Fossil fuel misinformation may sideline one of the most important climate change reports ever released


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Christian Downie, Australian National UniversityThis week’s landmark report on the state of the climate paints a sobering picture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, without deep and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the world is very likely headed for climate catastrophe.

In November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the latest round of United Nations climate talks. It’s the most crucial round of climate negotiations since those which led to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The question is: will governments around the world now listen to the climate science? Or will misinformation campaigns backed by vested interests continue to delay action?

If we’re to avert a climate disaster, we must not underestimate the power of climate misinformation campaigns to undermine the IPCC findings and ensure governments continue to ignore the science.

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Science must be at the heart of policy-making if climate change is to be addressed.
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A history of heeding the science

Scrutiny of Australia’s climate policies will be particularly harsh at the Glasgow meeting, given the Morrison government’s failure to implement substantive policies to reduce emissions. We can expect renewed international pressure on Australia to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and set out a national plan to decarbonise the economy this decade.

For those who believe in the power of science, the failure of world leaders to act urgently is frustrating, to say the least.

We have acted on the concerns of scientists in the past. In fact, it was scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen who put climate change on the agenda back in 1988, triggering international negotiations.

Scientific concern over the growing hole in the ozone layer prompted the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to curb the use of ozone-depleting substances.

And of course, scientific advice is guiding the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many reasons why the calls of climate scientists are not being heeded at present. But one factor has been particularly successful in delaying climate action: scientific misinformation campaigns.

These campaigns damage public understanding of science, erode trust in research findings, and undermine evidence-based policy.




Read more:
A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial


Earth from space
Governments heeded scientific warnings over the ozone hole – so why not climate change?
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Muddying the waters

Research has shown climate misinformation campaigns are often backed by corporate interests which stand to lose if the world transitions to a cleaner energy future.

Such a future could bring incredible benefits to Australia – a country with some of the world’s best solar and wind resources.

The campaigns have wrought untold damage to the public debate on climate science. These corporations have funded industry associations, think tanks and front groups (even including paid actors) to mobilise a counter movement to climate action.

Examples of the phenomenon abound. In the United States, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil reportedly knew of climate change 40 years ago, but funded climate deniers for decades.

Reports emerged last week that Facebook failed to prevent a climate misinformation campaign by the oil and gas industry during last year’s US presidential election.

The war against climate science has been waged in Australia, too. Researchers and journalists have described the lengths the oil, gas and coal industries have gone to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, and to kill off policies put in place to limit emissions.

Australian media companies such as News Corp have also been criticised for downplaying the significance of the climate crisis. Little wonder, then, that Australian news consumers are far more likely to believe climate change is “not at all” serious compared to news users in other countries.




Read more:
With the release of a terrifying IPCC report, Australia must face its wilful political blindness on climate


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News Corp has been accused of underplaying the seriousness of climate change.
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Calling out misinformation

The latest IPCC report was five years in the making. It involved 234 leading scientists from more than 60 countries, who rigorously assessed more than 14,000 research papers to produce their synthesis. The result is the most authoritative, reliable report on the state of Earth’s climate since the last IPCC report of its kind in 2013.

But as the history of climate action has shown, incontrovertible science is not enough to shift the needle – in large part due to climate misinformation which deceives the public and weakens pressure on governments to act.

We must call out attempts by those who seek to delay climate action in the name of profit – and then counter those attempts. As the IPCC has shown this week, further delay equals catastrophe.




Read more:
We have the vaccine for climate disinformation – let’s use it


The Conversation


Christian Downie, Associate professor, Australian National University

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

Monday’s IPCC report is a really big deal for climate change. So what is it? And why should we trust it?


Chinatopix via AP

David Karoly, CSIROOn Monday, an extremely important report on the physical science of climate change will be released to the world. Produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the report will give world leaders the most up-to-date information about climate change to inform their policies.

It is an enormous undertaking, and has been a long time coming.

This report is the culmination of a marathon five-year assessment, writing, review and approval process from 234 leading scientists hailing from more than 60 countries. These scientists have worked together to rigorously evaluate the world’s climate change research papers — more than 14,000 of them.

I’ve been involved with the IPCC reports in multiple roles since 1997. For this current report, I was a review editor for one chapter.

This IPCC assessment report is the sixth overall, and the first since 2013. A lot has changed since then, from major governments setting ambitious climate targets, to devastating floods, fires and heatwaves across the world.

So what is the IPCC, and why does this report matter so much? And given the report is commissioned and approved by national governments, should we trust it?

What is the IPCC?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was first established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. Their aim was to provide policymakers with regular and comprehensive scientific assessments on climate change, at a time when climate change was becoming a more mainstream concern around the world.

These reports assess the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. They’re required to be policy-relevant yet policy-neutral. They contain findings, and state the confidence with which the finding is made, but do not recommend action.

A protester holding a sign that says 'listen to the science, IPCC report'.
This report is the sixth since the IPCC was established in 1988.
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The first assessment was completed in 1990, and found:

emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the concentrations of […] carbon dioxide [and other greenhouse gases]. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface.

Since then, new assessment cycles have been completed every five to seven years.

The overall assessment — the Sixth Assessment Report — is divided into three main parts. Monday’s report is the first part – on the physical science basis for climate change – and was delayed by almost a year due to COVID restrictions.

The next two parts will be released in 2022. One will cover the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability of, for example, people, ecosystems, agriculture, cities, and more. The other will cover the economics and mitigation of climate change.

The Sixth Assessment Report will culminate in a synthesis report, combining the first three parts, in September 2022.

What will we learn?

The report will provide the most updated and comprehensive understanding of the climate system and climate change, both now and into the future. For that reason, it’s relevant to everyone: individuals, communities, businesses and all levels of government.




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Climate explained: how the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change


It will tell us how fast carbon dioxide emissions have been rising, and where they’re coming from. It’ll also tell us how global temperatures and rainfall patterns have changed, and how they are expected to change this century, with associated confidence levels.

Compared to the previous report in 2013, this report puts greater emphasis on regional climate change, on changes in extreme events, and how these events are linked to human-caused climate change.

This greater emphasis on extreme events at regional scales makes it even more important to policy makers and the public.

In recent months the world has watched in horror as heatwaves, bushfires and floods toppled homes and buildings, killing hundreds across China, Europe and North America. The report will help put disasters like these in the context of climate change, noting that similar events are expected to be more frequent and severe in a warming world.

The report also examines the effects of different levels of global warming, such as 1.5℃ and 2℃. It also looks at when such warming is likely to be reached.




Read more:
5 things to watch for in the latest IPCC report on climate science


Why should I trust it?

The scope of each IPCC report is prepared by scientists and approved by representatives of all governments. The 234 scientists who wrote the report are selected based on their expertise, and represent as many countries as possible.

The reports go through multiple stages of drafting and review. The first draft of the current report had more than 23,000 review comments from experts. Each comment received an individual response.

The second draft had more than 50,000 review comments from experts and governments, and these guided the preparation of the final draft.

You may be thinking that the IPCC reports should not be trusted because they involve government inputs and approval. However, this is probably one of their strengths. Involving government representatives ensures the reports are relevant to the policy interests of all governments.

Indeed, the multi-stage review and revision process used for the IPCC reports has been used as a model for international assessments of other scientific topics.

Can I read it?

The report will be released and free to read at 6pm Australian Eastern Standard time (10am Paris time) on Monday. But each chapter in the final report will be more than 100 pages long in a small font, so few people will read it all.

The most accessible part of the report is its Summary for Policymakers, aimed at a general readership and drafted by the expert authors.

The approval meeting for this report has been taking place over the last two weeks in Paris, as a video conference meeting of government representatives. The meeting approves each chapter, but most time is spent considering and approving the Summary for Policymakers.




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Every line in this summary is considered separately, comments from government representatives are considered, and changes must be approved by consensus of all governments. Sometimes reaching consensus can take a long time.

It’s clear the IPCC brings the best of global science together. It’s vital that governments keep the findings of this report front of mind in their decision-making, if the world is to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios.The Conversation

David Karoly, Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO

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

Wondering if your energy company takes climate change seriously? A new report reveals the answer


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Anna Malos, ClimateWorks Australia and Coral Bravo, ClimateWorks AustraliaA landmark report released last week put coal and gas on notice. For the first time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 means no new investments in fossil fuel supply projects.

For Australia – a continent blessed with a bounty of wind and sun – the phasing out of coal and gas investment should be considered a boon. Australia is already deploying wind and solar energy ten times faster than the global average, and still has plenty of unmet renewables potential.

But of course, Australia’s path to a clean energy economy has not been perfectly smooth. A lack of federal leadership on climate policy and a historical dependence on fossil fuels means the IEA’s roadmap presents a big challenge for Australia.

Our latest report released today underscores how big a challenge this is. We assessed Australia’s highest-emitting energy firms and found none were fully or even closely aligned with global climate goals. Just one went even partway, and five appeared to be taking no action at all.

smoke billows from stacks at coal plant
The International Energy Agency says it’s the end of the road for new coal investments.
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A poor showing

Our energy sector report forms part of the Net Zero Momentum Tracker, a project by research organisation ClimateWorks, which works within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.

We assessed the commitments of Australia’s 20 highest-emitting energy companies against the Paris Agreement goals, which include limiting global temperature rise to well below 2℃, aiming for 1.5℃. The IEA’s latest work shows to reach those goals, the global energy sector must reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The companies we analysed comprise electricity generators and electricity and gas retailers. Together, they account for almost one-third of Australia’s total annual emissions.

Each company’s commitments were assessed against scenarios we modelled, which map the least-cost trajectories for reducing Australia’s emissions in line with the Paris goals.

We found no large energy company was fully aligned with these trajectories, and most fell well short. Six had set emissions reduction targets and nine others had taken some action to cut emissions.

However, not a single company had commitments that are in line with Australia achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.




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We could be a superpower: 3 ways Australia can take advantage of the changing geopolitics of energy


boy turns off lamp
No electricity company was taking action fully aligned with the Paris goals.
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How your energy company fares

The 20 companies we assessed account for almost 90% of Australia’s electricity emissions. Together, they generate more than 70% of Australia’s electricity supplies.

French-owned energy generator and retailer ENGIE was the only company with activities on a trajectory supporting Australia’s Paris-aligned transition, because of a target that aims to reduce some of its emissions by 2030. But the target does not cover the majority of ENGIE’s emissions, so the company has much more work to do.

Fourteen companies had a mix of targets or actions we assessed as not aligned with the Paris goals. They are:

  • AGL
  • APT Pipelines
  • ATCO
  • CS Energy
  • CK William
  • Delta
  • EnergyAustralia
  • Origin
  • Pioneer Sail
  • Snowy Hydro
  • Stanwell
  • Synergy
  • Territory Generation
  • TransAlta.

And these five companies had no disclosed emissions reduction activities:

  • Arrow Energy
  • Bluewaters Power 1&2
  • NewGen Kwinana
  • NRG Gladstone Operating Services
  • OzGen.



Read more:
Government-owned firms like Snowy Hydro can do better than building $600 million gas plants


Engie logo on building
French multinational Engie was the only firm assessed to have emissions reduction goals even partially aligned to the Paris Agreement.
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The big four emitters

AGL, EnergyAustralia, Stanwell and Origin are the biggest emitters in Australia’s electricity sector. Collectively, they’re responsible for more than half the sector’s emissions, and so have a particular responsibility to act.

When energy companies talk about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, they do so in terms of scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

Scope 1 covers emissions released to the atmosphere as a direct result of company activity, such as burning coal or gas to produce electricity. Scope 2 covers the emissions created to produce the electricity a company purchases.

Scope 3 emissions are those outside the companies’ direct control. They include upstream processes such as the extraction, production and transport of fuel used to power their operations, and downstream activities such as the distribution and use of gas sold to consumers.

Origin aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and has set interim targets to reduce its scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

AGL and EnergyAustralia have committed to achieve net-zero operational (scope 1 and 2) emissions by 2050, but have no interim emissions reduction targets.

Stanwell, which operates two of Queensland’s largest coal-fired generators, has no emissions reduction targets.

magnifying glass on Origin website
Origin aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
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A rapid renewables shift

Our earlier research shows that under scenarios compatible with the Paris Agreement, renewables make up 70% of electricity generation by 2030. Coal and gas is phased out of Australia’s electricity mix as soon as 2035.

The energy sector is crucial if Australia is to meet the Paris climate goals. Thanks to renewable energy, the sector enjoys some of the easiest and cheapest emissions reduction opportunities. And a zero-emissions energy sector would also help other sectors such as transport, buildings and industry to decarbonise.

Australia’s energy sector has made progress on emissions in recent years. Three-quarters of the energy companies we assessed have implemented wind and solar energy projects. And overall, renewable energy was responsible for almost 28% of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2020.

However our report shows change is not happening fast enough to put Australia on a timely path to net-zero emissions.

At a federal level, the Renewable Energy Target, which ended last year, drove the clean energy shift. New federal policies are now needed to bolster ambitious state and territory policies. This would enable energy market operators and investors to plan a transition aligned with the Paris goals.




Read more:
International Energy Agency warns against new fossil fuel projects. Guess what Australia did next?


The Conversation


Anna Malos, Australia – Country Lead, ClimateWorks Australia and Coral Bravo, Senior Analyst, ClimateWorks Australia

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

UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.

Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.

A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.

Covid-19 graphic
Microbes can pass from animals to humans, causing disease pandemics.
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Humans costs are mounting

The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:

…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.

The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpazees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).

The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.

But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.

Doctor giving injection to patient
Governments are focused on pandemic responses such as developing vaccines, rather than prevention.
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As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:

…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.

The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.




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The next global health pandemic could easily erupt in your backyard


It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.

People wearing masks in a crowd
The cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention.
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A way forward

The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:

• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation

• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption

• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.

Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:

  • education policies

  • labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured

  • providing incentives for sustainable behaviour

  • increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.

People inspecting haul of wildlife products
Cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent pandemics.
AP

An Australian response

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.

However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.

For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.

The government cut funding of environmental studies courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce so called “green tape” in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic will be led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.




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Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.

But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.

Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.

As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Adjunct Professor University of Western Australia, Institute of Agriculture

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

No water, no leadership: new Murray Darling Basin report reveals states’ climate gamble


Daniel Connell, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

A report released today investigating how states share water in the Murray Darling Basin describes a fascinating contrast between state cultures – in particular, risk-averse South Australia and buccaneering New South Wales.

Perhaps surprising is the report’s sparse discussion of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which has been the focus of irrigators’ anger and denunciation by National Party leaders: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

In general terms, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was originally intended to make water management in the Murray Darling Basin more environmentally sustainable. Its critics see it as a restraint on development, and complain it has taken water away from irrigators during a time of extreme drought.




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In response to McCormack and Barliaro’s criticisms of the plan in late 2019, federal water minister (and senior National Party figure) David Littleproud commissioned Mick Keelty as Interim Inspector General of MDB Water Resources.

For the new report, Keelty investigated the changing distribution of “inflows” – water flowing into the River Murray in the southern states.

Climate change has brought the inflow to just a trickle. This dramatic reduction over the past 20 years is what Keelty has described as “the most telling finding”.




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He also investigated the reserve policies under which the three states choose – or don’t choose – to hold back water in Hume and Dartmouth Dams to manage future droughts.

Keelty says there’s little transparency or clarity about how much water states are allocated under the Murray Darling Basin Agreement (the arrangement for sharing water between the states which underpins the Basin Plan). This failure in communication and leadership across such a vital system must change.

Sharing water across three states

One major finding of Keelty’s inquiry is that the federal government has little power to change the MDB Agreement between the three states, which was first approved in 1914-15. Any amendment requires the approval of all three governments.

To increase the volume of water provided to NSW irrigators, South Australia and Victoria would need to agree to reduce the volumes supplied to their own entitlement holders. That will not happen.

Why has the agreement lasted so long?

Over the past century it has proved robust under a wide range of conditions. Its central principle is to share water with a proportion-of-available-flow formula, giving each state a percentage of whatever is available, no matter whether it’s a lot, or not much.

After receiving its share of the River Murray flows, each state is then free to manage its allocation as it wishes.




Read more:
Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


Historically, South Australia and Victoria have chosen to reserve or hold back a larger proportion of their shares each year in Hume and Dartmouth dams to use in future droughts, compared with New South Wales.

In part this difference derives from the long-term water needs of orchards and vines in South Australia and Victoria, in contrast to annual crops such as rice and cotton in New South Wales.

As a result, South Australia and Victoria have a higher proportion of high security entitlements. That means they receive 100% most years. Only in extreme drought years is their allocation reduced.

NSW, on the other hand, has a higher proportion of low security general entitlements. In dry and normal years they receive a proportion of their entitlements. Only in wet years do they get the full 100%. (These differences in reliability are reflected in the cost of entitlements on the water market.)

Reliability of water supply

What’s more, each state makes its own decision about how its state allocation is shared between its entitlement holders (95% of water goes to irrigators the rest supplies towns and industry).

South Australia chooses to distribute a much smaller proportion to its entitlement holders than New South Wales. It also restricted the number of licences in the 1970s. That combination ensures a very high level of reliability in supply. Victoria took a similar approach.




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5 ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan


But New South Wales did not restrict licences until the 1990s. It also recognised unused entitlements, so further reducing the frequency of years in which any individual would receive their full allocation of water.

When climate change is taken into account these differences between the three states result in their irrigators having significantly different risk profiles.

The climate change threat to the basin is very real

Despite climate denial in the National Party, the threat is very real in the MDB. The report describes a massive reduction in inflows over the past 20 years, approximately half compared with the previous century. One drought could be an aberration, but two begins to look like a pattern.

The report also suggests that in many cases irrigator expectations of what should be normal were formed during the wet period Australia experienced between the second world war and the 1990s.

Added to this have been business decisions by many irrigators to sell their entitlements and rely on the water market, a business model based on what now seems like unrealistic inflow expectations.




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Don’t blame the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It’s climate and economic change driving farmers out


In effect, successive New South Wales governments – a significant part of the state’s irrigation sector in the southern part of the state and the National Party – gambled against the climate and are now paying a high price.

In desperation, they’re focusing on alternative sources. This includes the water in Hume and Dartmouth held under the reserves policy of the two other states; environmental entitlements managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder; the very large volume of water lost to evaporation in the lower lakes in South Australia; and the possibility of savings resulting from changes to management of the system by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Failure in leadership and communication

For reasons already outlined, the state reserves policy is not likely to change and use of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder environmental water entitlements would not be permitted under current legislation.

Management of the lower lakes is being reviewed through another investigation so is not discussed in the report. The report also states that management of the MDB Authority is subject to regular detailed assessment by state governments, and they have assessed its performance as satisfactory.




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A referendum won’t save the Murray-Darling Basin


However the report was critical of the performance of all MDB governments with regard to leadership and communications suggesting that failures in those areas were largely responsible for the public concern which triggered its investigation.The Conversation

Daniel Connell, Research Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Attention United Nations: don’t be fooled by Australia’s latest report on the Great Barrier Reef


Jon C. Day, James Cook University

For some years, Australia has been on notice: the world is watching how we care for the Great Barrier Reef. The iconic natural wonder is the largest living organism on the planet. But its health is deteriorating.

In 2017 UNESCO, the United Nations body that granted the reef world heritage status, asked Australia to report back on how the reef was faring.

Australia this month submitted its latest report. It provides a wealth of information on many threats to the reef, such as water quality and crown-of-thorns starfish.

But the report’s overall message is that the reef’s world heritage values are fine and the threats are in hand, when the reality is far different.

Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef.
OVE HOEGH GULDBERG

A global jewel

The Great Barrier Reef was listed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. It was recognised as globally significant or, in the parlance of the world heritage committee, having “outstanding universal value”.

In ensuing years, a myriad of impacts have devastated the reef’s health. They include coral bleaching exacerbated by climate change, poor water quality from land-based runoff, and unsustainable fishing and coastal development.




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UNESCO considered listing the reef as “in danger” but in 2017 decided against it. Australia was asked to report back to show it was protecting the reef’s outstanding universal value.

But Australia’s report is deficient. It claims the reef “maintains many of the elements” that make up its outstanding universal value – yet its methodology fails to properly assess this.

Why the report is deficient

The report relies on assessments made by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in its five-yearly outlook report released in August. Our analysis shows four flaws in that otherwise commendable report have carried over to the report to UNESCO.

First, instead of assessing the world heritage values themselves, the report assessed the four natural criteria for which the reef was granted world heritage status.

These four broad criteria cover the reef’s exceptional natural beauty; its evolution over millennia; its outstanding demonstration of significant ecological and biological processes; and its enormous biodiversity of habitats and species.

Each of these criteria comprise many “values”, or features. The outlook report assesses the status and trends of these values but fails to identify which are specifically world heritage values – which is what UNESCO really needs to know.

A photo depicting two threats to the Great Barrier Reef: coal ships anchored near Abbot Point and a flood plume.
Matt Curnock

Here’s an example. The biodiversity criterion encompasses coral reefs, sandy and muddy habitats, mangroves and seagrass, dugongs, whales, dolphins, turtles and birds.

For biodiversity, the report gives an overall grade of “poor”. But this obscures the fact large areas of coral – a key world heritage value – are in very poor health.

This method is used despite the federal government’s own legislation specifically requiring the reef’s world heritage values, not the criteria, be assessed.

Second, the latest assessment is measured against results in 2014. So it does not show the degradation since the reef was listed 38 years ago.




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Third, the report wrongly assesses the reef’s “integrity”, an important part of its outstanding universal value. Integrity refers to the “wholeness and intactness” of the area and its threats, and requires separate investigation. Instead, the report assumes the assessments of the criteria answer the integrity question.

Fourth, both reports fail to acknowledge Indigenous people’s links to the reef are clearly part of its outstanding universal value.

In essence, the report to UNESCO sends the message Australia is well in control of the threats to the reef. This is misleading, and does not accord with the 2019 outlook report which downgraded the reef’s prospects from “poor” to “very poor”.

These criticisms may seem semantic. But the report will be critical when the world heritage committee meets next year in China to assess how the reef is faring.

What the report should have said

The table below demonstrates a more logical and relevant way of reporting back to UNESCO. Information in the outlook report is rearranged in this example against one of four world heritage criteria.



CC BY-ND

If a summary against all four criteria, plus integrity, is necessary, it would be better presented as per the table below showing the grades and trends of all relevant values.



CC BY-ND



Read more:
The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain


Looking ahead

Problems with the government’s report to UNESCO extend beyond the issues outlined above. The government acknowledges climate change is the biggest threat to the reef, and limiting temperature rise to 1.5℃ this century is widely accepted as the critical threshold for reef survival.




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‘Sadness, disgust, anger’: fear for the Great Barrier Reef made climate change feel urgent


But the government’s report fails to explain how Australia is reducing emissions in line with this goal. A recent analysis suggests if Australia’s efforts were matched globally, warming would not be kept within 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.

Without clear and unambiguous information, the world heritage committee cannot draw an informed conclusion about whether the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger”. The listing would not fix the problems – but it might force Australia to act.


Correction: a previous version of Table 2 in this report contained outdated figures for the category “Habitats for conserving biodiversity”. The figures have been corrected.The Conversation

Jon C. Day, PSM, Post-career PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

A landmark report confirms Australia is girt by hotter, higher seas. But there’s still time to act



Aerial imagery revealing the extent of storm damage in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2016 following wild weather.
NEARMAP/AAP

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

A landmark scientific report has confirmed that climate change is altering the world’s seas and ice at an unprecedented rate. Australia depends on the ocean that surrounds us for our health and prosperity. So what does this mean for us, and life on Earth?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings were launched in Monaco on Wednesday night. They provide the most definitive scientific evidence yet of warmer, more acidic and less productive seas. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting, causing sea level to rise at an accelerating rate.

The implications for Australia are serious. Extreme sea level events that used to hit once a century will occur once a year in many of the world’s coastal places by 2050. This situation is inevitable, even if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically curbed.

The findings, titled the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, strengthen the already compelling case for countries to meet their emission reduction goals under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Beachgoers cool off in the water at Bondi Beach in Sydney, February 2019. Australia’s coast dwellers must adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.
Joel Carrett/AAP



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A rapid and dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions would prevent the most catastrophic damage to the ocean and cryosphere (frozen polar and mountain regions). This would help protect the ecosystems and people that rely on them.

The report entailed two years of work by 104 authors and review editors from 36 countries, who assessed nearly 7,000 scientific papers and responded to more than 30,000 review comments.

The picture is worse than we thought

Mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are shrinking and, together with expansion of the warming ocean, are contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise.

During the last century, global sea levels rose about 15cm. Seas are now rising more than twice as fast – 3.6mm per year – and accelerating, the report shows.

The IPCC’s projections are more dire than in its 2014 oceans report. It has revised upwards by 10% the effect of the melting Antarctic ice sheet on sea level rise by 2100. Antarctica appears to be changing more rapidly than was thought possible even five years ago, and further work is needed to understand just how quickly ice will be lost from Antarctica in future.

Key components and changes of the ocean and cryosphere, and their linkages in the Earth system.
IPCC, 2019

If you live near the Australian coast, change is coming

By 2050, more than one billion of the world’s people will live on coastal land less than 10 metres above sea level. They will be exposed to combinations of sea level rise, extreme winds, waves, storm surges and flooding from intensified storms and tropical cyclones.

Many of Australia’s coastal cities and communities can expect to experience what was previously a once-in-a-century extreme coastal flooding event at least once every year by the middle of this century.

Our island neighbours in Indonesia and the Pacific will also be hit hard. The report warns that some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable – although the extent of this is hard to assess accurately.

Some change is inevitable and we will have to adapt. But the report also delivered a strong message about the choices that still remain. In the case of extreme sea level events around Australia, we believe a marked global reduction in greenhouse as emissions would buy us more than 10 years of extra time, in some places, to protect our coastal communities and infrastructure from the rising ocean.

Indonesian residents wade through flood water in Jakarta. The northwestern part of Jakarta is rapidly sinking.
MAST IRHAM/EPA

More frequent extreme events are often occurring at the same time or in quick succession. Tasmania’s summer of 2015-16 is a good example. The state experienced record-breaking drought which worsened the fire threat in the highlands. An unprecedented marine heatwave along the east coast damaged kelp forests and caused disease and death of shellfish, and the state’s northeast suffered severe flooding.

This string of events stretched emergency services, energy supplies and the aquaculture and manufacturing industries. The total economic cost to the state government was an estimated A$445 million. The impacts on the food, energy and manufacturing sectors cut Tasmania’s anticipated economic growth by about half.

Reefs and fish stocks are suffering

The ocean has taken a huge hit from climate change – taking up heat, absorbing carbon dioxide that makes the water more acidic, and losing oxygen. It will bring ocean conditions unlike anything we have seen before.

Marine ecosystems and fisheries around the world are under pressure from this barrage of stressors. Overall, the fisheries potential around Australia’s coasts is expected to decline during this century.

Heat build-up in the surface ocean has already triggered a marked rise in the intensity, frequency and duration of marine heatwaves. Ocean heatwaves are expected to become between four and ten times more common this century, depending on how rapidly global warming continues.

The report said coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, are already at very high risk from climate change and are expected to suffer significant losses and local extinctions. This would occur even if global warming is limited to 1.5℃ – a threshold the world is set to overshoot by a wide margin.




Read more:
Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat


Our choices now are critical for the future

This report reinforces the findings of earlier reports on the importance of limiting global warming warming to 1.5℃ if we are to avoid major impacts on the land, the ocean and frozen areas.

Even if we act now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some damage is already locked in and our ocean and frozen regions will continue to change for decades to centuries to come.

Mertz Glacier in east Antarctica. IPCC scientists say the expected effect of melting Antarctic ice on sea level rise is worse than projected five years ago.
Australian Antarctic Division

In Australia, we will need to adapt our coastal cities and communities to unavoidable sea level rise. There are a range of possible options, from building barriers to planned relocation, to protecting the coral reefs and mangroves that provide natural coastal defences.

But if we want to give adaptation the best chance of working, the clear message of this new report is that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.The Conversation

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, Transdisciplinary Researcher & Knowledge Broker, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, Senior research scientist, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, Professor of Physical Oceanography, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

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

UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases



Farming emits greenhouse gases, but the land can also store them.
Johny Goerend/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Mark Howden, Australian National University

We can’t achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement without managing emissions from land use, according to a special report released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.




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The report, which synthesises information from some 7,000 scientific papers, found there is no way to keep global warming under 2℃ without significant reductions in land sector emissions.

Land puts out emissions – and absorbs them

The land plays a vital role in the carbon cycle, both by absorbing greenhouse gases and by releasing them into the atmosphere. This means our land resources are both part of the climate change problem and potentially part of the solution.

Improving how we manage the land could reduce climate change at the same time as it improves agricultural sustainability, supports biodiversity, and increases food security.

While the food system emits nearly a third of the world’s greenhouse gases – a situation also reflected in Australia – land-based ecosystems absorb the equivalent of about 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This happens through natural processes that store carbon in soil and plants, in both farmed lands and managed forests as well as in natural “carbon sinks” such as forests, seagrass and wetlands.




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Australia is a global top-ten deforester – and Queensland is leading the way


There are opportunities to reduce the emissions related to land use, especially food production, while at the same time protecting and expanding these greenhouse gas sinks.

But it is also immediately obvious that the land sector cannot achieve these goals by itself. It will require substantial reductions in fossil fuel emissions from our energy, transport, industrial, and infrastructure sectors.

Overburdened land

So, what is the current state of our land resources? Not that great.

The report shows there are unprecedented rates of global land and freshwater used to provide food and other products for the record global population levels and consumption rates.

For example, consumption of food calories per person worldwide has increased by about one-third since 1961, and the average person’s consumption of meat and vegetable oils has more than doubled.

The pressure to increase agricultural production has helped push about a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area into various states of degradation via loss of soil, nutrients and vegetation.

Simultaneously, biodiversity has declined globally, largely because of deforestation, cropland expansion and unsustainable land-use intensification. Australia has experienced much the same trends.




Read more:
To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws


Climate change exacerbates land degradation

Climate change is already having a major impact on the land. Temperatures over land are rising at almost twice the rate of global average temperatures.

Linked to this, the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heatwaves and flooding rainfall has increased. The global area of drylands in drought has increased by over 40% since 1961.

These and other changes have reduced agricultural productivity in many regions – including Australia. Further climate changes will likely spur soil degradation, loss of vegetation, biodiversity and permafrost, and increases in fire damage and coastal degradation.




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We desperately need to store more carbon – seagrass could be the answer


Water will become more scarce, and our food supply will become less stable. Exactly how these risks will evolve will depend on population growth, consumption patterns and also how the global community responds.

Overall, proactive and informed management of our land (for food, water and biodiversity) will become increasingly important.

Stopping land degradation helps everyone

Tackling the interlinked problems of land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and food security can deliver win-wins for farmers, communities, governments, and ecosystems.

The report provides many examples of on-ground and policy options that could improve the management of agriculture and forests, to enhance production, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make these areas more robust to climate change. Leading Australian farmers are already heading down these paths, and we have a lot to teach the world about how to do this.

We may also need to reassess what we demand from the land. Farmed animals are a major contributor to these emissions, so plant-based diets are increasingly being adopted.

Similarly, the report found about 25-30% of food globally is lost or wasted. Reducing this can significantly lower emissions, and ease pressure on agricultural systems.

How do we make this happen?

Many people around the world are doing impressive work in addressing some of these problems. But the solutions they generate are not necessarily widely used or applied comprehensively.

To be successful, coordinated policy packages and land management approaches are pivotal. Inevitably, all solutions are highly location-specific and contextual, and it is vital to bring together local communities and industry, as well as governments at all levels.




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Climate Q&A: will we be less healthy because of climate change?


Given the mounting impacts of climate change on food security and land condition, there is no time to lose.


The author acknowledges the contributions to authorship of this article by Clare de Castella, Communications Manager, ANU Climate Change Institute.The Conversation

Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

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

A report claims koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – but what does that mean?



Koalas are facing serious threats in the wild.
Mathias Appel/Flickr

Christine Adams-Hosking, The University of Queensland

Today the Australian Koala Foundation announced they believe “there are no more than 80,000 koalas in Australia”, making the species “functionally extinct”.

While this number is dramatically lower than the most recent academic estimates, there’s no doubt koala numbers in many places are in steep decline.

It’s hard to say exactly how many koalas are still remaining in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, but they are highly vulnerable to threats including deforestation, disease and the effects of climate change.

Once a koala population falls below a critical point it can no longer produce the next generation, leading to extinction.




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What does ‘functionally extinct’ mean?

The term “functionally extinct” can describe a few perilous situations. In one case, it can refer to a species whose population has declined to the point where it can no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. For example, it has been used to describe dingoes in places where they have become so reduced they have a negligible influence on the species they prey on.

Dingoes are top predators, and therefore can play a significant role in some ecosystems. Our innocuous, leaf-eating koala cannot be considered a top predator.

For millions of years koalas have been a key part of the health of our eucalyptus forests by eating upper leaves, and on the forest floor, their droppings contribute to important nutrient recycling. Their known fossil records date back approximately 30 million years so they may have once been a food source for megafauna carnivores.

Functionally extinct can also describe a population that is no longer viable. For example in Southport, Queensland, native oyster reef beds are functionally extinct because more than 99% of the habitat has been lost and there are no individuals left to reproduce.

Finally, functionally extinct can refer to a small population that, although still breeding, is suffering from inbreeding that can threaten its future viability. We know that at least some koala populations in urban areas are suffering in this way, and genetic studies on the Koala Coast, located 20kms south-east of Brisbane, show that the population is suffering from reduced genetic variation. In South East Queensland, koalas in some areas have experienced catastrophic declines




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We also know that koala populations in some inland regions of Queensland and New South Wales are affected by climate extremes such as severe droughts and heatwaves and have declined by as much as 80%.

Exhaustive multi-disciplinary koala research continues apace in an effort to find ways of protecting wild koala populations and ensuring that they remain viable now and into the future. Habitat loss, population dynamics, genetics, disease, diet and climate change are some key areas being studied.

How many koalas are there?

Koala researchers are often asked “how many koalas are in the wild?” It’s a hard question to answer. Koalas are not stationary, are patchily distributed throughout an extremely wide range encompassing urban and rural areas in four states and one territory, and are usually difficult to see.

To determine whether each population of koalas scattered across eastern Australia is functionally extinct would require a gargantuan effort.

Koalas are a key part of eucalyptus forests’ health.
Dave Hunt/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2016, in an attempt to determine population trends for the koala within the four states, a panel of 15 koala experts used a structured, four-step question format to estimate bioregional population sizes of koalas, and changes in those sizes.

The estimated percentage of koala population loss in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia was 53%, 26%, 14% and 3%, respectively. The estimated total number of koalas for Australia was 329,000 (within a range of 144,000–605,000), with an estimated average decline of 24% over the past three generations and the next three generations.

Since May 2012, koalas have been listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory because populations in these regions have declined significantly or are at risk of doing so.

In the southern states of Victoria and South Australia, koala populations vary widely from abundant to low or locally extinct. Although not currently listed as vulnerable, these koalas are also experiencing a range of serious threats, including low genetic diversity.

To date, the present “vulnerable” listing has not achieved any known positive results for koala populations in Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, recent research invariably shows the opposite.




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This is because the key threats to koalas remain, and are mostly increasing. The primary threat is habitat loss. Koala habitat (primarily eucalyptus woodlands and forests) continues to rapidly diminish, and unless it is protected, restored, and expanded, we will indeed see wild koala populations become “functionally extinct”. We know what comes after that.The Conversation

Christine Adams-Hosking, Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

There’s a lot of bad news in the UN Global Environment Outlook, but a sustainable future is still possible



File 20190410 2909 1ru6uth.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
It’s not all doom and gloom – pathways to restore the health of our planet do exist.
wonderisland/Shutterstock

Pedro Fidelman, The University of Queensland

The Sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6), the most comprehensive environmental assessment produced by the UN in five years, brought us both good and bad news.

The environment has continued to deteriorate since the first GEO-6 report in 1997, with potentially irreversible impacts if not effectively addressed. But pathways to significant change do exist, and a sustainable future is still possible.

Launched in March at the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, the 700-page report involved nearly 200 global experts who collaborated over 18 months.




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It covers, in detail, a range of topics, including air, biodiversity, oceans and coasts, land and freshwater, climate change, human health and energy.

And it assessed the state of the global environment, the effectiveness of policy responses, and possible pathways to achieve the environmental goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The good news

There is a fair bit of negative information in the GEO-6, which unfortunately reflects the overall state of environmental affairs globally. But it is not all doom and gloom, the GEO-6 has many positive, solution-oriented messages too.

The GEO-6 advises that pathways and approaches to systemic change exist, which must be scaled up quickly to steer the planet towards more sustainable futures.




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The considerable connections between environmental, social and economic policies can inform multiple goals. So policies addressing entire systems – such as food, energy and waste – are more likely to have beneficial impact.

For instance, reducing our use of fossil fuels leads to health benefits by decreasing outdoor air pollution responsible for premature deaths. And efforts to eliminate hunger (such as changes in agriculture production) can help address climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and chemical pollution.

With the window for action closing quickly, given the unprecedented rate of global environmental change, the GEO-6 is calling for more ambitious and innovative policy.

We need significant change leading us to decarbonisation, a circular economy, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and better adapting socio-economic systems to climate change.

The bad news

The GEO-6 warns the overall condition of the global environment continues to deteriorate, driven mainly by population growth, urbanisation, economic development, technological change and climate change.

Here’s what we’re dealing with:

  • air pollution currently causes an estimated 6 to 7 million premature deaths annually
  • we might be witnessing the sixth mass species extinction in the planet’s history
  • 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year as a result of mismanagement of domestic waste in coastal areas
  • warming ocean waters are leading to mass mortality of coral reefs across the world’s tropics
  • 29% of all lands are degradation hotspots
  • pathogen-polluted drinking water and inadequate sanitation cause approximately 1.4 million human deaths annually, with many millions more becoming ill.

These and other issues reported in the GEO-6 will lead to ongoing and potentially irreversible impacts if they are not addressed effectively, and immediately.

Typically, environmental policy efforts are based on individual issues, like air pollution, or industry sectors. But this approach doesn’t address the complexity of contemporary environmental problems that require system-oriented efforts at large scales.

Under current policy scenarios, the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as other goals like the Paris Agreement, are unlikely to be achieved.

The GEO-6 calls for urgent, inclusive and sustained action by governments, business and society proportionate to the scale and pace of global environmental change.

What it means for Australia

In Australia, positive action is taking place at state and local levels of government, where support for more ambitious emissions targets is generally stronger than at the Australian government level.

And many sectors of society and business are shifting towards more sustainable practices. The booming uptake of rooftop solar and the development of large-scale renewable projects illustrates such a shift.

But when it comes to sustainable development policies at the national level, Australia lags behind most of the developed world, particularly in relation to energy and climate change policy.




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We don’t yet have long-term certainty for support of the uptake of electric cars, the transition to renewables, the adoption of fuel efficiency standards, and limiting emissions from the manufacturing and resources industry.

Effective strategies to curb land clearing remains to be seen, and only recently Australia has incorporated principles of circular economy into the National Waste Policy.

These do not help Australia meet its agreed commitments under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and associated Sustainable Development Goals.

With long-term environmental, socio-economic and political stability at stake, it is time for commitment, leadership and robust policies that can last beyond the three-year electoral cycle.The Conversation

Pedro Fidelman, Senior research fellow, The University of Queensland

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