Why are we still pursuing the Adani Carmichael mine?

Queensland Premier 
Annastacia Palaszczuk  and Gautam Adani are still resolved to press ahead  
with the Carmichael mine, with taxpayers’ help. AAP Image/Cameron Laird

Why, if Adani’s gigantic Carmichael coal project is so on-the-nose for the banks and so environmentally destructive, are the federal and Queensland governments so avid in their support of it?

Once again the absurdity of building the world’s biggest new thermal coal mine was put in stark relief on Monday evening via an ABC Four Corners investigation, Digging into Adani.

Where the ABC broke new ground was in exposing the sheer breadth of corruption by this Indian energy conglomerate. And its power too. The TV crew was detained and questioned in an Indian hotel for five hours by police.

It has long been the subject of high controversy that the Australian government, via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF)that is still contemplating a A$1 billion subsidy for Adani’s rail line, a proposal to freight the coal from the Galilee Basin to Adani’s port at Abbot Point on the Great Barrier Reef.

But more alarming still, and Four Corners touched on this, is that the federal government is also considering using taxpayer money to finance the mine itself, not just the railway.

No investors in sight

As private banks have walked away from the project, the only way Carmichael can get finance is with the government providing guarantees to a private banking syndicate, effectively putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in project finance.

The prospect is met with the same incredulity in India as it is here in Australia:

FOUR CORNERS: “Watching on from Delhi, India’s former Environment Minister can’t believe what he is seeing.”
JAIRAM RAMESH: “Ultimately, it’s the sovereign decision of the Australian Government, the federal government and the state government.
FOUR CORNERS: “But public money is involved, and more than public money, natural resources are involved.
JAIRAM RAMESH: “I’m very, very surprised that the Australian government, uh, for whatever reason, uh, has uh, seen it fit, uh, to all along handhold Mr Adani.”

Here we have a project that does not stack up financially, and whose profits – should it make any – are destined for tax haven entities controlled privately by Adani family interests. Yet the Queensland government has shocked local farmers and environmentalists by gifting Adani extremely generous water rights, and royalties concessions to boot.

Why are Australian governments still in support?

The most plausible explanation is simply politics and political donations. There is no real-time disclosure of donations and it is relatively easy to disguise them, as there is no disclosure of the financial accounts of state and federal political parties either. Payments can be routed through opaque foundations, the various state organisations, and other vehicles.

Many Adani observers believe there must be money involved, so strident is the support for so unfeasible a project. The rich track record of Adani bribing officials in India, as detailed by Four Corners, certainly points that way. But there is little evidence of it.

In the absence of proof of any significant financial incentives however, the most compelling explanation is that neither of the major parties is prepared to be “wedged” on jobs, accused of being anti-business or anti-Queensand.

There are votes in Queensland’s north at stake. Furthermore, the fingerprints of Adani’s lobbyists are everywhere.

Adani lobbyist and Bill Shorten’s former chief of staff Cameron Milner helped run the re-election campaign of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. This support, according to The Australian, has been given free of charge:

Mr Milner is volunteering with the ALP while keeping his day job as director and registered lobbyist at Next Level Strategic Services, which counts among its clients Indian miner Adani…
The former ALP state secretary held meetings in April and May with Ms Palaszczuk and her chief of staff David Barbagallo to negotiate a government royalties deal for Adani, after a cabinet factional revolt threatened the state’s lar­gest mining project.

Adani therefore enjoys support and influence on both sides of politics. “Next Level Strategic Services co-director David Moore — an LNP stalwart who was Mr Newman’s chief of staff during his successful 2012 election campaign — is also expected to volunteer with the LNP campaign.”

So it is that Premier Palaszczuk persists with discredited claims that Carmichael will produce 10,000 jobs when Adani itself conceded in a court case two years ago the real jobs number would be but a fraction of that.

If the economics don’t stack up, why is Adani still pursuing the project?

The Adani group totes an enormous debt load, the seaborne thermal coal market is in structural decline as new solar capacity is now cheaper to build than new coal-fired power plants and the the government of India is committed to phasing out coal imports in the next three years.

Why flood the market with 60 million tonnes a year in new supply and further depress the price of one of this country’s key export commodities?

The answer to this question lies in the byzantine structure of the Adani companies themselves. Adani already owns the terminal at Abbot Point and it needs throughput to make it financially viable.

Both the financial structures behind the port and the proposed railway are ultimately controlled in tax havens: the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Singapore. Even if Adani Mining and its related Indian entities upstream, Adani Enterprises and Adani Power, lose money on Carmichael, the Adani family would still benefit.


The port and rail facilities merely “clip the ticket” on the volume of coal which goes through them. The Adani family then still profits from the privately-controlled infrastructure, via tax havens, while shareholders on the Indian share market shoulder the likely losses from the project.

As the man who used to be India’s most powerful energy bureaucrat, E.A.S. Sharma, told the ABC: “My assessment is that by the time the Adani coal leaves the Australian coast the cost of it will be roughly about A$90 per tonne.

“We cannot afford that, it is so expensive.”

More questions than answers remain

This renders the whole project even more bizarre. Why would the government put Australian taxpayers on the hook for a project likely to lose billions of dollars when the only clear beneficiaries are the family of Indian billionaire Gautam Adani and his Caribbean tax havens.

My view is that this project is a white elephant and will not proceed. Given the commitment by our elected leaders however, it may be that some huge holes in the earth may still be dug before it falls apart.

This article was written by:
Image ofMichael WestMichael West – [Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney]






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New law finally gives voice to the Yarra River’s traditional owners

 The Yarra River has been legally 
recognised as an indivisible living entity which deserves protection. 

On September 21, the Victorian Parliament delivered a major step forward for Victoria’s traditional owners, by passing the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017. Until now, the Wurundjeri people have had little recognition of their important role in river management and protection, but the new legislation, set to become law by December 1, will give them a voice.

The Act is remarkable because it combines traditional owner knowledge with modern river management expertise, and treats the Yarra as one integrated living natural entity to be protected.

The new law recognises the various connections between the river and its traditional owners. In a first for Victorian state laws, it includes Woi-wurrung language (the language of the Wurundjeri) in both the Act’s title and in its preamble. The phrase Wilip-gin Birrarung murron means “keep the Yarra alive”. Six Wurundjeri elders gave speeches in Parliament in both English and Woi-wurrung to explain the significance of the river and this Act to their people.

The Act also gives an independent voice to the river by way of the Birrarung Council, a statutory advisory body which must have at least two traditional owner representatives on it.

Giving legal powers to rivers has become fashionable recently. Aotearoa, New Zealand passed legislation in March to give legal personhood to the Whanganui River, the voice of that river being an independent guardian containing Māori representation.

Within a week of that decision, the Uttarakhand High Court in India ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers are living entities with legal status, and ordered government officers to assume legal guardianship of the two rivers (although that decision has since been stayed by the Indian Supreme Court).

All of these developments recognise that rivers are indivisible living entities that need protection. But the Victorian legislation differs in that it doesn’t give the Yarra River legal personhood or assign it a legal guardian. The Birrarung Council, although the “independent voice” of the Yarra, will have only advisory status.

Speaking for the silent

The practice of giving legal voice to entities that cannot speak for themselves is not a new one. Children have legal guardians, as do adults who are not in a position to make decisions for themselves. We also give legal status to many non-human entities, such as corporations.

The idea of doing the same for rivers and other natural objects was first suggested back in 1972. In general terms, giving something legal personhood means it can sue or be sued. So a river’s legal guardian can go to court and sue anyone who pollutes or otherwise damages the river. (Theoretically, a river could also be sued, although this has yet to be tested.)

So how will the Yarra River be protected, if it doesn’t have legal personhood or a guardian?

Like the Whanganui River Settlement legislation, the Yarra River Protection Act provides for the development of a strategic plan for the river’s management and protection. This includes a long term community vision, developed through a process of active community participation, that will identify areas for protection. The strategic plan will also be informed by environmental, social, cultural, recreational and management principles.

These Yarra protection principles further enhance the recognition of traditional owner connection to the Yarra River. They highlight Aboriginal cultural values, heritage and knowledge, and the importance of involving traditional owners in policy planning and decision-making.

And the Birrarung Council will have an important role to play. It will provide advice and can advocate for the Yarra River, even if it can’t actually make decisions about its protection, or take people who damage the Yarra River to court.

Importantly, the Council does not have any government representatives sitting on it. Its members are selected by the environment minister for four-year terms and once appointed they can’t be removed unless they’re found to be unfit to hold office (for example, for misconduct or neglect of duty). This makes sure that the Council’s advice to the minister is truly independent.

So, although the new law will not give the Yarra River full legal personhood, it does enshrine a voice for traditional owners in the river’s management and protection – a voice that has been unheard for too long.

This article was written by:
Image of Katie O'BryanKatie O’Bryan – [Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Associate, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University]





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Want energy storage? Here are 22,000 sites for pumped hydro across Australia

Energy storage Pumped hydro: all you really need is 
some reservoirs and a big hill. 

The race is on for storage solutions that can help provide secure, reliable electricity supply as more renewables enter Australia’s electricity grid.

With the support of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), we have identified 22,000 potential pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) sites across all states and territories of Australia. PHES can readily be developed to balance the grid with any amount of solar and wind power, all the way up to 100%, as ageing coal-fired power stations close.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are now the leading two generation technologies in terms of new capacity installed worldwide each year, with coal in third spot (see below). PV and wind are likely to accelerate away from other generation technologies because of their lower cost, large economies of scale, low greenhouse emissions, and the vast availability of sunshine and wind.

Graph of New generation capacity installed worldwide in 2016.
New generation capacity installed worldwide in 2016. ANU/ARENA, Author provided

Although PV and wind are variable energy resources, the approaches to support them to achieve a reliable 100% renewable electricity grid are straightforward:

  • Energy storage in the form of pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) and batteries, coupled with demand management; and
  • Strong interconnection of the electricity grid between states using high-voltage power lines spanning long distances (in the case of the National Electricity Market, from North Queensland to South Australia). This allows wind and PV generation to access a wide range of weather, climate and demand patterns, greatly reducing the amount of storage needed.

PHES accounts for 97% of energy storage worldwide because it is the cheapest form of large-scale energy storage, with an operational lifetime of 50 years or more. Most existing PHES systems require dams located in river valleys. However, off-river PHES has vast potential.

Off-river PHES requires pairs of modestly sized reservoirs at different altitudes, typically with an area of 10 to 100 hectares. The reservoirs are joined by a pipe with a pump and turbine. Water is pumped uphill when electricity generation is plentiful; then, when generation tails off, electricity can be dispatched on demand by releasing the stored water downhill through the turbine. Off-river PHES typically delivers maximum power for between five and 25 hours, depending on the size of the reservoirs.

Most of the potential PHES sites we have identified in Australia are off-river. All 22,000 of them are outside national parks and urban areas.

The locations of these sites are shown below. Each site has between 1 gigawatt-hour (GWh) and 300GWh of storage potential. To put this in perspective, our earlier research showed that Australia needs just 450GWh of storage capacity (and 20GW of generation power) spread across a few dozen sites to support a 100% renewable electricity system.

In other words, Australia has so many good sites for PHES that only the best 0.1% of them will be needed. Developers can afford to be choosy with this significant oversupply of sites.

Map showing Pumped hydro sites in Australia.
Pumped hydro sites in Australia. ANU/ARENA, Author provided

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of sites (detailed maps of sites, images and information can be found here):

NSW/ACT: Thousands of sites scattered over the eastern third of the state
Victoria: Thousands of sites scattered over the eastern half of the state
Tasmania: Thousands of sites scattered throughout the state outside national parks
Queensland: Thousands of sites along the Great Dividing Range within 200km of the coast, including hundreds in the vicinity of the many wind and PV farms currently being constructed in the state
South Australia: Moderate number of sites, mostly in the hills east of Port Pirie and Port Augusta
Western Australia: Concentrations of sites in the east Kimberley (around Lake Argyle), the Pilbara and the Southwest; some are near mining sites including Kalgoorlie. Fewer large hills than other states, and so the minimum height difference has been set at 200m rather than 300m.
Northern Territory: Many sites about 300km south-southwest of Darwin; a few sites within 200km of Darwin; many good sites in the vicinity of Alice Springs. Minimum height difference also set at 200m.

The maps below show synthetic Google Earth images for potential upper reservoirs in two site-rich regions (more details on the site search are available here). There are many similarly site-rich regions across Australia. The larger reservoirs shown in each image are of such a scale that only about a dozen of similar size distributed across the populated regions of Australia would be required to stabilise a 100% renewable electricity system.

Picture of Araluen Valley near Canberra.
Araluen Valley near Canberra. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed. ANU/ARENA, Author provided

Picture of Townsville, Queensland. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed. 
Townsville, Queensland. At most, one of the sites shown would be developed. ANU/ARENA, Author providedThe chart below shows the largest identified off-river PHES site in each state in terms of energy storage potential. Also shown for comparison are the Tesla battery and the solar thermal systems to be installed in South Australia, and the proposed Snowy 2.0 system.
Graph showing Largest identified off-river PHES sites in each state
Largest identified off-river PHES sites in each state, together with other storage systems for comparison. ANU/ARENA, Author provided

The map below shows the location of PHES sites in Queensland together with PV and wind farms currently in an advanced stage of development, as well as the location of the Galilee coal prospect. It is clear that developers of PV and wind farms will be able to find a PHES site close by if needed for grid balancing.

Map showing solar PV (yellow) and wind (green) farms currently in an advanced stage of development in Queensland,
Solar PV (yellow) and wind (green) farms currently in an advanced stage of development in Queensland, together with the Galilee coal prospect (black) and potential PHES sites (blue).ANU/ARENA, Author provided

Annual water requirements of a PHES-supported 100% renewable electricity grid would be less than one third that of the current fossil fuel system, because wind and PV do not require cooling water. About 3,600ha of PHES reservoir is required to support a 100% renewable electricity grid for Australia, which is 0.0005% of Australia’s land area, and far smaller than the area of existing water storages.

PHES, batteries and demand management are all likely to have prominent roles as the grid transitions to 50-100% renewable energy. Currently, about 3GW per year of wind and PV are being installed. If this continued until 2030 it would be enough to supply half of Australia’s electricity consumption. If this rate is doubled then Australia will reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033.

Fast-track development of a few excellent PHES sites can be completed in 2022 to balance the grid when Liddell and other coal-fired power stations close.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Andrew BlakersAndrew Blakers – [Professor of Engineering, Australian National University];
Image of Bin LuBin Lu – [PhD Candidate, Australian National University] and
Image of Matthew StocksMatthew Stocks – [Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University]





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Interest in tiny houses is growing, so who wants them and why?

Tiny Houses A tiny house in the backyard appeals 
to some as a solution that offers both affordability and sustainability.

Tiny houses are now so popular that someone was charged with stealing one last week. A social media campaign tracked its journey from Canberra to Hervey Bay. My research to date has found a marked increase in people who want their own tiny house, particularly among older women.

 This tiny house was tracked across the country last week.

Since the first tiny house groups appeared on Facebook in 2013, such groups and pages have proliferated. The original Facebook pages, such as Tiny Houses Australia, have nearly 50,000 followers. Some groups, such as Tiny Houses Brisbane, are extremely active and hold regular meetings.

Based on earlier research, I argued that tiny houses could be part of a solution to the perennial and wicked problem of unaffordable housing, as well as improving urban density and the environmental sustainability of housing. In 2015, very few people had actually built one.

A repeat of the 2015 survey has found a marked increase in people building or wanting to build a tiny house. Some 20% of current respondents (173 to date, but the survey is ongoing) had built or were building a tiny house. Another 61% intended to build one.

Most of these tiny houses were fully mobile, partly mobile (that is, a container house) or on skids. Only 20% were intended to be permanent. Interest was equally divided between urban and rural residential areas.

There was a statistically significant relationship between preferred location and type of tiny house. Most of those preferring rural locations wished to build a permanent or container-type tiny house. Those wanting urban locations preferred mobile tiny houses. This is likely the result of urban land costs, although more than 50% of survey respondents stated that they would prefer to build on their own land.

Tiny houses appeal to older women

Demographically, interest in tiny houses is biased towards older women. The majority of respondents were women over 50.

Although this could be a result of sampling bias (more women than men tend to complete surveys), it also could reflect other research showing that single women over 50 are the fastest-growing demographic for homelessness in Australia. This is due to relationship break-ups, employer bias against older women, and lack of superannuation savings.

Tiny houses are an ideal housing form for single women, as they could site one on property belonging to an adult child or other relative, yet maintain their independence and privacy. As one respondent said:

I am 53 and am finding it hard to get employment, so this reduces the pressure on me by paying less rent in a tiny house. Hopefully will free me up to have a better lifestyle, health and fitness and time…
A tiny house with a small fenced-off yard for my small dogs is really all I need. I’d be happy to live in a TH community with communal gardens etc. This is my only viable option to own a home and homelessness in the future is a real fear.

As with the previous survey, the drivers for tiny house living were predominantly economic, then environmental.

In a possible reflection of the strong demand for urban living, the most important driver was “too expensive property in preferred area”. Then came: wanting to reduce overall debt, not wanting a mortgage, wishing to downsize, and housing too expensive in general.

This respondent summed up the economic drivers:

I just want to own my home. I have been a renter for 30 years and long to own my own space and have more freedom to do things I love and work less.

Environmental sustainability and conscious consuming were seen as the second-most important benefits. The backlash against the McMansions of previous decades is strong:

I support the ideas of tiny houses for conscious consuming. We all consume too much land. Infrastructure and space for what we need. We then choose to fill up the spaces with more stuff and also travel further to our destinations using more fuel to get there. It’s a downward spiral, which could be contained by more sensible accommodation choices and a more thoughtful attitude towards resources.

Another respondent said:

Maintaining and building/sustaining standard stock (4 bed 2 bath) is time-consuming and soul-destroying. I own a 6-bedroom house now … the upkeep and the way it gets in the way of real relationships is something I have come to realise and do something about.

What does this mean for urban planning?

In keeping with previous research, respondents noted significant barriers, particularly inflexible planning schemes, and then the cost of land. However, these barriers were ranked much lower than the drivers – only two (planning scheme inflexibility and complexity) were given a mean score more than four (out of five).

This might indicate that local governments are becoming more open to the idea of tiny houses as an alternative to high-rises for increasing density in what is known as the “missing middle”.

Indeed, architects, consultants, planning professionals and academics collaborated on the recently released Tiny House Planning Resource for Australia 2017. It aims to assist planners, policymakers and the wider community to better understand the tiny house movement and its potential to contribute to greater choice in housing supply and diversity.

Yes, tiny houses are one, possibly extreme, end of the housing form continuum. They don’t suit all demographics, but the increasing interest shows that local governments need to seriously consider allowing tiny houses in urban areas.

They have significant potential to be a catalyst for infill development, either as tiny house villages, or by relaxing planning schemes to allow owners and tenants to situate well-designed tiny houses on suburban lots.

Image of a tiny house
Washington DC’s first tiny house village showcases a new model of urban living. Inhabitat/flickr, 

One respondent summed it up well:

Regulations need to be freed up to allow more than a small secondary dwelling on a typical suburban lot in a general residential zone. Financiers, valuers and mortgage insurers need to be coached into the benefits of small as arguably the only way to move forward in this current affordability and sustainability crisis.
The tiny house on its own freehold lot – whether in a community or Torrens title – has to be a way to enable ease of financing. This means that if a local government is serious about affordability, planning regulations need to change to enable freehold titling and increased density without having to go through costly and time-consuming development approval processes.

You can take part in the ongoing tiny house survey here.

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More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs

A drain carries water but does little 
else,but imagine how  different the neighbourhood would be if the drain
could be transformed into a living stream.

Lot sizes and backyards are shrinking in Australia at the same time as building density is increasing. So we cannot afford to overlook the potential of existing – but neglected – spaces in our suburbs, like drains.

In denser living environments, we will need new types of green and open space to meet the needs of residents.

One such overlooked space is the urban water drainage system. As part of my research I’m examining the potential of a co-ordinated and integrated network of suburban streams.

The largest water catchment in the Perth metropolitan area is Bayswater Brook (previously called the Bayswater Main Drain). Largely for the purpose of improving water quality, in recent years work has begun to remake drains running through the suburbs into “living streams”.

Aside from the obvious benefits of water purification and stormwater management, these networks of suburban streams can be re-imagined as preferred paths through the neighbourhood.

Using established drainage routes capitalises on their existing connections through a suburb. This network could amplify the connections between parks and other green areas, providing a rich soundscape of birds, frogs and insects, and a diversity of sedges, rushes, melaleucas and other vegetation along the banks.

Look at the big picture

While the conversion of old infrastructure into living streams is not new, it has as-yet-unrealised potential to rehabilitate the large sections of open drainage that run in visible, connected ways through our suburbs. This elevates the idea of a living stream to a multi-layered ecosystem, one that includes multiple drains across the suburb.

The Bayswater Brook permanent drainage system runs through the northeastern suburbs of Perth. These drains can be dangerous and public entry to these areas is prohibited out of necessity.

Picture of a fence keeping people away from drains
Access barriers are unsightly but necessary because the existing drains can be dangerous. Author’s own

The drains run along the rear of mostly low-density housing, hidden from streets.

An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth
An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth. Google Earth

Their condition is typically marked by weeds, minimal vegetation and stagnant water.

Fenced-off areas offer no public benefits to the neighbourhood other than drainage. Zoe Myers, Author provided

The sheer number of these open drains across the metropolitan area offers a compelling opportunity to reconceptualise the system as a holistic and integrated network of ecologically restored streams. This requires co-operation between multiple levels of government.

A project by WaterCorp in Western Australia (which manages drainage infrastructure) has begun inviting local governments to submit proposals for use of the green space around drains. These are currently for small portions of the larger network, such as a pop-up park planned for a basin in Morley.

The benefit of doing this in a co-ordinated way – rather than single stream restoration – lies in the possibilities of making these spaces a genuine alternative to the street.

What are the benefits?

Picture of a suburban open drain
Typical drains (above and below) add very little to neighbourhood amenity. Zoe Myers, Author provided

Image of an open suburban drain
Zoe Myers, Author provided

By activating unused, off-limits areas at the back of houses, we can turn public space “inside out”. Providing a sequence of accessible paths creates a new option for pedestrians away from roads and cars, but still with an established, clear route through the suburb. We can have a space that is buffered from traffic noise without the isolation of an empty park segregated from main thoroughfares.

Many studies have convincingly found connections between the sounds of waterscapes and restorative emotional states and views. Having multiple entry and exit points as the streams thread through the suburbs would heighten the spaces’ usefulness as everyday pathways. Children could walk along the streams to school, or adults could take a short cut to catch the bus to work, maximising this kind of beneficial interaction with water.

Recreating natural habitats would also increase biodiversity and create a multi-sensory environment, as well as a cooler micro-climate. That would make it an even more attractive place to be in hot months. Encouraging a more natural flow of water through the streams would also reduce biting midges and mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water.

Potentially the most convincing reason for local governments to rehabilitate drains is that living streams increase neighbourhood property values. Research has shown the effect is significant. In the Perth suburb of Lynwood, for example, median home values within 200 metres of a wetland restoration site increased by A$17,000 to A$26,000 above the trend increase for the area.

This in turn can support increased density. High quality nature spaces potentially offset the sacrifice of the usual backyard area, by increasing the number of people with direct access to these spaces.

Drawing of how an open drain might be modified
Turning an urban drain into a living stream opens up a world of possibilities. Author’s original render

There is a growing imperative to remove the false choice between designing for people or for nature. Remaking our old infrastructure for many new uses offers multiple benefits to our ecology and well-being. When a drain becomes a living stream it doesn’t just provide a new kind of open space but adds a new dimension to enjoying, and moving through, your suburb.

This article was written by:
Zoe Myers – [Research Associate, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia]





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After 30 years of the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is gradually healing

 Clouds over Australia’s 
Davis Research Station, containing ice particles that activate ozone-
depleting chemicals, triggering the annual ozone hole. 

This past weekend marks the 30th birthday of the Montreal Protocol, often dubbed the world’s most successful environmental agreement. The treaty, signed on September 16, 1987, is slowly but surely reversing the damage caused to the ozone layer by industrial gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Each year, during the southern spring, a hole appears in the ozone layer above Antarctica. This is due to the extremely cold temperatures in the winter stratosphere (above 10km altitude) that allow byproducts of CFCs and related gases to be converted into forms that destroy ozone when the sunlight returns in spring.

As ozone-destroying gases are phased out, the annual ozone hole is generally getting smaller – a rare success story for international environmentalism.

Back in 2012, our Saving the Ozone series marked the Montreal Protocol’s silver jubilee and reflected on its success. But how has the ozone hole fared in the five years since?

The Antarctic ozone hole has continued to appear each spring, as it has since the late 1970s. This is expected, as levels of the ozone-destroying halocarbon gases controlled by the Montreal Protocol are still relatively high. The figure below shows that concentrations of these human-made substances over Antarctica have fallen by 14% since their peak in about 2000.

Graph of Past and predicted levels of controlled gases in the Antarctic atmosphere
Past and predicted levels of controlled gases in the Antarctic atmosphere, quoted as equivalent effective stratospheric chlorine (EESC) levels, a measure of their contribution to stratospheric ozone depletion. Paul Krummel/CSIRO, Author provided

It typically takes a few decades for these gases to cycle between the lower atmosphere and the stratosphere, and then ultimately to disappear. The most recent official assessment, released in 2014, predicted that it will take 30-40 years for the Antarctic ozone hole to shrink to the size it was in 1980.

Signs of recovery

Monitoring the ozone hole’s gradual recovery is made more complicated by variations in atmospheric temperatures and winds, and the amount of microscopic particles called aerosols in the stratosphere. In any given year these can make the ozone hole bigger or smaller than we might expect purely on the basis of halocarbon concentrations.

Picture of Launching an ozone-measuring balloon from Australia’s Davis Research Station in Antarctica
Launching an ozone-measuring balloon from Australia’s Davis Research Station in Antarctica. Barry Becker/BOM/AAD, Author provided

The 2014 assessment indicated that the size of the ozone hole varied more during the 2000s than during the 1990s. While this might suggest it has become harder to detect the healing effects of the Montreal Protocol, we can nevertheless tease out recent ozone trends with the help of sophisticated atmospheric chemistry models.

Reassuringly, a recent study showed that the size of the ozone hole each September has shrunk overall since the turn of the century, and that more than half of this shrinking trend is consistent with reductions in ozone-depleting substances. However, another study warns that careful analysis is needed to account for a variety of natural factors that could confound our detection of ozone recovery.

The 2015 volcano

One such factor is the presence of ozone-destroying volcanic dust in the stratosphere. Chile’s Calbuco volcano seems to have played a role in enhancing the size of the ozone hole in 2015.

At its maximum size, the 2015 hole was the fourth-largest ever observed. It was in the top 15% in terms of the total amount of ozone destroyed. Only 2006, 1998, 2001 and 1999 had more ozone destruction, whereas other recent years (2013, 2014 and 2016) ranked near the middle of the observed range.

representation of Average ozone concentrations over the southern hemisphere during October 1-15, 2015
Average ozone concentrations over the southern hemisphere during October 1-15, 2015, when the Antarctic ozone hole for that year was near its maximum extent. The red line shows the boundary of the ozone hole. Paul Krummel/CSIRO/EOS, Author provided
Another notable feature of the 2015 ozone hole was that it was at its biggest observed extent for much of the period from mid-October to mid-December. This coincided with a period during which the jet of westerly winds in the Antarctic stratosphere was particularly unaffected by the warmer, more ozone-rich air at lower latitudes. In a typical year, the influx of air from lower latitudes helps to limit the size of the ozone hole in spring and early summer.

The 2017 hole

As noted above, the ozone holes of 2013, 2014 and 2016 were relatively unremarkable compared with that of 2015, being close to the long-term average for overall ozone loss.

In general respects, these ozone holes were similar to those seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the peak of ozone depletion. This is consistent with a gradual recovery of the ozone layer as levels of ozone-depleting substances gradually decline.

This year’s hole began to form in early August, and the timing was similar to the long-term average. Stratospheric temperatures during the Antarctic winter were slightly cooler than in 2016, which would favour enhancement of the chemical changes that lead to ozone destruction in spring. However, temperatures climbed above average in mid-August during a disturbance to the polar winds, delaying the hole’s expansion. As of the second week of September, the warmer-than-average temperatures have continued but the ozone hole has grown slightly larger than the long-term average since 1979.

While annual monitoring continues, which includes measurements under the Australian Antarctic Program, a more comprehensive assessment of the ozone layer’s prospects is set to arrive late next year. Scientists across the globe, coordinated by the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organisation, are busy preparing the next report required under the Montreal Protocol, called the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018.

This peer-reviewed report will examine the recent state of the ozone layer and the atmospheric concentration of ozone-depleting chemicals, how the ozone layer is projected to change, and links between ozone change and climate.

In the meantime we’ll watch the 2017 hole as it peaks then shrinks over the remainder of the year, as well as the ozone holes of future years, which will tend to grow less and less large as the ozone layer heals.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Andrew KlekociukAndrew Klekociuk – [Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Tasmania]
Image of Paul KrummelPaul Krummel – [Research Group Leader, CSIRO]





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How Antarctic ice melt can be a tipping point for the whole planet’s climate

Antarctic Ice Melt Melting Antarctic ice can trigger 
effects on the other side of the globe. NASA/Jane Peterson

Melting of Antarctica’s ice can trigger rapid warming on the other side of the planet, according to our new research which details how just such an abrupt climate event happened 30,000 years ago, in which the North Atlantic region warmed dramatically.

This idea of “tipping points” in Earth’s system has had something of a bad rap ever since the 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow purportedly showed how melting polar ice can trigger all manner of global changes.

But while the movie certainly exaggerated the speed and severity of abrupt climate change, we do know that many natural systems are vulnerable to being pushed into different modes of operation. The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, the retreat of Arctic summer sea ice, and the collapse of the global ocean circulation are all examples of potential vulnerability in a future, warmer world.

Of course it is notoriously hard to predict when and where elements of Earth’s system will abruptly tip into a different state. A key limitation is that historical climate records are often too short to test the skill of our computer models used to predict future environmental change, hampering our ability to plan for potential abrupt changes.

Fortunately, however, nature preserves a wealth of evidence in the landscape that allows us to understand how longer time-scale shifts can happen.

Core values

One of the most important sources of information on past climate tipping points are the kilometre-long cores of ice drilled from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which preserve exquisitely detailed information stretching back up to 800,000 years.

The Greenland ice cores record massive, millennial-scale swings in temperature that have occurred across the North Atlantic region over the past 90,000 years. The scale of these swings is staggering: in some cases temperatures rose by 16℃ in just a few decades or even years.

Twenty-five of these major so-called Dansgaard–Oeschger (D-O) warming events have been identified. These abrupt swings in temperature happened too quickly to have been caused by Earth’s slowly changing orbit around the Sun. Fascinatingly, when ice cores from Antarctica are compared with those from Greenland, we see a “seesaw” relationship: when it warms in the north, the south cools, and vice versa.

Attempts to explain the cause of this bipolar seesaw have traditionally focused on the North Atlantic region, and include melting ice sheets, changes in ocean circulation or wind patterns.

But as our new research shows, these might not be the only cause of D-O events.

Our new paper, published yesterday in Nature Communications, suggests that another mechanism, with its origins in Antarctica, has also contributed to these rapid seesaws in global temperature.

Tree of knowledge

The 30,000-year-old key to climate secrets.Chris Turney, Author provided

We know that there have been major collapses of the Antarctic ice sheet in the past, raising the possibility that these may have tipped one or more parts of the Earth system into a different state. To investigate this idea, we analysed an ancient New Zealand kauri tree that was extracted from a peat swamp near Dargaville, Northland, and which lived between 29,000 and 31,000 years ago.

Through accurate dating, we know that this tree lived through a short D-O event, during which (as explained above) temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere would have risen. Importantly, the unique pattern of atmospheric radioactive carbon (or carbon-14) found in the tree rings allowed us to identify similar changes preserved in climate records from ocean and ice cores (the latter using beryllium-10, an isotope formed by similar processes to carbon-14). This tree thus allows us to compare directly what the climate was doing during a D-O event beyond the polar regions, providing a global picture.

The extraordinary thing we discovered is that the warm D-O event coincided with a 400-year period of surface cooling in the south and a major retreat of Antarctic ice.

When we searched through other climate records for more information about what was happening at the time, we found no evidence of a change in ocean circulation. Instead we found a collapse in the rain-bearing Pacific trade winds over tropical northeast Australia that was coincident with the 400-year southern cooling.

To explore how melting Antarctic ice might cause such dramatic change in the global climate, we used a climate model to simulate the release of large volumes of freshwater into the Southern Ocean. The model simulations all showed the same response, in agreement with our climate reconstructions: regardless of the amount of freshwater released into the Southern Ocean, the surface waters of the tropical Pacific nevertheless warmed, causing changes to wind patterns that in turn triggered the North Atlantic to warm too.

Future work is now focusing on what caused the Antarctic ice sheets to retreat so dramatically. Regardless of how it happened, it looks like melting ice in the south can drive abrupt global change, something of which we should be aware in a future warmer world.

This article was co-authored by:

Chris Turney – [Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW];


Jonathan Palmer – [Research Fellow, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences., UNSW];


Peter Kershaw – [Emeritus Professor, Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University];


Steven Phipps – [Palaeo Ice Sheet Modeller, University of Tasmania] and


Zoë Thomas – [Research Associate, UNSW]





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More coal doesn’t equal more peak power

 Lake Liddell with power stations.

The proposed closure date for Liddell, AGL’s ancient and unreliable coal power station, is five years and probably two elections away. While AGL has asked for 90 days to come up with a plan to deliver equivalent power into the market, state and local governments, businesses and households will continue to drive the energy revolution.

At the same time as AGL is insisting they won’t sell Liddell or extend its working life, government debate has returned to the Clean Energy Target proposed by the Finkel Review. Now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is suggesting a redesign of the proposal, potentially paving the way for subsidies to low-emission, high-efficiency coal power stations.

But even if subsidies for coal are built into a new “reliable energy target”, there’s no sign that the market has any appetite for building new coal. For a potential investor in a coal-fired generator, the eight years before it could produce a cash flow is a long time in a rapidly changing world. And the 30 years needed to turn a profit is a very long time indeed.

We also need to remember that baseload coal power stations are not much help in coping with peak demand – the issue that will determine whether people in elevators are trapped by a sudden blackout, per Barnaby Joyce. It was interesting that a Melbourne Energy Institute study of global pumped hydro storage mentioned that electricity grids with a lot of nuclear or coal baseload generation have used pumped storage capacity for decades: it’s needed to supply peak demand.

Solar power is driving down daytime prices – which used to provide much of the income that coal plants needed to make a profit. Energy storage will further reduce the scope to profit from high and volatile electricity prices, previously driven by high demand and supply shortages in hot weather, or when a large coal-fired generator failed or was shut down for maintenance at a crucial time.

There is now plenty of evidence that the diverse mix of energy efficiency, demand response, energy storage, renewable generation and smart management can ensure reliable and affordable electricity to cope with daily and seasonal variable electricity loads. New traditional baseload generators will not be financially viable, as they simply won’t capture the profits they need during the daytime.

The government is now focused on AGL and how it will deliver 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable supply. In practice, appropriate policy action would facilitate the provision of plenty of supply, storage, demand response and energy efficiency to ensure reliable supply. But the government is unable to deliver policy because of its internal squabbles, and AGL looks like a convenient scapegoat.

Demand response is already working

It is astounding that conservatives can continue to blame renewable energy for increasing prices. They are either ignorant or have outdated agendas to prop up coal. A smart, efficient, renewable electricity future will be cheaper than any other – albeit not necessarily cheaper than our past electricity prices.

Along with other studies, CSIRO’s recent Low Emission Technology Roadmap showed that the “ambitious energy productivity (and renewable energy)” scenario was quite reasonably priced.

While the debate continues to focus on large-scale supply, “behind the meter” action is accelerating through demand response, energy efficiency and on-site renewables. As I mentioned in a previous column, the ARENA/AEMO demand response pilot has attracted almost 700MW of flexible demand reduction to be delivered before Christmas, and another 1,000MW by December 2018. That’s nearly as much as Liddell could supply flat out. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Spending a few hundred million dollars to prop up an old coal plant for a few years would shift it to the high-cost end of coal generators. So when prices fall, it would be one of the first coal plants to have to shut down, and among the last to come back online when prices rebound. This would add to the stress on the facility and the management challenges of operating it – unless it had preferential cheap access to a lot of pumped hydro capacity.

In the medium to long term, we do need to work out how to supply electricity for 24/7 industries but, according to AEMO, this is not urgent. We don’t know how much of that kind of industry will be here in ten years or so, given high gas prices, the age of their industrial plants, and their relatively small scale relative to their international competitors.

On the other hand, they may adapt by investing in behind-the-meter measures. Or they could relocate to sunny places and be part of what the economist Ross Garnaut has called the “low-carbon energy superpower”.

This article was written by:

Image of Alan Pears -

Alan Pears – [Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University]





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St Kilda’s New Water Tube

Water Tube
Water Tube

by Mantis Kane

No, this isn’t what you think. Water Tube isn’t a new kids’ ride at Luna Park, or the latest transport method to the CBD but rather an ingenious Aussie invention promoted by a long-time St Kilda resident.

Local crowd funding platform vibed.fund has teamed up with Water Tube for a timely project that will be launched at the outset of what, according to some predictions, could be a drier than average summer.

What is Water Tube?

Water Tube is a machine-blown polyethylene tube creating a robust sealed unit that can contain 20 litres of water. Installed around a new planted tree or shrub, Water Tube provides the ultimate in resistance to the elements and animal pests.

Water Tube provides plants with predictable and measured water dosage regardless of the weather, whilst protecting them from animals, sun, wind and frost. This in turn helps them grow bigger, faster. It is also 100% re-usable and recyclable and offers savings in the region of 75% on water costs.

As a St Kilda resident and Water Tube director, Tim Langdon notes, “It’s a self-watering plant guard. The idea is to make sure that not a drop of water gets wasted, saving you money, time and helping your plants survive dry summers. It’s ideal for when you’re away on holidays or don’t have the time.”

Local crowd funding platform vibed.fund have teamed up with Water Tube to drive the campaign, and in doing so will piggy back with one of Langdon’s ongoing eco-awareness projects, A Drop In The Ocean.

A Drop in the Ocean is a documentary feature about the adverse impacts of human activity on the world’s oceans and the practical steps that everyday people can take to mitigate these impacts. This ambitious project has been a focus for debate and awareness raising. Although still in production, the project has over one hundred thousand Facebook followers and connects with them on a regular basis.

The crowd funding phase of the Water Tube project will begin in October, running for a month, offering discounted deals and value adds from the native nurseries.

It’s been an unusually dry winter in parts of Australia, with the real possibility of dry conditions continuing into summer. You can support the Water Tube campaign, save money on water and protect your precious plants this summer by visiting www.vibed.fund to find out more.

Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health

 Social media posts, such as this image  
uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.

Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScanMarine Debris TrackerOakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Image of the reef under the water
Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online. Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons,

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Image of a Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef
Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef. Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.

Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

While it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Susanne Becken
Susanne Becken – [Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University] ;
Image of Bela Stanic
Bela Stanic – [Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University] ;
Image of Rod Conolly
Rod Conolly – [Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University]





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