Displaying items by tag: climate change
This important discussion paper on population and climate change by Ian Lowe, Jane O’Sullivan and Peter Cook was published in February 2022 by Sustainable Population Australia. Here is their summary.
The relationship between population and climate change is complex. At a basic level, for a given lifestyle (consumption pattern), emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change are directly proportional to the size of the population. For example, if Australia’s recent population growth rate of about 1.5% per year were to continue, in less than 50 years we would double our demands for energy, food, water and all natural resources. All else being equal, we would double our carbon footprint also. On the other hand, in a hypothetical world where we achieve lifestyles entirely free from greenhouse gas generation, how many of us there were would make no difference to the climate. But even if this were achievable, which is questionable, we could decarbonise our lifestyles more rapidly if population growth was not constantly adding to the demand for energy and resources. Hence, the rate of population growth will make a considerable difference to the cumulative emissions generated during the transition. Furthermore, population growth greatly increases our vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
The population issue has had a controversial history which has led to the development of a ‘taboo’ against talking about population as a policy-relevant factor. This paper calls for a new level of maturity in discussing the population issue. It should no longer be acceptable for unfounded accusations of racism to be used to silence respectful and thoughtful discussions about population growth. It should no longer be acceptable – at an epochal moment of existential risk for human civilisation – for climate policy prescriptions to conspicuously exclude population-related actions in the face of abundant evidence (as reported in this paper) that such measures are feasible, effective and consistent with human rights and democratic values. Ending global population growth more swiftly and at a lower peak is a necessary but not sufficient condition for overcoming the climate crisis.
Population and consumption work together
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says:
Globally, economic and population growth continue to be the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
But these are not independent contributors to emissions; they multiply each other. Most emissions are attributable to the richest billion people, but their economic growth since 1970 has not increased their average emissions per person. The growth in emissions has come from lifting multitudes of poor people to a modest middle-class lifestyle in places like China and India.
It is futile to ‘blame’ past emissions on either population or consumption patterns when they are the product of both. What should be of more interest to us is the extent to which the future challenges of climate change, including emissions reduction and adaptation, can be lessened by giving due attention to population growth. This paper argues that our climate change response can’t afford to ignore the potential to minimise further population growth.
Slow-response actions are no less urgent
Nobody expects addressing population growth alone to solve climate change. There is no intention to deflect attention from high- emissions consumption patterns, nor to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich. Demographic inertia means that even concerted efforts to slow population growth are unlikely to have significant impact on the timescale demanded by the climate crisis. Measures to decarbonise our energy system and reverse the loss of vegetation and biodiversity are needed urgently in this decade, if we are to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. Measures to reduce childbirth will take decades to make an appreciable difference to greenhouse gas emissions and human demands on nature.
Nevertheless, how well we do in the second half of this century will depend more on what we do about population growth this decade than on any actions that will remain available to us in 2050. If the successful efforts to promote voluntary family planning adoption in the 1970s and ’80s had not been abandoned in the 1990s, the global population might now be on track to peak below 9 billion. Because of decisions made in the 1990s, we’re heading for 11 billion or more. But if we renew family planning efforts now, a peak below 10 billion is possible and we could end this century with fewer than 8 billion people. If we wait until 2050, 11+ billion would be locked in.
A slow fruition does not make population action any less urgent. As the proverb says, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’ So it is with addressing global population. The climate crisis is largely a product of the short- sightedness of political responses decades ago. Those who say that reducing birth rates is too slow to be relevant to the climate change response are suffering the same short-sightedness that created the problem they seek to fix.
In rich countries, fewer people means lower emissions and fewer vulnerabilities
Any increase of population in the more affluent countries will add to those countries’ use of resources and their greenhouse gas emissions. In a rich country, having fewer children does more to slow climate change than any of the other actions often advocated, such as eating less meat, avoiding air travel or using only renewable energy. If immigration is high enough to cause population growth, it also increases a country’s emissions, but some people argue that it makes no difference globally. This is untrue: the average migrant to Australia increases their carbon footprint fourfold by adopting Australian lifestyles. While Australians have recently reduced their per capita emissions a little, Australia’s total emissions from energy have risen 49% since 1990 due entirely to population growth of 8.3 million people.
Australia is not only one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, it is also among the countries likely to be most affected, in terms of negative impacts on agriculture, water supply, bushfire threat and extreme weather events. All these threats are intensified by the threat-multiplier of population growth.
The current Australian government policy of encouraging high levels of migration could see the 2060 population approaching 40 million and continuing to grow rapidly. That scale of increase would significantly magnify the task of producing enough clean energy to meet our material needs within a responsible carbon budget. Australian agriculture is unlikely to feed that number during increasingly frequent and severe droughts, and water security will depend on costly and energy-intensive desalination or recycling. These serious vulnerabilities are entirely avoidable if we choose population stabilisation.
In poor countries, smaller families are essential for adaptation
Population growth heightens vulnerability to climate change to a much greater extent in poor, high-fertility countries. For most of these countries, population growth itself is a greater threat to security and wellbeing than climate change is. Saying this does not in any way diminish the serious impacts of climate change. However, if a projected 11–25% reduction in crop yields this century due to climate change is considered a crisis, it is absurd to claim, as many people do, that population growth in high-fertility countries is not important when it will diminish the available water and agricultural land per person by a factor of three or more, while ensuring high levels of unemployment and poor infrastructure provision. While family size should be considered part of emissions reduction efforts in rich countries, it should be integral to adaptation efforts in poor countries. Nevertheless, the emissions caused by growing numbers of the poor are not insignificant. Deforestation is particularly vulnerable to population pressure.
Currently, family planning services are badly underfunded, denying many women access to safe and reliable contraception. As a result, the fall in birth rates has been much slower than was anticipated a generation ago, unemployment is rampant and hunger is once more on the rise.
Many of the beneficial impacts of lower birth rates are enjoyed much more rapidly than their effect on carbon emissions. These benefits include greater autonomy of women, health of infants, food security of families, protection of biodiversity, employment prospects for youth and economic development of nations. If climate adaptation is dominating the agenda for international aid, it makes sense that family planning should be included as an adaptation measure.
Climate change will affect world population
The other side of the coin is the impact climate change is projected to have on population, through greater loss of life. The frequency of extreme heat events, floods and crop-destroying droughts is projected to increase substantially. Some Pacific islands and low-lying coastal areas will become uninhabitable, causing either loss of life or relocation of whole populations. Mass migrations could possibly in turn lead to conflict between the displaced people and those whose traditional lands they enter. However, responses to climate change can have some beneficial health impacts. Urban air pollution and indoor smoke exposure are both major causes of premature deaths, and might be substantially reduced by electrification of energy systems. It is difficult to anticipate the net effect on population trends.
Only low-population scenarios can keep warming below 2°C
The most compelling reason to include population in the climate change response is that climate mitigation models are only able to achieve sufficient emissions reduction if their scenarios assume a rapid peak and decline in global population. These assumptions are not readily visible: they are hidden under the labelling of scenarios such as ‘SSP1’ or ‘SSP2’. Without making these assumptions explicit, and discussing the actions that could help achieve the required birth reductions in a way that elevates people’s rights and freedoms, these scenarios can’t become reality.
Addressing population growth alone can’t solve climate change, but not addressing it will ensure we fail.
A couple of months ago, I sat in on an Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) event via Zoom for its donors and supporters that promoted its latest climate change campaign. As a long-serving councillor and former vice president of ACF, I was interested to hear about their campaign plans, which they explained are based on a poll of 15,000 people who indicated a desire for firm action on climate change. However, at the end of it, I felt isolated and alone. I felt I had moved on in my thinking, while ACF has not.
The presentations by senior ACF staff were earnest and uplifting and the comments posted in response were enthusiastic and supportive. But I felt myself estranged from the event. I found myself recalling how often, over my 30 years of enthusiastic involvement with ACF, I had felt uplifted and inspired by the same style of presentations by ACF’s key personnel. Now, not so and it felt a bit like having lost a faith.
So, what has changed for me as ACF barrels along in its customary manner? It comes down to a realisation that ACF, and environmentalism more generally, is stuck with talking about the symptoms of the environmental crisis, while ignoring the underlying causes. It is also locked into a largely fruitless campaign mode that is focused on targeting marginal seats in each Federal election. This has been its style since I joined its council in the 1980s and it remains a deeply entrenched, culturally embedded modus operandi.
The ACF people are intelligent, well-meant and deeply committed environmentalists, and for that they have my great respect. But they, and seemingly their supporters and donors who joined in this event, now appear to me to be tunnel-visioned and misguided in their fervour. First, and foremost, there is the assumption that climate change is the major existential threat that ACF and the wider environmental movement must address. It is their highest priority. And second, there is the additional assumption that this threat can be averted through a political campaign focussed on key marginal seats that will somehow bring about a radically different response. I hear myself thinking, ‘same old, same old’, looking back over forty years of ACF campaigning strategy. When will the penny drop that this is a fruitless strategy?
I could have submitted a comment to the event along the following lines:
When will ACF connect its climate change and biodiversity work to a deeper sustainability agenda that encompasses population growth, consumption, economic growth and technology – the underlying drivers of imminent collapse?
That would have been a real ‘party pooper’ contribution that I am sure would not have been welcomed by the ACF organisers on the night. It probably also would have been dismissed as inappropriate or irrelevant by most of the supporters and donors participating in the event.
The reality is that these deeper and more complex issues have been either ignored or dismissed by most ACF staff for much of its existence. This is despite the efforts of a number of its elected councillors and former Presidents over many years (ranging from Sir Garfield Barwick in the early 1970s to Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe more recently), to draw attention to them. The focus within ACF staff remains on an agenda dominated by the twin environmental pillars of climate change and biodiversity. But it would be unfair to level this criticism only at ACF. The environmental movement more generally, both here in Australia and in most other Western countries overseas, has largely displayed the same myopia in framing their campaigning and advocacy efforts.
As to the reasons for this behaviour, a fellow ex-ACF councillor, Jonathan Miller, offered me recently the following salient observations:
- The internal perception that it is easier to attract public support for issues such as climate change and biodiversity than for complex and less tangible issues such as population growth, consumption and economic growth.
- The additional perception that tackling the drivers of unsustainability is more difficult conceptually, much harder to win in the long-term and that it is more difficult to identify ‘wins’ to supporters and members.
- A shift in the profile of ACF (and other ENGO organisation) activists and their collective culture from those who deeply understand and love the bush (e.g. bushwalkers and those with natural science degrees) to those with broader social issue concerns (and whom, in turn, are particularly reluctant to tackle issues such as immigration-driven population growth in Australia).
Reinforcing the first of these points, the US founder of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, has offered the following observation about environmentalists more generally in a recent blog (The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change, Museletter #343 September 2021):
It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do (by targeting the fossil fuel industry). It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems, what’s the point?
This succinctly echoes exactly where my own thoughts have arrived at after over 40 years of involvement with environmental law and environmentalism. I have come to believe that:
- climate change is essentially a symptom (admittedly a very powerful one) of an underlying ‘growth’ disease; and
- that the current political system, which is the hand maiden of capitalism and completely in its capture, is incapable of producing an effective response to climate change, much less the deeper challenge of avoiding ecological collapse and transitioning to sustainability.
On the latter score, the efforts by ACF and other ENGO’s to scramble for the crumbs falling from the table at each, successive federal election, seem both flawed and largely fruitless. Over the years, even though ACF does not directly support any political party, it has often engaged in targeting marginal seats where the ALP may have a chance of defeating the Coalition. The relationship with the Australian Greens has remained strained. And, after watching on ABC TV this week the first episode of the series, Big Deal, which laid bare the lack of any safeguards with respect to corporate political donations, it is clear where the most powerful influences on federal politics come from.
So, this is why I am left feeling alone and isolated. Where are the voices to raise the larger sustainability agenda? What is the point of environmentalism, however well-intentioned, if it proceeds in almost deliberate disregard of this larger agenda? How can this agenda be pursued when those most likely to support it do not, or are not willing to, recognise it? And what is the point of trying to engage with the current, corrupt political system in which a large proportion of Australian citizens have lost all confidence?
My response to these questions, perhaps surprisingly, remains hopeful. There are many voices emerging globally in support of a deeper sustainability agenda, including some luminaries in Australia. Environmentalism has been a meritorious movement over the past fifty years but it now must be seen as one that is limited in its vision and incapable of promoting a deeper sustainability agenda. This agenda must and will emerge from other sources and directions. And the goal must be to promote this agenda through radical social, economic and political reforms – these will be the pathways of the transition to a sustainable future that embodies ecological resilience and a human civilisation that is living within its means.
To develop these ideas further, I am engaged currently in writing a book entitled The Great Transition: From the Anthropocene to the Ecolocene which I hope to get published in about eighteen months from now.
This article is reproduced with permission. It was published in the Sustainable Population Australia newsletter, issue #145, November 2021. It was written by Rob Fowler, Adjunct Professor at the School of Law, University of Adelaide. He was a vice-president of the ACF from 2008 to 2015.
Under the Paris climate change agreement the majority of countries have made pledges to get their greenhouse gas emissions down to ‘net zero’ by 2050 with the hope of keeping the global average temperature increase below 2°C and, preferably, no more than 1.5°C.
Australia is still an appalling laggard with no commitment by the Morrison government or any plan to achieve a goal of any sort. The commitment for 2030 of a reduction of 26 to 28% below 2005 levels is also being eclipsed by stronger commitments being made by many developed countries.
The world still has a long way to go to get to net zero. Many scientists are calling for a much faster reduction. The average global temperature has already increased by 1.1°C since pre-industrial levels and Australia’s increase is 1.44°C since 1910 when reliable data is available. It seems that reaching 1.5°C is inevitable so the Glasgow meeting is crucial to put in place actual policies, not just pledges, that will have provide a high probability that we won’t get beyond 2°C. Every fraction of a degree counts.
Definition of net zero
Net zero emissions describes the point in time when humans stop adding to the burden of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere. It refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. The level of balance was approximately at the time before the world started burning coal during the 18th century. The level of CO2 then was about 280 ppm. It is now about 417 ppm. Actual worldwide CO2 emissions are currently about 35 billion tonnes pa. The net effect of the natural land and ocean absorption processes leaves the situation where the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still increasing, by 2.4 ppm pa over the past decade.
This data does not include emissions of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous dioxides that have strong effects of atmospheric warming but are dissipated by chemical reaction relatively quickly. The following information focusses on CO2 emissions because they remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
Getting to net zero means we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. For example, these could be things like planting new forests, or drawdown technologies like direct air capture.
However, to meet the goal of net zero, new emissions of greenhouse gas must be as low as possible. This means that we need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and transition to renewable energy.
Climate change isn’t a tap we can turn off once we stop using fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change, will stay in the atmosphere and keep heating the planet for years and years. As the data above shows there is already an excess quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are having an impact on our climate so that we actually need to remove the excess in order to stop further increases in temperature and other effects of climate change.
Carbon offsetting options
Currently the main method of reducing emissions, called carbon offsetting, is planting trees. A massive area of land would be needed to make a big difference to total emissions. As a forest ages, it reaches what ecologists call a ‘steady state’ – this is when the amount of carbon absorbed by the trees each year is perfectly balanced by the CO₂ released through the breathing of the plants themselves and the trillions of decomposer microbes underground. So new areas will need to be planted out every year as emissions remain positive.
The calculation of the carbon content of a tree cannot be accurate unless the tree is pulled out of the ground so approximations are needed. Also the growth of each tree is non-linear, starting slowly and then the greatest sequestration rate is in the younger stages of tree growth, depending on rates and peaks of individual species, with the sequestration of CO2 per year dropping thereafter. The usual method is to choose the appropriate time scale and average the amount of carbon stored over that period.
Multiple factors such as growth conditions are at play so there is still much research needed into more accurate calculations. Of course the basic assumption is that the trees will remain standing. They won’t be burned down or degrade through drought of insect attack.
Once trees reach maturity they need to be locked away and then new areas need to be planted if more emissions need to be offset.
There are lots of other schemes for reducing emissions. The federal government is supporting ideas like carbon farming, avoided reforestation and land restoration.
A large market has developed for carbon credits that are calculated under schemes developed by under the UNFCCC. Some of these are available to governments and are popular with companies and individuals wanting to offset their emissions. The credits are sold by organisations that are running projects that reduce emissions, for example by supporting renewable energy in developing countries.
Have any countries or Australian states reached net zero emissions already?
Five countries have a net-zero target in place by law: Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and New Zealand.
Closer to home, some of the states and territories are doing well. Australia’s states and territories all have net zero targets, but most governments have not outlined how these targets will be met. Tasmania has been net zero in some individual years. In 2014 and 2018, Tasmania’s emissions dropped below net zero thanks to Tasmania’s massive hydroelectric dams, and massive carbon-dense forests. With the state’s electricity supply already nearing 100% renewable, the remaining emissions from the state – across transport, manufacturing, agriculture and forestry – were offset by the greenhouse gases sucked out of the atmosphere by the state’s forests.
A target is only as good as the policies underpinning it. Several governments with a net zero goal, such as Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, are still increasing their emissions each year. Even governments that are leading the pack when it comes to climate action – like South Australia and the ACT – still have more work to do to outline how they will meet their net zero goals.
The big concern is there are still new coal mining and gas projects being developed. It all seems very hypocritical for NSW to be supporting the Santos Pilliga gas project and mine expansion.
STEP is supporting the screening of the film 2040 at Roseville Cinema. Booking is essential. We need a minimum of 68 bookings before the screening can go ahead. Your payment will be refunded if this number is not reached.
The previous screening organised by Ku-ring-gai Council in July was booked out.
2040 is a hybrid feature documentary that looks to the future, but is vitally important NOW! Award-winning director Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) embarks on journey to explore what the future could look like by the year 2040 if we simply embraced the best solutions already available to us to improve our planet and shifted them rapidly into the mainstream.
Structured as a visual letter to his 4-year-old daughter, Damon blends traditional documentary with dramatised sequences and high-end visual effects to create a vision board of how these solutions could regenerate the world for future generations.
There is lots of research demonstrating the benefits of trees in urban areas. Not only do they camouflage the grey asphalt and concrete of roads and footpaths, they can reduce temperatures and the need for air conditioning in buildings. They also improve the microclimate by retaining moisture in the air and soil and they encourage residents to get out into the community and enjoy beautiful shaded areas.
Tree planting is an effective and efficient way to adapt to climate change. However as climate change leads to higher temperatures and more variable and lower rainfall we need to consider how the popular trees used in urban areas will respond to the changes.
Different species have different levels of tolerance of heat, lack of water and other threats posed by climate change.
Research teams from Macquarie University (including former STEP president Prof Michelle Leishman) and Western Sydney University, have embarked on a project called Which Plant Where. The project is supported by Hort Innovation Australia, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the Australian government. Their mission is to find the best plant species for urban landscapes that will be resilient to climate change.
The project works with the nursery industry to gather evidence on species’ resilience to extreme heat and drought by testing plants to their limits in research glasshouses. This work will inform plant growers and nurseries on how to adapt their business, by identifying the new challenges posed by climate change, as well as selecting diverse ranges of climate-ready species. They advise landscape architects, designers and urban planners about not only the best planting choices, but also how to increase the biodiversity of our cities.
We need to know how our current tree canopy will be affected as well as plan new plantings.
The research team recently published a study (Burley et al) that investigated likely climate change impacts on 176 of the most common tree species planted across Australian cities. The analysis showed more than 70% of these species will experience harsher climatic conditions across Australian cities by 2070.
Some of the most commonly planted trees are unlikely to survive. Conversely, in some cooler climate areas, such as Orange, the number of suitable species may increase. These impacts will progressively worsen as climate change intensifies. A proactive approach is needed to identify new climate-ready species and plantings. Tree species growing in warmer cities are more likely to be affected than those in cooler cities. Some species, such as the golden wattle (Acacia longifolia) or the prickly paperbark (Melaleuca styphelioides) might not make it in northern cities unless we invest precious resources – such as water – to maintain these civic assets. Other species, such as the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) or the tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides) will likely become more suitable for planting in southern cities.
Australian cities are blessed with a higher diversity of tree species compared to other cities globally. However, the 30 most commonly planted species make up more than half of Australia’s urban forests. This poses a great risk for our cities. If we were to lose one or two of these common species, the impact on our urban tree cover would be immense. Trees are a long-term investment that will be affected by the very factors that they are meant to mitigate. Consequently, our best insurance is to increase the diversity of our trees.
The study highlights the need for more research:
- which species experience a reduction in growth or, even mortality, during extreme weather events and the duration of any growth reduction
- variation of impacts in different climate zones, for example subtropical areas are likely to experience greater declines in growth than temperate areas
- whether it is feasible with some species to mitigate impacts by providing more irrigation, selective pruning or planting in a more sheltered position
- investigate new choices of species suitable for the urban environment from the huge range of Australian native species
The NSW government announced a plan in February to plant five million trees in Greater Sydney by 2030. They are counting trees planted in streets, parks, backyards, neighbourhoods and schools with an objective of increasing the tree canopy from 16.8% to 40%. Councils can apply for grants for tree planting projects. Individuals can register the trees they plant.
Hugh Burley, Linda J. Beaumont, Alessandro Ossola, John B. Baumgartner, Rachael Gallagher, Shawn Laffan, Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez, Anthony Manea, Michelle R. Leishman (2019) Substantial declines in urban tree habitat predicted under climate change, Science of the Total Environment 685, 451–462
Over the past century, average land surface temperatures have risen by almost 1°C across the Australian continent. Models suggest this may have already had significant impacts on Australia’s ecosystems and biodiversity, but these impacts have not been systematically investigated.
CSIRO Land and Water and the Department of the Environment and Energy are undertaking an exciting project to collect observations and anecdotes that will help to build a national picture of the kinds of ecological changes that have been occurring across the country over the past 10 to 20 years or more, and where changes may not have been occurring. We are looking for people with strong links to Australian environments (e.g. farmers, natural resource managers, ecologists, naturalists, rural scientists) to share their perceptions of recent ecological change (or lack of it) in an area they know well, and how this might link with climate or other change.
To participate, you would need to be able to select a natural area (e.g. your local region or farm, a nature reserve, urban bushland) that you have been familiar with for at least the last 10 years. Note that we are interested both in areas where change has been observed and where change has not been observed.
The Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, was asked by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to undertake an independent review of the national electricity market (NEM) that:
- delivers on Australia’s emissions reduction commitments
- provides affordable electricity
- ensures a high level of security and reliability
This was complicated task that needed to take into account:
- the closure of ageing coal-fired power stations
- escalating extreme weather events (like heatwaves, bushfires and storms) driven by climate change that test the resilience of the system
- increasing gas prices
- rapidly declining costs of wind, solar and battery storage
It also had to be politically palatable for the federal and state governments.
The energy users, the general public and industry just want long-term policy certainty.
The major points made by the review and the Climate Council’s view are summarised below.
1. Emission Reductions
The minimum target for reducing emissions in the electricity sector should be a 28% emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. While it places responsibility for more aspirational targets to 2030 and beyond with government(s), the review cautions higher targets could have ‘larger consequences for energy security’ and ‘implications should be re-examined’.
This target is consistent with the commitment made by Australia at the Paris Climate Change conference but the electricity sector needs to bear a greater share of the reduction. It is easier to reduce emissions in the electricity sector as many of the required technologies already exist and reductions in other sectors like transport and land use are harder to achieve. The Climate Change Authority, the government appointed advisory body, suggested that electricity emissions should reduce by two-thirds by 2030 and be zero by 2050.
2. Clean Energy Target
The Finkel Review proposes introducing a Clean Energy Target, which would effectively replace the current Renewable Energy Target from 2020. Gas and coal (with carbon capture and storage) would qualify under the Clean Energy Target, as well as renewable energy. The Clean Energy Target would set a certain target amount of new ‘clean’ electricity (expressed as GWh or % of electricity) based on the required emissions reductions for the electricity sector. The Finkel Review leaves the target baseline and emissions trajectory to 2030 and beyond for politicians to decide.
Technologies with lower emissions, like renewables, would receive higher benefits than those with higher emissions, like gas and coal (which would still be required to be below a set emissions intensity level to receive any benefit). New coal stations that do not meet the target can still be built without penalty, increasing the emissions reduction burden from ‘clean’ electricity.
The Clean Energy Council website explains this mechanism in more detail. Modelling undertaken for the Finkel Review (based on 28% emissions reduction for the electricity sector) indicates the Clean Energy Target mechanism (and an emissions intensity scheme) would result in lower costs to households and businesses compared with no action at all (business as usual). The modelling shows renewable power continuing to grow, up to 42% of electricity supply by 2030 (58% still comes from fossil fuels by then, with no further brown coal closures), in contrast to business as usual of 35% renewable electricity.
Power generated by renewable energy in 2030 under the proposed Clean Energy Target – at 42% – is far too low. Under the Clean Energy Target, electricity supply from large scale renewable energy would only increase 9% from 2020–30 (about the same increase as has occurred in the past ten years, a decade marked by significant climate and energy policy uncertainty).
3. Renewable Energy Reliability
The Finkel Review recommends a new requirement on new wind and solar power plants to provide a certain level of ‘dispatchable’ capacity (this was called a Generator Reliability Obligation). Dispatchable capacity is electricity that is available on call, as and when needed. New wind and solar would be required to provide a certain amount of battery storage or gas generation as determined by energy market bodies so that power is available with certainty, for example, when the wind isn’t blowing and other sources cannot provide sufficient power.
There was no equivalent requirement placed on new, or existing ageing gas or coal generation, despite the failure rate of ageing power stations increasing. For instance, in early February 2017, a severe heatwave across much of Australia’s south east and interior caused supply issues for the South Australian and NSW energy systems at a time of peak demand. In NSW around 3000 MW of coal and gas power capacity was not available when needed in the heatwave. High power users in industry were required to scale back production at great cost.
4. Future of Coal
The Finkel Review recommendations focus on incentives to encourage new lower emissions power plants to be built, rather than phasing out or penalising polluting coal and gas plants. So the approach is intended to bring on new renewables without incentivising the phase out of existing polluting coal generators. Coal generation would continue to provide over 50% of Australia’s electricity by 2030 and 24% by 2050.
Coal should be phased out much more quickly. Australia’s coal-fired power stations are old, and polluting by world standards. The Finkel Review acknowledges that by 2035:
… approximately 68% of the current coal generating plants will have reached 50 years of age.
Its modelling shows most still operating at 2030 and some even by 2050. The review even considers it a ‘benefit’ for these old, polluting coal plants to continue operating.
The key recommendation for coal-fired power is a new requirement for power plants to provide three years notice before closing. A schedule for the closure of aged plants should have been established years ago.
5. Future of Gas
The Finkel Review provides for a continuing role for gas power generation despites the issues with methane emissions and local environmental impacts of coal seam gas extraction. It acknowledges gas prices (and, as a result gas power prices) will continue to rise in future due to the demands of liquefied natural gas exports from Queensland, and the increasing price of producing gas from unconventional gas fields.
At current gas market conditions, it observes that battery storage may be more cost effective than gas in providing security and reliability in the near future. However, the Finkel Review paradoxically urges government and industry to prioritise gas exploration and development.
See STEP Matters Issue 190 for more details on the issues with gas powered electricity.
The Turnbull government has supported all the recommendations except the Clean Energy Target. They can’t get away from the vested interests of the coal industry. There are even rumours that they would consider providing financial support for a new ‘clean’ coal-fired power plant.
Coal-fired power is on the way out, globally, and in Australia. Clean coal is very expensive, if not technically impossible. But using public funds to prop-up this 19th century technology would lock in climate-destroying pollution and higher power prices for decades to come.
The Turnbull government is out of step with state/territory and local governments. State and territory governments are already on track to deliver the Clean Energy Target on their own:
- Victoria, Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia are set to generate 40–50% renewable energy by 2030
- Tasmania is already running off 90% renewable energy
- ACT has contracted enough renewable energy to meet all its electricity needs by 2020
The states are setting strong targets that will help Australia reach net zero emissions by (and ideally before) 2050 in order to protect Australians from worsening climate impacts.
South Australia is about to get a 150 MW solar thermal power plant that will meet 5% of the state’s power needs. The 150 MW plant near Port Augusta is expected to be operational by 2020 and will power all the South Australian government's electricity needs. The plant uses the sun as a source of heat that is reflected by mirrors onto a tower containing molten salt that is used to create steam that drives a turbine. It is expected that more of these plants will be built.
Several local governments including Ku-ring-gai, Willoughby and North Sydney, have signed up with the City Powers Partnership set up by the Climate Council. Local councils who join the partnership pledge to take five key actions across renewable energy, efficiency, transport and working together. The partnership acts as a support network for sharing expert information and establishing joint projects.
The information in this article is sourced from the Climate Council’s commentary called Unpacking the Finkel Review.
Following the serious power blackouts that occurred in South Australia and near misses in other states, gas-fired power stations have been touted as the one of the best means to transitioning away from our aging coal-fired electricity generation system. This is short-term, simplistic thinking that will be detrimental in the longer term, and the Climate Council has just released a report explaining why. The report is called Pollution and Price: The Cost of Investing in Gas.
The Climate Council is the crowd funded organisation led by Tim Flannery that replaced the Climate Commission that was abolished by the Abbott Government shortly after they came into power. They aim to provide independent, expert information on climate change issues.
Here is a brief summary of the main findings.
Use of gas does not reduce emissions sufficiently
Australia must reduce greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2050 in-line with international goals. Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) all produce greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Limiting global temperature rise requires that they are all phased out. Gas is not sufficiently less polluting than coal to garner any climate benefit.
Greenhouse gas emissions are produced both from gas power stations and gas production (for instance, methane from gas leaks). Methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a
New gas power plants are less polluting than coal. However, when the entire supply chain of gas production is considered, gas is not significantly less polluting than coal. Current levels of reliance on gas power in Australia must be reduced to play our role in limiting global temperature below 2°C. Expanding gas usage is inconsistent with tackling climate change as it locks in emissions for decades into the future.
Greater reliance on gas will drive higher power prices
Australia’s liquefied natural gas exports are pushing up the price of gas power as domestic gas prices are now inextricably linked to world market prices for oil. This will continue into the foreseeable future.
The most economic and accessible reserves are now being exported. Further gas expansion will drive increased reliance on unconventional gas, which is expensive. Reliance on gas power is also driving power price spikes, particularly in South Australia, Queensland and increasingly in New South Wales, due to lack of competition among gas power companies.
Investment in new gas plants is financially risky
The large increases in future gas prices and volatility resulting from liquefied natural gas exports together with domestic gas prices controlled by relatively few producers, make investments in new power plants using gas very risky. New gas power plants would rely on ageing gas production infrastructure (e.g. processing plants and high pressure pipelines) that is increasingly vulnerable to failure. Costs of updating this infrastructure and accounting for methane leakage must be factored into policy and investment decisions.
New gas infrastructure locks in carbon emissions for decades. Future regulations may impose higher costs or stricter limits on emissions in the future, impacting on the economic viability of gas production and electricity generation, stranding investments.
Significant development of new gas plants is unfeasible without a massive expansion of unconventional gas
The sheer volume of gas required, the cost, the lock in of long-term emissions, environmental risks and lack of support from communities near gas wells makes this unrealistic. Currently the emissions from unconventional gas in Australia are unknown due to a lack of measurement and data. This presents a long term carbon risk to investors as high emissions fossil fuel infrastructure faces the possibility of future regulation due to climate change. Development of new unconventional gas is entirely out of step with meeting the Australian government’s climate change goals.
Renewable energy can provide a secure, affordable alternative to new fossil fuels
New renewable energy is cost competitive with new gas. The cost of renewable power and storage, particularly solar, wind and batteries, continues to fall and has no associated fuel costs. This contrasts with rising and volatile gas prices.
Technologies such as solar thermal, hydro and biomass plants can meet demand for electricity at all times of the day as well as meeting technical requirements for grid stability. Combining these technologies with wind, solar PV, and large-scale energy storage, can meet electricity demand round-the-clock. Using existing gas-fired generators and supply infrastructure prudentially to complement wind and solar power while scaling up a range of renewable energy technologies, energy storage and energy efficiency measures could deliver a limited benefit, provided the end goal is phasing out the use of all fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
The report concludes that Australia should not provide policy support for new gas power plants or gas supply infrastructure. Existing gas plants should be thought of as a short-term, expensive, emergency backup as renewable energy and storage is rapidly scaled up.
In November the Turnbull Government ratified Australia’s commitment to comply with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Australia has set a target to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030, which builds on the 2020 target of reducing emissions by 5% below 2000 levels. The 2030 target is equivalent to about 13% below 2000 emission levels so the 2030 target is not as good as it sounds.
Currently the government’s main plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet our obligations under the Paris Treaty is called the Direct Action Plan. Introduced in 2014, the scheme operates by reverse auction, funding projects voluntarily proposed by the private sector. Projects are selected on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions expected to be abated at the cheapest price. So far $1.7 billion has been allocated out of a budget under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) of $2.55 billion over 4 years.
Direct action also involves an emissions ‘safeguard mechanism’ to discourage large emitters from increasing their emissions above historical benchmarks. It commenced on 1 July 2016. It is not clear yet whether the rules will be effective in controlling increases in emissions.
This article draws on two recent analyses of the effectiveness of the Direct Action Plan:
- Paul J Burke, Undermined by Adverse Selection: Australia’s Direct Action Abatement Subsidies, Australian National University, April 2016
- Margaret Blakers and Margaret Considine, Mulga Bills won’t Settle our Climate Accounts: An Analysis of the Emissions Reduction Fund, The Green Institute, November 2016
Risk of Adverse Selection
Paul Burke questions the effectiveness of the direct action projects because of fundamental flaws in the scheme design:
- There is no way of preventing the direct action scheme subsidising projects that would have gone ahead anyway. For example funding has been provided for replacing machinery that is inefficient and upgrading lighting in supermarkets. These projects would provide a financial benefit to the proponent in any case so a subsidy has no justification.
- The international rules of carbon accounting require additionality. This means that credit for emissions reductions must not include changes that would have occurred anyway, say, because of legislation.
- The information about emissions expected to be abated will depend on a definition of baseline emissions, that is, what emissions would have been if the project had not been implemented. It is the proponent’s responsibility to identify their baseline in accordance with approved methods, and there is some flexibility. The government’s inability to know true project baselines creates a major challenge. Projects with overgenerous baselines will be able to submit relatively low auction bids because the abatement they offer will be easy to achieve, and thus cheap. These bids are well placed to secure funding. If the baseline is higher than business as usual, in the end the project will deliver less abatement than notionally indicated.
Effectiveness and Value for Money of Abatement to be Delivered
Margaret Blakers and Margaret Considine have undertaken the first ever analysis of the ERF auctions. They found that direct action not only fails its own test of delivering ‘real and additional’ emissions reductions, but also that it cannot serve as the foundation for more serious action without very substantial changes to its architecture. Their key findings are:
- Large sums of money (around $1.2 billion) have been poured into protecting land sector carbon. At the same time there is no federal policy safeguarding existing landscape carbon stocks. They are turning a blind eye to state governments rolling back land clearing controls. The entirety of the abatement purchased by the ERF so far (143 Mt CO2-e) at a cost of $1.73 billion accounts for less than 20% of projected emissions from land clearing up until 2030.
- Over half of all abatement comes from just two mulga-dominated bioregions in south-west Queensland and western NSW. The value of ERF contracts in and around these regions is about $1 billion. With carbon payments estimated to average $195 per hectare, this represents many times the per hectare value of land in the region. Paul Burke makes a similar point. This situation only applies to land with existing land clearing permits predating 1 July 2010. The payments rest on the assumption that clearing would have happened without the subsidy. No doubt some vegetation has indeed been preserved, albeit at a high price. Some of the spending has questionable additionality, however, given that the incentive to clear was anyway rather low (clearing is expensive and the productivity of the land is low).
- Much of the scheme’s expenditure has either been wasted or is at risk due to doubtful additionality (as per Paul Burke’s examples) and lack of permanence. 25% of ERF abatement has a ‘permanence’ period of only 25 years, after which time landholders regain ‘full land-use flexibility’. As well, the concentration of abatement in the semi-arid mulga regions carries its own risks such as from drought and climate change itself.
Fundamentally the ERF abatement profile is at odds with Australia’s emissions profile. Over 80% of our emissions are from industry, but 80% of direct action abatement is from the land sector. Only 4% is from the energy and industrial processes sectors, which produce most of Australia’s emissions.
Inadequacies in Methods for Vegetation Abatement
All the methods apply to ‘forest’ which is defined under the international rules. No methods are available at present for non-forest native vegetation or existing native forests on public land. Native forests on private land protected by legislation or covenant do not qualify because they are required by law to be protected.
Most landscape carbon resides in natural ecosystems. If well-managed, these will be resilient and are likely to persist and accumulate large carbon stocks in soils and plants over decades and centuries. Natural ecosystem management requires coherent, continental-scale policies and funding for the long term coordinated by the states and Commonwealth, not the ad hoc project funding that direct action provides.
The ERF is failing the climate, failing the land sector and failing the budget. To be credible, Australia’s climate policies must address the land sector in its own right and must stem the loss of carbon from the landscape caused by clearing, logging and other forms of degradation.
Ultimately the only effective long-term strategy to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions is to place a direct price on emissions.
Have you ever enjoyed the cool refuge that an underground cave offers from a hot summer’s day? Or perhaps you have experienced the soothing warmth when entering a cave during winter?
When descending into a cave, you may not only enjoy the calm climate, you may also admire the beauty of cave deposits such as stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones, known by cave researchers as speleothems.
Perhaps you already know that they grow very slowly from minerals in the water that drips off or over them. This water originates from rain at the surface that has travelled through soil and limestone above, and seeped into the ground and ended up in the cave.
As speleothems grow, they lock into their minerals the chemical signatures of the environmental and climatic conditions of the time the rainwater fell at the surface. So, as a stalagmite grows, the surface climate signature is continuously trapped in the newly created layers.
Some very old stalagmites hold climatic signatures of the very distant past, in some cases up to millions of years. They contain an archive of the past climate as long as their age, often predating global weather station records.
Above and Below
But if a cave remains cool during summer and warm during winter, how is its climate related to that of the surface? And how does this affect the chemical signature recorded by speleothems?
To understand the relationship between surface and cave climate, our research group, Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre at UNSW Australia, conducted multiple field experiments at the Wellington Caves Reserve in New South Wales.
During the experiments, the surface and the cave climates were measured in detail. For example, highly accurate temperature sensors were used to measure the water temperature at the surface, and at the point where water droplets hit the cave floor forming stalagmites.
Martin S Andersen
The research team initiated controlled dripping in the cave by irrigating the surface above the cave with water that was cooled to freezing point to simulate rainfall.
The cold water allowed us to determine whether the drip water in the cave is affected by the conditions at the surface or those along its pathways through the ground.
We also added a natural chemical to the irrigation water, which allowed us to distinguish whether the water in the cave originated from the irrigation or whether it was water already present in the subsurface.
Our results revealed a complex but systematic relationship between the surface and the cave climate. For example, surface temperature changes are significantly reduced and delayed with depth.
Our research illustrates how to decipher the surface temperature from that in the cave. Understanding this is necessary to correctly decoding past surface temperature records from their signatures preserved in stalagmites.
Keeping it Cool
We also discovered that air moving in and out of the cave can cool cave deposits by evaporating water flowing on the cave deposits. This cooling can significantly influence the chemical signature trapped in the cave deposit and create 'false' signals that are not representative of the surface climate.
In other words, it will make the surface climate 'look' cooler than it actually was, if not accounted for. While this is more likely to occur in caves that are located in dry environments, it may also have to be considered for stalagmites in caves that were exposed to drier climates in the distant past.
Our new knowledge can also help scientists select the best location and type of stalagmite for the reconstruction of past climatic or environmental conditions.
This new discovery is significant because it can improve the accuracy of past climate signals from cave deposits. It may also help us understand previously unexplained artefacts in existing past climate records. By improving our understanding of the past climate we can better understand future climate variations.
(Martin S Andersen)
Gabriel C Rau, Associate Lecturer in Groundwater Hydrology, UNSW Australia; Andy Baker, Director of the Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre, UNSW Australia; Mark O Cuthbert, Research Fellow in Hydrogeology, University of Birmingham, and Martin Sogaard Andersen, Senior lecturer, UNSW Australia