The report, which investigated pollutants including fine particles, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, also highlights our deeply inadequate mercury emissions regulations. In New South Wales the mercury emissions limit is 666 times the US limits, and in Victoria there is no specific mercury limit at all.
This is particularly timely, given that yesterday the Minamata Convention, a United Nations treaty limiting the production and use of mercury, entered into force. Coal-fired power stations and some metal manufacturing are major sources of mercury in our atmosphere, and Australia’s per capita mercury emissions are roughly double the global average.
Australia’s mercury pollution occurs despite existing regulatory controls, partly because State and Territory laws limit the concentration of mercury in emissions to air […] but there are few incentives to reduce the absolute level of current emissions and releases over time.
Mercury can also enter the atmosphere when biomass is burned (either naturally or by people), but electricity generation and non-ferrous (without iron) metal manufacturing are the major sources of mercury to air in Australia. Electricity generation accounted for 2.8 tonnes of the roughly 18 tonnes emitted in 2015-16.
Mercury in the food web
Mercury is a global pollutant: no matter where it’s emitted, it spreads easily around the world through the atmosphere. In its vaporised form, mercury is largely inert, although inhaling large quantities carries serious health risks. But the health problems really start when mercury enters the food web.
I’ve been involved in research that investigates how mercury moves from the air into the food web of the Southern Ocean. The key is Antartica’s sea ice. Sea salt contains bromine, which builds up on the ice over winter. In spring, when the sun returns, large amounts of bromine is released to the atmosphere and causes dramatically named “bromine explosion events”.
Essentially, very reactive bromine oxide is formed, which then reacts with the elemental mercury in the air. The mercury is then deposited onto the sea ice and ocean, where microbes interact with it, returning some to the atmosphere and methylating the rest.
Once mercury is methylated it can bioaccumulate, and moves up the food chain to apex predators such as tuna – and thence to humans.
As noted by the Australian government in its final impact statement for the Minamata Convention:
Mercury can cause a range of adverse health impacts which include; cognitive impairment (mild mental retardation), permanent damage to the central nervous system, kidney and heart disease, infertility, and respiratory, digestive and immune problems. It is strongly advised that pregnant women, infants, and children in particular avoid exposure.
A major 2009 study estimated that reducing global mercury emissions would carry an economic benefit of between US$1.8 billion and US$2.22 billion (in 2005 dollars). Since then, the US, the European Union and China have begun using the best available technology to reduce their mercury emissions, but Australia remains far behind.
But it doesn’t have to be. Methods like sulfur scrubbing, which remove fine particles and sulfur dioxide, also can capture mercury. Simply limiting sulfur pollutants of our power stations can dramatically reduce mercury levels.
Ratifying the Minamata Convention will mean the federal government must create a plan to reduce our mercury emissions, with significant health and economic benefits. And because mercury travels around the world, action from Australia wouldn’t just help our region: it would be for the global good.
In an earlier version of this article the standfirst referenced a 2006 study stating Australia is the fifth largest global emitter of mercury. Australia is now 16th globally.
This case is the first in the world to pursue a bank over failing to report climate change risks. However, it’s building on a trend of similar actions against energy companies in the United States and United Kingdom.
The CBA case was filed on August 8, 2017 by advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of two longstanding Commonwealth Bank shareholders. The case argues that climate change creates material financial risks to the bank, its business and customers, and they failed in their duty to disclose those risks to investors.
This represents an important shift. Conventionally, climate change has been treated by reporting companies merely as a matter of corporate social responsibility; now it’s affecting the financial bottom line.
What do banks need to disclose?
When banks invest in projects or lend money to businesses, they have an obligation to investigate and report to shareholders potential problems that may prevent financial success. (Opening a resort in a war zone, for example, is not an attractive proposition.)
However, banks may now have to take into account the risks posed by climate change. Australia’s top four banks are heavily involved in fossil-fuel intensive projects, but as the world moves towards renewable energy those projects may begin to look dubious.
As the G20’s Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures recently reported, climate risks can be physical (for instance, when extreme weather events affect property or business operations) or transition risks (the effect of new laws and policies designed to mitigate climate change, or market changes as economies transition to renewable and low-emission technology).
For example, restrictions on coal mining may result in these assets being “stranded,” meaning they become liabilities rather than assets on company balance sheets. Similarly, the rise of renewable energy may reduce the life span, and consequently the value, of conventional power generation assets.
Companies who rely on the exploitation of fossil fuels face increasing transition risks. So too do the banks that lend money to, and invest in, these projects. It is these types of risks that are at issue in the case against CBA.
What did the CBA know about climate risk?
The claim filed by the CBA shareholders alleges the bank has contravened two central provisions of the Corporations Act 2001:
companies must include a financial report within the annual report which gives a “true and fair” view of its financial position and performance, and
companies must include a director’s report that allows shareholders to make an “informed assessment” of the company’s operations, financial position, business strategies and prospects.
The shareholders argue that the CBA knew – or ought to have known – that climate-related risks could seriously disrupt the bank’s performance. Therefore, investors should have been told the CBA’s strategies for managing those risks so they could make an informed decision about their investment.
While the CBA case represents the first time worldwide that a financial institution has been sued for misleading disclosure of climate risk, the litigation builds on a broader global trend. There have been a number of recent legal actions in the United States, seeking to enforce corporate risk disclosure obligations in relation to climate change:
Energy giant Exxon Mobile is currently under investigation by the Attorneys General of New York and California over the company’s disclosure practices. At the same time, an ongoing shareholder class action alleges that Exxon Mobile failed to disclose internal reports about the risks climate change posed to their oil and gas reserves, and valued those assets artificially high.
Similar pathways are being pursued in the UK, where regulatory complaints have been made about the failure of major oil and gas companies SOCO International and Cairn Energy to disclose climate-related risks, as required by law.
In this context, the CBA case represents a widening of litigation options to include banks, as well as energy companies. It is also the first attempt in Australia to use the courts to clarify how public listed companies should disclose climate risks in their annual reports.
Potential for more litigation
This global trend suggests more companies are likely to face these kinds of lawsuits in the future. Eminent barrister Noel Hutley noted in October 2016 that many prominent Australian companies, including banks that lend to major fossil fuel businesses, are not adequately disclosing climate change risks.
Hutley predicted that it’s likely only a matter of time before we see a company director sued for failing to perceive or react to a forseeable climate-related risk. The CBA case is the first step towards such litigation.
This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
Michael Mann is well known for his classic “hockey stick” work on global warming, for the attacks he has long endured from climate denialists, and for the good fight of communicating the environmental and political realities of climate change.
Mann’s work, including his recent book The Madhouse Effect, has helped me, as a dual US-Australian citizen, think about the similarities and differences between the US and Australia as we respond to what has been called the climate change denial machine.
In both countries, the denialists and distortionists have undermined public knowledge, public policy, new economic development opportunities, and the very value of the environment. Climate policy is being built upon alternative facts, fake news, outright lies, PR spin and industry-written talking points.
How we can expose and counter this denialist machine? To partly lay out the task, I will discuss three points of contrast between the US and Australia.
There is a key difference between the two countries’ political cultures. As much as the denialists have determined Australian energy and climate policy, they have not been as successful, yet, at undermining deep-seeded respect in Australian culture for the common good, for science, for expertise and knowledge.
I left the US at the start of 2011. Living in Arizona, I had experienced the full weight of the racism, the white nationalism, the anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-fact atmosphere that has since spread all the way to the White House.
I used to tell people I left because Arizona had simply become anti-enlightenment. Folks really didn’t get it, until now, when it is the attitude that rules the country.
Shortly after I arrived in Australia, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, led an attack on the work of economist Ross Garnaut. Abbott slammed Garnaut’s 2011 report as anti-democratic. The report had simply pointed out the cost of climate inaction and the viability of putting a price on carbon.
Later, Abbott doubled down and dismissed the quality of Australian economists as a whole. Other denialists went further – Garnaut was called a fascist and was subject to the kind of attacks Mann is well familiar with.
Surprisingly to me, a good part of the public seemed appalled by Abbott’s trashing of an academic. This was seen an attack not just on a carbon price, or a policy recommendation, but on science and knowledge as a whole.
And there was the chief scientist on TV, defending the academy – and that’s when I learned Australia actually had a chief scientist, to whom the media paid attention. This is not something we had in Arizona.
Abbott wound up backing down from the worst of the criticism. The whole series of events illustrated to me, a new Australian, that there is a strong cultural norm here that supports science, that respects expertise and that understands that real knowledge should be used to inform good policy in the public interest.
It wasn’t a one-time event. Last year, when the government fired climate scientists at CSIRO, there was another huge public backlash. The government had to step back a bit, both on the actual science to be done and the radical agenda change away from science for the public good.
And again, when the government wanted to support the dubious work of Bjorn Lomborg, that caused an outcry from both the university sector and the public. Even though the government wound up paying more than A$600,000 on what The Australian called his “vanity book project”, they couldn’t import him and plant him at any Australian university.
As Mann says, the main issue in implementing good, sound climate policy is no longer simply the science. The main issue is the cultural understanding of, and respect for the role of science in informing political decisions.
My second point of comparison is not quite as positive.
The problem in Australia is less a culture turning against the Enlightenment, and more the direct political power and influence of the carbon industry. This is most evident not just in our poor emissions and climate policies, but also in the fact the Australian government is hell-bent on sabotaging an entire industrial sector.
I honestly do not understand how the sabotage of the renewables industry in Australia – an all-out attack on a clearly promising and innovative sector – is not treated as a form of industrial treason.
We have had a set of politicians, under the influence of a dying industry, undermining one of the most promising areas of our own economy. They do so for the sole benefit of carbon diggers, at the expense of the rest of Australia, of the next generation and of the planet.
And the justification for this is all based on falsehoods and lies, straight from the PR team of the carbon industry. We hear arguments for energy security, energy poverty and clean coal; we hear that renewables undermine the reliability of the grid. It’s all absolute bullshit.
But, again, even here I think there is some hope. We have seen, over the last few years, an incredible coalition grow – one focused on the end of carbon mining, on protecting communities, on creating real jobs, and on supporting renewables.
Once-unthinkable coalitions of farmers and Aboriginal communities are fighting new mines, new attacks on sacred and fertile land and water.
We have intensive household investment in rooftop solar – and as the feed-in tariffs are undermined, those folks will increasingly invest in battery storage. And we’re finally seeing states move in this direction, with increasing development of utility-scale renewable and storage projects. As hard as the federal government and its allies resist, renewables are growing and the public supports this – even conservative voters.
This industry will be the innovator, the job creator, the future of this country’s energy system. That is a movement – a transformation – that now seems inevitable even in the face of the carbon industry, its political allies and their outright attacks on innovation.
There is one other important point to make in comparing the US and Australia – and maybe it is the most dire.
All of this talk, about the science, about the power of the denialist machine, about post-truth and the sabotage of renewables, is all about one side of the climate issue: emissions.
The other side, which is crucial to us here in Australia, is how we adapt to the climate change the denialist machine has baked into our future. This nice stable period of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene, in which humanity has evolved, built our cities, our infrastructure, our supply chains, the expectations of our everyday lives – is over.
Climate change means change, and Australia is already facing it in more severe ways than the US.
So adaptation is the next battle, and it must be just. We know who benefits from denialism and the sabotage of renewables. And it is pretty straightforward who will be harmed most if we don’t plan for coming change. We know who dies in heatwaves, for example – the poor, the elderly, those who live alone, those without resources.
This is happening right here. The Rockefeller-funded Resilient Sydney project found that the number one chronic stress is increasing health services demand, which is crucial to resilience in Western Sydney during heatwaves. If we don’t attend to that, vulnerable people will continue to die every time it heats up.
Australia needs to face up to adaptation planning on a large scale – rather than cut funds to the good work already being done. We need to focus on giving those most vulnerable to climate change a fair go by looking after their needs first.
One promising step is that the Sydney Environment Institute, with colleagues in Planetary Health and Public Health at the University of Sydney, are establishing a new research hub for NSW OEH on the Health and Social Impacts of Climate Change.
We have also partnered with Resilient Sydney to examine the actual experience of communities in shock events – the impacts on people and how policy responses can be improved. This work is all about adapting to the complex impacts of climate change in fair and just ways.
Overall, then, yes, Australia has industry-led denialists creating a madhouse effect, just as Mann writes about in the US.
But my hope is that we can use our broad political culture of respect for science and for the fair go to resist denialism and the coal profiteers, to implement a post-carbon energy transformation, and adapt fairly and justly to the inevitable changes the denial industry has locked in here.
What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.
Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.
Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.
Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.
At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.
One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.
The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.
Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.
As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.
What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.
Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.
The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.
At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).
This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.
Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.
The underlying issue is the fundamental change in energy solutions. As I pointed out in my previous column, we are moving away from investment by governments and large businesses in big power stations and centralised supply, and towards a distributed, diversified and more complex energy system. As a result, there is a growing focus on “behind the meter” technologies that save, store or produce energy.
What this means is that anyone who does not have access to capital, or is uninformed, disempowered or passive risks being disadvantaged – unless governments act.
The reality is that energy-efficient appliances and buildings, rooftop solar, and increasingly energy storage, are cost-effective. They save households money through energy savings, improved health, and improved performance in comparison with buying grid electricity or gas. But if you can’t buy them, you can’t benefit.
In the past, financial institutions loaned money to governments or big businesses to build power stations and gas supply systems. Now we need mechanisms to give all households and businesses access to loans to fund the new energy system.
Households that cannot meet commercial borrowing criteria, or are disempowered – such as tenants, those under financial stress, or those who are disengaged for other reasons – need help.
Governments have plenty of options.
They can require landlords to upgrade buildings and fixed appliances, or make it attractive for them to do so. Or a bit of both.
They can help the supply chain that upgrades buildings and supplies appliances to do this better, and at lower cost.
They can facilitate the use of emerging technologies and apps to identify faulty and inefficient appliances, then fund their replacement. Repayments can potentially be made using the resulting savings.
They can ban the sale of inefficient appliances by making mandatory performance standards more stringent and widening their coverage.
They can help appliance manufacturers make their products more efficient, and ensure that everyone who buys them know how efficient they are.
To expand on the last suggestion, at present only major household white goods, televisions and computer monitors are required to carry energy labels. If you are buying a commercial fridge, pizza oven, cooker, or stereo system, you are flying blind.
The Finkel Review made it clear that the energy industry will not lead on this. It clearly recommends that energy efficiency is a job for governments, and that they need to accelerate action.
It’s time for governments to get serious about helping everyone to join the energy transition, not just the most affluent.