The three-minute story of 800,000 years of climate change with a sting in the tail

The-three-minute-story-of-800,000-years-of-climate-changeIce cores are a window into the  
 past hundreds of thousands of years. 
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Ludovic Brucker

There are those who say the climate has always changed, and that carbon dioxide levels have always fluctuated. That’s true. But it’s also true that since the industrial revolution, CO₂ levels in the atmosphere have climbed to levels that are unprecedented over hundreds of millennia.

So here’s a short video we made, to put recent climate change and carbon dioxide emissions into the context of the past 800,000 years.

The temperature-CO₂ connection

Earth has a natural greenhouse effect, and it is really important. Without it, the average temperature on the surface of the planet would be about -18℃ and human life would not exist. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is one of the gases in our atmosphere that traps heat and makes the planet habitable.

We have known about the greenhouse effect for well over a century. About 150 years ago, a physicist called John Tyndall used laboratory experiments to demonstrate the greenhouse properties of CO₂ gas. Then, in the late 1800s, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first calculated the greenhouse effect of CO₂ in our atmosphere and linked it to past ice ages on our planet.

Modern scientists and engineers have explored these links in intricate detail in recent decades, by drilling into the ice sheets that cover Antarctica and Greenland. Thousands of years of snow have compressed into thick slabs of ice. The resulting ice cores can be more than 3km long and extend back a staggering 800,000 years.

Scientists use the chemistry of the water molecules in the ice layers to see how the temperature has varied through the millennia. These ice layers also trap tiny bubbles from the ancient atmosphere, allowing us to measure prehistoric CO₂ levels directly.

Graphs showing the temp change in the Antarctic and globally over last 1,000 years
Antarctic temperature changes across the ice ages were very similar to globally-averaged temperatures, except that ice age temperature changes over Antarctica were roughly twice that of the global average. Scientists refer to this as polar amplification (data from Parrenin et al. 2013; Snyder et al. 2016; Bereiter et al. 2015). Ben Henley and Nerilie Abram

Temperature and CO₂

The ice cores reveal an incredibly tight connection between temperature and greenhouse gas levels through the ice age cycles, thus proving the concepts put forward by Arrhenius more than a century ago.

In previous warm periods, it was not a CO₂ spike that kickstarted the warming, but small and predictable wobbles in Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun. CO₂ played a big role as a natural amplifier of the small climate shifts initiated by these wobbles. As the planet began to cool, more CO₂ dissolved into the oceans, reducing the greenhouse effect and causing more cooling. Similarly, CO₂ was released from the oceans to the atmosphere when the planet warmed, driving further warming.

But things are very different this time around. Humans are responsible for adding huge quantities of extra CO₂ to the atmosphere – and fast.

The speed at which CO₂ is rising has no comparison in the recorded past. The fastest natural shifts out of ice ages saw CO₂ levels increase by around 35 parts per million (ppm) in 1,000 years. It might be hard to believe, but humans have emitted the equivalent amount in just the last 17 years.

How fast are CO₂ levels rising? Ben Henley and Nerilie Abram

Before the industrial revolution, the natural level of atmospheric CO₂ during warm interglacials was around 280 ppm. The frigid ice ages, which caused kilometre-thick ice sheets to build up over much of North America and Eurasia, had CO₂ levels of around 180 ppm.

Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, takes ancient carbon that was locked within the Earth and puts it into the atmosphere as CO₂. Since the industrial revolution humans have burned an enormous amount of fossil fuel, causing atmospheric CO₂ and other greenhouse gases to skyrocket.

In mid-2017, atmospheric CO₂ now stands at 409 ppm. This is completely unprecedented in the past 800,000 years.

Image of Global Temperature and CO₂ since 1850.
Global Temperature and CO₂ since 1850. Ben Henley and Nerilie Abram

The massive blast of CO₂ is causing the climate to warm rapidly. The last IPCC report concluded that by the end of this century we will get to more than 4℃ above pre-industrial levels (1850-99) if we continue on a high-emissions pathway.

If we work towards the goals of the Paris Agreement, by rapidly curbing our CO₂ emissions and developing new technologies to remove excess CO₂ from the atmosphere, then we stand a chance of limiting warming to around 2℃.

 

Graphy of Observed and projected global temperature on high (RCP8.5) and low (RCP2.6) CO₂ emission futures.
Observed and projected global temperature on high (RCP8.5) and low (RCP2.6) CO₂ emission futures. Ben Henley and Nerilie Abram

The fundamental science is very well understood. The evidence that climate change is happening is abundant and clear. The difficult part is: what do we do next? More than ever, we need strong, cooperative and accountable leadership from politicians of all nations. Only then will we avoid the worst of climate change and adapt to the impacts we can’t halt.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Ben HenleyBen Henley – [Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne] and
Image of Nerilie Abram
Nerilie Abram – [ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National]

The authors acknowledge the contributions of Wes Mountain (multimedia), Alicia Egan (editing) and Andrew King (model projection data).

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

Explainer: what is a ‘low emissions target’ and how would it work?

How-a-LET-might-work_smokestacks Depending on the policy settings, 
a low-emissions target could conceivably award carbon credits to coal plants.
AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

The main job of the Finkel Review, to be released this week, is to set out ways to reform the National Electricity Market (NEM) to ensure it delivers reliable and affordable power in the transition to low-carbon energy. Yet most of the attention has been focused on what type of carbon-reduction scheme Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, will recommend.

The expectation is that he will advocate a “low emissions target” (LET), and it looks like industry is getting behind this.

That would be instead of an emissions intensity scheme (EIS), which had been supported by much of industry as well as regulators and analysts, but the government rejected this.

Both types of scheme are second-best approaches to a carbon price. They can have similar effects depending on their design and implementation, although an EIS would probably be more robust overall.

How a LET might work

A LET would give certificates to generators of each unit of electricity below a threshold carbon intensity. Electricity retailers and industry would be obliged to buy the certificates, creating a market price and extra revenue for low-emission power generators.

How many certificates get allocated to what type of power generator is an important design choice. Government would also determine the demand for the certificates, and this defines the overall ambition of the scheme.

At its core, the scheme would work rather like the existing Renewable Energy Target, which it would replace. But the new scheme would also include some rewards for gas-fired generators, and perhaps even for coal-fired generators that are not quite as polluting as others. The question is how to do this.

A simple but crude way of implementing a LET would be to give the same number of certificates for every megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity generated using technologies below a benchmark level of emissions intensity. In practice, that would be renewables and gas. In principle, the scheme could include nuclear power as well as coal plants with carbon capture and storage, but neither exists in Australia, nor are they likely to be built.

Such a simple implementation would have two drawbacks. One, it would create a strong threshold effect: if your plant is slightly above the benchmark, you’re out, slightly below and you’re in. Two, it would give the same reward to gas-fired generators as to renewables, which is inefficient from the point of view of emissions reduction.

A better way is to scale the amount of certificates issued to the emissions intensity of each plant.

If the benchmark was 0.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide per MWh of electricity (as some media reports have predicted), then a gas plant producing 0.5 tonnes of CO₂ per MWh would get 0.2 certificates per MWh generated. A wind or solar farm, with zero emissions, would receive 0.7 certificates per MWh generated.

The benchmark could also be set at a higher level, potentially so high that all power stations get certificates in proportion to how far below the benchmark they are. For example, a benchmark of 1.4 tonnes CO₂ per MWh would give 1.4 certificates to renewables, 0.9 certificates to the gas plant, 0.5 certificates to an average black coal plant and 0.2 certificates to a typical brown coal plant.

Including existing coal plants in the LET in this way would create an incentive for the sector to move towards less polluting generators. It would thus help to reduce emissions from the coal fleet, and perhaps pave the way for the most polluting plants to be retired earlier. But the optics would not be good, as the “low emissions” mechanism would be giving credits to coal.

Whichever way certificates are distributed, the government also has to specify how many certificates electricity retailers need to buy. Together with the benchmark and with how electricity demand turns out, this will determine the emissions intensity of overall power supply. The benchmark would need to decline over time; alternatively, the amount of certificates to be bought could be increased.

The price of LET certificates would depend on all of these parameters, together with the cost of energy technologies, and industry expectations about the future levels of all of these variables. As the experience of the RET has shown, these can be difficult to predict.

Low emissions target vs emissions intensity scheme

An emissions intensity scheme (EIS) is the proposal that in recent times had the broadest support in the policy debate. Finkel’s preliminary report referenced it and the Climate Change Authority earlier put significant emphasis on it. But it got caught in the internal politics of the Liberal-National Coalition and was ruled out.

Under an EIS, the government would set a benchmark emissions intensity, declining over time. Generators below the benchmark would be issued credits, whereas those running above the benchmark would need to buy credits to cover their excess emissions. Supply and demand set the price in this market.

Depending on how the parameters are set, the effects of a LET and an EIS on the power mix and on power prices would differ, but not necessarily in fundamental ways.

There are some key differences though. Under a LET, electricity retailers will need to buy certificates and not all power plants may be covered by a low-carbon incentive. Under an EIS, the higher-polluting plants buy credits from the cleaner ones, and all types of plants are automatically covered. The EIS market would be closely related to the wholesale electricity market, with the same participants, whereas a LET market would be separate and distinct, like the RET market now.

Further, the benchmark in an EIS directly defines the emissions intensity of the grid and its change over time. Not so for the benchmark in a LET. A LET will also require assumptions about future electricity demand in setting the total amount of credits that should be purchased – and bear in mind that the estimates used to calibrate the RET were wildly off the mark.

What’s more, an EIS might present a chance to circumvent the various special rules and exemptions that exist in the RET, and which might be carried over to the LET.

Politics vs economics

Neither a LET nor an EIS provides revenue to government. Since the demise of Australia’s previous carbon price this has often been considered desirable politically, as it avoids the connotations of “carbon tax”. But economically and fiscally it is a missed opportunity.

Globally, most emissions trading schemes generate revenue that can be used to cut other taxes, help low-income households, or pay for clean energy research and infrastructure.

An economically efficient system should make carbon-based electricity more expensive, which encourages energy consumers to invest in energy-saving technology. Both a LET and an EIS purposefully minimise this effect, and thus miss out on a key factor: energy efficiency.

Ambition and confidence

More important than the choice of mechanism is the level of ambition and the political durability of the policy.

Bringing emissions into line with the Paris climate goals will require fundamental restructuring of Australia’s power supply. Coal would need to be replaced well before the end of the lifetime of the current plants, probably mostly with renewables.

To prompt large-scale investment in low-carbon electricity, we need a reliable policy framework with a genuine and lasting objective to reduce emissions. And investors need confidence that the NEM will be governed by rules that facilitate this transition.

Of any policy mechanism, investors will ask the hard questions: what will be its actual ambition and effects? Would the scheme survive a change in prime minister or government? Would it stand up to industry lobbying? Investor confidence requires a level of predictability of policy.

If a LET were supported by the government and acceptable to the Coalition backbench, and if the Labor opposition could see it as a building block of its climate policy platform, then the LET might be a workable second best, even if there are better options. Over the longer term, it could be rolled into a more comprehensive and efficient climate policy framework.

This article was written by:
Image of Frank Jotzo Frank Jotzo – [Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

Adani gives itself the green light, but that doesn’t change the economics of coal

Adani says yes Is it nearly the end of the road for coal?

Indian mining firm Adani announced on Tuesday that its board had approved plans to proceed with the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

But it is still far from clear whether Adani has actually obtained the finance to proceed with the A$16.5 billion project, or whether it has secured the necessary A$1.1 billion loan from the government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility needed for the mine’s railway.

That hasn’t stopped the state government hailing the announcement as an economic win for Queensland, on the basis of job creation and for the signals it provides to potential investors in the region. But this amounts to little more than short-sighted politics. The government appears to be steadfastly ignoring the realities of the current energy landscape.

Let’s recap: coal mining is not economically viable within the constraints of a global carbon budget, while renewable energy production is rapidly expanding as the world moves to more sustainable investments. The result is that coal projects could become stranded assets, with price tags that may already exceed what would have been the costs of a timely implementation of climate action. Investors and lending institutions are shifting to sustainable projects that limit the risk of catastrophic environmental damage.

The people own the coal

The state government owns the coal resource, but it is a special type of ownership. This is “public resource” ownership, meaning that all decisions made by the state government to exploit it must be in the interest of the public as a whole.

Issuing resource titles that allow Adani to proceed with a vast coal mine – in defiance of the social, economic and environmental impacts of such a project within a carbon-constrained economy – arguably represents a dereliction of the state’s duty to act in the public interest.

It also ignores the fact that in order to have just a 50% chance of keeping global warming within 2℃, a key aim of the Paris climate agreement, 90% of Australia’s current coal reserves must stay in the ground. If the mine proceeds, it will contribute substantially to global warming and accelerate the destruction of one of the world’s greatest natural assets, the Great Barrier Reef. This could have huge knock-on effects for future tourism in the area, which generates A$6 billion a year.

The economics of the Adani coal mine simply do not make sense. While there may be limited short-term employment opportunities and royalty gains for the state should the project actually get financed, the longer-term projections are dire.

The thermal coal market is in decline. What’s more, the Carmichael mine will produce low-ranking thermal coal with a high ash content, making it carbon-intensive even by coal’s standards, and bringing with it considerable health risks.

With this in mind, it seems short-sighted to subsidise an anticipated production of between 25 million and 60 million tonnes of coal a year. Put simply, coal is not a sustainable resource for energy production.

This climate perspective informs the market. India, for example, cannot be relied upon as a guaranteed market for this low-quality coal. This is particularly evident in the recent unveiling of India’s new power plan, which calls for a dramatic increase in renewable energy production. This will have a deleterious impact on all Australian coal markets, and makes the decision to pursue low-quality coal reserves all the more untenable.

The banks know this. Westpac, ANZ, NAB, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citi, BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole are among the domestic and international banks that have declined to fund the project, while the Commonwealth Bank has quit as the project’s financial adviser.

This is why the question of financing is so fraught. The major banks understand the fact that longer term, the Adani coal mine has no future. They are also concerned about the financial impact of stranded assets. Westpac, for example, made it very clear earlier this year that it aims to shift lending to sustainable economic models, and would increase lending to this sector to A$25 billion by 2030. It also made it clear that any funding for coal projects would henceforth be limited to existing coal projects with high-quality coal. Other major banks have adopted similar stances.

Where next?

So what happens now? The government may decide to fund Adani’s railway, but that does not necessarily mean the mine itself will ever actually move forward.

If and when Adani’s project does fall over, consideration should be given to whether the government should be held accountable for breaching public interest responsibilities in issuing the resource titles in the first place. Of course, this necessarily presumes the financing for the Adani mine will actually proceed.

To reiterate, there is no evidence that this has actually occurred. Getting government approval, and a green light from one’s own board, does not mean that Adani actually has the funding required to go ahead and dig the coal.

In the end, the real question is whether any lending institution will seriously take a risk on this vast and irresponsible project, which ignores both the safety of the Great Barrier Reef and the fundamentals of carbon-constrained economics.

This article was written by:

Image of Samantha HepburnSamantha Hepburn – [Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

 

We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’

We can't recycle to zero waste Recycling should be seen as a last 
defence against landfill.

In the wake of the final episode of the ABC’s War on Waste, in which a dismayed Craig Reucassel canvasses Australia’s rubbish-related sins, the idea of “zero waste” is pretty hot right now.

Text Image of The City of Sydney’s Zero Waste campaign.
The City of Sydney’s Zero Waste campaign. City of Sydney

But often when we hear of zero waste movements, or civic and corporate zero waste commitments, they are actually “zero waste to landfill” campaigns. They’re not aiming for zero waste to be produced, just for all waste to be managed somehow – usually, relying heavily on recycling.

In fact most of us have probably said, or at least heard, the statement: “It’s not waste – it gets recycled!” or for food, “it goes to compost!”

Certainly it’s old news to the waste recovery industry that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. High-quality, well-sorted waste isn’t just usable, it’s desirable – either for recycling or conversion into fuel.

The Australian recycling industry is doing a good job of repurposing most of our collected recyclable material. This contributes to developing circular economy, in which recycled waste displaces virgin material in production.

But, like many words, there’s a crucial difference between the common and technical definition of waste. Conversationally, “waste” is understood as something unwanted or unusable, that has no value. In technical terms, it’s a classification of a resource or product at a certain point in its value chain.

It might seem like a pedantic distinction. But language shapes our understanding and behaviour, and our conception of what is possible and important.

Albert Shamess, Vancouver’s director of waste management said recently, “we can’t recycle our way to zero waste”. It goes to the heart of the question: is waste still waste if it gets recycled?

The standard waste hierarchy generally demarcates between waste avoidance and waste management, with recycling squarely in the waste management zone. In this sense, recycling is something we do to waste, not a way to avoid it.

Image of the waste hierachy
The ‘waste hierarchy’ prioritises actions by those with the greatest environmental benefit. UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures

These days, recycling is standard practice in most Australian households and in general is fairly simple. It’s not that hard to place an item in a recycling bin instead of the rubbish when they’re side by side in the kitchen (or in an office, or public space).

But recycling sits fairly low down the waste hierarchy. When we say “it’s not waste if it gets recycled”, it makes it easier to avoid more important actions with greater potential impact.

Similarly, when zero waste commitments are defined as “not going to landfill”, it’s too easy for companies or cities to set a diversion target and focus on recycling and recovery, rather than setting targets for the more complicated task of waste minimisation.

But while recycling (and recovery) is a great last line of defence, it’s nowhere near as effective as avoiding the waste in the first place.

Why is recycling low on the waste hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy prioritises actions based on how much they benefit the environment. Recycling is certainly magnitudes better than landfill, because it replaces virgin materials in the manufacturing process. For example, recycling aluminium is 95% more efficient than using virgin aluminium, recycling plastic is 85% more efficient, paper 50%, and glass 40%.

But the recycling process still consumes energy (and other resources), and costs money. And for many materials, particularly plastic and to some extent paper, recycling is also a downgrading process.

These materials can only be recycled a certain number of times before they degrade beyond all use, and generally then end up in landfill. At this point, they can’t be recovered for waste to energy.

On the other hand, if we could reduce the amount of material that needs to be recycled, or better yet, the amount that needs to be produced in the first place, these costs would disappear altogether. Better consumer choices can play a role, but more significant are improved resource management and smarter product design.

In our transition to a circular economy, the way we characterise things may shift to emphasise the that objects have value beyond the end of their intended life. But it’s essential we still call a spade a spade.

Regardless of whether something is “waste” if it gets recycled, recycling (and recovery) needs to be seen as what is is – a last line of defence. Minimising waste is more important than managing it, and we need to keep our focus there.

This article was written by:
Jenni Downes – [Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

Catholic schools’ ‘alternative’ to Safe Schools isn’t all that alternative

 Some in the Catholic community previously
labeled the Safe Schools program as ‘controversial’. Mal Fairclough/AAP

A Catholic school network’s launch of an “alternative” to Safe Schools Coalition – an anti-bullying program – is based on the same research and approaches.

This alternative program bears remarkable similarities in both its research base and the conclusions it draws for best practice. This demonstrates that when the research is taken into account, the Safe Schools approach perhaps wasn’t part of a “Marxist agenda” after all.

The materials available draw on the same statistics about the prevalence of sexual and gender diversity among young people as Safe Schools.

These are the same stats that proved so controversial and were contested as “misleading” when used by Safe Schools Victoria.

Established by Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA), these materials have been developed as a response to EREA’s “Safe and inclusive learning communities” report.

EREA is providing resources and training for the Australian Catholic schools under their governance as part of an approach to provide:

safe and inclusive learning environments for all students, in particular for same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people.

But weren’t Catholic schools against Safe schools Coalition?

Safe Schools recently lost its federal funding after being labelled as “inappropriate” by critics.

Much of this criticism came from members of the Catholic Community who, along with the Australian Christian Lobby and particular media outlets, succeeded in framing the approach as “controversial” and “ideological”.

The program had also been accused of “promoting a radical view of gender and sexuality”, and foisting it on schools through “indoctrination”, “enforcement”, and “induction”.

The Victoria government was the only state to agree to keep funding the Safe Schools program. But in doing do, it decided to cut ties with its co-founder, Roz Ward – terminating the roles of Ward and the three other staff members – after a public backlash about Ward’s personal political views.

So why do Catholic schools now want to teach this?

This proposal is certainly promising.

EREA represent a progressive strain of Catholicism. Edmund Rice is cited in EREA material as inspiring Catholic schools “to give particular care to young people who might otherwise be excluded or rejected”.

EREA has a publicly available Safe and Inclusive Learning Communities Statement and a document offering resources for principals, school leaders and teachers. These outline an approach based on safety, wellbeing and positive affirmation, with an aim of students “feeling good” about their sexual and gender identity.

EREA directly tackles the possibility of its approach being received as controversial by teachers and parents by making some effort to frame its guidelines as an issue of awareness, education and safety.

What is being taught – and is it any different to Safe Schools?

Like Safe Schools, EREA recommends whole-school approaches that openly acknowledge the awareness of sexually and gender diverse members of the student community in both primary and secondary schools.

Affirmative approaches have long been best-practice, demanding cultural competence from teachers or practitioners and framing queer identity as equally valid and positive as heterosexual identity.

The resources also state that in primary schools:

It is also important for students who come from LGBTI families or who have LGBTI siblings to feel that their families and identities are a valued and visible part of the school community.

The document for teachers is careful to emphasise that sexual identity does not automatically equate with sexual practice. It says:

because a student is an LGBTI person does not automatically mean that they are or will be sexually active.

This is perhaps a response to charges of Safe Schools “sexualising” young people. But it also may well be an allusion to the standard Catholic practice of distinguishing between having desires and acting on them as a way to appease those for whom affirmation of queer “acts” may be too far.

The key difference from Safe Schools is that, as well as appealing to the wellbeing of young people, affirmation is framed as a Catholic virtue, with quotations from the Bible, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church as evidence.

The statement, for example, leads with the emphasis that:

Our sacred scripture reminds us (Genesis 1) that each and every person is made in the image and likeness of God.

In particular, both documents finish with a quotation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

The research-based, whole-school nature of this proposal is promising. However, it remains to be seen how it plays out in practice, and whether an approach backed by a Catholic School Network will experience the same level of vitriol as Safe Schools.

While moves to manage sexual and gender affirmation in-house are commendable, research shows that “sexuality support” can be more effective and better contribute to queer young people’s health and wellbeing when provided by people who are themselves from sexual minorities.

It is widely noted that role models play an important part of LGBT people’s wellbeing. Therefore it is a shame that the queer role models championing these affirmative approaches have been pushed out of the picture.

This article was written by:
Image of Lucy NicholasLucy Nicholas – [Discipline Co-ordinator and Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Swinburne University of Technology]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

Time for China and Europe to lead, as Trump dumps the Paris climate deal

Trump dumps the Paris climate deal Trump waves au revoir to the Paris deal.

President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. 

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?

As I have previously argued, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.

There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.

According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.

While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.

Decades of destruction

Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:

  • Repeal the clean power plan
  • Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands
  • End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters
  • Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline
  • Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.

And the list goes on.

This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.

As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.

In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.

If only it were all a hoax.

This article was written by:
Image of Christian DownieChristian Downie – [Fellow and Higher Degree Research Convener, Australian National University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

Explainer: how much landfill does Australia have?

How much landfill does Australia have A compactor at work on 
Australian landfill.

Since Australia stopped incinerating rubbish in the middle of the 20th century, most of our solid waste has ended up in landfill. Some 20 million tonnes of garbage each year makes its way to hundreds of landfill sites, mostly clustered around our capital cities. This represents about 40% of total waste generation in Australia.

Surprisingly, we don’t know exactly how many landfills exist, where they all are, or how large they are. However, government data suggest that there are around 600 officially registered sites, and perhaps as many as 2,000 unregulated ones, most of them small.

Since the 1990s, the number of landfills in Australia has fallen but the average size has grown. These large sites are increasingly sophisticated and generally run by large private companies. Around 75% of landfilled waste in Australia goes to 38 sites.

What’s in landfill?

Waste in landfills falls into three major categories: household rubbish, commercial and industrial waste, and construction and demolition waste.

The average domestic bin contains 60% organic material, with the bulk coming from food (40%) and garden waste (20%). This is a primary source of landfill gas, mainly methane, which is produced when organic waste decomposes. The methane is collected and combusted using a flare or an electricity generation system. Flaring of landfill gas converts the methane to carbon dioxide, which has a significantly lower global warming potential than methane.

Of course, it’s better to reduce landfill gas in the first place. New technologies in composting and anaerobic digestion can help divert organics from landfill.

In 2013-14, the commercial sector generated 17 million tonnes of waste, representing just under a third of all waste in Australia. Around 7 million tonnes ended up in landfill. The major trends in commercial waste treatment include sourcing separated food and organics collection, and alternative waste treatment as levies and grants increase.

When water passes through toxic or hazardous waste it picks up contaminants and becomes leachate, which can contaminate the surrounding land and water.

Around 40% of Australia’s waste, or some 19 million tonnes a year, comes from construction and demolition. This typically includes timber, concrete, plastics, wood, metals, cardboard, asphalt and mixed site debris such as soil and rocks. However, only 8.5 million tonnes ended up in landfill, as levies in most states make it cheaper to recycle this material.

About 10.5 million tonnes, or 55%, was recovered and recycled in 2008-09 with recovery rates of greater than 75% being achieved by best performing jurisdictions.

How many landfills are in Australia, and where?

We calculate the number of landfills in Australia by looking at national databases like the National Pollution Inventory or the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme. However, while all operating landfills are licensed by their local councils, many regional sites fall below the size threshold where they’re required to report to these programs, or apply for environmental licenses. Therefore, we can’t say exactly how many landfills are in Australia – although someone could find out by calling every local council in the country.

The map below, from the National Waste Management Facilities Database, shows all known waste management, recycling and reprocessing facilities in Australia.

The National Waste Management Database.

Queensland reports the most sites, followed by New South Wales and Western Australia. Since lifting dumping levies, media reports estimate that 10% of Queensland’s landfill comes from interstate.

Victoria and Tasmania have a high proportion of large-to-medium sites, while NSW has the most large sites, matching its relatively large population. Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia have relatively high numbers of small sites, reflecting their highly dispersed populations.

The Northern Territory, the only other jurisdiction to not have a landfill levy, generates just 1% of Australia’s waste.

Image of a graph of landfill distribution
Reported numbers of Australian landfills by jurisdiction. Analysis of landfill survey data 2013 © WMAA and Blue Environment

Most of Australia’s waste goes to a small number of large sites. However, the majority of Australia’s landfills are small, receiving less than 20,000 tonnes of waste per year. The lack of precise national data on these sites is a real problem, as small, unlined landfills can still have major localised impact.

Graph of landfill size state by state
Reported tonnes of waste deposited by landfill size class and jurisdiction. Analysis of landfill survey data 2013 © WMAA and Blue Environment

Who’s in charge?

Local councils are responsible for landfills in their areas, but the largest sites in Australia are run by private companies. In jurisdictions with small populations, like Tasmania and the Northern Territory, no private companies operate.

The Woodlawn landfill, 240km southwest of Sydney, gets more waste than any other landfill in Australia.

The Rochedale landfill, 18km south east of Brisbane, was in the countryside when established in the early 1990s. Now surrounded by suburban houses, it highlights the importance of appropriate planning and management of these sites. This is why Adelaide’s largest landfill is located 90km north of the city.

The variety of jurisdictions and operators involved, and their different sizes, suggests that landfills are not consistently managed.

The National Resource Recovery targets encourage private operators to reclaim and divert some of the waste going to landfill. The diversion targets vary from state to state. South Australia and the ACT have the most ambitious targets and are most advanced in meeting them. Queensland, on the other hand, is the furthest from their targets – this is likely to be a consequence of not having a landfill levy.

Graph of National Resource Recovery Targets.
National Resource Recovery Targets. MSW represents household waste, C&I represents commercial waste and C&D represents construction and demolition waste. Since 2014, Victoria has aimed to maximise diversion without a headline target. MRA Consulting Group, October 2015

Landfills, however, can offer an average 50% methane gas capture during its life. The solid waste in landfills can also be an energy resource in its own right, though this has largely been untapped.

The future of landfills and resource recovery

So what lies ahead? Landfills will remain an integral part of the Australian waste cycle into the foreseeable future. Well managed, best practice landfills provide safe disposal of residual waste and the potential for resource recovery.

We have observed an increase in investment in resource recovery infrastructure, which is possibly driven by rises in landfill levies. But more is needed: the 2016 Infrastructure Australia report did not mention waste or recycling.

In order to provide key integrated infrastructure, governments need to recognise that waste (and its proper management) delivers essential services like electricity or water.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Bernadette McCabeBernadette McCabe – [Associate Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland] and
Image of William Clarke William Clarke – [Professor of waste management, The University of Queensland]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

 

 

Around the world, environmental laws are under attack in all sorts of ways

Around-the-world-environmental-laws-are-under-attack In Montana and Idaho, endangered gray 
wolves are no longer safe outside national parks.

As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.

One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.

The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.

Cartoon labelled "Industry with conscience"
Nick Kim / www.lab-initio.com

One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.

In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.

Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.

And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.

In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.

In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.

In the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, endangered species are protected by law, unless it is deemed to be in the “national interest” not to do so. Although an endangered species, the endemic Mauritius flying fox was annoying commercial fruit farmers, so the government has allowed more than 40,000 flying foxes to be culled.

And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.

Shoot the messengers

Campaigners should also beware. Under new legislation proposed in the UK, conservation groups that lose lawsuits will be hit with heavy financial penalties.

In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.

In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.

That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.

Cartoon labelled "Consider the trees. They have no legs to run with.
Nick Kim / www.lab-initio.com

As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.

Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.

Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.

This article was written by:

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

The 2017 budget has axed research to help Australia adapt to climate change

Budget axes climate change research
Budget axes climate change research Flooding on the Coomera River near 
Queensland’s Gold Coast

The 2017 federal budget has axed funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), an agency that provides information to decision-makers on how best to manage the risks of climate change and sea level rise.

The NCCARF received A$50 million in 2008 to coordinate Australia’s national research effort into climate adaptation measures. That was reduced in 2014 to just under A$9 million. For 2017-18, a mere A$600,000 will be spread between CSIRO and NCCARF to support existing online platforms only. From 2018, funding is axed entirely.

This decision follows on from the 2014 streamlining of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, and comes at a time when a national review of Australia’s climate policies is still underway.

Despite a growing global impetus to address the risks of climate change, there is evidence that Australia is being hampered by policy inertia. A review of 79 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation, published in 2014, found that:

adaptation first and foremost requires clear governance, and appropriate policy and legislation to implement change.

Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of the top five risks to the world, in terms of its potential impact. Meanwhile, in Australia, local governments, professionals and community groups have consistently called for more national policy guidance on how best to adapt to climate risks.

The government’s decision to slash funding for climate adaptation research is therefore at odds with the growing urgency of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major assessment report, pointed out that Australia can benefit significantly from taking adaptation action in highly vulnerable sectors.

These areas of vulnerability include: the risk of more frequent and intense floods; water shortages in southern regions; deaths and infrastructure damage caused by heatwaves; bushfires; and impacts on low-lying coastal communities.

To put it simply, lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures.

Australia needs a coherent policy approach that goes beyond the current focus on energy policy, although climate adaptation is indeed an important issue for our electricity grid as well as for many other elements of our infrastructure. A coherent, whole-of-government, approach to climate risk is the economical and sensible approach in the long term.

Like it or not, the federal government has to take a leading role in climate adaptation. This includes the ongoing need to address existing knowledge gaps through well-funded research.

The federal government is the major funder of leading research in Australia, delivered through CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cooperative Research Centres, the Australian Research Council and universities. This role should not be divested. Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services – much of which would be avoidable with the right knowledge and preparation.

The damage bill from the 2010-11 Queensland floods alone exceeded A$6 billion. Since 2009, natural disasters have cost the Australian government more than A$12 billion, and the private sector has begun trying in earnest to reduce its risk exposure.

In response to these known risks, there is demand for robust policy guidance. Effective partnerships between government, industry and the community are crucial. One such example led by the NCCARF is CoastAdapt, an online tool that collates details of climate risks and potential costs in coastal areas.

For projects like this, success hinges on full engagement with all relevant spheres of government, industry, research, and the community. There is more to be done, and it needs leadership at the highest level.

This article was co-authored by:
Tayanah O'Donnell Tayanah O’Donnell – [Research Fellow, University of Canberra]
and
Josephine MummeryJosephine Mummery – [Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, climate change policy, University of Canberra]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

 

Climate Council: climate, health and economics are against Carmichael mine

Climate Council: climate, health and economics are against Carmichael mine Many banks are worried that 
coal investments could be left stranded on their asset books.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that fossil fuels are killing the Great Barrier Reef and making many extreme weather events worse; despite the emphatic thumbs-down from the finance sector; and despite the growing awareness of the serious health impacts of coal, the proposed Carmichael coal mine staggers on, zombie-like, amid reports it has been offered a deferment of A$320 million in royalty payments.

A new Climate Council report, Risky Business: Health, Climate and Economic Risks of the Carmichael Coalmine, makes an emphatic case against development of the proposed mine, or of any other coal deposits in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, or indeed elsewhere around the world.

Burning coal is a major contributor to climate change. Australia is already reeling from the escalating impacts of a warming climate. Heatwaves and other extreme weather events are worsening. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered consecutive mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. Climate change is likely making drought conditions worse in the agricultural belts of southwest and southeast Australia. Our coastal regions are increasingly exposed to erosion and flooding as sea level rises.

If we are to slow these disturbing trends and stabilise the climate at a level with which we might be able to cope, only a relatively small amount of the world’s remaining coal, oil and gas reserves can actually be used.

The majority must be left unburned in the ground, without developing vast new coal deposits such as those in the Galilee Basin.

On budget

The amount of fossil fuels we can burn for a given temperature target (such as the 1.5℃ and 2℃ targets of the Paris climate agreement) is known as the “carbon budget”.

To give ourselves just a 50% chance of staying within the 2℃ Paris target, we can burn only 38% of the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves. When this budget is apportioned among the various types of fossil fuels, coal is the big loser, because it is more emissions-intensive than other fuels. Nearly 90% of the world’s existing coal reserves must be left in the ground to stay within the 2℃ budget.

When the carbon budget is apportioned by region to maximise the economic benefit of the remaining budget, Australian coal in particular is a big loser. More than 95% of Australia’s existing coal reserves cannot be burned, and the development of new deposits, such as the Galilee Basin, is ruled out.

The health case

Exploiting coal is very harmful to human health, with serious impacts all the way through the process from mining to combustion. Recently the life-threatening “black lung” (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) has re-emerged in Queensland, with 21 reported cases. Across Australia, the estimated costs of health damages associated with the combustion of coal amount to A$2.6 billion per year.

In India, the country to which coal from the proposed Carmichael mine would likely be exported, coal combustion already takes a heavy toll. An estimated 80,000-115,000 deaths, as well as 20 million cases of asthma, were attributed to pollutants emitted from coal-fired power stations in 2010-11. Up to 10,000 children under the age of five died because of coal pollution in 2012 alone.

Compared with the domestic coal resources in India, Carmichael coal will not reduce these health risks much at all. Galilee Basin coal is of poorer quality than that from other regions of Australia. Its estimated ash content of about 26% is double the Australian benchmark.

This is bad news for children in India or in any other country that ends up burning it.

The economics

The economic case for the Carmichael mine doesn’t stack up either. Converging global trends all point to rapidly reducing demand for coal.

The cost of renewable energy is plummeting, and efficient and increasingly affordable storage technologies are emerging. Coal demand in China is dropping as it ramps up the rollout of renewables. India is moving towards energy independence, and is eyeing its northern neighbour’s push towards renewables.

All of these trends greatly increase the risk that any new coal developments will become stranded assets. It’s little wonder that the financial sector has turned a cold shoulder to the Carmichael mine, and Galilee Basin coal development in general. Some 17 banks worldwide, including the “big four” in Australia, have ruled out any investment in the Carmichael mine.

From any perspective – climate, health, economy – the proposed mine is hard to justify. And yet the project keeps on keeping on.

This article was co-authored by:
Will Steffen – [Emeritus professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University]
and
Hilary Bambrick
Hilary Bambrick – [Head of School, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation