BlackRock is the canary in the coalmine. Its decision to dump coal signals what’s next


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, that it will dump more than half a billion dollars in thermal coal shares from all of its actively managed portfolios, might not seem like big news.

Announcements of this kind have come out steadily over the past couple of years.

Virtually all the major Australian and European banks and insurers, and many other global institutions, have already announced such policies.

According to the Unfriend Coal Campaign, insurance companies have stopped covering roughly US$8.9 trillion of coal investments – more than one-third (37%) of the coal industry’s global assets, and stopped offering reinsurance to 46% of them.

Blackrock matters because it is big

The announcement matters, in part because of Blackrock’s sheer size.

It is the world’s largest investor, with a total of $US7 trillion in funds under its control. Its announcement it will “put climate change at the center of its investment strategy” raises questions about the soundness of smaller financial institutions that remain committed to coal and to a carbon-based economy.


Exract from BlackRock’s letter to clients, January 14, 2020

Blackrock is also important because its primary business is index funds, that are meant to replicate entire markets.

So far these funds are not affected by the divestment policy. BlackRock’s iShares United States S&P 500 Index fund, for instance, has nearly US$23 billion in assets, including as much as US$1 billion in energy investments.

But the contradiction between the company’s new activist stance and the passive replication of an energy-heavy index such as Australia’s is obvious. The pressure to find a solution will grow.

In time, the entire share market will be affected

One solution might be for large mining companies such as BHP to dump their coal assets in order to remain part of both Blackrock’s actively managed (stock picking) and passively managed (all stocks) portfolios.

Another might be the development of index funds from which firms reliant on fossil fuels are excluded. It is even possible that the compilers of stock market indexes will themselves exclude these firms.

The announcement has big implications for the Australian government.




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Blackrock chief executive Laurence Fink noted that climate change has become the top issue raised by clients. He said it would soon affect all all investments – everything from municipal bonds to mortgages for homes.

Once investors start assessing government bonds in terms of climate change, Australia’s government will be in serious trouble.

Australia’s AAA rating will be at risk

The bushfire catastrophe and the government’s inadequate response have shown the world Australia is both among the countries most exposed to climate catastrophe and one of the worst in terms of contributions to solutions.

Once bond investors follow the lead of Blackrock and other financial institutions, divestment of Australian government bonds will follow.

This process has already started, with the decision of Sweden’s central bank to unload its holdings of Australian government bonds.

Taken in isolation, Sweden’s move had virtually no effect on Australia’s bond prices and yields. But the most striking feature of the divestment movement so far is the speed with which it has grown from symbolic gestures to a severe constraint on funding for the firms it touches.




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The fact that the Adani corporation was unable to find a single bank willing to fund its Carmichael mine is an indication of the pressure that will come to bear.

The effects might be felt before large-scale divestment takes place. Ratings agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poors are supposed to anticipate risks to bondholders before they materialise.

It’ll make inaction expensive

Once there is a serious threat of large-scale divestment in Australian bonds, the agencies will be obliged to take this into account in setting Ausralia’s credit rating. The much-prized AAA rating is likely to be an early casualty.

That would mean higher interest rates for Australian government bonds which would flow through the entire economy, including the home mortgage rates mentioned in the Blackrock statement.

The government’s case for doing nothing about climate change (other than cashing in on past efforts) has been premised on the “economy-wrecking” costs of serious action.

But as investments associated with coal are increasingly seen as toxic, we run an increasing risk that inaction will cause greater damage.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Don’t blame the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It’s climate and economic change driving farmers out


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

For the thousand or so farmers in Canberra in the past week venting their anger at the federal government, it’s the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to blame for destroying their livelihoods and forcing them off the land.

We can’t comment directly on their claims about the basin plan. But our research, looking at the years 1991 to 2011, suggests little association between the amount of water extracted from the Murray-Darling river system for irrigation and total farmer numbers.

That’s not to say there aren’t fewer farms in the basin now than a decade ago – there are – but our analysis points to the more important drivers being the longer-term influences of changing climate, economics and demographics.

Indeed our study predicts another 0.5℃ increase in temperature by 2041 will halve the current number of farmers in the basin.

Hostility to water recovery

The waters of the northern basin run to the Darling River and the waters of the southern basin run to the Murray River.
MDBA

Over many decades state governments in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia licensed to farmers more entitlements to water than the river system could sustain. The basis of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, enacted in 2012, was to rectify this through buying back about a quarter of all water licences to ensure an environmental flow.

A water entitlement, despite its name, does not guarantee a licence holder a certain amount of water. That depends on the water available, and that is determined by the states, which make allocations to each type of licence based on its type of security and current conditions.

With drought, farmers have seen their allocations severely cut back, sometimes to nothing. And partly because they see there’s still water in the River Murray, some are very angry.




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Hostility to water recovery in fact predates the plan’s enactment, to when the federal government began buying back water entitlements in 2008. The Commonwealth now holds about 20% of water entitlements across the basin. More than two-thirds of these licences were recovered between 2008 and 2012.

Lack of correlation

Our research thus covers the period of most significant water buybacks. It also covers the period of the Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, when the amount of water extracted from the river system dropped by about 70%.

Yet we see little evidence reduced water extractions led to more farmers exiting the industry.

As a very broad overview of the situation, the following graph illustrates the lack of correlation between measured water extraction in the Murray-Darling Basin and decreasing farmer numbers.



Water extractions have varied significantly between years, with a big decline over the decade of the 2000s even while farmers’ need for irrigated water increased due to lack of rain. La Niña brought record rains in 2010-11. The current drought across the basin took grip from about 2017.

Yet farmer numbers have declined at a relative steady rate. Within the basin in the time-period we modelled, they fell from about 90,000 in 1991 to 70,000 in 2011. This can be seen as part of a wider trend, with total farmer numbers in the four basin states falling from more than 230,000 in 1976 to barely 100,000 in 2016.

It might be argued that because irrigated farms make up only a quarter of all farms, the overall numbers might mask a greater correlation between water extractions and decline in irrigated farms. While the specific impacts on irrigation farming in recent years warrant further study, there’s no signal in our data pointing to extractions making a discernible contribution to farmer numbers throughout the basin.

Modelling farmer movement

Our findings are based on a specialised data set of population and agricultural census information from statistical local areas from 1991 to 2011. We used climate risk measures from 1961 onwards.

The following infographic shows the exit pattern of farmers by local area between 1991 and 2011.



We included as many climate, economic, farming, water and socio-demographic characteristics as possible to capture historical farmer movements and create a model able to predict movements based on variables such as average temperature.

Need for a multifaceted response

Overall our modelling results suggests the most significant and largest influences on farmer exit are rising temperatures and increased drought risk, followed by the economic factors that have have been reducing the proportion of the population engaged in farming for more than a century.

Declining commodity prices, higher unemployment and urbanisation are strongly associated with farmer exit. Urbanisation, for example, has made it attractive for farmers on city fringes to sell their land to property developers and exit the industry.

Research suggests irrigators in psychological distress are more likely to want the basin plan suspended. Our research suggests their distress is probably not primarily driven by the federal government buying water entitlements from licence holders who sold them willingly. Water recovery and the basin plan is simply an easier focal point of blame than the longer-term trends making the farming lifestyle less viable.




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Nothing will be gained by focusing on short-term “fixes” at the cost of longer-term environmental harm. The problems facing all farmers cannot be addressed in isolation from longer-term global climate and economic trends.

As a society we have to decide what we value: do we want to see such a mass exodus of farmers from the land in the face of a drying climate? If not, future policy for the Basin must consider the real long-term drivers of farm exit and take a multi-faceted approach to climate change, water, land, drought and rural development.The Conversation

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

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

Australia’s hidden opportunity to cut carbon emissions, and make money in the process



A seagrass meadow. For the first time, researchers have counted the greenhouse gases stored by and emitted from such ecosystems.
NOAA/Heather Dine

Oscar Serrano, Edith Cowan University; Carlos Duarte, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; Catherine Lovelock, The University of Queensland; Paul Lavery, Edith Cowan University, and Trisha B Atwood, Utah State University

It’s no secret that cutting down trees is a main driver of climate change. But a forgotten group of plants is critically important to fixing our climate — and they are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses along Australia’s coasts store huge amounts of greenhouse gases, known as blue carbon.

Our research, published in Nature Communications, shows that in Australia these ecosystems absorb 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s about the same as 4 million cars.




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Worryingly, the research shows that between 2 million and 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide is released each year by the same ecosystems, due to damage from human activity, severe weather and climate change.

This research represents the world’s most comprehensive audit of any nation’s blue carbon. Around 10% of such ecosystems are located in Australia — so preserving and restoring them could go a long way to meeting our Paris climate goals.

A pile of washed-up seaweed and beach erosion at Collaroy Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. Storms can damage blue carbon ecosystems.
Megan Young/AAP

Super-charged carbon dioxide capture

Blue carbon ecosystems are vital in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. They account for 50% of carbon dioxide sequestered by oceans — despite covering just 0.2% of the world’s total ocean area — and absorb carbon dioxide up to 40 times faster than forests on land.

They do this by trapping particles from water and storing them in the soil. This means tidal marsh, mangrove and seagrass ecosystems bury organic carbon at an exceptionally high rate.

Globally, blue carbon ecosystems are being lost twice as fast as tropical rainforests despite covering a fraction of the area.

Since European settlement, about 25,000km² of tidal marsh and mangroves and 32,000km² of seagrass have been destroyed – up to half the original extent. Coastal development in Australia is causing further losses each year.

When these ecosystems are damaged — through storms, heatwaves, dredging or other human development — the carbon stored in biomass and soils can make its way back into the environment as carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.

In Western Australia in the summer of 2010-11, about 1,000km² of seagrass meadows at Shark Bay were lost due to a marine heatwave. Similarly, two cyclones and several other impacts devastated a 400km stretch of mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria in recent years.

The beach and Cape Kimberley hinterland at the mouth of the Daintree River in Queensland.
Brian Cassey/AAP

Such losses likely increase carbon dioxide emissions from land-use change in Australia by 12–21% per year.

Aside from the emissions reduction benefits, conserving and restoring blue carbon ecosystems would also increase the resilience of coasts to rising sea level and storm surge associated with climate change, and preserve habitats and nurseries for marine life.

How we measured blue carbon – and why

The project was part of a collaboration with CSIRO and included 44 researchers from 33 research institutions around the world.

To accurately quantify Australia’s blue carbon stocks, we divided Australia into five different climate zones. Variations in temperature, rainfall, tides, sediments and nutrients mean plant productivity and biomass varies across regions. So ecosystems in a tropical climate such as North Queensland store carbon dioxide at a different rate to those in temperate climates such as southeastern Australia.




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We estimated carbon dioxide stored in the vegetation above ground and soils below for each climate area. We measured the size and distribution of vegetation and took soil core samples to create the most accurate measurements possible.

Blue carbon must be assessed on a national scale before policies to preserve them can be developed. These policies might involve replanting seagrass meadows, reintroducing tidal flow to restore mangroves or preventing potential losses caused by coastal development.

Seagrass at Queensland’s Gladstone Harbour.
James Cook University

There’s a dollar to be made

Based on a carbon price of A$14 per tonne – the most recent price under the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund – blue carbon projects could be worth tens of millions of dollars per year in carbon credits. Our comprehensive measurements provide greater certainty of expected returns for financiers looking at investing in such projects.

Restoring just 10% of blue carbon ecosystems lost in Australia since European settlement could generate more than US$11 million per year in carbon credits. Conserving such ecosystems under threat could be worth between US$22 million and US$31 million per year.




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Blue carbon projects cannot currently be counted towards Australia’s Paris targets, but federal environment authorities are developing a methodology for their inclusion. The reintroduction of tidal flow to restore mangrove and tidal marsh ecosystems has been identified as the most promising potential activity.

Other activities being explored include planning for sea level rise to allow mangrove and tidal marsh to migrate inland, and avoiding the clearing of seagrass and mangroves.

There are still questions to be answered about exactly how blue carbon can be used to mitigate climate change. But our research shows the massive potential in Australia, and allows other countries to use the work for their own blue carbon assessments.The Conversation

Oscar Serrano, ARC DECRA Fellow, Edith Cowan University; Carlos Duarte, Adjunct professor, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; Catherine Lovelock, Professor of Biology, The University of Queensland; Paul Lavery, Professor of Marine Ecology, Edith Cowan University, and Trisha B Atwood, Assistant Professor of aquatic ecology, Utah State University

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

Global bank urges cities to invest in new infrastructure to adapt to climate change



Our cities need to adapt to cope with more extreme weather events and other impacts from climate change.
Flickr/Shaun Johnston, CC BY-NC-ND

Elisa Palazzo, UNSW

The impacts of climate change on weather, sea levels, food and water supplies should be seen as an investment opportunity for our cities, says global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

In a report out last month the bank says cities need to adapt to become more resilient to climate change and this could “drive one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history”.

The bank says cities will be on the frontline of any need to adapt because they are home to more than half the world’s population and generate roughly 80% of global GDP.




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The state of the debate

The report comes at a time when scepticism and wait-and-see approaches are still permeating the debate on climate action globally. The discussion on reducing emissions is dogged by disagreement on targets and actions to be undertaken.

Report cover.
Goldman Sachs

On the contrary, less emphasis has been placed on adapting to global warming, the consequences of which will play out for decades to come even if we meet the goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Goldman Sachs has already said it acknowledges the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and human activities are responsible for increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

Much global attention has focused so far on the need for climate change mitigation and the reduction of CO₂ emissions. But the bank’s latest report addresses the urban adaptation strategies that are urgently required:

Greater resilience will likely require extensive urban planning, with investments in coastal protections, climate-resilient construction, more robust infrastructure, upgraded water and waste-management systems, energy resilience and stronger communications and transportation systems.

It acknowledges mitigation measures are essential to reduce global temperature in the medium and long term. But it argues we need to act immediately to minimise the current and future effects of climate change in urban areas.

The question is, why would a bank endorse such a vision?

Banking on climate change

The bank’s report is a collection of data and analysis on climate change from well-known sources, such as the IPCC, and a detailed list of expected impacts on cities.

For example, higher temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, and rising sea levels could affect economic activity, damage infrastructure and harm vulnerable residents.

Does the report represent a last call to brace for impact? Or is a more nuanced and somehow optimistic view of the process emerging?

In reality, it’s not surprising this call is coming from an international financial institution such as Golden Sachs. This report needs be read in parallel with the environmental policy framework of the bank which is its “commitment to addressing critical environmental issues”.

The latest report identifies urban adaptation responses and initiatives as market solutions and financial opportunities. It clearly points out where investments should be addressed.

The directions outlined range over infrastructural initiatives to measures that require financial investment. Our cities need better coastal protection, more resilient buildings and open spaces, sustainable water and waste management, and upgraded transport systems.

A call for action

There is a positive takeaway emerging from the bank’s viewpoint which is a pragmatic call for action.

This could reinstate a more optimistic view of climate change. It could overcome the wait-and-see approach by moving the discussions beyond mitigation only.

And the report has the merit to outline some major challenges emerging from the need of financing a comprehensive urban adaptation.




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First, the need for innovative sources of financing and new ways to support climatic transition.

Secondly, the need to look at equity issues emerging from an adaptation process. For example, should a city strengthen flood defences in the CBD or should it upgrade public housing in flood-prone areas? Given the scale of the aims we need to evaluate carefully where best to invest the limited resources available.

But in this respect, no solutions are proposed.

This report is one of the many financial reports on climate change we have seen recently, about the risks and opportunities for the banking and insurance system. It’s probably the first to acknowledge clearly the need for comprehensive adaptation investments to make our cities more resilient.

But in concentrating on the infrastructure needs for cities, the report seems to miss the big picture.

There is still a need to understand how more integrated actions will include the social and environmental dimensions of adapting to climate change to create more sustainable and equitable cities.The Conversation

Elisa Palazzo, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW

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

Procurement’s role in climate change: putting government money where policy needs to go



Governments can choose to spend money in ways that support climate change policy, including a shift to electric vehicle fleets.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Barbara Allen, Victoria University of Wellington

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


For three years in a row, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has identified climate change as the gravest threat for global business and industry.

The disruption of supply chains in food, medicines and even recycling from climate-related events poses innumerable problems for nations. But one way of dealing with various facets of climate change is levering change through central government procurement.

Policies that govern supply and how goods, construction and services are procured are increasingly important as the capacity to mitigate through government purchasing choices faces greater pressure.

As New Zealand is considering zero carbon legislation, new government procurement rules take effect in October.

The rules include broader outcomes, connecting wider social and environmental priorities to procurement processes. This is the first time New Zealand lays out specific rules about how the government plans to use its own purchases to help fulfil its wider promises.




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Charging ahead with EVs

A cabinet paper on effective government procurement policy, released in late 2018, laid out four outcomes, one of which focused on supporting the transition to a net zero emissions economy and meeting the government’s goal of significantly reducing waste by 2020.

The policy’s priorities include reducing the emissions profile of the government vehicle fleet and reducing emissions from fossil fuels used in electricity generation and in direct production of industrial heat. Describing the government’s intention, Economic Development Minister David Parker said:

We are looking beyond just the price of what we purchase, to ensure procurement is contributing to the transition to a low-carbon economy, inclusive growth and prosperity.

The government’s commitment is to make its own vehicle fleet emissions-free by 2025-26. When replacing vehicles, chief executives of government agencies must purchase vehicles with emission profiles substantially below their current fleet average.

The government fleet – at 14,995 vehicles (with only 0.24% electric) – has a job on its hands. But already it is reporting that emissions have dropped between April and July 2019. The reduction is partly due to 400 fewer vehicles and minor shifts in driving patterns.




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This is a gutsy move, especially given cost implications and market challenges. But jurisdictions such as Germany and Sweden have promoted renewable sources for some time through legislation and multiple instruments including procurement that supports innovation. Others, such as Transport London, have been shifting to electric public transport fleets.

New Zealand has been conservative in its approach to linking procurement with objectives beyond “best value”, which is nearly always interpreted as least cost. But times are changing. A growing number of people in most agencies are trying to raise the profile of procurement beyond a purchasing exercise.

Procurement as opportunity and responsibility

Leaving the market to decide how taxpayer funds are spent through a clunky contracting process is missing an opportunity to procure the best services and infrastructure, as well as increasing workforce skills. Research on sustainable procurement has grown and the topic now features at the OECD.

There are different targeted approaches. One is an “emissions dashboard”, which shows the average emissions profile of each agency’s fleet and tracks emission reductions. But dashboards are only indicative, given the inevitable variation in reporting across organisations and the underlying reasons why an agency might have a high emissions rating.

Australia’s Indigenous procurement policy has used a very targeted approach requiring 3% of government contracts go to Indigenous business by 2027. Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been looking at the potential for something similar in New Zealand. A report on the benefits of indigenous procurement policies is expected.

Planning to replace vehicle fleets is a tangible use of the procurement lever to move towards lower emissions. But to support a fairly rapid change, supply chains need to be taken into consideration to ensure enough electric vehicles are available.

While there are many technical issues to resolve, New Zealand’s approach to procurement is a step in the right direction. Procurement can’t do everything at once, but it is an important instrument that needs to be directed at policy problems, underpinned by research and evidence.The Conversation

Barbara Allen, Senior Lecturer in Public Management, Victoria University of Wellington

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

China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Macquarie University

From an appalling environmental scorecard 20 years ago, China has pioneered a “global green shift” towards renewable energy and recycling. The country’s drive to dominate renewables manufacturing benefits both China and the world, by sending technology prices plummeting.

Many have attributed this success to China’s authoritarian political regime.

Unlike a democracy, this line of reasoning goes, the state can override special interest groups or opposition parties to impose “authoritarian environmentalism”. This allows a rapid and encompassing response to severe environmental threats.

We take a different view. As the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council Discovery Project examining East Asia’s clean energy shift, we are examining why and how some East Asian countries – including China – are pursuing ambitious renewable energy transformations, and what Australia might learn from these countries’ experiences.

We argue China’s success in greening and growing its economy is not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government.




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Not that different

China’s approach to greening shares much in common with democratic countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. All have ambitious programs to rapidly build domestic clean energy industries and “green” their power generation.

As such, our project emphasises the link between China’s green shift and what we call “developmental environmentalism”.

Developmental environmentalism refers to a state approaching greening as an opportunity to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. It helps explain both the drivers of the green shift and the means of its execution.

The “means” are less about authoritarianism and more about the state’s capacity to induce the private sector into a cooperative relationship.

This type of negotiated relationship between the state and industry is the exact opposite of authoritarianism, which pursues its goals irrespective of the wishes of the private sector. Indeed, the pages of history tell us authoritarian leaders are far more likely to misuse their concentrated economic power, resulting in developmental failure.

Democratic successes

China is not alone in its green shift. In fact, some of the world’s most ambitious national greening programs have sprung to life in democratic settings.

Germany

The clearest example is Germany and its widely admired Energiewende (“energy transition”). Germany took an early lead in the development of solar devices through government-sponsored industrial programs.

Then in 2011, in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

Countries around the world are now emulating Germany’s Energiewende.

South Korea

In one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea, the election of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 signalled a shift from intensive fossil-fuel development to “low-carbon, green growth”.

Lee’s focus was on greening the economy by investing in renewables and related infrastructure such as smart grids. His successor in 2013, President Park Geun-hye, continued this approach.

Finally, after President Moon Jae-in swept into power in 2017, South Korea committed to scaling down its use of nuclear energy.

Taiwan

Taiwan provides another fascinating example of a proudly democratic country that has followed in Germany’s footsteps. National efforts to establish a renewables industry began in 2009 under President Ma Ying-jeou. These initiatives targeted various clean energy industries for promotion, including generating solar and wind facilities and batteries.

However, just like Korea, the country’s over-reliance on nuclear energy (facilitated by a state-owned monopoly in the power sector) prevented the growth of a market for renewables.

A breakthrough in the country’s highly contentious debate over nuclear energy came with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who committed to the complete shutdown of nuclear reactors in the country.

Developmental environmentalism in action

These examples provide a clue that China’s ability to green its economy stems from something other than its authoritarian political system. We argue China’s success in greening stems from developmental environmentalism in action.

This does not simply mean a state that is “pro-development” and “pro-environment”. Rather, policymakers see greening the economy as chance to gain a competitive edge over other countries. The pursuit of strategic industry development goals involves nurturing – not displacing, as would occur in an authoritarian setting – “governed interdependence” with the private sector.

Best depicted by the Korean example, developmental environmentalism as a policy initially emerged as a response to threats to national industrial competitiveness. These included acute dependence on fossil-fuel imports, which are highly volatile, and global competitive pressures in the race to gain an early lead in the green economy.

Developmental environmentalism is also a strategic response to domestic challenges, such as the need to drive new sources of economic growth.

Lessons for Australia

If an authoritarian government provides little to no advantage for coordinating a green shift, what lessons might these countries have for Australian policymakers?

The key lesson is it’s not about designing the perfect constellation of policies or about pouring more money into entire industries.

Developmental environmentalism involves the political will to take big risks. Policymakers must target technologies – or segments of the economy – where government support could build national competitiveness.

Of course, this means creating a strategic, long-term approach to industry development, coordinated with the private sector.

Despite political gridlock, Australia is well placed to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing clean energy industry.

As the nation’s leaders engage in a fruitless debate over building new coal-fired power stations, Australian companies with world-class strengths in clean energies are emerging. Nowhere is this growing confidence more evident than in the blossoming of companies that have commercially ready smart microgrid and energy-storage solutions.

It would be a great shame – if not a national tragedy – if these companies were allowed to be picked off one by one by foreign multinational enterprises. This is the sad and familiar story of Australian manufacturing: highly innovative companies – a testament to our wealth of knowledge – are bought out, intellectual property rights absorbed, and manufacturing eventually outsourced. Often, shells of our prized national assets (typically the marketing and sales divisions) are all that remain.




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Yet, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy that focuses on building a national value chain or ecosystem of upstream and downstream players – as the Koreans and Taiwanese have done in smart microgrids – this future appears all but settled.The Conversation

Sung-Young Kim, Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University

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

A sharing economy for plants: Seed libraries are sprouting up



File 20181116 194516 3q61w9.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Got a license for those seeds?
xuanhuongho/Shutterstock.com

Michael Carolan, Colorado State University

Thanksgiving may be uniquely American, but its core spirit was exported from harvest festivals stretching back for millennia. Its essence is being grateful for what one has, while noting a duty to share one’s good fortune.

In my new book, “The Food Sharing Revolution: How Start-Ups, Pop-Ups, and Co-Ops are Changing the Way We Eat,” I look at sharing from a variety of angles – good, bad and downright ugly. One example is the custom of seed sharing, which can be traced from indigenous societies and the earliest fall festivals that ultimately inspired American Thanksgiving.

For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to help each other subsist from year to year. Today, thanks to intellectual property rights and often well-intentioned laws, our ability to share seeds is restricted. Realizing this, food activists, garden enthusiasts and community leaders are trying to make it easier by making seeds available through libraries. Surely there’s nothing controversial about that, right? Actually, there is.

Seed swap at the ‘Harvesting Change: Food and Community’ gathering in Detroit, Michigan, May 20, 2014.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, CC BY-ND

Free seeds by mail

Until the early 1800s, U.S. farmers either saved seed from their own crops or obtained it through personal networks. Then in 1819, Treasury Secretary William Crawford called upon all ambassadors and military officers stationed overseas to collect seeds and bring them home, where they would be shared freely.

Seed advertising card, 1887.
Boston Public Library, CC BY

Initially this program was informal, but in 1839 Commissioner of Patents Henry Ellsworth persuaded Congress to appropriate funds for it. Ellsworth owned large tracts of land in the Midwest, so his motives may not have been strictly public-minded. Soon his office was distributing 60,000 seed packages annually through the U.S. mail. By the turn of the 20th century, the Department of Agriculture was shipping a billion free packages of seed each year.

This was relatively uncontroversial until 1883, when a group of representatives from mostly vegetable seed trade firms formed the American Seed Trade Association. No business model can work if the government gives away for free what private merchants want to sell.

After decades of lobbying, the group convinced Congress to end the free seed program in 1924. Without granting ownership rights to plant breeders, members argued, there would be no incentive to “improve” seed for qualities such as yield, tolerance, germination length, root depth or aesthetics. As two plant breeders put it in 1919:

“The man who originates a new plant which may be of incalculable benefit to the whole country gets nothing – not even fame – for his pains, as the plants can be propagated by anyone.”

The 1930 Plant Patent Act was a watershed. It initially applied only to nursery plants propagated through cuttings, such as roses and apple trees. Soon, however, breeders of agricultural commodities pressed to expand the law in recognition of their labor. As a result, the majority of commercial crops and garden plants in use today were developed by agricultural companies, to the point that three companies – Bayer Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – account for roughly 50 percent of all global seed sales.

Today the seed industry is highly controlled. Every state has laws that require suppliers to obtain licenses, test seeds to ensure they are the variety advertised and properly label them. And the federal government regulates seed sales across state lines.

These laws exist for good reason. If farmers buy seed that turns out to be the wrong variety, or doesn’t germinate, their livelihood is at risk. Seed laws hold providers accountable and protect buyers. Some laws apply even to those who offer seeds for barter, exchange or trade.

Benton County Nursery Co. seed catalogue, 1960.
Internet Archive Book Images

Seed sharing redux: Seed libraries

But another community pillar is distributing seeds without charge: Libraries. The process works much the same as with books. Patrons receive seeds and plant them, then allow some of their plants to go to seed and return those seeds to the library for others’ use.

According to some proponents, there are more than 660 seed libraries in 48 states. Public libraries, universities and secondary schools are getting involved. Their motives range from preserving plant diversity and local history to enhancing food access and building regional agricultural resiliency in the face of climate change.

One of the nation’s first seed libraries is the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, or BASIL, which opened in 2000 at the Berkeley Ecology Center in Berkeley, California and is run by volunteers. Sascha DuBrul, its founder, is said to have came up with the idea after wanting to find a home for seeds that were left when the University of California, Berkeley closed its campus farm.

A librarian from the Tulsa City and County Community Library in Oklahoma explains their seed program.

People who I interviewed for my research say the seed library movement has grown exponentially, starting with a few pioneers but expanding rapidly in the past five years. The movement includes food and community activists, gardeners, lawyers and citizens who support the idea that everyone has a right to seed.

Libraries don’t test seeds or place expiration dates on packaged seed, so some states have moved to regulate seed libraries. For example, in 2014 the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg that it was violating the state’s Seed Act of 2004 and needed to follow the same stringent requirements as agricultural supply companies.

Labels had to be in English and clearly state the plant’s species name or commonly accepted name, and the library had to conduct germination and purity analyses. Failure to do so, one county commissioner asserted, could threaten local food supplies through what she called “agri-terrorism.”

The seed library eventually reopened after officials
agreed that patrons would not be required to bring seed back to the
library, and that seeds it provided would be commercially packaged. It now hosts seed swap events to encourage person-to-person sharing.

Defending the right to share

Seed sharing advocates believe, as one who I will call Barry told me, that “people ought to be able share seeds without being treated like they’re Monsanto.” Many are alarmed by government crackdowns on seed libraries.

I met Barry in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was advising state officials on adding an exemption to the state’s seed law for seed libraries. “I’ve made the rounds”, he confessed when asked how many states’ revised seed laws have his fingerprints on them.

Since 2015, states ranging from Minnesota to Nebraska, Illinois and, more recently, Alaska have adopted such exemptions. In North Carolina, seed libraries are legal thanks to a blanket seed sharing exemption that applies to all nonprofit oganizations. Alabama exempts any providers who sell up to US$3,000 worth of seed.

In September 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1810, known among activists as the Seed Exchange Democracy Act, into law. The measure amended state law to exempt seed libraries from burdensome testing and labeling requirements.

Despite these successes, a number of activists I spoke with fear that agribusinesses seeking to protect their intellectual property rights will push back if the seed library movement keeps expanding. The hard reality is that sharing is not a right, even in this age of the so-called sharing economy, if the thing people want to share is a valuable commodity.The Conversation

Michael Carolan, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Affairs, College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University

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