How we wiped out the invasive African big-headed ant from Lord Howe Island



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Not welcome: the African big headed ant might be small but it can be a pest if it gets in your home.
CSIRO, Author provided

Ben Hoffman, CSIRO

The invasive African big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) was found on Lord Howe Island in 2003 following complaints from residents about large numbers of ants in buildings.

But we’ve managed to eradicate the ant completely from the island using a targeted mapping and baiting technique than can be used against other invasive species.

Up to 15% of Lord Howe Island was thought to be infested with the ant.
CSIRO, Author provided

A major pest

The African big-headed ant is one of the world’s worst invasive species because of its ability to displace some native plants and wildlife, and adversely affect agricultural production.




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It’s also a serious domestic nuisance. People can become overwhelmed by the large number of ants living in their buildings – you can’t leave a bit of food lying around, especially pet food, or it will be covered in ants.

It remains unclear how long the ant had been on Lord Howe Island, in the Tasman Sea about 770 km northeast of Sydney, before being found. But it is likely to have been present for at least a decade.

Because of the significant threat this ant posed to the conservation integrity of the island, an eradication program was started. But on-ground work done from 2003 to 2011 had many failings and was not working.

In 2011, I was brought in to oversee the program. The last ant colony was killed in 2016, but it is only now, two years later, that we are declaring Lord Howe Island free from the ants.

No African big-headed ants have been seen on the island for two years.
CSIRO, Author provided

A super colony

The ability to eradicate this ant is largely due to its relatively unique social organisation. The queens don’t fly to new locations to start new nests – instead, they form interconnected colonies that can extend over large areas.

This makes the ant’s distribution easy to map and treat. The ant requires human assistance for long-distance transport, so the ant will only be found in predictable locations where it can be accidentally transported by people.

From 2012 to 2015, all locations on the island where the ant was likely to be present were formally inspected. Priority was given to places where an infestation was previously recorded or considered likely. The populations were mapped, and then treated using a granular bait available at shops.

In the latter years we found 16 populations covering 30 hectares. Limited by poor mapping in the early years, we estimate that the ant originally covered up to 55 hectares, roughly 15% of the island.

Stopping the spread

The widespread distribution of the ant through the populated area of the island is thought to have been aided by the movement of infested mulch and other materials from the island’s Waste Management Facility.

To prevent any more spread of the ant, movement restrictions were imposed in 2003 on the collection of green waste, building materials and other high risk items from the facility.

The baiting program used a product that contains a very low dose of insecticide that has an extremely low toxicity to terrestrial vertebrates such as pet cats and dogs, birds, lizard etc. The toxicant rapidly breaks down into harmless chemicals after exposure to light.

No negative impacts were recorded on any of the native wildlife on the island.

Importantly, the African ant usually kills most other ants and other invertebrates where it is present, so there are few invertebrates present to be affected by the bait.

Ecological recovery of the infested areas was rapid following baiting and the eradication of the African ant.

Another ant invader

One of the main challenges was getting the ground crew to correctly identify the ant.

It turns out there was a second (un-named) big-headed ant species present, also not native to the island, that created a lot of unnecessary work being conducted where the African ant wasn’t present.

CSIRO and Lord Howe Island Board team tackling the African big headed ant problem.
CSIRO, Author provided

Like numerous other exotic ant species present, this second species was of no environmental or social concern, so there are no plans to manage or eradicate it.

The protocols used in this program are essentially the same that are being used in other eradication programs against Electric ant in Cairns and Browsing ant in Darwin and Perth, because those two species also create supercolonies.




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It is highly likely that those programs will also achieve eradication of their respective species, the first instance where an ant species has been eradicated entirely from Australia.

The fire ant program in Brisbane has many similarities, but there are distinct differences in that the ants there don’t form supercolonies that are so easy to map, and the area involved is far greater.The Conversation

Ben Hoffman, Principal research scientist, CSIRO

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

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Drugs in bugs: 69 pharmaceuticals found in invertebrates living in Melbourne’s streams



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Thanks to their consumption of invertebrates, Melbourne platypus likely receive half the recommended human dose of anti-depressants every day.
Denise Illing

Erinn Richmond, Monash University and Mike Grace, Monash University

Pharmaceuticals from wastewater are making their way into aquatic invertebrates and spiders living in and next to Melbourne’s creeks, according to our study published today in Nature Communications.

We found pharmaceuticals in every bug we sampled – over 190 invertebrates – from six different streams. These included caddisfly larvae, midge larvae, snails and dragonfly larvae. We also found pharmaceuticals in spiders living in stream-side vegetation.

We found 69 different drugs in the bugs, including fluoxetine and mianserin (anti-depressants), fluconazole (an anti-fungal), and non-steroidal anti-inflamatories (NSAIDs), often used to treat arthritis.

While we don’t know how these drugs are affecting these invertebrates, we know from other studies pharmaceuticals do affect the lifecycles of other organisms.

We also calculated that animals that eat these aquatic invertebrates, such as platypus, would be receiving half the daily recommended dose of anti-depressants for humans.




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Drugs everywhere

We know wastewater is a contributing factor to pharmaceutical contamination in aquatic organisms, so we sampled from a range of streams with different wastewater inputs. These included a site just downstream of large-scale wastewater treatment facility, and areas with ageing septic systems.

Sassafrass Creek, one of the streams sampled in the study.
Erinn Richmond

We also included a stream within a national park to attempt to obtain samples we thought would be free of pharmaceuticals. We sampled aquatic invertebrates and stream-side spiders and tested them for 98 pharmaceutical compounds.

To our surprise, we found up to 69 different pharmaceuticals in aquatic invertebrates and up to 66 in riparian (streamside) spiders. Contamination was greatest downstream of the high capacity waste water treatment plant.

Moreover, every insect we sampled contained pharmaceuticals, including at the site in a national park, possibly due to septic systems in the drainage area of the stream that contribute small amounts of waste water.

The fact we detected drugs, admittedly in very low concentrations, in this seemingly pristine site suggests finding places “free” from pharmaceutical contamination may be difficult. Recent studies by other researchers detected pharmaceutical contamination in surface water in Antarctica and in national parks in the US.

We also found spiders living on the stream edge (the “riparian zone”), also contain a wide variety of pharmaceuticals in their tissues. These animals primarily consume adult insects and are an indication other animals that eat adult aquatic insects, such as birds, reptiles and bats, may also be exposed.

Spiders living in stream-side vegetation take up pharmaceuticals from the insects they eat.
Erinn Richmond

The dark side of our pharmaceutical use

We take and are prescribed pharmaceuticals to improve our quality of life. These medications are designed to be biologically active – they are meant to treat us; for example, we take paracetamol to alleviate a headache. For all the benefits drugs afford us, there is an often overlooked dark side to our extensive use of them.




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When we take a pharmaceutical, our bodies do not always use all of the drug and we excrete drug residues into our waste water and the drugs then move into our sewage system. Unfortunately, waste water treatment facilities are not always designed to, or are capable of, removing pharmaceuticals. So they’re often discharged into our streams, rivers and coastal waters.

Lead author, Erinn, sampling invertebrates in Brushby Creek.
Keralee Brown

We have known from many studies over almost two decades that the drugs we take are found in waterways around the world. There are thousands of drugs available, but very little is known about their occurrence and movement through aquatic food webs.

Our research team has previously studied the effects these pharmaceuticals have on organisms living in streams. For example, we found fluoxetine, a common anti-depressant, increased stream insect emergence (the important phase of an insects’ life where it metamorphoses from a stream dwelling larvae to an aerial adult).

We also found this antidepressant, and other drugs, alter the rates of photosynthesis in algae, the important base of stream food webs.

Happy platypus?

Platypus and trout live in or nearby the streams we studied. These animals feed almost exclusively on aquatic invertebrates. Although we did not directly sample trout or platypus, we were able to use previous studies on the feeding rates of these animals to estimate what proportion of a human daily dose of drugs they may be exposed just by eating the aquatic invertebrates we did measure in the streams we studied.

Based on these calculations, a platypus living in a creek receiving waste water could be exposed to over half of a human daily dose (per kg body weight) of antidepressants, just by eating aquatic invertebrates. Trout, too, would be exposed to these drugs, but would be exposed to a lower dose.

Studies have shown single drugs can alter the behaviour of fish, but just what consuming 69 different pharmaceutical compounds might do to a fish or platypus remains unknown and worthy of future research.

Global pharmaceutical use is increasing, with many benefits to humankind. However, our recent publication makes it clear pharmaceuticals are accumulating and moving through stream food webs and expose spiders, and likely birds, bats, fish, and platypus to a wide array of drugs. We are yet to fully understand the broader ecological consequences of this type of pharmaceutical contamination.

We know in humans, there are health risks associated with taking multiple drugs because of drug interactions. Is the same true for animals? Like so many studies, our research leaves us with many unanswered questions.

The one thing that is abundantly clear is the drugs we so frequently use are ending up in nature and are moving through food webs.

This article was co-authored by Emma Rosi, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.The Conversation

Erinn Richmond, Research Fellow, School of Chemistry, Monash University and Mike Grace, Associate Professor, Monash University

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

The Unconformity festival embraces the power and peculiarity of Tasmania’s wild west



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Tasdance’s Junjeiri Ballun – Gurul Gaureima, part of The Unconformity festival, performed Indigenous history in Queenstown’s Queen River.
The Unconformity festival

Asher Warren, University of Tasmania

Of the many festivals dotted across the island state of Tasmania, The Unconformity is particularly well named. It is an inherently unique event, responsive to the particularities of the western town of Queenstown’s unique geology, ecology and culture.

Queenstown is nestled in Tasmania’s mountainous West Coast Range, between Mt Owen and Mt Lyell, with an infamous reputation for inclement weather. And it is remote: at least three hours of winding drive from both Hobart and Launceston.

On a sunny day, the views are spectacular; some for their natural beauty, others for the demonstrable effects of over a century of mining, smelting and clearing. However, after three days of immersion in the town and the festival, I began to feel that Queenstown was somehow better evoked by the moments when the clouds hung low, only to occasionally break open, revealing unexpected and surprising views.

A central ethos of The Unconformity is the curatorial commitment to site-specific and locally engaged work. Many of the works are unique to the location and the people of Queenstown, and developed by artists through multiple visits to the town.
Note must be made of the exceptional diversity of gallery-based works, including Lucy Bleach’s enigmatic Variations on an Energetic Field and the overwhelming scale of Raymond Arnold’s survey, 100 Etchings/35 Years in Tasmania. But I was particularly struck by the use of performance within this festival, as a model for engaging with the place that is “Queenie”.

Queenstown’s bare hills were denuded by over a century of mining.
Shutterstock

The power of listening

The pedestrian bridge over the town’s Queen River became a makeshift stall for audiences wearing headphones for Tasdance’s Junjeiri Ballun – Gurul Gaureima (Shallow Water, Deep Stories). Using the banks and the river itself, the bodies of five dancers explored the Indigenous history of the area and this waterway, which mine tailings and effluent once turned silvery grey and which remains, despite the remedial work to date, stained a remarkable shade of orange.

Tasdance’s Junjeiri Ballun – Gurul Gaureima.
The Unconformity festival

Across the bridge, Prospect brought Dylan Sherridan’s deft and thoughtful engagement with sound together with Sam Routledge’s knack for engaging dramaturgical structures. Using hacked metal detectors, and again wearing headphones, prospectors walked through Passion Park, searching for sonic treasures. The dynamic score was a delight, and the uneven experience for participants (some struck it richer than others) an interesting counterpoint to the otherwise even distributions created by works for headphones.

Another work experienced with headphones, A Score to Scratch the Surface (Opening Scene) by momo doto (Tom Blake and Dominique Chen), offers a markedly different take on the roaming soundscape.

Beginning in the dress circle of the 1933 Paragon Theatre, looking out at the projection screen, we hear an assemblage of recordings taken in and around Queenstown. Curious sonic artefacts are woven with brief snippets of conversations with locals, which slip in and out. The audience of three is ushered out of the theatre, into a car, and driven on a meandering tour of the town by a local resident. These stories, like the sites on this particular tour, don’t cry out for attention, forcing the ear and the eye to search for details. It’s a subtle and meditative work, which engages deftly with diverse reflections on the value of Queenstown’s natural resources.

As artist Tom Blake explained to me, the work was built slowly, over a number of visits to the town: “We were fortunate to have a development period that provided an opportunity to visit and revisit places and people over an extended period. We wanted to avoid being a flash in the pan – dropping by to make a work, then disappearing into the night.”

A Score to Scratch the Surface gestures toward the surprising paradoxes of Queenstown. It’s a place of riches, of devastation and resilience. With the mines closed since a tragic accident in 2013, and uncertainty about their reopening, the town sits in an uneasy limbo and faces difficult decisions. The challenges of regeneration – economically, environmentally and culturally – loom large. There are no easy answers, but the festival offers an opportunity to listen, to share and to understand something of this complexity.

Lucy Bleach’s Variations On An Energetic Field (Variation 3)
The Unconformity

While not explicitly noted as a theme for the festival, the act of listening seemed to be a particular focus. This was most explicit in Jill Orr’s durational performance Listening (made in collaboration with sound artist Richie Cyngler), staged in an old limestone quarry on the edge of town. This work asked audience members to record three wishes, while Orr, with characteristically otherworldly endurance, stood still and listened as these wishes were broadcast by loudspeakers and echoed around the quarry.

In the Medical Union building, Babel, directed by Glen Murray, allowed audiences to roam freely, exploring a panoply of other languages. While a remarkably simple conceit, the experience of wandering and listening to the diverse cast of performers was surprisingly compelling.

Starting with a bang

On a grander scale, the festival opened on Friday with Tectonica, a collaboration between Ian Pidd, Martyn Coutts and Dylan Sheridan, which closed down the main intersection to host a nine-tonne rock and some “bloody big speaker stacks”. The tremendous, visceral soundscape condensed some 500 million-odd years of geological activity into an hour of epic, quadrophonic sound and, in the distance, an ominous red fissure opened up in the mountainside. Not content to lie dormant, the speakers rumbled sporadically throughout the weekend, felt and heard throughout the small town.

Tectonica a display created by artists Martyn Coutts, Ian Pidd and Dylan Sheridan.
Unconformity festival

The Falls, by Halcyon Macleod and Finegan Kruckemeyer, tells a story of young love, separation and return. It is a moving work, quite literally, as the audience dons headphones and climbs aboard a bus. The narrative of the play unfolds from a series of perspectives while journeying from one end of the Queen River – the Horsetail Falls – to the other, its confluence with the King River. It’s an ambitious and expansive work – and neatly staged – but at times the poetry of the script seemed to overextend, attempting to translate the narrative and connection to this site perhaps beyond its specifics.

An ominous red fissure opens in Tectonica.
Unconformity

Local works

For all the innovative contemporary work in this festival, and the influx of city slickers who pour in from Hobart (vying for the title of Australia’s new centre of hip) and the mainland, it would be all too easy to alienate the locals. But the festival does a remarkable job of keeping the West Coasters not only in the frame, but at the centre. While there was a palpable but subtle sense of reservation on the Friday night, by the closing Sunday the town seemed to reach a comfortable equilibrium.

Around noon on Sunday, after the ute muster took off and before the marquee football match on Queenstown’s notorious gravel oval, the bloody big speaker stacks gave a last hurrah and belted out a locally curated playlist of AC/DC’s greatest hits. An homage to the band’s 1976 performance in the town, the music slowly drew a crowd. It grew, as more joined in and danced around, and on, the rock left in the centre of the intersection.

This festival, which began as the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival, and more recently reimagined as The Unconformity, has carved out a unique position in Tasmania and in Australia’s cultural landscape. It will next run in 2020, and its growing esteem and success raise an important question about growth and sustainability. One of the key features of this festival is its scale, which allows it to balance the influx of visitors and locals; they meet, rather than being overwhelmed.

Under proud West Coaster Travis Tiddy’s direction, however, the festival will hopefully approach its growth with the same focus and thoughtful reflection on place that made the 2018 version such a memorable success.The Conversation

Asher Warren, Lecturer, University of Tasmania

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

Stringybark is tough as boots (and gave us the word ‘Eucalyptus’)



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The Eucalyptus obliqua as seen in Merthyr Park, Tasmania.
Cowirrie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Few eucalypts are as versatile, varied and valuable as messmate stringybark. It was the first eucalypt to be scientifically named, and in fact gives us the name “Eucalyptus”.

Gum trees had been seen and collected on earlier expeditions, but a specimen collected on James Cook’s third expedition to Bruny Island off the Tasmanian coast was sent to the British Museum, where the French botanist Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle named it and then published it in 1788.




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L’Heritier named the specimen Eucalyptus obliqua, and so messmate stringybark is the first named and now type specimen for all Eucalyptus species. Because of the little caps covering the buds of this specimen, the name eucalypt was derived from the Greek eu, meaning “well”, and calyptos, meaning “covered”. Meanwhile, the asymmetrical or oblique leaf base gave us the description obliqua.

The name stringybark comes from the fibrous stringy bark that grows on the trunk of the tree, but no one knows the origins of the name messmate, which is also applied to several other eucalypt species.


The Conversation, CC BY

Humming with bees

The flowers are small and white and often go unnoticed – but not by bees, which are often attracted to the trees in such large numbers that the trees seem to be humming. The fruits, or gum nuts, are also small at about 8mm across and usually occur in clusters of three, four or five. The juvenile leaves are quite large, almost heart-shaped, and up to 70mm wide and 100mm long, but the adult leaves are about 50mm wide and up to 200mm long with a sharply acute base on one side.

E. obliqua is also commonly known as messmate, stringybark, browntop, Tasmanian or Tassie oak, or browntop stringybark. It is widely distributed through southeastern Australia, growing in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and much of New South Wales, almost to the Queensland border.

It is usually a tall straight forest tree that can reach heights of 80m or more, and girths in excess of 10m. It grows in higher and wetter habitats and often grows around other eucalypts such as E. regnans, E. delegatensis, E. viminalis or E. radiata.




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The specimens that Cook’s expedition encountered on Bruny Island were huge forest trees, and there are still such specimens growing on the island today. They are well worth a visit along easily accessible tracks. Such giant specimens can also be found on the mainland in places such as the Otway Ranges. However, you can also find examples of E. obliqua growing in the coastal heaths of Victoria that are no more than a metre high and will maintain their short stature regardless of where they are grown.

Stringybark near Mountain Ash, with a canopy height of around 40m.
Pete The Poet/Flickr, CC BY-NC

A tough customer

One of the great things about messmate stringybark is its environmental resilience. The species is renowned for its adaptations to stress, particularly fire. Its thick stringy bark protects the trunk during bushfires, and under the bark are dormant (or “epicormic”) buds that allow the rapid establishment of a leafy canopy after fire or other stresses such as grazing. These buds often sprout very soon after a fire and are the first sign the forest is beginning to regenerate.

Many of these new shoots will not last very long, but usually enough will survive to reconstitute the tree’s canopy. If all the shoots fail, most specimens have a lignotuber (like a mallee root) that allows new stems and trunks to develop after very severe stress. So E. obliqua is truly a tough customer.

During the most recent ice age, Tasmania and the mainland were connected by a land bridge that subsequently disappeared under Bass Strait. The populations of E. obliqua in Victoria and Tasmania were then connected but in the 10,000 years since they have been separated by the strait, the individual trees growing on the mainland have retained a lignotuber, while those in Tasmania did not. This reflects the better growing conditions in Tasmania for messmate stringybark, and less need or stress adaptations.




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Good wood

The timber of E. obliqua is highly prized. It was used by Indigenous communities, as scars on some surviving trees indicate, and its fibrous bark could be used for making fibre and in fires. Today, it is a fine quality hardwood that can be used for building house frames, furniture making or, of course, for wonderful Tassie oak wooden floors.

It is not the densest or hardest eucalypt timber, but is hard enough to make beautiful and durable flooring that polishes to a rich honey or golden colour. Properly installed and maintained, these floors can remain in good condition for well over a century and many Australians will have fond memories of dancing on them.




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Messmate stringybark is one of the great trees of Australia for a variety of reasons. It has links to Captain Cook, is an economically important timber species, and is a great survivor in the harsh Australian environment. With its wide distribution and adaptations to fire and other stresses, it is a species likely to cope well with climate change. After all, it is as tough as boots.

Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

It’s clear why coal struggles for finance – and the government can’t change that


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The federal government has announced a raft of new measures ostensibly designed to secure energy pricing, boost investment in new “reliable” energy generation, and improve competitiveness in the retail energy market.

At a meeting of state and federal energy ministers last week, it also rejected the greenhouse emissions reductions outlined in the previous National Energy Guarantee, and proposed supporting new coal-fired power stations as part of a plan to boost investment in new electricity generation.




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One of the main reasons new coal projects do not proceed is because of the “unquantifiable” financial risk of carbon. Former Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive Oliver Yates has argued that coal-fired power generation would not be financially backable without the government providing indemnity against future carbon taxes.

He may have meant it as a reason not to proceed with coal at all, but federal energy minister Angus Taylor has signalled that he is seriously considering such a move.

In outlining his policy position, Taylor has also effectively expanded the definition of new electricity generation to include old facilities that would have been retired but may be revived with financial assistance.

Differing recommendations

The federal government says its new proposals are based on recommendations made in a July report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), aimed at ensuring affordable electricity. But there are some key differences between the report’s recommendations and the government’s plans.

The crucial one, at least as far as coal’s fortunes are concerned, is the proposal for the government to enter into contracts called “energy offtake agreements”. Under this approach, the government would agree to buy future electricity at a set price, from new generation projects that could include coal-fired electricity from either new coal plants or refitted coal plants. This, the government argues, would keep power prices in line while also providing greater investment certainty and make energy projects easier to finance.

The ACCC report did indeed recommend underwriting new power generation investments, but not with the obvious goal of propping up coal. Rather, it recommended that this support be directed to “appropriate new generation projects which meet certain criteria”, so as to reduce prices by boosting market competition.

It is hard to see how the government’s desire to artificially sustain the life of coal-fired electricity – in the face of ever-worsening economic prospects – is consistent with either the ACCC’s rationale of supporting sustainable, new generation energy projects in order to improve competition in the energy market.

Federal shadow climate change minister Mark Butler has indicated he would not support the inclusion of coal in any such agreements, and that the plan could cost taxpayers billions.

Is coal ‘new generation’ or not?

Taylor has argued that the backing and guarantees for new electricity generation could well include coal, because “it may well be that the best options we have available to us are expansions of existing coal facilities”.

But the reality, given our climate targets, is that coal can only be an option where it is supported by clean technology. And even the cleanest of “clean coal” is not on a par with renewable energy.

The latest generation of high-efficiency “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired plants are very expensive to build and run, particularly if they include carbon capture and storage – which they would certainly need to. If all of Australia’s existing coal plants were replaced with ultra-supercritical ones that did not include expensive carbon capture and storage technology, emissions would fall by between 26 million and 40 million tonnes by 2030. But Australia’s climate target calls for a reduction of 160 million tonnes by that deadline.

On the other hand, with carbon capture and storage, the emissions reductions would be much greater, but the electricity could cost up to three times the current wholesale price. This would mean the government would be effectively subsidising the production of electricity that is more expensive and more environmentally damaging than renewables.




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This raises the ultimate question of why – given Australia’s emissions targets and its responsibilities under the Paris Agreement – the government is prepared to subsidise coal-fired electricity at all.

There is no doubt that climate change is an important public concern. The attempt to characterise Taylor as “minister for getting power prices down” belies the fact that energy policy is not just about price and reliability, but about broader social and environmental welfare too. Electricity absolutely must be sustainable as well as affordable.

This is what energy security means today. Carbon-intensive energy production is neither environmentally sustainable nor financially viable. It is that simple. That is precisely why the financial risks of carbon are so high.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.

Explainer: what any country can and can’t do in Antarctica, in the name of science



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In Antarctica, many countries want a piece of the action.
Flickr/Christopher Michel, CC BY

Julia Jabour, University of Tasmania

Antarctica is owned by no one, but there are plenty of countries interested in this frozen island continent at the bottom of the Earth.

While there are some regulations on who can do what there, scientific research has no definition in Antarctic law. So any research by a country conducted in or about Antarctica can be interpreted as legitimate Antarctic science.




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There are 30 countries – including Australia – operating bases and ships, and flying aircraft to and from runways across the continent.

Russia and China have increased their presence in Antarctica over the past decade, with China now reportedly interested in building its first permanent airfield.

It is not surprising there is significant interest in who is doing what, where – especially if countries ramp up their investment in Antarctic infrastructure with new stations, ships or runways.

Their actions might raise eyebrows and fuel speculation. But the freedom of countries to behave autonomously is guided by the laws that apply to this sovereign-neutral continent.

Treaties and signatories

There are 12 original signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, including Australia, and they do not have to prove their commitment to the treaty since they wrote the rules.

Another 41 countries have signed on since 1959, and they do need to prove commitment.

Non-signatory countries, such as Iran or Indonesia, are freed from many of these legal obligations.

Until such time as the Antarctic Treaty has been designated customary international law applicable to all states by a high authority (such as the International Court of Justice), non-signatories can essentially do what they like in Antarctica.

The appliance of science

Autonomous freedom of activity by signatory countries is legitimised through the fact that science is the currency of credibility in Antarctica. This is important for two reasons:

  1. scientific research has legal priority
  2. new signatories can become decision-makers when they do science.

The “freedom of scientific investigation” is preserved in Article II of the Antarctic Treaty. It directs that signatories to the treaty can conduct scientific research of any kind anywhere in the Antarctic, without anybody else’s permission.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) coordinates Antarctic research, but being a member is not a prerequisite for doing Antarctic science.

Further, the treaty outlines the process for new signatories (that is, other than the original 12) to achieve Consultative Party (decision-making) status.

Decisions are made by consensus (that is, everyone agrees or there is no formal objection). So every country’s “vote” counts and new countries aspire to gain a seat at the table to further their national agendas.

They become Consultative Parties by conducting “substantial scientific research activity” (Article IX.2) and when this has been accomplished to the satisfaction of the other decision-makers, they will be accepted.

Piggy backing

Demonstrating interest in Antarctic science was initially interpreted as building a base or dispatching an expedition (Article IX.2). But after the adoption of the environmental protocol to the treaty in 1991, this was re-interpreted.

Parties were encouraged (but not legally bound) to consider piggy-backing on existing national scientific expeditions of other countries, and to share stations and other resources such as ships and aircraft where possible.

Currently there is only one jointly operated scientific base – Concordia, occupied by both France and Italy. The Novolazarevskaya airfield is a joint operation coordinated by Russia.

This encouragement was designed to reduce the potential for expansion of the footprint of human activities.

In 2017 the Consultative Parties adopted revised guidelines for how to become a decision maker. These outline new rules on a concept that has never been articulated publicly in an Antarctic forum before – evaluating the quality of scientific research.

This could put the brakes on the rapid addition of new signatories to the table.

There are limits

Although there is freedom to conduct science anywhere in Antarctica, what any country cannot do is lay claim to territory on the basis of its research efforts.

The treaty expressly excludes new claims or the extension of existing claims. Signatories that conduct research, and support those endeavours by building a base and infrastructure such as an airstrip, cannot use those actions as a basis of a claim while the treaty is in force.

Seven countries claim Antarctic territory: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Two others – the United States and the Russian Federation – have reserved their rights to claim any or all of Antarctica in the future.

These paper claims are acknowledged by Article IV of the treaty. But its artful craftsmanship prevents conflict over the claims and reservations during the life of the Treaty – which incidentally has neither an expiry nor a future review date.

Because the Article II freedoms permit research to be undertaken anywhere on the continent, the borders delineating claims become irrelevant to all but the claimant.

A party has an option of recognising a claim, or not, and does not need anyone’s permission to build a station or send an expedition. This means that the claimants have very limited capacity to exercise sovereignty in their territory. This effectively reduces their power to that of jurisdiction only over their own nationals.




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How a trip to Antarctica became a real-life experiment in decision-making


The sting in the tail is that conducting substantial scientific research activity in Antarctica – including the building of support infrastructure – is the pathway new states must take to achieve decision-making status.

This is only constrained by the legal requirement to undertake an environmental impact assessment of any activity prior to its commencement.

Irrespective of whether the activity’s proponent complies with best practice environmental evaluation, under the rules, no other party can veto that activity.

Essentially, any country – whether a party to the treaty or not – can do whatever they like in Antarctica.The Conversation

Julia Jabour, Leader, Ocean and Antarctic Governance Research Program, University of Tasmania

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

The new electric vehicle highway is a welcome gear shift, but other countries are still streets ahead



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Motorists and governments have each been waiting for the other to take the plunge on electric cars.
Shutterstock.com

Iftekhar Ahmad, Edith Cowan University

Perhaps buoyed by a 67% increase in the sale of electric cars in Australia last year – albeit coming off a low base – the federal government this month announced a A$6 million funding injection for a network of ultra-fast electric vehicle recharging stations.

Eighteen stations will be located no more than 200km apart on the main highway linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. A further three stations will be built near Perth. All will be powered by renewable energy.

The network will address the issue of “range anxiety” – the fear that your car will run out of puff before reaching its destination – that particularly concerns motorists in a country as big as Australia. If your electric vehicle needs charging every 200km or so, that’s a lot of stopping between Sydney and Melbourne – and what if you can’t find a charging station?

The newest electric vehicles can cover up to 594km on a single charge. That improvement, together with the new charging network, will do much to address range anxiety. But as is often the case, the devil may be in the detail.




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Australia’s ‘electric car revolution’ won’t happen automatically


We don’t yet know how many fast-charging ports will be available at each station, but the number of ports is often limited due to high infrastructure costs. Even a fast charge takes about 15 minutes, so queues are likely. If a 10-minute wait at your local petrol station irritates you, imagine waiting an hour or more at an electric recharge station.

But the new network is undoubtedly a step forward, and such progress is necessary to keep electric-curious prospective motorists in the game. Of that 67% increase in electric vehicles sales mentioned earlier, the vast majority are business fleet vehicles. Private car buyers are still slow to take the plunge.

Australia is in the midst of a classic chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to growing the electric vehicle market, with the result that we’re well behind where we should be. Buyers want to see more infrastructure and perhaps some government-funded incentives (just look what a A$2,000 subsidy scheme did for the LPG market). But governments need to be confident that people will definitely buy electric cars before taking the plunge.

The power you’re supplying… it’s electrifying

Now that there’s some movement afoot from both parties, there’s a third player to consider: the electricity utilities.

If most electric vehicle owners plug in their vehicle when they get home from work of an evening – just as many of us let our phone run down during the day and then throw it on the kitchen-bench charger when we walk in the door – this could pose significant problems for the electricity grid.

According to one British estimate, as few as six cars charging at the same time on a street at peak times could lead to local brownouts (a drop in voltage supply). That might sound extreme, but it’s fair to say that daily electric car charging collectively shortens the life of electricity infrastructure such as transformers.

For this reason, my colleagues and I have researched smart charging strategies aimed at preventing the peak load period for electric car charging from overlapping with the residential peak.

The issue is even more acute when using domestic renewable energy, because of the “duck curve” – which shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and peak renewable energy production. As the name suggests, the graph is shaped like a duck.




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The duck curve can be smoothed out with the help of power storage technologies such as batteries, and by behavioural change on the part of consumers (such as temporal load shifting).

The right network

Our model can also help electric vehicle owners find a nearby charging station with the least estimated waiting time and cost, in real time. This also opens up a new avenue for the electric utilities, which can work with charging service providers to adjust the prices at different charging locations so as to to distribute the load evenly across the charging network, and reduce waiting times into the bargain.

Unfortunately the utility companies don’t seem particularly interested yet, perhaps because it’s not an immediate problem. But it soon will be if the take-up of electric vehicles continues on its current trajectory.




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Negative charge: why is Australia so slow at adopting electric cars?


It’s unfortunate that Australia is lagging behind other developed countries when it comes to electric vehicle adoption. But this can work in our favour if we learn from other countries and take a more systematic approach. A lot can be achieved through proper planning.

In Australia we’ll need to see continued and better marketing of both the advantages of reducing emissions (electric vehicles are essential for the long-term decarbonisation of the electricity and transport sectors), as well as clearer cost-benefit analysis of the economic savings that can be made through personal and government investment in electric vehicles.The Conversation

Iftekhar Ahmad, Associate Professor, Edith Cowan University

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