The Morrison government on Friday released a plan to reduce carbon emissions from Australia’s road transport sector. Controversially, it ruled out consumer incentives to encourage electric vehicle uptake. The disappointing document is not the electric vehicle jump-start the country sorely needs.
In contrast, the United States has recently gone all-in on electric vehicles. Like leaders in many developed economies, President Joe Biden will offer consumer incentives to encourage uptake of the technology. The nation’s entire government vehicle fleet will also transition to electric vehicles made in the US.
It begs the question: when will Australian governments wake up and support the electric vehicle revolution?
Overseas, electric vehicle uptake has been boosted by consumer incentives such as tax exemptions, toll road discounts, rebates on charging stations and subsidies to reduce upfront purchase costs.
And past advice to government has stated financial incentives are the best way to get more electric vehicles on the road.
But government backbenchers, including Liberal MP Craig Kelly, have previously warned against any subsidies to make electric cars cost-competitive against traditional cars.
Releasing the government’s Future Fuels Strategy discussion paper on Friday, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said subsidies for electric vehicles did not represent good value for money.
(As argued here, the claim is flawed because it ignores the international emissions produced by imported vehicle fuel).
The Morrison government instead plans to encourage business fleets to transition to electric vehicles, saying businesses accounted for around 40% of new light vehicle sales in 2020.
The government has also failed to implement fuel efficiency standards, despite in 2015 establishing a ministerial forum to do so.
The approach contrasts starkly with that taken by the Biden administration.
Cars, buses and trucks are the
largest source of emissions in the US. To tackle this, Biden has proposed to:
electrify the government’s 650,000-strong fleet
establish ambitious fuel economy standards
provide incentives for US manufacturers to build electric vehicles and parts
make all new US-built buses zero-emissions by 2030, and electrify the nation’s 500,000 school buses
invest $US5 billion into battery research to further reduce electric vehicle prices
ensure every American city with 100,000 or more residents has high-quality, zero-emissions public transport options.
And by committing to carbon-free electricity generation by 2035, the Biden administration is also ensuring renewable energy will power this electric fleet.
This combined support for electric vehicles and renewable energy is crucial if the US is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
US companies are getting on board to avoid missing out on the electric vehicle revolution.
The day after Biden announced his fleet transition plan, General Motors (GM) – the largest US vehicle manufacturer and a major employer – announced it would stop selling fossil fuel vehicles by 2035 and be carbon-neutral by 2040.
This aligns with plans by the US states of California and Massachusetts to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2035.
GM is serious about the transition, committing $US27 billion and planning at least 30 new electric vehicle models by 2025. And on Friday, the Ford Motor Company said it would double its investment in vehicle electrification to $US22 billion.
Using government fleets to accelerate the electric vehicle transition is smart and strategic, because it:
allows consumers to see the technology in use
creates market certainty
encourages private fleets to transition
enables the development of a future second-hand electric vehicle market, once fleet vehicles are replaced.
Biden’s fleet plan includes a clear target, ensuring it stimulates the economy and supports his broader goal to create one million new US automotive jobs. Prioritising local manufacturing of vehicles, batteries and other components is key to maximising the benefits of his electric vehicle revolution.
On face value, the Morrison government’s business fleet plan has merit. But unlike the US approach, it does not involve a clear target and funding allocated to the initiative is relatively meagre.
So it’s unlikely to make much difference or put Australia on par with its international peers.
Compounding the absence of consumer incentives to encourage uptake in Australia, some states are mulling taxing electric vehicles before the market has been established.
Our research shows this could not only delay electric vehicle uptake, but jeopardise Australia’s chances of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Australia is already a world leader in building fast-charging hardware, and manufactures electric buses and trucks. We could also lead the global electric vehicle supply chain, due to our significant reserves of lithium, copper and nickel.
Despite these opportunities, the continuing lack of national leadership means the country is missing out on many economic benefits the electric vehicle revolution can bring.
Australia should adopt a Biden-inspired electric vehicle agenda. Without it, we will miss our climate targets, and the opportunity for thousands of new jobs.
Jake Whitehead, Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellow & Tritum E-Mobility Fellow, The University of Queensland; Dia Adhikari Smith, E-Mobility Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Thara Philip, E-Mobility Doctoral Researcher, The University of Queensland
Climate change is harming many special places and iconic species around our planet, from Glacier National Park’s disappearing glaciers to California redwoods scorched by wildfires. But for the animal I study, the American pika (Ochotona princeps), there’s actually some good news: It’s not as threatened by climate change as many studies have warned.
I have studied pikas, small cousins of rabbits, for over 50 years and never tire of watching them. These tailless, egg-shaped balls of fluff live primarily in cool mountainous environments in piles of broken rock, called talus.
During summer, observers can see pikas industriously gathering caches of grass and leaves into haypiles that will serve as their food supply through the winter. Their light brown coats blend well with their surroundings, so they are easiest to spot when they perch on prominent rocks and call to alert other pikas of their presence.
When fellow hikers see me observing pikas in California’s Sierra Nevada, they often tell me they have read that these animals are going extinct. I have collected a stack of press releases that say exactly that. But based on my recent research and a comprehensive review of over 100 peer-reviewed studies, I believe that this interpretation is misleading.
As I showed in my early research, pikas’ biology suggests that they are likely to be affected by a warming climate. Most important, their normal body temperature is high, and this puts them at risk of overheating when active in warm environments. When temperatures are warm, pikas retreat into the much cooler depths of their talus habitat.
Temperature also plays a role in pikas’ ability to move from place to place. Warm weather inhibits their movements, while cooler temperatures allow them to more freely colonize new habitats.
A little ancient history is instructive here. Pikas originally came to North America from Asia and spread across the continent some five million years ago, during colder times. Their remains have been found in caves in the Appalachian Mountains and in the Mojave Desert – sites where pikas no longer live.
As the world’s climate warmed, pika populations retreated to the high mountains of the western U.S. and Canada. Today they occupy most of the available talus habitat in these areas – evidence that challenges the pikas-on-the-brink narrative.
For example, in recent surveys, pikas were found at 98% of 109 suitable sites in Colorado, and at 98% of 329 sites in the central Sierra Nevada. One study of historic pika sites across California’s Lassen, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks found no evidence that pikas were moving to new sites or higher altitudes due to climate change.
In contrast, most sites where researchers believe that pikas have disappeared are small, isolated and often compromised by human activities, such as grazing by livestock. These sites generally are lower and warmer than sites in pikas’ core range.
Many of these areas are in the Great Basin – a large desert region spanning most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California. A series of studies on a small number of marginal Great Basin sites formerly occupied by pikas has disproportionately contributed to the narrative that pikas are likely to become endangered.
To investigate the big picture across this region, I worked with state and federal officials on a 2017 study that identified 3,250 site records of pika habitat. Pikas were present at 2,378 sites, not found at 89 sites where they had been seen as recently as 2005, and absent from 774 sites that contained only old signs of pika occupancy.
The extirpated and old sites had the same temperature and precipitation ranges as sites where pikas still were present. This suggests that non-climatic factors may have caused pikas’ disappearance from the vacant sites.
Pikas are still present in other remarkably hot places, such as the ghost town of Bodie, California, the nearby Mono Craters and Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument. At these sites, pikas retreat into the cool nooks of their talus habitat during the warmest part of the day and often forage at night.
In my research, I also found that pikas were much less active and uttered far fewer calls at these low-altitude sites compared with high-elevation pika populations. At low-elevation sites, pikas consumed a diverse diet of Great Basin plants, such as big sagebrush and bitterbrush, that was markedly different from the plants they ate at high-elevation sites. Some even failed to construct their characteristic large haypiles.
Another atypical pika population lives near sea level in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. Here, too, they have adapted well to a very different habitat, surviving year-round on a diet that consists mainly of moss. They defend the smallest territories of any pika, and when it gets hot, they simply move off the talus and hang out in the shade of the nearby forest.
Based on my review of dozens of studies, pika populations appear to be secure in their core range – the mountains of western North America that have large and fairly well-connected talus habitat. In these areas they can move from one habitat patch to another without having to pass through areas that are dangerously warm for them.
The fact that pikas have also adapted to a number of marginal, hot environments suggests to me that they are more resilient to climate change than many past studies have concluded. Most species exhibit losses near the edges of their geographical ranges, simply because individual animals in those zones are living in conditions that are less than ideal for them. This does not mean that they are going extinct.
Climate change is the most critical issue facing the world today, so it is particularly important that scientists communicate accurately about it to the public. In my view, the fact that pikas are coping and altering their behaviors in response to changing conditions is encouraging news for future naturalists setting out to observe one of nature’s most charismatic mammals.
Now Joe Biden is on track to be the next US president, there has been plenty of speculation about what this means for Australia’s policies on climate change.
Biden promises to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions in the US no later than 2050. This puts Australia — which is ranked among the worst of the G20 members on climate policies — under pressure to revisit its paltry greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030 and to commit to reaching net-zero by 2050 as well.
But emissions targets are only part of the story. Another important area where the US election could make a difference involves climate finance: when rich countries like Australia channel money to help low-income countries deal with climate change and cut their emissions.
Biden’s win could be the perfect opportunity for Australia to save face and rejoin the UN Green Climate Fund, the main multilateral vehicle for deploying climate finance.
Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries, including Australia, have committed to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.
Of this, US$20 billion has been formally pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund. The rest of what countries have committed so far is spread across a range of bilateral partnerships (typically through aid programs), other multilateral channels such as the World Bank, and private investment.
In 2014 Obama committed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but only transferred the first US$1 billion before President Trump cancelled the remainder in 2017. Biden has pledged to fulfil Obama’s original commitment.
Australia, under the Abbott government, eventually decided to support the fund, initially contributing A$200 million in 2014 and co-chairing its board for much of its early stages.
When the fund called for new commitments in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over talkback radio that Australia would not “tip money into that big climate fund”. Australia lost its board seat at the end of 2019.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne elaborated at the time:
it is our assessment that there are significant challenges with [the fund’s] governance and operational model which are impacting its effectiveness.
Australia stood by — and even exceeded — its overall pledge to provide A$1 billion in climate finance over five years to 2020, but it opted to provide this assistance through other channels, mainly bilateral partnerships with governments in neighbouring countries, including A$300 million for the Pacific.
Even so, Australia’s stepback from the fund was condemned by Pacific island countries, whose populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and who are strong supporters of the fund.
Former President of Kiribati Anote Tong commented on the decision in 2018:
I think we are coming to the stage where some countries don’t care what their reputation in the international arena is. It seems [Australia] is heading in that direction.
Our 2017 research on Australia’s climate finance commitments found pressure from the US — not least during Obama’s visit to Australia in 2014 — and other countries ultimately served as a catalyst for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to overcome his reluctance to contribute.
Subsequently, the Trump administration’s recalcitrance on climate change appears to have given the Morrison government cover to resist international pressure and pull out of it.
Now that the cast has changed again, can we expect Australia to rejoin the fund?
There are signs Morrison’s rhetoric on climate change has shifted compared to Abbott’s. But this hasn’t translated into a major policy shift, and he still faces intense pressure from the coalition’s right wing to do as little as possible.
However, as one of the more moderate members of the Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne can be expected to appreciate the diplomatic value of recommitting to the Green Climate Fund.
After the government’s recent audit of multilateral organisations, Payne observed that mulilateralism through strong and transparent institutions “serves Australia’s interests”. Recommitting to the Green Climate Fund would be consistent with this message.
Two other key variables are how the fund and the broader global context have evolved.
In 2014, the fund hadn’t yet delivered any money to developing countries. Since then, work on the ground has got underway, but the fund has faced criticism around its governance and slow disbursement.
Progress has been hampered by recurring disagreements between board members from developed and developing countries over the direction of the fund.
While on the fund’s board, Australia was a persistent advocate for robust decision-making processes. But it won’t be in a position to shape the fund’s governance for the better unless it recommits.
In any case, a number of contributing countries, such as France, Germany, Norway and the UK, have doubled their previous commitments.
This is a vote of confidence in the fund’s capacity to deliver results and leverage private resources more efficiently than dozens of bilateral funding channels.
And it shows how pressure on Australia from Biden will be backed up by the global momentum for climate action, which has built up since the Obama administration.
While Australia has pledged a further A$500 million for the Pacific from 2020 onwards, its overall A$1 billion commitment, which extends across the Indo-Pacific and beyond, expires this year. Many countries are also due to update their emissions targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of a major summit in 2021.
But COVID-19 is a wild card. It has placed new demands on development assistance programs and national budgets in Australia and elsewhere.
Still, Australia has fared much better in the pandemic than many other countries so far, while also running an aid budget lower than many of its peers. This means Australia can hardly justify going slow on funding when climate change poses a growing threat.
Ramping up its overall commitment to climate finance — and renewing its support for the leading multilateral fund in this area — will be an important sign that Australia is ready to play its part.
Last week San Francisco became the latest city to ban natural gas in new buildings. The legislation will see all new construction, other than restaurants, use electric power only from June 2021, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
San Francisco has now joined other US cities in banning natural gas in new homes. The move is in stark contrast to the direction of energy policy in Australia, where the Morrison government seems stuck in reverse: spruiking a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Natural gas provides about 26% of energy consumed in Australia — but it’s clearly on the way out. It’s time for a serious rethink on the way many of us cook and heat our homes.
San Francisco is rapidly increasing renewable-powered electricity to meet its target of 100% clean energy by 2030. Currently, renewables power 70% of the city’s electricity.
The ban on gas came shortly after San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must run on 100% renewable electricity by 2022.
Buildings are particularly in focus because 44% of San Franciscos’ citywide emissions come from the building sector alone.
Following this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ban on gas in buildings. They cited the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, and recognised that natural gas is a major source of indoor air pollution, leading to improved public health outcomes.
From January 1, 2021, no new building permits will be issued unless constructing an “All-Electric Building”. This means installation of natural gas piping systems, fixtures and/or infrastructure will be banned, unless it is a commercial food service establishment.
In the shift to zero-emissions economies, transitioning our power grids to renewable energy has been the subject of much focus. But buildings produce 25% of Australia’s emissions, and the sector must also do some heavy lifting.
A report by the Grattan Institute this week recommended a moratorium on new household gas connections, similar to what’s been imposed in San Francisco.
The report said natural gas will inevitably decline as an energy source for industry and homes in Australia. This is partly due to economics — as most low-cost gas on Australia’s east coast has been burnt.
There’s also an environmental imperative, because Australia must slash its fossil fuel emissions to address climate change.
While acknowledging natural gas is widely used in Australian homes, the report said “this must change in coming years”. It went on:
This will be confronting for many people, because changing the cooktops on which many of us make dinner is more personal than switching from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.
The report said space heating is by far the largest use of gas by Australian households, at about 60%. In the cold climates of Victoria and the ACT, many homes have central gas heaters. Homes in these jurisdictions use much more gas than other states.
By contrast, all-electric homes with efficient appliances produce fewer emissions than homes with gas, the report said.
Australia’s states and territories have much work to do if they hope to decarbonise our building sector, including reducing the use of gas in homes.
In 2019, Australia’s federal and state energy ministers committed to a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings for Australia. The measures included “energy smart” buildings with on-site renewable energy generation and storage and, eventually, green hydrogen to replace gas.
The plan also involved better disclosure of a building’s energy performance. To date, Australia’s states and territories have largely focused on voluntary green energy rating tools, such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. This measures factors such as energy efficiency, water usage and waste management in existing buildings.
The National Construction Code requires mandatory compliance with energy efficiency standards for new buildings. However, the code takes a technology neutral approach and does not require buildings to install zero-carbon energy “in the absence of an explicit energy policy commitment by governments regarding the future use of gas”.
An estimated 200,000 new homes are built in Australia each year. This represents an opportunity for states and territories to create mandatory clean energy requirements while reaching their respective net-zero emissions climate targets.
Under a gas ban, the use of zero-carbon energy sources in buildings would increase, similar to San Francisco. This has been recognised by Environment Victoria, which notes
A simple first step […] to start reducing Victoria’s dependence on gas is banning gas connections for new homes.
Creating incentives for alternatives to gas may be another approach, such as offering rebates for homes that switch to electrical appliances. The ACT is actively encouraging consumers to transition from gas.
Banning gas in buildings could be an economically sensible move. As the Grattan Report found, “households that move into a new all-electric house with efficient appliances will save money compared to an equivalent dual-fuel house”.
Meanwhile, ARENA confirmed electricity from solar and wind provide the lowest levelised cost of electricity, due to the increasing cost of east coast gas in Australia.
Future-proofing new buildings will require extensive work, let alone replacing exiting gas inputs and fixtures in existing buildings. Yet efficient electric appliances can save the average NSW homeowner around A$400 a year.
Learning to live sustainability, and becoming resilient in the face of climate change, is well worth the cost and effort.
Recently, a suite of our major gas importers — China, South Korea and Japan — all pledged to reach net-zero emissions by either 2050 or 2060. This will leave our export-focused gas industry possibly turning to the domestic market for new gas hookups.
The window to address dangerous climate change is fast closing. We must urgently seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there’s no better place to start that change than in our own homes.
When the US formally left the Paris climate agreement, Joe Biden tweeted that “in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it”.
The US announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement back in 2017. But the agreement’s complex rules meant formal notification could only be sent to the United Nations last year, followed by a 12-month notice period — hence the long wait.
While diplomacy via Twitter looks here to stay, global climate politics is about to be upended — and the impacts will be felt at home in Australia if Biden delivers on his plans.
Under a Biden administration, the US will have the most progressive position on climate change in the nation’s history. Biden has already laid out a US$2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, a commitment to rejoin the Paris agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
As Biden said back in July when he announced the plan:
If I have the honour of being elected president, we’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity, meet this moment in history.
Biden also aims to revitalise the US auto industry and become a leader in electric vehicles, and to upgrade four million buildings and two million homes over four years to meet new energy efficiency standards.
While the votes are still being counted — as they should (can any Australian believe we actually need to say this?) — it seems likely the Democrats will control the presidency and the House, but not the Senate.
This means Biden will be able to re-join the Paris agreement, which does not require Senate ratification. But any attempt to legislate a carbon price will be blocked in the Senate, as it was when then-President Barack Obama introduced the Waxman-Markey bill in 2010.
In any case, there’s no reason to think a carbon price is a silver bullet, given the window to act on climate change is closing fast.
What’s needed are ambitious targets and mandates for the power sector, transport sector and manufacturing sector, backed up with billions in government investment.
Fortunately, this is precisely what Biden is promising to do. And he can do it without the Senate by using the executive powers of the US government to implement a raft of new regulatory measures.
Take the transport sector as an example. His plan aims to set “ambitious fuel economy standards” for cars, set a goal that all American-built buses be zero emissions by 2030, and use public money to build half a million electric vehicle charging stations. Most of these actions can be put in place through regulations that don’t require congressional approval.
And with Trump out of the White House, California will be free to achieve its target that all new cars be zero emissions by 2035, which the Trump administration had impeded.
If that sounds far-fetched, given Australia is the only OECD country that still doesn’t have fuel efficiency standards for cars, keep in mind China promised to do the same thing as California last week.
For the last four years, the Trump administration has been a boon for successive Australian governments as they have torn up climate policies and failed to implement new ones.
Rather than witnessing our principal ally rebuke us on home soil, as Obama did at the University of Queensland in 2014, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has instead benefited from a cosy relationship with a US president who regularly dismisses decades of climate science, as he does medical science. And people are dying as a result.
For Australia, the ambitious climate policies of a Biden administration means in every international negotiation our diplomats turn up to, climate change will not only be top of the agenda, but we will likely face constant criticism.
Indeed, fireside chats in the White House will come with new expectations that Australia significantly increases its ambitions under the Paris agreement. Committing to a net zero emissions target will be just the first.
The real kicker, however, will be Biden’s trade agenda, which supports carbon tariffs on imports that produce considerable carbon pollution. The US is still Australia’s third-largest trading partner after China and Japan — who, by the way, have just announced net zero emissions targets themselves.
Should the US start hitting Australian goods with a carbon fee at the border, you can bet Australian business won’t be happy, and Morrison may begin to re-think his domestic climate calculus.
And what political science tells us is if international pressure doesn’t shift a country’s position on climate change, domestic pressure certainly will.
With Biden now in the White House, it’s not just global climate politics that will be turned on its head. Australia’s failure to implement a serious domestic climate and energy policy could have profound costs.
Costs, mind you, that are easily avoidable if Australia acts on climate change, and does so now.
After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.
We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?
In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.
And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.
The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.
It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.
The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.
Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.
In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.
Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.
In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.
In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.
Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.
Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.
It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?
The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.
It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.
Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.
The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to
place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.
Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.
This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.
However, the government’s COVID advisory commission — led by a former mining executive, and criticised by independent MP Zali Steggall for lack of transparency — is recommending a gas-led, not green-led, recovery.
If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.
One of nature’s epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies’ fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Human activities have an outsized impact on monarchs’ ability to migrate yearly to these specific sites. Development, agriculture and logging have reduced monarch habitat. Climate change, drought and pesticide use also reduce the number of butterflies that complete the journey.
Since 1993, the area of forest covered by monarchs at their overwintering sites in Mexico has fallen from a peak of 45 acres in 1996-1997 to as low as 1.66 acres in the winter of 2013-2014. A 2016 study warned that monarchs were dangerously close to a predicted “point of no return.” The 2019 count of monarchs in California was the lowest ever recorded for that group.
What was largely a bottom-up, citizen-powered effort to save the struggling monarch butterfly migration has shifted toward a top-down conversation between the federal government, private industry and large-tract landowners. As a biologist studying monarchs to understand the molecular and genetic aspects of migration, I believe this experiment has high stakes for monarchs and other imperiled species.
I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs’ overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.
Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs’ summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.
Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A new plan, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.
The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.
Listing a species as endangered or threatened triggers restrictions on “taking” (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.
In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a “threatened” listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.
It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.
To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies. Under this plan, “rights-of-way” landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.
The agreement was spearheaded by the Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control “rights-of-way” corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.
Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a “threatened” listing.
Many questions remain. Scientists are still learning about factors that cause monarch population decline, so it is likely that land management goals will need to change over the course of the agreement, and partner organizations will have to adjust to those changes.
Oversight of the plan will fall primarily to the University of Illinois, and ultimately to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. But it’s not clear whether they will have the resources they need. And without effective oversight, the plan could allow parties to carry out destructive land management practices that would otherwise be barred under an Endangered Species Act listing.
This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.
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Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the Monarch Conservation Database, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.
North America’s monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.
US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is campaigning on a platform that puts climate action front and centre. At the Democratic National Convention last week, he outlined a US$2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, a commitment to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
This contrasts starkly with the agenda of President Donald Trump, which has involved rolling back climate regulations and plans for a US withdrawal from the Paris deal.
Clearly, a Biden election win would bring a climate policy sea change in the US – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter and a key player in any international agreement.
The Trump presidency has been a godsend for an Australian government apparently uninterested in significant climate action. But with Trump behind in the polls, a Biden presidency would further expose the Morrison government’s lack of climate ambition – a position that was already fast becoming indefensible.
In international terms, Australia’s emissions reduction commitments are clearly at the lower level of ambition.
It’s pledged a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, and plans to “carry over” carbon credits earned during the Kyoto protocol period to substantially reduce the emissions reduction task under Paris. Even given this modest goal, and the emissions slowdown during the pandemic, it’s still not certain Australia will meet its target.
But unlike the US, at least Australia can point to its continued commitment to the Paris Agreement itself. And the Morrison government’s claim that Australia’s emission reduction will have little global impact is easier to make when a major emitter is refusing to take substantive climate action.
But that state of play will change under a Biden presidency. Importantly, the new administration will likely use its re-entry to the global climate action “tent” to push other countries to increase their ambition.
This would put pressure on Australia ahead of COP26 – the next round of United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, in November 2021. The central focus of these talks – postponed from 2020 – will be new national commitments on emissions reduction.
Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, countries have to ratchet up their commitments every five years. So far, there is no indication Australia will comply but ahead of the next COP, host nation the UK will be among a group of nations pushing the Morrison government to go harder. Under Biden, the US would likely join the chorus.
Even without a Biden presidency, other forces are making Australia’s climate position less tenable.
Pressure from Australia’s near neighbours has been significant. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum, the Morrison government was roundly chastised for its climate inaction – an issue central to the concerns of Pacific island states. Indeed, it seems clear Australia’s climate policy is undermining the Morrison government’s so-called Pacific step up, making effective engagement with the region much more challenging.
At home, the devastating effects of the last bushfire season brought Australian climate action into sharp focus. Under climate change, natural disasters such as bushfires will become more frequent and severe.
In 2019, Australians identified climate change as the biggest threat to our vital national interests. The 2020 Lowy Poll saw a slight decline in concern for climate change as the effects of the coronavirus took hold, but support for strong action was still well above 50%.
The National Farmers Federation, historically a relatively conservative voice on climate policy, last week called for Australia to commit to the same target as Biden – net-zero emissions by 2050.
This target is also a feature of the federal opposition’s position on climate policy, together with a 40% emissions reduction by 2030. Current Labor infighting over the policy after its 2019 election loss casts some doubt on that commitment. But the party’s climate change spokesman Mark Butler, and others in Labor pushing Australia to do more, will surely be empowered by the dynamics noted above.
If the case for emissions reduction needed strengthening further, a Greenpeace report released on Monday, reviewed by scientists, found pollution from Australia’s 22 coal-fired power stations is responsible for 800 premature deaths each year.
Added to this, research has found more coal power generation closed than opened around the world this year. And the International Energy Agency says renewable electricity may be the only energy source to withstand the COVID-19 demand shock.
Combined with the falling cost of renewables technology, the Morrison government’s dogged support for the fossil fuel industry is increasingly unjustifiable.
A Biden presidency won’t be a silver bullet for Australian climate policy. The Morrison government has shown itself willing to shrug off international condemnation and view climate action primarily through the lens of mining exports and electricity prices. And for that, they’ve arguably been rewarded at the ballot box.
But domestic and international pressure for Australia to do more is increasing. A Biden election victory would certainly make it that bit harder for Australia to keep its head stuck in the sand.