Billions spent on Murray-Darling water infrastructure: here’s the result


Q J Wang, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, University of Melbourne

Earlier this year, researchers suggested the amount of water returned to the Murray Darling Basin under a federal program has been “grossly exaggerated”, to the tune of hundreds of billions of litres.

The report argued that government investment in irrigation improvements might even result in a net loss of water for the environment.




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To investigate these claims, the Murray Darling Basin Authority commissioned us to undertake an independent review to examine the best available data for every irrigation efficiency project funded across the basin.

We found the government investment into irrigation efficiency projects has achieved 85% of the 750 gigalitres per year target. The remaining 15% of the target may be affected by unintended side-effects.

This result highlights the need for continued review of risks to the basin plan, as Australia grapples with the management of an extraordinary complex natural system.

How is water for the environment recovered?

The Water Act 2007 introduced significant reforms aimed at setting aside more water for the environment. At the time, record high levels of surface water were being consumed. Aiming to save 2,750 gigalitres of surface water (water flowing in the open air, rather than underground) the federal government began buying back water rights and investing in more efficient infrastructure.

The Commonwealth is providing A$3.1 billion to buy these water rights, of which A$2.5 billion has been spent. It is also providing more than A$8 billion for modernising infrastructure and water efficiency improvements, of which more than A$4 billion has so far been spent.

These projects aim to improve water delivery – reducing leaks and evaporation – and make irrigation more efficient. The water saving generated from these projects is shared between the governments for environmental use, and irrigators.

Mass fish deaths earlier in the year raised serious concerns about the health of the Murray-Darling system.
DEAN LEWINS/AAP

What are “return flows”?

To understand why the government investment in irrigation efficiency projects have not achieved 100% of the original target, we need to talk about return flows.

When water is diverted from the river for irrigation, not all of it gets consumed by the plants. Some water will make its way back to the river. This is called return flow. A large part of the return flow is through groundwater to the rivers, and this part is extremely difficult to measure. More efficient infrastructure and irrigation generally means less return flow to the river.

If these reductions are not considered when calculating the water savings, it is possible there will be implications for irrigators, the environment and other water users downstream, that previously benefited from return flows.

What we tried to determine is how much the efficiency projects reduced return flow.




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Are the water savings real?

For the first time, we attempted to bring together data on individual projects in order to assess return flows across the basin. We developed a framework for calculating return flows, which took into account water in the rivers, groundwater, and efficiency projects.

This is the first attempt to bring together the existing data on individual projects to assess return flows in the basin at a detailed level. A large portion of the data used in this study was collated for the first time and not previously available in a readily accessible format.

We found a reduction in return flow of 121 gigalitres per year as a result of the government funded projects. This is comparable to 16% of the recovery transferred to environmental entitlements.

What does this mean for the Basin Plan?

There are several important details that must be considered to assess the importance of the return flow volume for the environment and Basin Plan objectives. We do not attempt here to quantify the outcomes, but instead to raise a number of important considerations beyond simply “volume”.

1. Recovered water should be legally protected

Return flows are good for the environment, but are essentially accidental. As irrigation becomes more efficient, inevitably they will diminish.

On the other hand, formally allocated environmental water entitlements are legally protected. It is more secure for the environment – and far easier to keep track of.

2. It’s not ‘efficiency vs the environment’

Part of this debate centres around the idea that reducing return flows means less water for the environment. But in Victoria and New South Wales, before water is allocated to anyone (irrigators or the environment), a base level is set aside. This is the minimum required to keep the rivers physically flowing and to meet critical human needs.

Efficiency projects mainly affect this base-level flow of the river. This means the water reduction is shared across everyone who holds a water licence – the majority of which are irrigators.

This policy means it does not make sense to compare the effect of efficiency projects directly with the recovery of environmental water.

3. Volume is a crude measure of environmental benefit

The focus of the debate around return flows has been based on the annual volume of returned environmental water in comparison to the stated Basin Plan target.

However, the real objective of the water recovery is to achieve environmental objectives in the Basin. This is not just about annual volumes, but the quantity, timing, and quality of fresh water.

How should we move forward?

Our review has particularly highlighted the need for better ongoing data collection and regular evaluations.




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Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


Both taxpayer investments and the water market are changing irrigation to become more efficient and reducing the river’s base flow. With this in mind, we need to regularly reexamine how we share water between everyone (and everything) that needs it, particularly in extended dry periods.

The Murray-Darling Basin is a constantly changing system, both in terms of climate and irrigation. Return flows are one of a number of potential threats to the Basin Plan. As the system is continually changing, these threats will need to be reassessed with each Basin Plan review.


A Four Corners program on the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan will air on ABC at 8.30pm on July 8.

This article was co-written by Glen Walker, a former CSIRO employee and now private consultant, who worked with the University of Melbourne on the independent review.The Conversation

Q J Wang, Professor, University of Melbourne and Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

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

Sydney declares a climate emergency – what does that mean in practice?


Chris Turney, UNSW

Late on Monday night, the City of Sydney became the first state capital in Australia to officially declare a climate emergency. With climate change considered a threat to human life, Sydney councillors unanimously supported a motion put forward by Lord Mayor Clover Moore to mobilise city resources to reduce carbon emissions and minimise the impact of future change.

The decision sees Sydney join a variety of local and national governments around the world, in a movement that is increasingly gaining momentum. In total, some 658 local governments around the world have made the same declaration, with the UK and Canada committing their national governments to the global movement in just the past two months.

An official declaration of climate emergency puts a government on a “wartime mobilisation” that places climate change at the centre of policy and planning decisions.




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UK becomes first country to declare a ‘climate emergency’


While interpretations differ on what a “climate emergency” means in practice, governments have established a range of measures to help meet the targets set by the Paris climate agreement. Under this agreement, 197 countries have pledged to limit global temperature rise to less than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, and ideally no more than 1.5℃.

With 2018 having brought all manner of record-breaking climate extremes, and global average temperatures projected to reach 3.2℃ above the pre-industrial average based on current national pledges and targets for greenhouse emissions, Sydney’s recognition of a national emergency is both highly appropriate and also a major turning-point for Australia.

Although a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Australia’s greenhouse emissions have risen over the past four years since the repeal of the carbon price. With Australian emissions most notably increasing around transport, the United Nations climate discussions currently being held in Bonn have raised concerns over the nation’s ability to meet its Paris commitments.

Economic impacts

With the global cost of inaction on climate change projected to reach a staggering US$23 trillion a year by the end of the century (equivalent to around five 2008 global financial crises every year), several nations are already ramping up their Paris Agreement commitments ahead of schedule. The UK recently announced its intention to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Australia is particularly vulnerable to the future financial costs of climate change, with economic models suggesting losses of A$159 billion a year through the impact of sea level rise and drought-driven collapses in agricultural productivity. The cost for each household has been put at about A$14,000.




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Cutting cities’ emissions does have economic benefits – and these ultimately outweigh the costs


After Sydney’s declaration, 150 faith leaders on Tuesday signed an open letter endorsing the decision, and describing the climate issue as a moral challenge that transcends religious belief. They have called for an urgent mobilisation to reach 100% renewable energy by the year 2030, and for an end to the approval of any new coal and gas projects, including Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

The recent court ruling against the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine in the New South Wales Hunter Valley – a decision made partly on climate grounds – could mark a crucial turning point in the fortunes of future mining projects.




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Landmark Rocky Hill ruling could pave the way for more courts to choose climate over coal


As part of its emergency declaration, Sydney has also called on the federal government to establish a “just transition authority” to support Australians currently employed in fossil fuel industries. This is an urgent issue and a crucial part of the transition to a low-emissions economy.

A major nationwide training program will be needed to help re-skill the estimated 8,000 people who work in fossil-fuelled electricity production, and to help fill the tens of thousands of new jobs in renewable energy-related fields.

With the scale of change required to decarbonise the global economy and hopefully avoid a 2℃ warmer world, the need to support communities across Australia and overseas will likely become an increasing challenge for governments around the world. Putting ourselves on an emergency footing could help provide precisely the impetus we need.The Conversation

Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW

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

We wrote the report for the minister on fish deaths in the lower Darling – here’s why it could happen again


Robert Vertessy, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, University of Technology Sydney

Over the recent summer, three significant fish death events occurred in the lower Darling River near Menindee, New South Wales. Species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch and Bony Herring, with deaths estimated to be in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. These events were a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling region.

Our report for the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources examines the causes of these events and recommend actions to mitigate the potential for repeat events in the future.

The final report has just been released, summarising what we found and what we recommend.

Causes of the fish deaths

High-flow events in the Darling River in 2012 and 2016 filled the Menindee Lakes and offered opportunities for substantial fish breeding, further aided by the targeted use of environmental water.

The result was very large numbers of fish in the lakes, river channels and weir pools around Menindee. After the lake-filling rains of late 2016, two very dry years ensued, resulting in very low inflows into the Barwon-Darling river.

As the supply of water dried up, the river became a series of disconnected and shrinking pools. As the extremely hot and dry conditions in late 2018 took hold, the large population of fish around Menindee became concentrated within weir pools.

Hot weather, low rainfall and low flows provided ideal conditions for algal blooms and thermal stratification in the weir pools, resulting in very low oxygen concentrations within the bottom waters.

With the large fish population now isolated to the oxygenated surface waters of the pools, all that was needed for the fatal blow was a trigger for the water profile to mix. Such a trigger arrived on three separate occasions, with changes in the weather that brought sudden drops in temperature and increased wind that caused sudden turnover of the low-oxygen bottom waters.

Summary of the multiple causes of the 2018-19 fish death events in the lower Darling river.

With the fish already stressed by high temperatures, they were now unable to gain enough oxygen from the water to breathe, and a very large number of them died. As we write, the situation in the lower Darling remains dire, and there is a risk of further fish deaths if there are no significant inflows to the river.

Fish deaths caused by these sorts of turnover events are not uncommon, but the conditions outlined above made these events unusually dramatic.

So, how did such adverse conditions arise in the lower Darling river and how might we avoid their reoccurrence? We’ve examined four influencing factors: climate, water management, lake operations, and fish mobility.

Key influencing factors

We found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions.

Inflows to the water storages in the northern Basin over 2017-18 were the second lowest for any two-year period on record. Most of the Murray-Darling Basin experienced its hottest summer on record, exemplified by the town of Bourke breaking a new heatwave record for NSW, with 21 consecutive days with a maximum temperature above 40℃.

We concluded that climate change amplified these conditions and will likely result in more severe droughts in the future.

Changes in the water access arrangements in the Barwon–Darling River, made just prior to the commencement of the Basin Plan in 2012, exacerbated the effects of the drought. These changes enhanced the ability of irrigators to access water during low flow periods, meaning fewer flow pulses make it down the river to periodically reconnect and replenish isolated waterholes that provide permanent refuge habitats for fish during drought.

We conclude that the Lake Menindee scheme had been operated according to established protocols, and was appropriately conservative given the emerging drought conditions. But low connectivity in the lower Darling resulted in poor water quality and restricted mobility for fish.

Recommended policy and management actions

Given the right mix of policy and management actions, Basin governments can significantly reduce the risks of further fish death events and promote the recovery of affected fish populations.

The Basin Plan is delivering positive environmental outcomes and more benefits will accrue once the plan is fully implemented. But more needs to be done to enhance river connectivity and protect low flows, first flushes and environmental flow releases in the Barwon-Darling river.

Drought resilience in the lower Darling can be enhanced by reconfiguring the Lake Menindee Water Savings Project, modifying the current Menindee Lakes operating rules and purchasing high security water entitlements from horticultural enterprises in the region.

In Australia, water entitlements are the rights to a share of the available water resource in any season. Irrigators get less (or no) water in dry (or extremely dry) years.

A high-security water entitlement is one with a high chance of receiving the full water allocation. In some systems, although not all, this is expected to happen 95 per cent of the time. And these high-security entitlements are the most valuable and sought after.

Fish mobility can be enhanced by removing barriers to movement and adding fish passageways.

It would be beneficial for environmental water holders to place more of their focus on sustaining fish populations through drought sequences.

The river models that governments use to plan water sharing need to be updated more regularly to accurately represent the state of Basin development, configured to run on a whole-of-basin basis, and improved to more faithfully represent low flow conditions.

There are large gaps in water quality monitoring, metering of water extractions and basic hydro-ecologic knowledge that should be filled.

Risk assessments need to be undertaken to identify likely fish death event hot spots and inform future emergency response plans.

All of these initiatives need to be complemented by more sophisticated and reliable assessments of the impacts of climate change on water security across the Basin.

Governments must accelerate action

Responding to the lower Darling fish deaths in a prompt and substantial manner provides governments an opportunity to redress some of the broader concerns around the management of the Basin.

To do so, Basin governments must increase their political, bureaucratic and budgetary support for high value reforms and programs, particularly in the northern Basin.

All of our recommendations can be implemented within the current macro-settings of the Basin Plan and do not require a revisiting of the challenging socio-political process required to define Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).

Successful implementation will require a commitment to authentic collaboration between governments, traditional owners, local communities, and sustained input from the science community.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Daren Barma, Director of Barma Water Consulting, to this article.

A version of this article has been published in Pursuit.The Conversation

Robert Vertessy, Enterprise Professor, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Associate Research Professor (Fisheries and River Management), Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, Professor of Freshwater Ecology and Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

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

NSW election: where do the parties stand on brumby culling?



File 20190321 93063 1k3xosw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Feral horses have severely damaged the landscape in Kosciuszko National Park.
Travelstine, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

The future management of New South Wales’s national parks is one of the issues on the line in Saturday’s state election. Other states will be watching the outcome closely.

Depending on who wins, the outcome for Kosciuszko National Park spans from restoration and recovery to ongoing environmental decay, with feral horses given priority over native species.




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All political parties have been well informed about the science behind feral horses in the Australian Alps. The peer-reviewed literature shows that:

  • feral horse impacts put multiple species at greater risk of extinction

  • streams and bogs are degraded, threatening water quality, and will require restoration

  • even small numbers of horses lead to cumulative environmental degradation

  • a range of high and low elevation areas are severely degraded by feral horses; it is not clear whether any areas can withstand horse impacts

  • rehoming and fertility control are not effective control methods when horses number in the thousands and are hard to reach

  • aerial culling is humane, effective, and cheaper than other methods.

But despite the clarity of recommendations emerging from research, political parties have taken a broad range of approaches.

A feral horse exclusion fence. But which side of the fence are the major parties on?
Author provided

Liberal/National Coalition

The Liberal/National coalition has pledged to enact its Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill, which was passed by the state parliament last year and aims to “recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park”.

This legislation would ensure several thousand feral horses remain in the park, potentially compromising the conservation goals of the park’s management plan.




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Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


This month, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the government would “immediately” reduce horse numbers by 50%, through trapping, rehoming, fertility control, and relocating horses to “less sensitive” areas. Although he appeared to endorse an ultimate population target of 600 feral horses in front of an audience that was receptive to that idea, under pressure from the pro-brumby lobby, he later clarified that the coalition would aim to keep 3,000-4,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko.

Labor

Labor, along with the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, has pledged to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill if it wins the election, and has committed A$24 million to restore the national park.

Its six-point national parks restoration plan bans aerial culling, instead proposing to control horses using rehoming, while expanding research on fertility control.

Labor’s plan also mentions active management of feral horses in sensitive ecosystems, and ensuring large horse populations do not starve to death. It plans to achieve these two goals by trapping and rehoming brumbies. Labor also plans to keep a “smaller population” of feral horses in areas within the national park “where degradation is less critical”.

Greens

The NSW Greens has arguably the most evidence-based policy, aiming to reduce horse numbers by 90% in three years, with a longer-term goal of full eradication.

This means national parks would be managed for native Australian species. That is important in NSW, where only 10% of the state has been allocated to protected areas, well below international standards of 17%. They would achieve this reduction using all humane methods currently available, including trapping, rehoming, mustering, and ground-based and aerial shooting.

The Greens would also fund rehabilitation of damaged habitat, and has flagged substantial funding for conservation initiatives.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party supports immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers using humane methods, including ground shooting, but not aerial culling.

The party, which holds one lower house seat and has two upper house members, has announced no plans for restoration of the national park.

Animal Justice Party

The Animal Justice Party, which has just one upper house member in the parliament, has endorsed “non-lethal control measures” in areas that are clearly being degraded by feral horses. It says this should be achieved entirely using fertility control and relocation. The party has also described brumby culling proposals as “horrific” and called for urgent national legislation to protect them.




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There is pressure from pro-brumby lobbyists to keep feral horse populations in Guy Fawkes, Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Blue Mountains, and other NSW national parks. In Victoria, a pro-brumby pressure group will take Parks Victoria to the Federal court later this year to prevent removal of a small but damaging horse population on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park.

When NSW voters decide the fate of Kosciuszko National Park on Saturday, their verdict could have broader ramifications for protected areas throughout Australia.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

Landmark Rocky Hill ruling could pave the way for more courts to choose climate over coal



File 20190211 174883 r10bym.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A favourite argument of coal proponents is the idea that if their mine is knocked back, someone else will simply dig up coal elsewhere.
Mister Mackenzie/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Justine Bell-James, The University of Queensland

On Friday, Chief Judge Brian Preston of the New South Wales Land and Environment Court handed down a landmark judgement confirming a decision to refuse a new open-cut coal mine near Gloucester in the Hunter Valley. The proposed Rocky Hill mine’s contribution to climate change was one of the key reasons cited for refusing the application.

The decision has prompted celebration among environmentalists, for whom climate-based litigation has long been an uphill battle.




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Defeating a mining proposal on climate grounds involves clearing several high hurdles. Generally speaking, the court must be convinced not only that the proposed mine would contribute to climate change, but also that this issue is relevant under the applicable law.

To do this, a litigant needs to convince a court of a few key things, which include that:

  • the proponent is responsible for the ultimate burning of the coal, even if it is burned by a third party, and

  • this will result in increased greenhouse emissions, which in turn contributes to climate change.

In his judgement, Preston took a broad view and readily connected these causal dots, ruling that:

The Project’s cumulative greenhouse gas emissions will contribute to the global total of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. The global total of GHG concentrations will affect the climate system and cause climate change impacts. The Project’s cumulative GHG emissions are therefore likely to contribute to the future changes to the climate system and the impacts of climate change.

Other courts (such as in Queensland, where the proposed Adani coalmine has successfully cleared various legal hurdles) have tended to take a narrower approach to statutory interpretation, with climate change just one of numerous relevant factors under consideration. In contrast, Preston found climate change to be one of the more important factors to consider under NSW legislation.

To rule against a coalmine on climate grounds, the court also needs to resist the “market substitution” argument – the suggestion that if the proponent does not mine and sell coal, someone else will. This argument has become a common “defence” in climate litigation, and indeed was advanced by Gloucester Resources in the Rocky Hill case.

Preston rejected the argument, describing it as “flawed”. He noted that there is no certainty that overseas mines will substitute for the Rocky Hill coalmine. Given increasing global momentum to tackle climate change, he noted that other countries may well follow this lead in rejecting future coalmine proposals.

He also stated that:

…an environmental impact does not become acceptable because a hypothetical and uncertain alternative development might also cause the same unacceptable environmental impact.

What does the future now hold?

There should be no doubt that this is a hugely significant ruling. However, there are several caveats to bear in mind.

First, there are avenues of appeal. In the absence of a robust legislative framework prohibiting mining operations, it is ultimately up to a court to interpret legislation and weigh up the relevant factors and evidence. The NSW Land and Environment Court has a strong history of progressive judgements, and it is not certain that this example will be followed more widely in other jurisdictions. That said, Preston’s reasoning is firmly grounded in an analysis of the relevant scientific and international context, and should be a highly persuasive precedent.

Second, it is also important to remember that this judgement arose from an initial government decision to refuse the mine, whereas many other legal challenges have arisen from a mining approval.

Finally, climate change was not the only ground on which the mine was rejected. The proposed mine would have been close to a town, with serious impacts on the community.




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Carmichael mine jumps another legal hurdle, but litigants are making headway


Nevertheless, this decision potentially opens up new chapter in Australia’s climate litigation history. Preston’s ruling nimbly vaults over hurdles that have confounded Australian courts in the past – most notably, the application of the market substitution defence.

It is hard to predict whether his decision will indeed have wider ramifications. Certainly the tide is turning internationally – coal use is declining, many nations have set ambitious climate goals under the Paris Agreement, and high-level overseas courts are making bold decisions in climate cases. As Preston concluded:

…an open cut coal mine in this part of the Gloucester valley would be in the wrong place at the wrong time… the GHG emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions.

Indeed, it is high time for a progressive approach to climate cases too. Hopefully this landmark judgement will signal the turning of the tides in Australian courts as well.The Conversation

Justine Bell-James, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

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

Murray-Darling report shows public authorities must take climate change risk seriously


Arjuna Dibley, Stanford University

The tragic recent events on the Darling River, and the political and policy furore around them, have again highlighted the severe financial and environmental consequences of mismanaging climate risks. The Murray-Darling Royal Commission demonstrates how closely boards of public sector corporate bodies can be scrutinised for their management of these risks.

Public authorities must follow private companies and factor climate risk into their board decision-making. Royal Commissioner Brett Walker has delivered a damning indictment of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s management of climate-related risks. His report argues that the authority’s senior management and board were “negligent” and fell short of acting with “reasonable care, skill and diligence”. For its part, the authority “rejects the assertion” that it “acted improperly or unlawfully in any way”.

The Royal Commission has also drawn attention to the potentially significant legal and reputational consequences for directors and organisations whose climate risk management is deemed to have fallen short of a rising bar.




Read more:
Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


It’s the public sector’s turn

Until recently, scrutiny of how effectively large and influential organisations are responding to climate risks has focused mostly on the private sector.

In Australia it is widely acknowledged among legal experts that private company directors’ duty of “due care and diligence” requires them to consider foreseeable climate risks that intersect with the interests of the company. Indeed, Australia’s companies regulator, ASIC, has called for directors to take a “probative and proactive” approach to these risks.

The recent focus on management of the Murray-Darling Basin again highlights the crucial role public sector corporations (or “public authorities” as we call them) also play in our overall responses to climate change – and the consequences when things go wrong.

Australia’s economy, once dominated by publicly owned enterprises, was reshaped by waves of privatisations in the late 20th century. However, hundreds of public authorities continue to play an important role in our economy. They build and maintain infrastructure, generate energy, oversee superannuation portfolios, provide insurance and manage water resources, among many other activities.

This means that, like their counterparts in the private sector, many face risks associated with climate change. Take Melbourne Water, for instance, a statutory water corporation established to manage the city’s water supply. It will have to contend with increasingly hot summers and reduced rainfall (a physical risk), and also with the risk that government policy in the future might impose stricter conditions on how water is used (a transition risk).

What duties do public authorities owe?

Our new research from the Centre for Policy Development, shows that, at the Commonwealth and Victorian level (and likely in other Australian jurisdictions), the main laws governing officials in public authorities are likely to create similar obligations to those imposed on private company directors.

For instance, a 2013 federal act requires public authority board members to carry out their duties with the degree of “due care and diligence” that a reasonable person would exercise if they were a Commonwealth official in that board position.

The concept of a “reasonable person” is crucial. There is ever-increasing certainty about the human contribution to climate change. New tools and models have been created to measure the impact of climate change on the economy. Climate risks are therefore reasonably foreseeable if you are acting carefully and diligently, and thus public authority directors should consider these risks.

The obligations of public authority directors may, in some cases, go beyond what is required of private company directors. The same act mentioned above requires Commonwealth officials to promote best practice in the way they carry out their duties. While there is still wide divergence in how private companies manage climate change, best practice in leading corporations is moving towards more systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks. Accordingly, a “best practice” obligation places an even higher onus on public sector directors to manage climate risk.

The specific legislation that governs certain public authorities may introduce different and more onerous requirements. For instance, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s governing legislation, the Water Act 2007, imposes a number of additional conditions on the authority. This includes the extent to which the minister can influence board decision-making.

Nonetheless, our laws set out a widely applicable standard for public authority directors.

Approaches to better manage public authority climate risks

While some public authorities are already carefully considering how physical and transition climate risks affect their work, our research suggests that standards vary widely.

As with the private sector, a combination of clear expectations for better climate risk management, greater scrutiny and more investment in climate-related capabilities and risk-management frameworks can all play a role in raising the bar. Our research highlights four steps that governments should consider:

  • creating a whole-of-government toolkit and implementation strategy for training and supporting directors to account for climate-risk in decision-making

  • using existing public authority accountability mechanisms – such as the public sector commissioner or auditor general’s office – to more closely scrutinise the management of climate-related financial risks

  • issuing formal ministerial statements of expectations to clarify how public authorities and their directors should manage climate-related risks and policy priorities

  • making legislative or regulatory changes to ensure consistent consideration, management and disclosure of climate risk by public sector decision-makers.




Read more:
Company directors can be held legally liable for ignoring the risks from climate change


Measures such as these would set clear expectations for more consistent, sophisticated responses to climate risks by public authorities. However, even without any changes, it should be clear that public authority directors have legal duties to consider climate risks – and that these duties must be taken seriously even when doing so is complicated, controversial or politically sensitive.The Conversation

Arjuna Dibley, Graduate Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

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