In Australia, climate policy battles are endlessly reheated


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


It might feel like the past decade of climate policy wars has led us into uncharted political waters. But the truth is, we’ve been sailing around in circles for much longer than that.

The situation in the late 1990s bore an uncanny resemblance to today: a Liberal-led government; a prime minister who clearly favours economic imperatives over environmental ones; emerging internal splits between hardline Liberal MPs and those keen to see stronger climate action; and a Labor party trying to figure out how ambitious it can be without being labelled as loony tree-huggers.

The striking parallels between now and two decades ago tell us something about what to expect in the months ahead.




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Ten years of backflips over emissions trading leave climate policy in the lurch


After a brief flirtation with progressive climate policy in the 1990 federal election, the Liberals had, by the final years of the 20th century, become adamant opponents of climate action.

In March 1996, John Howard had come to power just as international climate negotiations were heating up. In his opinion, even signing the United Nations climate convention in Rio in 1992 had been a mistake. He expended considerable effort trying to secure a favourable deal for Australia at the crunch Kyoto negotiations in 1997.

Australia got a very generous deal indeed (and is still talking about banking the credit to count towards its Paris target), and Howard was able to keep a lid on climate concerns until 2006. But it was too little, too late, and in 2007 his party began a six-year exile from government as Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd took the climate policy helm, with acrimonious results.

When Tony Abbott swept to power in 2013, his first act was to abolish the Labor-appointed Climate Commission, which resurrected itself as the independent Climate Council. Next, he delivered his signature election campaign promise: to axe the hated carbon tax (despite his chief of staff Peta Credlin’s later admission that the tax wasn’t, of course, actually a tax).




Read more:
Obituary: Australia’s carbon price


Abbott also reduced the renewable energy target, and sought (unsuccessfully) to keep climate change off the agenda at the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane.

Abbott and his environment minister Greg Hunt did preside over some policy offerings – most notably the Direct Action platform, with the A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund at its heart, dishing out public money for carbon-reduction projects. The pair also announced an emissions reduction target of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, which Australia took as its formal pledge to the crucial 2015 Paris climate talks.

But by the time nations convened in Paris, Malcolm Turnbull was in the hot seat, having toppled Abbott a few months earlier. Many observers hoped he would take strong action on climate; in 2010 he had enthused about the prospect of Australia going carbon-neutral. But the hoped-for successor to the carbon price never materialised, as Turnbull came under sustained attack from detractors within both his own party and the Nationals.

Then, in September 2016, a thunderbolt (or rather, a fateful thunderstorm). South Australia’s entire electricity grid was knocked out by freak weather, plunging the state into blackout, and the state government into a vicious tussle with Canberra. The dispute, embodied by SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s infamous altercation with the federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg, spilled over into a wider ideological conflict about renewable energy.




Read more:
A year since the SA blackout, who’s winning the high-wattage power play?


With tempers fraying on all sides, and still no economy-wide emissions policy in place, business began to agitate for increasingly elusive investment certainty (although they had played dead or applauded when Gillard’s carbon price was under attack).

In an era of policy on the run, things accelerated to a sprinter’s pace. Frydenberg suggested an emissions intensity scheme might be looked at. Forty-eight hours later it was dead and buried.

Turnbull commissioned Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to produce a report, which included the recommendation for a Clean Energy Target, prompting it to be vetoed in short order by the government’s backbench.

Within three months Frydenberg hurriedly put together the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), which focused on both reliability and emissions reduction in the electricity sector. The policy gained support from exhausted business and NGOs, but not from the Monash Forum of Tony Abbott and cohorts, who preferred the sound of state-funded coal instead. And then, in August 2018, the NEG was torpedoed, along with Turnbull’s premiership.

The next man to move into the Lodge, Scott Morrison, was previously best known in climate circles for waving a lump of coal (kindly provided, with lacquer to prevent smudging, by the Minerals Council of Australia) in parliament.




Read more:
The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


Morrison’s problems haven’t eased. His energy minister Angus Taylor and environment minister Melissa Price have each come under attack for their apparent lack of climate policy ambition, and Barnaby Joyce and a select few fellow Nationals recently endangered the fragile truce over not mentioning the coal.

Meanwhile, Labor, with one eye on the Green vote and another on Liberal voters appalled by the lack of action on climate change, are trying to slip between Scylla and Charybdis.

Shorten’s offering

While Labor has decided not to make use of a Kyoto-era loophole (taking credit for reduced land-clearing), its newly released climate policy platform makes no mention of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, dodges the thorny issue of the Adani coalmine, and has almost nothing to say on how to pay the now-inevitable costs of climate adaptation.

What will the minor parties say? Labor’s policy is nowhere near enough to placate the Greens’ leadership, but then the goal for Labor is of course to peel away the Greens support – or at least reduce the haemorrhaging, while perhaps picking up the votes of disillusioned Liberals.

Overall, as Nicky Ison has already pointed out on The Conversation, Labor has missed an “opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action”.




Read more:
Labor’s climate policy: a decent menu, but missing the main course


And so the prevailing political winds have blown us more or less back to where we were in 1997: the Liberals fighting among themselves, business despairing, and Labor being cautious.

But in another sense, of course, our situation is far worse. Not only has a culture war broken out, but the four hottest years in the world have happened in the past five, the Great Barrier Reef is suffering, and the Bureau of Meteorology’s purple will be getting more of a workout.

We’ve spent two decades digging a deeper hole for ourselves. It’s still not clear when or how we can climb out.The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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

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Shorten’s climate policy would hit more big polluters harder and set electric car target


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A Shorten government would add about 100 high polluters to those subject to an emissions cap, and drastically slash the present cap’s level, under the opposition’s climate policy released on Monday.

Labor would aim for a new threshold under a revamp of the existing safeguards mechanism of 25,000 tonnes of direct carbon dioxide pollution annually, which would be phased in after consultation with industry.

This would be a major reduction from the current cap of 100,000 tonnes. About 140 to 160 polluters come under the existing cap.

The safeguards mechanism was established by the Coalition government to cap pollution for the biggest polluters by setting limits or “baselines” for facilities covered. But Labor says it has been ineffective.

On transport, the policy sets an ambitious target of having electric vehicles form 50% of new car sales by 2030. The government fleet would have an electric vehicle target of 50% of new purchases and leases of passenger vehicles by 2025.

The climate change policy covers industry, transport and agriculture, with the proposed measures for the electricity sector, including an in-principle commitment to a national energy guarantee (NEG) and subsidies for batteries, already announced.

The agriculture sector would not be covered by the expanded safeguards policy.

The government’s emissions reduction fund – recently allocated a further A$2 billion over a decade and renamed – would be scrapped if Labor wins the May election.

The climate policy is the third of three key policy announcements the opposition wanted to make before the election is called, likely next weekend. The others were the wages policy and the announcement of the start date – January 1 – for the proposed crackdown on negative gearing.

The opposition has committed itself to a 45% economy-wide reduction in emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the government’s commitment to a reduction of 26-28%.

Labor’s policy confirms that it would not use Australia’s credits from the expiring Kyoto Protocol to help meet its Paris target, saying this course is “fake action on climate change”. Bill Shorten said on Sunday: “It’s only the Australian Liberal Party and the Ukraine proposing to use these carryover credits that I am aware of.”

Labor says it would “work in partnership with business to help bring down pollution.”

“Labor’s approach isn’t about punishing polluters. It’s about partnering with industry to find real, practical solutions to cut pollution, in a way that protects and grows industry and jobs.”

“There will be no carbon tax, carbon pricing mechanism, or government revenue,” Labor says.

“Rather, Labor will reduce pollution from the biggest industrial polluters by extending the existing pollution cap implemented by Malcolm Turnbull.”

“Pollution caps will be reduced over time and Labor will make it easier for businesses to meet these caps by allowing for industrial and international offsets.”

The expanded scheme’s new threshold would capture an estimated 250 of the biggest industrial polluters – 0.01% of all businesses.

Businesses would be able to earn credits for “overachievement” – reducing pollution below their baselines. They could sell these credits or use them to meet their future cap.

“Tailored” treatment would be provided to emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries (EITEs) such as steel, aluminium and cement. There would be a A$300 million Strategic Industries Reserve Fund “to support these industries in finding solutions to cut pollution and remain competitive”.

A Shorten government would consult with industry and experts on baselines for individual entities and the timing of reduction.

It would also put in place “a well-functioning offset market and reinvigorate the land offset market”.

“Currently, a facility that emits more than its baseline must offset excess emissions by purchasing offsets, primarily from the land sector. But currently businesses cannot access international offsets, or offsets from the electricity sector.

“Labor will make it easier for covered businesses to meet any offset obligations, not only by allowing for the creation and sale of offsets if emissions fall below baselines, but also through the purchase of international offsets and potentially offsets from the electricity sector.

“We will also boost offset supply through revitalising the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) – including reforms to strengthen the integrity of the CFI, and increasing land and other sector abatement opportunities.

“This will include exploring the establishment of ‘premium’ land sector credits to provide substantial environmental, biodiversity and other co-benefits, establishing a Carbon Assessment Standard to boost the bankability of offset projects, and re-vitalising offset methodology research and development with an additional A$40 million in funding over four years.

“Labor’s plan will help industry reduce pollution at least cost, and give traditional owners, farmers, the forestry industry and traditional owners new opportunities to earn income.”

On transport – which accounts for nearly 20% of Australia’s emissions – Labor says Australia is now last among western countries for electric vehicle uptake.

“Setting a national target will deliver more affordable electric vehicles into the Australian market and drive the switch to electric vehicles, reducing their cost, creating thousands of jobs and cutting pollution.”

Businesses would get an upfront tax deduction to buy electric vehicles, as part of the ALP’s announced Australian Investment Guarantee.

One aspect of moving quickly to government electric vehicle fleets would be that it would develop a secondhand market, Labor says.

“Labor will also work with industry to introduce vehicle emissions standards, to save Australian motorists hundreds of dollars each year at the bowser while driving down pollution on our roads.

“Australia is now one of the only developed nations without vehicle emissions standards in place. As a result, motorists will pay as much as A$500 each year more at the bowser than they should be, as well as seeing pollution on our roads skyrocket.

“Labor will consult on the timeline and coverage of vehicle emission standards to ensure consumers are made significantly better off, and aim to phase-in standards of 105g CO₂/km for light vehicles, which is consistent with Climate Change Authority advice.”

These standards would be in line with those in the United States but less stringent than those in the European Union.

“These standards will be applied to car retailers to meet average emissions standards, rather than imposing blanket mandatory standards on manufacturers.

“This will allow retailers to meet the standards by offsetting high emissions car sales with low or zero emissions car sales – such as electric vehicles.”



Emily Nunell/Michael Hopkin/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

UPDATE: Reaction

The government has reacted predictably to the Labor climate plan, branding it a “new tax”, ahead of what will be a major Coalition scare campaign in the election.

Scott Morrison said the opposition leader “does not have a plan, he just has another tax.

“What we’ve got here is a ‘re-Rudd’ of a failed policy that costs jobs, that costs businesses, that will cost Australians at least $9,000 a year, with the reckless targets that Bill Shorten will make law.”

On electric cars, Morrison said Shorten needed to explain how in 10 years he would take them from 0.2% of the market to 50% – because if he didn’t achieve his “reckless target […] he has to come back and get that money off you”.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the Shorten policy “would be a wrecking ball in the economy.

“It would raise the price of electricity and the price of gas and the price of food and the price of cars. Labor needs to come clean on the detail – not just the mechanism, which we know is the carbon tax.”

The Business Council of Australia welcomed the further details Labor had provided but said there were unanswered questions including “what mechanism will drive and manage the transition to lower-emissions generation in the electricity sector?”

“It remains unclear how abatement will be delivered in the electricity sector and how the various announcements made today will contribute to an economy-wide emissions reduction target,” the BCA said.

It said it had strongly supported the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) and called on the ALP, if elected, “to commit to working with the states and territories to implement the scheme as a credible, market-based mechanism to drive abatement and investment in the electricity sector.”

The Labor party has supported in principle a NEG – the plan the Coalition dumped because of an internal split over it.

The Australian Conservation Foundation gave Labor’s policy a qualified tick, describing it as “a serious policy response to the existential threat of global warming that recognises pollution must be cut across all industry sectors.”

“Labor’s climate change plan does address many of the important challenges Australia has in transforming into a zero-pollution economy,” the ACF said.

But “unfortunately, sections of Labor’s policy platform contain significant wriggle room that big polluters may seek to exploit.

“If it wins government Labor must quickly harden the detail around its policies and resist attempts of industry lobby groups like the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Automobile Association to weaken climate action.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Labor’s climate policy: a decent menu, but missing the main course


Nicky Ison, University of Technology Sydney

The federal Labor Party this week released the details of its keenly awaited climate policy package.

With a commitment to cutting climate pollution by 45% on 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the Coalition’s 26-28% target, there was never a doubt that Labor’s policy agenda was going to be more ambitious than the government’s.




Read more:
Shorten’s climate policy would hit more big polluters harder and set electric car target


But what exactly does it include, how does it stack up against the scientific imperatives, and what’s missing?

By offering a broad platform, Labor has moved away from a single economy-wide policy solution to climate change, such as a carbon price or emissions trading scheme. Instead, it has opted for a sector-by-sector approach.

This is smart politics and policy. By developing a climate plan for each major sector – industry, electricity, transport, and agriculture and land – it is possible to modernise each sector in a bespoke way, thus driving more innovation and job creation while also cutting carbon pollution.


Emily Nunell/Michael Hopkin/The Conversation

Industry

Labor has taken the politically safe option of expanding the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” to lower industrial greenhouse emissions. Under this scheme, big emitters are required to keep their emissions below a prescribed “baseline” level, or to buy offsets if they exceed it.

Labor has lowered the threshold for the scheme, meaning it will now cover all businesses that emit more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (the cutoff is currently 100,000 tonnes). From there, all of these companies will have to lower their emissions by 45% by 2030 on 2005 levels.

Some details are still to be determined, including the precise trajectories of emissions reductions, the use of offsets (which while welcomed by industry, is considered by many people to be highly problematic), and the treatment of emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries such as aluminium and cement. As with all complex policies, the devil will be in the detail.

Labor’s policy also includes a “Strategic Industries Reserve Fund”, which would support non-commercial technical innovations to help energy-intensive industries reduce their pollution. The world has already seen significant technical advances, from electrification of gas furnaces, to new cement blends.

But few have been developed, trialled or adopted by Australian industry, and they are not yet as cheap as deploying renewables or energy-efficiency solutions in the electricity sector. The new fund would therefore potentially help drive down emissions in the longer term by opening up access to technologies that are not yet cost-competitive.

Electricity

Labor announced its electricity policy in November 2018, and nothing has changed since. It primarily includes a commitment to adopting the Coalition’s now-abandoned National Energy Guarantee and providing an extra A$10 billion to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Other commitments include plans for energy efficiency, hydrogen power, support for community energy, and establishment of a Just Transition Authority. These are worthwhile next steps, but much more needs to be done to replace Australia’s ageing coal-fired power stations with clean, renewable energy.




Read more:
Labor’s policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions


Transport

Labor’s transport plans offer a clear chance to deliver economic benefits alongside emissions reductions. It has pledged to introduce vehicle emissions standards equivalent to those in the United States (which are not as strict as those in the European Union).

Australia is the only OECD country that does not have vehicle emissions standards, leaving manufacturers free to dump old, gas-guzzling models on the Australian market. Labor calculates that this costs Australian households an extra A$500 per year in fuel costs, compared with other countries.

Alongside this is also a 50% target for electric vehicles (EVs), requirements for new EV charging infrastructure, and tax breaks for businesses that buy EVs. These are sensible first steps towards driving down transport emissions, which are rising rapidly. Indeed, they are the very least a government should be doing, which makes the fact that after six years in government the Coalition won’t have a plan for electric vehicles until mid-2020 very concerning.




Read more:
Labor’s plan for transport emissions is long on ambition but short on details


Agriculture and land

Agriculture is the most difficult of all sectors in which to reduce emissions; it is therefore unsurprising that the lightest-touch policy approach is in this sector. Federal Labor will want to take advantage of all the departmental support it can to properly tackle this tough nut.

What it has done is commit to two main policies: strengthening the Carbon Farming Initiative, and ensuring that Queensland’s land clearing laws are applied across the country. The land clearing laws particularly will help reverse the current widespread land clearing occurring in New South Wales, in response to the state government weakening these laws. And comes in stark contrast to the federal government’s proposal to pay farmers not to chop down trees.

Carbon accounting

The final prong in Labor’s climate strategy is to rule out any creative accounting tricks. The Coalition government is proposing to use carryover Kyoto credits that are a result of the Howard government negotiating a “good deal” for Australia in 1997. Labor has ruled out using these loopholes as part of meeting Australia’s international commitments and has also promised to do more to help our Pacific neighbours. This support may be little help, however, if Labor doesn’t strengthen its support for holding global warming to 1.5℃.

What’s left out?

This package is a solid, technocratic basis for tackling Australia’s rising greenhouse emissions. Unfortunately, there remain some glaring omissions.

The biggest omission is the lack of a plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Fossil fuels, particularly the mining and export of coal are Australia’s biggest contribution to climate change. Yet the ALP’s policy contains only two mentions of coal, nothing on coal exports, and no mention of gas. Labor is evidently still sitting on the fence on the future of the controversial Adani coalmine, and on the question of fossil fuel subsidies more generally.

While it might be politically convenient to let the Coalition tear itself apart over coal, the scientific reality is that to have a hope of limiting warming to 1.5℃, Australia needs to rapidly move away from coal both domestically and for exports. This is not something Labor will be able to ignore for long.

There was also no mention of the need to adapt to existing climate change. Given the recent tribulations of Townsville, the Murray-Darling Basin, and drought-stricken farmers, this should surely be a crucial point of emphasis.




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Townsville floods show cities that don’t adapt to risks face disaster


The policy is also missing the human face of climate change. Labor is choosing to frame climate as an economic and environmental issue. It is both of those things, but it is also a social justice issue. Indeed, those most affected by climate change are some of Australia’s (and the world’s) most disadvantaged people. For instance, the Aboriginal community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory, who are currently fighting fracking on their land, were recently evacuated due to Cyclone Trevor.

Yesterday’s policy announcement was a missed opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action.

The lack of focus on health is doubly puzzling, given that Labor already announced a Climate and Health Strategy in late 2017, and could easily have drawn attention to it here.

While there is no doubt that Labor is far ahead of the Coalition on climate change, this package is far from what the science (and schoolchildren!) are telling us is needed.

As bushfires, floods, droughts and protests are all set to continue, don’t expect this issue to go away after the federal election.The Conversation

Nicky Ison, Research Associate, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

NZ’s environmental watchdog challenges climate policy on farm emissions and forestry offsets



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The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has warned that afforestation is a risky approach to combatting climate change.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, University of Otago

The greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, from burping and urinating livestock, account for about half of New Zealand’s total emissions. These agricultural emissions have been the elephant in the room of New Zealand climate policy for some time.

A report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) this week suggests New Zealand should treat biological emissions differently from carbon dioxide emissions. It also says afforestation is a risky approach to combating climate change if planting trees is used to offset carbon emissions.

The report threatens to turn environmental policy and its principal policy tool, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), on its head.




Read more:
A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


Emissions trading in New Zealand

New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, established by Helen Clark’s Labour administration in 2008, was meant to be a bold first in the world. It was going to cover all greenhouse-gases and all sectors and include forestry as an emissions sink. Critically, it was to include agriculture and the related biological emissions.

But the election of John Key’s National administration in 2009, with their rural electorate, meant agriculture never entered the scheme and was therefore “given a free ride” in the decade or so since. To put this “free ride” into context, the rest of the economy could buy cheap, and in some cases dubious, international carbon units for the bulk of that period.

After international trading was stopped, they could buy relatively cheap domestic forestry units. In truth, it was never much of a free ride for agriculture since no one was working particularly hard to mitigate anyhow.

The PCE report challenges the scheme’s architecture. It makes a number of recommendations. First, it suggests that biological emission should be treated differently to carbon dioxide emissions, with a zero target on carbon dioxide and a much lower but unspecified target for biological emissions.

The second recommendation is to no longer allow forestry sinks to be used to offset carbon dioxide emission, but to continue using them to offset biological emission.

This shifts the burden of mitigation away from biological emissions in agriculture towards carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and transport.

The PCE’s recommendations

The report provides an alternative vision to the “all gasses and all sectors” flexibility envisioned for the original NZ ETS. It differentiates between carbon dioxide and biological emissions since carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas, but biological emissions include the long-lived nitrous oxide and the shorter-lived but potent methane.

The recommendation that afforestation sinks should no longer be used to offset carbon dioxide emissions represent a radical departure. It is likely to be opposed by foresters and those not wanting to create too much uncertainty in the NZ ETS. These are fair points that must be balanced against the logic behind the recommendation.

Using afforestation to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions is risky because forests may burn down (especially in a warming world) and release the carbon again. Commercial plantation forests only hold the carbon until the next harvesting cycle, and ultimately the land available for tree planting is limited and may crowd out other land uses.

Using afforestation to tackle carbon dioxide reductions also means we do not work hard enough to decarbonise the economy in more fundamental ways, including switching to electric vehicles, building houses for passive solar heating and making process heat renewable.

The search for cross-party consensus

Overall, the report signals a fundamentally different approach to climate policy from that envisioned for the NZ ETS over a decade ago. Differentiating carbon and biological emissions is sensible both from a science and a political expediency perspective.

The latter is particularly important if we are to have a political consensus behind the proposed Zero Carbon Act. Ultimately, the opposition National party will not back anything that unduly affects its agricultural electorate. Reducing reliance on carbon sinks also seems sensible as it pushes the cost of mitigation into the future, imposing it on future generations.




Read more:
A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Does this mean a free ride for agriculture once more? Probably not, but the devil will be in the detail. What the reduction targets for biological emissions should be is not clear. The report cites a range of between 22% to 48% by 2050 as potentially feasible with investment in research and development.

The degree to which afforestation can be used to offset agricultural emissions also needs to be thought about. Unlimited forestry offsets could lead to landscapes that are either planted in trees or relatively intensive dairy farming, with little else in between. This is undesirable as it could lead to changes in biological diversity and water quality and ultimately damage New Zealand’s green and clean brand.

Clearly, there needs to be strong incentives to reduce biological emissions beyond the offset option that push towards more sustainable forms of farming. There is a strong case to limit offsets for agriculture as well, but this might depress the forestry sector.

Finally, to remove the carbon offset option from the market immediately or in the next few years would be unfair to foresters and companies that have been planning to use offsets based on the current architecture. A transition period would be needed to lessen the regulatory shock.The Conversation

Ivan Diaz-Rainey, Associate Professor of Finance & Director, Climate and Energy Finance Group, University of Otago

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

Expanding gas mining threatens our climate, water and health


Melissa Haswell, Queensland University of Technology and David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Australia, like its competitors Qatar, Canada and the United States, aspires to become the world’s largest exporter of gas, arguing this helps importing nations reduce their greenhouse emissions by replacing coal.

Yes, burning gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. Yet the “fugitive emissions” – the methane that escapes, often unmeasured, during production, distribution and combustion of gas – is a much more potent short-term greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.




Read more:
Who gets to decide whether we dig up coal and gas?


A special report issued by the World Health Organisation after the 2018 Katowice climate summit urged governments to take “specific commitments to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants” such as methane, so as to boost the chances of staying with the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5℃ global warming limit.

Current gas expansion plans in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where another 2,500 coal seam gas wells have been approved, reveal little impetus to deliver on this. Harvesting all of WA’s gas reserves would emit about 4.4 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than Australia’s total domestic energy-related emissions budget.

Gas as a cause of local ill-health

There are not only global, but also significant local and regional risks to health and well-being associated with unconventional gas mining. Our comprehensive review examines the current state of the evidence.

Since our previous reviews (see here, here and here), more than 1,400 further peer-reviewed articles have been published, helping to clarify how expanding unconventional gas production across Australia risks our health, well-being, climate, water and food security.




Read more:
Chief Scientist CSG report leaves health concerns unanswered


This research has been possible because, since 2010, 17.6 million US citizens’ homes have been within a mile (1.6km) of gas wells and fracking operations. Furthermore, some US research funding is independent of the gas industry, whereas much of Australia’s comparatively small budget for research in this area is channelled through an industry-funded CSIRO research hub.

Key medical findings

There is evidence that living close to unconventional gas mining activities is linked to a wide range of health conditions, including psychological and social problems.

The US literature now consistently reports higher frequencies of low birth weight, extreme premature births, higher-risk pregnancies and some birth defects, in pregnancies spent closer to unconventional gas mining activities, compared with pregnancies further away. No parallel studies have so far been published in Australia.

US studies have found increased indicators of cardiovascular disease, higher rates of sinus disorders, fatigue and migraines, and hospitalisations for asthma, heart, neurological, kidney and urinary tract conditions, and childhood blood cancer near shale gas operations.

Exploratory studies in Queensland found higher rates of hospitalisation for circulatory, immune system and respiratory disorders in children and adults in the Darling Downs region where coal seam gas mining is concentrated.

Water exposure

Chemicals found in gas mining wastewater include volatile organic compounds such as benzene, phenols and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, as well as heavy metals, radioactive materials, and endocrine-disrupting substances – compounds that can affect the body’s hormones.

This wastewater can find its way into aquifers and surface water through spillage, injection procedures, and leakage from wastewater ponds.

The environmental safety of treated wastewater and the vast quantities of crystalline salt produced is unclear, raising questions about cumulative long-term impacts on soil productivity and drinking water security.

Concern about the unconventional gas industry’s use of large quantities of water has increased since 2013. Particularly relevant to Australian agriculture and remote communities is research showing an unexpected but consistent increase in the “water footprint” of gas wells across all six major shale oil and gas mining regions of the US from 2011 to 2016. Maximum increases in water use per well (7.7-fold higher, Permian deposits, New Mexico and Texas) and wastewater production per well (14-fold, Eagle Ford deposits, Texas) occurred where water stress is very high. The drop in water efficiency was tied to a drop in gas prices.

Air exposure

Research on the potentially harmful substances emitted into the atmosphere during water removal, gas production and processing, wastewater handling and transport has expanded. These substances include fine particulate pollutants, ground-level ozone, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde, diesel exhaust and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Measuring concentrations and human exposures to these pollutants is complicated, as they vary widely and unpredictably in both time and location. This makes it difficult to prove a definitive causal link to human health impacts, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence.




Read more:
Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health


Our review found substantially more evidence of what we suspected in 2013: that gas mining poses significant threats to the global climate, to food and water supplies, and to health and well-being.

On this basis, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has reinforced its position that no new gas developments should occur in Australia, and that governments should increase monitoring, regulation and management of existing wells and gas production and transport infrastructure.The Conversation

Melissa Haswell, Professor of Health, Safety and Environment, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology and David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

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

To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws



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Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result.
Don Driscoll, Author provided

Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.




Read more:
Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut


Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Trends from 1978 to 2017 in the annual (July to June) sum of the daily Forest Fire Danger Index, an indicator of the severity of fire weather conditions. Positive trends, shown in the yellow to red colours, indicate increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. Areas where there are sparse data coverage, such as central parts of Western Australia, are faded.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology/State of the Climate 2018

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.




Read more:
Stopping land clearing and replanting trees could help keep Australia cool in a warmer future


In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.The Conversation

Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

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

Australia needs a national plan to face the growing threat of climate disasters


Robert Glasser, Australian National University

We are entering a new era in the security of Australia, not because of terrorism, the rise of China, or even the cybersecurity threat, but because of climate change. If the world warms beyond 2℃, as seems increasingly likely, an era of disasters will be upon us, with profound implications for how we organise ourselves to protect Australian lives, property and economic interests, and our way of life.

The early warning of this era is arriving almost daily, in news reports from across the globe of record-breaking heatwaves, prolonged droughts, massive bushfires, torrential flooding, and record-setting storms.

In a new special report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I argue that Australia is not facing up to the pace of these worsening threats. We need a national strategy to deal specifically with climate disaster preparedness.




Read more:
Explainer: are natural disasters on the rise?


Even without climate change, the impact of these natural hazards is enormous. More than 500 Australians – roughly the same number who died in the Vietnam War – die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050. This is roughly equivalent to what the federal government spends each year on the Australian Defence Force.

Climate change will dramatically increase the frequency and severity of many of these hazards. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years, and heatwaves have become longer and hotter. Extreme fire weather days have increased in recent decades in many regions of Australia. Shorter and more intense rainstorms that trigger flash floods and urban flooding are also becoming more frequent, and sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate since 1993.

Australians are already exposed to a wide range of the hazards that climate change is amplifying. Almost 4 million of our people, and about 20% of our national economic output, are in areas with high or extreme risk of tropical cyclones. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people and 11% of economic activity are in places with high or extreme risk of bushfire.

Chronic crisis

As the frequency of extreme events increases, we are likely to see an increase in events happening at the same time in different parts of the country, or events following hard on the heels of previous ones. Communities may weather the first few setbacks but, in their weakened state, be ultimately overwhelmed.

Large parts of the country that are currently marginally viable for agriculture are increasingly likely to be in chronic crisis, from the compounding impacts of the steady rise of temperature, drought and bushfires.

The scale of those impacts will be unprecedented, and the patterns that the hazards take will change in ways that are difficult to predict. Australia’s fire season, for example, is already getting longer. Other research suggests that tropical cyclones are forming further from the Equator as the planet warms, putting new areas of eastern Australia in harm’s way.

This emerging era of disasters will increasingly stretch emergency services, undermine community resilience, and escalate economic costs and losses of life. Federal, state and local governments all need to start preparing now for the unprecedented scale of these emerging challenges.

Queensland as a case study

Queensland’s recent experience illustrates what could lie ahead for all of Australia. Late last year, a major drought severely affected the state. At that time, a senior manager involved in coordinating the state’s rebuilding efforts following Cyclone Debbie commented that his team was in the ironic situation of rebuilding from floods during a drought. The drought was making it difficult to find water to mix with gravel and to suppress the dust associated with rebuilding roads.

The drought intensified, contributing to an outbreak of more than 140 bushfires. This was followed and exacerbated by an extreme heatwave, with temperatures in the 40s that smashed records for the month of November. Bushfire conditions in parts of Queensland were classified as “catastrophic” for the first time since the rating scale was developed in 2009. More than a million hectares of bush and farmland were destroyed – the largest expanse of Queensland affected by fire since records began.

Just days later, Tropical Cyclone Owen approached the Queensland coast, threatening significant flooding and raising the risk of severe mudslides from the charred hillsides. Owen set an Australian record in dumping 681 millimetres of rain in just 24 hours – more than Melbourne usually receives in a year. It did not, however, diminish the drought gripping much of the state.

A few weeks later, record rains flooded more than 13.25 million hectares of Northern Queensland, killing hundreds of thousands of drought-stressed cattle. As two Queensland graziers wrote at the time: “Almost overnight we have transitioned from relative drought years to a flood disaster zone.”

Time to prepare

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

It makes no sense for the federal government to have two separate strategies (as it currently does) for disaster resilience and climate change adaptation. Given that 90% of major disasters worldwide are from climate-related hazards such as storms, droughts and floods, these two strategies should clearly be merged.

One of the prime objectives of the new strategy should be to scale up Australia’s efforts to prevent hazards from turning into disasters. Currently, the federal government spends 30 times more on rebuilding after disasters than it does on reducing the risks in the first place.




Read more:
Properties under fire: why so many Australians are inadequately insured against disaster


Australia should be leading global calls for urgent climate action, not just because we’re so vulnerable to climate hazards, but also for traditional national security reasons. We are the wealthiest nation in a region full of less-developed countries that are hugely vulnerable to climate change. Shocks to their food security, economic interests and political stability will undermine our own national security.

No military alliance, deployment of troops or new weapon system will adequately protect Australia from this rapidly escalating threat. The only effective “forward defence” is to reduce greenhouse gases globally, including in Australia, as quickly as possible. Without far greater ambition on this front, the scale of the disasters that lie ahead will overwhelm even the most concerted efforts to strengthen the resilience of Australian communities.


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Strategist.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

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