respond to the case, and clarify the future of regional forest agreements.




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Arguably, logging operations conducted under a regional forest agreement can no longer rely on the exemption from federal environmental laws if those operations don’t comply with the state regulatory frameworks accredited under the regional forest agreements, especially provisions that protect threatened species.

And while making logging operations subject to federal environmental laws is a good thing, it’s not enough. Federal environmental laws are weak and don’t prevent species extinctions.

In any case, the result is the perfect opportunity for state and federal governments to rethink forest management. That means properly taking into account the ongoing threats to threatened species from climate change, wildfires and habitat loss.The Conversation

Julia Dehm, Lecturer, La Trobe University

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

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



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Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




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As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




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Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




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Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




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Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




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Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




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And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

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

Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Amid coronavirus chaos, the Victorian government announced its decision earlier this week to lift the ban on onshore gas exploration, but also to make the temporary state-wide ban on fracking permanent.

This decision was made three years after an investigation found gas reserves in the state could be extracted without any environmental impacts, and new laws will be introduced to parliament for drilling to start in July next year.




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The state government first introduced the moratorium (temporary ban) on onshore conventional and unconventional gas production in 2017, enshrined in the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990. It effectively made it an offence to either conduct coal seam gas exploration or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) until June 2020.

The ban was originally imposed amid strong concerns about the environmental, climate and social impacts of onshore gas expansion. But lifting the ban to allow conventional gas exploration while banning fracking and unconventional gas (coal seam gas), doesn’t remove these concerns.

The fracking ban isn’t so permanent

The new laws seek to do two things: lift the ban on conventional onshore gas production, and to entrench a ban on fracking and coal seam gas exploration into the state constitution.

The government has stated it wants to make it difficult for future governments to remove the fracking ban. But this is highly unlikely to be legally effective. Unlike the federal constitution, the Victorian constitution is an ordinary act, and so it can be amended by another legal act.

The only way entrenching an amendment in the state constitution so that it is permanent and unchangeable is if it relates to the operation and procedure of parliament. And fracking does not do this.

This raises the spectre of a future government removing the fracking ban in line with an accelerating onshore gas framework.

Conventional vs unconventional gas

The main difference between conventional gas and unconventional gas (coal seam gas) lies in their geology.

Conventional gas can generally be extracted without the need to frack, as gas can move to the surface through gas wells. To release unconventional gas, particularly shale gas, fracking is always required.




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Fracking technologies risk water quality from ground disturbances, spills, the release of chemicals and other fluids, and the underground migration of gases and chemicals.

So lifting the conventional onshore gas ban while keeping the fracking ban will mean less risk to the environment. But extracting conventional gas is still risky.

Greenhouse gas leaks

Extracting conventional gas risks fugitive emissions. This refers to greenhouse gases, such as methane, that can escape into the atmosphere during mining fossil fuels, such as from equipment leaks, deliberate or accidental venting, or from gas flaring.

Precise measurements of the fugitive emissions from onshore conventional gas production are difficult to predict, but their effect on climate change is alarming.

The latest estimates indicate fugitive emissions account for approximately 6% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. Fugitive emissions also have about 27 times the greenhouse harming potential of carbon dioxide.

In 2017, the Australian Gas Industry argued well managed sites produce little fugitive emissions, and poorly managed sites were responsible for 75% of fugitive emissions.

This means any expansion of onshore conventional gas must be accompanied by strict management and regulation. But there’s no industry-wide code of practice in Victoria focused on reducing this emissions risk.

Increasing annual emissions

Even in the unlikely scenario of zero or limited fugitive emissions, expanding conventional gas exploration will still add to Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed laws follow the conclusions of a three-year study that reviewed the climate, environmental, economic and social impacts of gas exploration in Victoria.

The report suggested a slight increase in absolute annualised greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would be proportionately increased by lifting the ban.

It also suggested expanding gas development would contribute between only 0.1% and 0.2% of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and that this wouldn’t affect Victoria’s 2050 net-zero target.

But 0.1% to 0.2% still amounts to releasing an additional 122,000 to 329,000 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent into the atmosphere.

What’s more, this assessment completely ignores emissions released through increased gas usage within the community. Globally, CO₂ emissions from natural gas use rose almost 200 million metric tons in 2019 and were responsible for two-thirds of the global emissions increase.

What it means for the community

The report predicts 242 jobs, A$312 million in gross regional product and A$43 million in royalties for Victoria. But overall, gas prices in the east coast market won’t change.




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The additional 128-830 petajoules (a joule is a measure of thermal energy and a petajoule is a million billion joules) that is potentially capable of being produced by lifting the moratorium will not be enough to address the forecast shortfall.

For the communities around the gas exploration sites, the report indicates the social impact of lifting the moratorium would be manageable.

The report indicates that 80% of the south-west and Gippsland communities – from more than 800 engagements with industry, farmers, local school students, and environmental community groups – either supported or tolerated onshore conventional gas development if noise or disturbances were appropriately addressed through regulation. But industry wide codes of behaviour are yet to be implemented.




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At what cost?

Lifting the ban on onshore conventional gas in Victoria comes at a time when the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is profoundly important.

Climate change is accelerating. While gas may be an important resource as we transition to renewable energy, accelerating its production, particularly in the absence of stringent regulatory controls, comes at a very high price.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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