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On 6 May the Sydney North Planning Panel conducted a hearing into Hornsby Council’s DA for the works of Hornsby Quarry. Some individuals and community groups made submissions explaining their serious concerns about some aspects of the proposed works.

The panel found that more information is needed and deferred the application so that the following detail can be completed and made public for further consultation:

  • biodiversity offsets package, vegetation management plan (VMP) and habitat creation and enhancement plans
  • rehabilitation works around the Powerful Owl breeding pair’s roosting tree
  • information about extent of the volcanic diatreme rock face exposure when the filling and creation of the lake and wetland in front of the face have been completed

This information has now been published and further submissions could be made up to 21 August. Another panel hearing will be held in due course.

1.   Biodiversity offsets package

The development involves the clearing of some areas and the replanting or restoration of other parts. The development assessment concluded that there will be a residual impact on biodiversity values that need to be offset.

Three options were considered. One option was to use offsets from another site. This is what we were most concerned about. The good news is that priority has been given to offsets that can occur around the quarry and surrounding bushland. This land will be managed as part of the VMP. In-perpetuity protection of the offset areas will be provided by a Voluntary Conservation Agreement which will comprise the offset area and additional lands managed under the VMP.

The Voluntary Conservation Agreement will be co-signed by Hornsby Council and the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust.

There is one concern that funding has not been specifically allocated for the VMP so its sufficiency is not certain.

STEP would like to have seen a VMP that is more progressive in recognising the resilience benefits of selecting plants from nearby areas outside Hornsby Shire with similar soils or more likely to cope with changing climate or could have been present before the quarry area was developed but have since disappeared.

2.   Powerful Owl protection

A staging plan has been completed highlighting earthworks that will not be undertaken within the recommended Powerful Owl exclusion zones if a breeding pair are occupying a nest on site. Post works habitat creation and appropriate vegetation management practises are also stipulated in the VMP.

The Powerful Owl Coalition is concerned that the language in the documents is not strong enough. Words like ‘should’ are used when the particular actions are a ‘must’.

3.   Recognition of the scientific value of the ‘Jurassic’ diatreme rock face

Ian Percival from the Geological Society of Australia toured the site with council officers. In a follow-up letter he explained that the society’s concerns have been addressed. The proposed level of the quarry floor in the redevelopment will be entirely comparable with the exposure more than four decades ago. The letter states:

It is apparent that council now recognises the geoheritage significance of its own ‘Jurassic Park’ (a reference to the known age of the diatreme) which is right in its backyard. As the centrepiece of the redevelopment of the old Hornsby Quarry it will no doubt be a remarkable tourist drawcard if properly protected, allowing public (and restricted research/educational) access with suitable interpretation.

The Powerful Owl Coalition, of which STEP is a member, presented a submission to a Sydney North Planning Panel on 10 June on the proposed development of two high rise apartment buildings on Peats Ferry Road (the old Pacific Highway). The site overlooks Hornsby Park and is close to the Quarry site and Berowra Valley National Park.

As the buildings will be at the top of the ridge their effective height relative to the valley will be similar to the high rises of Chatswood or Parramatta.

The submission highlighted the risks to birdlife from the development, in particular:

  • the risk of birds flying into reflective glass
  • disturbance to nocturnal birds – a Powerful Owl breeding site is only 900 m away
  • light pollution into Hornsby Park and Berowra Valley National Park – biological systems are arguably organised foremost by the daily and seasonal rhythm cycle of light and dark
  • interruption to the movement of birds between catchments both north/south and east/west

Sadly, all these issues were ignored by the panel. This is likely to be the first of many more similar developments along the old Pacific Highway that will exacerbate the issues explained above.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 22:10

Some Encouraging Hornsby Council Decisions

On 14 August some good Hornsby Council decisions were made.

Byles Creek Valley

Local residents of the Byles Creek Valley and nearby have been fighting developments along the edges of the valley for many years. They have been calling for parts of the valley, especially near the creek to be protected through changes in zoning from RE1 zoning to E3 to limit the potential for further clearing of trees. They are also asking for an existing informal walking track to upgraded in recognition of its social value from long-term use of the valley for recreation.

The motion passed by council implies that the upgrade will be given priority and that funds could be provided from a reserve that has been set aside from the sale of a church in Cheltenham.

The motion also stated that a councillor workshop be held to review the planning controls to protect environmental qualities of residential properties adjoining open space lands within the Byles Creek catchment.

So there is some hope for improved recognition of this beautiful valley and pristine waterway on the edge of Lane Cove National Park.

Native vegetation mapping

The vegetation mapping that is used to define where clearing must have council approval was reviewed as part of updating the Local Environment Plan. Council approved option 2 that will allow for the protection of all of the significant vegetation as mapped within the shire. This is wonderful news for our tree canopy and our precious forests.

An article in the last issue of STEP Matters explained the bad news that the rezoning of the IBM site was on the list of projects being ‘fast tracked’ by the NSW government. The approval applies to the rezoning required from that of a business park to enable Mirvac to proceed with the construction of 600 apartments.

We did explain that there are some modifications that appeared to address some of the concerns held by local community groups. However, it has since been discovered that there are conditions that may put these improvements in doubt.

The NSW government and Mirvac promised the community that the critically endangered forest on the Mirvac site would be incorporated into the Cumberland State Forest. Residents have found out that Mirvac intends to dedicate the forest to the Minister for Planning only just prior to the issue of the occupation certificate for the final stage of the proposed development. It will be at least five years before this stage will be reached. It seems some hard-nosed bargaining took place.

According to the documents there will be no funding provided by Mirvac for the upkeep of the forest. With no commitment how can it be looked after while it is right next to a construction site?

Mirvac has set up a promotional website that states that:

Mirvac understands the important role the remnant Blue Gum High Forest and Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest has in providing valuable habitat for local native flora and fauna and we are committed to its protection. Approximately 9 hectares will be committed to the State Government to become an extension to the Cumberland State Forest.

The original plans that were knocked back by Hills Council included a voluntary planning agreement. Mirvac was going to fund the construction of some public recreation space, but that has disappeared from the planning documents. It is estimated that a whopping $46 million worth of local infrastructure has been given up by the NSW government in their haste to push through this development that has been condemned by the local community. Council will have to find the funds to provide the infrastructure needs for an estimated additional 1,200 residents.

The local community groups, Forest in Danger and West Pennant Hills Valley Progress Association will be keeping a close eye on the next stage of approvals that will need to be assessed by council.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 22:19

Mixed Response to EPBC Act Interim Report

The EPBC Act that has been in force since 1999 is required to be reviewed every 10 years. The second review chaired by Prof Gordon Samuel, is currently underway. The interim report that considered close to 30,000 submissions was released in July. The Review is continuing to consult with stakeholders and the final review is due at the end of October.

At the outset, the report recognises the serious environmental crisis we are facing and the deterioration of our natural capital. It recognises that the current Act is failing to address the causes of this decline. The report calls for national leadership and stronger laws that effectively address our greatest environmental challenges.

While the report was being prepared, the auditor general released a report finding 80% of approvals under the EPBC Act and regulations were non-compliant or contained errors.

Federal Labor analysed those findings and concluded that since the coalition came to power, there had been a 510% blowout in the number of environmental approvals delayed beyond time frames indicated in the laws.

The delays came as the government cut funding to the environment department, which Labor said was now 40% lower than it was before the coalition came to power.

Main findings of interim report

The report calls for:

  • More streamlined regulation and a reduction in duplication by creating bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and states via national environmental standards whereby most of the assessment and approvals will be carried out by the states.
  • The development of national environmental standards that will be essential in enabling this proposed devolution of the Commonwealth's functions. These standards must be legally enforceable that 'set clear rules for decision-making' by the states. They should be outcomes focused and measurable, but with some for flexibility.

Government response

The main response by the government to the review is at odds with the fundamental issues highlighted in the interim report.

In the government’s view the main metric of the success of the review is how quickly approvals can be signed off. The Environment Minister Sussan Ley agreed in principle with most of the recommendations but then has proposed introducing legislation to implement some of them in August before the final report is completed – due in October. This could seriously compromise the effective implementation of the reforms

The report suggests that the development of a robust suite of environmental standards will drive the improved outcomes. On the other hand, the government is intending to pass legislation as soon as possible in parliament to facilitate new bilateral assessment and approval agreements. In the absence of confirmed standards, a set of ‘interim standards’ will be used to fast track the devolving of powers to states and territories. By definition the interim standards will have to be vague such as preventing unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance. How can ‘unacceptable’ be defined without a thorough framework of standards?

There is the risk that, once the interim process is in place, the implementation of the more rigorous process will be resisted. How can the accreditation be secure when currently there are states like NSW with laws that cannot even protect koalas and has land clearing laws that facilitate habitat loss? However, once the final standards are in place, if these are mandatory and measurable, they could play a key role in lifting state standards and ensuring environmental outcomes are actually achieved.

Minister does not support independent regulator

Despite the report pointing out the fundamental flaw of the current EPBC Act being that the Environment Department has utterly failed in its implementation, the minister has stated that the government will not implement the recommendation for an independent regulator. She has stated that proponents should still expect a significant increase in compliance and enforcement activity by her department under the EPBC Act.

Other recommendations

Introduce limited merits review – the report clearly rejected the notion of ‘green lawfare’ acting as an obstacle to development while the government is determined to maintain its position that reform is needed.

Consider biodiversity offsets as a last resort – offsetting should be considered only when proponents have exhausted all reasonable options to avoid or mitigate impacts, and that offsets should deliver genuine restoration.

Modify water trigger – Prof Samuel proposes modifying the 'water trigger', which requires the referral and approval of coal seam gas and large coal mining projects that are likely to have significant impacts on water resources.

Promote use of Indigenous knowledge – the interim report concludes that the EPBC Act is not fulfilling its objectives as they relate to the role of Indigenous Australians in protecting and conserving biodiversity and heritage and promoting the respectful use of their knowledge.

The NSW Government Architect has released a draft Greener Places Design Guide that is open for comment until 28 August. It is aimed at providing guidance for the state and local government, developers and the land managers.

The disclaimer is significant. It says:

Implementing the Greener Places Design Guide framework will require new governance arrangements, collaborations, and the identification of roles and responsibilities.

This guide attempts to set out such a framework but it should be noted that all roles and responsibilities, suggestions for ‘interagency’ bodies, and the commitment of resources by State or local government are yet to be agreed and are included for discussion only.

The guide covers three areas:

  • open space for recreation
  • urban tree canopy
  • bushland and waterways

Open space for recreation

Most of the guide is devoted to guidelines for the provision of open space for recreation and sporting fields. It provides details on desirable land areas, accessibility and types of spaces relative to local population size and type of housing. Issues like anticipating additional green space needs when infill development is planned are covered in detail. It emphasises the importance of green space in enhancing the quality of local neighbourhoods.

Of particular interest to STEP are statements like:

Parks should consider adjacent land uses and be adequately buffered from incompatible uses. Solutions may include vegetation corridors, planted mounds, and fencing.

We would add appropriate flood lighting and use of synthetic turf in suburban playing fields.

One concern is the emphasis that is placed on the use of natural areas for bike and walking tracks when planning greenfield development sites.

They offer opportunities for active transport connections and integrated open space planning that support water-sensitive urban design and local habitat conservation, as well as promoting walkable environments for the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants.

open space

Urban tree canopy

A common method for determining the amount of urban tree canopy is to measure the area of canopy as a percentage of total land area. The measures of tree canopy cover rely on aerial surveys. Ground surveys are needed to confirm the adequacy of vegetation cover.

The guide lists the many health, economic (property values) and environmental benefits of urban tree canopy. However, there is no definition of a tree. In local streets many species that are capable of growing to a size large enough to provide shade have been pruned savagely to provide space for powerlines.

The guide outlines indicative targets to improve tree canopy cover in Greater Sydney and regional urban areas including areas of major infrastructure such as transport. This has been the subject of detailed scientific research. Many cities have already adopted new canopy targets. For example, Melbourne aims to increase from 22% (2017) to 40% by 2040 and London from 20% (2008) to 30% by 2050. The indicative targets in the guide are to increase the canopy over Greater Sydney by 2056 to the following levels.

  • CBD >15%
  • medium to high density residential >25%
  • low density residential >40%

The implementation of these targets will require major changes to state and local government planning policies and public recruitment to help look after the trees. We need to overcome the trend to remove all the trees and substantial shrubs when a house is demolished and replaced by a larger dwelling. Usually the well-established garden is replaced with neat hedges, lawn and paving. The bird habitat and connectivity is vanishing.

Bushland and waterways

The section on bushland and waterways defines strategies for improving the quality and quantity of natural habitat in urban areas. There are lists of desirable planning actions that will conserve, restore and create ecosystems as urban areas are planned, constructed and maintained. It is stated that the approach adopted recognises the important role of integrating nature into urban areas and the lives of people, not just protecting selected sites and landscapes. Examples are:

  • establish threshold levels for ecological communities beyond which no further development can be considered
  • review planning policies that conflict with the provision of urban habitat and corridors, and devise triggers to switch off incompatible policies, or incorporate provisions to avoid incompatible outcomes in core, transition, and corridor areas in consultation with local government
  • incorporate consideration of threatened species, endangered ecological communities, locally rare species, core bushland, and strategic linkages to maximise biodiversity conservation

The key recommendation for councils to prepare a strategic urban biodiversity framework is very good but the practicality of applying priority to urban bushland improvement at the same time as meeting the demands for development to meet population growth expectations is challenging.

We are concerned about the emphasis placed in the design guide on the use of bushland for creating linkages. This reflects the unresolved conflict between the demand to use bushland for recreation and the needs of conservation.

Nevertheless the draft design guide sets out a thorough set of principles and actions to ensure that our bushland and native habitats are preserved and improved. Unfortunately, it is not clear that government policies and funding will allow the objectives to be met.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 22:36

1080: A Weighty Ethical Issue

poisonWe are all aware of the impact that the use of 1080 poison has had on the local population of feral cats and foxes. We now have a lot more wildlife in the suburbs that may be a delight or may be a nuisance, for example brush turkeys. It is being used extensively in bushfire affected areas to help wildlife recovery. It has the advantage that baits can be dropped into remote areas. It is generally believed that native animals are immune to this poison as it is present in a range of Australian plants.The  has released a report, 1080: A Weighty Ethical Issue that looks at the ethical considerations of using 1080 to control feral animals in Australia and finds that the conservation benefits to native species necessitates its use until an alternative is available

Here is the ISC’s summary from the report.

1080 – sodium monofluoroacetate – is very important for conservation in Australia, used extensively to protect rare native species from foxes, cats, pigs and rabbits. But many people oppose its use because it is regarded as inhumane.

In this report the Invasive Species Council considers the conservation and welfare consequences of 1080 baiting. We do this as an environmental organisation whose mission is to strengthen protection for Australian species from harmful introduced species, but also as people who care about the welfare of animals, whether introduced or native.

Diagnosing pain and distress in animals is difficult, and there is much uncertainty about the welfare impacts of 1080 poisoning, because the extent to which animals are conscious during some of the worst symptoms is unknown. However, it seems highly likely that 1080-poisoned animals suffer pain and distress before they become unconscious, although the extent and duration are highly variable and poorly understood. A 2010 assessment by an independent expert panel in New Zealand concluded that 1080 had severe to extreme impacts on the welfare of the species assessed (including cats, pigs and rabbits) lasting from hours to days.

1080 has been essential for enabling the survival or recovery of many threatened species and their reintroduction to sites where introduced predators have been suppressed or eradicated.

The use of 1080 also has welfare benefits for native animals who are freed from the pressure of heavy predation or competition by introduced animals. A ban on 1080 without an effective replacement would overall result in greater suffering (as well as declines in native species).

As a high priority, we recommend research into effective replacements for 1080 that are more humane. Four new more-humane baits have been approved in Australia since 2016, but they cannot totally replace 1080 due to their nontarget impacts and limited delivery options.

The ISC believes that an ethical approach to the welfare problems of 1080 requires the following:

  • Develop and deploy more-humane and effective ways of controlling harmful introduced animals
  • Design long-term control programs that minimise the overall extent of killing of introduced animals – for example, by eradicating or substantially suppressing their populations, and by intervening ecologically to help native animals withstand invasive pressures
  • Improve monitoring to ascertain whether 1080 baiting (and other methods) achieve conservation goals and are cost effective (it is unethical to kill animals if no conservation benefit is achieved and wrong to waste scarce conservation funds)
  • Strive to better understand (where feasible) the welfare consequences of 1080
Wednesday, 26 August 2020 22:47

A Viral Witch Hunt

It has been a bad decade for bats. Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, they were already in severe decline worldwide. Now, they are blamed as the culprids behind one of the costliest pandemics in modern history, even though the source and method of transmission haven’t been identified. Although scientists have an obligation to promptly disclose new threats, premature speculation about bats has been exaggerated in attention-grabbing media headlines. The result has been needless confusion, leading to the demonization, eviction, and slaughtering of bats even where they are most needed.

As of mid-March, ‘patient zero’ for COVID-19 still had not been found, and who or what infected that person remains a mystery. There is even uncertainty about whether the viral jump from an unknown intermediate host to humans occurred in the location initially identified, an animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China. Despite these uncertainties, the media, with no small assistance from scientists, has sensationalized the risks, often without providing perspective, settling on bats as the likely culprit and thus making them targets in a viral witch hunt.

Around the world, bats are feeling the effects of this misinformation. My Malaysian colleague, Sheema Abdul Aziz, has spent years documenting the key role of flying fox bats as essential pollinators of Southeast Asia’s multibillion-dollar-a-year durian crop. Growers were planning to join her in a public education campaign explaining the value of bats, but now they fear a public backlash and are reluctant to support her efforts. A local resort has expressed fear of loss of sales due to a nearby flying fox colony. Fearing her research will trigger a new disease outbreak, private citizens have even asked the government to stop her from handling bats and to support eradication, something already reported in neighboring Indonesia. My colleagues in China are also deeply concerned about the demonization of bats and calls for their eradication.

Even in my home city of Austin, Texas, where we have safely enjoyed sharing a downtown bridge with 1.5 million bats for decades, growing numbers of people are asking about disease risks. Despite warnings from poorly informed health officials that our bats were rabid and dangerous, they’ve yet to transmit a single case of disease. They simply attract millions of tourist dollars each summer and control tons of crop pests each night. Texas bats are worth more than a billion dollars annually. Now bat-lovers are experiencing a backlash against putting up bat houses because neighbors say they fear that attracting bats will bring disease.

But simply telling people that bats are valuable and shouldn’t be killed can’t counter panic. I have personally investigated instances where fearful humans had burned, poisoned, or sealed caves, killing millions of bats at a time. Based on my experience, I have concluded that there is no greater threat than the intolerance and eradication that results from misguided fear.

Exaggerated warnings of bat disease risks aren’t just misguided. They threaten the health of entire ecosystems and economies. Researchers in Indonesia conservatively estimate that bats save cacao growers more than $700 million annually in avoided insect damage. In Mexico, tequila and mescal production worth billions annually relies on bats that pollinate agaves. From Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean, bats provide key pest control for rice growers. In South Africa, macadamia growers benefit from bat control of stink bugs.

Despite a long tradition of being misunderstood and feared, perhaps because of their nocturnal habits and erratic flight, bats have an outstanding record of living safely with humans. Millions living in backyard bat houses, city parks, and bridges have proven to be safe neighbors. I have never been attacked and am still healthy after more than 60 years studying and handling hundreds of species worldwide, sometimes surrounded by millions in caves. Because, like veterinarians, I am occasionally bitten by unfamiliar animals I handle, I’m vaccinated against rabies.

For anyone who simply avoids handling bats, the odds of contracting any disease from one are incalculably small. All diseases attributed to bats are easily avoided, even when bats live in one’s yard.

However, these facts typically go unreported, while risks are often magnified. The March 11 issue of Scientific American provides an excellent example. Its COVID-19 article subhead reads:

Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli has identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and she warns there are more out there.

The use of ‘deadly’ is unjustified speculation.

The article additionally claims that the Wuhan outbreak is the sixth outbreak caused by bats in the past 26 years. In fact, the first four listed (SARS, MERS, Hendra, Ebola) appear to have been transmitted to people by animals other than bats—yet bats still receive primary blame. The fifth, the Nipah virus, which likely is spread to people from flying fox bats, is easily prevented by simply covering collection containers or pasteurizing contaminated palm juice.

Two possible scenarios have been hypothesized for the COVID-19 outbreak. The first is that a new coronavirus entered an intermediate host animal, such as a pangolin, where it evolved over an undetermined period to gradually become a threat to people. Alternatively, the new coronavirus could have been harmless when it first entered humans, but over time evolved to become virulent. Such scenarios would be difficult to predict, and a publication currently under review even points to mice and domestic pigs as possible sources.

So why has the media almost universally blamed bats? In part because scientists have disproportionately focused on sampling them.

Since 2005, when coronaviruses in horseshoe bats were first hypothesized to be the ancestors of the coronavirus that caused SARS, bats have received far more scrutiny than any other group of animals. For example, in the study on which the scariest headlines were based, researchers sampled nearly twice as many bats as rodents, shrews, and nonhuman primates combined and didn’t even include carnivores or ungulates.

Easily blamed, due to their lack of popularity, bats are also the easiest mammals to quickly sample in large numbers. This led to rapid publication of the results, and sensational speculations were deemed more acceptable when focused on already-feared animals.

Not surprisingly, more viruses have been found in bats than in less-surveyed species, so biased speculation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t yet know if bats have more viruses than other animals because we haven’t similarly sampled others. And even if bats do have more, the number of viruses isn’t necessarily indicative of transmission risk. Many viruses are innocuous or possibly even beneficial.

Some virologists have capitalized on the fear of pandemics to promote funding for viral surveys in nature as a possible means of preventing or mitigating these scary events. They convinced the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to budget $4.8 billion in 2019 for surveys searching for potentially high-risk viruses. Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, long-time surveying proponents now argue that the best way forward is to prevent future outbreaks by beginning with surveys to find and catalog wildlife viruses globally, focusing on what they consider to be high-risk animals, including bats.

However, many leading experts strongly disagree. They argue that such surveys would be extremely costly and have little practical value. Viral-caused outbreaks are exceedingly rare, and their emergence is unpredictable. The evolutionary virologist Edward Holmes and associates note that even if all current viruses could be catalogued, new variants of RNA viruses are constantly evolving. They bluntly warn of arrogance and loss of credibility resulting from promises that viral surveys could prevent or even mitigate pandemics.

To understand why surveying will fail as a strategy, consider the examples of MERS, West Nile, and Zika viruses. MERS jumped to humans from a seemingly unlikely source, camels, in Saudi Arabia, previously believed to be an extremely improbable location for such an incident. Robert Tesh, an expert on emerging viruses, has pointed out that neither West Nile nor Zika viruses are new. They simply spilled over when transported to new areas in incidents that couldn’t have been predicted.

A growing number of leading epidemiologists agree that it isn’t possible to predict the animal origin of the next viral outbreak. Unfortunately, their warnings are seldom covered by public media. When they are, they tend to be de-emphasized.

Finding the true source and means of infection for patient zero in the current outbreak seems far more important than condemning bats or spending billions on searches for potential pathogens. Such public health funds would be much better directed toward improved early detection in humans.

But we humans must also address our own culpability. Caging and slaughtering a wide variety of animals in markets virtually guarantees the spread of viral infections. Blaming already unpopular bats only increases already severe threats to their survival, despite scientific certainty about the enormous benefits they provide to both the environment and societies. Care about bats or not, we should see COVID-19 as a grim reminder that human well-being requires responsible stewardship of nature, not just dominance.

This article was written by Dr Merlin Tuttle, a leading bat researcher who founded and directed Bat Conservation International for 30 years. He now directs Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and is a research fellow in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Amid the urgent need to slow climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency makes sense. But as Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel last week warned, we’re not 'anywhere close to having that nailed'.

Energy efficiency means using less energy to achieve the same outcomes. It’s the cheapest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve our climate goals. Improving energy efficiency is also vital to achieving so-called 'energy productivity' – getting more economic output, using the same or less energy.

But Australia’s national energy productivity plan, agreed by the nation’s energy ministers in 2015, has gone nowhere.

It set a goal of a 40% improvement in energy productivity by 2030. But my analysis, based on the most recent official data, shows that in the three years to 2017-18, energy productivity increased by a mere 1.1%.

Clearly, there is much work to do. So let’s take a look at the problem and the potential solutions.

Energy efficiency reduces power bills for consumers. Julian Smith/AAP

Energy efficiency: a low-hanging fruit

Better energy efficiency lowers electricity bills, makes businesses more competitive and helps manage energy demand. Of course, it also means less greenhouse gas emissions, because fewer fossil fuels are burnt for energy.

Business, unions and green groups recognise the benefits. Last month they joined forces to call for a sustainable COVID-19 economic recovery, with energy efficiency at the core, saying:

In Australia, a major drive to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and industry could deliver over 120,000 job-years of employment […] Useful upgrades could be made across Australia’s private and public housing; commercial, community and government buildings; and industrial facilities.

The group said improvements could include:

  • more efficient and controllable appliances and equipment, especially for heating and cooling
  • improved shading and thermal envelopes (improving the way a building’s walls, ceiling and floors prevent heat transfer)
  • smart meters to measure energy use
  • distributed energy generation and storage, such as wind and solar backed by batteries
  • fuel switching (replacing inefficient fuels with cleaner and economical alternatives)
  • equipment, training and advice for better energy management.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has suggested other measures for industry and manufacturing, such as:

  • installing more efficient electric motors
  • switching from gas to electric heat pumps
  • more waste and material recycling.

And in transport, the IEA suggests incentives to get older, less efficient cars off the roads and encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.

Residential buildings offer big opportunities for energy efficiency improvements. Brendan Esposito/AAP

Governments’ sleight of hand

In 2018 the IEA observed:

the power sector will be at the heart of Australia’s energy system transformation […] International best practice suggests that both energy efficiency and renewable energy are key drivers of the energy transition.

Since then, renewable energy’s share of the electricity mix has increased. But energy productivity has stalled.

To understand how, we must define a few key terms.

Primary energy refers to energy extracted from the environment, such as coal, crude oil, and electrical energy collected by a wind turbine or solar panel.

Final energy is the energy supplied to a consumer, such as electricity delivered to homes or fuel pumped at a petrol station.

A lot of energy is lost in the process of turning extracted primary fuels into ready-to-use fuels for consumers. For example at coal-fired power stations, on average, one-third of the energy supplied by burning coal is converted to electricity. The remainder is lost as waste heat.

Until 2015, Australia and most other countries used final energy as a measure of how rapidly energy efficiency was improving. But the national productivity plan instead set goals around primary energy productivity – aiming to increase it by 40% between 2015 and 2030.

This has made it possible for governments to hide how badly Australia is travelling on improving energy efficiency. I analysed national accounts figures and energy statistics, to produce the below table. It reveals the governments’ sleight of hand.

Over the three years from 2014-15 to 2017-18, final energy productivity increased by only 1.1%, whereas primary energy productivity increased by 3.5%.

The reduced primary energy consumption is mostly due to a large increase in wind and solar generation. The efficiency of energy used by final consumers has scarcely changed.

EneryEfficiency

A sustainable future

The lack of progress on energy productivity is not surprising, given governments have shown very little interest in the issue.

As Finkel noted in his address, Australia’s energy productivity plan is absent from the list of national climate and energy policies. The plan’s 2019 annual report has not been released. And those released since 2015 have not monitored progress in energy productivity.

What’s more, the plan makes no mention of previous similar agreements, in 2004 and 2009, to accelerate energy efficiency with regulation and financial incentives. Since 2013, almost all Commonwealth programs supporting those agreements have been de-funded or abolished, and many state programs have also been cut back.

The IEA’s sustainable recovery plan, released last week, outlined what a sustainable global economic recovery might look like. In particular, it said better energy efficiency and switching to more efficient electric technologies will deliver triple benefits: increased employment, a more productive economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

In this carbon-constrained world, relatively easy and cheap opportunities such as energy efficiency must be seized. And as Australia spends to get its post-pandemic economy back on track, now is the time to act.The Conversation

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

On Thursday morning 18 June the Friends of Lane Cove National Park held a special celebration at Carter Creek to celebrate the retirement of Bill Jones and Noela Kirkwoods, as coordinators of the Quarry Creek bushcare site. Bill and Noela have been with Friends from the beginning – in fact from before the beginning. They attended the inaugural bushcare breakfast meetings in 1991, which later led to establishment of Friends of Lane Cove National Park after the 1994 fires.

They both have given so much more to the environment than bushcare. Both helped to educate a generation of new volunteers; Noela through her association with TAFE and Bill with the walks and talks program organised by the Australian Plant Society at Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden. They were involved in preserving Wallumatta Nature Reserve, one of the largest remaining areas of Sydney Turpentine Iron Bark Forest as part of Lane Cove National Park. They have been enthusiastic regenerators on Ku-ring-gai Council sites and keenly pursued grants from council to support their work.

Of course, Bill and Noela have been actively involved with STEP since we merged with KUBES (Ku-ring-gai Bushland and Environment Society) in 1998 have a passionate interest in Ku-ring-gai Council’s bushland management. Bill was a committee member from 1998–2001 and has led some of our walks.

Photo is of Noela and Bill at STEP’s 20th anniversary in 1998

In April this year an international citizen science bioblitz event was held. Volunteers from all over the world recorded flora and fauna sightings from their neighbourhood in the City Nature Challenge. This event was organised from the USA so the timing was set for the spring in the northern hemisphere.

But the peak time for nature in the southern hemisphere is spring. So the Australian organisers of the City Nature Challenge are coordinating a Great Southern BioBlitz, or GSB for short, from 25 to 28 September. Countries in the Southern Hemisphere have now joined in. There will be an international period of intense biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within several designated areas across the Southern Hemisphere in spring.

The GSB will run through the online citizen science platform iNaturalist. All you need to do is download the iNaturalist AU app and start observing. Recordings are made by uploading photos or sound recordings. It is also possible to record observations via your computer. 

Projects for many areas are being created using the platform. The purpose of area projects is to gather separate data of the numbers of observations and species for different locations. A project has already been set up for the Greater Sydney region. You don’t need to record your sightings under this region. This will happen automatically when you record observations with their geographical location.

Click here for more information.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 23:32

Survey of People’s Connection with Nature

A group of researchers from Macquarie University are currently conducting a national online survey that aims to examine people’s connection with nature by engaging with outdoor environments (such as gardens, local parks, natural reserves etc) and how this is related to the importance they place on such activities. They also want to examine whether their attitude has changed since the bushfires and COVID-19 and whether people’s connections with nature are related to their physical and mental health.

You are invited to complete the survey. It takes between 20 to 30 min to complete online and is anonymous. There is an additional (opt in) follow-up interview component of this study.

Click here for specific details of the study 

Wednesday, 01 July 2020 19:23

Some Good News from the State Government

Suspension of old growth forest logging but other logging continues

The government has suspended plans for the Natural Resources Commission to re-map old-growth coastal state forests. The mapping by remote sensing technology was to have been used to identify forest that might still be available for logging. The remote sensing technology cannot be applied accurately after the burning of so many hectares of forest canopy last summer. The funds for the project have been redirected to a Forest Monitoring and Improvement Program.

The Nature Conservation Council has campaigned for the end of logging in old-growth forests altogether and has welcomed the suspension. However, logging has been resumed in some state forests in the north that include koala habitat. Forests on private land are still not adequately protected.

New national park in western NSW

A new conservation area will be created in far north western NSW following the purchase of 153,415 ha of private land about 60 km from Tibooburra.

The land contains important ecosystems, particularly wetlands fed by the Bulloo River. It is not part of the Murray Darling Basin or the Lake Eyre Basin. The wetlands support at least 27 threatened species. The area is rich in Indigenous and European history.

As feared by the residents of West Pennant Hills and environment groups the NSW government has ignored the more than 4,000 resident and local council objections to Mirvac’s plans for the development of 600 dwellings on the former IBM corporate headquarters next door to the Cumberland State Forest. The plans are on the list of projects to be ‘fast-tracked’ in the interests of creating jobs to speed up recovery after the COVID-19 slowdown. A short-term gain of employment will result in the long-term destruction of beautiful, tall mature forest and the creation of more traffic jams and infrastructure shortfalls. The site could have been retained for commercial or education uses and provided many more jobs for the local area.

The approval applies to the rezoning required from that of a business park in order for the development to proceed. Some modifications have been made to the plans that were described in STEP Matters, Issue 201.

There has been some recognition of community concerns and comments by the Environment, Energy and Science Group of the Department of Planning (EES, formerly OEH). Some modifications of the proposal are outlined below. Many questions and concerns still remain in addition to the overall concern about over-development of the Cherrybrook area and the destruction of a large number of mature trees that surround the existing IBM buildings.

  • The area of the residential footprint will be reduced and the associated bushfire Asset Protection Zones (APZs) so they do not encroach on the BGHF and STIF critically endangered ecological communities. The proposed APZs would have resulted in the modification of multiple patches of BGHF and STIF totalling approximately 1 hectare. The number of dwellings remains at up to 600 so, no doubt, there will more high rise and less medium density apartments. The tiny 86 m2 terraces remain.
  • A 100 m buffer distance from residential buildings is required near nest trees in accordance with guidelines for conserving Powerful Owl habitat.
  • EES has commented on the need for prohibition of free-ranging cats in the development and that dogs would need to be under control at all times but especially near bushland areas. This would require fencing critically endangered ecological communities. How can these requirements be enforced? We have generally observed that dog owners let their dogs off the leash as soon as they think no one is looking or they feign ignorance of the requirement. Will fencing inhibit the normal movement of native species for foraging and nesting? This suggestion requires a lot more investigation!
  • The area zoned as E2, environmental conservation, will increase to 15 ha because of the change in the residential footprint and removal of the recreation zone. It is proposed that 9 ha of the E2 zone be managed by Forestry NSW as part of Cumberland State Forest. Will the funding be increased for management of this area?
  • The public recreation area, that was to be zoned as RE1 with a synthetic turf soccer field and lighting, has been removed in recognition of the impact the lighting and noise would have had on the Powerful Owls nesting and foraging needs. It will then be part of the E2 zone and this area, currently mostly mown grass, will be rehabilitated and revegetated with local native species. This area may include a kiosk or café with a maximum area of 50 m2.
  • The other E2 zone in the north that currently includes a car park could include a private recreation facility under community title subdivision, possibly indoors, subject to council consent. The public recreation facilities that were to be funded by Mirvac have gone.
  • EES recommended the existing pathways/walking trails be closed and revegetated and the number of pathways/walking trails within the ‘bushland edge’ and close to the Powerful Owl nesting sites are minimised. Further, EES recommended the new pathways/walking trails be located outside the bushland reserve and constructed of appropriate materials to minimise impacts on biodiversity. It is noted the walking trails are in the forested areas proposed to be dedicated to Forestry NSW and will be subject to a future plan of management.
  • Introduce a local design excellence provision for the residential areas. So what was the quality of the design going to be before?

edit1

What happens next?

The change in zoning has been forced through via this fast tracking process but the detailed layout and design of the residential buildings as well as other details of the land management still has to be approved by Hills Council. There will still be opportunities to make submissions on the next stage of the planning process. No doubt there will be a great deal of community interest.

HornsbyQuarryThe process of partially filling in the void that was Hornsby Quarry using spoil from the excavation of the North Connex road tunnel has been completed. Hornsby Council is now planning the next stage to create a recreation area that comprises Old Man’s Valley below the swimming pool, the Quarry and its surrounding area.

Some of the steep sides of the Quarry, particularly the northern side, are unstable and could collapse in a major rainfall event so rehabilitation works are required. Reshaping of the North Connex fill is proposed, as well as other spoil mounds within the site to allow future development of the quarry into a parkland for community use. These works have to go through a Development Application (DA) process including consideration of public submissions.

Hornsby Council has undertaken public consultation using public displays of the plans and put documents on exhibition. There are futuristic illustrations of the potential use of the site but this level of detail will be in the next stage of consultation.

On 6 May the Sydney North Planning Panel conducted a hearing into Hornsby Council’s DA for the works of Hornsby Quarry. Some individuals and community groups made submissions explaining their serious concerns about some aspects of the proposed works.

STEP, Protect your Suburban Environment (PYSE) and the Powerful Owl Coalition’s submissions drew attention to shortcomings revealed in some key documents.

  1. The agreement document for a biodiversity offsets package was not available. It was totally unclear how biodiversity offsets under the Biodiversity Conservation Trust were applicable to the project.
  2. A preliminary Vegetation Management Plan was provided but lacked the detail required for works on such a large and diverse site. Its link with the offsets package was also missing.
  3. How the Blue Gum High Forest Save Our Species Priority Management Sites in the south western side of the site will be affected by the works.

Representatives from three geological societies made several submissions about the lack of recognition of the scientific significance of the volcanic diatreme rockface that is exposed by the quarry excavation. The outcomes of the final filling and landscape works on the floor of the quarry were not explained so it is not clear how much of the rock face would remain visible.

Panel decision

The people who had made submissions were delighted with the result. The Panel noted that several key issues of significant public interest were unresolved, and the development’s conditions did not provide necessary certainty of the outcomes for the Panel or for the public.

The Panel deferred the application so that the following processes can be completed:

  • Provide detail of the Biodiversity Offsets Package, Vegetation Management Plan and Habitat Creation and Enhancement Plans and submit these documents for public exhibition.
  • Submit a plan for public consultation defining and managing a buffer zone during the rehabilitation works around the Powerful Owl breeding pair’s roosting tree.
  • The information about extent of the volcanic diatreme rock face exposure when the filling and creation of the lake and wetland in front of the face have been completed.

Another process of consultation will occur when the required documents are completed.

A subsequent visit by Geological Society of Australia members with council officers provided an indication that there is likely to be more of the diatreme rock face exposed, not less. So good news.

Thursday, 02 July 2020 20:45

More on Climate Change Policy

The Coalition government just does not get it! Scott Morrison has stated in relation to the COVID-19 response that:

What we do in the next five years will determine the next thirty.

With the need to boost the economy and respond to the climate change risks demonstrated by ‘black summer’, one would think that climate change policies that will set a pathway to zero emissions by 2050 would be front of mind. We need long-term job creating strategies that demonstrate a clear trajectory towards a goal matching our Paris agreement commitments.

There are three reports and consultations over the past three months all of which have been dominated by fossil fuel industry interests:

  • Andy King, former Origin Energy CEO, was appointed last October to produce a review into new low cost sources of emissions reduction. Industry was consulted but not the general public or not-for-profit groups. Most of the recommendations in the report released in May have been accepted.
  • A consultation paper on a technology roadmap was released with over 140 technologies listed that could potentially be supported by government. Submissions closed on 21 June.
  • The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) led by gas company executive Nev Power, has been tasked with coming up with plans to revitalise the economy after the coronavirus shutdown.

All these actions are geared to allowing the market to control the implementation of the changes with some government support. Therefore, there is no overriding mechanism to ensure that Australia can be on a track that will lead to the goal of zero emissions by 2050. This goal can only be achieved if the fossil fuelled electricity generation is closed down progressively and replaced by renewable energy and storage mechanisms. Major changes are needed to other major sectors such as transport. The demand side of the equation that would reduce energy use needs to be addressed in a structured way.

It is clear that moving away from fossil fuels is not going to be actively managed. It will be up to consumers and business to take the initiative. The level of frustration of all sectors of the community was demonstrated in May when a cross section of peak organisations representing business, unions and charities sent a letter to the cabinet, energy ministers and the NCCC calling for rebuilding of a sustainable economy including measures to cut emissions and accelerate a transition to clean energy across all regions and economic sectors, and recommend a focus on fixing inefficient homes and commercial buildings.

Instead government rhetoric is emphasising:

  • carbon capture and storage
  • hydrogen produced from fossil fuels
  • gas as an interim energy source for electricity and manufacturing

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

The King report recommended that a new abatement category be created under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) for carbon capture and storage. The ERF has thus far been focussing on carbon farming and projects that increase energy efficiency. Australian governments have already spent over a billion dollars into carbon capture projects and technologies but there has been virtually nothing to show for it. Even if it works – which it very rarely does – CCS is extremely expensive and cannot deliver zero emissions. It cannot compete with the reducing cost of wind and solar. CCS paired with fossil fuels (so called ‘clean coal’) is simply an attempt to prolong the life of ageing, polluting fossil fuels in our energy system.

Gas

A draft report from the NCCC recommended that billions of public dollars be spent on increasing gas use by building new gas pipelines and underwriting of supply projects. They called for scrapping of state bans on coal seam gas as well as ‘green and red tape’ on gas development, including a relaxation of Australian standards for equipment used in gas infrastructure and a loosening of environmental regulations and approval processes under the EPBC Act.

The use of gas may be less carbon intensive for electricity generation but the production of gas is another matter. Fugitive emissions from the extraction, processing and export of gas (the liquification process) have been the main driver behind Australia’s emissions staying so high. A large part of the gas industry is geared to exports where prices are very volatile. The Climate Council has reported in detail on the reasons to steer clear of gas expansion.

The fracking process to produce coal seam gas is a major concern as it uses vast amounts of water, mostly drawn from the Great Artesian Basin, and converts it into similar amounts of salty water that may leach into groundwater, farmland and ecosystems. The Santos Pilliga Forest project is a prime example.

The use of gas for electricity generation instead of coal does not reduce emissions significantly compared with renewable sources, even with battery backup. Investing further in gas risks locking in huge investment losses, stranded assets and environmental harm.

Hydrogen

When the term ‘hydrogen’ is used in the energy sector, it refers to a simple molecule of two hydrogen atoms: H2. Creating hydrogen uses a lot of energy, and splitting it apart releases that energy again. This means that generating hydrogen, then using it, works a little like charging and discharging a battery.

While hydrogen is unlikely to outperform a conventional battery in the near future, there is huge potential for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in areas that are difficult or impossible to address in other ways, like steel-making and long-range transport. Hydrogen can be used in many other sectors as well, from fertiliser production to simple energy storage.

Hydrogen can be created via a number of different methods. In the near future the most feasible means is using gas. Just one type of hydrogen – so-called ‘green hydrogen’ – which is hydrogen generated through renewable energy, is capable of playing a role in our zero emissions future.

Hydrogen shows great promise for low carbon industrial development and Australia’s energy exports but it will take time for the technology to be developed.

Documentary maker Michael Moore’s latest offering, Planet of the Humans, rightly argues that infinite growth on a finite planet is 'suicide'. But the film’s bogus claims threaten to overshadow that message.

Planet of the Humans is directed and narrated by longtime Moore collaborator Jeff Gibbs. It makes particularly contentious claims about solar, wind and biomass (organic material which can be burnt for energy). Some claims are valid. Some are out of date, and some are just wrong.

The film triggered a storm after its free release on YouTube late last month. At the time of writing, it had been watched 6.5 million times. Climate sceptics here and abroad reacted with glee. Environmentalists say the film has caused untold damage when climate action has never been more urgent.

For 50 years, I have studied and written about energy supply and use, and its environmental consequences. So let’s take a look at how Planet of the Humans is flawed, and where it gets things right.

Where the film goes wrong

Critics have compiled a long list of questionable claims made in the film. I will examine three relating to renewable energy.

1. Solar panels take more energy to produce than they generate

It’s true that some energy is required to build solar panels. The same can be said of coal-fired power stations, oil refineries and gas pipelines.

But the claim that solar panels generate less energy in their lifetime than that taken to manufacture them has long been disproved. It would not be true even if, as the film says, solar panels converted just 8% of the energy they receive into electricity.

But that 8% figure is at least 20 years old. The solar panels now installed on more than two million Australian roofs typically operate at at 15-20% efficiency.

2. Renewables can’t replace fossil fuels

The film claims green energy is not replacing fossil fuels, and that coal plants cannot be replaced by renewables.

To disprove this claim we need look no further than Australia, where wind turbines and solar panels have significantly reduced our dependence on coal.

In South Australia, for example, the expansion of solar and wind has led to the closure of all coal-fired power stations.

The state now gets most of its power from solar and wind, exporting its surplus to Victoria when its old coal-fired power stations prove unreliable on hot summer days.

What’s more, a report released this week by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) said with the right regulations, renewables could at times supply 75% of electricity in the national electricity market by 2025.

3. Solar and wind need fossil fuel back-up

Some renewables systems use gas turbines to fill the gap when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. However renewable energy storage is a cleaner option and is fast becoming cheaper and more widely used.

AEMO forecasts battery storage installations will rise from a low base today to reach 5.6 gigawatts by 2036–37. The costs of storage are also projected to fall faster than previously expected.

South Australia’s famous grid-scale Tesla battery is being expanded. And the New South Wales government’s pumped hydro plan shows how by 2040, the state could get 89% of its power from solar and wind, backed by pumped hydro storage.


Read more: How an Aussie invention could soon cut 5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions


In Australia on Easter Saturday this year, renewables supplied 50% of the national electricity market, which serves the vast majority of the population.

Countries such as New Zealand and Iceland essentially get all their power from renewables, backed up by storage (predominantly hydro).

And putting aside the federal government’s problematic Snowy 2.0 project, Australia could get all its energy from renewables with small-scale storage.

South Australia’s huge battery storage project is being expanded. Hornsdale Power Reserve

What does the film get right?

Planet of the Humans makes several entirely valid points. Here are a few:

1. We need to deal with population growth

The film observes that population growth is the elephant in the room when it comes to climate change. It says politicians are reluctant to talk about limits to population growth 'because that would be bad for business'.

As one observer in the film says, the people in charge aren’t nervous enough. I agree.

An increasing population means increasing demand for energy and other resources, accelerating climate change.

2. Biomass energy does more harm than good

While the film unfairly criticises the environmental benefits of solar energy, it’s true that some so-called clean technologies are not green at all.

As the film asserts, destroying forests for biomass energy does more harm than good – due to loss of habitat, damage to water systems, and the time taken for some forests to recover from the removal of wood.

Most advocates of cleaner energy systems recognise the limitations of biomass as an energy source.

A still from the film, showing a biomass plant. Planet of the Humans

3. Infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide

The film calculates the sum total of human demands on natural systems as about 1,000 times what it was 200 years ago. It says there are ten times as many people now, each using 100 times the resources, on average.

Experts have repeatedly warned that human demand for resources is damaging the natural systems that all life depends on.

For large parts of the world, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Get the message

Several other aspects of the film have been savaged by critics – not least its claims about emissions produced by electric cars, which had previously been debunked.

Personal attacks on two prominent US clean energy advocates, Bill McKibben and Al Gore, also detract from the film’s impact.

It’s clear renewable energy has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. But it won’t solve the fundamental problem: that humans must live within Earth’s natural limits.

Those cheering the film’s criticism of renewables would do well to consider its overriding message.


Read more: Australia could fall apart under climate change. But there's a way to avoid it



Correction: A previous version of this article said the claim that solar panels produce less energy than they generate in their lifetime has long been disproved. This has been amended.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, 02 July 2020 21:15

The Rakali: Don't Blink or You'll Miss It

Many of you will know the Empire Marina at Bobbin Head, and if you have young kids or grandkids, buying a little bag of chook pellets for them to feed the schools of hungry yellowfin bream that swarm near the cafe. Well, a couple of weeks ago I was wandering back to the car around 1:50 pm following a bushwalk and coffee, scanning the water for life, when a strange ‘fish’ caught my eye. It was swimming rapidly underwater, sweeping and turning in S shapes, and immediately I saw it wasn't a fish at all but a furry animal with a tail, and about the same size as a ringtail possum. It was all too quick for a photograph and it disappeared into an underwater hole in the rocky bank (it was high tide).

Rakali jpeg

Rakali in Frankfurt Zoo photographed by Klaus Rudloff

Well, it was a rakali, or golden-bellied water rat: (binomial Hydromys (water mouse) chrysogaster (golden belly)) and it's an Australian native rodent. Indigenous people on the Murray called them ‘rakali’, and that name is probably preferable to water rat because they are rather different to the European water rat or water vole which I remember well from childhood. They also differ from the North American muskrat, though comparable in size, being up to 60 to 70 cm long including the tail, which is furry and with a white tip like a ringtail. They weigh up to 0.8 to1 kg, about the same as a ringtail. The feet are partially webbed which is why they can be seen to ‘swim like a fish’. In fact in habit and diet they are more like a small otter, feeding on crustaceans, shellfish and small fish. They also share some habits and habitat with platypuses, and the best information link for them is the Australian Platypus Conservancy.

So, where do they occur? All round Australia actually, and PNG too. Where locally? Well a good source of information has been naturalist Jayden Walsh who has seen them at several localities, notably Warriewood Wetlands, Irrawong Reserve, Gledhill Falls on McCarrs Creek and South Curl Curl rockpool (yes, they're OK in salt water).

Do they occur in the Lane Cove catchment? Probably: I'm not aware of recent sightings but Jennifer Schwarz in her mammals chapter in the Field Guide mentions sightings, and they are so widespread but also so secretive they are almost certainly present.

Was that distant splash in the creek actually a water dragon? Or maybe ... !

Please contact STEP if you've seen one!

We thank John Martyn for this interesting sighting.

Love, sex and mate choice are topics that never go out of fashion among humans or, surprisingly, among some Australian birds. For these species, choosing the right partner is a driver of evolution and affects the survival and success of a bird and its offspring.

There is no better place than Australia to observe and study strategies for bird mate choice. Modern parrots and songbirds are Gondwanan creations – they first evolved in Australia and only much later populated the rest of the world.

Here, we’ll examine the sophisticated way some native birds choose a good mate, and make the relationship last.

Rainbow lorikeets form a lifetime bond. Bobbie Marchant

Single mothers and seasonal flings

For years, research has concentrated on studying birds in which sexual selection may be as simple as males courting females. Males might display extra bright feathers or patterns, perform a special song or dance or, like the bowerbird, build a sophisticated display mound.

In these species, females choose the best mate on the market. But the males do not stick around after mating to raise their brood.


Read more: How the Australian galah got its name in a muddle


These reproductive strategies apply only to about tiny proportion of birds worldwide.

Then there are “lovers for a season”, which account for another small percentage of songbirds. Males and females may raise a brood together for one season, then go their separate ways.

These are not real partnerships at all – they’re simply markets for reproduction.

Birds that stick together

But what about the other birds – those that raise offspring in pairs, just as humans often do? Those that form partnerships for more than a season, and in some cases, a lifetime?

More than 90% of birds worldwide fall into this “joint parenting” category – and in Australia, many of them stay together for a long time. Indeed, Australia is a hotspot for these cooperative and long-term affairs.

This staggering figure has no equal in the animal kingdom. Even among mammals, couples are rare; only 5% of all mammals, including humans, pair up and raise kids together.

So how do long-bonding Australian birds choose partners, and what’s their secret to relationship success?

A white headed pigeon pair. Credit: Gisela Kaplan

Lifelong attachment

The concept of assortative mating is often used to explain how humans form lasting relationships. As the theory goes, we choose mates with similar traits, lifestyle and background to our own.

In native birds that form long-lasting bonds, including butcherbirds, drongos and cockatoos, differences between the sexes are small or non-existent – that is, they are “monomorphic”. Males and females may look alike in size and plumage, or may both sing, build nests and provide equally for offspring.

So, how do they choose each other, if not by colour, song, dance or plumage difference? There’s some research to suggest their choices are based on personality.

Many bird owners and aviculturists would attest that birds have individual personalities. They may, for example, be gentle, tolerant, submissive, aggressive, confident, curious, fearful or sociable.


Read more: Magpies can form friendships with people – here's how


Research has not conclusively established which bird personalities are mutually attractive. But so far it seems similarities or familiarity, rather than opposites, attract.

Cockatiel breeders now even use personality assessments similar to those used for show dogs.

There is practical and scientific proof to support this approach. In breeding contexts, seemingly incompatible birds may be forced together. In such cases, they are unlikely to reproduce and may not even interact with each other. For example, research on Gouldian finches has shown that in mismatched pairs, stress hormone levels were elevated over several weeks, which delayed egg laying.

Conversely, well-matched zebra finch pairs have been shown to have greater reproductive success. Well designed experiments have also shown these birds to change human-assigned partners once free to do so, suggesting firm partner preferences.

Zebra finches pair roosting together. Source Credit: Robyn Burgess

More than just sex

Now to some extraordinary, little-known facets of behaviour in some native birds.

Bird bonds are not always or initially about reproduction. Most cockatoos take five to seven years to mature sexually. Magpies, apostlebirds and white winged choughs can’t seriously think about reproducing until they are five or six years old.

In the interim, they form friendships. Some become childhood sweethearts long before they get “married” and reproduce.

Socially monogamous birds, such as most Australian cockatoos and parrots, pay meticulous attention to each other. They reaffirm bonds by preening, roosting and flying together in search of food and water.

Even not-so-cuddly native songbirds such as magpies or corvids have long term partnerships and fly, feed and roost closely together.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo friends or pair about to land. Source Robyn Burgess

All in the mind

Bird species that pair up for life, and devote the most time to raising offspring, are generally also the most intelligent (when measured by brain mass relative to body weight).

Such species tend to live for a long time as well – sometimes four times longer than birds of similar weight range in the northern hemisphere.

So why is this? The brain chews up lots of energy and needs the best nutrients. It also needs time to reach full growth. Parental care for a long period, as many Australian birds provide, is the best way to maximise brain development. It requires a strong bond between the parents, and a commitment to raising offspring over the long haul.


Read more: Bird-brained and brilliant: Australia's avians are smarter than you think


Interestingly, bird and human brains have some similar architecture, and the same range of important neurotransmitters and hormones. Some of these may allow long-term attachments.

Powerful hormones that regulate stress and induce positive emotions are well developed in both humans and birds. These include oxytocin (which plays a part in social recognition and sexual behaviour) and serotonin (which helps regulate and modulate mood, sleep, anxiety, sexuality, and appetite).

The dopamine system also strongly influences the way pair bonds are formed and maintained in primates – including humans – and in birds.

Birds even produce the hormone prolactin, once associated only with mammals. This plays a role in keeping parents sitting on their clutch of eggs, including male birds that share in the brooding.

The power of love

Given the above, one is led to the surprising conclusion that cooperation, and long-term bonds in couples, is as good for birds as it is for humans. The strategy has arguably led both species to becoming the most successful and widely distributed on Earth.

With so many of Australia’s native birds declining in numbers, learning as much as possible about their behaviour, including how they form lasting relationships, is an urgent task.

Much of the information referred to in this article is drawn from Gisela Kaplan’s book Bird Bonds. See also Bird Minds and Tawny FrogmouthThe Conversation

Gisela Kaplan, Emeritus Professor in Animal Behaviour, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, 02 July 2020 21:42

Felixer: The Feral Cat Problem Fixer

Reintroducing protected species into the wild has been near impossible due to predation by cats and foxes unless the site is protected by exclusion fencing. Now a promising solution has been trialled.

FelixerA device, called the Felixer, has been successfully trialled by researchers at UNSW. The device is getting rave reviews because it poses no threat to Australian native animals.

The device uses lasers to detect the shape of an animal as it walks by. If it detects a cat it sprays poison gel onto its fur. The cat then licks the gel off their coat and dies.

The device takes a photo with each spray, so there is good information on which animals it is firing on. So far the researchers have found that it's highly target-specific.

The researchers at UNSW set up 20 Felixers for a six-week trial on a 2,600-hectare, fenced-off property, Arid Recovery near Roxby Downs in South Australia. At the end of the six weeks researchers found that two-thirds of the 50 feral cats on the property had been killed by the device and no other wildlife had been harmed.

One of the study's lead researchers, Dr Katherine Moseby, said the results were very promising for eradicating feral cats in Australia:

In the trial we had 100% firing on cats. In some other trials, native animals triggered the device but it has a much higher target specificity than traps left on the ground.

Dr Moseby says the device is currently only available for research purposes, but they have high hopes it will become commercially available in the future. The idea is that in the future people will be able to purchase the device for use on their properties, particularly in remote areas.

Teaching resilience

Arid Recovery is home to some of the most endangered animals in Australia and remains one of the only places on the mainland that can support populations of the greater stick-nest rat.

Arid Recovery manager, Katherine Tuft, said the Felixer study was not the sort of experiment that the reserve was used to as it usually focussed on keeping native animals away from cats. She said:

This particular paddock where we did the research in is part of our 'beyond the fence' research projects …

We're trying to train native animals to cope with a certain number of feral cats because we'd like to have bilbies and bettongs surviving outside fences one day.

Parliamentary enquiry

While we are on the subject of feral cats, the Environment Minster, Susan Ley, has announced an enquiry into the problem of feral and domestic cats by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy. Submissions close on 30 July.

The terms of reference are wide ranging covering the extent of the problem, effectiveness of current abatement plans and control methods and awareness and education of the public. It includes the critical issue of the interaction between domestic cat ownership and the feral cat problem.

ARENA is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency that is tasked with improving the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies and increase investment in their supply. It is currently undertaking an enquiry to identify the role that the bioenergy sector can play in Australia’s energy transition. Bioenergy is a form of renewable energy that uses organic and renewable materials, typically waste streams from the agricultural, forestry and industrial sectors to produce heat, electricity, biogas and liquid fuel.

The Nature Conservation Council has written a submission to the enquiry into forest-derived bioenergy (FDB) that has been endorsed by 89 environment groups, including STEP. This article summarises the arguments against this source of energy.

In brief, as explained in the NCC’s submission, there are some fundamental problems with FDB:

  • the level of carbon emissions is greater than coal-fired generation at the point of combustion
  • it is not carbon neutral within time frames identified by the IPCC to reduce atmospheric carbon, if ever
  • it is harmful to people and biodiversity

Carbon emissions

Burning biomass emits CO2 to the atmosphere, just as burning fossil fuels does. In fact, generating a unit of energy from wood emits between 3 and 50% more CO2 than generating it from coal (see figure below).

Graph

Data is derived from various sources for units burning biomass for fuel (assembled by Mary S Booth, Partnership for Policy Integrity)

The claim of carbon neutrality is based on simplistic assumptions and flawed carbon accounting

Emissions generated by combustion of biomass for energy generation are not reported nor accounted in the energy sector of the consuming country. The assumption behind this zero accounting in the energy sector is that all emissions are instead to be accounted for when the biomass is logged. Under the international carbon accounting rules all accounting for emissions and removals from actions associated with forests and forest materials is consolidated within land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) accounts. The rationale is that this avoids double counting of emissions but the signals sent by a zero emissions record in the energy sector have been misconstrued to wrongly claim carbon neutrality for burning forest biomass.

Carbon from the loss of trees is not recaptured within critical timeframes

Claims that forest regrowth nullifies the impact of forest biomass combustion on climate change are incorrect. When trees are removed from forests, especially with industrial forestry that uproots trees, we remove their function as a living carbon sink, and we damage the ability of forest soils to store carbon. Trees utilised for FDB may regrow but reaching their equivalent carbon storage capacity could take decades or even centuries. Replanting trees does pull carbon from the air, but not as much as letting existing forests keep on growing.

We have less than a decade to vastly reduce emissions. Carbon from the combustion of FDB cannot be recaptured within this timeframe.

FDB is not cheap or efficient

FDB requires intensive production, distribution and consumption of huge forest resources in order to have economies of scale. FDB energy is expensive in comparison to genuine renewable energy sources.

FDB has negative health impacts

Like coal-fired power, burning biomass also has significant public health impacts. Data from the Drax power station in the UK shows that biomass burning has increased particulate pollution by 400% since switching four of six boilers to FDB, while power output has remained constant.

Risks to Australian native forests increase with adding FDB in the product mix

Australia is already exporting native forest biomass for FDB. The logging industry, supported by governments, is planning to increase domestic uptake and exports. Proponents argue that FDB will not be a driver of increased native forest logging in Australia because it is derived from residue and waste materials. However the definition of ‘residue’ in Commonwealth and some state legislation can include whole logs. NSW has specifically defined immature native forest trees as ‘residue’.

Any incentive for logging native forests in Australia is a risk to native habitat and biodiversity. Industrial logging of forests is identified as a factor contributing to fire severity.

Our native forest carbon stores need to be increased, not burnt!

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 18:13

Membership Fees

Considering that we have had to cancel or postpone our walks and talks we decided it is appropriate to take some temporary measures to compensate members.

One year membership fee waive

We’ve credited everyone with one year’s free membership. New members who join before 30 June 2020 will be extended to 30 June 2022.

Lapsed members

We've reinstated recent lapsed members.

Purchase of book or map by non-members

For the rest of 2020 we'll offer the option of one year free family membership to anyone who buys a map or book. This means they'll be entitled to pay the member’s price for the publication.

Donations

We've added a donations button to our website if you ever want to make a tax-deductible donation. Donations help fund our environmental education grants.

The Australian Association of Bush regenerators (AABR) is cautioning against rushing in to replant burnt areas. They are advocating a focus of allowing sites to regenerate and for sites where there is a need (and an opportunity) to remove weeds that could worsen if not treated and which would prevent recovery of native habitats.

They are establishing a database of volunteers, skilled and unskilled, AABR members and supporters who might be able to contribute some time to the volunteer effort over the next 6 to 12 months. They are particularly seeking people who provide their expertise to inform under-supported land managers and private landholders in high priority fire-affected areas about post-fire weeding so that they can better secure recovery of faunal habitats.

Click here for more information.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 18:42

State Government News

The NSW government is not holding sittings in Macquarie Street but decisions are still being made, with most of them being a continuation of the same disregard for the environment. Here are some examples.

Planning System Acceleration Program

To aid recovery from the economic downturn arising from the COVID-19 pandemic the government has announced a Planning System Acceleration Program which will bring forward planning reforms:

to cut red tape and fast-track assessment processes to boost the construction pipeline and fast-track new projects

Only limited details of the program have been provided and it is proposed that it will include measures:

  • to fast-track the assessment of state significant developments, development applications and rezonings, with more decisions to be made by the minister if necessary
  • to support councils and planning panels to fast-track locally and regionally significant development applications
  • to expand the type of works that can be carried out as a complying development
  • to introduce a ‘one stop shop’ for industry to progress projects that may be ‘stuck in the system’
  • to appoint additional acting commissioners to help clear the current backlog of merits appeals in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court

The developer lobby group, Urban Taskforce, was asked by Treasury to provide a list of ‘shovel ready’ projects that could be accelerated. STEP has been following two of these candidates closely. They have both been knocked back for good reason.

  • The Mirvac plan to build 600 units on the old IBM site in West Pennant Hills that would destroy Blue Gum High Forest and threatened species habitat. The zoning changes required before the detailed DA could be assessed were rejected by the Hills Council for many technical reasons and huge community protest.
  • The seniors housing development on Bayview Golf Course proposal that would clear an important wildlife corridor was rejected by the Land and Environment Court. The developer has resubmitted the DA.

Logging in koala and threatened species habitat

It is appalling that the NSW Forestry Corporation is logging in unburnt forests on north coast in some of the depleted habitat for threatened species. This includes areas that conservationists hope will become part of the Great Koala National Park.

Approval to extend longwall mining under Sydney’s water catchment

In March approval was granted for further longwall mining by Peabody Energy at the Metropolitan Mine under the Woronora Dam to provide coal for the Port Kembla steel works. It is claimed by the Planning Department that the mining process has been reviewed by independent experts who:

consider that the proposed mining would not compromise the reservoir – but have recommended a range of precautionary adaptive measures to ensure the mining is carefully monitored.

How can it be possible to manage the damage after subsidence has started causing loss of water from the reservoir into the mine?

In December the government also gave its tick for another longwall expansion at South32's Dendrobium Mine, also within Sydney's catchment. With this one the Avon and Cordeaux Dams are affected.

It has been revealed by the Sydney Morning Herald that WaterNSW is strongly opposed to the project. There is insufficient design to prevent drainage cracks and predicted water loss of as much as 5.2 million litres a day might be an underestimate.

Sydney is the only city in the world to allow mining under its water catchment. A petition with over 10,000 signatures opposing these decisions cannot be debated in parliament in the current circumstances.

NSW climate change policy

There is some good news at the state government level. They and most of the other states are leaving behind the recalcitrant federal government and have announced some real climate change policy.

The Net Zero Plan: 2020–30 is to reduce emissions by 35% below 2005 levels by 2030. This is more ambitious than the federal commitment to reduce emissions by 26-28%. The plan is part of the pathway aiming for zero emissions by 2050.

The plan recognises the situation that jobs will be created and business will save money by using low emission technologies. The government will spend almost $2 billion in a series of programs.

The programs include support for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, electricity demand reduction via building codes, creation of renewable energy zones that will create jobs in regional areas and a fund to support manufacturers to install low emissions equipment and farmers to lower emissions and take advantage of carbon offset programs.

Raising the Warragamba Dam Wall

The government seems determined to proceed with the plan to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by 14 metres. The project is currently undergoing research for a final EIS. It has been reported that the species mapping that was carried out before the fires was rushed with timeframes that would make it impossible to properly identify species numbers.

The area in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area that would be affected by flooding after the dam wall is raised has been badly affected by the bushfires. No appraisal is being done of the impact of the fires.

CouncilThis strategy has taken many months to finalise after extensive consultation was undertaken with interested groups, often with competing interests.

STEP’s main interest is the Warrimoo downhill mountain bike track in St Ives. We have written about this many times (STEP Matters 181 and 188). It was built illegally back in the early 2000s.

Council closed the track in 2016 because it went through a coastal upland swamp, a vegetation community that was declared to be an endangered ecological community in 2012. The track also went through areas that are habitat for endangered wildlife such as the Eastern Pigmy-possum and Rosenberg’s Goanna. Nevertheless, the mountain bikers ignored or removed the barriers and carried on regardless.

Council resolved the situation by deciding to create an official track covering some of the existing track but changing the route so that it was well away from the upland swamp. This is a single downhill track (pretty scary) and a separate track for the return uphill. There is still stage 2 to do to investigate completing the loop for the return uphill and provide access for walkers. This project will be subject to approval from Crown Lands and an environmental impact assessment.

A volunteer Trailcare group, the Moo Volunteers has been appointed to assist with the construction planning and maintenance.

A visit to the site in March 2020 revealed that it was already in use but some signage is still needed.

The strategy also plans the following actions where improvement is badly needed:

  • Establish and manage an environmental advisory group, with representatives from Council, the community and environment groups, to provide advice on environmental issues and opportunities in relation to recreation in natural areas and to assist Council in promoting responsible and sustainable recreation in the region.
  • In collaboration with recreation user groups, develop codes of conduct for endorsed recreation activities in Ku-ring-gai’s natural areas, as well as dog walking and horse riding, to facilitate responsible and safe user behaviour and practices and to reduce conflict between recreation user groups and individuals. Codes of conduct will guide users to partake in recreation in natural areas in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.
  • Reduce the incidence and impacts of unauthorised bicycle track construction through proactive management and stakeholder engagement – this activity is rife – we need to keep an eye out for these illegal tracks and shortcuts. In some cases, Council will pursue prosecution for unauthorised clearing or environmental harm.
  • Improve directional signage and interpretative information about recreation areas on location and on Council’s website.

Sydney escaped the extreme bushfire experiences of last summer but the heatwaves, strong winds and extremely dry bush conditions could easily have caused a major fire. After all the experiences of 1987, 1994 and 2001–02 demonstrate what can happen.

Bushfire preparation has been extensively upgraded by the Rural Fire Service and local councils. The following information has been provided by Ku-ring-gai Council’s Bushfire Technical Officer, Heath Fitzsimmons. He has now moved to the Central Coast so his position is vacant.

The authorities cannot possibly provide all the protection that property owners need from bushfire. People living near bushland have a responsibility to maintain their own properties to minimise the fuel load and vulnerability of their houses. Maintaining means regular clearing the roof and gutters, ensuring there are no wood piles or flammable gardens etc. Maintenance could also mean upgrading doors, windows etc to safer options).

Even so it is important not to overestimate the level of protection that a fire break or hazard reduction burn can provide. Experience with recent fires such as in Paradise California has shown that homes far from the fire front are at great risk from ember attack.

There is also the issue of whether property owners next to bushland are able to do any clearing of an Asset Protection Zone in bushland next to their boundary if the vegetation and debris has built up to be a fire hazard and Council or National Parks have not been able to do any clearing in recent times.

STEP developed the STEP Method of Selective Hand Clearing to be used for this purpose some 40 years ago but the legality of its application on Council or National Park land is not clear. If Council and National Parks are able to adopt a policy whereby qualified homeowners are able to be permitted to hazard reduce in land adjacent to their properties then STEP would of course support that. A natural extension of that would be permitting approved commercial bush regeneration firms to carry out such hazard reduction work at the homeowner's cost should they so propose.

When Ku-ring-gai Council has appointed a new bushfire officer STEP will hope to discuss this issue further and organise a talk prior to the next bushfire season, COVID-19 restrictions permitting.

Information from Ku-ring-gai Council

Planning and coordination of bush fire hazard reduction works

Bush fire hazard reduction works in the Ku-ring-gai Area are planned by the Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Bush Fire Risk Management Committee (BFMC), comprised of representatives from Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby Councils, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW Fire and Rescue, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and other land managers, emergency services and utility managers.

Every 5 years the BFMC develops a Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Bush Fire Risk Management Plan (BFRMP), Risk Assessment Table and Asset and Treatment Table. These documents identify the ‘assets’ within the district, categorise those assets based on the level of bush fire risk faced and set out a broad 5-year plan for prioritised bush fire risk management works including hazard reduction burning, fire break and fire trail maintenance, and community engagement. From this broad plan the BFMC develops an annual works program.

A list of the hazard reduction burns on the current works program for the Ku-ring-gai area and maps of the proposed burn areas can be found toward the bottom of the bush fireplans and policies page of Council’s website. As these burns are scheduled (up to a week in advance) they will appear on the hazard reduction section of the NSW RFS website, and will also be published on Council’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Past fire history including both hazard reduction burns and bush fires can be viewed on Council’s web map.

Bush fire protection measures and effective risk management treatments

When considering the bush fire risk faced by a home it is most important to consider two major methods of bush fire attack; radiant heat and ember attack. Direct ignition from radiant heat/flame contact accounts for less than 15% of the houses lost to bush fire, while the overwhelming majority (approximately 85%) of losses are due primarily to ember attack. The two also have a cumulative effect, with houses exposed simultaneously to both radiant heat and ember attack at greatest risk.

The threat posed by radiant heat is very effectively reduced by establishing an Asset Protection Zone (APZ), i.e. increasing the separation distance between buildings and bush fire prone vegetation. The separation distance required ranges from 10 to 100 m depending on slope, vegetation type, and the nature of the asset. Council maintains more than 22km of fire breaks on public land in locations where APZs cannot be accommodated within private property boundaries. Where APZs can be accommodated within private property boundaries it is the responsibility of private property owners to manage these areas.

It is important to note that even the largest APZ provides a negligible reduction in the risk posed by ember attack and the only effective way to increase a home’s resilience to ember attack is through upgrading and effectively maintaining the building and immediate surrounding area. It is also critical that people living in bush fire prone areas recognise that there can be no guarantee that even buildings constructed to the absolute highest standards will be defendable or able to provide a safe refuge during a bush fire, and often the only safe option is to leave early, before a fire even starts. No buildings are designed to withstand a bush fire during Catastrophic Fire Danger Rating conditions, and many older buildings and subdivisions were not designed to withstand bush fire at even the lower Fire Danger Ratings.

Hazard reduction burning is an important aspect of an effective bush fire risk management plan, but does not provide long term protection from the threat of bush fire on its own. Rather, it is intended to complement other bush fire protection measures such as ember protection and APZs. More specifically, the purpose of hazard reduction burning is to:

  • Provide fuel reduced areas which enable the protection of assets by firefighters when APZs are not in place,
  • Complement APZs where these do not provide adequate protection,
  • Provide strategically located fuel reduced areas to reduce the potential for large wildfires to develop,
  • Provide areas where fire can more easily be suppressed, or
  • Provide strategically located fuel reduced areas to reduce vulnerability of assets which are susceptible to fire.

A range of environmental considerations must be taken into account when planning hazard reduction activities, and for information on this see Guidelines for Ecologically Sustainable Fire Management and Bush Fire Environmental Assessment Code. A key concept of these guidelines is that of an appropriate fire interval – the minimum and maximum length of time between fires necessary to maintain ecosystem functions. Recommended fire intervals vary depending on vegetation type, with the minimum intervals applicable to Ku-ring-gai ranging from 5 years for dry ridgetop vegetation to 25 years for wet eucalypt forests.

The final critical component of an effective bush fire risk management plan is community engagement. Ku-ring-gai Council, in consultation with emergency management agencies and government, has developed the award-winning Climate Wise Communities initiative to actively engage with individuals and communities and assist in increasing the resilience of their homes and neighbourhoods to extreme weather events including bush fire. Through this program we partner with other councils, emergency services, non-government organisations and community groups to provide workshops, tools and access to experts for ‘at risk’ community members.

You may also find some useful information at the following links:

One final link I want to include is the Overall fuel hazard assessment guide 4th ed. This is the industry standard method of assessing bushfire fuel hazard and is used to inform bushfire behaviour models and help plan hazard reduction activities.

Optimistic, prosperous – a country of rare beauty, blessed with abundant natural resources. Australia has all the ‘golden eggs’ ’needed to position itself as a global leader, to help its Asia-Pacific region leapfrog to a new energy future and to guarantee its prosperity in the process.

Watching this summer’s unprecedented firestorms, I was heartbroken by the sheer scale of the human and ecological tragedy. ‘This must be the tipping point on climate politics in Australia,’ I said to myself. ‘Surely now the politicians will join hands and forge a bipartisan plan for a better future.’

Instead, the climate wars have returned, driven by a handful of deniers given air by powerful media sympathisers and a Prime Minister unwilling to fully embrace the science and stare them down.

For Australia, the choice between danger and opportunity is clear, and that choice must be made now. Since the 2008 Stern Review, the world has known that the cost of not acting is much greater than the cost of our current path. And since the 2008 Garnaut Review, Australians have known that without stronger action, droughts and bushfires would become more frequent and intense, and ‘observable by 2020’. It is time to move on from denial, delusion and delay towards preparedness, productivity and prosperity.

The following three steps will put Australia on track to the future we must create. First, be honest about where Australia is at. Your country is much more than 1.3% of the global climate problem. Carbon emissions from Australia’s use and export of fossil fuels account for about 5% of the global fossil fuel footprint. With exports included, Australians have the biggest per capita carbon footprint in the world.

Australia is not ‘meeting and beating’ its emissions targets. Emissions have increased in every calendar year since 2014. The government’s own projections say Australia will reduce emissions by only 16% by 2030, not the 26 to 28% it promised in Paris, nor the 50% required by science to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Kyoto ‘carryover’ can’t be used to make up the gap. The Paris Agreement doesn’t allow it. To suggest otherwise is at best an attempt to paper over Australia’s lagging efforts and at worst a legally baseless ploy that encourages cheating and holds back the next phase of carbon markets.

A highly vulnerable Australia cannot address climate change on its own, but its heel-dragging leaves it without the international credibility to drive a stronger global response.

The Australian government must look seriously at how to truly meet and beat its 2030 target, and it must ask other major emitters to join it in an alliance for higher ambition at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November.

Second, Australia needs a bipartisan, long-term vision for decarbonisation. Rattled by the bushfires and growing evidence of climate-related risks and stresses, Australia’s biggest corporations – including Rio Tinto, Qantas, Telstra and BHP – have announced support for a national net zero target for 2050. For them, legislating this target is important to finally end the climate wars and provide certainty to underpin investment in the transition.

All states and territories have 2050 net zero targets, as do 73 other nations, including Britain and Canada. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would welcome Australia joining these ranks ahead of the COP26 and giving consideration to the British model of using an independent expert body to advise government on five-yearly carbon budgets en route to net zero by 2050.

Independent MP Zali Steggall’s private members’ bill does exactly that.

Third, Australia must embrace net zero by 2050 as a central pillar of its economic plan for the future. The plan must prioritise the policies, industries and technologies that are scientifically aligned with the 1.5 degree temperature limit, and retire those that are not. Despite a booming renewables industry, coal still accounts for around 60% of Australia’s energy mix. But the technology is tired and unreliable in the summer, highly polluting, and no longer price-competitive with solar and wind. There is no place for governments signed up to the Paris Agreement to provide subsidies for dying coal. We must instead invest in the future.

After two years in operation, South Australia’s 100 megawatt ‘big battery’ at Hornsdale has successfully stabilised the state’s grid, saved consumers $50 million and produced handsome financial returns for its investors. In NSW, the Snowy 2.0 hydro project will deliver at least two gigawatts of dispatchable power to the main Australian grid, creating up to 5000 jobs along the way.

These ground-breaking projects are examples of how Australia can lead and prosper. With political honesty and vision, ambitious targets and a stubborn commitment to innovation, Australia stands ready to assume its rightful place as a clean energy superpower.

This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 March 2020 and is republished with permission of the author Christiana Figueres. Christiana is a former UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change and the co-author of The Future We Choose

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 21:14

Development of a Plastic Waste Strategy

China decided two years ago to ban the importof plastics for recycling and several SE Asian countries have limited imports. This has forced governments to think of new ways of dealing with the growing pile of plastic waste. The mindset of out-of-sight-out-of-mind has to change.

Current waste generation statistics

According to the National Waste Report 2018 by Blue Environment Pty Ltd, prepared for the Department of Environment and Energy in 2016–17, Australia generated an estimated 54 million tonnes (Mt) of waste including:

  • 17.1 Mt of masonry materials
  • 14.2 Mt of organics
  • 6.3 Mt of hazardous waste (mainly contaminated soil)
  • 5.6 Mt of paper and cardboard
  • 5.5 Mt of metals

This comprised 13.8 Mt (560 kg per capita) of municipal solid waste from households and local government activities, 20.4 Mt from the commercial and industrial sector and 20.4 Mt from the construction and demolition.

Although waste per person is going down, Australia’s population is growing so more volume is being generated.

Recycling rates are highest for metal: 90% is successfully reused (mostly overseas). Masonry materials have a recycling rate of 72%, followed by paper and cardboard (60%), glass (57%), organics (52%) and hazardous waste (27%).

The report makes a telling point about the lack of recycling of mobile phones and computers:

Some toxic metals, such as cadmium and cobalt, and rare and precious metals, such as gold and palladium, are still being landfilled in composite material products such as electronic waste. The tonnages are low but the potential environmental impacts and value of the lost resources are high.

Only 12% of plastic is recycled. Nationally we use 3.3 bn plastic bags, 2.6 bn coffee cups, 2.4 bn plastic straws and 1.3 bn plastic bottles each year. In total each person generates about 103 kg of plastic each year.

In August a meeting of environment ministers agreed to a ban on the export of waste glass, plastic, paper and tyres that will be phased in from mid-2020 after they agreed to a timetable for changes in the way Australia deals with recyclable material. The export of waste glass will be banned by July 2020, followed by mixed plastics by July 2021, whole tyres by December 2021 and all remaining waste products, including paper and cardboard, by no later than mid-2022. It has finally been recognised that we should be responsible for our waste generation and it is a resource that is valuable.

The plastic waste problem

The most difficult issue is plastics. A National Plastics Summit was held on 2 March with 200 participants from government, industry and the community.

The meeting agreed to 2025 National Packaging Targets:

  • 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging
  • 70% of plastic packaging being recycled or composted
  • 30% of average recycled content included in packaging
  • phasing out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics packaging

Several manufacturers made pledges to introduce new measures to reduce or reuse plastic. Most significant was the pledge by the Pact Group, the largest manufacturer of rigid plastic packaging in Australasia, to invest $500 million in research and facilities to include 30% recycled content in their products by 2025 and keep 2 billion plastic containers out of landfill. McDonalds pledged to phase our plastic cutlery and straws by the end of 2020.

New technologies for reusing plastics

New technologies are being developed all the time so hopefully we won’t resort to the huge waste to energy incineration plant in Eastern Creek in western Sydney that has yet to be approved. The application for approval was refused in 2018 based on advice from the EPA, NSW Health and the independent experts that the air quality impacts and risk to human health of the proposal are unknown.

One example of new technologies that has huge potential was profiled on ABC’s 7.30 Report.

The patented Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR) technology is a circular solution to problem plastic. The Cat-HTR is able to chemically recycle mixed plastics without separating different plastic types, including end-of-life plastic that would otherwise be sent to landfill, incineration or end up in our oceans. The oil created from the process can be refined into fuels and chemicals, including the chemicals to make new plastics.

There is a pilot plant operating in Somersby on the Central Coast but operation on a commercial scale is some way off. The first such plant is being built in the UK.

Local council plans

Hornsby Council updated their waste strategy early this year.

Ku-ring-gai Council decided at the March meeting to adopt a new waste strategy. Some of the major changes to the current services relate to the bulky clean-up and green waste services. A pleasing development is a plan to introduce waste recovery at the kerbside for e-waste, mattresses and metals. Currently there are organisations that will collect and recycle the components of the mattresses but they are not free. Surely the two councils could coordinate collection of large items like mattresses so we no longer see them sitting forlornly by the roadside in the rain.

We look forward to receiving details of timing of implementation.

Click here for recycling locations for specific items such as printer cartridges and mobile phones.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 21:15

Post-fire Re-growth

This article is based on recent visits by John Martyn to two different burnt areas, the Blue Mountains and the Mitchell Crescent side of Twin Creeks Reserve and is a summary only of a complex situation: of course we must await and monitor the long-term consequences.

The southern edge of the Gospers Mountain megablaze complex impinged on Blackheath, but a spring hazard reduction burn of the bushland south-west of Mitchell Oval, Turramurra, gave those of us living downwind of it a feeling of security whilst watching the January carnage elsewhere on ABC TV. Regrowth by coppicing, sprouting from tuberous rootstock and germination is obviously time related, and is relatively advanced at Mitchell Crescent, but is widespread too in the Blue Mountains after relatively few weeks. The article is illustrated with a small selection from numerous pictures.

Blue Mountains

We stayed in Blackheath over the weekend of 8 February (talk about a ‘wet weekend’ probably the wettest in recent history). Torrential rain and gale force winds made observations difficult, but from glimpses through the fog it was apparent that fire intensity in the Grose Valley was strongly variable and slope related. The canopy in the valley bottom was widely unburnt even though the ground flora and understory were brown and charred. Some eucalypt canopies were even in flower though it was hard to tell what species through the mist.

The wooded rocky slopes, cliffs and ridge crests were completely charred, however. Trees on ridge crests are generally shorter, and coupled with high fire intensity burning uphill, most canopies didn't survive. Many such trees however were bursting with epicormic shoots, and the charcoal-strewn ground was peppered with green shoots of rushes and sedges, even some grasses. Most if not all of the numerous tree ferns at Govetts Leap were bursting with lush new green crosiers (pictured) and some ground ferns like gristle fern were also flush with new leaves from their underground rhizomes.

Mitchell Oval ridge

This local hazard reduction burn left large areas of canopy untouched so total loss of foliage was restricted to shrubs and small trees, plus ferns and ground flora. In the broad sense, eucalypts were relatively unaffected, and short species that did get burnt, like dwarf apple Angophora hispida, are mostly bursting with new growth.

Many Proteaceae species have coppiced or re-shooted. We saw banksias B. oblongifolia and B. spinulosa coppicing readily while one large B. serrata was flush with epicormic shoots. Other proteoid re-sprouters were mountain devil Lambertia formosa and crinkle bush Lomatia silaiifolia.

The fire was limited by the northern valley track downhill from the bottom of Mitchell Crescent, but singed the edge of the valley rainforest and riparian understory. Young specimens of coachwood Ceratopetalum apetalum, white cherry Schizomeria ovata and scentless rosewood Synoum glandulosum show flourishing coppicing. The two other main rainforest species of the valley, Lillypilly Acmena smithii and sassafras Doryphora sassafras were out of reach of the fire, as were most grey myrtles Backhousia myrtifolia. Essentially riparian species like black wattle Callicoma serratifolia have coppiced strongly where burned.

Some surprises maybe, maybe not: the pea flower Platylobium formosum was seen re-shooting, as was one black sheoak Allocasuarina littoralis too.

Ferns like rainbow fern Calochlaena dubia and gristle fern Blechnum cartilagineum have widely recovered, and there are many pinnate seedlings of unknown wattle species plus twiners like Hardenbergia violaceae. The latter will create carpets of purple in a couple of years’ time, perhaps with a sprinkling of ground orchids in season.

Regrowth2020

 

 

Many Australians feel compelled to help our damaged wildlife after this season’s terrible bushfires. Suggested actions have included donating money, leaving water out for thirsty animals, and learning how to help the injured. But there is an equally, if not more, important way to assist: weeding.

An army of volunteers is needed to help land owners with judicious weed removal. This will help burnt habitats recover more quickly, providing expanded, healthy habitat for native fauna.

Other emergency responses, such as culling feral animals and dropping emergency food from aeroplanes, are obviously jobs for specialists. But volunteer weeding does not require any prior expertise – just a willingness to get your hands dirty and take your lead from those in the know.

The recent bushfires burned many areas in national parks and reserves which were infested with weeds. Some weeds are killed in a blaze, but fire also stimulates their seed banks to germinate.

Weed seedlings will spring up en masse and establish dense stands that out-compete native plants by blocking access to sunlight. Native seedlings will die without setting seed, wasting this chance for them to recover and to provide habitat for a diverse range of native species.


Read more: Many of our plants and animals have adapted to fires, but now the fires are changing


This mass weed germination is also an opportunity to improve the outlook for biodiversity. With a coordinated volunteer effort, these weeds can be taken out before they seed – leaving only a residual seed bank with no adult weeds to create more seed and creating space for native plants to flourish.

With follow-up weeding, we can leave our national parks and reserves – and even bushland on farms - in a better state than they were before the fires.

Weeding works

In January 1994, fire burned most of Lane Cove National Park in Sydney. Within a few months of the fire, volunteer bush regeneration groups were set up to help tackle regenerating weeds.

Their efforts eradicated weeds from areas where the problem previously seemed intractable and prevented further weed expansion. Key to success in this case was the provision of funding for coordination, an engaged community which produced passionate volunteers and enough resources to train them.


Read more: Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires -- but we must not give up


Following recent fires in the Victorian high country, volunteers will be critical to controlling weeds, particularly broom (Scotch broom and related species), which occurs throughout fire-affected areas .

Fire typically kills these woody shrubs but also stimulates seed germination. Without intervention, broom will form dense stands which out-compete native plant species .

However, swift action now can prevent this. Mass germination reduces the broom’s seedbank to as low as 8% of pre-fire levels, and around half of the remaining seeds die each year. Further, broom usually takes three years to flower and replenish its seedbank. So with no new seeds being produced and the seedbank low and shrinking, this three-year window offers an important opportunity to restore previously infested areas.

Scotch broom, a native shrub of Western Europe, has infested vast swathes of Australia. Gunter Maywald-CSIRO/Wikimedia

Parks Victoria took up this opportunity after the 2003 fires in the Alpine National Park. They rallied agencies, natural resource management groups and local landholders to sweep up broom . Herbicide trials at that time revealed that to get the best outcome for their money, it was critical to spray broom seedlings early, within the first year and a half.

Broom management also needs to use a range of approaches, including using volunteers to spread a biological control agent.

Plenty of work to do

Parks Victoria continue to engage community groups in park management and will coordinate fire response actions when parks are safe to enter. Similar programs can be found in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the ACT.

A wide range of weeds expand after fire and warrant a rapid response. They include lantana, bitou bush, and blackberry.


Read more: Yes, native plants can flourish after bushfire. But there’s only so much hardship they can take


Managing weeds after fire is currently a high priority at many sites. At the edges of the World Heritage Gondwana rainforests of southwest Queensland and northern and central NSW, there is a window to more effectively control lantana. In many forested areas in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, fire has created an opportunity to address important weed problems.

State government agencies have the mapping capacity to locate these places. Hopefully they can make these resources easy for the public to access soon, so community groups can self-organise and connect with park managers.

A koala badly injured during the Canberra bushfires before it was returned to the wild. ALAN PORRIT/AAP

All this needs money

Emergency funding is now essential to enable community-based weed control programs at the scale needed to have a substantial impact. Specifically, funding is needed for group coordinators, trainers and equipment.

While emergency work is needed to control regenerating weeds in the next 6-18 months, ongoing work is needed after that to consolidate success and prevent reinfestations from the small, but still present, seed bank.

Ongoing government funding is needed to enable this work, and prepare for a similar response to the next mega-fires.

Want to act immediately?

You can volunteer to do your bit for fire recovery right now. In addition to state-agency volunteer websites, there are many existing park care, bush care and “friends of” groups coordinated by local governments. They’re waiting for you to join so they can start planning the restoration task in fire-affected areas.

Contact them directly or register your interest with the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators who can link you with the appropriate organisations.


Read more: You can leave water out for wildlife without attracting mosquitoes, if you take a few precautions


If we do nothing now, the quality of our national parks will decline as weeds take over and native species are lost. But if you channel your fire-response energy and commitment to help manage weeds, our national parks could come out in front from this climate-change induced calamity.

By all means, rescue an injured koala. But by pulling out weeds, you could also help rescue a whole ecosystem.


Dr Tein McDonald, president of the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 21:26

Snowy Hydro Must Not be Rubber Stamped

NPA NSW has released a new research paper that has found that the claimed benefits of the Snowy 2.0 project are overstated or false.

Several environmental groups have signed an open letter to the Ministers of Planning and Environment appealing to them to reject the environmental impact statement for the main works that will be the first stage of the Snowy Hydro pumped storage project. Several contracts for the project have already been awarded before the EIS has been assessed.

A group of 30 experts also sent a letter to the prime minister and premier calling for a comprehensive review of the project and alternatives.

Politicians are acting as if the project is a fait accompli. The media is not giving any attention to the issues that have been raised. We need to send emails to the ministers so the issue cannot be forgotten.

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