Australia’s states have been forced to go it alone on renewable energy, but it’s a risky strategy



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Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Several Australian states are going it alone on the the energy transition. The policies adopted by New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and others represent major departures from the existing national approach, and run counter to the neoliberal principles underpinning the current system.

Most notably, the NSW Coalition government announced its electricity infrastructure roadmap. The government says by 2030, the policy will enable A$32 billion in private sector investment, and bring 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity online. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of large-scale wind and solar installed in the National Electricity Market to date.

The states were forced to act on renewables after the federal government effectively vacated the policy space. The NSW law has been widely hailed as a victory for the clean energy transition, but also represents a return to the centrally planned system of decades past. In fact, it may well signal the breakup of the National Electricity Market as we know it today.

This presents risks and challenges which, if not managed carefully, may result in white elephants and higher electricity bills for consumers.

Power lines
NSW’s policy is shaking up the national electricity market.
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A very brief history of the National Electricity Market

Before the 1990s, electricity supply was fundamentally understood as a state responsibility. State-owned companies were tasked with generating, distributing and supplying electricity.

But in the 1990s, things changed, for several reasons. First, the cost of electricity supply was rising at a concerning rate. Second, neoliberalism began to dominate economic reform in Australia and internationally. Governments saw their jobs less as providing services (such as electricity), and more as promoting markets and competition to make systems, such as electricity supply, more efficient.

Also in the 1990s, two key inquiries – the Productivity Commission’s report into energy generation and distribution, and the Hilmer inquiry into national competition policy – identified issues in the electricity industry. These included wasteful overinvestment, largely driven by the political imperatives of keeping the lights on at all costs, and creating jobs in specific locations and electorates.




Read more:
The National Electricity Market has served its purpose – it’s time to move on


A new, reformed system, the National Electricity Market, began operating in 1998. It included all states and territories except Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In this new system, market logic – rather than central planners and bureaucrats – would decide the the location, timing and type of new energy generation investment. Private firms would supply electricity to consumers using price signals and contract markets to guide decisions.

Key to this new system was a set of highly prescriptive rules, and a process to develop them. This culminated in the Australian Energy Market Agreement and the establishment of three national energy market institutions we have today:

  • Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), which develops the rules
  • Australian Energy Regulator (AER), which enforces the rules
  • Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which operates the market and is supposed to follow the rules.

This market structure, and strict separation of powers and functions, was partly to isolate policy and investments from the political whims of the day.

A coal fires power station
The new system was designed to give certainty to private-sector energy investors.
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Market breakdown

The NSW government legislation is the latest, and perhaps most significant, in a string of policies to reject the old national market approach. Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood described it as “the most extreme intervention we have seen to date, and moves even more closely to a centrally planned energy system and away from a market approach, than anything else I have seen to date”.

NSW is not alone here. In Victoria, the Andrews government is building the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest battery at Geelong, under a new law that sits outside the national framework. And government this month also announced a A$550 million budget plan to create six renewable energy hubs, and also bring another 600 megawatts of renewable energy generation online.

In recent years Queensland introduced a third state-owned electricity generator, CleanCo, and South Australia built its battery and peaking generators outside the national market framework.

Such interventions are not limited to the states. The federal government is building the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme. It has threatened to build a 1,000MW gas generator, and has established a scheme to underwrite energy investments. And the Energy Security Board has the power to make rules outside the regular process, which it used most recently to tighten the standards around energy reliability.




Read more:
NSW has joined China, South Korea and Japan as climate leaders. Now it’s time for the rest of Australia to follow


The breakdown can largely be sheeted home to one factor: a lack of climate policy at a national level. This has left the states with little option than to manage the energy transition, and climate action, on their own.

The NSW policy will undoubtedly affect projects already in the pipeline. Following the announcement, both AGL and Energy Australia put the brakes on battery and gas projects in the state.

And the Australian Energy Council, which represents major electricity retailers, expressed “concern about its impact on the functioning of an increasingly interconnected National Electricity Market and the complexity it will certainly add to investment decisions”.

Angus Taylor
Angus Taylor says the NSW plan may drive up energy prices.
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Energy market 2.0?

It’s hard to argue against a democratically elected state government pursuing what is within its constitutional remit – particularly given the federal failure on climate policy. But existing institutions and frameworks are not equipped to govern that kind of system.

So if the states do continue to go it alone, we need a new national accord which clarifies the roles and responsibilities of each government. That would ensure we don’t repeat mistakes of the past, and in particular excessive over investment for which consumers foot the bill.




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Explainer: what is the electricity transmission system, and why does it need fixing?


The Conversation


Dylan McConnell, Research Fellow at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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.




Read more:
Australia has an ugly legacy of denying water rights to Aboriginal people. Not much has changed


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.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


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.




Read more:
Transport is letting Australia down in the race to cut emissions


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.




Read more:
Cars rule as coronavirus shakes up travel trends in our cities


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.




Read more:
Road user charging belongs on the political agenda as the best answer for congestion management


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.




Read more:
Electric car sales tripled last year. Here’s what we can do to keep them growing


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.




Read more:
Freeing up the huge areas set aside for parking can transform our cities


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.

Not just hot air: turning Sydney’s wastewater into green gas could be a climate boon



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Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland

Biomethane technology is no longer on the backburner in Australia after an announcement this week that gas from Sydney’s Malabar wastewater plant will be used to power up to 24,000 homes.

Biomethane, also known as renewable natural gas, is produced when bacteria break down organic material such as human waste.

The demonstration project is the first of its kind in Australia. But many may soon follow: New South Wales’ gas pipelines are reportedly close to more than 30,000 terajoules (TJs) of potential biogas, enough to supply 1.4 million homes.

Critics say the project will do little to dent Australia’s greenhouse emissions. But if deployed at scale, gas captured from wastewater can help decarbonise our gas grid and bolster energy supplies. The trial represents the chance to demonstrate an internationally proven technology on Australian soil.

pipeline at beach
The project would turn Sydney’s sewage into a renewable gas.
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What’s the project all about?

Biomethane is a clean form of biogas. Biogas is about 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other contaminants. Turning biogas into biomethane requires technology that scrubs out the contaminants – a process called upgrading.

The resulting biomethane is 98% methane. While methane produces CO₂ when burned at the point of use, biomethane is considered “zero emissions” – it does not add to greenhouse gas emissions. This is because:

  • it captures methane produced from anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms break down organic material. This methane would otherwise have been released to the atmosphere

  • it is used in place of fossil fuels, displacing those CO₂ emissions.

Biomethane can also produce negative emissions if the CO₂ produced from upgrading it is used in other processes, such as industry and manufacturing.

Biomethane is indistinguishable from natural gas, so can be used in existing gas infrastructure.




Read more:
Biogas: smells like a solution to our energy and waste problems


The Malabar project, in southeast Sydney, is a joint venture between gas infrastructure giant Jemena and utility company Sydney Water. The A$13.8 million trial is partly funded by the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Sydney Water, which runs the Malabar wastewater plant, will install gas-purifying equipment at the site. Biogas produced from sewage sludge will be cleaned and upgraded – removing contaminants such as CO₂ – then injected into Jemena’s gas pipelines.

Sydney Water will initially supply 95TJ of biomethane a year from early 2022, equivalent to the gas demand of about 13,300 homes. Production is expected to scale up to 200TJ a year.

Two women look over the Malabar plant
The project involves cleaning and upgrading biogas from the Malabar Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Sydney Water

Biomethane: the benefits and challenges for Australia

A report by the International Energy Agency earlier this year said biogas and biomethane could cover 20% of global natural gas demand while reducing greenhouse emissions.

As well as creating zero-emissions energy from wastewater, biomethane can be produced from waste created by agriculture and food production, and from methane released at landfill sites.

The industry is a potential economic opportunity for regional areas, and would generate skilled jobs in planning, engineering, operating and maintenance of biogas and biomethane plants.

Methane emitted from organic waste at facilities such as Malabar is 28 times more potent than CO₂. So using it to replace fossil-fuel natural gas is a win for the environment.




Read more:
Emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide – are rising dangerously


It’s also a win for Jemena, and all energy users. Many of Jemena’s gas customers, such as the City of Sydney, want to decarbonise their existing energy supplies. Some say they will stop using gas if renewable alternatives are not found. Jemena calculates losing these customers would lose it A$2.1 million each year by 2050, and ultimately, lead to higher costs for remaining customers.

The challenge for Australia will be the large scale roll out of biomethane. Historically, this phase has been a costly exercise for renewable technologies entering the market.

A woman cooking with gas
Biomethane will be injected into the existing gas network and delivered to homes.
Shutterstock

The global picture

Worldwide, the top biomethane-producers include Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and the United States.

The international market for biomethane is growing. Global clean energy policies, such as the European Green Deal, will help create extra demand for biomethane. The largest opportunities lie in the Asia-Pacific region, where natural gas consumption and imports have grown rapidly in recent years.

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world on biomethane use. But more broadly, it does have a biogas sector, comprising than 240 plants associated with landfill gas power units and wastewater treatment.

In Australia, biogas is already used to produce electricity and heat. The step to grid injection is sensible, given the logistics of injecting biomethane into existing gas infrastructure works well overseas. But the industry needs government support.

Last year, a landmark report into biogas opportunities for Australia put potential production at 103 terawatt hours. This is equivalent to almost 9% of Australia’s total energy consumption, and comparable to current biogas production in Germany.

The distribution of reported operational biogas upgrading units in the IEA Bioenergy Task 37-member countries.

Current use of biogas in Australia.

A clean way to a gas-led recovery

While the scale of the Malabar project will only reduce emissions in a small way initially, the trial will bring renewable gas into the Australia’s renewable energy family. Industry group Bioenergy Australia is now working to ensure gas standards and specifications are understood, to safeguard its smooth and safe introduction into the energy mix.

The Morrison government has been spruiking a gas-led recovery from the COVID-19 recession, which it says would make energy more affordable for families and businesses and support jobs. Using greenhouse gases produced by wastewater in Australia’s biggest city is an important – and green – first step.




Read more:
‘A dose of reality’: Morrison government’s new $1.9 billion techno-fix for climate change is a small step


The Conversation


Bernadette McCabe, Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland

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

Drones, detection dogs, poo spotting: what’s the best way to conduct Australia’s Great Koala Count



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Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Deakin University

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley this week announced A$2 million for a national audit of Australia’s koalas, as part of an A$18 million package to protect the vulnerable species.

The funding might seem like a lot – and, truth be told, it is more than most threatened species receive. But the national distribution of koalas is vast, so the funding equates to about A$1.40 to survey a square kilometre. That means the way koalas are counted in the audit must be carefully considered.

Koalas are notoriously difficult to detect, and counts so far have been fairly unreliable. That can make it hard to get an accurate picture of how koalas are faring, and to know where intensive conservation effort is needed – especially after devastating events such as last summer’s bushfires.

Methods for counting koalas range from the traditional – people at ground level looking up into the trees – to the high-tech, such as heat-seeking drones. So let’s look at each method, and how we can best get a handle on Australia’s koala numbers.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley holding a koala
Environment Minister Sussan Ley has pledged $2 million for a national koala count.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

Why we need to know koala numbers

Gathering data about species distribution and population size is crucial, because governments use it to assess a species’ status and decide what protection it needs.

In announcing the funding, Ley said the new audit aims to fill data gaps, identify where koala habitat can be expanded, and establish an annual monitoring program.




Read more:
Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection


So far, population estimates for koalas at the state and national level are rare and highly uncertain. For example, the last national koala count in 2012 estimated 33,000-153,000 in Queensland, 14,000–73,000 in NSW and 96,000-378,000 in the southern states.

This uncertainty can make it hard to detect changes in population trends quickly enough to do something about the threat, such as by limiting development or logging. However, the new audit can use methods not available in 2012, which should help with accuracy.

Three koalas in trees
To date, estimates of koala numbers have been highly uncertain.
Shutterstock

So how do you actually count koalas?

Finding a koala can be difficult. There may be few individuals spread over large areas. And koalas are well camouflaged and quiet, unless bellowing. Finally, they can sit high in the tree canopy.

In numerous research and management programs, we have observed that even the most experienced koala spotter may only see 20–80% of koalas present at a site, especially if the vegetation is thick or the terrain difficult to move through.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog
Romane Cristescu with detection dog USC x IFAW detection dog Bear. Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala and their scats.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

Making the job even harder, existing koala habitat maps can be highly inaccurate and miss unexpected hotspots. However, computer modelling using the latest methods, if carefully validated on the ground, can produce more accurate maps.

Traditional surveys involve multiple people independently searching the same area, and correcting counts based on the number of koalas each observer sees. This helps account for the difficulties in koala counting, but it’s hard, slow and costly work.

Searching for koala scat (poo) also is a common method of determining koala habitat – wherever koalas spend time, they will leave scats. However, the small brown pellets are easily missed, and large surveys for scats are time consuming.

Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala scats: in one study, dogs were shown to be 150% more accurate and 20 times quicker than humans.

And because male koalas bellow during the breeding season, koalas can also be detected with acoustic surveys. Audio recorders are left at a survey sites and the recordings scanned for bellows to determine whether koalas are present.

Recently, heat-seeking drones have also been used to detect koalas. This method can be accurate and effective, especially in difficult terrain. We used them extensively to find surviving koalas after the 2019-20 bushfires.

Citizen scientists can also collect important data about koalas. Smartphone apps allow the community to report sightings around Australia, helping to build a picture of where koalas have been seen. However, these sightings are often limited to areas commonly traversed by people, such as in suburbia, near walking tracks and on private property.

Adult and juvenile koala
Everyday citizens can help with koala counting.
Shutterstock

Getting the koala count right

All these methods involve a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses, which means the audit will need input from koala ecologists if it’s to be successful. Survey methods and sites must be chosen strategically to maximise the benefits of the funding.

Robust research data exists, but is patchy across the koala’s entire range. The first step could include collating all current data, including community sightings, to determine where additional surveys are needed. This will allow for funding to be prioritised to fill data gaps.

It is promising that the announcement includes monitoring over the long term. This will help identify population trends and better understand the response of koalas to ongoing threats. It will also reveal whether actions to address koala threats are working.

Finally, while threats to koalas are generally well understood, they can vary between populations. So the audit should allow for “threat mapping” – identifying threats and looking for ways to mitigate them.

Saving an iconic species

Last summer’s bushfires highlighted how koalas, and other native species, are vulnerable to climate change. And the clearing of koala habitat continues, at times illegally.

Government inquiries and reviews have shown state and federal environment laws are not preventing the decline of koalas and other wildlife. The federal laws are still under review.

However, the new funding underpins an important step – accurate mapping of koalas and their habitat for protection and restoration. This is a crucial task in protecting the future of this iconic Australian species.

Koala sleeping in a tree
The koala count is critical to protecting the species.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Stopping koala extinction is agonisingly simple. But here’s why I’m not optimistic


The Conversation


Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

One of Australia’s most famous beaches is disappearing, and storms aren’t to blame. So what’s the problem?



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Thomas Murray, Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Griffith University

Storms or tropical cyclones usually get the blame when Australia’s beaches suffer severe erosion. But on the New South Wales north coast at Byron Bay, another force is at play.

Over the past six months, tourists and locals have been shocked to see Byron’s famous Main Beach literally disappearing, inundated with water and debris. In October, lifesavers were forced to temporarily close the beach because they couldn’t get rescue equipment onto the sand. Resident Neil Holland, who has lived in the area for 47 years, told the ABC:

It’s the first time I’ve seen it this bad in all the time that I’ve been here, and it hasn’t stopped yet. The sand is just being taken away by the metre.

So what’s happening? To find the answer, we combined a brief analysis of satellite imagery with previous knowledge about the process behind the erosion and how it has been occurring at Byron Bay. The erosion is due to a process known as “headland bypassing”, and it is quite different to erosion from storms.

What is headland bypassing?

Headland bypassing occurs when sand moves from one beach to another around a solid obstruction, such as a rocky headland or cape. This process is mainly driven by wave energy. Along the coast of southeast Australia, waves generate currents that move sand mostly northward along the northern NSW coastline, and on towards Queensland.

However, sand does not flow evenly or smoothly along the coast: when sand arrives at a beach just before a rocky headland, it builds up against the rocks and the beach grows wider. When there is too much sand for the headland to hold, or there’s a change in wave conditions, some sand will be pushed around the headland – bypassing it – before continuing its journey up the coast.




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This large lump of moving sand is called a “sand pulse” or “sand slug”. The sand pulse needs the right wave conditions to move towards the shore. Without these conditions, the beach in front of the pulse is deprived of sand and the waves and currents near the shore erode the beach.

Headland bypassing was first described in the 1940s. However, only about 20 years ago was it recognised as an important part of the process controlling sand moving along the coast. Since then, with better technology and more data, researchers have studied the process in more detail, and helped to shed light on how headland bypassing might affect long-term coastal planning.

Recent studies have shown wave direction is particularly important to headland bypassing. Importantly, weather patterns that produce waves are affected by climate drivers including the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. So, future changes in the way these drivers behave will affect the waves and currents that move sand along our coast, which in turn affects headland bypassing and beach erosion.

Man sitting near eroded beach
Byron Bay’s beaches have badly eroded in recent months.
Byron Shire Council

What’s happening at Byron Bay?

In October and November this year, a large amount of sand was present just north of Cape Byron, from Wategos Beach to The Pass Beach. As this sand pulse grew, Clarkes Beach, and then Main Beach, were starved of their usual sand supply and began to erode.

The sand pulse is visible on satellite images from around April 2020. Each month, it slowly moves westward into the bay. As the sand pulse grows, the beach ahead of the pulse gradually erodes. At present Main Beach is at the eroding stage.




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Similar erosion was observed at Main Beach in the early 1990s. The beach became wider again from 1995 to 2007. From 2009 onwards, the shoreline erosion slowly began again, and became very noticeable in the past six months.

The effect of sand pulses on beach erosion is not exclusive to Byron Bay. It has been described previously in other locations, such as NSW’s Kingscliff Beach in 2011. In that case, the erosion risked damaging a nearby holiday park and bowling club.

Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron
Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron.
Author provided

When will this end?

Mild waves from the east to northeast, which usually occur from October to April each year, will help some of the sand pulse move onto Clarkes Beach and then further along to Main Beach. This normally happens over several months to a year. But it’s hard to say exactly when the beach will be fully restored.

This uncertainty underscores the need to better forecast these processes. This would help us to predict when bypassing sand pulses will occur and to manage beach erosion.

Climate change is expected to affect wave conditions, although the exact impact on the headland bypassing process remains unclear. However, better predictions would allow the community to be informed early about expected impacts, and officials could better manage and plan for future erosion.

Meanwhile, Byron Bay waits and watches – knowing at least that the erosion problem will eventually improve.The Conversation

People walking along Main Beach
The sand at Main Beach at Byron Bay, pictured here under good conditions, will eventually return.
AAP

Thomas Murray, Research Fellow (Coastal Management), Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, PhD Candidate, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Research Fellow, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Director – Griffith Centre for Coastal Management, Griffith University

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

Silky oaks are older than dinosaurs and literally drip nectar – but watch out for the cyanide



Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

As we come to the end of spring, look up from the footpath or at the park, and you may spot the fiery flowers of the silky oak, Grevillea robusta.

You may already be familiar with grevilleas – perhaps you have low- growing ground cover and shrub species in your garden.

Some people love the brilliant red, yellow, orange or white flowers of grevilleas. They’re also nesting and roosting havens for small native birds, and so people may plant them to attract wildlife.

Of all the grevillias, the silky oak is the one that catches my eye. It’s the largest and tallest of the species, reaching up to 30 metres. They’re now blooming along the east coast and in some inland places – like huge orange light bulbs dominating the skyline.

A bird feeding on silky oak flower
Silky oaks flowers are a magnet for birds and insects.
Shutterstock

Strong like oak

Grevilleas have an ancestry older than dinosaurs. They originated on the super-continent Gondwana, and are closely related to banksias, waratahs and proteas.

Today, the 360 species of grevilleas occur in Indonesia and Australia and are a diverse group. Their colourful, distinctive flowers lack petals and instead consist of a long tube known as a “calyx”, which splits into four “lobes”.




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Like most other grevillea, silky oak possesses proteoid or cluster roots, which are dense and fine. These roots greatly increase the absorbing surface area and allow plants to thrive in nutrient-deprived soils.

The word “robusta” refers to the fact that the timber is strong like real oak. The freshly split wood has a silky texture, and a pattern and light colour resembling English oak – hence the common name “silky oak”.

Silky oak timber
Grevillia robusta has a silky texture when split for timber.
Shutterstock

Watch out for the cyanide

Grevilleas literally drip nectar, much to the delight of native birds and bees. Aboriginal people enjoyed the sweet nectar straight from the plant or mixed with water — the original lolly water.

But you have to know which species to taste as some, including the silky oak, contain hydrogen cyanide that could make you ill.

Like other grevilleas the silky oak also contains tridecyl resorcinol, which causes an allergic reaction leading to contact dermatitis. The chemical is similar to the toxicodendron in poison ivy.

So when working with silky oaks, you’d be wise to wear gloves, a face mask, protective eye wear (or face shield) and long sleeved clothing. Washing hands and showering at the end of the day is also recommended.

gardening gloves
Wear gardening gloves when handling silky oak, just to be one the safe side.
Shutterstock

A prized timber

Silky oak timber was widely used in colonial times. Then it was marketed as “lacewood”, and that name persists today among some who use it.

Silky oak veneer was used widely in colonial table tops and other furniture. Over the years, silky oak has also been used to make window frames because it is resistant to wood rot.

Overseas, silky oak timber is still widely grown, in timber plantations and as windbreaks.




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But it’s not widely available in Australia, due to low market demand – the allergens and cyanide it contains means people are generally reluctant to work with it. However silky oak is still highly prized by those who make guitars, and wood turners who make bowls and cabinets.

Painted silky oak window frames
Silky oak timber is rot-resistant and was often used in window frames.
Shutterstock

In the garden

Although an evergreen tree, some specimens are almost semi-deciduous, losing most of their foliage just prior to flowering.

Some specimens of silky oak can be a bit scraggly in their canopy form. They can benefit enormously from a bit of formative pruning when they are young, and perhaps some structural pruning from a good arborist as they get older. A little attention at the right time will be amply rewarded with a safe and great looking tree that can live for 150 years or more.

Silky oak is drought-tolerant. In dry times they often flower a bit later than their usual October blooming, providing a big splash of colour in otherwise drab and difficult years.

The trees can be vulnerable to frost when young, but grow well once taller. This makes the silky oak a potential winner as climate change brings warmer, drier weather.

Silky oaks have been declared an environmental weed in parts of New South Wales and Victoria where it grows outside its native distribution range. They’re also considered an invasive or invader plant in Hawaii and South Africa. However Grevillea robusta is declining in its natural rainforest/wet forest habitat.

In some cities in China, silky oaks have been planted along roadsides with great success. The tree has also gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit for its performance in growing under United Kingdom conditions. That just shows you how one person’s weed is another’s treasure.




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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.

Albanese is running out of time to solve Labor’s climate crisis. He needs a plan that works for two Australias



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Mark Kenny, Australian National University

During the recent American elections, the most eye-catching graphics were were the individual county tallies.

These showed that even when states appeared to be overwhelmingly Republican red, some still “flipped” to the Democrats on the strength of a smaller number of blue squares.

The trick? These azure islands denoted population clusters in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Phoenix.

The left-right chasm between urbanised Americans and the more sparsely distributed rural-regional ones was there to see in primary colours.

But the division itself was neither new, nor especially American.

Across England’s industrial north, British Labour’s Euro-centric cosmopolitanism cut little ice in the Brexit referendum of 2016, the same year once rusted-on working class Democrats first broke for Trump.

Labor struggling to reach ‘two Australias’

And of course in Australia, this trend is also well established.

Indeed, Coalition majorities have long been built on the need for niche-messaging. This sees Liberals garner the city vote, while mostly leaving the Nationals to reinterpret the conservative brand for bush sensibilities.

As a one-message-fits-all party, the ALP has struggled with this, and as the two Australias become more distinct and antagonistic, the strain is showing.

Labor’s primary vote nationally is stuck in the low-to-mid 30% range. In the resources states, it sits even lower. That’s too low to win a majority, prompting some in Labor to suggest a Liberal/National-style partnership with the Greens.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese looks glum in parliament.
Labor needs to boost its primary vote if it is to win government on its own.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

But it is far from clear how this would maximise the combined lower house seat haul, given they both court the same inner-city electors. What seems more obvious is that a joint Labor-Greens ticket would actually accelerate the drift of industrially-centred regional seats towards the Coalition.

Fitzgibbon and the coal dilemma

This is already happening.

According to Joel Fitzgibbon, who resigned last week from the shadow frontbench, Labor’s ambitious 45% by 2030 emissions cut at the last election proved this. After being pushed to preferences in 2019 on the back of a 14% primary vote slump, Fitzgibbon believes that “crazy” policy was kryptonite in his coal-dominated seat, and in regional communities up and down the eastern seaboard.




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The Hunter Valley-based MP, and others in Labor’s right faction, argue such communities feel abandoned by a party beholden to inner-city progressives.
There’s no doubt Labor MPs are increasingly pessimistic over their electoral prospects.

Some on the right insist the party is doomed unless it actively reconnects with its industrial roots, and that means dropping the climate change focus.

As Fitzgibbon told reporters when announcing his frontbench resignation,

We have to speak to, and be a voice for, all those who we seek to represent, whether they be in Surry Hills or Rockhampton. And that’s a difficult balance.

For Labor leader Anthony Albanese, this presents a near unsolvable puzzle. He needs to outflank the Greens on his capacity to form a government and deliver, and out-perform the Coalition on commitment. Now, he must also manage a rebellion inside his caucus from those who want to dump the party’s climate policy.

Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon
Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon is pressuring the party to adopt a less ambitious emissions plan.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Right-aligned MPs, buttressed by powerful unions, argue steering closer to the Coalition than the Greens is the only way to secure government.

But Labor’s paid-up membership and a majority of its MPs favour a clear acknowledgement of the scientific evidence — evidence that unambiguously calls for the phasing out of fossil fuels in the next decade or two.

In a sign of things to come, the blaze of publicity surrounding Fitzgibbon’s resignation completely derailed Labor’s attempt to highlight how the new Democratic White House had left the Morrison government exposed as the only serious economy explicitly not committed to a net-zero time-line.




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But Fitzgibbon, who claims to have substantial caucus support, wants Labor to simply tuck in behind the Morrison government and allow it to take any political heat for emissions targets not met and voters left frustrated.

Yet this too would be politically calamitous.

There could be an election next year

With an election possible within 12 months, time to reconcile these oil-and-water imperatives is fast running out.

It is a perfect storm. On the one hand, there is rising pessimism over Labor’s ability to compete with the Morrison government – especially during a pandemic. On the other, rising community impatience for decisive climate action.




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That the opposition has not yet named interim emissions targets for 2030 and 2035 despite a clear commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, speaks to its nervousness. Its rhetoric stresses urgency and purpose, but its detail reveals hesitation.

Insiders know any repeat of its 2019 each-way bet on the Adani coal-mine will be a gift to the Greens.

As the policy show-down looms, so too does the ever-present danger to Albanese of it morphing into a leadership stoush. The left’s Tanya Plibersek and the right’s Jim Chalmers are regarded as the most credible alternatives.

Labor MPs Jim Chalmers and Tanya Plibersek.
Leadership speculation has bubbled up again, as Labor struggles with its climate stance.
Samantha Manchee/AAP

While only a climate capitulation would satisfy right-wing malcontents, another school of thought favours a doubling down, based on the simple arithmetic that there are a dozen-plus Coalition seats held by margins of under 5% — more than enough to compensate for the loss of regional electorates.

Bold transition fund needed

Perhaps Labor’s only hope of keeping both sides in the tent is to propose a bold, generously funded transition fund.

This would not just talk about green jobs and retraining, but directly pay those workers who are displaced. It would include everything from the loss of income and retraining, to compensating for the loss of businesses, house values, and full family relocation costs.

Taking advantage of the low cost of borrowing, this multibillion brown-to-green transition fund could guarantee workers in phased-out sectors would not be left to carry the costs of what is a “national” responsibility and “national” economic reconfiguration.

This could this be Labor’s winning formula: representation, leading to reparation, enabling reform.The Conversation

Mark Kenny, Professor, Australian Studies Institute, Australian National University

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

Humans are changing fire patterns, and it’s threatening 4,403 species with extinction



The Leadbeater’s possum, one of thousands of species threatened by changing fire regimes.
Shutterstock

Luke Kelly, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, La Trobe University

Last summer, many Australians were shocked to see fires sweep through the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, where large and severe fires are almost unheard of. This is just one example of how human activities are changing fire patterns around the world, with huge consequences for wildlife.

In a major new paper published in Science, we reveal how changes in fire activity threaten more than 4,400 species across the globe with extinction. This includes 19% of birds, 16% of mammals, 17% of dragonflies and 19% of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.




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But, we also highlight the emerging ways we can help promote biodiversity and stop extinctions in this new era of fire. It starts with understanding what’s causing these changes and what we can do to promote the “right” kind of fire.

How is fire activity changing?

Recent fires have burned ecosystems where wildfire has historically been rare or absent, from the tropical forests of Queensland, Southeast Asia and South America to the tundra of the Arctic Circle.

Exceptionally large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of fire. For example, the 12.6 million hectares that burnt in eastern Australia during last summer’s devastating bushfires was unprecedented in scale.

The post-fire landscape in Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, three months after an extremely large and severe bushfire last summer.
Luke Kelly

This extreme event came at a time when fire seasons are getting longer, with more extreme wildfires predicted in forests and shrublands in Australia, southern Europe and western United States.

But fire activity isn’t increasing everywhere. Grasslands in countries such as Brazil, Tanzania, and the United States have had fire activity reduced.

Extinction risk in a fiery world

Fire enables many plants to complete their life cycles, creates habitats for a wide range of animals and maintains a diversity of ecosystems. Many species are adapted to particular patterns of fire, such as banksias — plants that release seeds into the resource-rich ash covering the ground after fire.

But changing how often fires occur and in what seasons can harm populations of species like these, and transform the ecosystems they rely on.

We reviewed data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and found that of the 29,304 land-based and freshwater species listed as threatened, modified fire regimes are a threat to more than 4,403.

Most are categorised as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity.

For example, the endangered mallee emu-wren in semi-arid Australia is confined to isolated patches of habitat, which makes them vulnerable to large bushfires that can destroy entire local populations.

Likewise, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was listed as critically endangered before it lost 95% of its habitat in the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires.

Large bushfires threaten many birds, such as the mallee emu-wren.
Ron Knight/Wikimedia, CC BY

However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn’t occur. Frequent fires are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment. This can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.

How humans change fire regimes

There are three main ways humans are transforming fire activity: global climate change, land-use and the introduction of pest species.

Global climate change modifies fire regimes by changing fuels such as dry vegetation, ignitions such as lightning, and creating more extreme fire weather.

What’s more, climate-induced fires can occur before the dominant tree species are old enough to produce seed, and this is reshaping forests in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Humans also alter fire regimes through farming, forestry, urbanisation and by intentionally starting or suppressing fires.

Introduced species can also change fire activity and ecosystems. For example, in savanna landscapes of Northern Australia, invasive gamba grass increases flammability and fire frequency. And invasive animals, such as red foxes and feral cats, prey on native animals exposed in recently burnt areas.




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Importantly, cultural, social and economic changes underpin these drivers. In Australia, the displacement of Indigenous peoples and their nuanced and purposeful use of fire has been linked with extinctions of mammals and is transforming vegetation.

We need bolder conservation strategies

A suite of emerging actions — some established but receiving increasing attention, others new — could help us navigate this new fire era and save species from extinction. They include:

In Africa, reintroducing grazing animals such as rhinoceros create patchy fire regimes.
Sally Archibald, Author provided

Where to from here?

The input of scientists will be valuable in helping navigate big decisions about new and changing ecosystems.

Empirical data and models can monitor and forecast changes in biodiversity. For example, new modelling has allowed University of Melbourne researchers to identify alternative strategies for introducing planned or prescribed burning that reduces the risk of large bushfires to koalas.

New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead.

At the local and regional scale, Indigenous-led fire stewardship is an important approach for fostering relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and communities around the world.

Frank Lake, a co-author on our new paper, works with Yurok and Karuk fire practitioners, shown here burning under oaks.
Frank Lake, U.S Department of Agriculture Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.

And international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events. With more extreme fire events ahead of us, learning to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes has never been more important.




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The Conversation


Luke Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Centenary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, Lecturer in Wildlife Management, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology, La Trobe University

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

After Biden’s win, Australia needs to step up and recommit to this vital UN climate change fund


Jonathan Pickering, University of Canberra

Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.

Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.




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But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.

Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.

Australia’s initial commitment to the Green Climate Fund

Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.

In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.

Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.

Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with Vice-President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Abbott government joined the fund in 2014.
The Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:

it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.

Australia steps back

Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.




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Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.

Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:

I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.

The cast has changed – will the script say the same?

Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.

Obama on climate change at the University of Queensland.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.

Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?

There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.




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However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.

After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.

Global momentum on climate action

Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.

In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.

Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.

While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.




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In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.

This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.

And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.

The COVID-19 wild card

While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.

But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.

Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.

Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.




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The Conversation


Jonathan Pickering, Assistant Professor, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

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