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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 survey will take about 30 min. Click here for additional information about the project.

Published in STEP Matters 192

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.

Government Response

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.

Published in STEP Matters 192

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
20-year period.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Published in STEP Matters 190

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:

Risk of Adverse Selection

Paul Burke questions the effectiveness of the direct action projects because of fundamental flaws in the scheme design:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Published in STEP Matters 188

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.

cave

Installation of high-resolution temperature sensors inside the cave. 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.

(The ConversationPhoto at the top of page is of temperature loggers installed on stalactites to measure the drip water temperature. 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

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

Published in STEP Matters 188

Well the July election is done and dusted and the Liberal–National Coalition just scraped in. Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s previous statements about the need for serious action on climate change it appears that he does not have the political will to overturn past government decisions to downgrade climate change research and development.

CSIRO Cuts

CSIRO is an organisation independent from the government but still very much dependent on government funding. In February the CEO announced that climate science is settled so the focus can change to adaptation and mitigation. This statement was used to justify cutting over 100 climate change research jobs. Funding could be diverted to fields that could be more lucrative.

The size of the cuts was modified following an international outcry but there was still a cut of about 75 positions from the Oceans and Atmosphere division. Research is to be centred in Hobart in a new Climate Science Centre that will coordinate the work of 40 scientists carved out of existing CSIRO teams, and also tap into work by the Bureau of Meteorology and universities.

In August another modification was made when new Science Minister, Greg Hunt, ordered CSIRO to revive some other climate science programs in climate analysis and forecasting in Hobart. But these jobs will be financed out of the existing budget.

Fundamentally we still have less climate science capacity than before the cuts were announced. Some outstanding scientists with a huge accumulation of knowledge such as John Church, global sea level expert, will not return.

Support for Renewable Energy

There are plans to cut most of the funding for Australian Renewable Energy Agency as well as its ability to give grants. As the world responds to the urgent need to build new renewable electricity generation capacity, this plan is puzzling. Again the government’s reason is long-term ‘budget repair’. Australia has a long history of leading research into new solar technology. Hundreds of jobs will be lost from current research organisations and the potential opportunities for future commercialisation.

These policies conflict with the plans to help Australia become an innovation nation. The message from the government is that research is an expensive luxury rather an essential part of our long-term future.

Published in STEP Matters 187

Mark Diesendorf, UNSW Australia

Can Australians be sustainable and enjoy endless economic growth? It’s not likely.

Published in STEP Matters 184
Thursday, 04 February 2016 15:05

Paris Climate Change Agreement

The Paris climate change talks in December 2015 produced an agreement hailed as 'historic, durable and ambitious'. Developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their emissions to achieve an objective of limiting average global temperature increases to 2°C with an aspiration of 1.5°C.

Published in STEP Matters 184
Thursday, 04 February 2016 15:00

Climate Change Implications for Local Bushland

The Ku-ring-gai Bushcare Association is an unincorporated organisation that is supported by Ku-ring-gai Council which supports the Bushcare volunteer program and holds regular educational events. The committee comprises elected volunteers and Council employees.

Published in STEP Matters 184

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