Extreme heat and rain: thousands of weather stations show there’s now more of both, for longer



ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Jim Salinger, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, UNSW

A major global update based on data from more than 36,000 weather stations around the world confirms that, as the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall are now more frequent, more intense, and longer.

The research is based on a dataset known as HadEX and analyses 29 indices of weather extremes, including the number of days above 25℃ or below 0℃, and consecutive dry days with less than 1mm of rain. This latest update compares the three decades between 1981 and 2010 to the 30 years prior, between 1951 and 1980.

Globally, the clearest index shows an increase in the number of above-average warm days.


Author provided

For Australia, the team found a country-wide increase in warm temperature extremes and heatwaves and a decrease in cold temperature extremes such as the coldest nights. Broadly speaking, rainfall extremes have increased in the west and decreased in the east, but trends vary by season.

In New Zealand, temperate regions experience significantly more summer days and northern parts of the country are now frost-free.




Read more:
The world endured 2 extra heatwave days per decade since 1950 – but the worst is yet to come


Extreme temperatures

Unusually warm days are becoming more common throughout Australia. When we compare 1981-2010 with 1951-80, the increase is substantial: more than 20 days per year in the far north of Australia, and at least 10 days per year in most areas apart from the south coast. The increase occurs in all seasons but is largest in spring.

This increase in temperature extremes can have devastating impacts for human health, particularly for older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Excessive heat is not only an issue for people living in cities but also for rural communities that have already been exposed to days with temperatures above 50℃.

New Zealanders are also experiencing more days with temperatures of 25℃ or more. The climate stations show the frequency of unusually warm days has increased from 8% to 12% from 1950 to 2018, with an average of 19 to 24 days a year above 25℃ across the country. Unusually warm days, defined as days in the top 10% of historic records for the time of year, are also becoming more common in both countries.

During the summers of 2017-18 and 2018-19, marine heatwaves delivered 32 and 26 (respectively) days above 25℃ nationwide in New Zealand, well above the average of 20 days. This led to accelerated glacial melting in the Southern Alps and major disruption to marine ecosystems, with die-offs of bull kelp around the South Island coast and salmon in aquaculture farms in the Marlborough Sounds.




Read more:
Farmed fish dying, grape harvest weeks early – just some of the effects of last summer’s heatwave in NZ


More heat, more rain, less frost

In many parts of New Zealand, cold extremes are changing faster than warm extremes.

Between 1950 and 2018, frost days (days below 0℃) have declined across New Zealand, particularly in northern parts of the country which has now become frost-free, enabling farmers to grow subtropical pasture grasses. At the same time, crops that require winter frosts to set fruit are no longer successful, or can only be grown with chemical treatments (currently under review) that simulate winter chilling.

Across New Zealand, the heat available for crop growth during the growing season is increasing, which means wine growers have to shift varieties further south.

In Australia, the situation is more complicated. In many parts of northern and eastern Australia, there has also been a large decrease in the number of cold nights. But in parts of southeast and southwest Australia, frost frequency has stabilised, or even increased in places, since the 1980s.

These areas have seen a large decrease in winter rainfall in recent decades. The higher number of dry, clear nights in winter, favourable for frost formation, has cancelled out the broader warming trend.




Read more:
Droughts & flooding rains: what is due to climate change?


In Australia, extreme rainfall has become more frequent in many parts of northern and western Australia, especially the northwest, which has become wetter since the 1960s. In eastern and southern Australia the picture is more mixed, with little change in the number of days with 10mm or more of rain, even in those regions where total rainfall has declined.

In New Zealand, more extremely wet days contribute towards the annual rainfall total in the east of the North Island, with a smaller increase in the west and south of the South Island. For Australia, there are significant drying trends in parts of the southwest and northeast, but little change elsewhere.

Extremes of temperature and precipitation can have dramatic effects, as seen during two marine heatwaves in New Zealand and the hottest, driest year in Australia during 2019.The Conversation

Jim Salinger, Honorary Associate, Tasmanian Institute for Agriculture, University of Tasmania and Lisa Alexander, Chief Investigator ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and Associate Professor Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

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

Waste not, want not: Morrison government’s $1b recycling plan must include avoiding waste in the first place



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The federal government today announced A$190 million in funding for new recycling infrastructure, as it seeks to divert more than ten million tonnes of waste from landfill and create 10,000 jobs.

The plan, dubbed the Recycling Modernisation Fund, requires matching funding from the states and territories. The federal government hopes it will attract A$600 million in private investment, bringing the total plan to about A$1 billion.

The policy is a welcome step to addressing Australia’s waste crisis. In 2016-17, Australians generated 67 million tonnes of waste, and the volume is growing.

Australia’s domestic recycling industry cannot sort the types and volumes of materials we generate, and recent waste import bans in other countries mean our waste often has nowhere to go.

But recycling infrastructure alone is not enough to solve Australia’s waste problem. We must also focus on waste avoidance, reducing contamination and creating markets for recycled materials.

Waste avoidance is even more important than recycling.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A home-grown problem

In early 2018, China began restricting the import of recyclables from many countries, including Australia, arguing it was too contaminated to recycle. Several other countries including India and Taiwan soon followed.

The move sent the Australian waste management industry into a spin. Recyclable material such as plastic, paper, glass and tyres was stockpiled in warehouses or worse, dumped in landfill.




Read more:
How recycling is actually sorted, and why Australia is quite bad at it


It was clear Australia needed to start processing more of its waste onshore, and pressure was on governments to find a solution. In 2019, state and federal governments announced a waste export ban.

Then came today’s announcement. In addition to the A$190 million for recycling infrastructure announced, the federal government will:

  • spend A$35 million on meeting its commitments under the National Waste Policy Action Plan

  • spend A$24.6 million on Commonwealth commitments to improve national waste data and determine if we’re meeting recycling targets

  • introduce new federal waste legislation to formalise the waste export ban and encourage companies to take responsibility for the waste they create.

But key questions remain: will the full funding package be delivered, and will it be spent where it’s needed?

Overseas bans on foreign waste pose a problem for Australia.
Fully Handoko/EPA

Clarity is needed

The Commonwealth says its funding is contingent on contributions from industry, states and territories. It’s not clear what happens to the plan if this co-funding does not eventuate.

Figures from the Australian Council of Recyclers shows state governments have not always been willing to spend on waste management. Of about A$2.6 billion in waste levies collected from businesses and households over the past two years, only 16.7% has been spent on waste, recycling and resource recovery.

There’s been a recent increase in the volume and type of materials placed into recycling and waste streams. But a lack of funding to date meant the industry struggled to manage these changes.

Some state governments have recently made positive moves towards spending on waste management infrastructure, and it’s not clear what the federal plan means for these commitments. Victoria, for example, has a A$300 million plan to transform the recycling sector. Will it now be asked to spend more?

Recycling infrastructure is not enough

The federal announcement made no mention of the three other pillars in successful waste management: waste avoidance, reducing contamination and creating markets for recycled materials.

The 2018 National Waste Policy says waste “avoidance” is the first principle in waste management, stating:

Prioritise waste avoidance, encourage efficient use, reuse and repair. Design products so waste is minimised, they are made to last and we can more easily recover materials.

States have collected billions in waste levies, but spent little on the problem.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Avoiding the generation of waste in the first place reduces the need for recycling. Waste avoidance also means we consume less resources, which is good for the planet and our economy.

Addressing contamination in our recycling streams is also vital. Contaminants include soft plastics, disposable nappies and textiles. If these items end up in this stream, recyclers must remove and dispose of them, adding time and costs to the process.

Addressing the contamination issue would also reduce the amount of new infrastructure required.

Public education and enforcement is urgently needed to reduce recycling contamination and increase waste avoidance, yet government action has been lacking in this area.

Businesses have great potential to reduce costs associated with managing waste. This includes reducing the waste of raw materials as well as improving the segregation of wastes and recyclables. Funding is desperately needed to help businesses implement these changes.

The federal government says the new funding could be used for small, portable waste-sorting facilities. This is a great idea. They could be located in rural and regional areas, and even at large events so materials can be effectively sorted at the source. This would make sorting more efficient and may also reduce the need for waste transport.




Read more:
Four bins might help, but to solve our waste crisis we need a strong market for recycled products


And of course, there’s no use producing recycled materials if no-one wants to buy them. Plenty of products could be produced using recycled glass, plastics, textiles and so on, but the practice in Australia is fairly limited. One promising example involves using glass and plastic in road bases.

Governments, business and even consumers can do more to demand that the products they buy contain a proportion of recycled materials, where its possible for a manufacturer to do so.

Why send material to landfill when it can be recycled?
AAP

A sustainable future

The government’s funding to improve waste data is welcome, and will allow improvements to the waste system to be accurately measured. Currently, many waste databases measure measure our recycling rate according to what goes into the recycling bins, rather than what actually ends up being recycled.

Spending to support actions under the National Waste Policy is also positive, as long as it spent primarily on reducing waste from being created in the first place.

Done right, better waste management can stimulate the economy and help improve the environment. Today’s announcement is a good step, but more detail is needed. Clearly though, it’s time for Australians to think more carefully about the materials we dispose of, and put them to better use.




Read more:
Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


The Conversation


Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

Global report gives Australia an A for coronavirus response but a D on climate


John Thwaites, Monash University

The global Sustainable Development Report 2020, released this week in New York, ranks Australia third among OECD countries for the effectiveness of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, beaten by only South Korea and Latvia.

Yet Australia trundled in at 37th in the world on its overall progress in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which cover a range of economic, social and environmental challenges – many of which will be crucial considerations as we recover from the pandemic. Australia’s worst results are in climate action and the environment, where we rate well below most other OECD countries.




Read more:
4 ways Australia’s coronavirus response was a triumph, and 4 ways it fell short


South Korea tops the list of effective COVID-19 responses, whereas New Zealand (which declared the coronavirus eliminated on June 8, albeit with a few sporadic cases since) is ranked ninth. Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom and several other Western European countries rank at the bottom of the list.

Nations’ COVID-19 responses, ranked by the UN.
United Nations, Author provided

South Korea, Latvia and Australia did well because they not only kept infection and death rates low, but did so with less economic and social disruption than other nations. Rather than having to resort to severe lockdowns, they did this by testing and tracing, encouraging community behaviour change, and quarantining people arriving from overseas.

Using smartphone data from Google, the report shows that during the severe lockdown in Spain and Italy between March and May this year, mobility within the community – including visits to shops and work – declined by 62% and 60%, respectively. This shows how much these countries were struggling to keep the virus at bay. In contrast, mobility declined by less than 25% in Australia and by only 10% in South Korea.

Australia outperformed the OECD average on COVID-19 reponse.
Author provided

Why has Australia performed well?

There are several reasons why Australia’s COVID-19 response has been strong, although major challenges remain. National and state governments have followed expert scientific advice from early in the pandemic.

The creation of the National Cabinet fostered relatively harmonious decision-making between the Commonwealth and the states. Australia has a strong public health system and the Australian public has a history of successfully embracing behaviour change. We have shown admirable adaptability and innovation, for example in the radical expansion of telehealth.

We should learn from these successes. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful framework for planning to “build back better”.




Read more:
Business leaders aren’t backing up their promises on sustainable development goals


The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all countries in 2015, encompass a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to be met by 2030. Among the central aims are economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. They are arguably even more important than before in considering how best to shape our post-pandemic world.

As the report points out, the fallout from COVID-19 is likely to have a highly negative impact on achievement of many of the goals: increased poverty due to job losses (goal 1), disease, death and mental health risks (goal 3), disproportionate economic impacts on women and domestic violence (goal 5), loss of jobs and business closures (goal 8), growing inequality (goal 10), and reduction in use of public transport (goal 11). The impact on the environmental goals is still unclear: the short-term reduction in global greenhouse emissions is accompanied by pressure to reduce environmental safeguards in the name of economic recovery.

How do we ‘build back better’?

The SDGs already give us a roadmap, so really we just need to keep our sights set firmly on the targets agreed for 2030. Before COVID-19, the world was making progress towards achieving the goals. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 10% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2018. Access to basic transport infrastructure and broadband have been growing rapidly in most parts of the world.

Australia’s story is less positive, however. On a composite index of performance on 115 indicators covering all 17 goals, the report puts Australia 37th in the world, but well behind most of the countries to which we like to compare ourselves. Sweden, Denmark and Finland top the overall rankings, followed by France and Germany. New Zealand is 16th.

It is not surprising, in light of our performance during the pandemic, that Australia’s strongest performance is on goal 3: good health. The report rates Australia as on track to achieve all health targets.




Read more:
7 lessons for Australia’s health system from the coronavirus upheaval


Australia also performs strongly on education (goal 4), and moderately well on goals relating to water, economic growth, infrastructure and sustainable cities. However, we perform extremely poorly in energy (goal 7), climate change (goal 13) and responsible consumption and production (goal 12), where our reliance on fossil fuels and wasteful business practices puts us near the bottom of the field.

On clean energy (goal 7), the share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply (including electricity, transport and industry) is only 6.9%. In Germany it is 14.1%, and in Denmark an impressive 33.4%.

Australia rates poorly on goal 12, responsible consumption and production, with 23.6kg of electronic waste per person and high sulfur dioxide and nitrogen emissions.

Australia’s performance on goal 13, climate action, is a clear fail. Our annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are 14.8 tonnes per person – much higher than the 5.5 tonnes for the average Brit, and 4.3 tonnes for the typical Swede.




Read more:
Climate action is the key to Australia achieving the Sustainable Development Goals


And whereas in the Nordic countries the indicators for goal 15 — biodiversity and life on land — are generally improving, the Red List measuring species survival is getting worse in Australia.

There are many countries that consider themselves world leaders but now wish they had taken earlier and stronger action against COVID-19. Australia listened to the experts, took prompt action, and can hopefully look back on the pandemic with few regrets.

But on current form, there will be plenty to regret about our reluctance to follow scientific advice on climate change and environmental degradation, and our refusal to show anything like the necessary urgency.


The original version of this article reported that New Zealand was ranked sixth for its coronavirus response. It was in fact ranked ninth. This has been corrected.The Conversation

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

45,000 renewables jobs are Australia’s for the taking – but how many will go to coal workers?



Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, University of Technology Sydney

As the global renewables transition accelerates, the future for coal regions has become a big worry. This raises an important question: can renewables create the right jobs in the right places to employ former coal workers?

According to our new research, the answer in many cases is “yes”. Renewable energy jobs provide a good match for existing coal jobs across a range of blue and white-collar occupations, including construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, site administrators and mechanical technicians.

But about one-third of coal workers, such as drillers and machine operators, cannot simply switch over to renewables jobs. So as our economy pivots to renewables, planning and investment is needed to help coal regions survive.

Some renewables jobs could be filled by coal workers.
Tim Wimbourne/AAP

Renewables jobs: a snapshot

Our research, commissioned by the Clean Energy Council, is the first large-scale survey of renewable energy employment in Australia.

We surveyed more than 450 Australian renewable energy businesses, covering large scale wind, solar and hydro, rooftop solar and batteries. We wanted to find out how many people were employed, and in what jobs.




Read more:
Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently


We then projected employment until 2035 using three scenarios for the future of the electricity market, developed by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Our results suggest renewable energy can be a major source of jobs in the next 15 years. But the trajectories are very different depending on government COVID-19 stimulus measures and wider energy policy.

Policy crossroads

We found the renewable energy sector currently employs about 26,000 people. Temporary construction and installation jobs now comprise 75% of the renewable energy labour market, but as the sector grows, this will change (more on that later).

Australia’s renewable energy target was reached last year, and has not been replaced. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia this caused renewables investment to fall by 50% last year compared to 2018. Under a “central” scenario where these policies continued, 11,000 renewable jobs would be lost by 2022.

Under the right policies, there could be an average of 35,000 renewables jobs annually in Australia until 2035.
Michael Buholzer/Reuters

We then examined a “step change” scenario where Australian policy settings were in line with meeting the Paris climate agreement. This would create a jobs boom: renewable energy employment would grow to 45,000 by 2025 and average around 35,000 jobs each year to 2035. Up to two-thirds are in regional areas.

Under all scenarios, job growth is strongest in rooftop solar and wind. Most are in the construction and installation phase, comprising both ongoing and project-based jobs in trades, as well as technicians and labourers. But by 2035, as many as half of renewable energy jobs could be ongoing jobs in operation and maintenance.




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Renewable energy jobs will be higher than our projections. We excluded employment areas such as building electricity transmission networks, bioenergy, professional services, renewable hydrogen, growth in minerals needed for renewable energy, and jobs in heavy industry such as “green” steel.

Renewables vs coal jobs

All up, coal mining in Australia employs about 40,000 people. As mentioned above, renewable energy jobs could grow to 45,000 by 2025 – and more once other sectors are included.

Australia’s renewable energy industry already employs considerably more people than the 10,500 working in the domestic coal sector – mostly thermal coal mining and power generation.

About 75% of coal mined in Australia is exported. About 24,000 people work in thermal coal mining for both domestic use and export – slightly fewer than the current renewable energy workforce.

Employment in renewable energy and coal.
Author supplied

New renewables jobs in coal regions

Around two-thirds of renewable energy jobs could be created in regional areas. These would be distributed more widely than coal sector jobs.

The leading coal mining states, NSW and Queensland, have the biggest share of renewable energy jobs under all scenarios.

AEMO has identified “renewable energy zones” where most large-scale renewable energy is expected to be located. In both NSW and Queensland, some of these zones overlap with the coal workforce. In NSW, the Central West zone could also create employment in the Hunter region. In general, though, many renewable energy jobs will be located in other regions and the capital cities.




Read more:
Really Australia, it’s not that hard: 10 reasons why renewable energy is the future


In terms of occupations, there is overlap between coal and renewable energy. These include construction and project managers, engineers, electricians, mechanical trades, office managers and contract administrators and drivers.

The timing and location of these renewables jobs will influence whether they can be a source of alternative jobs for coal workers. Re-training of coal workers would also be required.

But there is no direct job overlap for the semi-skilled machine operators such as drillers, which account for more than one-third of the coal workforce.

Renewable Energy Zones and coal mining employment in Queensland.
Author supplied
Renewable energy zones and coal mining employment in NSW.
Author supplied

Planning for the decline

Renewable energy can meaningfully help in the transition for coal regions. But it won’t replace all lost coal jobs, and planning and investment is needed to avoid social and economic harm.

Coal regions need industry development plans and investment to diversify their economies to other industries, including renewables. Almost half our coal workers are aged under 40, so Australia will not be able to follow Germany and Spain’s lead by relying on early retirement schemes.

At some point, demand for our coal exports will collapse – be it due to the falling cost of renewables, or policies to address climate change. If we don’t start preparing now, the consequences for coal communities will be dire.The Conversation

Some coal workers can be retrained to work in renewables, but others cannot.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Jay Rutovitz, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

The world endured 2 extra heatwave days per decade since 1950 – but the worst is yet to come



Shutterstock

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

The term “heatwave” is no stranger to Australians. Defined as when conditions are excessively hot for at least three days in a row, these extreme temperature events have always punctuated our climate.

With many of us in the thick of winter dreaming of warmer days, it’s important to remember how damaging heatwaves can be.

In 2009, the heatwave that preceded Black Saturday killed 374 people. The economic impact on Australia’s workforce from heatwaves is US$6.2 billion a year (almost AU$9 billion). And just last summer, extreme temperature records tumbled, contributing to Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season.

What are heatwaves?

Our new study – the first worldwide assessment of heatwaves at the regional scale – found heatwaves have become longer and more frequent since 1950. And worryingly, we found this trend has accelerated.

We also examined a new metric: “cumulative heat”. This measures how much extra heat a heatwave can contribute, and the new perspective is eye-opening.

What is ‘extra heat’?

In southeast Australia’s worst heatwave season in 2009, we endured an extra heat of 80℃. Let’s explore what that means.

For a day to qualify as being part of a heatwave, a recorded temperature should exceed an officially declared “heatwave threshold”.

And cumulative heat is generally when the temperature above that threshold across all heatwave days are added up.

Let’s say, for example, a particular location had a heatwave threshold of around 30℃. The “extra heat” on a day where temperatures reach 35℃ would be 5℃. If the heatwave lasted for three days, and all days reached 35℃, then the cumulative heat for that event would be 15℃.

Another decade, another heatwave day

We found almost every global region has experienced a significant increase in heatwave frequency since 1950. For example, southern Australia has experienced, on average, one extra heatwave day per decade since 1950.




Read more:
Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


However, other regions have experienced much more rapid increases. The Mediterranean has seen approximately 2.5 more heatwave days per decade, while the Amazon rainforest has seen an extra 5.5 more heatwave days per decade since 1950.

The global average sits at approximately two extra heatwave days per decade.

The last 20 years saw the worst heatwave seasons

Since the 1950s, almost all regions experienced significant increases in the extra heat generated by heatwaves.

Over northern and southern Australia, the excess heat from heatwaves has increased by 2-3℃ per decade. This is similar to other regions, such as western North America, the Amazon and the global average.

Alaska, Brazil and West Asia, however, have cumulative heat trends of a massive 4-5℃ per decade. And, for the vast majority of the world, the worst seasons occurred in the last 20 years.

In the heatwave before Black Saturday, 374 people died.
Shutterstock

We also examined whether heatwaves were changing at a constant rate, or were speeding up or slowing down. With the exception of average intensity, we found heatwave trends have not only increased, but have accelerated since the 1950s.

Don’t be fooled by the maths

Interestingly, average heatwave intensity showed little – if any – changes since 1950. But before we all breathe a sigh of relief, this is not because climate change has stopped, or because heatwaves aren’t getting any warmer. It’s the result of a mathematical quirk.




Read more:
Climate change: 40°C summer temperatures could be common in UK by 2100


Since we’re seeing more heatwaves – which we found are also generally getting longer – there are more days to underpin the average intensity. While all heatwave days must exceed a relative extreme threshold, some days will exceed this threshold to a lesser extent than others. This brings the overall average down.

When we look at changes in cumulative heat, however, there’s just no denying it. Extra heat – not the average – experienced in almost all regions, is what can have adverse impacts on our health, infrastructure and ecosystems.

The Amazon has endured 5.5 more heatwave days per decade since 1950.
Shutterstock

Like nothing we’ve experienced before

While the devastating impacts of heatwaves are clear, it has been difficult to consistently measure changes in heatwaves across the globe. Previous studies have assessed regional heatwave trends, but data constraints and the spectrum of different heatwave metrics available have made it hard to compare regional changes in heatwaves.

Our study has closed this gap, and clearly shows heatwaves are on the rise. We are seeing more of them and they are generating more heat at an increasing pace.




Read more:
We’ve learned a lot about heatwaves, but we’re still just warming up


While Australia may be no stranger to heatwaves in the past, those we see in the future under these accelerating trends will certainly be foreign.

For example, a 2014 study found that depending on where you are in Australia, anywhere between 15 and 50 extra heatwave days will occur by 2100 compared to the second half of the 20th century.

We can still abate those trends if we work collectively, effectively and urgently to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, ARC Future Fellow, UNSW

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

We know how to save NSW’s koalas from extinction – but the government must commit



Shutterstock

Dr Christine Hosking, The University of Queensland

On Tuesday, a year-long New South Wales parliamentary inquiry revealed the state’s koalas are on track for extinction in the wild by 2050, without urgent government intervention.

Habitat destruction and fragmentation for agriculture, urban development, mining and forestry has been the number one koala killer since European occupation of Australia. This is compounded by the unabated impacts of climate change, which leads to more extreme droughts, heatwaves and bushfires.




Read more:
Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires


Koala populations in NSW were already declining before the 2019-2020 bushfires. The report doesn’t mince words, saying “huge swathes of koala habitat burned and at least 5,000 koalas perished”.

The report, ambitiously, makes 42 recommendations, and all have merit. The fate of NSW koalas now relies on a huge commitment from the Berejiklian government to act on them. But past failures by a federal government inquiry into koalas suggest there’s little cause for optimism.

First, let’s look at the report’s key recommendations and how they might ensure the species’ survival in NSW.

Leadership needed at the local level

Real, on-ground koala conservation actions take place at the local level. “Local” is where councils give development approvals, sometimes to clear koala habitat. And it’s where communities and volunteers work on the front line to save and protect the species.

Recommendation 10 in the report addresses this, suggesting the NSW government provide additional funding and support to community groups so they can plant trees and regenerate bushland along koala and wildlife corridors.




Read more:
A report claims koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – but what does that mean?


Another two recommendations build on this: encouraging increased funding from the NSW government to local councils to support local conservation initiatives, and suggesting increased resources to support councils to conduct mapping.

Mapping, such as where koalas have been recorded and their habitat, is a critical component for local councils to develop comprehensive koala management plans.

Stop offsetting koala habitat

One recommendation suggests a review of the “biodiversity offsets scheme”, where generally developers must compensate for habitat loss by improving or establishing it elsewhere. It is embedded in the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, and other state and territory governments commonly use offsets in various conservation policies.




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The Blinky Bill effect: when gum trees are cut down, where do the koalas go?


But the report recommends prohibiting offsets for high quality koala habitat. Prohibiting offsets is important because when a vital part of koala habitat is cleared, it can no longer support the local koalas. Replacing this habitat somewhere else won’t save that particular population.

Build the Great Koala National Park

It’s of paramount importance to increase the connected, healthy koala habitat in NSW, particularly after the bushfires.

One tool to achieve this is laid out in recommendation 41: to investigate establishing the Great Koala National Park. Spearheaded by the National Parks Association of NSW, this national park would see 175,000 hectares of publicly owned state forests added to existing protected areas.

It total, it would form a 315,000 hectare reserve in the Coffs Harbour hinterland dedicated to protecting koalas – an Australian first.




Read more:
What does a koala’s nose know? A bit about food, and a lot about making friends


It would be a great day if such a park was established and replicated throughout the NSW and Queensland hinterlands. Research shows that in those regions, the future climate will remain suitable for koalas, and urbanisation, agriculture and mining are not currently present in these parks.

The Great Koala National Park.

But it’s worth noting Australia’s national parks are under increasing pressure from “adventure tourism”. Human recreation activities can fragment habitat and disturb wildlife, for example by constructing tracks and access roads through natural areas.

Humans must not be allowed to compromise dedicated koala conservation areas. Intrusive recreational activity is detrimental to the species, and can also reduce the chance quiet park visitors might spy a koala sitting high in a tree, sleepily munching on gum leaves.

This rule should apply both to existing national parks, and a new Great Koala National Park.

Failures of past inquiries

The tragic fate predicted for koalas in NSW depends on the state government’s willingness to act on the recommendations. Developing wordy, well-intentioned documents is simply not enough.

We need look no further than Australia’s key environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, to realise this.

Habitat destruction is an existential threat to koalas.
Shutterstock

After a 2012 Senate inquiry into the health and status of koalas, the species was officially listed as “vulnerable” under the EPBC Act. But since then, tree clearing and declines in koala numbers have continued at a furious pace across Queensland and NSW.

One of the shortcomings of the federal listing for the koala is in its Referral Guidelines, which recommends “proponents consider these guidelines when proposing actions within the modelled distribution of the koala”. In other words, informing the government about clearing koala habitat is only voluntary. And that’s not good enough.




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Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof


The failure of the 2012 inquiry and the EPBC Act to protect koalas should serve as a wake-up call to the NSW government. It must start implementing the recommendations of the current inquiry without delay to ensure Australia’s internationally celebrated species doesn’t die out.

Koala conservation must take priority over land clearing, regardless of the demand for that land. That principle might seem simple, but so far it’s proved agonisingly difficult.The Conversation

Dr Christine Hosking, Conservation Planner/Researcher, The University of Queensland

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

We developed tools to study cancer in Tasmanian devils. They could help fight disease in humans



Shutterstock

Andrew S. Flies, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, University of Tasmania

Emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, usually come from non-human animals. However our understanding of most animals’ immune systems is sadly lacking as there’s a shortfall in research tools for species other than humans and mice.

Our research published today in Science Advances details cutting edge immunology tools we developed to understand cancer in Tasmanian devils. Importantly, these tools can be rapidly modified for use on any animal species.

Our work will help future wildlife conservation efforts, as well as preparedness against potential new diseases in humans.

The fall of the devil

Tasmanian devil populations have undergone a steep decline in recent decades, due to a lethal cancer called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) first detected in 1996.

A decade after it was discovered, genetic analysis revealed DFT cells are transmitted between devils, usually when they bite each other during mating. A second type of transmissible devil facial tumour (DFT2) was detected in 2014, suggesting devils are prone to developing contagious cancers.

A Tasmanian devil with devil facial tumour disease.
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

In 2016, researchers reported some wild devils had natural immune responses against DFT1 cancers. A year later an experimental vaccine for the original devil facial tumour (DFT1) was tested in devils artificially inoculated with cancer cells.

While the vaccine didn’t protect them, in some cases subsequent treatments were able to induce tumour regression.

But despite the promising results, and other good news from the field, DFT1 continues to suppress devil populations across most of Tasmania. And DFT2 poses an additional threat.




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Deadly disease can ‘hide’ from a Tasmanian devil’s immune system


Following a blueprint requires tools

In humans, there has been incredible progress in treatments targeting protein that regulate our immune system. These treatments work by stimulating the immune system to kill cancer cells.

Our team’s analyses of devil DNA showed these immune genes are also present in devils, meaning we may be able to develop similar treatments to stimulate the devil immune system.

But studying the DNA blueprint for devils takes us only so far. To build a strong house, you need to understand the blueprint and have the right tools. Proteins are the building blocks of life. So to build effective treatments and vaccines for devils we have to study the proteins in their immune system.

Until recently, there were few research tools available for this. And this problem was all too familiar to researchers studying immunology and disease in species other than humans, mice or rats.

Into the FAST lane

You could build a house with just a saw, hammer and nails – but a better and faster build requires a larger, more versatile toolbox.

In our new research, we’ve added more than a dozen tools to the toolbox for understanding tumours in Tasmanian devils. These are Fluorescent Adaptable Simple Theranostic proteins – or simply, FAST proteins.

The term “theranostic” merges therapeutic and diagnostic. FAST proteins can be used as a therapeutic drug to treat a disease, or as a diagnostic tool to determine its cause and better understand it.

A key feature of FAST proteins is they can be tagged with a fluorescent protein marker, and can be released from the cells that we engineered in the lab to make them.

This way, we can collect and observe how the proteins attach and interact with other proteins without needing to add a tag later in the process.

To understand this, imagine trying to use a tiny key in a tiny lock in the dark. It would be difficult, but much easier if both were tagged with a coloured light. In the context of the immune system, it’s easier to understand what we need to turn on or off if we can see where the proteins are.

By mapping how proteins within the devil’s immune system interact, we can find better ways to stimulate the immune system.

An overview of the FAST protein system. Fluorescent proteins and immune system proteins from different species can be rapidly swapped to make new FAST proteins.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

The FAST system is also adaptable, meaning new targets can be cut-and-pasted into the system as they’re identified, like changing the bits on a drill. Therefore, it’s useful for studying the immune systems of other animals too, including humans.

Also, the system is simple enough that most people with basic cell culture and molecular biology experience could use it.




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Needle in a haystack

Cancer cells in humans and animals can travel via the bloodstream to spread, or “metastasise”, throughout the body. Identifying single tumour cells in blood can shed light on how cancer invades devils’ organs and kills them.

Using FAST tools, we discovered CD200 – a protein that inhibits anti-cancer responses in humans – is highly expressed in devils. With FAST tools, we were able to mix DFT2 cancer cells into devil blood and pick them out, despite there being about one cancer cell for every 1,000 blood cells.

CD200 is a powerful “off switch” for the immune system, so identifying this off switch allows us it can help us produce a vaccine that disables the switch.

A devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2) cell, with the cell nucleus shown in blue.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

By rapidly sifting out the best ways to stimulate the devil’s immune system, FAST tools are accelerating our research into developing a preventative vaccine to protect devils from DFT.

Why study animal immune systems?

COVID-19 has once again brought emerging infectious diseases onto the global stage. The ability to rapidly develop immunology tools for new species means we can jump into action when a new virus jumps into humans.

Additionally, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, and wildlife disease is increasingly threatening conservation efforts.

Understanding how the immune systems of other animals fight diseases could provide a blueprint for developing vaccines and therapeutics to help them.The Conversation

Andrew S. Flies, Senior Research Fellow in Immunology, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, , University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, , University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, Professional Research Fellow, University of Tasmania

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

Today, Australia’s Kyoto climate targets end and our Paris cop-out begins. That’s nothing to be proud of, Mr Taylor



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

Today marks the end of Australia’s commitments under the Kyoto climate deal as we move to its successor, the Paris Agreement. Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor on Wednesday was quick to hail Australia’s success in smashing the Kyoto emissions targets. But let’s be clear: our record is nothing to boast about.

Taylor says Australia has beaten Kyoto by up to 430 million tonnes — or 80% of one year of national emissions. On that record, he said, “Australians can be confident that we’ll meet and beat our 2030 Paris target”.




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The fact that Australia exceeded its Kyoto targets means it’s accrued so-called “carryover” carbon credits. It plans to use these to cover about half the emission reduction required under the Paris commitment by 2030.

But there’s been little scrutiny of why Australia met the Kyoto targets so easily. The reason dates back more than 20 years, when Australia demanded the Kyoto rules be skewed in its favour. Using those old credits to claim climate action today is cheating the system. Let’s look at why.

The Paris climate deal officially starts today.
Daniel Munoz/Reuters

Australian scorns the spirit of Paris

The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty negotiated in 1997. Industrialised nations collectively pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels. The reductions were to be made between 2008 and 2012.

Any surplus emissions reduction in the first Kyoto period could be carried over to the second period, from 2013 to 2020. In the name of climate action, five developed countries – Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK – voluntarily cancelled their surplus credits.

However, Australia held onto its credits. Now it wants to use them to meet its Paris target – reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is clearly not in the spirit of the Paris agreement. And importantly, the history of Kyoto shows Australia did not deserve to earn the credits in the first place.

Sneaky negotiations

Under Kyoto, each nation was assigned a target – measured against the nation’s specific baseline of emissions produced in 1990. During negotiations, Australia insisted on rules that worked in its favour.

Instead of reducing its emissions by 5.2%, it successfully demanded a lenient target that meant emissions in 2012 could be 8% more than they were in 1990.

Our negotiators argued we had special economic circumstances – that our dependence on fossil fuels and energy-intensive exports meant cutting emissions would be difficult. Australia threatened to walk away from the negotiations if its demand was not met.

Australia negotiated an advantageous deal under the UN Kyoto protocol.
Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Australia then waited until the final moments of negotiations – when many delegates were exhausted and translators had gone home – to make another surprising demand. It would only sign up to Kyoto if its 1990 emissions baseline (the year future reductions would be measured against) included emissions produced from clearing forests.

Here’s the catch. Australia’s emissions from forest clearing in 1990 were substantial, totalling about a quarter of total emissions, or 131.5 million tonnes of carbon.




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Forest clearing in Australia plummeted after 1990, when Queensland enacted tough new land clearing laws. So including deforestation emissions in Australia’s baseline meant we would never really struggle to meet – or as it turned out, beat – our targets. In fact, the rule effectively rewarded Australia for its mass deforestation in 1990.

This concession was granted, and became known as the Australia clause. It triggered international condemnation, including from the European environment spokesman who reportedly called it “wrong and immoral”.

Then prime minister John Howard declared the deal to be “splendid”.

John Howard was thrilled with Australia’s concessions under Kyoto.
LYNDON MECHIELSEN/AAP

A new round of Kyoto negotiations took place in 2010, for the second commitment period. Under the Gillard Labor government, Australia agreed to an underwhelming 5% decrease in emissions between 2013 and 2020.

Australia insisted on using the deforestation clause again, despite international pressure to drop it. It meant Australia’s carbon budget in the second period was about 26% higher than it would have been without the concession.

Had forest clearing not been included in the 1990 baseline, Australia’s emissions in 2017 were 31.8% above 1990 levels.

Forest clearing in 1990 made it easy for Australia to beat Kyoto targets.
Harley Kingston/Flickr

History repeats

At the Madrid climate talks last year, Australia reiterated its plans to use its surplus Kyoto credits under Paris. Without the accounting trick, Australia is not on track to meet its Paris targets.

Laurence Tubiana, a high-ranking architect of the Paris accord, expressed her disdain at the plan:

If you want this carryover, it is just cheating. Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system, because that is the way to destroy the whole Paris agreement.

Whether Australia will be allowed to use the surplus credits is another question, as the Paris rulebook is still being finalised.

Analysts say there is no legal basis for using the surplus credits, because Kyoto and Paris are separate treaties.

Australia appears the only country shameless enough to try the tactic. At Senate estimates last year, officials said they knew of no other nation planning to use carryover credits.

Protesters in Spain in January 2020, calling for global climate action.
JJ Guillen Credit/EPA

Nothing to be proud of

Some hoped Australia’s recent bushfire disaster might be a positive turning point for climate policy. But the signs are not good. The Morrison government is talking up the role of gas in Australia’s energy transition, and has so far failed to seize the opportunity to recharge the economy through renewables investment.

Crowing on Wednesday about Australia’s over-achievement on Kyoto, Taylor said the result was “something all Australians can be proud of”.

But Australia abandoned its moral obligations under Kyoto. And by carrying our surplus credits into the Paris deal, we risk cementing our status as a global climate pariah.




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The Conversation


Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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