Could ‘nitrogen trading’ help the Great Barrier Reef?


Jim Smart, Griffith University; Adrian Volders, Griffith University; Chris Fleming, Griffith University, and Syezlin Hasan, Griffith University

Among the increasing sums of money being pledged to help save the Great Barrier Reef is a federal government pledge to spend A$40 million on improving water quality. The Queensland government has promised another A$33.5 million for the same purpose.

One of the biggest water-quality concerns is nitrogen runoff from fertiliser use. It is a concern all along the reef coast, and particularly in the sugar-cane regions of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin. The government’s Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan calls for an 80% reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing out onto the reef by 2025.

Our recent research suggests that “nitrogen trading” might be worth considering as a flexible economic mechanism to help farmers deliver these much-needed reductions in fertiliser use.

What is nitrogen trading?

You probably already know about carbon trading, which allows polluters to buy the right to emit greenhouse gases from those with spare carbon credits. Nitrogen trading would work in a similar way, but for fertiliser use.

A nitrogen market could offer a flexible way of encouraging farmers to use fertiliser more efficiently, as well as rewarding innovations in farming practice. It could be a useful addition to existing fertiliser-reduction schemes such as the industry-led Smart Cane Best Management Practice. These are making headway but evidently not enough.

A nitrogen market isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but it could be part of a future in which an annual limit (called a cap) is set on the total amount of nitrogen flowing out from river catchments to the reef.

One way to enforce this cap would be to set a limit on fertiliser applications per hectare. Cane farmers would have to manage the best they could with that fixed amount of nitrogen.

But nitrogen trading would offer more flexibility, while still staying under the same total nitrogen cap. Instead of a fixed limit, farmers would receive a certain number of “nitrogen permits” per hectare of cane. Then, if they wanted or needed to, they could buy or sell these permits through a centralised online “smart market”.

How would it work?

Imagine you’re a farmer with a property that sits on good soil. The amount of fertiliser you can apply to your crop must match the number of nitrogen permits you hold. But you know that, on your good land, you would get more profits if you could apply more fertiliser.

To do this you would have to buy extra permits through the nitrogen market. These extra permits would be worth buying as long as they deliver more than enough extra profit to cover the cost.

The total number of permits is limited by the cap – so buyers can only buy extra permits if other farmers are selling them. So who’s selling?

Putting fertiliser onto a field with poor soil won’t increase your profits as much, because a lot of that fertiliser will just run off before the crop can use it. On a bad paddock, nitrogen permits aren’t worth much in terms of extra crop yield, so you might make more money by just selling them to other farmers with good paddocks. That is why trading happens.

The overall effect of this trading would be to switch a significant amount of nitrogen fertiliser away from less profitable, leaky soils, and onto more profitable, less leaky land. As a result, the total nitrogen cap would be distributed more efficiently across the farming landscape.

For individual farmers, the reward for low-nitrogen farming practice is the opportunity to sell unused permits at a profit. This incentive will help to drive ongoing improvement and innovation.

Our simulations suggest that overall sugar cane profits and production would be higher with trading than they would under a fixed per-hectare nitrogen limit – with the same overall cap on the amount of nitrogen hitting the Great Barrier Reef.

Opportunity for the future?

Will it just mean more expensive regulation, green tape and hassle for farmers? Farmers are already signing up to calculate and record actual fertiliser applications paddock by paddock under the Six Easy Steps nutrient management program.

If we’re in a future where the government is monitoring and managing a fixed nitrogen cap anyway, then not much extra work is needed to set up an online trading market.

So could nitrogen trading help the Great Barrier Reef? Maybe. There’s more thinking still to be done, but nitrogen trading schemes are already operating in New Zealand and the United States.

A firm overall limit on fertiliser use seems to be essential for the reef’s survival. The incentives provided by a nitrogen market could give Queensland’s farmers the flexibility they need to thrive in this nitrogen-constrained future.

Graeme Curwen and
Michele Burford of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University contributed to the research on which this article is based.

The Conversation

Jim Smart, Senior Lecturer, Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University; Adrian Volders, Adjunct Professor, Griffith University; Chris Fleming, Associate Professor, Griffith University, and Syezlin Hasan, Research Assistant, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This election is our last chance to save the Great Barrier Reef


Jon Brodie, James Cook University and Richard Pearson, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef has been in the spotlight thanks to severe coral bleaching since March, leaving only 7% of the reef untouched. The bleaching, driven by record-breaking sea temperatures, has been linked to human-caused climate change.

Apart from bleaching, the reef is in serious trouble thanks to a variety of threats. Many species and ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef are in serious decline.

It is now overwhelmingly clear that we need to fix these problems to give the reef the best chance in a warming world. In fact, the upcoming election is arguably our last chance to put in place a plan that will save the reef.

In a recent paper, we estimate that we need to spend A$10 billion over the next ten years – about five times as much as current state and federal governments are spending – to fix up reef water quality before climate change impacts overwhelm it.

Stop water pollution

Poor water quality is one of the major threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment and nutrients (such as nitrogen) washed by rivers onto the reef cause waters to become turbid, shutting out light for corals and seagrass. It can also encourage algal growth and outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish.

The Queensland and Australian governments have made plans with targets to improve water quality, but the main plan – the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan – is completely inadequate according to the Australian Academy of Science. Its targets are unlikely to be met. And others have suggested ways to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

To provide resilience for the Great Barrier Reef against the current and rapidly increasing climate impacts, water quality management needs to be greatly improved by 2025 to meet the targets and guidelines. 2025 is important as it’s likely that climate change effects will be overwhelming after that date. It is also the target date for the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan.

What needs to be done

Proposed boundaries of the Greater GBR. The area inside the red line is the GBR World Heritage Area and the shaded area is the proposed Greater GBR management area, including the GBR catchment, the GBRWHA, Torres Strait and Hervey Bay
J Waterhouse, TropWATER. Data for the GBR provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Author provided

In our recent article, we analysed what we need to do to respond to the current crisis, especially for water quality.

  1. Refocus management to the “Greater Great Barrier Reef (GBR)” – that is, include management of Torres Strait, Hervey Bay and river catchments that run into the reef as priorities along with the world heritage area. This area is shown in figure above.

  2. Prioritise management for ecosystems in relatively good condition, such Torres Strait, northern Cape York and Hervey Bay which have the highest current integrity. These areas should still be prioritised despite the recent severe bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef.

  3. Investigate methods of cross-boundary management to achieve simultaneous cost-effective terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystem protection in the Greater GBR.

  4. Develop a detailed, comprehensive, costed water quality management plan for the Greater GBR. In the period 2009-16, more than A$500 million was spent on water quality management (with some success) without a robust comprehensive plan to ensure the most effective use of the funding.

  5. Use existing federal legislation (the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) to regulate catchment activities that lead to damage to the Greater GBR, together with the relevant Queensland legislation. These rules were established long ago and are immediately available to tackle terrestrial pollutant discharge.

  6. Fund catchment and coastal management to the required level to largely solve the pollution issues for the Greater GBR by 2025, to provide resilience for the system in the face of accelerating climate change impacts. The funding required is large – of the order of A$1 billion per year over the next ten years but small by comparison to the worth of the Great Barrier Reef – estimated to be of the order of A$20 billion per year.

  7. Continue enforcement of the zoning plan.

  8. Show commitment to protecting the Greater GBR through greenhouse gas emissions control, of a scale to be relevant to protecting the reef (for example those proposed by the Climate Change Authority), by 2025.

Unless immediate action is taken to improve water quality, the onset of accelerating climate change impacts mean there is little chance the current decline in reef health can be prevented.

The Conversation

Jon Brodie, Chief Research Scientist, Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER), James Cook University and Richard Pearson, Emeritus Professor, College of Marine & Environmental Sciences, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The best way to protect us from climate change? Save our ecosystems


Tara Martin, CSIRO and James Watson, The University of Queensland

When we think about adapting humanity to the challenges of climate change, it’s tempting to reach for technological solutions. We talk about seeding our oceans and clouds with compounds designed to trigger rain or increasing carbon uptake. We talk about building grand structures to protect our coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges.

However, as we discuss in Nature Climate Change, our focus on these high-tech, heavily engineered solutions is blinding us to a much easier, cheaper, simpler and better solution to adaptation: look after our planet’s ecosystems, and they will look after us.

Biting the hand that feeds us

People are currently engaged in wholesale destruction of the systems that shelter us, clean our water, clean our air, feed us and protect us from extreme weather. Sometimes this destruction is carried out for the purpose of protecting us from the threats posed by climate change.

For example, in Melanesia’s low-lying islands, coral reefs are dynamited to provide the raw building materials for seawalls in an attempt to slow the impact of sea-level rise.

A seawall built using coral in Papua New Guinea
J.E.M Watson

In many parts of the world, including Africa, Canada and Australia, drought has led to the opening up of intact forest systems, protected grasslands and prairies for grazing and agriculture.

Similarly, the threat of climate change has driven the development of more drought-tolerant crops that can survive climate variability, but these survival abilities also make those plant species more likely to become invasive.

On the surface, these might seem like sensible ways to reduce the impacts of climate change. But they are actually likely to contribute to climate change and increase its impact on people.

Sea walls and drought-tolerant crops do have a place in adapting to climate change: if they’re sensitive to ecosystems. For example, if storm protection is required on low-lying islands, don’t build a seawall from the coral reef that offers the island its only current protection. Bring in the concrete and steel needed to build it.

How ecosystems protect us

Intact coral reefs act as barriers against storm surges, reducing wave energy by an average of 97%. They are also a valuable source of protein that support local livelihoods.

Similarly, mangroves and seagrass beds provide a buffer zone against storms and reduce wave energy, as well as being a nursery for many of the fish and other marine creatures that our fishing industries are built on.

Intact forests supply a host of valuable ecosystem services that are not only taken for granted, but actively squandered when those forests are decimated by land clearing.

There is now clear evidence that intact forests have a positive influence on both planetary climate and local weather regimes. Forests also provide shelter from extreme weather events, and are home to a host of other valuable ecosystems that are important to human populations as sources of food, medicine and timber.

Forests play a key role in capturing, storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, a role that will likely become increasingly important in avoiding the worst of climate change. Yet we continue to decimate forests, woodlands and grasslands.

Northern Australia is home to the largest savannah on earth, containing enormous carbon stores and influencing both local and global climate. Despite its inherent value as a carbon store, there has been discussion around whether these northern regions might be opened up to become Australia’s new food bowl, putting those extensive carbon stories in jeopardy.

Cheaper than techno-solutions

In Vietnam, 12,000 hectares of mangroves have been planted at a cost of US$1.1 million, but saving the US$7.3 million per year that would have been spent on maintaining dykes.

Planting mangroves in the Philippines to restore forests.
Trees ForTheFuture/Flickr, CC BY

In Louisiana, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to an examination of how coastal salt marshes might have reduced some of the wave energy in the hurricane-associated storm surges.

Data have now confirmed that salt marshes would have significantly reduced the impact of those surges, and stabilised the shoreline against further insult, at far less cost than engineered coastal defences. With this data in hand, discussions are now beginning around how to restore the Louisiana salt marshes to insulate against future extreme weather events.

US foreign aid in Papua New Guinea has also encouraged the restoration and protection of mangroves for the same reason.

Instead of turning cattle to graze on native grasslands and savannah during times of drought, farmers struggling to sustain livestock in marginal areas could instead be funded to farm carbon and biodiversity by restoring or preserving these ecosystems. This might involve reducing the number of cattle, or in some cases even removing cattle entirely. Australia is very well-informed about the carbon value of its many and varied ecosystems, but is yet to fully put that knowledge into practice.

The cost of adapting to climate change using largely technological solutions has been put at a staggering US$70-100 billion per year. This is small change compared to current global energy subsidies estimated by the International Monetary Fund for 2015 at US$5.3 trillion per year.

Protecting ecosystems reduces the risk to people and infrastructure, as well as the degree of climate change: a win-win.

There is no doubt that technological solutions have a role to play in climate adaptation but not at the expense of intact functioning ecosystems. It is time to set a policy agenda that actively rewards those countries, industries and entrepreneurs who develop ecosystem-sensitive adaptation strategies.

The Conversation

Tara Martin, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO and James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How curiosity can save species from extinction


Merlin Crossley, UNSW Australia

If I had been given one wish as a child I, it would have been that the Tasmanian tiger wasn’t extinct. To me extinction was a tragedy. I expect that many people feel the same way.

But it is not easy to save dwindling populations and prevent extinctions. Sure it takes money, but it also takes knowledge. One simple story about butterflies illustrates the complexity of ecosystems and shows how important research and understanding are to preserving biodiversity.

It is the story of the European butterfly, the large blue or Phengaris arion (Maculinea arion in older literature).

In Australia we have lots of butterflies and literally countless moths; the total number is not known. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, virtually all species have been described.

I visited England several times as a child, and at one stage I sought to see as many of the 60 different species of butterfly as possible. But I was particularly keen to see the large blue because it was rare. It was the first butterfly recorded in the British Isles in 1795 and was much prized by collectors for the very simple reason that it was so scarce.

But over the years the known populations gradually died out and it was given protected status. Britons made efforts to fence off reserves where it remained but, oddly, its numbers continued to decline. By 1979 it was declared extinct in Britain.

But why had all the steps to save this iconic species failed?

One researcher from Oxford University, Jeremy Thomas, led a team of large blue experts to investigate the ecosystem in which it existed. The first step was to try to understand the butterfly. And there was a lot to understand.

A pretty butterfly that hides a remarkable life cycle.
PJC&Co, CC BY-SA

Interdependence

It is a remarkable species. The female lays eggs on wild thyme flower buds. Each caterpillar bores into the bud and eats the growing seeds. It needs all the energy in the seeds to survive, and if more than one caterpillar is sharing the bud they will fight things out in a cannibalistic bout until only one remains. This is a taste of things to come.

After about a week eating the seeds and flower it drops to the ground and waits until it is found by a special species of ant. It excretes a substance that feeds the ant, but also influences the ant’s behaviour. The ant goes and fetches fellow ants that carry the caterpillar down into the nest.

Once inside the nest the caterpillar does a remarkable thing: it feeds on ant larvae until it finally pupates. When it is ready to emerge as a vulnerable new butterfly it begins making sounds that appear to appease the ants. It then emerges, protected by a guard of ants, and climbs up out of the nest to stretch out its wings.

The critical point is that the large blue doesn’t just depend on any old species of ant, but on very particular species. It has evolved to exude chemicals that influence red ants of the species Myrmica sabuleti or M. scabrinodis.

These ants also have very specific requirements, this time in terms of temperature and moisture. If the ground is too hot or too cold they don’t thrive and other species take over.

Ground temperature and moisture depend on the height of the grass. The grass needs to be short, so grazing is important. It turns out that fencing off reserves actually interfered with the life cycle of the butterfly because the grass grew too long, and the ground wasn’t right for the ants.

Similarly, the spread of myxomatosis and reductions in the rabbit populations also meant the grass grew too tall, again altering ground temperature and helping drive the decline in large blue populations.

Due to the careful work by Jeremy Thomas and colleagues, all this is now known. Fortunately, unlike the Tasmanian tiger, the large blue was extinct only in the British Isles, and not in mainland Europe, thus it has been possible to re-introduce it into Britain.

It has also been possible to manage the habitat to allow grazing so that the ant colonies thrive and the butterfly also seems to be doing well.

Parts of the odd life cycle of this butterfly were known as far back as 1915, but there was no understanding of the connection to the ecosystem and landscape, so the vital step of controlling the grazing was not considered.

The large blue has been successfully returned to Collard Hill in the Polden Hills in Somerset.

Curiosity

The story shows how things can be complex and inter-connected, and that only by understanding all the facets can one intercede to put things right. It also illustrates how the careful application of science can make a difference.

One can never tell when and how, or even if, new knowledge will ever be useful. Scientists collect knowledge partly because they want to improve the world, but often just out of curiosity.

Sometimes curiosity driven research is criticised as self-indulgent, and unlikely to make a real difference to our circumstances. Sometimes it is said that researchers should just go straight for the biggest problems and tackle them straight on, or that research should be aimed purely at applications. This is increasingly heard these days given the new emphasis on innovation and the commercialisation of research.

But in reality we need science most when we have tried tackling the problem and got stuck. Everything people had tried to preserve the large blue had failed. Only knowledge provided a way forward.

Curiosity driven science often provides solutions when we are stuck and without it we will sometimes remain stuck forever. In the case of the Tasmanian tiger I believe we are stuck forever, but there are many other things to preserve and careful in depth science can make a difference.

The Conversation

Merlin Crossley, Dean of Science and Professor of Molecular Biology, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.