Greenhouse gas emissions released over the first 15 years of the Paris Agreement would alone lock in 20cm of sea-level rise in centuries to come, according to new research published today.
The paper shows that what the world pumps into the atmosphere today has grave long-term consequences. It underscores the need for governments to dramatically scale up their emission reduction ambition – including Australia, where climate action efforts have been paltry.
The report is the first to quantify the sea-level rise contribution of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions that countries would release if they met their current Paris pledges.
The 20cm sea-level rise is equal to that observed over the entire 20th century. It would comprise one-fifth of the 1m sea level rise projected for 2300.
During those 15 years, emissions would cause sea levels to rise by 20cm by 2300. Even if the world cut all emissions to zero in 2030, sea levels would still rise in 2300. These estimates do not take into account the irreversible melting of parts of the Antarctic ice sheet.
The researchers found that just over half of the sea level rise can be attributed to the top five polluters: China, the US, the European Union, India and Russia.
The emissions of these jurisdictions under will cause seas to rise by 12cm by 2300, the study shows.
The important takeaway message is that what the world does now will take years to play out – it is a stark warning of the long-term consequences of our actions.
It’s worse than we thought
Last week a separate paper in Nature Communications showed sea-level rise could affect many more people than previously thought. The authors produced a new digital elevation model that showed many of the world’s coastlines are far lower than estimated with standard methods.
In low-lying parts of coastal Australia, for example, the previous data has
overestimated elevation by an average of 2.5m.
Their projections for the millions of people to be affected by sea-level rise are frightening. Within three decades, rising sea levels could push chronic floods higher than land currently home to 300 million people. By 2100, areas home to 200 million people could be permanently below the high tide line.
But what of Australia, girt by sea?
Australia is a coastal nation: the vast majority of our population lives within 50km of the sea, and will be heavily impacted by sea-level rise. Already, we’re seeing severe coastal erosion and inundation during king tides – and that’s without factoring in the impact of storm surges.
We also know that unless the world achieves this, we will not just lose parts of our coasts but also iconic ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia’s emissions comprise a relatively small proportion of the global total – 1.4% or around 5% if we count coal and liquified natural gas exports. However, we have a much bigger diplomatic and political influence on the international stage.
Australia should use its position to push for urgent action internationally. But the federal government’s appalling record on emissions reduction – despite its efforts to claim otherwise – puts us in a very weak position on the global stage. We cannot point fingers at other nations while our emissions rise and we sell as much coal as possible to the rest of the world, while also burning as much as we can.
All the while, Australia is becoming the poster child for extreme sea-level events, more frequent and severe bushfires and other devastating climate impacts.
Governments, including Australia’s, must put forward much stronger 2030 emission reduction pledges by 2020. There should seek to decarbonise at a pace in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C temperature goal.
Otherwise, our emissions today will cause seas to rise far into the future. This process cannot be reversed – it will be our legacy to future generations.
Climate Analytics researcher Alexander Nauels was lead author of the study.
This article is part of our occasional long read series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.
“Design” has been one of the big words of the twentieth century. To say that an object has been designed implies a level of specialness. “Designer items” are invested with a particular kind of expertise that is likely to make them pleasing to use, stylish, or – less common in late-capitalist society – well made.
Due to this positive association, design has become an “elevator word”, to borrow a phrase used by philosopher of science Ian Hacking. Like the words “facts”, “truth”, “knowledge”, “reality”, “genuine” and “robust”, the word design is used to raise the level of discourse.
“Repair” hasn’t had such a glossy recent history. We don’t have universities or TAFEs offering degrees in repair, churning out increasingly large numbers of repairers. Repair exists in the shadow of design, in unfashionable, unofficial pockets. And, until recently, repair mostly passed unremarked.
British literary scholar Steven Connor points to the ambiguous status of repair in his analysis of “fixing”. Connor discusses fixing and fixers in the context of related figures, such as the tinker, bodger and mender, all of which share outsider status.
One might be forgiven for thinking “design” and “repair” were opposing forces. The former word has become so bound up with notions of newness, improvement, performance and innovation that it emphatically signals its difference from the seamful, restorative connotations of repair.
If repair is hessian and twine, design is sleek uniformity. Repair is about upkeep. Design is about updating. Repair is ongoing and cyclical. Design is about creative “genius” and finish. To design is, supposedly, to conceive and complete, to repair is to make do.
But perhaps design and repair are not, or ought not to be, as divergent as such a setting of the scene suggests. Thinking metaphorically of repair as design, and design as repair, can offer new and useful perspectives on both of these important spheres of cultural activity.
Repair and design have a lot in common
As a surface sheen that soothes us, design distracts us from any uncomfortable reminders of the disastrous excesses of global capitalist consumption and waste. The acquisition of new “designs” becomes addictive, a quick hit of a fresh design assures us that life is progressing.
As each new object is designed into existence and used over time, it is accompanied by an inevitable need for repair that evolves in parallel. Repair, where possible, cleans up the mess left by design.
Design and repair are different though related approaches to the common problem of entropy. Repair might seem only to be about returning an object to its previous state, whether for functional or decorative purposes. But maintaining that state is a hard fought affair, no less invested by collective or personal value.
The act of repair is also a determinate of worth. Whether at an individual or collective scale, choosing to repair this, and discard or neglect that, shares much in common with the process of selection, which informs the design of objects, images, garments or spaces.
Apple is revered for its design
Apple’s outgoing Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s influence at Apple is among the most popularised examples of “successful design”, to which other designers and design students have long aspired. With Ive’s departure from Apple this year, we have an opportunity to take a long view of his legacy.
Since the distinctive bubble iMac in 1998, Ive shifted computing away from the beige, boxy uniformity of the IBM PC era, aligning computing with “high design” and investing it with deep popular appeal.
Even prior to Ive’s influence – take for example the 1977 Apple II – Apple’s industrial design has played a fundamental role in transforming computers from machines for tinkerers, into desirable objects of self-actualisation, blending leisure and labour with incomparable ease.
The iPhone is one among a suite of Apple products that have changed cultural expectations around consumer electronics, and other smart phone manufacturers have followed suit.
The ubiquity of iPhones makes it increasingly difficult to appreciate their strangeness. Not only do they appear sealed beyond consumer access, they almost induce a forgetting of seals altogether. The glistening surface expresses an idea of inviolability which is completely at odds with the high likelihood of wear and tear.
The iPhone is perhaps the ultimate example of a “black box”, an object that exhibits a pronounced distinction between its interior mechanics, which determine its functionality, and its exterior appearance. It gives nothing away, merely reflecting back at us through its “black mirror”, to borrow the title of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian television series.
The design of the iPhone – among other similar devices – forecloses against repair, both through its physical form, and also through the obsolescence built into its software and systems design, which defensively pits individuals against the power of a giant multinational company.
‘Right to repair’ is gaining ground
Apple deliberately discourages its customers using independent repair services. It has a track record of punishing people who have opted for independent repairs, rather than going through Apple (at much greater expense). This is an example of the company’s attempt to keep its customers in an ongoing cycle of constant consumption.
This has put Apple – along with the agricultural equipment company John Deere – in the crosshairs of the growing Right to Repair movement in the United States. Right to Repair is centred on a drive to reform legislation in 20 US states, targeting manufacturers’ “unfair and deceptive policies that make it difficult, expensive, or impossible for you to repair the things you own”.
The movement could perhaps be criticised for focusing too much on libertarian individualism. Other groups advocate more community-focused repair strategies, such as the global proliferation of Repair Cafes, and Sweden’s groundbreaking secondhand mall, ReTuna Recycling Galleria.
This legacy of digital technology’s “anti-repairability” has been accepted as inevitable for some time, but the tide is turning. For example, the Victorian government has banned e-waste from landfill from July 1.
Designing for the future
Considering the increasing importance of responsible production and consumption, it is easily imaginable that, in a not too distant future, designers and design historians might point to the iPhone as naive, regressive and destructive. An example of design with thoroughly dated priorities, like the buildings in the Gothic revival style that provoked the ire of modernist architects.
Obscuring the wastage of valuable resources through sleek design could be decried as an outrageous excess, rather than celebrated for its “simiplicity”. With the benefit of hindsight, we might finally see that the iPhone was the opposite of minimalism.
Perhaps the revered objects of this imagined future will be launched by an entrepreneur who spruiks features and services associated with repair, rather than pacing the stage, championing an object because of its slimness, sleekness and speed. Hackability, ease of access, modularity, spare parts and durability might be touted as a product’s best features.
Alternatively, if the use of an object is decoupled from individual ownership, the responsibility for repair and waste might fall back on the producer. Perhaps “repair bins” will become a taken for granted feature of the urban landscape like curbside recycling bins are today.
To compel the pragmatists among us, such wishful thinking needs to remain mindful of the power multinationals have demonstrated in thwarting dreams of open access. Repair-oriented practices still face vast challenges when it is seemingly so convenient to waste. But to use one of the words of the day, aspirations need to be articulated if we, collectively, want to have the chance of living the dream.
One of the key questions any industry must consider is: what is left behind when it is finished. For coal seam gas (CSG), this question is crucial, considering the thousands of CSG wells that have already been drilled, not to mention the many more that could potentially be drilled in the future.
While most CSG wells will not be decommissioned until the later stages of a project, some wells are decommissioned earlier as they are no longer used for activities such as exploration, monitoring or production. This provides an opportunity to ask the key question: what does successful decommissioning of CSG wells look like?
Australia has around 6,000 CSG wells in active production, mostly in Queensland, and a growing number of decommissioned wells. Our new research looks at perspectives on decommissioning at different stages of the life cycle, including places where the industry is winding down (Camden, New South Wales), where it is continuing (Chinchilla, Queensland), and where future CSG development has been proposed but not yet approved (Narrabri, NSW).
We held a workshop in each of these places, bringing together between 8 and 16 people from state agencies, industry and local community in each location.
Workshop participants agreed strongly on several key principles: that decommissioned wells should never leak; that they should not impinge on future land uses; and that they should be barely noticeable.
Across all workshops, the majority of government and industry representatives expressed strong confidence in the code of practice for each state. When decommissioned correctly, they argued, old CSG wells would not cause legacy problems and would not require further action.
In contrast, a majority of local community participants tended to lack confidence in these codes of practice, and said that clear information about well decommissioning was hard to access or understand. As a result, they had markedly less confidence in the decommissioning process.
Our results suggest that clear, easily accessible information about CSG well decommissioning would help reduce this divergence of views. Publication of factsheets by government, outlining the regulatory processes, who is responsible, ownership questions and what would happen if there were a long-term problem, would help to improve confidence in the decommissioning process.
Another way to improve trust would be for industry to provide plain language summaries of well completion and decommissioning reports, with local stakeholders given details on when, how and where to access them.
The ultimate authority to decide whether decommissioning and rehabilitation have been properly completed lies with the state regulator. Both Queensland and NSW have similar regulations for decommissioning of CSG wells, drawing on international experiences and lessons from past practice.
Decommissioning involves rehabilitating the surface around the well pad, and plugging and abandoning the well. Abandonment involves preventing the flow of gas or fluid with cement plugs placed throughout the well.
Consultation with landholders is required in both jurisdictions. Landholders declare whether they are satisfied with rehabilitation works, and can also negotiate to retain infrastructure such as fences or concrete slabs, if that suits their future objectives.
Regulators in both states require companies to make a deposit that covers the full costs of decommissioning, as a way of protecting against companies defaulting on their obligations.
Monitoring was another important issue raised through the workshops. Because the confidence held by government and industry representatives in the codes of practice was so strong and informed by lessons from decades of practice overseas, monitoring has not been seen to be required so far for decommissioned wells, after all steps in the code of practice were completed.
But local community members disagreed, arguing that ongoing monitoring of decommissioned wells is crucial to detecting and addressing any potential future problems. Instigating a program to monitor decommissioned CSG wells, with publicly accessible results, would go a long way towards addressing the concerns raised by residents and increasing confidence in the industry more broadly.
Different stakeholders in the CSG industry will not necessarily see eye-to-eye on all aspects of how the industry is managed. That’s why understanding their different perspectives is an important step towards providing reassurance about the legacy left by coal seam gas wells.
These steps could include monitoring abandoned CSG wells and improved mechanisms to deal with public enquiries, questions and complaints.
Australia is now undergoing its third great wave of population growth, putting pressure on infrastructure, services and the environment. During the past two waves of growth, in the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, cities implemented visionary responses. It’s largely because of these past phases of planning and investment that our cities have until now been able to sustain their liveability and a reasonably healthy natural environment.
A third wave of planning and investment in open space and green infrastructure is now needed to underpin liveability as our cities grow. The past offers important lessons about what made Melbourne, in particular, so liveable.
Can we repeat the leadership of yesterday?
In the early 19th century, European settlers ignored and displaced the Indigenous knowledge and connections with country. What grew in their place were initially little more than shambolic frontier towns.
In the Port Phillip colony, the gold rush, the subsequent population and property booms and the lack of city services led to Melbourne gaining an international reputation as “Smellbourne”.
But then, over several decades, visionary plans set aside a great, green arc of parklands and tree-lined boulevards around the city grid.
Melbourne constructed one of the world’s earliest sewerage systems. The forested headwaters of the Yarra River were reserved for water supply. Melbourne is today one of a handful of major cities in the world drawing its natural water supplies from closed catchments.
And so, together with profound social and cultural changes, the shambolic frontier town transformed into “Marvellous Melbourne”. Sydney and Australia’s other capital cities followed similar trajectories.
Then came the world wars and intervening Great Depression. These were times of austerity and sacrifice. Remarkably little investment in open space and green infrastructure occurred over these decades.
The 1956 Melbourne Olympics was perhaps the event that signalled the awakening from that somewhat bleak period. It was again time for optimism and vision, with the post-war population boom well under way.
The 1954 Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme reflected this growing optimism and highlighted the potential for a network of open spaces across the rapidly expanding city. But it took time to build momentum for its implementation.
By the 1970s sprawling development had virtually doubled the metropolitan area of Melbourne. Services such as the sewerage system had not kept up. The Yarra and other waterways and Port Phillip Bay were becoming grossly polluted. There was community pressure to tackle pollution caused by industry and unsewered suburbs.
The city’s planners revived the earlier vision for Melbourne’s open space network, along with the idea of green wedges and development corridors. Greater prosperity and community expectation secured the investment needed to deliver it.
The 1971 metropolitan plan identified open-space corridors for waterways including the Yarra. Land began to be acquired to build this green network and the trail systems that connect it. Victoria became known as the “Garden State” in the 1970s.
This period stands out as the city’s second great wave of visionary planning and investment. It created the wonderful legacy of a world-class network of open space, much of it around waterways and Port Phillip Bay.
Where to today?
Sustaining or improving urban liveability is a massive challenge. It calls for a new vision and a commitment by governments to deliver it over many decades. Do we have policies and institutions capable of doing this?
Rather than “shaping” our cities, many state institutions are dominated by cost and efficiency goals that drive a “city servicing” mindset.
Melbourne, for instance, is in danger of exhausting the legacy of the last “city shaping” phase of visionary planning and investment. This all but ended in the 1980s.
By 1992, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works had been abolished. It once had responsibility for town planning, parks, waterways and floodplain management as well as water and sewerage services. It used the Metropolitan Improvement Fund (raised from city-wide property levies) to plan and deliver the city’s green infrastructure, including land acquisitions.
Where is the equivalent capability today? Our practitioners have the knowledge, skills and understanding to better plan for complex city needs, but this is not enough to shape a better future for coming generations. Without a vision and effective policies and institutions to deliver it, we risk ad hoc and wasteful decision-making and investment. The result will be poorer community well-being and less economic prosperity.
The entrenched cost-efficiency or “city servicing” mindset is an all-too-narrow and short-term policy setting in an era of unprecedented urban population growth.
Expanding suburban fringes will lack amenity and a healthy environment, which may entrench disadvantage. Existing suburbs also need to improve quality, access and connectivity of public open space.
Green streetscapes, open space and tree cover are important for amenity. This includes countering urban heat in a warming climate. Co-ordinated investment in green infrastructure can also unlock new economic opportunities for our cities.
But, as the past has shown, little will happen without an effective city-shaping capability. Significant policy and institutional reforms, guided by a new vision, are essential to ensure a healthy environment, community well-being and the liveability and prosperity of our cities for decades to come.
Alternatively, we may find ourselves tumbling down the ranks of world’s most liveable cities. Our best and brightest will be drawn to greener pastures while the world asks in astonishment, “How did they let that happen?”