Government targets emerging technologies with $1.9 billion, saying renewables can stand on own feet


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has unveiled a $1.9 billion package of investments in new and emerging energy and emission-reducing technologies, and reinforced its message that it is time to move on from assisting now commercially-viable renewables.

The package will be controversial, given its planned broadening of the remit of the government’s clean energy investment vehicles, currently focused on renewables, and the attention given to carbon capture and storage, which has many critics.

The latest announcement follows the “gas-fired recovery” energy plan earlier this week, which included the threat the government would build its own gas-fired power station if the electricity sector failed to fill the gap left by the scheduled closure of the coal-fired Liddell power plant in 2023.




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Morrison government threatens to use Snowy Hydro to build gas generator, as it outlines ‘gas-fired recovery’ plan


Unveiling the latest policy, Scott Morrison said solar panels and wind farms were commercially viable “and have graduated from the need for government subsidies”.

The government was now looking to unlock new technologies “to help drive down costs, create jobs, improve reliability and reduce emissions. This will support our traditional industries – manufacturing, agriculture, transport – while positioning our economy for the future.”

An extra $1.62 billion will be provided for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to invest.

The government will expand the focus of ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to back new technologies that would reduce emissions in agriculture, manufacturing, industry and transport.

At present ARENA can only support renewable energy and the CEFC can only invest in clean energy technologies (although it can support some types of gas projects).

The changes to ARENA and the CEFC will need legislation.

The government says it will cut the time taken to develop new Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) methods from two years or more to under a year, involving industry in a co-design process.

This follows a review of the fund, which is a centrepiece of the Coalition’s emissions reduction policy. The cost of the changes is put at $24.6 million. The fund has had trouble attracting proposals from some sectors because of its complex administrative requirements.

Other measures in the policy include a new $95.4 million Technology Co-Investment Fund to support businesses in the agriculture, manufacturing, industrial and transport sectors to take up technologies to boost productivity and reduce emissions.

A $50 million Carbon Capture Use and Storage Development Fund will pilot carbon capture projects. This technology buries carbon but has run into many problems over the years and its opponents point to it being expensive, risky and encouraging rather than discouraging the use of fossil fuels.

Businesses and regional communities will be encouraged to use hydrogen, electric, and bio-fuelled vehicles, supported by a new $74.5 million Future Fuels Fund.

A hydrogen export hub will be set up, with $70.2 million. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has been a strong advocate for the potential of hydrogen, saying Australia has competitive advantages as a future hydrogen exporter.

Some $67 million will back new microgrids in regional and remote communities to deliver affordable and reliable power.

There will be $52.2 million to increase the energy productivity of homes and businesses. This will include grants for hotels’ upgrades.

The government says $1.8 billion of the package is new money.

Here are the details of the package:

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




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New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




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The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




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As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

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

Climate explained: will the tropics eventually become uninhabitable?


Flickr/, CC BY-NC-ND

James Shulmeister, University of Canterbury


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


What is the impact of temperature increases in the tropics? How likely is it that regions along the Equator will be uninhabitable due to high wet bulb temperatures such as 35℃ and more in places like Singapore? Do we have models that suggest how likely this is and at what time frames?

More than 3.3 billion people live in the tropics, representing about 40% of the world’s population. Despite some areas of affluence, such as Singapore, the tropics are also home to about 85% of the world’s poorest people and are therefore particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

The tropics are expected to experience rising temperatures and changes to rainfall, and the question is whether this could make this region uninhabitable. How would this happen?

Heat stress

Humans regulate their body temperature in warm conditions through sweating. The sweat evaporates and cools the skin. But if conditions are humid, sweating and evaporation are much less effective.

Humans can survive and function in quite high temperatures if humidity is low, but as humidity increases our ability to function decreases rapidly. This effect is measured by a heat stress index which shows the apparent temperature you feel under different relative humidity conditions.

From a human health point of view, the wet bulb temperature is critical. This is the temperature a thermometer covered in a wet cloth would measure, and it reflects the maximum amount of cooling that can be achieved by evaporation.

High wet bulb temperatures are more problematic to human health than high absolute temperatures. Wet bulb temperatures above 35℃ are life-threatening because they cause hyperthermia, which means the body cannot cool down and the internal body temperature exceeds 40℃.

Climate modelling predictions used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the period from 2080-2100 suggest warming in the tropics of about 1.6℃ under mid-range emissions scenarios and up to 3.3℃ under high emissions scenarios, with error margins of about 0.5℃ on both predictions.




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Different parts of the world respond in different ways to warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The projected warming in the tropics represents about 40% of the expected temperature rise in the Arctic.

High-latitude regions – far north or south of the Equator – warm more rapidly than the global average because excess heat in the tropics creates a temperature and pressure gradient. This drives heat up to higher elevations and higher latitudes through an atmospheric circulation called the Hadley cell.

The stronger the gradient, the more heat is exported.

Hot in the city

There is one additional factor: urbanisation. Singapore is a good place to look at actual climate change in the tropics.

A Singapore skyline with clouds and some sun breaking through.
Cities such as Singapore will get hotter.
Flickr/Mohammad Hasan, CC BY-NC

Records from Singapore indicate temperatures have increased by 1.1℃ over 42 years to 2014. This is nearly twice the average global rate of warming over recent decades and is opposite to expectations.

The difference appears to be due to a heat island effect caused by the city itself. This is important because changes in land use amplify background global climate change and put tropical cities at greater risk of extreme heat. As populations are concentrated in cities, this increases the risk to human health.

The mean average temperature for Singapore is about 27℃, whereas Jakarta in Indonesia is slightly warmer. At the scale of predicted mean annual temperature change, neither of these cities would become uninhabitable. But even a small temperature increase would make life more challenging.

This is made worse in at least some parts of the tropics, because total rainfall is increasing, suggesting a long-term rise in humidity. For example, average rainfall in Singapore increased by more than 500mm from 2,192mm in 1980 to 2,727mm in 2014.




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Urban growth, heat islands, humidity, climate change: the costs multiply in tropical cities


Deadly heat

People working outdoors are at higher risk, as are vulnerable populations, including the elderly. Under the IPCC’s high-emission trajectory, heat-related deaths in Jakarta in August are expected to rise from about 1,800 in 2010 to nearly 27,000 in 2050.

People unloading cargo in the outdoors at Jakarta port.
Working outdoors in the increased heat and humidity will get harder.
Flickr/Jorien, CC BY-NC

Even allowing for a significant increase in elderly people as the Indonesian population ages, this means about 15,000 excess deaths in this month. Estimates under high-emission predictions for the tropics and mid-latitudes suggest about a 40% decline in the ability to undertake manual work during the warmest month by 2050.

These impacts will be stronger in the seasonally wet tropics (such as the Northern Territory of Australia), where more extreme warming is expected than in the equatorial zone.

Predictions for Darwin, in northern Australia, suggest an increase in days with temperatures above 35℃ from 11 days a year in 2015 to an average of 43 days under the mid-range emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP4.5 scenario) by 2030 and an average of 111 (range 54-211) days by 2090. Under the higher emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP8.5), an average of 265 days above 35℃ could be reached by 2090.

In summary, while absolute temperatures are expected to rise more slowly in the tropics when compared with higher latitudes and polar regions, the combination of heat and rising humidity will make life challenging, but not impossible.The Conversation

James Shulmeister, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Canterbury

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

No, Prime Minister, gas doesn’t ‘work for all Australians’ and your scare tactics ignore modern energy problems


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The federal government today announced it will build a new gas power plant in the Hunter Valley, NSW, if electricity generators don’t fill the energy gap left by the Liddell coal-fired station when it retires in 2023.

The government says it’s concerned that when the coal plant closes, there’ll be insufficient dispatchable power (that can be used on demand) because the energy sector is focused on accelerating renewable energy at the expense of reliability. So electricity generators are required to come up with a plan to inject 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy into the national grid.




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This is tantamount to an ultimatum: if we must have renewables, then prove they generate the same amount of electricity as fossil fuel or we will go back to fossil fuel.

The government’s joint media release has this to say:

This is about making Australia’s gas work for all Australians. Gas is a critical enabler of Australia’s economy.

But under a rapidly changing climate, the issue is not just about keeping the lights on. We not only want energy, we also want to breathe clean air, have enough food, have clean and available water supplies, preserve our habitat and live in a sustainable community. So no, gas doesn’t “work for all Australians”.

Adapting to a new energy future is a complex process our national government must not only support, but progress. It should not be hijacked by fossil fuel politics.

Scare-tactics won’t resolve the climate emergency

The government’s scare tactic completely ignores the two fundamental imperatives of modern energy.




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The first is the critical importance of decarbonisation. Energy production from fossil fuels is the most carbon intensive activity on the planet. If we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and stay within 2℃ of global warming, we cannot burn fossil fuels to produce energy.

The government shouldn’t revert to outdated fossil fuel rhetoric about “reliable, dispatchable power” during an accelerating climate emergency.

The second is it’s in the public interest to support and invest in energy that’s not only environmentally sustainable for the future, but also economically sustainable. Demand for fossil fuels is in terminal decline across the world and investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure may lead to stranded assets.

We need to address the ‘energy trilemma’

The question the government should instead focus on is this: how can the government continue to supply its citizens with affordable, reliable electricity but also maintain a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and high air quality standards?

Answering this question involves addressing a three-part set of tensions, known as the “energy trilemma”:

  1. sustainable generation that is not emission intensive
  2. infrastructure reliability and
  3. affordability.

The energy trilemma is a well-known tool in the sector that powerfully communicates the relative positioning of each tension. No single axis is necessarily more important than the other two. The aim is to try to balance all three.

Constructing a new gas plant seeks to address the second pillar at the expense of the first. This isn’t good enough in the face of the climate emergency.

Gas fired electricity can emit methane. Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, and 28 times more effective over 100 years.




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The affordability pillar is also important. Morrison says constructing the plant will prevent energy price spikes. But research clearly confirms renewable energy generation is cheapest.

What is it with the federal government and gas?

After first informing us gas will help bolster the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, this new announcement makes it clear the federal government is firmly wedded to gas.

This may be because the federal government regards adherence to gas as a compromise between the renewable sector and the demands of the fossil fuel industry.

In any case, we cannot and must not revert to fossil fuel energy generation. We must abandon past behaviours if we’re to adapt to a changing climate, which is set to hit the economy much harder than this pandemic.

Most Australians have derived their assumptions about energy security from fossil fuel dependency, because this is what they have known. The good news is this is changing.

Increasingly, the global community understands it’s not sustainable to burn coal or gas to generate energy just because we want to be “sure” we can turn the lights on. Consumer preference is shifting.




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This is something BP recognises in its 2020 Energy Outlook report, which outlines three scenarios for the global energy system in next 30 years.

Each scenario shows a shift in social preferences and a decline in the share of hydrocarbons (coal, oil and natural gas) in the global energy system. This decline is matched by an increase in the role of renewable energy.

I’ll say it again: renewable energy is the future

The technology underpinning renewable energy production from clean, low-cost generation such as wind, solar, hydro-electricity, hydrogen and bio-mass is advancing.

Renewable energy generation is sustainable, better for the environment, low in emissions, and affordable. Reliability is improving at a rapid rate. A recent report indicates electricity generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind farms from 2026 will overtake the combined power production from coal and gas.

The combined solar and wind capacity will grow to an estimated 41.4 gigawatts in 2023 from 26.4 gigawatts this year. By contrast, coal and gas capacity will shrink to 35.3 gigawatts in 2023 from 39.1 gigawatts this year.

The report is based on the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) Step Change Scenario, which models a shift to renewables. It includes rapid adjustments in technology costs and a “well below 2℃” scenario as part of its 20-year planning blueprint.




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Yes, there are challenges in shifting from a centralised grid and developing new transmission capacity.

But these are the challenges we need to be investing in. Not a new gas plant that’s likely to be a stranded asset in the not-too-distant future.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Grattan on Friday: Morrison signs up to the gas gospel, but the choir is not in tune


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If Labor were threatening to build a power station, the Liberals would likely be screaming “socialists”.

As for a Coalition government contemplating such a thing — well, to say the obvious, it hardly fits with the Liberals’ stated free market, private enterprise philosophy. But hey, neither does the hyper-Keynesian support package to cushion the economy through the pandemic.

Only a few within its own ranks would dispute the government’s COVID mega spending, whatever the ideological contradiction. And they’re keeping their voices to private whispers.

The gas power plant is another matter, and it will be fascinating to see how the debate plays out if the threat turns into reality.




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Morrison government threatens to use Snowy Hydro to build gas generator, as it outlines ‘gas-fired recovery’ plan


The threat is part of the go-with-gas policy unveiled by Scott Morrison this week, spruiked as driving a “gas-fired” recovery, especially for manufacturing. This sounds suspiciously like a three word slogan that promises more than it is likely to deliver.

But Morrison has signed up to the church of gas, whose pastors include Nev Power, chairman of the prime minister’s COVID-19 commission and Andrew Liveris, the head of its (now defunct) manufacturing taskforce, which delivered a pro-gas report. Morrison this week referenced his discussions with Liveris at Kirribilli House.

Much of the gas plan is broad and aspirational at this stage. But the threat is specific enough, and Morrison adopted a grim, school teacher tone when he delivered it in his speech at Newcastle unveiling the policy.

He said the electricity sector must lock in by April investments to deliver 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy to replace the Liddell coal-fired power station before it closes in 2023. Or else. The government-owned Snowy Hydro was working on options, Morrison said.

Going back to Malcolm Turnbull’s time, the government conducted — and lost — a bitter battle with AGL over the planned Liddell closure. It exerted maximum pressure on the company to extend the life of the station, or alternatively, sell it, but to no avail.

The gas policy, especially the threat, hasn’t gone down well — with the energy sector or environmentalists. And it’s come under criticism from experts and even within Coalition ranks.

The Australian Energy Council, representing investors and generators, warned the spectre of a government gas generator could put off private investors.

Environmentalists are against gas anyway, whoever produces it, because it is a fossil fuel and therefore has emissions, albeit not as bad as coal.

The Nationals Matt Canavan, who not so long ago was resources minister, says if a new power station is to be built in the Hunter region it should be coal-fired.

And the director of the Grattan Institute’s energy program, Tony Wood, says the government’s claim that 1000 megawatts of new dispatchable capacity is needed isn’t supported by the advice from its own Liddell taskforce.




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More generally, Wood argues the idea of a gas–led recovery “is a mirage”.

He says east coast gas prices are unlikely to fall to very low levels and anyway, even very low prices would not stimulate major economic activity. “Investing in more gas infrastructure in the face of climate change looks more like a herd of stampeding white elephants,” is Wood’s blunt assessment.

“Gas is very likely to have a role for some time to balance solar and wind. This role will be important but diminishing in volume and the pace of change will be determined by the relative economics of gas versus storage technologies and hydrogen.”

Some see the government’s big takeup of gas as a way of walking away from coal, without fanfare. The government denies this, but it would fit with Morrison’s middle-course pragmatism.

That pragmatism is reflected in the week’s other major energy announcement, for $1.9 billion investment in new and emerging technologies to lower emissions.

Morrison explicitly spelled out the government’s view that renewables, notably solar and wind, have boomed commercially and can take care of themselves.

The policy looks both backwards and forwards.

Backwards, with its support for carbon capture and storage (CCS) which — leaving aside its problems as a technology — is an encouragement to fossil fuels.

Forwards, by extending support to a wide range of technologies of the future.

Critics don’t like the proposed expansion of the remit of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) beyond supporting renewables.

If the government can get the legislation through the Senate, these bodies would be able to back a wide range of projects, including CCS.

The government is also clinging to its Emissions Reduction Fund, which has had trouble attracting proposals. It plans to reform the fund’s processes.

Taken as a whole and leaving aside the arguments about their efficacy, this week’s decisions have a clear political element. They are relatively risk averse within the Coalition, the threatened power plant notwithstanding.

Energy has been such a fraught area for the government that Morrison is very aware of juggling the conflicting forces within his ranks.




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Government targets emerging technologies with $1.9 billion, saying renewables can stand on own feet


The internal coal lobby, spearheaded by Canavan but wider than him, will continue to mutter. The crunch will come when the government’s feasibility study for a Queensland coal-fired power station is finished. But putting gas at the centre of the picture will reassure some in the Coalition who remain deeply suspicious of renewables.

The Liberals in seats where climate change is a big preoccupation may or may not find enough to sell in this week’s packages. They can emphasise the “transition” nature of gas — Morrison described it as “a stable transition fuel” — and talk up the support for emerging technologies.

But they will confront the counter argument that the government is not doing enough or proceeding fast enough on climate change.

Meanwhile, Labor struggles with its own energy and climate policies, which caused it such problems last election, when it had dual or confusing messaging in the country’s south and north and lacked costings.

Post election, the spectrum of Labor thinking on these issues has been exposed, and resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, who takes many of his cues from his NSW coal seat of Hunter, frequently speaks out.

Like Morrison, on energy and climate policy Anthony Albanese will be seeking to position himself somewhere in the middle ground for the election. He’ll look to being to the left of the PM — but not way out on a limb.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Astronomers create 40% more carbon emissions than the average Australian. Here’s how they can be more environmentally friendly



Shutterstock

Adam Stevens, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, University of Western Australia

Astronomers know all too well how precious and unique the environment of our planet is. Yet the size of our carbon footprint might surprise you.

Our study, released today in Nature Astronomy, estimated the field produces 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year in Australia. With fewer than 700 active researchers nationwide (including PhD students), this translates to 37 tonnes per astronomer per year.




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As a point of reference, the average Australian adult was responsible for 26 tonnes of emissions in 2019, total. That means the job of being an astronomer is 40% more carbon-intensive than the average Australian’s job and home life combined.

While we often defer to governments for climate policy, our global carbon footprint can be dramatically reduced if every industry promotes strategies to reduce their own footprint. For individual industries to make progress, they must first recognise just how much they contribute to the climate emergency.

Where do all the emissions come from?

We found 60% of astronomy’s carbon footprint comes from supercomputing. Astronomers rely on supercomputers to not only process the many terabytes of data they collect from observatories everyday, but also test their theories of how the Universe formed with simulations.

Antennas and a satellite dish in the foreground, with others in the background, in the WA desert.
Antennas of CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia.
CSIRO Science Image

Frequent flying has historically been par for the course for astronomers too, be it for conference attendance or on-site observatory visits all around the world. Prior to COVID-19, six tonnes of annual emissions from flights were attributed to the average astronomer.

An estimated five tonnes of additional emissions per astronomer are produced in powering observatories every year. Astronomical facilities tend to be remote, to escape the bright lights and radio signals from populous areas.

Some, like the Parkes radio telescope and the Anglo-Australian Telescope near Coonabarabran, are connected to the electricity grid, which is predominately powered by fossil fuels.

Others, like the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, need to be powered by generators on site. Solar panels currently provide around 15% of the energy needs at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, but diesel is still used for the bulk of the energy demands.

Finally, the powering of office spaces accounts for three tonnes of emissions per person per year. This contribution is relatively small, but still non-negligible.

They’re doing it better in Germany

Australia has an embarrassing record of per-capita emissions. At almost four times the global average, Australia ranks in the top three OECD countries for the highest per-capita emissions. The problem at large is Australia’s archaic reliance on fossil fuels.

A study at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany found the emissions of the average astronomer there to be less than half that in Australia.

The difference lies in the amount of renewable energy available in Germany versus Australia. The carbon emissions produced for each kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed at the German institute is less than a third pulled from the grid in Australia, on average.

The challenge astronomers in Australia face in reducing their carbon footprint is the same challenge all Australian residents face. For the country to claim any semblance of environmental sustainability, a swift and decisive transition to renewable energy is needed.

Taking emissions reduction into our own hands

A lack of coordinated action at a national level means organisations, individuals, and professions need to take emissions reduction into their own hands.

For astronomers, private arrangements for supercomputing centres, observatories, and universities to purchase dedicated wind and/or solar energy must be a top priority. Astronomers do not control the organisations that make these decisions, but we are not powerless to effect influence.




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The good news is this is already happening. A recent deal made by Swinburne University to procure 100% renewable energy means the OzSTAR supercomputer is now a “green machine”.

CSIRO expects the increasing fraction of on-site renewables at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory has the potential to save 2,000 tonnes of emissions per year from diesel combustion. And most major universities in Australia have released plans to become carbon-neutral this decade.

As COVID-19 halted travel worldwide, meetings have transitioned to virtual platforms. Virtual conferences have a relatively minute carbon footprint, are cheaper, and have the potential to be more inclusive for those who lack the means to travel. Despite its challenges, COVID-19 has taught us we can dramatically reduce our flying. We must commit this lesson to memory.




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And it’s encouraging to see the global community banding together. Last year, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a scientific paper, warning of a global climate emergency.

As astronomers, we have now identified the significant size of our footprint, and where it comes from. Positive change is possible; the challenge simply needs to be tackled head-on.The Conversation

Adam Stevens, Research Fellow in Astrophysics, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, Research Associate in Astronomy, University of Western Australia

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

These Aussie teens have launched a landmark climate case against the government. Win or lose, it’ll make a difference



Five of the eight young plaintiffs. From left: Ava Princi, Izzy Raj-Seppings, Ambrose Hayes, Veronica Hester, Laura Kirwan.
Equity Generation Lawyers

Laura Schuijers, University of Melbourne

On Tuesday, eight young Australians aged 13-17 filed a class action seeking an injunction to prevent federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving a new coal project expansion.

They are bringing their case to the Federal Court. They argue if Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion in New South Wales is approved, it will contribute to climate change which endangers their future.




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‘A wake-up call’: why this student is suing the government over the financial risks of climate change


Saying the environment minister owes the young plaintiffs a duty of care is a novel approach. In their view, signing off on a new coal project will breach that duty. Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful.

Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.

What is the case about?

The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning it will expand a mine that has already been approved, increasing its coal production by about 25%, and emissions by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.

Like many mining proposals, this one has been divisive. Farmers worry about competing for water, and the local community has expressed concern over the environmental record of the coal company.

Yet in August, the NSW Independent Planning Commission approved the proposal, finding the expansion is in the public interest, given the forecast jobs and revenue. It has not yet received federal approval.

What are the teenagers arguing?

The young plaintiffs are not bringing their case under environmental law, which would be the traditional way to launch a legal challenge objecting to a coal mine.

Environmental law invites government decision-makers to balance competing concerns — such as economic benefits versus environmental impact — with no clear stipulation as to how much weight to give each relevant factor.

There is limited recourse to argue a decision is wrong because the positive and negative impacts were not given particular priority by a minister. This means decision-making on major projects is largely within the political realm.

Instead, the plaintiffs are arguing the environment minister shouldn’t approve the coal proposal because doing so would breach a duty of care owed by the minister to protect them from the harmful impacts of climate change. This includes more frequent extreme weather events, and destruction of the natural systems that support human life.

The case has parallels with a landmark Dutch case, where it was successfully argued in 2019 that the Dutch Government breached its duty of care to its citizens through inadequate action on climate change.




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These young Queenslanders are taking on Clive Palmer’s coal company and making history for human rights


For the Australian case to succeed, the Court will first need to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.

Then, the plaintiffs would need to establish that the duty would be breached by the environment minister signing off on the coal project.

Will it succeed?

Establishing both these things is likely to be very difficult in our legal context. From past cases, we know Australian courts have been reluctant to find a causal link between climate change and individual projects, even large mines. However, this link was found in a NSW case last year.

The court is likely to look closely at the particular relationship between the minister and the vulnerable young people, who will be strongly impacted by climate change but have no voting rights. It will consider whether they represent a particular class of individuals, in relation to which the minister has a responsibility.

One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers recently highlighted a case that potentially paves the way to support this idea. In 2016, the Federal Court found the immigration minister Peter Dutton owed a duty of care to a vulnerable refugee with a history of trauma, who was detained on Nauru.

One thing in the current case’s favour is that, similar to the Dutch case, the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary compensation. If they were, the difficulty for the courts to determine what future obligation the government might have to pay out young people would, almost undoubtedly, prohibit success.

What’s also interesting about this case, unlike the Dutch case or the famous Juliana case that was recently quashed in the US, is that it’s not asking the government for broad-scale policy action on climate change. It’s only concerned with one coal mine approval. This is a more straightforward remedy which a court could be more willing to grant.

Beating the odds

If the case successfully established a duty and that it was breached, this would open up the possibility future coal approval decisions would also breach the duty — somewhat of a Pandora’s box.

Although we will have to wait and see what the Court says, the suit will draw attention to the government’s climate policies, whether or not it succeeds.

If the case succeeds, it might compel the government to stop approving any coal mines that would significantly contribute to climate change. If it doesn’t, it will remind us that it’s up to the government to respond to the threats climate change poses, rather than the courts.

Either way, the teenagers in this case are part of a growing number of people willing to find creative avenues to pursue action, even if it means taking a long shot. And beating the odds is exactly how the law tends to evolve.




Read more:
Be worried when fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws


The Conversation


Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

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

Earth may temporarily pass dangerous 1.5℃ warming limit by 2024, major new report says


Pep Canadell, CSIRO and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

The Paris climate agreement seeks to limit global warming to 1.5℃ this century. A new report by the World Meteorological Organisation warns this limit may be exceeded by 2024 – and the risk is growing.

This first overshoot beyond 1.5℃ would be temporary, likely aided by a major climate anomaly such as an El Niño weather pattern. However, it casts new doubt on whether Earth’s climate can be permanently stabilised at 1.5℃ warming.

This finding is among those just published in a report titled United in Science. We contributed to the report, which was prepared by six leading science agencies, including the Global Carbon Project.

The report also found while greenhouse gas emissions declined slightly in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they remained very high – which meant atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have continued to rise.

Woman holds a sign at a climate protest
The world may exceed the 1.5℃ warming threshold sooner than we expected.
Erik Anderson/AAP

Greenhouse gases rise as CO₂ emissions slow

Concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂O), have all increased over the past decade. Current concentrations in the atmosphere are, respectively, 147%, 259% and 123% of those present before the industrial era began in 1750.

Concentrations measured at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory and at Australia’s Cape Grim station in Tasmania show concentrations continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. In particular, CO₂ concentrations reached 414.38 and 410.04 parts per million in July this year, respectively, at each station.

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂0) from WMO Global Atmosphere Watch.

Growth in CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel use slowed to around 1% per year in the past decade, down from 3% during the 2000s. An unprecedented decline is expected in 2020, due to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. Daily CO₂ fossil fuel emissions declined by 17% in early April at the peak of global confinement policies, compared with the previous year. But by early June they had recovered to a 5% decline.

We estimate a decline for 2020 of about 4-7% compared to 2019 levels, depending on how the pandemic plays out.

Although emissions will fall slightly, atmospheric CO₂ concentrations will still reach another record high this year. This is because we’re still adding large amounts of CO₂ to the atmosphere.

Global daily fossil CO₂ emissions to June 2020. Updated from Le Quéré et al. 2020, Nature Climate Change.

Warmest five years on record

The global average surface temperature from 2016 to 2020 will be among the warmest of any equivalent period on record, and about 0.24℃ warmer than the previous five years.

This five-year period is on the way to creating a new temperature record across much of the world, including Australia, southern Africa, much of Europe, the Middle East and northern Asia, areas of South America and parts of the United States.




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Sea levels rose by 3.2 millimetres per year on average over the past 27 years. The growth is accelerating – sea level rose 4.8 millimetres annually over the past five years, compared to 4.1 millimetres annually for the five years before that.

The past five years have also seen many extreme events. These include record-breaking heatwaves in Europe, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, major bushfires in Australia and elsewhere, prolonged drought in southern Africa and three North Atlantic hurricanes in 2017.

Left: Global average temperature anomalies (relative to pre-industrial) from 1854 to 2020 for five data sets. UK-MetOffice. Right: Average sea level for the period from 1993 to July 16, 2020. European Space Agency and Copernicus Marine Service.

1 in 4 chance of exceeding 1.5°C warming

Our report predicts a continuing warming trend. There is a high probability that, everywhere on the planet, average temperatures in the next five years will be above the 1981-2010 average. Arctic warming is expected to be more than twice that the global average.

There’s a one-in-four chance the global annual average temperature will exceed 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels for at least one year over the next five years. The chance is relatively small, but still significant and growing. If a major climate anomaly, such as a strong El Niño, occurs in that period, the 1.5℃ threshold is more likely to be crossed. El Niño events generally bring warmer global temperatures.

Under the Paris Agreement, crossing the 1.5℃ threshold is measured over a 30-year average, not just one year. But every year above 1.5℃ warming would take us closer to exceeding the limit.

Global average model prediction of near surface air temperature relative to 1981–2010. Black line = observations, green = modelled, blue = forecast. Probability of global temperature exceeding 1.5℃ for a single month or year shown in brown insert and right axis. UK Met Office.

Arctic Ocean sea-ice disappearing

Satellite records between 1979 and 2019 show sea ice in the Arctic summer declined at about 13% per decade, and this year reached its lowest July levels on record.

In Antarctica, summer sea ice reached its lowest and second-lowest extent in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and 2018 was also the second-lowest winter extent.

Most simulations show that by 2050, the Arctic Ocean will practically be free of sea ice for the first time. The fate of Antarctic sea ice is less certain.

A polar bear on an ice floe
Summer sea ice in the Arctic is expected to virtually disappear by 2050.
Zaruba Ondrej/AP

Urgent action can change trends

Human activities emitted 42 billion tonnes of CO₂ in 2019 alone. Under the Paris Agreement, nations committed to reducing emissions by 2030.

But our report shows a shortfall of about 15 billion tonnes of CO₂ between these commitments, and pathways consistent with limiting warming to well below 2℃ (the less ambitious end of the Paris target). The gap increases to 32 billion tonnes for the more ambitious 1.5℃ goal.

Our report models a range of climate outcomes based on various socioeconomic and policy scenarios. It shows if emission reductions are large and sustained, we can still meet the Paris goals and avoid the most severe damage to the natural world, the economy and people. But worryingly, we also have time to make it far worse.




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The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO and Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University

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

Climate explained: methane is short-lived in the atmosphere but leaves long-term damage



Shutterstock/effective stock photos

Zebedee Nicholls, University of Melbourne and Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


Methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas – why do we average it out over 100 years? By doing so, do we risk emitting so much in the upcoming decades that we reach climate tipping points?

The climate conversation is often dominated by talk of carbon dioxide, and rightly so. Carbon dioxide is the climate warming agent with the biggest overall impact on the heating of the planet.

But it is not the only greenhouse gas driving climate change.

Comparing apples and oranges

For the benefit of policy makers, the climate science community set up several ways to compare gases to aid with implementing, monitoring and verifying emissions reduction policies.

In almost all cases, these rely on a calculated common currency – a carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO₂-e). The most common way to determine this is by assessing the global warming potential (GWP) of the gas over time.

The simple intent of GWP calculations is to compare the climate heating effect of each greenhouse gas to that created by an equivalent amount (by mass) of carbon dioxide.




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In this way, emissions of one gas – like methane – can be compared with emissions of any other – like carbon dioxide, nitrous dioxide or any of the myriad other greenhouse gases.

These comparisons are imperfect but the point of GWP is to provide a defensible way to compare apples and oranges.

Limits of metrics

Unlike carbon dioxide, which is relatively stable and by definition has a GWP value of one, methane is a live-fast, die-young greenhouse gas.

Methane traps very large quantities of heat in the first decade after it is released in to the atmosphere, but quickly breaks down.

After a decade, most emitted methane has reacted with ozone to form carbon dioxide and water. This carbon dioxide continues to heat the climate for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale.

How much worse depends on the time period used to average out its effects. The most commonly used averaging period is 100 years, but this is not the only choice, and it is not wrong to choose another.

As a starting point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report from 2013 says methane heats the climate by 28 times more than carbon dioxide when averaged over 100 years and 84 times more when averaged over 20 years.

Many sources of methane

On top of these base rates of warming, there are other important considerations.

Fully considered using the 100-year GWP and including natural feedbacks, the IPCC’s report says fossil sources of methane – most of the gas burned for electricity or heat for industry and houses – can be up to 36 times worse than carbon dioxide. Methane from other sources – such as livestock and waste – can be up to 34 times worse.

Some cattle at a farm in New Zealand
Livestock are a source of methane emission into the atmosphere.
Flickr/mikeccross, CC BY-NC-ND

While some uncertainty remains, a well-regarded recent assessment suggested an upwards revision of fossil and other methane sources, that would increase their GWP values to around 40 and 38 times worse than carbon dioxide respectively.

These works will be assessed in the IPCC’s upcoming Sixth Assessment Report, with the physical science contribution due in 2021.

While we should prefer the most up to date science at any given time, the choice to consider – or not – the full impact of methane and the choice to consider its impact over 20, 100 or 500 years is ultimately political, not scientific.

Undervaluing or misrepresenting the impact of methane presents a clear risk for policy makers. It is vital they pay attention to the advice of scientists and bodies such as the IPCC.

Undervaluing methane’s impact in this way is not a risk for climate modellers because they rely on more direct assessments of the impact of gases than GWP.

Tipping points

The idea of climate tipping points is that, at some point, we may change the climate so much that it crosses an irreversible threshold.

At such a tipping point, the world would continue to heat well beyond our capability to limit the harm.

There are many tipping points we should be aware of. But exactly where these are – and precisely what the implications of crossing one would be – is uncertain.




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Unfortunately, the only way we can be sure of where these tipping points are is to cross them. The only thing we know for sure about them is that the impact on lives, livelihoods and the places we love would be beyond catastrophic if we did.

But we cannot ignore disturbing impacts of climate change that are already here.

For example, damage to the landscape from the Black Summer bushfires may be irreversible and this represents its own form of climate tipping point.

The scientific understanding of climate change goes well beyond simple metrics like GWP. Shuffling between metrics – such as 20-year or 100-year GWP – cannot avoid the fact our very best chance of avoiding ever-worsening climate harm is to massively reduce our reliance on coal, oil and gas, along with reducing our emissions from all other sources of greenhouse gas.

If we do this, we offer ourselves the best chance of avoiding crossing thresholds we can never return from.The Conversation

Zebedee Nicholls, PhD Researcher at the Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne and Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Senior Researcher – Climate Council; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it



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Laura Sonter, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, The University of Queensland

A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.

In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.

We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.

Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.

A wind farm
Renewable energy infrastructure such as wind farms are good for the planet – but it requires minerals extraction.
Shutterstock

Mining to prevent climate change

Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.

Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:

  • lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
  • zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
  • copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).

The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.

However, mining can seriously damage species and places. It destroys natural habitat, and surrounding environments can be harmed by the construction of transport infrastructure such as roads and railways.

An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia.
An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia. Mining can damage the environment if not done sustainably.
Dado Galdieri/AP

What we found

We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.

We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.

Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.

Areas around the world potentially influenced by mining
Areas potentially influenced by mining, including for the minerals needed in renewable energy production (shown in blue). See paper for detailed methodology and limitations.
Authors provided

Threats here and abroad

Australia is well positioned to become a leading supplier of materials for renewable energy. We are also one of only 17 nations considered ecologically “megadiverse”.

Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.

For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.




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Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.

It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.

In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.

The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.

A little red antechinus
The Pilbara has large lithium deposits and is also home to the little red antechinus.
Needpix

We need proactive planning

Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.

Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.

Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.

There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.

The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.The Conversation

Laura Sonter, Lecturer in Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, Director – WH Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre – The Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

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