Election FactCheck: are larger, more frequent storms predicted due to climate change?

Kevin Walsh, University of Melbourne

Certainly larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming. But you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that. – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking to reporters in Tasmania on June 9, 2016.

In the aftermath of the deadly East Coast Low that swamped eastern Australia, dumping massive amounts of rain in early June, the prime minister toured flood-affected Launceston and announced emergency relief funding.

Turnbull told reporters that larger and more frequent storms were forecast by climate scientists but cautioned that no individual storm could be attributed to global warming.

Is he right?

Checking the source

The Conversation asked the prime minister’s office for sources to support his statement but did not hear back before publication deadline. Nevertheless, we can test his statement against recent published and peer-reviewed research on this question.

The science shows that, just like real estate, climate change is all about location. Different parts of Australia will be affected in different ways by climate change.

And global warming will have different effects on different types of weather systems.

Let’s break Turnbull’s statement into two parts: is it true that we can expect larger and more frequent storms as a consequence of global warming? And is it possible to attribute a specific storm to global warming?

Can we expect larger and more frequent storms as a result of global warming?

Yes – but not for all regions or types of storms.

There are many types of storms that affect different parts of Australia, among them East Coast Lows, mid-latitude cyclones (a category that includes cyclones that happen in the latitudes between Australia and Antarctica), tropical cyclones, and associated extreme rainfall events. Each will be affected in a different way by climate change, and the effect will vary by region and by season.

On East Coast Lows: Acacia Pepler, who is studying extreme rainfall and East Coast Lows in relation to climate change, recently wrote in The Conversation that her research showed that:

… East Coast Lows are expected to become less frequent during the cool months May-October, which is when they currently happen most often. But there is no clear picture of what will happen during the warm season. Some models even suggest East Coast Lows may become more frequent in the warmer months. And increases are most likely for lows right next to the east coast – just the ones that have the biggest impacts where people live.

For all low-pressure systems near the coast, “most of the models we looked at had no significant change projected in the intensity of the most severe East Coast Low each year,” Pepler wrote.

On mid-latitude cyclones: Another study predicted that the overall wind hazard from mid-latitude cyclones in Australia will decrease – except in winter over Tasmania.

On tropical cyclones: Northern Australia is expected to get fewer cyclones in future – but their maximum wind speeds are expected to become stronger.

On rainfall: Scientists tend to be quite confident that climate change will be accompanied by an increase in extreme rainfall for most storms in future. One of the main reasons for this is that increased temperatures will cause increased evaporation. While the total amount of water held in the atmosphere will also increase slightly in future, the total amount of rain has to go up too.

Is it true you can’t attribute any particular storm to global warming?

Turnbull is correct. We cannot say for sure that a particular flooding rainfall event was solely “caused” by climate change, any more than we can say for certain that a particular car accident was solely caused by speeding (even if excessive speed was a likely or even major contributing factor).

Evidence for the effects of global warming on extreme rainfall events that have already occurred is currently equivocal for most regions.

According to a collection of studies published in 2015:

A number of this year’s studies indicate that human-caused climate change greatly increased the likelihood and intensity for extreme heat waves in 2014 over various regions. For other types of extreme events, such as droughts, heavy rains, and winter storms, a climate change influence was found in some instances and not in others.

One recent study in that report found:

evidence for a human-induced increase in extreme winter rainfall in the United Kingdom.


Malcolm Turnbull was essentially correct on both points.

It’s true that scientists predict more frequent and intense storms for some parts of Australia as the climate changes. The evidence appears to be strong that extreme rainfall will increase. Some increases in extreme wind speeds are possible – but not in all regions or all seasons.

Turnbull was right to say you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming. –Kevin Walsh


This is a good FactCheck that summarises the broad conclusions from a range of studies examining the nature of current and likely future storms across Australia.

As the author points out, Australian storms range from tropical cyclones in the northern tropical regions to temperate east coast lows and mid-latitude cyclones.

The consensus regarding tropical cyclones is that they will generally decrease in frequency in the Australian region. In northeast Australia, they are forecast to experience the most dramatic decrease in frequency of any ocean basin globally. Some northern hemisphere ocean basins will see an increase in their frequency.

The intensity of these types of storms is expected to increase. This will not only involve higher wind speeds but also higher storm surges and floods. That will mean greater coastal impacts and damage to coastal developments and infrastructure.

So the prime minister’s statement about more frequent storms resulting from climate change does not apply to tropical cyclones – however, he was right to say that larger and more frequent storms are one of the predicted consequences of climate change. This consequence is predicted to apply to other storm categories, but not tropical cyclones.

And yes, climate scientists are hesitant to attribute the occurrence of any single storm to global warming. – Jonathan Nott

Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The Conversation

Kevin Walsh, Reader, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Climate change makes a comeback – with the help of social media

David Holmes, Monash University

In what has been shaping up as the election that forgot climate change, there are signs emerging in the Coalition’s election campaign that it is starting to listen to polls, its own focus groups and social media chat on climate.

So far it is the Great Barrier Reef that has drawn out the biggest campaign fight on climate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that A$1 billion of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) fund would be directed towards a Reef Fund. 10% of the money from the CEFC will be quarantined to make loans available to farmers in North Queensland.

While Turnbull declared the greatest threat to the reef was global warming, he nevertheless specified that the run-off from farming into the reef was what would be tackled. This is seen to be a measure that could prolong the reef in a region where the Coalition is at risk of losing some marginal seats.

So, one pitch is that saving the reef is about retaining 70,000 jobs that it sustains. But a less believable pitch is that the fund will battle climate change, with Turnbull saying that solar panels for farms in the region will reduce reliance on diesel, and that farmers would have loans for more energy-efficient farm equipment.

Labor’s shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, derided the Reef Fund as a “shameless exercise in spin” insofar as such loans have already been available to farmers for years.

Not far from the reef, in the Galilee Basin, is one of the largest coal deposits in the world, which both Labor and the Coalition have approved mining leases for, but which the Greens’ Larissa Waters insisted must be stopped if we are not going to:

… further cook the reef.

But on Monday night on the ABC’s Q&A, Bill Shorten reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to coal. He said:

A Labor government isn’t going to ban coal mining in this country … Coal is going to be part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, he acknowledged:

… when we talk about the reef and when we talk about climate change, they are inextricably linked.

But Shorten’s message was identical to Turnbull’s in referring to jobs, saying that:

… good environments generate good jobs. 70,000 people make a living from the reef. It generates $6 billion in turnover for the Australian economy.

Weather and climate

In another climate change publicity opportunity, in the wash-up of the east coast storm last week, Shorten and Turnbull spent a day surveying the flood damage in Tasmania – but only Turnbull ventured so far as to link the floods to climate change.

While Shorten was happy to link climate change to the reef, he did not want to go near linking climate and weather:

In terms of climate and weather, today for me is not a day where I will join the dots about extreme weather events.

But Turnbull had no such hesitation. In a rare moment, the Turnbull of old came out in a moment that harked back to his days as environment minister, when he had no problem talking up the dangers of climate change:

Certainly, larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming but you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that.

Turnbull is incorrect about subtropical lows becoming more frequent, but he is right about climate scientists’ forecasts that storms will get bigger.

If national policies in Australia and around the world are not calibrated to the 2℃ guardrail, the energy we saw released by last week’s storms will pale compared to what might be in store for future generations.

Referring to the Eemian period of 120,000 years ago, which was the last time the global average temperature was as high as the threshold that the Paris agreement is trying to avoid, scientists are uncovering evidence of storms that were of an order not compatible with the built environments of today’s human settlements.

In recent research, James Hansen, the author of the book Storms Of My Grandchildren, points to the puzzle of giant rocks in the Bahamas, up to one thousand tonnes, that are in a place they just shouldn’t be. Scientists warn these geological freaks harbour a terrifying secret – epic superstorms capable of tossing around boulders like bored Olympians.

But so as to reassure voters, both leaders did talk up the importance of mitigating damage (through the likes of building levies) – but not mitigating climate change itself.

While it was remarkable for Turnbull to discuss climate change at all in this election campaign, he failed to join the dots between the adequacy of the Coalition’s emissions reduction targets for Australia realising a responsible contribution to avoiding a 2℃ threshold.

Social media as a barometer of climate concern

A likely explanation as to why Turnbull in particular is reasserting climate change and the reef as an issue – but not asserting any kind of policy that will fix it – may be his reverence for the power of social media, and what it is telling his media team about neglecting climate change.

An analysis of 150,000 conversations on social media in Australia for the first three weeks of the election campaign reveals climate change is among the top five political topics Australians are talking about on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs.

More than half of the discourse is negative towards each leader, with only 22% positive about Turnbull and 35% positive on Shorten. But of these posts, grouped around leaders, the only issue (other than negative gearing) that is common to discussion of both leaders is climate change. Climate change also stands out as the only issue in the top five that was not being aired by the leaders.

The analysis, by Meltwater, is significant in that it is so different from a poll. Those who answer a poll know that it will be aggregated and is likely to have a political impact. Their answers may not actually reflect their concerns as much as it does the desire to have an impact.

Analysis of social media, however, is more likely to capture the “backstage” of what people are actually concerned about in their daily conversations.

Could it be that, buried in these backstage conversations, are clues as to why voters are turning away from the major parties? And that neglect of climate change is a big part of this? Could it also be why the major parties have made panicked preference decisions to block the Greens and independents, who combined may capture 25% of the national vote?

There is evidence also that the Coalition’s announcements on the Great Barrier Reef are calculated to neutralise social media concern about it as an issue.

Perhaps it is its focus groups or it could be simply the impact of talk show mega-star Ellen DeGeneres’ “Remember the Reef” video-message campaign.

The campaign, which is also part of a promotion for a new film, Finding Dory, has seen Disney, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority collaborate on raising awareness about the threats to the reef.

But more remarkable than this campaign was the barrage of tweets from Environment Minister Greg Hunt, strenuously defending the government’s management of the reef.





A further tweet personally invited DeGeneres out to visit the reef to allay her fears. But the fear is mostly coming from Hunt it seems, that the Disney campaign really could get out of control, based on an animated movie that is to be screened just two weeks out from election day.


The Conversation

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why has climate change disappeared from the Australian election radar?

David Holmes, Monash University

Two weeks into a protracted election campaign, it is looking ever-more likely that climate change is to be placed way down the order of business – at least for the major parties.

The contest over climate change that characterised the previous three elections seems to have disappeared off the political radar despite the issue being more urgent than ever. Since the Paris climate summit, global average temperatures continue to break month-on-month records.

Just a few weeks after the summit, the North Pole was briefly not even able to reach freezing point – in the middle of winter. And just this month, Cape Grim surpassed a 400 ppm baseline minimum.

Then there is the truly frightening climate spiral developed by Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading. It shows what an El Niño amplified global temperature has climbed to. The spiral assumes a tight-knit but ever-expanding ball until April 2015, when the spiral line starts to separate dramatically from the ball. This year it careers dangerously close to the 1.5℃ threshold.

Climate spiral.
Ed Hawkins

The diminishing political and media spiral on climate

While global temperatures may be spiralling out of control, the opposite appears to be happening with the climate issue attention cycle in Australia.

Apparently, climate is less important than jobs and growth – or, in Labor’s case, health and schools.

A big part of this change in political climates is undoubtedly the Paris summit itself. The political triumphalism of the summit belies the scientific pessimism of so many climate scientists and activists.

Kevin Anderson from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research even declared the summit to be “worse that Copenhagen”, in that it is based on out-of-date science, does not include aviation and shipping, and includes negative emissions in its scenarios for achieving abatement.

On the other hand, after the collapse of talks at Copenhagen, some activists see no choice but to climb aboard with the Paris agreement, insofar as it at least signifies a mainstream seachange in action – even if the actual measures are inadequate. The INDCs that came out of the conference still put the world on a path to 3.5℃.

Yet so many politicians from around the globe have sought to convince their constituents that the climate problem is all but solved. The Coalition is banking on such a sell to the Australian electorate as it gambles with a climate attention minimisation strategy. Much of this sell has been left to the “best minister in the world” Greg Hunt, both before and after the Paris summit.

Hunt has already claimed success on meeting the 2020 target, and with strategies to meet the 2030 target.

Little of the Government’s progress in meeting the 2020 target is due to reducing emissions. Rather it has been the reduction in land-clearing, consumer-driven domestic solar, and the decline in manufacturing that have been decisive in meeting the 2020 targets.

The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor has pointed out that while the Coalition is bringing back the “carbon tax” scare campaign of 2013, its own scheme would have to draw on the “safeguard mechanism” component of Direct Action – which is itself a disguised ETS – to have any chance of meeting the targets.

Short of leaning on this mechanism, the only other option the Coalition has is to increase the taxpayer-funded emissions reduction fund to a level that would make a mockery of any claims to budget responsibility.

Add to this the fact that recent academic research on Direct Action has reaffirmed its status as a form of corporate welfare that is allocated to projects that would have happened anyway. And all this is in an Australia that has increased its already high emissions 3% since 2000.

Shifting voter attitudes on climate

But have Hunt’s strategies worked on the Australian electorate? Not according to a recent ReachTEL poll of 2,400 respondents on May 9, which revealed that 56% believed the government needed to do more to tackle global warming.

64% said they would be more likely to vote for a party that has a plan to source 100% of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro in the next 20 years.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have switched off his personal barometer on climate as an issue that is too politically fraught. In 2010, he said:

We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic … We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.

But since then, Turnbull appears to have sacrificed his convictions to the climate-illiterate backbench of his party.

Labor has not done much better. While it has more ambitious 2030 abatement targets than the Coalition, it has been particularly silent in reminding voters of its climate policy alternative.

Labor and the Greens

Both major parties have opted to entrench their duopoly by not going after big targets on any of the issues that are usually recycled at election time.

Instead, much airtime has been spent in the opening weeks of the campaign attacking the Greens. Liberal ministers take every opportunity to pillory any alliance between the Greens and Labor. Last week, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Fairfax Media:

We see them very much on a unity ticket. In our judgement, Labor and the Greens are now on an anti-business, anti-jobs, and anti-growth unity ticket.

In the same week, Turnbull labelled Labor’s proposal to double the intake of refugees as a “gesture to the Greens” on the back of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attack on the Greens’ asylum-seeker policy.

But, curiously, Labor and the Greens are at war themselves, or at least they are desperately giving the appearance they are. According to Michael Cooney from the Labor thinktank the Chifley Research Centre and Ben Oquist from the Australia Institute, Labor and the Greens have attacked each other because nearly every inner-city seat the Greens have a chance of winning for the first time are Labor-held.

The Greens are also distancing themselves from Labor because they want to capture the anti-politics vote. This is best achieved by showing yourself to be radically different from the major parties.

Labor, on the other hand, is almost forced into attacking the Greens because of the long-run stigma that News Corp papers have attached to any such alliance. During the first days of the election campaign, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian were jumping in with stories that no major party would ever form government with the Greens.

In contrast to the 2013 election campaign, the Tele even had a pro-Labor story “Save Our Albo” over the Greens’ challenge to Anthony Albanese’s inner-city seat of Grayndler.

But nothing much has changed. Back in the 2010 federal election, the
The Australian declared the pride with which it had smashed any alliance between the Greens and Labor, and that the Greens:

… should be destroyed at the ballot box.

In October the same year Rupert Murdoch referred to the “bloody Greens” as a party that would ruin Australia’s economic prosperity.

What is clear to the Coalition, Murdoch, and big business in Australia is that Labor and the Greens must be permanently isolated from each other in a sustained ideological crusade. Failing to achieve this would spell nothing short of game over for the Coalition.

The entire crusade, which is based on castigating the Greens as a loony left party that would bring down the Labor Party, requires so much journalistic theatre, compared to what could more easily be done with the Liberal-National Party marriage of convenience. One is a party of agrarian socialists, and the other a party serving mining capital and finance capital. But News Corp has been particularly disciplined at ignoring any of the tensions that these parties have had over the years.

Were Labor to form an alliance with the Greens it could take great leadership on climate. But there are a great many forces arraigned against them achieving a left-progressive coalition.

Whether the Labor Party has the courage to come out and challenge the Coalition to a contest over climate remains to be seen.

The Greens, for their part, are making many more inroads into this election than the last. They certainly have the strongest climate policy, with a renewable energy target of 90% by 2030. The ReachTEL poll referred to earlier shows the Greens have four times the primary vote than the National Party.

The Greens know that for under 30 voters they are already matching the primary vote of the major parties, and that a core platform of strong action against global warming is a big part of this support. Whether the major parties can ignore this support that springs from climate will be one of the biggest gambles of this election.

The Conversation

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Election 2016: do we need to re-establish a department of climate change?

Christian Downie, UNSW Australia and Howard Bamsey, Australian National University

With a federal election looming, Australia’s top mandarins will once again be turning their minds to the incoming government briefs, the so-called blue book if the Coalition is returned and the red book if Labor is elected.

High on the agenda will be the organisation of the bureaucracy and it won’t get any trickier than climate change.

A question for an incoming government will be whether to re-establish a Department of Climate Change?

And if not, what should be done?

Pass the parcel

To state the obvious, the past decade of Australian climate politics has been anything but stable. Climate agencies have been established, abolished and merged at a rate reflecting the volatility of policy settings.

As prime minister, John Howard established Australia’s first standalone climate agency in 1998, the Australian Greenhouse Office. Six years later, it had been merged into the then Department of the Environment and Heritage.

As a statutory agency it was the first in the world dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it didn’t have a secretary to represent it at the highest levels of government.

This changed in 2007 with the election of the Labor government, which had campaigned on climate change. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, created the Department of Climate Change.

This was the first time that climate change was given its own secretary and its own minister in cabinet. Both were within the prime minister’s portfolio to underline the importance of climate change to the government.

Martin Parkinson, now the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, had the task of establishing the new department as its first secretary. It was to have a broad scope, with a remit not just for domestic climate policy, but also responsibility for international climate change negotiations. This had until that point resided in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). It was to be responsible for policy but not implementation.

The new department lasted only six years. In 2013, it was merged into the Department of Industry under then prime minister Julia Gillard, perhaps in the hope that it would be saved from the wrath of the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, whose likely victory had been based on abolishing Labor’s climate policies.

Abbott’s ascension to the prime minister’s office later that year coincided with another shift. History was repeated as climate change was sent to the Department of Environment, with the international negotiations returning to DFAT.

Do we need a climate department?

Little has changed since under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and, with this history, only a fool would predict what’s next. But with an election in the offing, there is every reason to believe more change is on its way.

There are three things to consider.

First, representation. Climate change is arguably the greatest economic and security threat that Australia faces. As a result, it demands proper representation within government.

That means that climate change needs to be represented by its own departmental secretary in the bureaucracy and its own minister in the cabinet. In practice this could mean either a separate department, or the explicit inclusion of climate change in the title of a department with additional responsibilities.

Second is the scope of the portfolio. At the domestic level, the causes of climate change – fuel combustion for energy, and land-use change – are associated with almost every domestic economic activity. This means that the climate portfolio must have a wide remit.

But a climate change department cannot be a department of everything. Where to draw the line?

Other countries (such as Denmark and the United Kingdom) have combined climate change and energy, but that implies that the land sector is of secondary importance. In Australia that would be a mistake because agriculture, for example, produces roughly 13% of our emissions and land use is hugely important in adapting to the changing climate.

At the international level, the fact that climate change is a global problem means there will always be a diplomatic dimension to the portfolio. DFAT’s prioritising of fossil fuel trade lost it the leadership of international climate change processes under Labor, but under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop DFAT has been more strategic.

The Paris climate summit last December represented a major shift towards integrating climate and development policies. Aid policies will play a critical role, so the case for continued DFAT leadership internationally is strong.

The third thing to consider is transparency. If Australia is to meet its emissions targets, which are likely to become more stringent over time, business is going to have to shoulder the burden of change. To be sure, an emissions trading scheme, or something like it such as a baseline and credit scheme, will require fundamental changes to the Australian economy.

Any climate change agency will need to be open and transparent in the way it consults and manages not only environment groups but business too. These will have to be brought on board if change is to proceed smoothly.

Doing what’s possible

On this basis, there are good reasons for the incoming government briefs to recommend the re-establishment of a department of climate change. This would satisfy the question of representation, especially if a well-respected senior public servant were appointed to the helm.

If it develops a transparent culture that is open to all stakeholders, Australia might just be able to establish a climate department for the long term.

What recommendations end up in the red or blue book we may never know. The choices of a new government may express simple political preference. Labor may be more inclined to bring climate change policy under one bureaucratic roof and the Coalition to maintain the status quo.

Regardless, history suggests we need top-down co-ordination to build coherent policy. If a department of climate change is too difficult, a standing committee of cabinet will be essential to avoid reliving past failures.

The Conversation

Christian Downie, Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UNSW Australia and Howard Bamsey, Honorary Professor, School of regulation and Global Governance – RegNet, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This election is our last chance to save the Great Barrier Reef

Jon Brodie, James Cook University and Richard Pearson, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef has been in the spotlight thanks to severe coral bleaching since March, leaving only 7% of the reef untouched. The bleaching, driven by record-breaking sea temperatures, has been linked to human-caused climate change.

Apart from bleaching, the reef is in serious trouble thanks to a variety of threats. Many species and ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef are in serious decline.

It is now overwhelmingly clear that we need to fix these problems to give the reef the best chance in a warming world. In fact, the upcoming election is arguably our last chance to put in place a plan that will save the reef.

In a recent paper, we estimate that we need to spend A$10 billion over the next ten years – about five times as much as current state and federal governments are spending – to fix up reef water quality before climate change impacts overwhelm it.

Stop water pollution

Poor water quality is one of the major threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment and nutrients (such as nitrogen) washed by rivers onto the reef cause waters to become turbid, shutting out light for corals and seagrass. It can also encourage algal growth and outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

The Queensland and Australian governments have made plans with targets to improve water quality, but the main plan – the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan – is completely inadequate according to the Australian Academy of Science. Its targets are unlikely to be met. And others have suggested ways to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

To provide resilience for the Great Barrier Reef against the current and rapidly increasing climate impacts, water quality management needs to be greatly improved by 2025 to meet the targets and guidelines. 2025 is important as it’s likely that climate change effects will be overwhelming after that date. It is also the target date for the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan.

What needs to be done

Proposed boundaries of the Greater GBR. The area inside the red line is the GBR World Heritage Area and the shaded area is the proposed Greater GBR management area, including the GBR catchment, the GBRWHA, Torres Strait and Hervey Bay
J Waterhouse, TropWATER. Data for the GBR provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Author provided

In our recent article, we analysed what we need to do to respond to the current crisis, especially for water quality.

  1. Refocus management to the “Greater Great Barrier Reef (GBR)” – that is, include management of Torres Strait, Hervey Bay and river catchments that run into the reef as priorities along with the world heritage area. This area is shown in figure above.

  2. Prioritise management for ecosystems in relatively good condition, such Torres Strait, northern Cape York and Hervey Bay which have the highest current integrity. These areas should still be prioritised despite the recent severe bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef.

  3. Investigate methods of cross-boundary management to achieve simultaneous cost-effective terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystem protection in the Greater GBR.

  4. Develop a detailed, comprehensive, costed water quality management plan for the Greater GBR. In the period 2009-16, more than A$500 million was spent on water quality management (with some success) without a robust comprehensive plan to ensure the most effective use of the funding.

  5. Use existing federal legislation (the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) to regulate catchment activities that lead to damage to the Greater GBR, together with the relevant Queensland legislation. These rules were established long ago and are immediately available to tackle terrestrial pollutant discharge.

  6. Fund catchment and coastal management to the required level to largely solve the pollution issues for the Greater GBR by 2025, to provide resilience for the system in the face of accelerating climate change impacts. The funding required is large – of the order of A$1 billion per year over the next ten years but small by comparison to the worth of the Great Barrier Reef – estimated to be of the order of A$20 billion per year.

  7. Continue enforcement of the zoning plan.

  8. Show commitment to protecting the Greater GBR through greenhouse gas emissions control, of a scale to be relevant to protecting the reef (for example those proposed by the Climate Change Authority), by 2025.

Unless immediate action is taken to improve water quality, the onset of accelerating climate change impacts mean there is little chance the current decline in reef health can be prevented.

The Conversation

Jon Brodie, Chief Research Scientist, Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER), James Cook University and Richard Pearson, Emeritus Professor, College of Marine & Environmental Sciences, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Labor’s climate policy: back in the game but missing detail

Lynette Molyneaux, The University of Queensland; John Foster, The University of Queensland, and Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland

Labor has announced the climate policy it will take to the federal election, including a return to carbon pricing under an emissions trading scheme.

The detailed policy includes multiple market-based mechanisms. Among these are an emissions trading scheme, a domestic electricity cap-and-trade scheme, and a mechanism to close brown coal power stations. The package would also increase investment in renewable energy, instigate a major review of the electricity sector, tighten vehicle emissions standards and create a “trigger” to account for climate change in land-clearing.

Climate policy is the football of Australian politics. So as the election campaign ramps up, grab your popcorn and settle in for the showdown.

World agrees on need for action

Politicians of almost all persuasions, as well as the majority of scientists, now agree that action needs to be taken on a global scale if the world is to continue to enjoy the benefits of a stable climate.

The Paris climate agreement sets out the long-term goal of limiting warming to well below 2℃ and if possible below 1.5℃. It needs to be ratified by at least 55 countries and represent 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

To do this, these emissions must eventually reach zero (or be completely offset) by mid-century. This is currently not matched by short- and medium-term pledges by countries to reduce emissions.

So while the Paris agreement was uplifting in terms of its aspirations, it was less inspiring in terms of its practical execution.

What does good climate policy look like?

All countries need to develop strong climate policy to be able to ratify the Paris agreement. This should be about pragmatic action, not ideology. The huge challenge facing the world means that the action taken needs to be strong and urgent.

In Australia, emissions from energy make up 75% and agriculture 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions, so climate policy should be primarily about reducing the combustion of fossil fuels.

As energy and agriculture are key to our economy, economists generally agree the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions is through an emissions trading scheme (ETS) or a carbon tax.

Alongside strong financial incentives and disincentives for reducing emissions, institutional support is needed to shepherd and adapt policy to ensure it can be applied. This is not just a matter for government; the private sector must be included and committed to both the policy and their part in the pursuit of abatement.

Last but not least, the public needs to understand the problem and be confident of the ability of policymakers to craft policy that will help to resolve it.

In recent years, the game of political football over climate policy has intensified. Labor’s carbon-pricing package lasted just two years before being axed and replaced under the Coalition government. The Renewable Energy Target was introduced with bipartisan support, expanded under Labor, then reduced under the Coalition. Supporting institutions have similarly been created, restructured, defunded and dissolved.

Public support for climate policy, too, has waxed and waned from a high level around 2007 – at the height of the droughts in Queensland and New South Wales – to cynicism about the carbon tax and the perception of its impact on electricity and industrial competitiveness to, more recently, a return to support for renewable energy and climate action.

How will Labor play the game?

Labor’s plan to resurrect an ETS is an attempt to return to a policy supported by economists, but with a tentative introduction.

Labor has announced that multiple market mechanisms will be introduced. Phase one, to run from 2018-2020, includes a scheme for the electricity sector that will simply cap the emissions of high carbon emitters according to an industry benchmark and encourage generators to trade with each other to meet their cap. This will aim to stop emissions increasing to 2020, and make cuts after that.

This differs from the previous carbon tax in that initially there will be little cost for electricity generators and therefore electricity consumers. There will be greater pressure on emissions reductions after 2020. But if it is opened up to international schemes the cost of emissions reductions will be in line with prices overseas, reducing impacts on competitiveness.

Other large emitters will be part of a separate ETS, also with caps on emissions but the ability to offset or trade internationally.

Phase two of the ETS will link the ETS with other international emissions trading schemes. The detail on phase two for the electricity sector is less clear. There is also a plan for a market mechanism to close brown-coal-fired power stations.

While the Coalition’s Emissions Reduction Fund seeks to buy emission reductions from agriculture and vegetation management out of tax income, it ignores emissions reduction from electricity generation. This is an important point of difference between the two policy approaches.

Beyond emissions trading

Labor also intends to prevent further land clearing in Queensland and New South Wales. This may may well put Labor offside with the NSW Coalition government, which is considering land-clearing laws. Land clearing can add significantly to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, so it is an important element of national climate policy.

As with all policy, though, the detail will define the ability of the Labor policy to deliver the emissions cuts required.

For now, we know only that Labor seeks to decrease emissions by 45% and increase renewable energy to 50% of electricity generation by 2030.

Labor’s policy depends on how the party sells it to a public weary and wary of climate policies after relentless campaigning against the carbon tax by the Coalition during the last election. Labor is at pains to point out that it would like to initiate dialogue with the Coalition to gain consensus on climate policy.

Promisingly, it includes the necessary support and funding of transition for trade-exposed industries (which are disproportionately affected by carbon pricing), community power workers who may be displaced from coal-fired power stations, and solar thermal generation.

Solar thermal generation is important for a large roll-out of renewable energy because of its ability to stabilise the network. While solar panels and wind power are affordable sources of energy, our demand for electricity does not often match availability from solar panels and wind power. For this reason we need electricity to be able to be stored for use on dark, windless nights or oppressive, rainy days.

Hydroelectricity can do this job but Australia has a dry climate and limited hydro resources. The hype around batteries is a little premature in terms of both the cost of battery storage and its ability to integrate with the electricity grid. So solar thermal is an important element of a fleet with large levels of renewable energy.

The use of emissions trading with incentives for increasing renewable energy is crucial for reducing emissions and shifting to cleaner forms of energy. Without an ETS, investment in renewable energy is likely to produce a disappointing reduction in emissions. So it is important that both be rolled out together.

What about electricity prices? Phase one is unlikely to have a large impact on electricity prices and the detail on phase two is too sketchy to predict the impact on prices. It will however depend on how effective the solar thermal funding is at securing baseload power, and the extent to which Labor will be able to garner industry support for closing brown coal power stations.

Ultimately, the success or failure of this policy gambit will depend on whether Labor can calm the public’s nerves over their future power bills.

The Conversation

Lynette Molyneaux, Researcher, Energy Economics and Management Group, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; John Foster, Professor of Economics, The University of Queensland, and Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Labor unveils phased emissions trading scheme

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A Labor government would bring in its emissions trading scheme (ETS) in two stages, together with a separate scheme for the electricity sector, under a climate change action plan released by Opposition leader Bill Shorten and climate spokesman Mark Butler on Wednesday.

The plan confirms an ALP government would commit to 45% emissions reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, and pledge to ensure that 50% of Australia’s electricity was sourced from renewable energy by then. Australia’s pledge for last year’s Paris climate conference was to reduce emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030.

With Labor’s proposed ETS set to be a battleground in the July 2 election, Shorten will stress that it would not include a carbon tax – which was so politically damaging for the Gillard government – or a fixed price on pollution.

The ETS details are part of a broad climate policy that would cost $853 million over a decade – with $355.9 million over the forward estimates.

The funding would include $300 million to assist trade exposed industries to move to a cleaner economy; commit more than $200 million for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to undertake a solar thermal funding round, and provide about $100 million for a community power network to connect community housing and other projects to renewable energy.

The policy would also allow the Clean Energy Finance Corporation more flexibility for investments in renewables.

Phase one of the ETS would operate for two years, from July 2018 until June 30, 2020, to establish the architecture of the permanent scheme, which would aim to drive a long term transition in the economy to clean energy.

The first phase would cover facilities emitting more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon pollution annually. It would put a cap on pollution from these enterprises, that was consistent with meeting the current bipartisan target of ensuring a reduction in emissions levels of 5% on 2000 levels by 2020.

No price would be imposed in this phase, and polluters would not be required to buy permits if they stayed within their limits. But when a polluter breached its cap, it would have to provide the regulator with an equivalent number of “offsets”. Offsets could be sourced internationally as well as locally.

The policy says that given that Australia’s emissions intensive, trade exposed sector competes in global markets, those companies should have full 100% access to international offsets under phase one of the ETS.

In phase two, pollution levels would be capped and reduced over the decade to 2030. The design of the 2020 ETS would be finalised during the 2016-19 parliament.

The separate scheme for energy generation would start from 2018. Labor says this scheme would ensure “that reducing carbon pollution from generation can be internalised and managed in a manner that strengthens energy security and protects consumers”.

Electricity generation would be covered by a cap on carbon pollution reflecting a proportional share of the overall emissions reduction task set for the broader ETS. Each generator would be given a baseline.

Labor argues there would not be a significant impact on the price of power for consumers.

The opposition says that when China’s national emissions trading scheme comes online, one in every three people in the world will live under an ETS. “By 2030, emissions trading will be the biggest market in the world. Rejecting an ETS means isolation from the global marketplace.”

The opposition contrasts its policy with the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund “which sees billions of taxpayer dollars paid to polluters without achieving any additional and enduring emissions reductions”.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.