Oscar Serrano, Edith Cowan University; Carlos Duarte, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; Catherine Lovelock, The University of Queensland; Paul Lavery, Edith Cowan University, and Trisha B Atwood, Utah State University
It’s no secret that cutting down trees is a main driver of climate change. But a forgotten group of plants is critically important to fixing our climate — and they are being destroyed at an alarming rate.
Mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses along Australia’s coasts store huge amounts of greenhouse gases, known as blue carbon.
Our research, published in Nature Communications, shows that in Australia these ecosystems absorb 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s about the same as 4 million cars.
Worryingly, the research shows that between 2 million and 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide is released each year by the same ecosystems, due to damage from human activity, severe weather and climate change.
This research represents the world’s most comprehensive audit of any nation’s blue carbon. Around 10% of such ecosystems are located in Australia — so preserving and restoring them could go a long way to meeting our Paris climate goals.
Blue carbon ecosystems are vital in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. They account for 50% of carbon dioxide sequestered by oceans — despite covering just 0.2% of the world’s total ocean area — and absorb carbon dioxide up to 40 times faster than forests on land.
They do this by trapping particles from water and storing them in the soil. This means tidal marsh, mangrove and seagrass ecosystems bury organic carbon at an exceptionally high rate.
Globally, blue carbon ecosystems are being lost twice as fast as tropical rainforests despite covering a fraction of the area.
Since European settlement, about 25,000km² of tidal marsh and mangroves and 32,000km² of seagrass have been destroyed – up to half the original extent. Coastal development in Australia is causing further losses each year.
When these ecosystems are damaged — through storms, heatwaves, dredging or other human development — the carbon stored in biomass and soils can make its way back into the environment as carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.
In Western Australia in the summer of 2010-11, about 1,000km² of seagrass meadows at Shark Bay were lost due to a marine heatwave. Similarly, two cyclones and several other impacts devastated a 400km stretch of mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria in recent years.
Such losses likely increase carbon dioxide emissions from land-use change in Australia by 12–21% per year.
Aside from the emissions reduction benefits, conserving and restoring blue carbon ecosystems would also increase the resilience of coasts to rising sea level and storm surge associated with climate change, and preserve habitats and nurseries for marine life.
The project was part of a collaboration with CSIRO and included 44 researchers from 33 research institutions around the world.
To accurately quantify Australia’s blue carbon stocks, we divided Australia into five different climate zones. Variations in temperature, rainfall, tides, sediments and nutrients mean plant productivity and biomass varies across regions. So ecosystems in a tropical climate such as North Queensland store carbon dioxide at a different rate to those in temperate climates such as southeastern Australia.
We estimated carbon dioxide stored in the vegetation above ground and soils below for each climate area. We measured the size and distribution of vegetation and took soil core samples to create the most accurate measurements possible.
Blue carbon must be assessed on a national scale before policies to preserve them can be developed. These policies might involve replanting seagrass meadows, reintroducing tidal flow to restore mangroves or preventing potential losses caused by coastal development.
Based on a carbon price of A$14 per tonne – the most recent price under the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund – blue carbon projects could be worth tens of millions of dollars per year in carbon credits. Our comprehensive measurements provide greater certainty of expected returns for financiers looking at investing in such projects.
Restoring just 10% of blue carbon ecosystems lost in Australia since European settlement could generate more than US$11 million per year in carbon credits. Conserving such ecosystems under threat could be worth between US$22 million and US$31 million per year.
Blue carbon projects cannot currently be counted towards Australia’s Paris targets, but federal environment authorities are developing a methodology for their inclusion. The reintroduction of tidal flow to restore mangrove and tidal marsh ecosystems has been identified as the most promising potential activity.
Other activities being explored include planning for sea level rise to allow mangrove and tidal marsh to migrate inland, and avoiding the clearing of seagrass and mangroves.
There are still questions to be answered about exactly how blue carbon can be used to mitigate climate change. But our research shows the massive potential in Australia, and allows other countries to use the work for their own blue carbon assessments.
Oscar Serrano, ARC DECRA Fellow, Edith Cowan University; Carlos Duarte, Adjunct professor, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; Catherine Lovelock, Professor of Biology, The University of Queensland; Paul Lavery, Professor of Marine Ecology, Edith Cowan University, and Trisha B Atwood, Assistant Professor of aquatic ecology, Utah State University
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
The disruption of supply chains in food, medicines and even recycling from climate-related events poses innumerable problems for nations. But one way of dealing with various facets of climate change is levering change through central government procurement.
Policies that govern supply and how goods, construction and services are procured are increasingly important as the capacity to mitigate through government purchasing choices faces greater pressure.
The rules include broader outcomes, connecting wider social and environmental priorities to procurement processes. This is the first time New Zealand lays out specific rules about how the government plans to use its own purchases to help fulfil its wider promises.
A cabinet paper on effective government procurement policy, released in late 2018, laid out four outcomes, one of which focused on supporting the transition to a net zero emissions economy and meeting the government’s goal of significantly reducing waste by 2020.
The policy’s priorities include reducing the emissions profile of the government vehicle fleet and reducing emissions from fossil fuels used in electricity generation and in direct production of industrial heat. Describing the government’s intention, Economic Development Minister David Parker said:
We are looking beyond just the price of what we purchase, to ensure procurement is contributing to the transition to a low-carbon economy, inclusive growth and prosperity.
The government’s commitment is to make its own vehicle fleet emissions-free by 2025-26. When replacing vehicles, chief executives of government agencies must purchase vehicles with emission profiles substantially below their current fleet average.
The government fleet – at 14,995 vehicles (with only 0.24% electric) – has a job on its hands. But already it is reporting that emissions have dropped between April and July 2019. The reduction is partly due to 400 fewer vehicles and minor shifts in driving patterns.
This is a gutsy move, especially given cost implications and market challenges. But jurisdictions such as Germany and Sweden have promoted renewable sources for some time through legislation and multiple instruments including procurement that supports innovation. Others, such as Transport London, have been shifting to electric public transport fleets.
New Zealand has been conservative in its approach to linking procurement with objectives beyond “best value”, which is nearly always interpreted as least cost. But times are changing. A growing number of people in most agencies are trying to raise the profile of procurement beyond a purchasing exercise.
Leaving the market to decide how taxpayer funds are spent through a clunky contracting process is missing an opportunity to procure the best services and infrastructure, as well as increasing workforce skills. Research on sustainable procurement has grown and the topic now features at the OECD.
There are different targeted approaches. One is an “emissions dashboard”, which shows the average emissions profile of each agency’s fleet and tracks emission reductions. But dashboards are only indicative, given the inevitable variation in reporting across organisations and the underlying reasons why an agency might have a high emissions rating.
Australia’s Indigenous procurement policy has used a very targeted approach requiring 3% of government contracts go to Indigenous business by 2027. Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been looking at the potential for something similar in New Zealand. A report on the benefits of indigenous procurement policies is expected.
Planning to replace vehicle fleets is a tangible use of the procurement lever to move towards lower emissions. But to support a fairly rapid change, supply chains need to be taken into consideration to ensure enough electric vehicles are available.
While there are many technical issues to resolve, New Zealand’s approach to procurement is a step in the right direction. Procurement can’t do everything at once, but it is an important instrument that needs to be directed at policy problems, underpinned by research and evidence.
On average, renovating a home generates far more waste than building a new one from scratch.
This waste goes straight to landfill, damaging the environment. It also hurts your budget: first you have to pay for demolition, then the new materials, and then disposal of leftover building products.
By keeping waste in mind from the start and following some simple guidelines, you can reduce the waste created by your home renovation.
Waste is often treated as inevitable, factored into a building budget with no serious attempt to reduce it.
By raising the issue early with your architect, designer or builder, they can make decisions at the design stage that reduce waste later. Often the designers and architects don’t see their decisions contributing to waste – or rather, they don’t really think about it.
During my research on reducing construction waste, I asked one architect what he thought happens to the waste generated. He laughed with a glint in his eyes and said, “I think it disappears into pixie dust!”
One simple early decision that dramatically reduces waste is designing with material sizes in mind. If you have a ceiling height that does not match the plasterboard sheet, you end up with a tiny little strip that has to be cut out of a full sheet. In the case of bricks, not matching the ceiling height is even more wasteful.
Obviously not all materials will work together at their standard sizes (and you need to fit your renovation to the existing house). But sensitive design can make intelligent trade-offs, reducing overall waste.
When I asked architects why they don’t design zero-waste buildings more often, they said clients don’t ask for it. Make it part of your brief, and ask the architect how they can save money by using the materials efficiently.
If you’re using an architect for your renovation, it’s common to have very little collaboration between them and the builder. Any errors or issues are usually spotted after construction has begun, requiring expensive and wasteful rework.
Instead, ask your architect and builder to collaborate on a waste management plan. Such integrated approaches have worked well in Australia and the United States.
This means clients, engineers and builders are collaborating, rather than taking adversarial roles. For such contracts to work, it’s important to involve all parties early in the project, and to encourage cooperation.
The briefing stage is an opportunity for architects, quantity surveyors and builders to work together to identify a waste minimisation target.
One the biggest contributions to waste on sites is late design changes. Client-led design changes are identified in all literature as having far-reaching implications on waste.
These are mostly due to owners changing their mind once something is built. Reworking any part of a building due to design changes can account for as much as 50% of the cost overrun, as well as causing delays and generating waste.
The early work with your design and construction team outlined in the first steps gives you the chance to make sure you’re committed to your original design. Skimping in the planning stage can end up costing you far more in the long run.
Ask your builder not to demolish the building, but to deconstruct it. Deconstruction means taking a building apart and recovering materials for recycling and reuse. This provides opportunities for sorting materials on site.
Salvaged materials can be resold to the community or reused in the renovations. It greatly reduces the tip fees which are usually higher for mixed waste (typical from demolition process) and lower for sorted waste.
Of course this takes more time and has an additional cost. Therefore you do have to balance the cost of deconstruction against the savings.
Denmark, which recycles 86% of its construction waste, has made it mandatory for all government buildings to undergo selective demolition and sorting of construction waste. A good place to start in Australia is your state environment department, which may have guidelines on what is involved.
Good-quality materials last longer, reducing maintenance later. Choosing manufacturers that use minimal packaging also reduces waste (be careful here to check the difference between “minimal” and “inadequate” packaging, as the latter can mean your material breaks).
Reusing materials from your renovation may also be an option (you will need to discuss this with architect and builder at the beginning of the project). Finally, using materials with recycled content is a great option, and boosts our recycling industry.
The return of the breeze block
In March 2017 the Housing Industry Association released data suggesting the Australian residential building industry will increasingly become more dependent on renovation work rather than new construction,
If you’re renovating your home, making efficiency and low waste a priority helps cut costs and reduce landfill.
Household energy use is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions. International policy is firmly moving towards technology-rich, low- and near-zero-energy homes. That is, buildings designed to reduce the need for additional heating, cooling and lighting. They use efficient or renewable energy technology to reduce the remaining energy use.
But what about the experiences of people who live in homes of this standard? Are these homes comfortable, easy to operate, and affordable? Do people feel confident using so-called smart energy technology designed for low energy use? What support systems do we need to help people live in low-energy, low-carbon houses?
We worked with other Australian and UK researchers to understand what it’s like to live in purpose-built low-energy housing. As part of this project, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Salford in the UK visited South Australia to collect data from Lochiel Park Green Village, one of the world’s most valuable living laboratories of near-zero energy homes.
Lochiel Park’s 103 homes were built in the mid-2000s to achieve a minimum of 7.5 energy efficiency stars. They’re purpose-built to be a comfortable temperature year-round, and are packed with a solar photovoltaic system, solar hot water, a live feedback display to show households their energy use, plus a range of water- and energy-efficient appliances and equipment. Combined, these systems reduce both annual and peak energy demand, and supply much of that energy at a net zero-carbon impact.
To reciprocate, we spent several weeks investigating similar examples of niche low-energy housing developments in the Midlands and the North of England. We listened to the stories of people living in low energy homes, who experience the difference on a daily basis, and from season to season. They help us look beyond the dollars saved or percentage of emissions reduced; for them the impact of low-energy homes is personal.
This research provides new insights into the relationship between people, energy technologies and low-carbon buildings. For example, one elderly householder told us that moving into a dry and warm low-energy home allowed their grandchildren to come and stay, completely changing their life, and the life of their family.
Low-energy homes create a wide range of physical and mental changes. Several households spoke about health improvements from higher indoor air quality. Even the idea of living in a healthier and more environmentally sustainable home can prompt lifestyle changes – one woman in her mid-50s told us she gave up smoking after moving into her low-energy house because she felt her behaviour should match the building’s environmental design. She also shortened the length of her showers, reduced her food wastage, and lowered her transport use by visiting the supermarket less often.
Purpose-built low-energy homes also give economic empowerment to low-income households. One household told us that savings on energy bills let them afford annual family holidays, even overseas. This economic benefit matches our findings in other Australian examples.
As researchers, we might dismiss this as a macro-economic rebound effect, voiding many of the energy and environmental benefits. But to that household the result was a closer and stronger family unit, able to make the types of choices available to others in their community. The benefits in mental and physical wellbeing are real, and more important to that family than net carbon emission reductions.
Although international policy is firmly moving towards technology-rich, low-energy homes, our research shows that not all technology is user-friendly or easy to understand. For example, some households were frustrated by not knowing if their solar hot water system was efficiently using free solar energy, or just relying on gas or electric boosting. Design improvements with better user feedback will be critically important if we are to meet people’s real needs.
This research highlights the importance, in the transition to low-energy and low-carbon homes, of not forgetting the people themselves. Improving real quality of life should be the central focus of carbon-reducing housing policies.
Stephen Berry, Research fellow, University of South Australia; David Michael Whaley, Research Fellow in Sustainable Energy and Electrical Engineering, University of South Australia, and Trivess Moore, Research Fellow, RMIT University
It is too late for the more than 50 species that are already extinct, including bettongs, various wallabies, and many others. Despite international commitments, policies and projects, Australia’s biodiversity outcomes remain unsatisfactory.
A 2015 review of Australia’s 2010-2050 Biodiversity Conservation Strategy found that it has failed to “effectively guide the efforts of governments, other organisations or individuals”.
Insufficient resourcing is one cause of biodiversity loss. The challenge is impressive. Australia must tackle degradation and fragmentation of habitat, invasive species, unsustainable use of resources, the deterioration of the aquatic environment and water flows, increased fire events, and climate change.
This all requires money to support private landholders conducting conservation activities, to fund research, to manage public lands, and to support other conservation activities conducted by governments, industry, and individuals.
So where can we find the funds?
Of course, such estimates are up for debate given that how much money is required depends on what we want the environment to look like, which methods we use, and how well they work. Other studies (see also here and here point to a similar conclusion: far more money is needed to achieve significantly better outcomes.
Apart from government funding, private landholders, businesses, communities, Indigenous Australians, and non-government organisations contribute significantly to natural resource management. We were unable to quantify their collective cash and in-kind contributions, as the information is not available. But we do know that farmers spend around A$3 billion each year on natural resource management.
Nonetheless, the erosion of environmental values indicates that the level of spending required to sufficiently meet conservation targets far exceeds the amount currently being spent. The investment required is similar to value of agriculture in Australia.
Unfortunately, the concentration of wealth and labour sets a limit to what any given community can pay.
Despite a high GDP per person and very wealthy cities, Australia has fewer than 0.1 people per hectare and a wealth intensity (GDP per hectare) of less than US$2,000 due to the sparse population and income of rural Australia.
Australia’s rural population has declined sharply, from over 18% in 1960 to around 10% today. Other countries (for example in Europe) are not limited to the same degree. Even China has a greater rural resource intensity than Australia.
Rural incomes are often volatile, but environmental investments need to be sustained. The history of Landcare highlights that private landholders have struggled to secure a reliable investment basis for sustainably managing the environment.
If Australia is serious about the environment, we need to know who will pay for biodiversity protection (a public good). This is especially true given that it is not feasible for rural (particularly Indigenous) landholders and communities to invest the required amount.
Will government be the underpinning investor? The federal government’s current spending program on natural resource management was initiated in 2014 with an allocation of A$2 billion over four years.
This was split between the second National Landcare Program, the (now-defunded) Green Army, the Working on Country program, the Land Sector Package, the Reef 2050 plan, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and the Whale and Dolphin Protection Plan.
As well as federal funding, the state, territory, and local governments invest in public lands, bushfire mitigation, waste management, water management, environmental research and development, biodiversity programs, and environmental policies. Local and state government departments together spend around A$4.9 billion each year on natural resource management.
The problem is that government spending on natural resource management can not be significantly increased in the near future due to fiscal pressures and the focus on reducing budget deficits.
At a time when Australia is reconsidering many aspects of its environmental policies, we should address the strategy for funding natural resource management.
It should be possible to leverage more private spending on the environment preferably as part of a coordinated strategy. Diverse, market-based approaches are being used around the world.
For example, we could use market instruments such as biodiversity banking to support landholders in protecting biodiversity.
Taxation incentives, such as a generous tax offset for landholders who spend money on improving the environment, can be a very powerful catalyst and could be crucial for meeting environmental investment needs.
Evidence suggests that integrating a variety of mechanisms into a coordinated business model for the environment is likely to be the most efficient and effective approach. But this will not happen unless Australia faces the fiscal challenge of sustainability head-on.
Australia needs an innovative investment plan for the environment. By combining known funding methods and investment innovation, Australia can reduce the gap between what we currently spend and what the environment needs.
Without a more sophisticated investment strategy, it is likely that Australia will continue on the trajectory of decline.
Paul Martin, Director, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England; Amy Cosby, Researcher, Centre for Agriculture and Law, University of New England, and Kip Werren, Lecturer in Law, University of New England
The link below is to an article reporting on money being allocated in Victoria for various improvements to national parks in that state.
One of Australia’s most ‘laughed at’ politicians is refusing to back what he sees as a waste of money – a project to combat climate change that will achieve nothing.
I have had a most interesting couple of days on the road and in the bush. Currently I’m in a motel room at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. ‘Hardly the wild,’ I hear you say, and you’re quite right – it isn’t. The weather was beginning to change I noticed on the final leg of my day’s itinerary, so I decided to hide out in a motel room for the night – good decision, it’s pouring outside.
I won’t give all away – I’ll leave the main description of the holiday to the website – but just some of the ‘downlights’ of the first couple of days for this post.
I didn’t arrive at Cathedral Rock National Park until just on dark, but did get the tent up prior to darkness arriving – when it did, it was dark! The campfire took an eternity to get going as all of the timber was damp and by the time I got it started it was time for bed – all-be-it an early night (7.30pm). I had decided to not spend the money on replacing all of the gear I needed to replace for camping, following the loss of a lot of gear over the years due to storage, etc. I hadn’t done much in the way of bushwalking or camping for years due to injuries sustained in my car crash and a bad ankle injury, so I left it all a bit late. I figured that for this holiday I’d make do and replace the gear with quality gear before the next trip. In short, I’ll get by – but it would have been nice to have some good gear just the same. It was a very cold night let me tell you – and long.
When I reached the heights of my first walk today, standing on top of Cathedral Rock National Park, my digital camera decided to die on me. I knew there was something wrong with it during the ascent as it was really chugging away taking pictures. I did get a couple of reasonable panoramic shots on the top of Cathedral Rock before it died, so that was good. I took stills with the video camera I was using, so it wasn’t a complete loss. When I completed the Woolpack Rocks walk I made the trip to Coffs Harbour to seek a replacement and got one for a reasonable price. It’s just another compact and so I will also buy a digital SLR prior to my next trip I hope. My previous SLR was basically destroyed when the camera cap came off during a multiple day bushwalk and all manner of stuff got into it. It wasn’t digital so I didn’t bother repairing it.
So tomorrow – off to Dorrigo National Park I hope and several lengthy walks I haven’t done before. Hopefully the rain will clear.
Latest News on the Web Site
My website is currently down – for the most part anyway. I hope to have it back up in the near future. Why is it down? My previous hosting service put their prices up dramatically from the previous renewal of the site. It was nearly doubled and I found that sort of hike unacceptable. I have therefore sought out a new hosting service and believe I now have great value for money, as well as a far better service. The site will now have the same address as it has had for several years:
The site I was intending to move to at WordPress.com, will now become the Blog for site updates, news, etc. It can be found at:
For the time being the site will continue to be down, with improvements being made as the site is transferred across to the new hosting company. Please keep returning to the site as I hope to bring pages back online on a regular basis.