Australia to attend climate summit empty-handed despite UN pleas to ‘come with a plan’



The Port Kembla industrial area in NSW. Industry emissions can be cut by improving efficiency, shifting to electricity and closing old plants.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National 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.

Climate action will be on the world stage again at a meeting of world leaders in New York on September 23. The United Nations has convened the event and urged countries to “come with a plan” for ambitious emissions reduction.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the meeting because he says global efforts to tackle climate change are running off-track. He wants leaders to present concrete, realistic pathways to strengthen their existing national emissions pledges and move towards net zero emissions by 2050.

Australia is not expected to propose any significant new actions or goals. Prime Minister Scott Morrison – in the US at the time to visit President Donald Trump – will not attend the summit. Foreign Minister Marise Payne will attend, and is likely to have to fend off heavy criticism over Australia’s slow progress on climate action.

Australia: procrastinator or paragon?

Australia has gained an international reputation as a climate action laggard – plagued by political acrimony over climate change, offering few policies to reduce emissions and embroiled in diplomatic rifts with our Pacific neighbours over, among other things, support for coal.

For many afar, it is difficult to understand the policy vacuum in a country so vulnerable to climate change.

In turn, the federal government points out that Australia is one of the few countries that has fully met its emissions reductions targets under the Kyoto protocol period to 2020, and says that it expects to meet the 2030 Paris emissions targets.

An island in the low-lying Pacific nation of Tuvalu, which is threatened by inundation from rising seas.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Come with a plan, and make it good

The landmark Paris agreement includes a global goal to hold average temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Countries set so-called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) outlining an emissions reduction target and how they will get there.




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Australia set a target to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Under the Paris treaty, the national pledges should be reviewed and strengthened every five years.

The UN convened the summit to ensure countries are developing concrete, realistic pathways to enhance their NDCs. The new pledges should be in line with a 45% cut to global greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Australia’s emissions are rising

Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are about 12% lower than in 2005, the base year for the Paris target. But since 2013 they have steadily risen, and are continuing to rise.

In the electricity sector, recent declines in coal-fired power and increases in renewables are reducing carbon output. But those savings are being negated by rises in the gas industry and from transport.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, past and projected. Data drawn from Department of the Environment and Energy report titled ‘Australia’s emissions projections 2018’
Department of the Environment and Energy

Nevertheless, the Australian government is loudly confident of reaching the Paris target – including by using a large amount of accumulated credits from the Kyoto Protocol period. On average, Australia stayed below the Kyoto emissions budgets from 2008 to 2020, and the plan is to count this “carry-over” against an expected overshoot in the period to 2030.

This may be compatible with the Paris Agreement rule book. But it would receive scorn from countries that care about climate commitments. The Kyoto targets were not in line with the ambition now spelled out in the Paris agreement, and Australia’s Kyoto targets are seen by many countries as lax.

We could do so much better

With meaningful policy effort, Australia could meet the Paris target without resorting to Kyoto credits, and possibly meet a much more ambitious target. This would set us up better for deeper cuts down the road.

Rapid and large emissions reductions could be made in the electricity sector – especially if the investment boom in renewables of the last two years were to continue. However the latest indications are that renewables investment is tailing off.

The transition to renewables is transforming the electricity sector. Pictured: a high voltage electricity transmission tower in central Brisbane.
Darren England/AAP

Large improvements can readily be made in transport by shifting to electric vehicles and improving the rather dismal fuel efficiency of conventional cars still sold in Australia. Gas and coal use in industry can be cut by improving efficiency and shifting to electricity, and by phasing out some old energy-hungry and often uneconomic plants like aluminium smelters.

The gas industry can do better through improved management of leaks and reduced venting of methane; we can also improve agricultural practices and land management.




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The transition in the energy sector will definitely happen, based on the cost advantage of renewables, unless governments actively stand in the way. The question is how quickly and smoothly it will happen.

The advantages of the renewables transition extend beyond our shores. Solar and wind energy could be converted to carbon-free hydrogen and other zero-emissions fuels at massive scale and then exported. Electricity could also be sent through undersea cables to Asia.

This is shaping up as a real possibility, depending on technology costs and whether the world kicks the fossil fuel habit.

Outside electricity generation, policy measures are needed to achieve, or at least encourage, these changes. A price on carbon like many countries now have, would do a very good job, combined with the right regulation and public investment.

Cattle stir up dust on a property outside Condobolin in NSW’s central west. Most of the nation is currently gripped by drought.
Dean Lewins/AAP

2050: defining a strategy

Limiting the risk of catastrophic climate change demands that global emissions fall rapidly in coming decades. Keeping temperature rise to 2°C or less means reducing emissions to net-zero.

Australia will be expected to table strategies to get to net-zero by 2050 next year, at the UN’s climate COP, or “conference of the parties”. That process should be a chance for Australian governments, industry and civil society to put heads together about how this could work.




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The year 2050 is beyond the horizon of most corporate interests vested in existing assets, and it allows greater emphasis on long term opportunities than on short term adjustments. This should encourage a more open discussion than the often acrimonious debates about 2030 emissions targets and short-term policies.

Australia should show the world it can imagine a zero-emissions future, and hatch the beginnings of a plan for it. It would help position the nation’s resources industries for the future and help with our international reputation.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

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New Zealand launches plan to revive the health of lakes and rivers



After years of delay, the New Zealand government is pushing ahead on a national plan to clean up the nation’s lakes, rivers and wetlands.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato

New Zealand’s government released a plan to reverse the decline of iconic lakes and rivers this week. It proposes higher standards for water quality, interim controls on land intensification and a higher bar on ecosystem health.

Freshwater quality was a significant election issue in 2017 and the proposal follows the recent release of Environment Aotearoa 2019, which links agriculture to freshwater degradation.

The agenda for change recognises that the perceived trade-off between agriculture and the environment makes little sense. If New Zealand trades internationally on a reputation for a healthy environment, continued degradation of water fouls the value of major exports. It also spoils the natural heritage that fuels the tourist economy and many New Zealanders consider a birthright.




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What’s changed?

The policy announcement reflects more than a decade of previous attempts, with the first draft notified in 2008, the first implementation in 2011, and major updates in 2014 and 2017. The new policy package addresses major deficiencies in the earlier versions, and has been fast-tracked to curtail freshwater pollution that has been allowed to get worse longer than it should.

The new regulations are designed to protect the health of entire ecosystems from excess nutrients. Some of the most compelling provisions draw clear lines where limits need to be set to prevent further slippage.

There’s a halt to significant expansions of dairy farming and irrigation, and limits on the use of nitrogen in some key catchments. Further improvements will better protect waterways and wetlands from grazing animals, and limits will be placed on recently criticised winter grazing.




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Two significant steps will reverse the main cause of delays in the past. The first is an implementation at national level. This should reduce reliance on a National Policy Statement (NPS) that requires regional councils to implement changes to local legislation.

This step will be reinforced by signalled changes to the national legislation, the Resource Management Act, which in turn will make regional council actions less cumbersome and underfunded. Secondly, where the new NPS requires region-by-region action, caps on increasing agricultural intensity will apply until regional plans have been amended to comply.

These steps increase the chance of preventing further degradation. Some benefits, such as a reduced risk of getting sick from swimming, should come through quickly. Others, such as reduced nutrient loads of nitrogen and phosphorous and a healthier ecology in lakes and rivers, could take years or decades.

Challenges ahead

To improve freshwater quality, we will need reliable monitoring and modelling tools to measure progress. These will need to be an integral part of the process, even though any decisions are ultimately determined by values. Working through this challenge highlights two large issues that remain unresolved in the plan.

The first is a lack of monitoring tools. The announcement didn’t take up recommendations in the Freshwater Leaders Group’s report that described present tools as unsuitable for providing enough confidence to move forward. The implications are that promised investment to develop the nutrient-monitoring Overseer tool will only eventually get us what we needed years ago.

Tools need to connect nutrient management with farm and catchment planning. They should focus more on future solutions rather than quantifying impacts of past land use that led to freshwater pollution.

The role for Māori

The issue of water allocation is even more important given the constitutional role Māori play in New Zealand’s freshwater governance, enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.

One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is the extent to which Māori values will receive compulsory consideration, or alternately, be afforded consideration place-by-place by individual iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). The advisory body representing Māori interests in the environment and in land-based industries raised concerns that these options are too weak.

These concerns are substantially amplified by the recent report by the Waitangi Tribunal, suggesting that the delays and dysfunction associated with freshwater policies have disproportionately undermined the ability of Māori to maintain holistic cultural connections to water, and obtain fair value from lands recently returned to them by the Crown.

These concerns and the need for better planning tools that resolve past degradation and enable future investment ultimately go hand-in-hand. Māori businesses, enabled by treaty settlements, are leading innovators and investors using social and environmental values to drive high-value exports.

The release now opens a period of consultation and national debate. This will pit the passionate voice of the farming community against voices representing our freshwater ecosystems. But this is the first time a proposed plan brings together all aspects of policy we need to keep aquatic life healthy.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

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

NSW’s water plan is ‘not working’ but we can save the Barwon-Darling


Barry Hart, Monash University

The plan to manage water in the Barwon-Darling is not working, according to a draft review released last week.

The New South Wales Natural Resources Commission, which released the draft report, found the Barwon-Darling is an “ecosystem in crisis”. The report provides a robust blueprint for a more sustainable water-sharing plan.

The review confirms criticism the existing plan gives too much water to irrigators and has added to pressures on the entire Murray-Darling ecosystem.




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What the plan covers

The draft review examines the 2012 Water Sharing Plan for the Barwon-Darling, which covers 1,600km of the river from Mungindi to Wilcannia. The river here flows south-west through a relatively narrow floodplain with a tightly meandering channel and a highly variable flow pattern.

The river is unregulated and depends heavily on upstream rivers for its water (for example, Condamine–Balonne, Border rivers, Gwydir and Namoi).

January’s massive fish kills around Menindee are only the most recent example of the pressures on the river’s ecosystems. Alongside the fish deaths, research has shown that other aquatic species in the system, such as river mussels, have suffered losses that will take many decades to recover.




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Communities that live along the river told the commission people can no longer fish, swim or drink the river water. Graziers struggle to provide water for their stock because the river dries up more often.

Indigenous communities are particularly affected because without water their strong connection to the river – the Barka – is being damaged. A Barkandji elder told the commission:

The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture. You take the water away from us, we’ve got nothing.

Bad priorities

While the review found drought, upstream water extraction in NSW and Queensland and climate change have all contributed to these problems, the greatest effect comes from inappropriate water-sharing rules, particularly when water levels are low.

The law underpinning river management in NSW prioritises protecting the environment and basic landholder rights (including native title) over irrigation. However, the commission found the current plan does not achieve this.

In fact, the plan has been highly controversial since it was enacted in 2012. This in large parts arose because major changes were made between the draft plan circulated in 2011 and the actual plan gazetted in 2012. The commission documents 16 such changes in the review and rates six as substantial.

The NSW government did not publicly explain the reason for such significant alteration in 2012, but there has been much speculation powerful vested interests influenced the government to provide more water for irrigation.

The most important effect of these changes was letting irrigators take water even when the river is very low. The review concludes:

These provisions benefit the economic interests of a few upstream users over the ecological and social needs of the many.




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What to do?

The review recommends the NSW government urgently change water-sharing rules so these better comply with the legal requirements to protect the environment and other water users, restore community trust and make the river more resilient to future shocks.

Key priorities for the NSW government are:

  • redesigning the water-sharing rules so environmental protection and basic landholder rights cannot be harmed by lesser priorities such as irrigation

  • introduce new flow targets to more effectively protect critical ecosystems and enhance river health

  • change rules relating to water extractions by A Class licence holders during critical low-flow periods, particularly those relating to commence-to-pump, cease-to-pump, and the size of pumps.

  • introduce and enforce more effective metering and monitoring

  • develop strategies and rules that address the inevitable impacts of climate change

  • develop and implement more integrated management of water resources in the northern Murray-Darling Basin.

The commission did note there have been positive changes to the NSW government’s approach to water policy and management since the ABC 4 Corners report Pumped in 2017 and the subsequent Ken Matthews report.

However, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan required NSW to complete a new water resource plan for the Barwon-Darling River by June 2019. The state missed this deadline. The NSW water minister has requested an extension to December 31 2019. A recent assessment by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority suggests NSW is still some way from completing this water resource plan.




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While NSW delays, the Barwon-Darling river system and its communities suffer. The NSW government now has an excellent blueprint for a new plan. It must urgently implement the review’s 29 recommendations and complete a new plan for the Barwon-Darling before the end of 2019.The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University

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

Dolphin researchers say NZ’s proposed protection plan is flawed and misleading



Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) are found only in New Zealand.
Flickr/Scott Thompson, CC BY-ND

Elisabeth Slooten, University of Otago and Steve Dawson, University of Otago

The New Zealand government recently proposed a plan to manage what it considers to be threats to Hector’s dolphins, an endemic species found only in coastal waters. This includes the North Island subspecies Māui dolphin.

Māui dolphins are critically endangered and Hector’s dolphins are endangered. With only an estimated 57 Māui dolphins left, they are literally teetering on the edge of extinction. The population of Hector’s dolphins has declined from 30,000-50,000 to 10,000-15,000 over the past four decades.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) released a discussion document which includes a complex range of options aimed at improving protection.

But the proposals reveal two important issues – flawed science and management.




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Flawed science

Several problems combine to overestimate the importance of disease and underestimate the importance of bycatch in fishing nets. For many years, MPI and the fishing industry have argued that diseases like toxoplasmosis and brucellosis are the main cause of decline in dolphin populations. This is not shared by New Zealand and international experts, who have been highly sceptical of the evidence. Either way, it is not an argument to ignore dolphin deaths in fishing nets.

Three international experts from the US, UK and Canada examined MPI’s work. They concluded that it is not possible to estimate the number of dolphin deaths from disease, much less claim that this impact is more serious than bycatch. On the other hand, it is easy to obtain an accurate estimate of the number of dolphins dying in fishing nets, as long as enough observers are allocated. MPI has failed to do so. Coverage has been so low that MPI’s estimate of catch rates in trawl fisheries is based on one observed capture.

It would be possible to estimate dolphin deaths in trawl nets if enough observers were allocated.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

The MPI model used in the public discussion document (and described in more detail in supporting materials) is complex, and a one-off. It is based on a “habitat model” of dolphin distribution, but fits actual dolphin sightings poorly.

Another problematic aspect of the method is that there is no clear time frame for the “recovery” of dolphin populations to the specified 90% of the unimpacted population size for Hector’s dolphins and 95% for Maui dolphins. This is one of the first things any decision maker would want to know. Would Māui dolphins be held at the current critically endangered population level for another 50 years? If so, this dramatically increases their chance of extinction.

Flawed management options

The second set of problems concerns the management options themselves. These are a complex mix of regulations that differ from one area to another, for gillnets and trawling. They frankly don’t make sense. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have recommended banning gillnet and trawl fisheries throughout Māui and Hector’s habitats. MPI’s best option for Māui dolphins comes close to this in the middle of the dolphins’ range, but doesn’t go as far offshore in the southern part of their range.

The South Island options for Hector’s dolphin are much worse. MPI’s approach has been to try to reduce the total number of dolphins killed to just below the level they believe is sustainable. MPI has invented its own method for calculating a sustainable number of dolphin deaths, which is much higher than the well-tested method used in the United States. The next step has been to find areas where the greatest number of deaths can be avoided at the least cost to the fishing industry.

Several Hector’s dolphin populations in the South Island are small, but they act as a bridge between larger populations.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

This sounds reasonable, but fixing the problem only in the places where the largest number of dolphins is being killed will have several negative consequences. Experience shows that fishing effort shifts beyond protected areas, merely moving the problem.

For example, MPI’s proposals leave a large gap on the south and east side of Banks Peninsula, in prime dolphin habitat. If the nearby areas are protected, this gap will be fished, and dolphin bycatch will continue unabated. What’s needed is protection of the areas where dolphins live.

MPI’s focus on reducing the total number of dolphin deaths also ignores the fact that it really matters where those deaths occur. Several Hector’s dolphin populations in the South Island are as small, or smaller, than the Māui dolphin population.

Entanglement deaths have much worse consequences in such small populations, which form a bridge between larger populations. Yet they get no attention in the current options. MPI’s proposals would lead to the depletion of small populations, with increased fragmentation and extinction of local populations.

Only one option

If we want to ensure the long-term survival of these dolphins, there is only one realistic solution: to remove fishing methods that kill dolphins from dolphin habitat. The simple solution is to use only dolphin-safe fishing methods in all waters less than 100 metres deep. This means no gillnets or trawling in harbours and other coastal waters up to the 100 metre depth contour.

There is no need to ban recreational or commercial fishing, but we must make the transition to selective, sustainable fishing methods. These include fish traps, longlines and other hook and line methods. Selective, sustainable fishing methods also use less fuel than trawling and avoid impacts of trawling and gillnets on the broader marine environment.

We also need more observers and more cameras on fishing boats. MPI’s estimate of how many dolphins are dying in fishing nets is almost certainly an under-estimate. It depends heavily on assumptions that are not supported by data.

With observers on only about 2-3% of the inshore fishing boats, the chances of missing bycatch altogether is very high. Low observer coverage also means boats can fish differently on the days when they have an observer aboard (for example, avoiding areas where they have caught dolphins).

Selective fishing methods would protect dolphins and the broader marine environment.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

We know what works

Despite getting a poor report card from the international expert panel, MPI presented a virtually unmodified analysis to the IWC’s scientific committee last month. The committee identified most of the same issues and concluded it needed more time to decide whether MPI’s approach is fit for purpose. Meanwhile the IWC reiterated its recommendation, which it has been making for eight years, to ban gillnets and trawl fisheries throughout Māui dolphin habitat.

In the meantime, dolphins continue to be killed in fishing. We need to make decisions on the basis of scientific evidence available now. All of the population surveys, including those funded by MPI, show Hector’s and Māui dolphins live in waters less than 100 metres deep.

The best evidence of what works comes from Banks Peninsula, where the dolphins have had partial protection since 1988, and detailed follow-up research. This population was declining at 6% per year before gillnets were banned to four nautical miles offshore and trawling to two nautical miles. Even though there was no management of disease, the rate of population decline has dropped dramatically to less than 1% per year. If disease were a serious problem, the restrictions on gillnets would have made little difference.

A general principle in conservation is that the longer you wait, the more difficult and more expensive it will be to save a species, and the more likely we are to fail.The Conversation

Elisabeth Slooten, Professor, University of Otago and Steve Dawson, Professor, University of Otago

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

Adani’s finch plan is approved, just weeks after being sent back to the drawing board


Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

The Queensland government has ticked off a crucial environmental approval for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, bringing the contentious project a step closer to becoming reality.

It has approved Adani’s proposed management plan for the endangered black-throated finch, less than a month after the state’s environment department announced a delay in approval because the plan was judged to be inadequate.




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Four days after the May 18 federal election, in which the mine’s future was a prominent issue, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for an end to the delays and uncertainty.

In a statement issued today, the government said it has now approved a “strengthened” version of the plan, submitted by Adani earlier this week.

Under the revised plan, Adani has now committed to:

  • “establish enhanced understanding” of the finch, with the help of “appropriate population studies”

  • implement “appropriate monitoring protocols” to track the finch’s population over time

  • restrict grazing in nearby areas.

The only remaining state environmental approval for the project now is Adani’s groundwater management plan, on which a decision is due by June 13.

Bad plan caused the delays

As members of the scientific panel that reviewed the finch management plan, we can understand the Premier’s frustration. There is no excuse for such a poor plan to have been put forward for approval when the company has been aware for almost a decade that the land it wants to mine is home to the largest known remaining population of the black-throated finch.

There has already been ample time to undertake the studies Adani has pledged to carry out in the future. Had it done so before now, it could have put its claims to be able to manage the finch’s extinction risk on a much more solid footing.

As it is, the plan we reviewed made biologically improbable assumptions about the finch, while ignoring what is known about the finch’s precipitous decline so far. Under the plan, people with the curious title of “fauna spotter-catchers” were to find finches and move them “to suitable habitat adjacent to the disturbance, if practical” before the habitat is destroyed.

It sounds impractical, and will in all likelihood prove to be so. If the adjacent habitat already has finches, it is likely to be “full” and so won’t be able to support mining refugees. If it lacks finches, there is probably a very good reason.

The finch has been observed only a handful of times in just a tiny proportion of the area purchased for conservation purposes near the mine site. The finch has had more than 10,000 years to occupy and breed in the proposed conservation area that is supposed to offset the impact of the mine. It hasn’t, and it probably won’t.

As far as can be determined by overlaying the available maps, the proposed conservation area has a different geology and soil type. Adani has categorically failed to provide robust scientific evidence to demonstrate that the conservation reserve will adequately offset the loss of the finches and the habitat in the mined area. It has had more than 10 years to conduct the science to provide the evidence.



Meanwhile, before the existing habitat is mined, the plan had talked about grazing being used to control bushfire fuel loads and reduce the abundance of a weed called buffel grass. Yet grazing is thought to be the main reason the finches have disappeared from most of their once vast range – they once occurred from the Atherton tablelands to northern New South Wales.

The new plan is said to “restrict grazing” but no details are yet available. Under the original plan, the cattle would have got fat on the buffel grass pastures just as they did in all the places where the finch once lived.

Rigorous research

What must really frustrate the Queensland Premier is the contrast between Adani’s efforts with the black-throated finch and the much more rigorous work done by mining companies who find themselves in similar situations. Rio Tinto, for example, is currently funding high-quality research on two other birds, the palm cockatoo and red goshawk, ahead of its planned expansion of bauxite operations on Cape York Peninsula.

Vista Gold, meanwhile, funded research on stress levels in Gouldian finches long before mining was planned to begin at its Mt Todd goldmine in the Northern Territory.

In criticising Adani’s plan, we are not criticising mining. Like all Australians, we use the products of mining every day. We enjoy a high standard of living that is delivered partly by royalties from mining. We also understand that miners (and politicians) in Queensland want to see jobs created.

Most mining companies, however, provide jobs while willingly abiding by national and state legislation. They compromise where necessary to minimise environmental harm. And crucially, they commission research to demonstrate how they can mitigate damage well before that damage occurs, rather than when their operations are already underway.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


In contrast, the so-called research and monitoring that went into Adani’s finch plan seems only to conclude that more research is needed. After nine years, Adani did not even know the population size of the finch, how it moves around the landscape, or even what it eats.

Given the time available, this bird could (and should) have been among the best-studied in Australia. The management plan could then have been based on robust evidence that would show how best to safeguard the finch population.

Now the research and monitoring is a hurried add-on with no proof that the threat posed to the finch can actually be solved and an extinction averted. Given the high stakes involved, Australians might reasonably have expected something altogether more rigorous.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Adjunct Research Fellow, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

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

The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan


Rebecca Lawrence, Macquarie University

Can a uranium mine be rehabilitated to the environmental standards of a national park and World Heritage site?

That’s the challenge faced by the controversial Ranger uranium mine inside Kakadu National Park.

But our new research report found the document guiding its rehabilitation is deficient, and urgent changes are needed for the heavily impacted mine site to be cleaned up well.

Kakadu has been a national park since the 1970s, but the Ranger mine, while surrounded by Kakadu, has never formally been part of the park. This classification is in the interests of resource extraction, and has failed to recognise or protect the area’s cultural and environmental values.

Kakadu National Park encompasses a precious natural heritage. It protects valuable ecosystems of outstanding value, diversity and beauty, and contains the world’s richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds.




Read more:
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Recent diggings and studies have documented at least 65,000 years of continuous human habitation at a site on the land of the Mirarr people – this is currently the oldest occupation site in Australia.

How was the mine developed?

The boundaries of Kakadu National Park were conveniently drawn around the Ranger mine site through a series of political and administrative negotiations following the Fox Inquiry, which gave a cautious green light for the Ranger operation.

Likewise, Ranger was excluded from the requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act that would have otherwise given the Mirarr people the right to say no to the mine.

Now, as the mining stops and the repair begins, mining companies and government regulators are being tested on their environmental commitment, and capacity to make meaningful change.




Read more:
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But rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task.

And the inadequacy of the Energy Resources of Australia’s Mine Closure Plan – the key document guiding the rehabilitation – shows they are failing this test so far.

Problems with the Mine Closure Plan

Our new research report – jointly conducted by Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation – examines the Mine Closure Plan and finds it is seriously wanting in key areas.

These include significant data deficiencies regarding management of mine tailings (mine residue), land stability, and modelling of toxic contaminants likely to flow off site into Kakadu National Park.

The Mine Closure Plan is almost completely silent on crucial governance questions, such as the Ranger mine’s opaque regulatory processes and rehabilitation, and current and future financing – especially in relation to future site monitoring and mitigation works.




Read more:
Ranger’s toxic spill highlights the perils of self-regulation


After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade have been tough. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.

But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simply to scrape rocks into holes and plant trees. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are:

physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.

These are time-scales of epic proportions, yet the Mine Closure Plan says little to assure the public this can be achieved.

In fact, Energy Resources of Australia concedes it won’t actually be possible to monitor and measure this over the next 10,000 years, so a model will be required instead. But this model has not been publicly released.

Kakadu is home to more than 280 different types of birds, such as the white bellied sea eagle.
Shutterstock

Rehabilitation success is determined by the mining company

And this speaks to a broader problem with the whole process: the success of the rehabilitation will be judged by criteria created by the mining company.

It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.

And the stakes here are very high. The rehabilitation of Ranger will be a closely-watched and long-judged test of the credibility, competence and commitment of the regulators and the mining companies.




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The Supervising Scientist Branch – a federal agency charged with tracking and advising, but not regulating, the Ranger operation – also made an assessment that should be ringing alarm bells:

[The company’s current plan] does not yet provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current plan for rehabilitation of the Ranger mine site will achieve the required ERs [Environmental Requirements].

The Supervising Scientist Branch’s disturbing initial analysis is a red flag demanding an effective response.

The Conversation reached out to Energy Resources of Australia for a response to this story. A spokesperson told The Conversation the company is committed to the “full rehabilitation” of the Ranger Project Area:

Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) has committed to update the Closure Plan and submit for approval on an annual basis. Updates to the Closure Plan will be made publicly available.

As noted by ERA at the time of release of the Ranger Mine Closure Plan, there are some aspects of closure planning that will be further developed and refined as a result of ongoing studies and consultation. These will be reflected in future updates to the Closure Plan.

ERA is committed to rehabilitate the Ranger Project Area in accordance with the Environmental Requirements as set out in relevant regulations. The final close out of rehabilitation can only occur when the Commonwealth Minister, on advice of the Supervising Scientist and Traditional Owner representatives, is satisfied that the Environmental Requirements have been met.

Australia has a long history of substandard mine closure and rehabilitation in both the uranium and wider mining sector.

There is a real need to see a better approach at Ranger, and the first step in that journey is by increasing the scrutiny, accountability and transparency surrounding this essential clean up work.


This article was updated at 12.25pm, May 7, to include a response from Energy Resources of Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Lawrence, Affiliate, Sydney Environment Institute; Honorary Associate, Macquarie University, Macquarie University

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

Australia needs a national plan to face the growing threat of climate disasters


Robert Glasser, Australian National University

We are entering a new era in the security of Australia, not because of terrorism, the rise of China, or even the cybersecurity threat, but because of climate change. If the world warms beyond 2℃, as seems increasingly likely, an era of disasters will be upon us, with profound implications for how we organise ourselves to protect Australian lives, property and economic interests, and our way of life.

The early warning of this era is arriving almost daily, in news reports from across the globe of record-breaking heatwaves, prolonged droughts, massive bushfires, torrential flooding, and record-setting storms.

In a new special report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I argue that Australia is not facing up to the pace of these worsening threats. We need a national strategy to deal specifically with climate disaster preparedness.




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Even without climate change, the impact of these natural hazards is enormous. More than 500 Australians – roughly the same number who died in the Vietnam War – die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050. This is roughly equivalent to what the federal government spends each year on the Australian Defence Force.

Climate change will dramatically increase the frequency and severity of many of these hazards. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years, and heatwaves have become longer and hotter. Extreme fire weather days have increased in recent decades in many regions of Australia. Shorter and more intense rainstorms that trigger flash floods and urban flooding are also becoming more frequent, and sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate since 1993.

Australians are already exposed to a wide range of the hazards that climate change is amplifying. Almost 4 million of our people, and about 20% of our national economic output, are in areas with high or extreme risk of tropical cyclones. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people and 11% of economic activity are in places with high or extreme risk of bushfire.

Chronic crisis

As the frequency of extreme events increases, we are likely to see an increase in events happening at the same time in different parts of the country, or events following hard on the heels of previous ones. Communities may weather the first few setbacks but, in their weakened state, be ultimately overwhelmed.

Large parts of the country that are currently marginally viable for agriculture are increasingly likely to be in chronic crisis, from the compounding impacts of the steady rise of temperature, drought and bushfires.

The scale of those impacts will be unprecedented, and the patterns that the hazards take will change in ways that are difficult to predict. Australia’s fire season, for example, is already getting longer. Other research suggests that tropical cyclones are forming further from the Equator as the planet warms, putting new areas of eastern Australia in harm’s way.

This emerging era of disasters will increasingly stretch emergency services, undermine community resilience, and escalate economic costs and losses of life. Federal, state and local governments all need to start preparing now for the unprecedented scale of these emerging challenges.

Queensland as a case study

Queensland’s recent experience illustrates what could lie ahead for all of Australia. Late last year, a major drought severely affected the state. At that time, a senior manager involved in coordinating the state’s rebuilding efforts following Cyclone Debbie commented that his team was in the ironic situation of rebuilding from floods during a drought. The drought was making it difficult to find water to mix with gravel and to suppress the dust associated with rebuilding roads.

The drought intensified, contributing to an outbreak of more than 140 bushfires. This was followed and exacerbated by an extreme heatwave, with temperatures in the 40s that smashed records for the month of November. Bushfire conditions in parts of Queensland were classified as “catastrophic” for the first time since the rating scale was developed in 2009. More than a million hectares of bush and farmland were destroyed – the largest expanse of Queensland affected by fire since records began.

Just days later, Tropical Cyclone Owen approached the Queensland coast, threatening significant flooding and raising the risk of severe mudslides from the charred hillsides. Owen set an Australian record in dumping 681 millimetres of rain in just 24 hours – more than Melbourne usually receives in a year. It did not, however, diminish the drought gripping much of the state.

A few weeks later, record rains flooded more than 13.25 million hectares of Northern Queensland, killing hundreds of thousands of drought-stressed cattle. As two Queensland graziers wrote at the time: “Almost overnight we have transitioned from relative drought years to a flood disaster zone.”

Time to prepare

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

It makes no sense for the federal government to have two separate strategies (as it currently does) for disaster resilience and climate change adaptation. Given that 90% of major disasters worldwide are from climate-related hazards such as storms, droughts and floods, these two strategies should clearly be merged.

One of the prime objectives of the new strategy should be to scale up Australia’s efforts to prevent hazards from turning into disasters. Currently, the federal government spends 30 times more on rebuilding after disasters than it does on reducing the risks in the first place.




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Properties under fire: why so many Australians are inadequately insured against disaster


Australia should be leading global calls for urgent climate action, not just because we’re so vulnerable to climate hazards, but also for traditional national security reasons. We are the wealthiest nation in a region full of less-developed countries that are hugely vulnerable to climate change. Shocks to their food security, economic interests and political stability will undermine our own national security.

No military alliance, deployment of troops or new weapon system will adequately protect Australia from this rapidly escalating threat. The only effective “forward defence” is to reduce greenhouse gases globally, including in Australia, as quickly as possible. Without far greater ambition on this front, the scale of the disasters that lie ahead will overwhelm even the most concerted efforts to strengthen the resilience of Australian communities.


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Strategist.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

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