We have discovered a new species of orangutan – the third known species and the first new great ape to be described since the bonobo almost a century ago.
The new species, called the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), has a smaller skull than the existing Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, but has larger canines.
As we and our colleagues report in the journal Current Biology, the new species is represented by an isolated population of fewer than 800 orangutans living at Batang Toru in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
The existence of a group of orangutans in this region was first reported back in 1939. But the Batang Toru orangutans were not rediscovered until 1997, and then confirmed in 2003. We set about carrying out further research to see whether this isolated group of orangutans was truly a unique species.
On the basis of genetic evidence, we have concluded that they are indeed distinct from both the other two known species of orangutan: Pongo abelii from further north in Sumatra, and Pongo pygmaeus from Borneo.
The Batang Toru orangutans have a curious mix of features. Mature males have cheek flanges similar to those of Bornean orangutans, but their slender build is more akin to Sumatran orangutans.
The hair colour is more cinnamon than the Bornean species, and the Batang Toru population also makes longer calls than other orangutans.
To make completely sure, we needed more accurate comparisons of their body dimensions, or “morphology”. It was not until 2013 that the skeleton of an adult male became available, but since then one of us (Anton) has amassed some 500 skulls of the other two species, collected from 21 institutions, to allow for accurate comparisons.
Analyses have to be conducted at a similar developmental stage on male orangutan skulls, because they continue growing even when adult. Anton found 33 skulls of wild males that were suitable for comparison. Of 39 different measurement characteristics for the Batang Toru skull, 24 of them fall outside of the typical ranges of northern Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.
Overall the Batang Toru male has a smaller skull, but bigger canines. Combining the genetic, vocal, and morphological sources of evidence, we have confidently concluded that Batang Toru orangutan population is a newly discovered species – and one whose future is already under threat.
Despite the heavy exploitation of the surrounding areas (hunting, habitat
alteration and other illegal activities), the communities surrounding the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan still give us the opportunity to see and census the surviving population. Unfortunately, we believe that the population is fewer than 800 individuals.
Of the habitat itself, no more than 10 square km remains. Future development has been planned for that area, and about 15% of the orangutans’ habitat has non-protected forest status.
The discovery of the third orangutan in the 21st century gives us an understanding that the great apes have more diversity than we know, making it all the more important to conserve these various groups.
Without the strong support of, and participation from, the communities surrounding its habitat, the future of the Tapanuli orangutan will be uncertain. Government, researchers and conservation institutions must make a strong collaborative effort to make sure that this third orangutan will survive long after its discovery.
The draft water quality improvement plan, released by the federal and Queensland governments this week, aims to reduce the pollution flowing from water catchments to the Great Barrier Reef over the next five years.
The draft plan, which is open for comment until October, presents several important and commendable advances in the management of water quality on the Great Barrier Reef. It addresses all land-based sources of water pollution (agricultural, urban, public lands and industrial) and includes social, cultural and economic values for the first time.
The principal sources of pollution are nitrogen loss from fertiliser use on sugar cane lands, fine sediment loss from erosion on grazing lands, and pesticide losses from cropping lands. These are all major risk factors for the Great Barrier Reef.
The draft plan also presents updated water quality targets that call for reductions in run-off nutrients and fine sediments by 2025. Each of the 35 catchments that feeds onto the reef has its own individual set of targets, thus helping to prioritise pollution-reduction measures across a region almost as large as Sweden.
The reef’s still suffering
The Great Barrier Reef suffered coral bleaching and death over vast areas in 2016, and again this year. The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement, released with the draft water quality plan (and on which one of us, Jon Brodie, was an author), reports:
Key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems continue to be in poor condition. This is largely due to the collective impact of land run-off associated with past and ongoing catchment development, coastal development activities, extreme weather events and climate change impacts such as the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events.
Stronger action on the local and regional causes of coral death are seen to be essential for recovery at locations where poor water quality is a major cause of reef decline. These areas include mid-shelf reefs in the Wet Tropics region damaged by crown of thorns starfish, and inner-shelf reefs where turbid waters stop light reaching coral and seagrass. Human-driven threats, especially land-based pollution, must be effectively managed to reduce the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.
But although the draft plan provides improved targets and a framework for reducing land-based pollution, it still doesn’t reflect the severity of the situation. The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement reports that “current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets” by 2025.
This is because the draft plan does not provide any major new funding, legislation or other initiatives to drive down land-based pollution any further. As the statement explains:
To accelerate the change in on-ground management, improvements to governance, program design, delivery and evaluation systems are urgently needed. This will require greater incorporation of social and economic factors, better targeting and prioritisation, exploration of alternative management options and increased support and resources.
The draft plan calls on farmers to go “beyond minimum standards” for practices such as fertiliser use in sugar cane, and minimum pasture cover in cattle grazing lands. But even the minimum standards are unlikely to be widely adopted unless governments implement existing legislation to enforce the current standards.
The federal and Queensland governments have committed A$2 billion over ten years to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Under the draft plan, about half of this (A$100 million a year) will be spent on water quality management. This is not an increase in resourcing, but rather the same level of funding that has been provided for the past seven years.
More than loose change
There is a very strong business case for major increases in funding to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Even with conservative assumptions, the economics firm Jacobs has estimated that protecting the industries that depend on the reef will require A$830 million in annual funding – more than four times the current level.
The draft water quality plan acknowledges the need for a “step change” in reef management, and to “accelerate our collective efforts to improve the land use practices of everyone living and working in the catchments adjacent to the Reef”.
These changes would require significantly increased funding to support catchment and coastal management and to meet the draft plan’s targets. Government commitment to this level of management is essential to support the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef to climate change.
Together, PV and wind represent 5.5% of current energy generation (as at the end of 2016), but crucially they constituted almost half of all net new generation capacity installed worldwide during last year.
It is probable that construction of new coal power stations will decline, possibly quite rapidly, because PV and wind are now cost-competitive almost everywhere.
Hydro is still important in developing countries that still have rivers to dam. Meanwhile, other low-emission technologies such as nuclear, bio-energy, solar thermal and geothermal have small market shares.
This is double to triple the rate of recent years, and a welcome return to growth after several years of subdued activity due to political uncertainty over the RET.
If this rate is maintained, then by 2030 more than half of Australian electricity will come from renewable energy and Australia will have met its pledge under the Paris climate agreement purely through emissions savings within the electricity industry.
To take the idea further, if Australia were to double the current combined PV and wind installation rate to 6GW per year, it would reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033. Modelling by my research group suggests that this would not be difficult, given that these technologies are now cheaper than electricity from new-build coal and gas.
Renewable future in reach
The prescription for an affordable, stable and achievable 100% renewable electricity grid is relatively straightforward:
Use mainly PV and wind. These technologies are cheaper than other low-emission technologies, and Australia has plenty of sunshine and wind, which is why these technologies have already been widely deployed. This means that, compared with other renewables, they have more reliable price projections, and avoid the need for heroic assumptions about the success of more speculative clean energy options.
Distribute generation over a very large area. Spreading wind and PV facilities over wide areas – say a million square kilometres from north Queensland to Tasmania – allows access to a wide range of different weather, and also helps to smooth out peaks in users’ demand.
Build interconnectors. Link up the wide-ranging network of PV and wind with high-voltage power lines of the type already used to move electricity between states.
Fossil fuel generators currently provide another service to the grid, besides just generating electricity. They help to balance supply and demand, on timescales down to seconds, through the “inertial energy” stored in their heavy spinning generators.
But in the future this service can be performed by similar generators used in pumped hydro systems. And supply and demand can also be matched with the help of fast-response batteries, demand management, and “synthetic inertia” from PV and wind farms.
Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that wind and PV energy price has fallen to A$60-70 per MWh this year as the industry takes off. Prices are likely to dip below A$50 per MWh within a few years, to match current international benchmark prices. Thus, the net cost of moving to a 100% renewable electricity system over the next 15 years is zero compared with continuing to build and maintain facilities for the current fossil-fuelled system.
Gas can no longer compete with wind and PV for delivery of electricity. Electric heat pumps are driving gas out of water and space heating. Even for delivery of high-temperature heat for industry, gas must cost less than A$10 per gigajoule to compete with electric furnaces powered by wind and PV power costing A$50 per MWh.
Importantly, the more that low-cost PV and wind is deployed in the current high-cost electricity environment, the more they will reduce prices.
Then there is the issue of other types of energy use besides electricity – such as transport, heating, and industry. The cheapest way to make these energy sources green is to electrify virtually everything, and then plug them into an electricity grid powered by renewables.
A 55% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved by conversion of the electricity grid to renewables, together with mass adoption of electric vehicles for land transport and electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. Beyond this, we can develop renewable electric-driven pathways to manufacture hydrocarbon-based fuels and chemicals, primarily through electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen and carbon capture from the atmosphere, to achieve an 83% reduction in emissions (with the residual 17% of emissions coming mainly from agriculture and land clearing).
Doing all of this would mean tripling the amount of electricity we produce, according to my research group’s preliminary estimate.
But there is no shortage of solar and wind energy to achieve this, and prices are rapidly falling. We can build a clean energy future at modest cost if we want to.
The federal government’s new draft marine park plans are based on an unsubstantiated premise: that protection of Australia’s ocean wildlife is consistent with activities such as fishing and oil and gas exploration.
Under the proposed plans, there would be no change to the boundaries of existing marine parks, which cover 36% of Commonwealth waters, or almost 2.4 million square kilometres. But many areas inside these boundaries will be rezoned to allow for a range of activities besides conservation.
The plans propose dividing marine parks into three types of zones:
Green: “National Park Zones” with full conservation protection
Yellow: “Habitat Protection Zones” where fishing is allowed as long as the seafloor is not harmed
Blue: “Special Purpose Zones” that allow for specific commercial activities.
Crucially, under the new draft plans, the amount of green zones will be almost halved, from 36% to 20% of the marine park network, whereas yellow zones will almost double from 24% to 43%, compared with when the marine parks were established in 2012.
The government has said that this approach will “allow sustainable activities like commercial fishing while protecting key conservation features”.
Yet the latest draft plans, which propose to gut the network of green zones, ignore many of the recommendations made in the review, which was itself an erosion of the suspended 2012 plans.
The extent of green zones is crucial, because the science says they are the engine room of conservation. Fully protected marine national parks – with no fishing, no mining, and no oil and gas drilling – deliver far more benefits to biodiversity than other zone types.
The best estimates suggest that 30-40% of the seascape should ideally be fully protected, rather than the 20% proposed under the new plans.
Partially protected areas, such as the yellow zones that allow fishing while protecting the seabed, do not generate conservation benefits equivalent to those of full protection.
Environment minister Josh Frydenberg has pointed out that, under the new plans, the total area zoned as either green or yellow will rise from 60% to 63% compared with the 2012 network. But yellow is not the new green. What’s more, yellow zones have similar management costs to green zones, which means that the government is proposing to spend the same amount of money for far inferior protection. And as any decent sex-ed teacher will tell you, partial protection is a risky business.
What do the draft plans mean?
Let’s take a couple of examples, starting with the Coral Sea Marine Park. This is perhaps the most disappointing rollback in the new draft plan. The green zone, which would have been one of the largest fully protected areas on the planet, has been reduced by half to allow for fishing activity in a significantly expanded yellow zone.
This yellow zone would allow the use of pelagic longlines to fish for tuna. This is despite government statistics showing that around 30% of the catch in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish fishery consists of species that are either overexploited or uncertain in their sustainability, and the government’s own risk assessment that found these types of fishing lines are incompatible with conservation.
What this means, in effect, is that the plans to establish a world-class marine park in the Coral Sea will be significantly undermined for the sake of saving commercial tuna fishers A$4.1 million per year, or 0.3% of the total revenue from Australia’s wild-catch fisheries.
Contrast this with the A$6.4 billion generated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2015-16, the majority of which comes from non-extractive industries.
This same erosion of protection is also proposed in Western Australia, where the government’s draft plan would reduce green zones by 43% across the largest marine parks in the region.
Again, this is despite clear evidence that the fishing activities occurring in these areas are not compatible with conservation. Such proposals also ignore future pressures such as deep-sea mining.
…increase the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64% to 80% … (and) make 97% of waters within 100 kilometres of the coast open for recreational fishing.
Building ocean resilience
Science shows that full protection creates resilience by supporting intact ecosystems. Fully protected green zones recover faster from flooding and coral bleaching, have reduced rates of disease, and fend off climate invaders more effectively than areas that are open to fishing.
Of course it is important to balance conservation with sustainable economic use of our oceans. Yet the government’s new draft plan leaves a huge majority of Australia’s waters open to business as usual. It’s a brave Emperor who thinks this will protect our oceans.
So let’s put some real clothes on the Emperor and create a network of marine protection that supports our blue economy and is backed by science.
Krien, author of Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests has a sharp eye for the right anecdote and a brilliant turn of phrase. Her reportage can be spoken of in the same breath as Elizabeth Kolbert’s seminal Field Notes from a Catastrophe. She has read extensively (I for one was not familiar with the Myxocene – the age of slime) and in researching her latest essay has clocked up thousands of miles as she dives on the Great Barrier Reef and travels inland to areas that will be affected by the proposed coal mine developments in the Galilee Basin.
Krien offers valuable insights into issues such as coal firm Adani’s negotiations with traditional owners, the battles over coal seam gas, and Port Augusta’s rocky transition from coal to – possibly – renewables. She talks to “ordinary” people, weaving their perspectives into the story while not losing sight of the climate deadlock in her title – the ongoing fight within the Liberal and National parties over climate and energy policy.
In one of many telling phrases she writes of the “Stockholm syndrome built on donations, royalties, taxes and threats” that bedevils Australian politics, pointing out that the fate that befell Kevin Rudd still looms large in the collective political memory. In the end, she returns to the Great Barrier Reef, and her final paragraphs pack an emotional punch that will stay with the reader for a long time.
My only quibble with Krien’s fastidious reporting is that, unlike previous Quarterly Essays, there are no footnotes. But maybe that’s only really an issue for nerds like me.
This is Quarterly Essay 66. Number 33 was Guy Pearse’s equally alarming Quarry Vision. In years to come, perhaps Quarterly Essay 99 might explain how we continued not to take action, as the consequences of climate change piled ever higher around us. Or how – alongside unexpected technological breakthroughs – we began finally to race against our nemesis, our own hubris. Time will tell.
Mark Butler is aiming to do something else besides just telling us about climate politics: as a shadow minister he is setting out Labor’s stall for the next federal election, whenever that might be.
Butler was climate minister in Rudd’s second, brief, government. In 2015-16 he undertook extensive consultations with business, community groups, academics and other “stakeholders” (surely everyone in the world is a stakeholder when it comes to the climate?). His book is essentially an extended advert for that process and its outcomes.
Butler’s prose is solid, and occasionally stolid, as he throws fact after report after statistic at the reader. However, he generally seeks to strike a constructive balance between “problem” and “solution”. There are only a few short chapters on the climate policy mess, with the bulk of the book concentrating on what a future Labor government proposes to do about it.
Inevitably, Butler is more critical of his political rivals, the Liberals and the Greens, than of his own party. You wouldn’t know from reading this book that it was Paul Keating’s Labor government who first began to use economic modelling to argue against emissions reductions, or that it was a Labor government who, in 1995, refused to institute a small carbon tax that would fund renewable energy.
Butler is also, oddly, flat-out wrong when he writes that former Labor minister Graham Richardson persuaded Prime Minister Bob Hawke to agree a 20% emissions reduction target before the 1990 federal election. It was actually his colleague Ros Kelly, in October 1990, and the “commitment” was carefully hedged.
These historical details matter, because we need to be able to hold politicians (and even ex-politicians) to account over their climate pledges. But many readers will nevertheless be more interested in what Butler says a Labor government will do, rather than what previous Labor governments didn’t.
Butler obliges, giving us chapters on “Labor’s clean power plan”, “Manufacturing and mining in a low-carbon world”, and “Low-carbon communities”. Occasionally he raises thorny problems (refugees, the coal industry) without really grappling with them. Given the ugly history around these issues (and the political Stockholm Syndrome identified by Krien), this is perhaps unsurprising.
Curiously, both books make a similar omission: they contain very little on the failures of policymakers and social movement organisations in the period from 2006 to 2012. In 2015, at the Labor Party’s national conference, I asked panellists – Butler was one – what had gone wrong during this time, which encompassed Kevin Rudd’s first prime ministership – in light of the fact that we had known about climate change since the late 1980s.
The other panellists gave thoughtful, sometimes self-critical answers. Butler kept schtum. Yet the question is worth asking if we are to avoid history repeating itself, this time as farce. We need smart people – and Krien and Butler are among them – to be asking how citizens can exert sustained pressure on existing governments and to build capacity to keep holding governments’ feet to the fire until they really and truly take climate policy seriously instead of just using it to score points and kill careers.
Ultimately, anyone interested in the future of Australia – and the future of climate policy – should read both of these books carefully. While Krien’s has some immediate use, its greater function will be something we can pull out of a time capsule to explain to young people 20 years hence that we knew exactly what was coming and what we had to do. It will help them understand why we didn’t do it.
Butler’s book will serve well over the next five years, as citizens try to hold a putative Labor government to its fine (if still inadequate) promises on the great moral challenge of our generation.
In our report, we explore how New Zealand, a trailblazer for emissions trading, might drive a low-emission transformation, both at home and overseas.
Turning off the tap
Emitting greenhouse gases is a lot like overflowing a bathtub. Even a slow trickle will eventually flood the room.
The Paris Agreement gives all countries a common destination: net zero emissions during the second half of the century. It is also an acknowledgement that the world has only a short time to turn the tide on emissions and limit global temperature rise to below two degrees. The sooner we turn down the tap, the more time we have for developing solutions.
New Zealand’s 2030 commitment is to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels (11% below 1990). In 2015, our emissions (excluding forestry) were 24% above 1990 levels. The government projects a gap of 235 million tonnes between what has been pledged and what New Zealand will actually emit in the period from 2021 to 2030.
Reducing emissions rapidly enough within New Zealand to achieve our Paris commitment could be extremely expensive, and even at a cost of NZ$300 per tonne, the target could not be met through domestic action alone.
International emission reductions help bridge the gap. New Zealand could turn off its own greenhouse gas tap while supporting other countries to do the same.
In 2015, New Zealand pulled out of the Kyoto carbon market and its ETS is now a domestic-only system.
Under the Paris Agreement, carbon markets have changed in three important ways:
Currently, international emission reductions can be traded only from government to government. It is no longer possible for NZ ETS participants to buy international units directly from the market.
International emission reductions sold as offsets to other countries will have to be additional to the seller’s own Paris target.
Countries have flexibility to trade international emission reductions through arrangements outside of the central UN mechanism which is at an early stage of development.
A new approach to reducing emissions
What does this mean for New Zealand? First, we cannot and must not rely on international markets to set our future domestic emission price.
Second, as both taxpayers and responsible global citizens, we need to decide where to fund emission reductions. Most mitigation opportunities are in developing countries. The benefits of investing in lower-cost reductions overseas need to be weighed against the costs of deferring strategic investment in New Zealand’s own low-emission transformation.
Third, we need an effective mechanism to direct New Zealand’s contribution to mitigation overseas.
In collaboration with others, Motu researchers are prototyping a new approach: a results-based agreement between buyer and seller governments within a climate team.
For example, New Zealand could partner with other buyers – such as Australia, South Korea or Norway – to pool funding at a scale that provides incentives for a country with a developing or emerging economy – such as Colombia or Chile – to invest in low-emission transformation beyond its Paris target. These countries could then create a more favourable environment for low-emission investment – including by New Zealand companies.
Retooling the ETS for domestic decarbonisation
So far, New Zealand has been moving at speed but in the wrong direction, relying heavily on international emission reductions to meet its targets from 2008 through 2020 while domestic emissions continued to rise. Gross emissions (excluding forestry) are projected to climb 29% above 1990 gross emission levels by 2030 under current measures. This is a far cry from our 2030 Paris target of net emissions of 30% below 2005 gross emission levels (11% below 1990).
New Zealand’s ETS has an important role to play in achieving a successful low-emission domestic economy, but it needs to be properly equipped.
Unlike other financial markets, the purpose of an ETS market is more than price discovery, resource allocation and liquidity. It is designed to create a change in behaviour to reduce emissions. Prices are driven not just by the interplay of demand and supply, but by current policy decisions, emission reduction opportunities, and expectations about future decisions and opportunities.
Since de-linking from the Kyoto market in mid-2015, NZ ETS participants have had no certainty on how to invest. They need clear near-term signals for unit supply and cost and predictable processes for longer-term decision making.
Five changes to make the emissions trading work
Introducing a cap (fixed limit) on NZ ETS units sold or freely allocated by the government will define supply and enable the market to set an efficient price. In the past, the NZ ETS borrowed the global Kyoto cap, which essentially allowed unlimited domestic supply. The Kyoto cap is no longer available and we have committed to reducing domestic emissions.
Establishing a price band will provide a minimum and maximum emission price limit, set by government. A price floor will guarantee a minimum return on low-emission investment and a price ceiling will safeguard against upside price shocks. When the floor and ceiling are far apart, the market has latitude when setting the price. The closer they are, the more the government manages the price. The price band will be implemented at auction and replace the current fixed-price option set at NZ$25 per tonne.
Fixing both the cap and the price band for five years and extending them by one year each year will provide short-term certainty. The government will also need to set indicative trajectories for caps and price bands for a further 10 years in alignment with its decarbonisation objectives. This will enable long-term decision-making.
Given the technical complexity of the ETS, we recommend that an independent body be tasked with advising government on ETS supply and price settings. Ultimately however, decisions on caps and price bands are political and therefore should be taken by government, with transparency and public accountability.
The era of top-down carbon markets, unlimited unit supply and rising domestic emissions has ended. Right now, only governments can purchase international emissions reductions. In the longer term, ETS participants may also be able to do so. However, the quantity must be limited and displace other supply under the cap to avoid devaluing domestic investment and disrupting New Zealand’s progress toward decarbonisation. All international emission reductions applied toward New Zealand’s targets must be quality assured to manage risks with environmental integrity.
These adjustments can be achieved through practical legislative amendments and regulation. There is merit in implementing these changes as soon as possible so that low-emission investors and emitters can get on the road.
Setting the ambition of domestic ETS caps and price bands can be politically challenging. That is why New Zealand skipped this step the first time around and borrowed the Kyoto ones instead. Under the Paris Agreement, New Zealand needs to establish a resilient policy architecture with cross-party support that offers predictable processes to guide future political decision making. It’s time for us to forge our own pathway to a successful low-emission economy.
This article was prepared by Suzi Kerr, Catherine Leining and Ceridwyn Roberts at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research. The supporting paper was funded by the Aotearoa Foundation and informed by participants in Motu’s ETS Dialogue. The content does not necessarily represent the views of or endorsement by ETS Dialogue participants, their organisation or the funder.