5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


Barry Hart, Monash University and Martin Thoms, University of New England

The health of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest and most complex river system, is in rapid decline, and faces major challenges over the next 30 years as the climate changes.

In our view, there are still major problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. These must be addressed to make sure the system is resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of bouncing back from future shocks to the river’s ecosystems, particularly due to climate change.




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Here are five ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so the river system has a chance of surviving in the long term.

1. Allow the rivers to spill into the floodplain

There are restrictions in all states on deliberately using environmental water (water set aside to keep the rivers healthy) to go over the river bank and inundate the floodplain. When this happens, it’s known as “overbank flow”, and is restricted to areas and times of year when it’s permitted.

Overbank flow is the connection between rivers and their floodplain, and is essential for two reasons.

Populations of water birds like pelicans are not recovering as well as they used to after drought and flood cycles in the Basin.
Shutterstock

The first is to ensure floodplain wetlands and forests are resilient. For example, without additional water, the current red gum forests along the River Murray are likely to die and be replaced with black box trees, which need less water.

The second is for the exchange of nutrients and organic matter between rivers and floodplains. Without these inputs from the floodplain, the river system would only be able to support a much smaller number of fish.

Governments have been reluctant to work towards increased overbank flows, largely because of a potential backlash from landholders who don’t want their floodplain land to be flooded.




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But in several regions, such as the Edward-Wakool system in New South Wales, landowners and government officials are working through the issues that infrequent flooding has on riverside agricultural land, such as stock being unable to graze flooded areas, crops being innundated by floodwaters, and loss of access to parts of their property through road flooding.

We hope their discussions will lead to a balance, where overbank flows can still occur with minimum impact on landholders.

Still, without changes to state policies on overbank flows, parts of the Basin’s floodplain systems are unlikely to have sufficient resilience to absorb future stresses.

2. Better management of the rivers

The Commonwealth and states now have almost 3 trillion litres (3,000 gigalitres) of dedicated environmental water, purchased from irrigators, many of whom have made significant water savings by upgrading their irrigation equipment.

This is called “held” environmental water. Currently, there is around 3 trillion litres of held environmental water, and 13.7 trillion litres of water allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Management of this environmental water is relatively new, compared with the management of water for irrigators, which has been occurring for the better part of 80 years in rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee.

There is a major difference in when environmental and irrigation water is needed through the year. Farmers have their highest water demand for irrigation in late spring and summer, while the major environmental water demand is often highest in late winter and early spring. This is when high natural inflows would have filled river channels and spilled into floodplain forests and wetlands.

The use of the river channels to deliver irrigation water has lead to large flows in the summer when naturally the river flows would have been low. This has resulted in environmental problems, such as bank erosion and the wrong triggers for fish breeding.

3. A greater focus on river refuges

During periods of low or no flow, many of the Basin’s rivers exist as networks of waterholes. In such dry periods, these waterholes are vital habitats, or “refuges”, for fish, frogs, waterbugs, and other species that need permanent water.

Changes in land use, flow regimes and the condition of riverbank vegetation all threaten the ability for these waterholes to act as refuges for these species. These waterhole refuges also need a full set of structural habitats, such as snags and riverbank vegetation.




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Maintaining a “mosaic” of refuges with different levels of connection is required for the full suite of species to be able to survive droughts.

4. Better protection of planned environmental water

Runoff – rainwater that drains from the land and into the rivers – will be seriously affected by climate change.

A predicted 20% reduction in rainfall is expected in the southern Basin by 2050. This would translate to a 40-50% reduction in runoff, and would impact on all water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Disturbingly, the current policy in the Basin Plan safeguards the entitlements to irrigation water and held environmental water, but not the rest of the flow – which is largely also “environmental” water. Currently, this makes up around half of the total flow (32.5 trillion litres per year) in the Murray-Darling Basin a very large volume.

Drought stricken wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. We need a more coordinated management of all of the Basin’s natural resources.
Shutterstock

The effect varies over the basin, but by 2030, overall losses are predicted to be two to three times greater for water that is outside of these entitlements, compared with irrigation water and held environmental water.

Unless this policy is changed, climate change will have an excessive impact on the river’s health. Entitlement-holders will continue to take the same amount of water while the overall river flow drops dramatically. This deficiency must be addressed when the Basin Plan is reviewed by 2026.

5. Linking water and other natural resource management

The Basin’s water resources do not exist in isolation from other “natural capital”, such as riverbank habitats, floodplain land, and the surrounding catchments.

Before the Basin Plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission had in place an integrated natural resource management strategy, but this has now been discontinued.

River scientists know “the catchment rules the river”. But the water and catchments are now managed separately, despite many calls over the years for better integration.

Poor agricultural practices result in sediment, nutrients and salt entering the rivers in runoff. This reduces water quality and harms the Basin’s ability to provide essential “ecosystem services”, such as water quality improvement and the effective functioning of the ecosystem.




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We believe a more coordinated management of all natural resources in the Basin, and attention to other complementary measures, should be addressed when the current Basin Plan is reviewed in 2026.

We submit that continuing with the existing Basin Plan, it’s unlikely the Murray-Darling Basin will be resilient enough to withstand future climate impacts, and we will see major detrimental changes to the basin’s ecosystems.

At the very least, we must properly implement the current Basin Plan by addressing the first three issues above, and also make the necessary policy change to ensure the other two issues – protection of planned environmental water and better links with other natural resources – are addressed in the next Basin Plan in 2026.The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University and Martin Thoms, Professor – Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences , University of New England

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

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It’s clear why coal struggles for finance – and the government can’t change that


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The federal government has announced a raft of new measures ostensibly designed to secure energy pricing, boost investment in new “reliable” energy generation, and improve competitiveness in the retail energy market.

At a meeting of state and federal energy ministers last week, it also rejected the greenhouse emissions reductions outlined in the previous National Energy Guarantee, and proposed supporting new coal-fired power stations as part of a plan to boost investment in new electricity generation.




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One of the main reasons new coal projects do not proceed is because of the “unquantifiable” financial risk of carbon. Former Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive Oliver Yates has argued that coal-fired power generation would not be financially backable without the government providing indemnity against future carbon taxes.

He may have meant it as a reason not to proceed with coal at all, but federal energy minister Angus Taylor has signalled that he is seriously considering such a move.

In outlining his policy position, Taylor has also effectively expanded the definition of new electricity generation to include old facilities that would have been retired but may be revived with financial assistance.

Differing recommendations

The federal government says its new proposals are based on recommendations made in a July report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), aimed at ensuring affordable electricity. But there are some key differences between the report’s recommendations and the government’s plans.

The crucial one, at least as far as coal’s fortunes are concerned, is the proposal for the government to enter into contracts called “energy offtake agreements”. Under this approach, the government would agree to buy future electricity at a set price, from new generation projects that could include coal-fired electricity from either new coal plants or refitted coal plants. This, the government argues, would keep power prices in line while also providing greater investment certainty and make energy projects easier to finance.

The ACCC report did indeed recommend underwriting new power generation investments, but not with the obvious goal of propping up coal. Rather, it recommended that this support be directed to “appropriate new generation projects which meet certain criteria”, so as to reduce prices by boosting market competition.

It is hard to see how the government’s desire to artificially sustain the life of coal-fired electricity – in the face of ever-worsening economic prospects – is consistent with either the ACCC’s rationale of supporting sustainable, new generation energy projects in order to improve competition in the energy market.

Federal shadow climate change minister Mark Butler has indicated he would not support the inclusion of coal in any such agreements, and that the plan could cost taxpayers billions.

Is coal ‘new generation’ or not?

Taylor has argued that the backing and guarantees for new electricity generation could well include coal, because “it may well be that the best options we have available to us are expansions of existing coal facilities”.

But the reality, given our climate targets, is that coal can only be an option where it is supported by clean technology. And even the cleanest of “clean coal” is not on a par with renewable energy.

The latest generation of high-efficiency “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired plants are very expensive to build and run, particularly if they include carbon capture and storage – which they would certainly need to. If all of Australia’s existing coal plants were replaced with ultra-supercritical ones that did not include expensive carbon capture and storage technology, emissions would fall by between 26 million and 40 million tonnes by 2030. But Australia’s climate target calls for a reduction of 160 million tonnes by that deadline.

On the other hand, with carbon capture and storage, the emissions reductions would be much greater, but the electricity could cost up to three times the current wholesale price. This would mean the government would be effectively subsidising the production of electricity that is more expensive and more environmentally damaging than renewables.




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This raises the ultimate question of why – given Australia’s emissions targets and its responsibilities under the Paris Agreement – the government is prepared to subsidise coal-fired electricity at all.

There is no doubt that climate change is an important public concern. The attempt to characterise Taylor as “minister for getting power prices down” belies the fact that energy policy is not just about price and reliability, but about broader social and environmental welfare too. Electricity absolutely must be sustainable as well as affordable.

This is what energy security means today. Carbon-intensive energy production is neither environmentally sustainable nor financially viable. It is that simple. That is precisely why the financial risks of carbon are so high.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.

Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes


Bradley Smith, CQUniversity Australia; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Lily van Eeden, University of Sydney

Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.

But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.




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This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.

The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.

What is a species anyway?

According to the biological species concept, a species is a group that has the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring. Dingoes, dogs and other canids do interbreed (or “hybridise”), and indeed this is one of the key reasons why the pure dingo is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?

However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.

Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.

Distinguishing dingoes

All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.

It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.

Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.

Australia’s dingo is a recognisable species.
Angus Emmott

Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.

In the absence of thylacines, mainland Tasmanian devils, and other apex predators, the ecological role that the dingo plays in the Australian landscape is vital. Dingoes help to control kangaroo and feral goat populations, and in some cases foxes and cats as well.




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Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.

How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.

In this case, economic and political interests appear to have been favoured over wildlife preservation, and given Australia’s unenviable conservation record this is deeply concerning.The Conversation

Bradley Smith, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Lily van Eeden, PhD Candidate in Human-Wildlife Conflict, University of Sydney

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

Climate policy is a fiendish problem for governments – time for an independent authority with real powers


Peter C. Doherty, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

From global epidemics to global economic markets to the global climate, understanding complex systems calls for solid data and sophisticated maths. My advice to young scientists contemplating a career in research is: “If you’re good at maths, keep it up!”

I’m no mathematician – my research career has focused largely on the complexities of infection and immunity. But as recently retired Board Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, I’ve been greatly informed by close contact with mathematically trained meteorologists, oceanographers and other researchers, who analyse the massive and growing avalanche of climate data arriving from weather stations, satellites, and remote submersibles such as Argo floats.




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My perception, based on a long experience of science and scientists, is that these are outstanding researchers of impeccable integrity.

Among both the climate research community and the medically oriented environmental groups such as the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia with which I have been involved, there is increasing concern, and even fear, about the consequences of ever-climbing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

The growing climate problem

Following the thinking of the late Tony McMichael, a Canberra-based medical epidemiologist who began studying lead poisoning and then went on to become a primary author on the health section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s five-yearly Assessment Reports, I have come to regard human-induced global warming as similar in nature to the problem of toxic lead poisoning.

Just like heavy metal toxicity, the problems caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases are cumulative, progressive, and ultimately irreversible, at least on a meaningful human timescale.

Regrettably, this consciousness has not yet seeped through to enough members of
the Australian political class. The same lack of engagement characterises current
national politics in Russia and the United States – although some US states, particularly California are moving aggressively to develop alternative energy sources.

The latter is true for much of Western Europe, while China and South Korea are committed both to phasing out coal and to leading the world in wind and solar power technology. In collaboration with the US giant General Electric, South Korean and Japanese companies are working to develop prefabricated (and hopefully foolproof) small nuclear reactors called SMRs.

At this stage, China (currently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter) is humanity’s best hope – if it indeed holds to its stated resolve.

Political paralysis

Politically, with a substantial economic position in fossil fuel extraction and
export, Australia’s federal government seems paralysed when it comes to taking meaningful climate action. We signed on to the Paris Agreement but, even if we meet the agreed reductions in emissions, precious little consideration is given to the fossil fuels that we export for others to burn. And while much of the financial sector now accepts that any new investments in coalmines will ultimately become “stranded assets”, some politicians nevertheless continue to pledge tax dollars to fund such projects.

What can be done? Clearly, because meaningful action is likely to impact both
on jobs and export income, this is an impossible equation for Australia’s elected
representatives. Might it help to give them a “backbone” in the form of a fully
independent, scientifically and economically informed statutory authority, endowed with real powers? Would such an initiative even be possible under Australian law?

Realising that reasoned scientific and moral arguments for meaningful action
on climate change are going nowhere fast, some 41 Australian environmental organisations sought the help of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) to develop the case for a powerful, independent Commonwealth Environmental Commission (CEC) linked to a National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).

This week in Canberra, at the culmination of a two-year process, the environmental groups will present their conclusions, preceded by a more mechanistic analysis from the lawyers.

In very broad terms, the new agencies would do for environmental policy what the Reserve Bank currently does for economic decisions. That is, they would have the power to make calls on crucial issues (whether they be interest rates or air pollution limits) that cannot be vetoed by the government.

Of course, that would require a government that is willing to imbue them with such power in the first place.




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While it’s a good bet that developing such a major national initiative will, at best, be a long, slow and arduous process, it is true that (to quote Laozi): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

The ConversationWhat is also clear is that “business as usual” is not a viable option for the future economy, defence and health of Australia.

Peter C. Doherty, Laureate Professor, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

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

Native forest protections are deeply flawed, yet may be in place for another 20 years



File 20180322 165550 14cxr7f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Current protections for native forests are hopelessly out of date.
Graeme/Flickr, CC BY-NC

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

State governments are poised to renew some of the 20-year-old Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) without reviewing any evidence gathered in the last two decades.

The agreements were first signed between the federal government and the states in the late 1990s in an attempt to balance the needs of the native forest logging industry with conservation and forest biodiversity.

It’s time to renew the agreements for another 20 years. Some, such as Tasmania’s, have just been renewed and others are about to be rolled over without substantial reassessment. Yet much of the data on which the RFAs are based are hopelessly out of date.




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Concerns about the validity of the science behind the agreements is shared by some state politicians, with The Guardian reporting the NSW Labor opposition environment spokeswoman as saying “the science underpinning the RFAs is out of date and incomplete”.

New, thorough assessments are needed

What is clearly needed are new, thorough and independent regional assessments that quantify the full range of values of native forests.

Much of the information underpinning these agreements comes largely from the mid-1990s. This was before key issues with climate change began to emerge and the value of carbon storage in native forests was identified; before massive wildfires damaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest in eastern Australia; and before the recognition that in some forest types logging operations elevate the risks of crown-scorching wildfires.

The agreements predate the massive droughts and changing climate that have affected the rainfall patterns and water supply systems of southwestern and southeastern Australia, including the forested catchments of Melbourne.

It’s also arguable whether the current Regional Forest Agreements accommodate some of the critical values of native forests. This is because their primary objective is pulp and timber production.




Read more:
Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts


Yet it is increasingly apparent that other economic and social values of native forests are greater than pulp and wood.

To take Victoria as an example, a hectare of intact mountain ash forests produces 12 million litres more water per year than the same amount of logged forest.

The economic value of that water far outstrips the value of the timber: almost all of Melbourne’s water come from these forests. Recent analysis indicates that already more than 60% of the forest in some of Melbourne’s most important catchments has been logged.

The current water supply problems in Cape Town in South Africa are a stark illustration of what can happen when natural assets and environmental infrastructure are not managed appropriately. In the case of the Victorian ash forests, some pundits would argue that the state’s desalination plant can offset the loss of catchment water. But desalination is hugely expensive to taxpayers and generates large amounts of greenhouse emissions.

A declining resource

Another critical issue with the existing agreements is the availability of loggable forest. Past over-harvesting means that much of the loggable forest has already been cut. Remaining sawlog resources are rapidly declining. It would be absurd to sign a 20-year RFA when the amount of sawlog resource remaining is less than 10 years.

This is partially because estimates of sustained yield in the original agreements did not take into account inevitable wood losses in wildfires – akin to a long-distance trucking company operating without accident insurance.

Some are arguing that the solution now is to cut even more timber in water catchments, but this would further compromise water yields at a major cost to the economy and to human populations.




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Profits from forests? Leave the trees standing


Comprehensive regional assessments must re-examine wood supplies and make significant reductions in pulp and timber yields accordingly.

The inevitable conclusion is that the Regional Forest Agreements and their underlying Comprehensive Regional Assessments are badly out of date. We should not renew them without taking into consideration decades of new information on the value of native forests and on threats to their preservation.

The ConversationAustralia’s native forests are among the nation’s most important natural assets. The Australian public has a right to expect that the most up-to-date information will be used to manage these irreplaceable assets.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

By slashing environment spending, the government is slashing opportunities



File 20171217 17878 1ezx5hj.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
At a time of growing human impacts, spending on environmental protection is more important than ever.
Author provided

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

Australia’s native plants and animals are integral to the success of our society. We depend on wildlife to pollinate many of our crops. Most of our cities depend on effective water catchments to provide clean water. And medical scientists are making important breakthroughs in managing disease and health issues based on discoveries in nature.

The mental health benefits of a “dose of nature” are becoming more widely recognised, on top of our own experiences of having fun and enjoying the natural wonders of national parks. Our nature inspires us in all kinds of ways, and you can build major industries around that; the Great Barrier Reef is reportedly worth A$56 billion to the Australian economy.

It is therefore surprising, on one hand, to read the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia budget submission that the Australian government has slashed environmental spending by one third since 2013.

On the other hand, I’m not especially surprised because we ecologists have been living through the ongoing attack on the environment every day. We see how cuts to environmental budgets play out.


Read more: Why a walk in the woods really does help your body and your soul


Our native species and ecosystems are under growing pressure. Australia’s 1.6% annual population growth outstrips many other countries. This is compounded by rises in per-capita consumption and greenhouse emissions.

Escalating consumption translates into growing impacts on biodiversity as more land is released for housing and infrastructure, extractive industries such as mining, recreational and industrial fishing expand and agriculture intensifies.

Climate change further interacts with land clearing associated with producing more for a growing and greedier population. Many species are expected to have to shift their range as the environmental conditions they live in move, and if they can’t move because there is no habitat to move through, extinctions will result.


Read more: Land clearing isn’t just about trees – it’s an animal welfare issue too


State of the Environment reports document the extent of the problem.

For example, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 66% increase in the number of critically endangered animals (from 38 in 2011 to 63 in 2015), and a 28% increase in critically endangered plants (112 in 2011; 143 in 2015). By critically endangered, we mean that extinction is a real possibility in the short term for these species. Immediate action is needed if we are to avoid terminating millions of years of independent evolution, as these biological lineages die out.

Given the extraordinary value of biodiversity and the extreme and growing threats, it would make sense to maximise our spending on biodiversity conservation now, to protect our wildlife through this period of peak human.

Key areas for investment include creating an effective national reserve system, at least meeting the arbitrary international goals of 17% of the land and 10% of the sea area.

Funding is needed to manage the reserve system, containing threats and nurturing already threatened species. Meanwhile, outside of reserves where most of the people live and interact with nature, biodiversity needs to be provided for, and threats need to be managed. Biosecurity is a critical area for funding, particularly to more tightly regulate rogue industries, like horticulture.

Horticulture was recently responsible for introducing myrtle rust, a disease that is devastating many gum-tree relatives, in the family Myrtaceae. Finally, climate change demands a strong response, both in mitigation and adaptation.

Science and environment work needs funding

I’ve never seen so many fantastic, skilled, enthusiastic young ecologists struggling to get a job. At a time when ecologists and conservation scientists are needed more than ever to help solve the problems created by the growth economy, funding for ecology is at a low.


Read more: Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink


Of course, beyond the people, we see conservation programs in desperate need of support that just isn’t forthcoming. Christmas Island is a case in point.

The island’s reptiles have been devastated by invasive pests, most likely the wolf snake and perhaps the giant centipede. Two endemic species (species that only lived on Christmas Island) are presumed extinct; the last known forest skink died in 2014.

This Christmas Island Forest Skink was the last known member of her species.
Director of National Parks/Supplied

Two other endemic species are extinct in the wild, but small populations of around 1,000 animals are kept in captivity on the island and at Taronga Zoo.

While ideally a population of at least 5,000 would be maintained to minimise loss of genetic diversity, funding is not available to house that many animals. And it’s rock-bottom budget accommodation; Lister’s geckos are housed in tents because the budget doesn’t stretch to building something permanent.

We’ve also seen important long term research programs defunded. Long-term data provides crucial insights into how our biodiversity responds to decadal changes in weather patterns as well as longer-term changes caused by the greenhouse effect. It is unimaginable that the government have slashed the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s funding so far that well-established long-term data series are now being compromised.

Ultimately, the environmental funding shortfall needs to be fixed. Our livelihoods and well-being depend on it.


The ConversationThe original version of this article incorrectly reported that the budget submission was made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Foundation. It was in fact made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

The government is miscounting greenhouse emissions reductions



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Some projects shouldn’t be receiving funding from the government. Yet, lack of proper monitoring has caused huge amounts of wasted money.
www.goodfreephotos.com

Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

The Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), established in 2014 with funding of A$2.55 billion, is mostly spent. With just A$200 million left to be allocated, the Climate Change Authority this week released a report on the fund’s progress that can be best described as magnanimous.

The federal government claims that 189 million tonnes of emissions have been diverted or prevented from entering the atmosphere under the scheme. But research I have done with a co-author from Melbourne Law School has found serious issues, from giving unnecessary funds, to counting decade-old projects as new emissions “reductions”.

While the Authority made 26 recommendations for improvement, each is relatively low-impact. Most of the recommendations go towards increasing the fund’s transparency or removing barriers to participation. While these are laudable aims, there are deeper problems.

How should the fund work?

At its most basic, the ERF gives private companies and individuals a cash incentive to avoid or sequester greenhouse gas emissions. These businesses or people compete for funding by putting their projects forward at reverse auctions.


Read more: How does today’s Direct Action reverse auction work?


The fund is unique in Australia’s climate policy, in that the legislation that supports it has strong bipartisan support. Even if a change of federal government leads to a new policy for curbing emissions, it’s very likely that the basic ERF structure will be carried forward.

But despite the fund’s importance, there has been surprisingly little detailed academic analysis of it to date. In an effort to redress this, a colleague and I have a paper forthcoming that examines the underlying logic and effect of the fund. The paper focuses specifically on the path into the ERF for landfill operators, although the conclusions stretch further than just those projects.

Our conclusions are simple. With A$2.55 billion, the fund has considerable potential to crop the low-hanging fruit of Australia’s emissions profile. However, there are serious flaws in how some projects are assessed for funding.

Where support is granted to projects that would proceed without it, there is no benefit to the government’s intervention. Rather than lopping the low-hanging fruit, we are instead throwing money at the fruit that is already sitting in a bowl on the kitchen bench.

How to avoid redundancy

In the language of offsetting schemes, assessing a project to see if it needs extra funding to be commercially viable is known as an “additionality” test. The legislation that underpins the ERF contains three such tests, which are actually very strong:

  • Newness: is a project new? Has work on it already begun? If it has, the project is ineligible, because it is considered already commercially viable.

  • Existing regulations: is a particular project or emissions abatement already required by law? If so, the project is ineligible for ERF funding.

  • Other government funding: does a project have access to other sources of government funding? If it does, the proponent should use those funds instead.


Read more: Australia’s biggest emitters opt to ‘wait and see’ over Emissions Reduction Fund


If these three tests were mandated for all projects submitted to the ERF, it would be filled with projects that truly deliver new environmental benefit. But they’re not – and it isn’t.

There’s a simple reason why these tests aren’t used in all cases: there are 34 different ways of abating emissions recognised by the ERF (technically referred to as “methodologies”), from the destruction of methane from piggeries using engineered biodigesters, to avoiding deforestation.

Because these activities are so diverse, the legislation that underpins the ERF allows the Department of Environment and Energy to create methodology-specific tests instead, in consultation with industry stakeholders. They are then subject to ministerial approval.

In most cases, the replacements merely finesse the tests to make them more appropriate to the specific circumstances. For example, the existence of a conservation covenant (basically a promise to protect land) is not an obstacle to participation under the avoided deforestation methodology, despite these covenants being legally binding on present and future users of the land.

The case of landfill gas

Other instances are much less innocuous. One such area is landfill, where the gas created by decomposing rubbish can be captured and burned to create energy.


Read more: Capturing the true wealth of Australia’s waste


In the most egregious examples of “regulatory slippage” that either myself or my co-author have ever seen, the tests for whether landfill-related schemes should get ERF money have been completely neutered.

One of the largest Australian companies in this area is LMS Energy. Their Rochedale landfill gas project should, under the tests in the Act, be thrice barred from participation.

First, it predates the ERF by a full decade. Second, the capture and disposal of methane from landfill sites is required by Queensland’s air pollution laws. Finally, it receives renewable energy certificates under the Commonwealth Renewable Energy Target, as power is often created by methane burned to drive a steam turbine.

Nevertheless, this project is funded by the ERF. It should be noted clearly that there is no suggestion that the project is engaged in any deception. Its operators are absolutely complying with regulations. The issue is that the regulations themselves have been watered down to a ludicrous degree.

Two of the three tests (no funding from other government programs and not legally required) have been replaced by an unbelievably tautological requirement that landfill gas and combustion projects fulfil the legislative definition of a landfill gas and combustion project. That is, in order to pass the tests, a landfill gas capture and combustion project must merely be a landfill gas capture and combustion project.

The newness requirement permits projects that were previously registered under schemes that predate the ERF, which includes most of the larger sites for the capture and combustion of landfill methane in Australia.


Read more: Explainer: how much landfill does Australia have?


Because this project already existed, its contributions are captured in measurements of Australia’s baseline emissions. While there’s a good argument for rewarding ecologically responsibly companies, that is not actually the point of the ERF. To state the obvious, we should not be paying to maintain the status quo, and then claim to be reducing emissions.

The Climate Change Authority has unfortunately not taken the opportunity to address these underlying problems, or the potential for similar issues in future legislation.

The ConversationMore immediately, we must take the government’s claim to have abated 189 million tonnes of emissions with a hefty grain of salt. The reality is that the scheme’s effect on Australia’s total emissions is considerably smaller.

Tim Baxter, Researcher – Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

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