Australia’s 2018 environmental scorecard: a dreadful year that demands action


Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

Environmental news is rarely good. But even by those low standards, 2018 was especially bad. That is the main conclusion from Australia’s Environment in 2018, the latest in an annual series of environmental condition reports, released today.

Every year, we analyse vast amounts of measurements from satellites and on-ground stations using algorithms and prediction models on a supercomputer. These volumes of data are turned into regional summary accounts that can be explored on our Australian Environment Explorer website. We interpret these data, along with other information from national and international reports, to assess how our environment is tracking.

A bad year

Whereas 2017 was already quite bad, 2018 saw many indicators dip even further into the red.




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Australia’s 2017 environment scorecard: like a broken record, high temperatures further stress our ecosystems


Temperatures went up again, rainfall declined further, and the destruction of vegetation and ecosystems by drought, fire and land clearing continued. Soil moisture, rivers and wetlands all declined, and vegetation growth was poor.

In short, our environment took a beating in 2018, and that was even before the oppressive heatwaves, bushfires and Darling River fish kills of January 2019.

Indicators of Australia’s environment in 2018 compared with the previous year. Similar to national economic indicators, they provide a summary but also hide regional variations, complex interactions and long-term context.
source: http://www.ausenv.online/2018

The combined pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, and invasive pests and diseases are taking their toll on our unique plants and animals. Another 54 species were added to the official list of threatened species, which now stands at 1,775. That is 47% more than 18 years ago and puts Australia among the world’s worst performers in biodiversity protection. On the upside, the number of predator-proof islands or fenced-off reserves in Australia reached 188 in 2018, covering close to 2,500 square kilometres. They offer good prospects of saving at least 13 mammal species from extinction.

Globally, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated again after slowing down in 2017. Global air and ocean temperatures remained high, sea levels increased further, and even the ozone hole grew again, after shrinking during the previous two years.

Sea surface temperatures around Australia did not increase in 2018, but they nevertheless were well above long-term averages. Surveys of the Great Barrier Reef showed further declining health across the entire reef. An exceptional heatwave in late 2018 in Far North Queensland raised fears for yet another bout of coral bleaching, but this was averted when sudden massive downpours cooled surface waters.

The hot conditions did cause much damage to wildlife and vegetation, however, with spectacled flying foxes dropping dead from trees and fire ravaging what was once a tropical rainforest.

While previous environmental scorecards showed a mixed bag of regional impacts, 2018 was a poor year in all states and territories. Particularly badly hit was New South Wales, where after a second year of very poor rainfall, ecosystems and communities reached crisis point. Least affected was southern Western Australia, which enjoyed relatively cool and wet conditions.

Environmental Condition Score in 2018 by state and territory, based on a combination of seven indicators. The large number is the score for 2017, the smaller number the change from the previous year.
source: http://www.ausenv.online/2018

It was a poor year for nature and farmers alike, with growing conditions in grazing, irrigated agriculture and dryland cropping each declining by 17-20% at a national scale. The only upside was improved cropping conditions in WA, which mitigated the 34% decline elsewhere.

A bad start to 2019

Although it is too early for a full picture, the first months of 2019 continued as badly as 2018 ended. The 2018-19 summer broke heat records across the country by large margins, bushfires raged through Tasmania’s forests, and a sudden turn in the hot weather killed scores of fish in the Darling River. The monsoon in northern Australia did not come until late January, the latest in decades, but then dumped a huge amount of rain on northern Queensland, flooding vast swathes of land.




Read more:
The Darling River is simply not supposed to dry out, even in drought


It would be comforting to believe that our environment merely waxes and wanes with rainfall, and is resilient to yearly variations. To some extent, this is true. The current year may still turn wet and improve conditions, although a developing El Niño makes this less likely.

However, while we are good at acknowledging rapid changes, we are terrible at recognising slow, long-term ones. Underlying the yearly variations in weather is an unmistakable pattern of environmental decline that threatens our future.

What can we do about it?

Global warming is already with us, and strong action is required to avoid an even more dire future of rolling heatwaves and year-round bushfires. But while global climate change requires global action, there is a lot we can and have to do ourselves.




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Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


Australia is one of the world’s most wasteful societies, and there are many opportunities to clean up our act. Achieving progress is not hard, and despite shrill protests from vested interests and the ideologically blind, taking action will not take away our prosperity. Home solar systems and more efficient transport can in fact save money. Our country has huge opportunities for renewable energy, which can potentially create thousands of jobs. Together, we can indeed reduce emissions “in a canter” – all it takes is some clear national leadership.

The ongoing destruction of natural vegetation is as damaging as it is unnecessary, and stopping it will bring a raft of benefits. Our rivers and wetlands are more than just a source of cheap irrigation for big businesses. With more effort, we can save many species from extinction. Our farmers play a vital role in caring for our country, and we need to support them better in doing so.




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


Our environment is our life support. It provides us our place to live, our food, health, livelihoods, culture and identity. To protect it is to protect ourselves.


This article was coauthored by Shoshana Rapley, an ANU honours student and research assistant in the Fenner School of Environment and Society.The Conversation

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

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Global clean energy scorecard puts Australia 15th in the world


Alan Pears, RMIT University

Australia ranks equal 15th overall in a new World Bank scorecard on sustainable energy. We are tied with five other countries in the tail-end group of wealthy OECD countries – behind Canada and the United States and just one place ahead of China.

Called the Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE), the initiative provides benchmarks to evaluate clean energy progress, and insights and policy guidance for Australia and other countries.

RISE rates country performance in three areas – renewable energy, energy efficiency, and access to modern energy (excluding advanced countries), using 27 indicators and 80 sub-indicators. These include things like legal frameworks, building codes, and government incentives and policies. The results of the individual indicators are turned into an overall score.

The majority of wealthy countries score well in the scorecard. But when you drill down into the individual areas, the story becomes more complex. The report notes that “about half the countries with more appropriate policy environments for sustainable energy are emerging economies,” for example.

The RISE ranking.
RISE report

The report relies on data up to 2015. So it does not account for recent developments such as the Paris climate conference, the Australian National Energy Productivity Plan, the widespread failure to enforce building energy regulations, and the end of Australia’s major industrial Energy Efficiency Opportunities program under the Abbott government.

Furthermore, Australian electricity demand growth has recently re-emerged after five years of decline.

But the World Bank plans to publish updated indicators every two years, so over time the indicators should become a valuable means of tracking and influencing the evolution of global clean energy policy.

Australia

Australia’s ranking masks some good, bad and ugly subtleties. For example, Australia joins Chile and Argentina as the only OECD high-income countries without some form of carbon pricing mechanism. Even the United States, whose EPA uses a “social cost of carbon” in regulatory action, and has pricing schemes in some states, meets the RISE criteria.

Australia also ranks lower than the United States for renewable energy policy, at 24th. This is due to scoring poorly in incentives and regulatory support, carbon pricing, and mechanisms supporting network connection and appropriate pricing. But we are saved somewhat by having a legal framework for renewables, and strong management of counter-party risk. It’s not clear how recent political uncertainty, and the resulting temporary collapse of investment in large renewable energy projects, may affect the score.

I have argued in the past that Australia is missing out on billions of dollars in savings through its lack of ambition on energy efficiency. Yet we rate equal 13th on this criterion, compared with 24th on renewable energy. It seems that many other countries are forgoing even more money than us.

In energy efficiency, we score highly for incentives from electricity rate structures, building energy codes and financing mechanisms for energy efficiency. Our public sector policies and appliance minimum energy standards also score well. Our weakest areas are lack of carbon pricing and monitoring, and information for electricity consumers. National energy efficiency planning, incentives for large consumers and energy labelling all do a bit better. Of course, these ratings are relative to a low global energy efficiency benchmark.

The rest of the world

Much of the report focuses on developing countries. There is a wide spread of activity here, with some countries almost without policies, and others like Vietnam and Kazakhstan doing well, ranking equal 23rd. China ranks just behind Australia’s cluster at 21st.

RISE shows that policies driving access to modern energy seem to be achieving results. The report suggests that 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, down from an estimated 1.4 billion a few years ago. A significant contributor to this seems to be the declining cost of solar panels and other renewable energy sources, and greater emphasis on micro-grids in rural areas.

The report highlights the importance of strategies that integrate renewables and efficiency. But it doesn’t mention an obvious example. The viability of rural renewable energy solutions is being greatly assisted by the declining cost and large efficiency improvement in technologies such as LED lighting, mobile phones and tablet computers. The overall outcome is much improved access to services, social and economic development with much smaller and cheaper renewable energy and storage systems.

The takeaway

Screen Shot at am.
RISE report

RISE finds that clean energy policy is progressing across most countries. However, energy efficiency policy is well behind renewable energy. “This is another missed opportunity”, say the report’s authors, “given that energy efficiency measures are among the most cost-effective means of reducing a country’s carbon footprint.” They also note that energy efficiency policy tends to be fairly superficial.

Australia’s ranking on renewable energy policy is mediocre, while our better energy efficiency ranking is relative to global under-performance. The Finkel Review and Climate Policy Review offer opportunities to integrate renewables and energy efficiency into energy market frameworks. The under-resourced National Energy Productivity Plan could be cranked up to deliver billions of dollars more in energy savings, while reducing pressure on electricity supply infrastructure and making it easier to achieve ambitious energy targets. And RISE seems to suggest we need a price on carbon.

The question is, in a world where action on clean energy is accelerating in response to climate change and as a driver of economic and social development, will Australia move up or slip down the rankings in the next report?

The Conversation

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

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