The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Rohan Fisher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Australian National University

The tropical savannas of northern Australia are among the most fire-prone regions in the world. On average, they account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year in Australia.

But effective fire management over the past 20 years has reduced the annual average area burned – an area larger than Tasmania. The extent of this achievement is staggering, almost incomprehensible in a southern Australia context after the summer’s devastating bushfires.




Read more:
I made bushfire maps from satellite data, and found a glaring gap in Australia’s preparedness


The success in northern Australia is the result of sustained and arduous on-ground work by a range of landowners and managers. Of greatest significance is the fire management from Indigenous community-based ranger groups, which has led to one of the most significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction practices in Australia.

As Willie Rioli, a Tiwi Islander and Indigenous Carbon Industry Network steering committee member recently said:

Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate.

Importantly, people need to listen to science – the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world.

A tinder-dry season

The 2019 fire season was especially challenging in the north (as it was in the south), following years of low rainfall across the Kimberly and Top-End. Northern Australia endured tinder-dry conditions, severe fire weather in the late dry season, and a very late onset of wet-season relief.

Despite these severe conditions, extensive fuel management and fire suppression activities over several years meant northern Australia didn’t see the scale of destruction experienced in the south.

A comparison of two years with severe fire weather conditions. Extensive early dry season mitigation burns in 2019 reduced the the total fire-affected areas.

This is a huge success for biodiversity conservation under worsening, longer-term fire conditions induced by climate change. Indigenous land managers are even extending their knowledge of savanna burning to southern Africa.

Burn early in the dry season

The broad principles of northern Australia fire management are to burn early in the dry season when fires can be readily managed; and suppress, where possible, the ignition of uncontrolled fires – often from non-human sources such as lightning – in the late dry season.

Traditional Indigenous fire management involves deploying “cool” (low intensity) and patchy burning early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel. This creates firebreaks in the landscape that help stop larger and far more severe fires late in the dry season.

Relatively safe ‘cool’ burns can create firebreaks.
Author provided

Essentially, burning early in the dry season accords with tradition, while suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season is a post-colonial practice.

Savannah burning is different to burn-offs in South East Australia, partly because grass fuel reduction burns are more effective – it’s rare to have high-intensity fires spreading from tree to tree. What’s more, these areas are sparsely populated, with less infrastructure, so there are fewer risks.




Read more:
The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested


Satellite monitoring over the last 15 years shows the scale of change. We can compare the average area burnt across the tropical savannas over seven years from 2000 (2000–2006) with the last seven years (2013–2019). Since 2013, active fire management has been much more extensive.

The comparison reveals a reduction of late dry season wildfires over an area of 115,000 square kilometres and of all fires by 88,000 square kilometres.

How fire has changed in northern Australia.
Author provided

Combining traditional knowledge with western science

The primary goals of Indigenous savanna burning projects remain to support cultural reproduction, on-country living and “healthy country” outcomes.

Savanna burning is highly symbiotic with biodiversity conservation and landscape management, which is the core business of rangers.

Ensuring these gains are sustainable requires a significant amount of difficult on-ground work in remote and challenging circumstances. It involves not only Indigenous rangers, but also pastoralists, park rangers and private conservation groups. These emerging networks have helped build new savanna burning knowledge and innovative technologies.




Read more:
Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.

For Indigenous rangers, burning from helicopters using incendiaries is augmented by ground-based operations, including on-foot burns that support more nuanced cultural engagement with country.

On-ground burns are particularly important for protecting sacred sites, built infrastructure and areas of high conservation value such as groves of monsoonal forest.

Who pays for it?

A more active savanna burning regime over the last seven years has led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.




Read more:
Savanna burning: carbon pays for conservation in northern Australia


This is around 10% of the total emission reductions accredited by the Australian government through carbon credits units under Carbon Farming Initiative Act. Under the act, one Australian carbon credit unit is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project stores or avoids.

By selling these carbon credits units either to the government or on a private commercial market, land managers have created a A$20 million a year savanna burning industry.

How Indigenous Australians and others across Australia’s north are reducing emissions.

What can the rest of Australia learn?

Savanna fire management is not directly translatable to southern Australia, where the climate is more temperate, the vegetation is different and the landscape is more densely populated. Still, there are lessons to be learnt.

A big reason for the success of fire management in the north savannas is because of the collaboration with scientists and Indigenous land managers, built on respect for the sophistication of traditional knowledge.

This is augmented by broad networks of fire managers across the complex cross-cultural landscape of northern Australia. Climate change will increasingly impact fire management across Australia, but at least in the north there is a growing capacity to face the challenge.The Conversation

Rohan Fisher, Information Technology for Development Researcher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University

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

Why municipal waste-to-energy incineration is not the answer to NZ’s plastic waste crisis



Since the Chinese plastic recycling market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste goes to countries in South-East Asia.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

New Zealand is ranked the third-most-wasteful country in the OECD. New Zealanders produce five times the global daily average of waste per person – and they are getting more wasteful, producing 35% more than a decade ago.

These statistics are likely to get worse following China’s 2018 ban on imports of certain recyclable products. China was the world’s top importer of recyclable plastics, but implemented the ban because it could no longer safely manage its domestic and imported waste. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, China was named the top source of marine plastic pollution in the world.

Since the Chinese market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste now goes to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — all countries with weak regulations and high rankings as global sources of marine plastic pollution.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has been raised as a solution. While turning plastic waste into energy may sound good, it creates more pollution and delays a necessary transition to a circular economy.




Read more:
We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history


Dirty plastics

Shipments of plastic recycling often arrive in developing countries unsorted and contaminated. Materials that cannot be easily recycled are commonly burned, releasing dioxins into air, soil and water. In response, South-East Asian countries have started returning dirty plastics to developed countries.

Several New Zealand councils have stopped collecting certain plastics for recycling offshore. They are sending them to landfill instead. Available data suggest that even before the China ban plastics made up roughly 15% of the waste in municipal landfills – about 250,000 tonnes a year. Much of this is imported plastic packaging.

Many New Zealanders are very or extremely worried about the impact of plastic waste. We cannot continue ignoring our role in the global plastic pollution crisis while dumping plastic in homegrown landfills or in developing countries.




Read more:
We organised a conference for 570 people without using plastic. Here’s how it went


In the scramble to find alternatives, waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has become a hot topic, particularly as foreign investors look to establish WtE incinerators on the West Coast and [other centres]in New Zealand. Some local government representatives have endorsed WtE proposals, or raised WtE as an election issue.

Less plastic good for climate

Like landfills, WtE incinerators symbolise the linear “take-make-waste” economy, which destroys valuable resources and perpetuates waste generation.

Globally, countries are moving to circular approaches instead, which follow the “zero waste hierarchy”. This prioritises waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling and composting and considers WtE unacceptable.

Some New Zealanders say Nordic countries have proven that incineration is the environmental silver bullet to our waste woes. But a recent study found these countries will not meet EU circular economy goals unless they replace WtE incineration with policies that reduce waste generation. Such policies include packaging taxes, recycling and recovery rate targets, landfill bans on biodegradable waste, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.

Rejecting linear approaches is also good for the climate. Actions at the top of the waste hierarchy stop more greenhouse gases than those at the bottom.

In contrast, WtE incinerators can produce 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of municipal solid waste burnt. New Zealand’s zero carbon act means we have a responsibility to ensure we do not increase our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in WtE incineration.

Incinerators also cannot magic away toxins in plastic waste. Even the most high-tech WtE incinerators [[release dioxins and other pollutants into the air]. Meanwhile, toxin-laden fly ash and slag are dumped in landfills to eventually leach into the environment and contaminate food systems.

Shifting responsibility for plastic waste

To address plastic pollution, it is easy to see how prevention and reduction work better than “getting rid of” plastic once produced. Many WtE proponents argue that incineration technology can be a temporary solution for the plastic waste we have already created.

But incinerators are not short-term fixes. They are expensive to build and maintain. Large-scale incinerators demand about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, encouraging increasing production of waste. Investors guarantee returns on their investment by locking councils into decades-long contracts.

The only real solution to our plastics problem is through regulation that moves New Zealand towards a circular economy. We can start by making the linear economy expensive by increasing landfill levies above the current $NZ10/tonne and expanding it to all landfills. We must also invest in better waste collection, sorting and recycling systems, including a national network of resource recovery centres.

Instead of burning or burying plastic that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, we can prevent or reduce it through targeted phase-outs. The government is proposing to regulate single-use plastic packaging, beverage packaging, electronic waste and farm plastics through mandatory product stewardship schemes. This would make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce and provide incentives for less wasteful and toxic product design and delivery systems (e.g. refill stations).

All of these circular solutions will provide far more jobs than WtE incineration.

Without a swift, brave shift to a circular economy, New Zealand will remain one of the world’s most wasteful nations. Circular economies are developing globally and WtE incineration will only set us back by 30 years.


Hannah Blumhardt, the coordinator of the NZ Product Stewardship Council, has contributed to this article.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

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

Severe heatwaves show the need to adapt livestock management for climate



Image 20170227 27378 u8yry6
Cows don’t do well in the heat.
Shutterstock

Elisabeth Vogel, University of Melbourne; Christin Meyer, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne

Climate change and extreme weather events are already impacting our food, from meat and vegetables, right through to wine. In our series on the Climate and Food, we’re looking at what this means for the food chain. The Conversation


During the recent heatwave in New South Wales, which saw record-breaking temperatures for two days in a row, 40 dairy cows died in Shoalhaven, a city just south of Sydney.

Climate change doubled the likelihood of this kind of record-breaking heatwave. And even the higher minimum temperatures we’ve recently experienced may soon be the “new normal” for this time of the year.

Farmers that already find it difficult to make a profit will need to adapt to these changing conditions, ensuring they mitigate the effects on their livestock. This could take the form of more shade and shelter, but also the selection of different breeds to suit the conditions.

What’s happening?

Cattle are vulnerable to changes in rainfall patterns (variability and extremes), temperature (average and extremes), humidity, and evaporation. These climactic changes can affect livestock directly, and also indirectly through pasture growth, forage crop quantity and quality, the production and price of feed-grain as well as spatial changes in disease and pest distribution.

The greatest risks stem from extreme events such as heatwaves and droughts, as they are less predictable and much more difficult to adapt to than gradual changes.

Dairy cows are particularly affected by heatwaves, which can not only reduce milk production, but, as the NSW heatwave illustrated, cause illness or death. Further, the effects on milk production and the protein content of the milk can last for several weeks.

Similar to humans, instances of high relative air humidity and little wind worsen the negative effects of high temperatures on livestock. When this occurs, the animals cannot easily offload excess heat through transpiration. This is compounded when there is little or no cloud cover, as the cattle are exposed to more solar radiation.

Milk production is also impacted by night-time temperatures and the timing of the heatwave. When night-time temperatures are high, cows cannot offload excess heat. If a heatwave occurs after the cows’ peak of lactation, milk production is less likely to recover and the impact is even worse.

The response of cattle to heat stress also depends on the breed. This can differ as a result of, among other things, differences in metabolic rate, sweating rate, coat texture and colour. Researchers have even identified a “slick hair gene”, responsible for producing cattle with shorter, slicker hair that reduces their vulnerability to direct radiative heat. The full benefits of the slick gene still require more research as a strategy for animals to cope in future climates.

Sheep are generally less affected by high temperatures than dairy cows. However, heatwaves with temperatures beyond 40℃ can cause heat stress. Hot days may have short-term impacts on rams’ fertility, and recently shorn sheep are at risk of sunburn if they are exposed to direct sunlight.

Factors that are unique to each individual animal, such as previous heat exposure and overall health and age, also play a role in how vulnerable they are to heat.

Mitigation

In the short run, farmers can mitigate the worst of these issues by providing high-quality water and shade (such as from trees, buildings, and shade cloth) in the heat, warm shelter in the cold, and by adjusting feed. During heatwaves, farmers can also adjust milking procedures and milk their cows very early in the morning or late at night. To provide immediate cooling they can also use sprinklers or misting systems. But care is needed to avoid simply increasing humidity around the animals.

Mitigation can be as simple as providing a bit of shade.
Shutterstock

A more long-term option is to selectively choose breeds that are better adapted to higher temperatures (such as breeds with lighter coat colour or Bos indicus types or crosses). Unfortunately, breeds adapted to warmer climates, such as the Brahman, tend not to be high milk producers or to do as well in feedlots as the traditional British beef breeds, so there will be a hit to productivity.

As the impact of climate change isn’t solely on the animals themselves, farmers will also have to adjust their work patterns and other aspects of their operations. To cope with heat, farmers themselves may need to consider working more during the cooler hours of the day. Farming both crops and livestock together can also provide a buffer against the impact of an extreme event. The combined production of wheat and wool is a typical example of spreading of risk on farm.

But for these strategies to really be effective, farmers need more information.

This includes accurate and timely forecasts of weather (temperature, rainfall, solar radiation) and heat (such as the temperature humidity index, THI) at daily, weekly and seasonal scales. Armed with this data, farmers and livestock managers can effectively plan and implement protection measures ahead of time.

A wide range of agricultural, climate and weather services exist. For example, the Bureau of Meteorology weather forecasts, seasonal outlooks of rainfall and temperature, and the current water balance and soil moisture information. There’s also the the Cool Cows website, the Dairy Forecast Service and the Cattle heat load toolbox.

We also need more research into improving our understanding of the climate system, to develop risk management plans for industries by regions, and more accurate and reliable forecasts, so that farmers and livestock managers can make management decisions and ensure the wellbeing of themselves and their animals.

Elisabeth Vogel, PhD Student, University of Melbourne; Christin Meyer, PhD student, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Richard Eckard, Professor & Director, Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, University of Melbourne

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

Marine parks and fishery management: what’s the best way to protect fish?


Caleb Gardner, University of Tasmania

The federal government is considering changes to Australia’s marine reserves to implement a national system. This week The Conversation is looking at the science behind marine reserves and how to protect our oceans.


While academics often focus on biodiversity objectives for marine parks, the public and political debate tends to come down to one thing: fishing.

When former federal MP Rob Oakeshott cast one of the deciding votes in support of the Commonwealth marine parks plan in 2013, he explained that he believed they benefit fisheries. The federal government has also emphasised the benefit of marine parks to fisheries production.

There’s also an academic debate. When a study showed that the Great Barrier Reef marine park had harmed fisheries production, there was a passionate response from other experts. This is despite advocates arguing that reserves are primarily about biodiversity conservation, rather than fishing production.

Clearly, fishing is a hot issue for marine parks. So what does the science say?

How do marine parks protect fish?

The proposed benefits to fisheries from marine parks include: protection or insurance against overfishing; “spillover”, where larvae or juveniles from the parks move out and increase the overall production; habitat protection from damaging fishing gear; and managing the ecosystem effects of fishing such as resilience against climate change.

Marine parks regulate activities, mainly fishing, within a specified area. They come in a variety of categories. Some allow fishing, but the most contentious are “no-take” marine parks.

Fishery managers also sometimes close areas of the ocean to fishing. This is different to how no-take marine parks work in two ways: the legislative authority is different (being through fisheries rather than environmental legislation); and the closures usually target a specific fishery, whereas no-take marine parks usually ban all fishing.

Fishery closures, rather than no-take marine parks, are usually applied to protect special areas for particular fish, such as spawning sites or nursery areas. They are also used to protect habitats, such as in the case of trawl closures, which allow the use of other gear such as longlines in the same location.

Fisheries legislation bans damaging fishing gear outright, while benign gears are allowed. In contrast, no-take marine parks tend to exclude all gear types.

Displacing fishers

Neither marine parks nor fishery closures regulate the amount of catch and fishing effort. They only control the location. Commercial fishers take most fish caught in Commonwealth waters and most of this is limited by catch quotas.

When a no-take marine park closes an area to fishing, fishers and their catch are displaced into other areas of the ocean. This occurs for all types of fishing, including recreational fishing. Recreational fishers displaced by marine parks don’t stop fishing, they just fish somewhere else – and the same number of fishers are squeezed into a smaller space.

Marine parks increase the intensity of fishing impacts across the wider coast, which is an uncomfortable outcome for marine park advocates. Modelling of Victorian marine parks showed that displaced catch would harm lobster stocks and associated ecosystems, and was counterproductive to their fishery management objective of rebuilding stock.

Because ecosystems don’t respond in predictable ways, depletion of fish stocks from the fishing displaced from marine parks could lead to severe ecosystem outcomes.

For this reason, a second and separate management change is often needed after marine parks are declared, which is to reduce the number of fishers and fish caught to prevent risk of impacts from the park.

Controlling how many fish are caught (which is what traditional fisheries management does) has substantially more influence on overall fish abundance than controlling where fish are caught with parks, as shown recently on the Great Barrier Reef.

Public cost

Commonwealth fisheries catch quotas are routinely reduced if a fishery harms the sustainability of the marine environment. There’s no compensation to fishers, so there’s no cost to the public, other than a possible reduced supply of fish.

Catches can also be reduced to manage fishing displaced by marine reserves and the outcome is identical except in terms of the public cost. Creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park led to over A$200 million in payments to displaced fishers. Another publicly funded package is planned for the Commonwealth marine reserves.

Marine parks also have high recurring public cost because boundaries need to be policed at sea. Catch quotas can be policed at the wharf, with compliance costs fully recovered from industry.

Do marine parks help fish and fishers?

Evidence of a benefit to fisheries from marine parks is scarce. However, there are some clear examples of fishing displacement that is so minor that there has been an overall increase in fish inside and outside the park.

These examples show that marine parks can sometimes benefit fish stocks, the fishery and also the overall marine ecosystem. However, these examples come from situations where traditional fishery management has not been applied to prevent overfishing.

This is consistent with modelling of marine parks that shows they only increase overall fish populations when there has been severe overfishing. This generally means that if there’s already effective traditional fisheries management, marine reserves cannot benefit fish stocks and fisheries, or restock fish outside the reserve (spillover) (see also here).

In jurisdictions where fisheries management is lacking, any regulation, including through marine reserves, is better than nothing. But this isn’t the situation with Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries where harvest strategies are used and overfishing has been eliminated.

The conclusions from modelling of marine reserves mean that the areas of the reserves that limit fishing would be expected to reduce fishery production and harm our ability to contribute to global food security.

The Coral Sea marine reserve, in particular, represents an area with known large stocks of fish, especially tuna, that could be harvested sustainably. Limiting fishing in the Coral Sea eliminates any potential for these resources to help feed Australians or contribute to global food supplies.

The potential sustainable, ecologically acceptable harvest from the Coral Sea is unknown, so we don’t know the full scale of what’s being lost and how much the recent changes reduce this problem, although Papua New Guinea sustainably harvests 150,000-300,000 tonnes of tuna in its part of the sea.

Allowing fishing doesn’t mean the oceans aren’t protected. Existing fisheries management is already obliged to ensure fishing doesn’t affect sustainability of the marine environment.

The Conversation

Caleb Gardner, Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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