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Tuesday, 04 February 2020 21:56

Good News Regarding the Mirvac Decision

We have written several times about Mirvac’s proposal to develop the land at 55 Coonara Ave, West Pennant Hills that contains the old IBM corporate headquarters plus a large area of forest. IBM sold the site to Mirvac in 2010 but stayed on as a tenant until September this year. Mirvac’s proposal was for the development of a 600 dwelling complex that would result in the loss of many mature trees including Blue Gum High Forest and Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest. The future responsibility for management of a large forested area below the new housing areas was left unknown.

In order for the development to proceed the Hills Council needed to vote in favour of the rezoning of the land from its current classification as a business park to various residential zonings plus an E2 zoning for the forest. The vote was due to be held at the council meeting on 26 November. Naturally the council was recommending approval.

The local community has been objecting to the development for over two years. Many meetings have been held and large numbers have sent submissions and signed petitions. When the item was placed on the meeting agenda the community united again to remind the councillors of their opposition with over 4,000 submissions.

The Forest in Danger group was overjoyed to learn that council voted against the proposal. It was a tied vote of six all with Mayor Michelle Byrne using her casting vote to refuse the proposal.

Councillors who spoke against the proposal expressed the arguments that:

  • the proposal is inconsistent with the district plans
  • whole of area planning should take place not spot rezoning
  • business zones should not be rezoned for housing – Hills has met their housing targets but are short of business zones
  • lack of infrastructure
  • the significant impact it would have on this sensitive environmental site
  • the large amount of community concern about this development

A couple of councillors put in a last-ditch attempt to submit a rescission motion but this was soon seen to be very bad form so the council decision stands. Who knows what Mirvac will do next?

Tuesday, 04 February 2020 22:10

Synthetic Turf at Mimosa Park

The local residents living near Mimosa Oval, Turramurra that is part of Rofe Park have been campaigning strongly against Ku-ring-gai Council’s proposal to install synthetic grass on the oval. The vote was taken on 10 December and the residents were much relieved when council resolved to not proceed with installation on the grounds that:

  • the oval is impacted by the Vegetation Category 1 bushfire zone and the proposal presents an unacceptable fire risk
  • the oval is surrounded by Rofe Park and Sheldon Forest comprising Ku-ring-gai’s only Biodiversity Stewardship Site
  • the proposal cannot accommodate informal recreational use currently enjoyed by the community

Mermaid Pool, a rock pool below Manly Dam was named in the 1930s for the naked girls who used to swim in it. The beauty was lost when suburbia arrived and the pool became a dumping ground for rubbish. The bush was not held in very high regard in those days! But some locals saw the potential beauty of the area and its importance as a wildlife and vegetation link between Manly Dam and Millers Reserve. They got together to save the bushland and waterway.

In the first exercise on Clean Up Australia Day in 2002 over 4 tonnes of waste was removed from the creek including old ovens, car parts, trolleys and building materials. Ever since, the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee has been working converting the area into high quality bushland. More about the story of Mermaid Pool can be found here.

small bird habitat1

The Committee has developed a proposal to create a small bird habitat corridor on some Crown land parcels that are currently zoned for potential residential development. The land is close to Mermaid Pool and along Manly Creek but is bounded by low density residential development to the north and south.

Rare bushland has already been lost nearby through the development of Manly Vale Public School. The Species Impact Survey conducted for this school development identified the presence of many species of small birds. Upstream at Manly Dam Reserve (Manly Warringah War Memorial Park) over 80 bird species have been recorded. The proposed corridor is particularly suitable for small birds due to large areas of dense undisturbed vegetation, connectivity with surrounding reserves and refuge from predation and harassment by aggressive species like noisy miners and other impacts associated with the urban environment.

The Northern Beaches Council and local MPs have supported changing the zoning of these parcels to Public Recreation. In August 2019 the Department of Planning made a Gateway Determination in favour of the proposal. The rezoning process has progressed to the stage where council has called for public submissions on the proposal. The final hurdles are likely to have been overcome. Ultimately it is hoped it will be given the status of a Wildlife Protection Area.

Thursday, 06 February 2020 18:39

Impact of Bushfires on Biodiversity

Australia and the world have been horrified by the devastating bushfires that have been burning along the east coast and tablelands and South Australia since September and reached their climax in December and January. These events have given the world a stark example of the extreme events that will be experienced as a result of climate change. The severe drought conditions combined with weather systems that delivered hot westerly winds followed by strong southerly changes created severe and unpredictable fires. On top of the impact on fire fighters and communities, the long-term impact on biodiversity will become apparent over many years. The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (the department) has done a preliminary assessment of the areas affected by fires using satellite imaging

As the department states, the period immediately after a fire is critical for the survival of injured animals and for threatened species. The priority is to support those involved in the recovery of injured wildlife and detailed data on the damage to habitat is essential for planning the next steps to minimise the long-term loss of ecosystems.

As of 10 January 2020, the data available reveals that:

  • 5.128 million hectares (6.4%) of NSW has been affected by the wildfires. The severity of fire within this total area varies.
  • More than 35% of the national park estate (or 2.539 million hectares) has been impacted. In key bioregions, the figure is well over 40%.
  • More than 80% of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and 54% of the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area have been affected by fire.
  • The most affected ecosystems are rainforests (35% of their state-wide extent), wet sclerophyll forests (41%) and heathlands (53%).
  • More than 60 threatened fauna species have been affected by the fires, including 32 species for which 30% or more of all recorded locations occur in the burn areas.

As at 10 January 2020, the bushfires had impacted on the habitat of at least 60 threatened species listed under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.

The intensity of the fires has varied widely. In this initial assessment, the department developed a new methodology using Google Earth imagery which enabled the rapid estimate of where fire skipped over an area within the fire ground, leaving it little affected, where it burned the understorey and some of the canopy, where it burned the canopy only, and where it appears to have burned all vegetation.

Once it is safe to do so and ensuring that the environment is not damaged inadvertently, the department is carefully preparing a more refined version of this data for each fire ground, which utilises reference data gained from aerial imagery and ground-based post-fire surveys to provide a more detailed understanding of this variation.

Impact on Threatened Fauna

The department has compared the records of 300 threatened fauna species with bushland affected by the ongoing fires.

As of 10 January 2020, fires have burnt in:

  • 70% of the bushland where six threatened animal species were previously sighted include the Long-footed potoroo, Philoria pughi (a frog), Hastings River mouse and Brush-tailed rock-wallaby
  • 30% of the bushland where 32 threatened animal species were previously sighted
  • 5% of the bush areas where 114 threatened animal species were previously sighted

As of 6 January 2020, more than 24% of all koala habitat in eastern NSW was within fire-affected areas. The total area of highly suitable koala habitat affected by fire in eastern NSW was more than 19%.

The data is being renewed as staff get the opportunity to check the situation on the ground.

Threats to Recovery

In the flurry of announcements of funding for bushfire recovery it is hard to get a perspective on funding that has been provided to prevent loss of animals that have survived. $50 million sounds good but this is against a background where funding for environmental management has been cut by Coalition governments. Will extra staff be employed to carry out the work required?

Recovery will involve the following stages:

  • rescue of injured animals
  • providing survivors with food and water
  • prevention of damage to unburnt bushland from the extra browsing pressure, particularly from feral animals
  • removal of feral predators such as cats and foxes

Will the NSW Government Amend its Policies?

There are two areas where the NSW Government has perverse policies.

Feral Horses in Kosciuszko National Park

In November the results of an aerial survey of feral horse numbers was released. The numbers have increased by more than 170% in the past five years. In the most populated area, North Kosciuszko National Park, the 2019 numbers are almost five times the 2014 numbers (see Table 1).

Table 1

These numbers of horses are having a huge impact on alpine species and ecosystems. Horses create tracks through alpine swamps causing the water to drain away. They damage vegetation along streams that are essential for the survival of threatened species such as the Corroboree frog and Stocky Galaxia fish. These streams are the headwaters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Horses also pose a risk on roads.

The North Kosciuszko area, that has the highest number of horses, is also an area badly affected by the fires. So, the horses will move into the undamaged parts of the north placing great pressure on alpine vegetation already stressed by drought.

The NSW Government has virtually completely cut the program to remove the horses from the park. Only 99 were removed in 2019 and none in 2017 and 2018. Thanks to the influence of the leader of the National Party, John Barilaro, the horses are treated as having heritage value despite the huge damage they are doing to the sensitive alpine vegetation and animal species. The successful program of aerial culling has been terminated.

Hope for change now rests with the new feral horse management plan being developed by the recently established Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel and the Wild Horse Scientific Advisory Panel.

The Scientific Committee said the draft plan for action will be open for comment in February 2020 to meet NSW environment minister Matt Kean’s deadline for a final plan by 1 May 2020. This rapid timeframe is essential as substantial control measures should be implemented straight away before winter conditions arrive.

Clearing of Koala Habitat

The decline in koala numbers in NSW has been highlighted over many years by environment groups. The major causes have been land clearing for agriculture, forest logging and urban development. A significant part of koala habitat in NSW is in state forests or private land. The forests will recover after the fires but in the meantime the precarious situation for koalas will worsen.

Before this summer’s bushfires, koala populations in NSW and Queensland had already dropped by 42% between 1990 and 2010, according to the federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

The mid-north coast is home to a significant number of Australia’s koalas, with an estimated population between 15,000 to 28,000. It is estimated that 30% of their habitat was destroyed in the November/December fires in that area.

NSW Forestry Corporation is still logging unburnt koala habitat in state forests. It is believed that the NSW Government is planning on privatising the Forestry Corporation. The initial focus will be on selling softwood plantations but, as the organisation shrinks, the rest of the organisation will be regarded as uneconomic and the native forests will be next. It is reasonable to expect that private owners are likely to expect a higher profit and hence more rapid harvesting. The principle of sustainable harvesting has been compromised before.

The major clearing is occurring in the inland woodlands where the push is for agricultural development. Grazing land can allow for trees to be retained to shelter stock and provide bird habitat. The push has been to total clearing to make it easier for machinery to plough, plant and harvest vast swathes of land. The value of this cleared cropping land increases dramatically. What will its long-term value be when the nutrients and carbon in the soil have been blown away in dust storms?

As for clearing for urban or tourist development, the State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 has been changed recently. It clarifies the definition of core koala habitat and increases the number of tree species that can be used to identify koala habitat from 10 to 123. 99% of identified koala habitat on private land in NSW was at risk of being cleared before these changes and that remains the case.

On a more hopeful note the NSW Government has allocated $20 million for the purchase of private land that is core koala habitat to be converted into the reserve system. The NSW Koala Strategy is part of a long-term vision to first stabilise, then increase, koala population numbers across the state. Through many of its actions, it will also contribute to protecting other threatened species.

The NSW Government has committed $44.7 million to support the implementation of the NSW Koala Strategy.

With the sudden loss of so much koala habitat the logging contracts must be reassessed. There is talk that the numbers of koalas killed has tipped the population into the threatened category. It is hoped that the population assessment is made before the loggers can move back in to unburnt habitat.

In November the results of an aerial survey of feral horse numbers was released. The numbers have increased by more than 170% in the past five years. In the most populated area, North Kosciuszko National Park, the 2019 numbers are almost five times the 2014 numbers (see Table 1).

Table 1

These numbers of horses are having a huge impact on alpine species and ecosystems. Horses create tracks through alpine swamps causing the water to drain away. They damage vegetation along streams that are essential for the survival of threatened species such as the Corroboree frog and Stocky Galaxia fish. These streams are the headwaters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Horses also pose a risk on roads. The North Kosciuszko area, that has the highest number of horses, is also an area badly affected by the fires. So, the horses will move into the undamaged parts of the north placing great pressure on alpine vegetation already stressed by drought.

The NSW Government has virtually completely cut the program to remove the horses from the park. Only 99 were removed in 2019 and none in 2017 and 2018. Thanks to the influence of the leader of the National Party, John Barilaro, the horses are treated as having heritage value despite the huge damage they are doing to the sensitive alpine vegetation and animal species. The successful program of aerial culling has been terminated.

Hope for change now rests with the new feral horse management plan being developed by the recently established Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel and the Wild Horse Scientific Advisory Panel.

The Scientific Committee said the draft plan for action will be open for comment in February 2020 to meet NSW environment minister Matt Kean’s deadline for a final plan by 1 May 2020. This rapid timeframe is essential as substantial control measures should be implemented straight away before winter conditions arrive.

The decline in koala numbers in NSW has been highlighted over many years by environment groups. The major causes have been land clearing for agriculture, forest logging and urban development. A significant part of koala habitat in NSW is in state forests or private land. The forests will recover after the fires but in the meantime the precarious situation for koalas will worsen.

Before this summer’s bushfires, koala populations in NSW and Queensland had already dropped by 42% between 1990 and 2010, according to the federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

The mid-north coast is home to a significant number of Australia’s koalas, with an estimated population between 15,000 to 28,000. It is estimated that 30% of their habitat was destroyed in the November/December fires in that area.

NSW Forestry Corporation is still logging unburnt koala habitat in state forests. It is believed that the NSW Government is planning on privatising the Forestry Corporation. The initial focus will be on selling softwood plantations but, as the organisation shrinks, the rest of the organisation will be regarded as uneconomic and the native forests will be next. It is reasonable to expect that private owners are likely to expect a higher profit and hence more rapid harvesting. The principle of sustainable harvesting has been compromised before.

The major clearing is occurring in the inland woodlands where the push is for agricultural development. Grazing land can allow for trees to be retained to shelter stock and provide bird habitat. The push has been to total clearing to make it easier for machinery to plough, plant and harvest vast swathes of land. The value of this cleared cropping land increases dramatically. What will its long-term value be when the nutrients and carbon in the soil have been blown away in dust storms?

As for clearing for urban or tourist development, the State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 has been changed recently. It clarifies the definition of core koala habitat and increases the number of tree species that can be used to identify koala habitat from 10 to 123. 99% of identified koala habitat on private land in NSW was at risk of being cleared before these changes and that remains the case.

On a more hopeful note the NSW Government has allocated $20 million for the purchase of private land that is core koala habitat to be converted into the reserve system. The NSW Koala Strategy is part of a long-term vision to first stabilise, then increase, koala population numbers across the state. Through many of its actions, it will also contribute to protecting other threatened species.

The NSW Government has committed $44.7 million to support the implementation of the NSW Koala Strategy.

With the sudden loss of so much koala habitat the logging contracts must be reassessed. There is talk that the numbers of koalas killed has tipped the population into the threatened category. It is hoped that the population assessment is made before the loggers can move back in to unburnt habitat.

Currently there are several reviews taking place into biodiversity management at the federal level:

  • Senate inquiry into faunal extinction
  • review of the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy
  • review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act)

The outcomes of these reviews will be important in setting policies for the long-term survival of Australia’s unique biodiversity.

In the shorter term there is vital work to be done in ensuring that the wildlife that has survived the drought and fires has sufficient food and water and is not overwhelmed by feral animals such as cats and foxes. The major work will be in bushland to ensure it not invaded by weeds or pillaged by feral horses and deer.

Funding for biodiversity management at the federal and state level has been cut severely since the coalition came into power in 2013. Surely, after the massive bushfires governments need to reassess their priorities for biodiversity management. The media focus has been on the rescue of cute and cuddly animals. Even their long-term survival depends on restoration of habitat.

STEP Matters has included articles about Australia’s biodiversity strategy before. In Issue 194 we lamented the inadequacy of the 2010–2030 strategy. In summary it was at the level of simplistic statements with no quantification of targets. Instead it linked to various strategies that are to be adopted by the states and territories.

It is pleasing to report that progress has been made. On 8 November 2019, Australian, state and territory environment ministers endorsed a new approach to biodiversity conservation through Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030. The strategy is supported by a dedicated website, Australia’s Nature Hub. Both the strategy and the hub are owned by all the governments involved.

The strategy is coordinated with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. These targets are meant to be in place by 2020. We are a bit late but at least we have started.

The strategy provides an adaptive approach allowing each jurisdiction the flexibility to establish targets appropriate to the variety of environments across Australia and to change these as we continue to build knowledge during the life of the strategy.

It does acknowledge the scale of our biodiversity crisis and the role of science in finding solutions. For the first time there is explicit recognition of the need for management to allow for climate change.

An example of the goals is ‘reduce threats to nature and build resilience’. There are six progress measures under this goal, but most are not anything that can be measured, for example ‘retention, protection and/or restoration of landscape-scale, native vegetation corridors’.

A baseline is needed in order to assess progress in achieving this sort of goal. Following the fires, we may need two baselines for many species and vegetation communities – pre-fires and post-fires.

In a positive move the strategy sets an accountability framework, with ongoing working groups and four-yearly reporting, and should drive collaboration between federal agencies, the states and territories on nature conservation – all welcome moves. Fingers crossed that there is the will to progress the strategy beyond statements of the problems and the desire to fix them.

The amount of funding provided for the implementation of the strategy by all the jurisdictions involved is unknown. In the short term, funding will be focussed on fire recovery. Federal funding for the environment department has been cut.

The legislation to support the strategy at the federal level is the EPBC Act. It is currently under review – see below. The shortcomings of the NSW biodiversity legislation will be a stumbling block.

The Nature Hub is a link to projects and strategies that have been adopted so far. There is not much information there yet so the implementation mechanisms for most objectives are unclear.

For example, the national Threatened Species Strategy that commenced in 2016 has goals to tackle the feral cat problem, create safe havens for species at risk from feral cats, improve habitat and apply emergency interventions to avert extinctions. Targets to measure success are:

  • 2 million feral cats culled by 2020
  • 20 threatened mammals and 20 threatened birds improving by 2020
  • protecting Australia’s plants
  • improving recovery guidance

Senate Inquiry into Faunal Extinctions

This enquiry commenced in June 2018 and provided an interim report in April 2019 just prior to the federal election at which point the enquiry automatically folded.

The main points in the interim report were:

  • Our lack of knowledge about fauna species – estimates suggest that, at present, there are 250 000 faunal species in Australia, with around 120 000 of these yet to be scientifically documented.
  • We have a damning track record with a continuing decline in mammal species and a very significant slump in bird populations.
  • Evidence given to the enquiry raised serious questions about the ability of the EPBC Act to achieve its objectives with extinctions continuing since the act was introduced in 1999.
  • The EPBC Act has no compulsory mechanism to address the cumulative impacts of species decline including the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat, the threats posed by invasive species and the effects of climate change.
  • The framework of the EPBC Act is not adequate to address the drivers of species decline plus there have been significant failures in its implementation, including use and resourcing of compliance and protection mechanisms, and that these would need to be addressed in a new or revised act.
  • New environmental laws should be developed and there should be an independent institution with sufficient powers and funding to administer and oversee environmental approvals and compliance.

After the election the Senate granted the committee a further extension of time to produce a final report to 7 September 2020. We hope the Senate inquiry has some influence on the formal government processes and the funding available.

Review of EPBC Act

The federal government is undertaking a review of the chief biodiversity conservation law, the EPBC Act. It is led by Prof Graeme Samuel. A discussion paper can be found here.

The closing date for submissions has been extended to 17 April 2020.

The EPBC Act is more than 1000 pages of complex legislation, to which has been added over 400 pages of regulations. Clearly it is not fit for purpose of improving biodiversity into the future when we consider the outcomes of the past 20 years.

The Environment Defenders Office is calling for:

  • A new Australian environment act that elevates environmental protection and biodiversity conservation as the primary aim of the act instead of the narrowly defined matters of national environmental significance.
  • Duties on decision makers to exercise their powers to achieve the act’s aims.
  • Two new statutory environmental authorities – a National Sustainability Commission and a National Environment Protection Authority.
  • New triggers for federal protection action including activities that will impact on national reserve system (terrestrial and marine protected areas), ecosystems of national importance, vulnerable ecological communities, significant land-clearing activities, significant greenhouse gas emissions, significant water resources (beyond coal and gas project impacts).
  • A dual focus on protection and recovery of threatened species and ecological communities.
  • A national ecosystems assessment and environmental data and monitoring program that links federal, state and territory data.
  • Greater emphasis on indigenous leadership, land management and biodiversity stewardship, including formal recognition of indigenous protected areas.
  • A suite of international conservation protections to ensure Australian governments, companies, citizens and supply chains protect and support global biodiversity.

One of the stumbling blocks is the mindset held by governments and business that decisions should be made quickly to reduce ‘green tape’. The value of the environment has to be elevated above the value of development at any cost.

After a prolonged process of research, impact assessment, economic analysis and discussion with residents the Lord Howe Island Board got the go ahead for the rodent eradication program – see STEP Matters Issue 191.

It was estimated there were 150,000 rats and 210,000 mice on Lord Howe — some 1,000 rodents for each of the island's 350 residents. Lord Howe Island is home to many threatened, endemic and migratory species. Rodents have previously caused the extinction of five bird and 13 invertebrate species on the island and currently threaten another 70 species.

One area of concern about the widespread use of baits was the risks to the island’s unique wildlife, particularly two endemic species of bird, the Lord Howe Island woodhen and the currawong, that might be particularly at risk of eating the bait. The former is an endangered bird, which was nursed back from the brink of extinction on the island in the 1980s — only a few hundred exist. The two species were taken into captivity while the rodent eradication program took place — placed in cages and looked after by staff from Sydney's Taronga Zoo.

Baits being used in the past to control the rodent population have proven to be ineffective largely because the program was too limited and most of the island is inaccessible. The program had to be much more comprehensive. In June the project commenced when cereal pellets laced with poison were placed inside 22,000 lockable traps distributed around the island. Inaccessible areas were targeted by aerial drops of the same bait.

There was a rapid reduction in the number of rodents at first, and then a few little blips of activity. The last set of baits was distributed in November. The island will be monitored for two years, and if no rats or mice are spotted, the area will be declared rodent free. So far it appears the project has been a resounding success.

phasmid 5Return of the Phasmid

If the rodents are eliminated it should be possible to reintroduce the world’s rarest insect, the Lord Howe Island phasmid or stick insect. This giant is about the length of an adult’s palm when fully grown. It lives in communities, from a few dozens to several hundreds, in hollow trees.

In the early nineteenth century the insect was common but the rats found them very palatable so they disappeared in about 20 years. They were believed to be extinct until, in 2001, a group of scientists managed to climb onto the precipitous Ball’s Pyramid, a rock island 20 kilometres away. Several specimens were collected but only two survived. The female nearly died but intensive care enabled her to survive and lay several eggs. She has provided the insurance population but with a lack of genetic diversity.

Another expedition was undertaken in 2019 using professional climbers. The exploration had to be carried out at night as the phasmid is nocturnal. After a week only 17 insects were found. The low numbers may be because these insects only eat one plant, Melaleuca howeana. The museum had a permit to take no more than 10% of them so one precious specimen was taken back to Melbourne Zoo. She is now busily laying eggs.

In about two years’ time it is hoped they will be released onto Lord Howe Island.

Friday, 07 February 2020 15:23

Australia's Climate Change Policies

At the start of the bushfires right up to December the government refused to talk about the influence of climate change on the drought and bushfires – ‘now is not the time’, etc.

Seriously!

Australia’s current climate change polices are woefully inadequate. So much so that they were ranked 57th out of 57 countries in a report by The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index prepared by a group of international thinktanks that looked at national climate action across the categories of emissions, renewable energy, energy use and policy.

On the assessment of national and international climate policy, Australia is singled out as the worst-performing, with the report saying the re-elected Morrison government:

has continued to worsen performance at both national and international levels.

As the fires worsened the government’s stonewalling became stronger still trotting out the tired old excuses; we are only 1.7% of world-wide emissions. we will make our 2030 target ‘at a canter’, we are doing better than other countries on a per capita basis, etc.

In response to the criticism the statement from PM Morrison that policies are ‘evolving’ does not engender confidence that any meaningful changes will be made.

I don’t want to bore the reader with a lot of technical detail but I will try to provide a brief fact check on progress in meeting emissions reduction commitments and the effectiveness of current policies in one place.

Emission Reduction Targets Explained

The reports from the Australian Department of Environment and Energy provide detailed explanations of the sources of emissions and projections through to 2030. The past data is constantly updated which can be confusing. I am using the latest report called Australia’s Emissions Projections 2019 published in December 2019.

Carry Over Credits

The original Kyoto Protocol commitments were based on data of greenhouse gas emissions during 1990. Australia managed to negotiate a favourable position whereby the base year data included emissions from land use, land use change and forestry. It just so happened that there was a high rate of land clearing in Queensland in that year so we had an unusually high baseline.

Australia’s first commitment for the 2008–12 period was an allowance for average emissions to increase by an average of 8% compared to 1990 levels, unlike most countries that committed to reduce emissions by at least 5%.

As it happened, we managed to over-achieve the target emissions and ended up with a carryover credit of 128 Mt CO2-e.

The next commitment was made to reduce emissions compared to 2000 levels by 5% to 2020. The way this is described implies that the level at 2020 should be 5% below the 2000 level. In fact, the requirement is that the total emissions over the 8-year period 2013 to 2020 should be 5% less than 8 times the level in 2000. The data cannot be quite finalised yet but it looks as though this commitment will be over achieved by around 280 Mt CO2-e. The total carryover is then of the order of 400 Mt.

The next target to focus on is the commitment made under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Again, this means that the total emissions over the 10-year period 2021–30 will be 26 to 28% below ten times the level in 2005.

The government’s own advisory body, the Climate Change Authority advised in 2015 that the science-based target should be between 40 and 60% below 2000 levels based on a goal of keeping global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

emissionsHow are Emissions Tracking?

The latest government report states that the 2005 emissions level was 602 Mt CO2-e. So, the total emissions allowance for 2021–30 is 4,778 to 4710 Mt (602/1.26x10 to 602/1.28x10) (see figure which shows Australia’s emissions 1990–2030).

Emissions in 2020 are estimated to be 534 Mt and in 2030 511 Mt. The current projections are that emissions over the 10 years will be 5,169 Mt, at least 390 Mt over the commitment. We can only achieve the commitment if use is made of the carryover credits of 400 Mt.

Taking advantage of these credits is very poor form. No other country is doing this. Most of the rest of the world is genuinely taking action to reduce their emissions. What matters is emissions now and the path to zero emissions by 2050, not the easy ride we were given last century.

2050, not the easy ride we were given last century.

Climate Policies

The policies to reduce emissions are:

  • Renewable Energy Target (RET)
  • direct action under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)
  • safeguard mechanism
  • National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP)

It doesn’t appear that these policies, particularly the ERF, are sufficient to achieve our 2030 target, particular given that many do not currently appear to have sufficient funding.

Renewable Energy Target

The original RET was established with the goal of increasing generation from renewable electricity sources compared with the level in 1997 to 20% by 2020. In practice the goal was expressed as 41,000 GWh of electricity generated per year.

The Abbott Liberal Government claimed the cost was too high and instituted a review by the Climate Change Authority. As a result, the target was reduced to 33,000 GWh by 2020 equivalent to about 23.5% of the current total of electricity demand.

Despite the dramatic rhetoric from the politicians supporting coal-fired power, the cost of providing incentives for renewable electricity generation has increased bills by only about 5%.

renewableThis target has been achieved already in 2019. No announcement has been made of any future policy creating great uncertainty in the industry. There has been a drop in new investment of nearly 21% in 2018–19 (see figure) at a time when the technology is developing rapidly.

Several states have announced renewable energy targets so it looks as though it is up to the states to encourage new renewable energy projects. The take-up of rooftop solar is also still strong. Data from CSIRO and AEMO confirms that, while existing fossil fuel power plants are competitive due to their sunk capital costs, solar and wind generation technologies are currently the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity for Australia, compared to any other new-build technology.

Continued renewables growth also requires long-term planning of transmission infrastructure and storage technologies to ensure the distributed energy can be delivered where it is needed, and that reliability is maintained.

Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)

The ERF is a voluntary scheme designed to provide financial incentives for businesses, landholders and communities to reduce emissions. As of 16 November 2017, the ERF had contracted 189 million tonnes of emissions reductions at a cost of $2.23 billion. Around $300 million remained for government purchasing of emissions reductions. Further funding of $200 million pa has been agreed over the next 10 years.

A range of projects to reduce emissions have been funded under the ERF so far. These include, for example, projects to replace Melbourne street lights with more energy efficient light bulbs, native forest and vegetation regrowth projects and the use of gas from waste to create energy. Many have been criticised as an inefficient way of reducing our emissions, amid suggestions that the government is paying polluters for emissions reductions that would have happened anyway even without the scheme – see STEP Matters Issue 188.

Safeguard Mechanism

The ERF includes a safeguard mechanism, which aims to ensure that emissions reductions achieved by the ERF are not nullified by rises in emissions elsewhere. The safeguard mechanism came into effect on 1 July 2016, and encourages large businesses not to increase their emissions above historical levels. The mechanism applies to emitters with annual emissions of over 100,000 tonnes CO2-e. The mechanism has been criticised as weak as there is too much flexibility to allow companies to shift or adjust their obligations.

Energy Productivity

There is also a National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP) that aims to encourage more productive consumer choices and promote more productive energy services.

Measures listed in the NEPP include improved vehicle efficiency and improved residential building energy ratings and disclosure. The NEPP could result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions in numerous sectors including transport, agriculture, industry and electricity.

The NEPP is expected to contribute over one quarter of the emissions reductions required to meet our 2030 target. However, as of July 2016, there does not appear to be any additional funding specifically allocated to implement this plan. The plan appears to have a very low profile.

While we may stand on a clifftop lookout and gaze in awe at its world-class sandstone scenery, it wasn't the scenery or the geology but the flora and fauna that pushed the Greater Blue Mountains over the line in its world heritage listing. In an era in which we are easily distracted by technology and worrying world events not to mention frantically busy lives, this book is a balm to the spirit and a timely reminder that we have on our doorstep a region that is unique and biologically rich, and must be preserved at all cost. The work was compiled by veteran Blue Mountains ecologists whose names many of you will recognise from their comprehensive botanical surveys of the Hornsby Shire and other wild areas of greater Sydney.

Native Fauna of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is far from the first publication on the topic in the region of course, but it compiles for the first time in one volume all the mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds that have been recorded in that vast and physically challenging area. It does this with many compact but excellent photos, and also with summary descriptions of sightings, key habit and habitat information and conservation status. Plus there is a full index and comprehensive reference list.

The impact of the book is further lifted however by more than 25 beautiful watercolours by Kate Smith. These not only are accurate representations of their subjects but have a pleasing softness that contrasts with the many sharply-defined photographs taken by Peter Smith. This is a must buy for anyone with an interest in Blue Mountains natural history and should sell at least many hundreds of copies. It's available in Blue Mountains bookshops and information centres (there are many) so buy a copy next time you're up there.

Judy, Peter and Kate Smith
P&J Smith Ecological Consultants
published 2019, 172 pp, full colour, $35
Review by John Martyn

The state and federal governments are unwilling to discuss the issue of Australia’s population growth. The general view is that the greater the growth the more we will all benefit. Of course their only interest is the simple notion of economic growth, not social wellbeing or environmental quality. Actually economic growth has not been great either. The fact that economic growth per capita has not kept up with inflation has been conveniently ignored.

Australia’s population grew by an average of 400,000 over each of the last five years to reach 25.4 million at 30 June 2019. 60% of this growth is from net overseas migration. This is adding another Canberra every year. The prospect that our population could reach 60 million by the end of the century doesn’t seem to worry the politicians. They appear to believe that this is a fact of life.

Sustainable Population Australia commissioned a report on the infrastructure needs of Australia following the increase in our growth rate this century. The report by Leith van Onselen from business analysis firm Macrobusiness found that unless Australia's population growth is substantially reduced, it is an illusion to believe that infrastructure will ever catch up.

Amenity for people in our major cities is being eroded through increasing congestion and road tolls, declining housing affordability and loss of green space. The whole country is having to bear the growing infrastructure costs.

The report estimates that each additional person requires at least $100,000 worth of additional public infrastructure to maintain the current standard of living. Governments have been trying to catch up with a backlog of infrastructure that developed during the early part of this century. Some progress is being made but we will be forever trying to catch up to cater for the new residents.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimated that congestion costed the Australian economy $16.5 billion in 2015. Moreover, without major policy changes, congestion costs are projected to reach $27 to $37 billion by 2030. Similarly, Infrastructure Australia, in its 2019 infrastructure audit, estimated that the annualised cost of traffic congestion and public transport crowding in Australia would rise from $19 billion in 2016 to $39.6 billion in 2031. These congestion pressures will be particularly acute in Sydney and Melbourne.

The cold hard truth is that the quantity of infrastructure investment required for a big Australia is mind-boggling.

The volume of population growth into Sydney and Melbourne needs to be put into perspective:

  • It took Sydney roughly 210 years to reach a population of 3.9 million in 2001. Yet the official medium projection by the ABS has Sydney reaching roughly 2.5 times that number of people in only 65 years.
  • It took Melbourne nearly 170 years to reach a population of 3.3 million in 2001. The official medium ABS projection, however, has Melbourne’s population tripling that number in only 65 years.

In the face of these unprecedented numbers, the key difference between then and now needs to be underlined: unlike the post-war period, it is no longer easy to further expand the capacities of our largest cities. What was an abundant supply of cheap frontier land in the 1950s and 1960s is now well and truly built-out. Both cities are now sprawling metropolises with greenfield land in short supply. Ever-longer commutes erode productivity, and ever-greater distances between rich and poor neighbourhoods entrench disadvantage. New infrastructure investment necessarily requires costly solutions like land acquisitions and tunnelling in order to retrofit projects into existing suburbs.

Some recent examples are stark. The WestConnex project in Sydney will reportedly cost $17 billion for 33 km ($515 million per kilometre) while Melbourne’s West Gate Tunnel is expected to cost $6.7 billion for five kilometres of highway ($1.34 billion per kilometre). In contrast, the 155 km Woolgoolga to Ballina highway upgrade, a surface road, costs $4.9 billion, or just $32 million per kilometre (approximately 16 times less than WestConnex, and 42 times less than the West Gate Tunnel, on a per kilometre basis). And yet, with all of this current and proposed investment, of increasing orders of magnitude, congestion is still expected to increase.

The Productivity Commission has reported several times on the costs and benefits of immigration and has found little if any net benefit for the existing population. It has also added an important caveat, namely that it has not taken the infrastructure or environmental costs into its analyses because of the complexity of doing so

There are two myths that the government keeps on spruiking as the solution. Again these were the findings of a COAG report.

Invest in Infrastructure and Plan Better

The SPA report demonstrates that this is impossible with the current growth rate.

Settle New Migrants in Regional Areas

There is no way of keeping migrants in regional areas when there is not enough employment. Cutting Sydney’s population by 40,000 would not be noticed but the addition of that many people to a centre like Orange would double its current numbers. Most regional centres do not have enough water supply to cater for a large increase in population. Much of regional Australia is located far away from the ocean, meaning that desalination of seawater is not an option, and large-scale desalination of groundwater for inland towns is unlikely to be feasible or ecologically sustainable.

 

Sunday, 24 November 2019 14:46

Vale Doug Stuart

Members of the Lane Cove Bushland and Conservation Society and the Lane Cove community have been saddened by the death in September of Doug Stuart. Doug was a tireless advocate for the natural and built environment of Lane Cove and further afield. His first venture into bushland protection was prompted by news in 1970 that the local golf course wanted to double its size by annexing bushland, some of it at the bottom of his garden. Community anger at the potential harm to local flora and fauna prompted a public meeting and the foundation of the Lane Cove Bushland and Conservation Society in March 1971. Stuart was a founding executive member and, with his wife Norma, has been a driving force behind the society serving as president (10 years) and secretary (12 years).

In the summer of 1971 to 72, Stuart organised a large team of volunteers to survey the state of all Lane Cove’s bushland to identify sites suitable for regeneration. He drew maps of each site and collated ownership details. He gave the document to council who responded to the call to maintain and protect it. In 1998, he helped found RASAD, a community group advocating for appropriate development in the Lane Cove village. Doug’s profession as an architect enabled close analysis of development proposals.

His philosophy was that development should complement and improve the local built environment, sit easily in the natural world and provide real public benefit. RASAD spoke out against a series of inappropriate proposals, demanded change in others and refused to accept developers’ proposals that would have turned Lane Cove’s art deco village into concrete and steel.

Sunday, 24 November 2019 15:14

Turramurra Turf Battle

Ku-ring-gai Council is soon to decide whether to install synthetic turf at Mimosa Oval in Turramurra.

Click here for our submission to council and here for our report on Mimosa Oval's geological and physical setting and flora.

STEP is opposed to the use of synthetic turf for a number of environmental reasons. These are accentuated by the location of Mimosa Park being surrounded by bushland, most of which is a biobanking site. These reasons include:

  • During heavy rain additional water run-off is generated because the synthetic surface does not absorb water.
  • Chemicals may leach from the synthetic turf and the breakdown of the plastics and rubber may pollute surrounding areas.
  • Natural grass acts as a carbon sink but requires mowing and fertilizer use. On the other hand, synthetic turf is made from petrochemical materials, so the manufacturing process involves energy use.
  • Synthetic turf requires ongoing cleaning and has a limited life so will need to be disposed of and replaced after 8 to 10 years depending on the level of use.
  • Synthetic turf has a significantly higher surface temperature than natural grass making it impossible to use the field in hot weather, even only as high as 30°C.
  • The synthetic turf surface will lead to compaction of the soil underneath and the loss of the microorganisms and insects that normally live in grassed areas.
  • Natural grass fields provide a food source for birds such as magpies, lapwings and cockatoos. The reduction in foraging areas for these birds will have impacts further up the food chain. Top predators, such as the Powerful Owl, will lose a foraging opportunity.

Apart from the environmental issues the installation of synthetic turf at Mimosa is being opposed strongly by the local community that will lose use of the oval as a general recreation area. Its current use for cricket will not be possible. Kissing Point Cricket Club will have to find another venue for its matches. If natural grass is maintained soccer can still be played in the winter as well as cricket.

Mimosa Oval is part of Rofe Park that was gifted by the Rofe family:

Upon trust for the public as a public park and reserve for the preservation of natural fauna and flora.

The proposed use solely as a soccer field will mean it will no longer be a public park.

Council originally considered installing synthetic turf at Norman Griffiths Oval. From the soccer club’s point of view this has the major advantage that the field would be right next to their clubhouse. It appears that Norman Griffiths will still be used for soccer matches as there is a shortage of suitable fields.

Norman Griffiths Oval was rejected on the grounds of difficulty and expense of the works needed to control heavy rain run-off. The Mimosa plan will save about $1 million. Council now proposes to use the money saved to upgrade Norman Griffiths as well as installing the synthetic turf at Mimosa. It is not clear if the upgrade plan includes the installation of better fencing around the Norman Griffiths Oval to prevent people shimmying down the slopes around the oval. This work is essential in any case because these areas contain a special range of plants including orchids.

To cater for the cricketers who used to play at Mimosa Oval, council is proposing to install a concrete cricket pitch at Norman Griffiths. It is not clear what effect this will have on its use as a soccer field.

In the last issue of STEP Matters we reported good news that, in April 2019, the Land and Environment Court had upheld a decision by Northern Beaches Council and the North Planning Panel to refuse a seniors housing development on Bayview Golf Course. Unfortunately the Golf Club in association with developer Waterbrook has now re-submitted plans to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment for a similar development consisting of seven large buildings, with three storey apartments over 5 acres of historical open space land.

The Golf Club wants to clear the last remaining area of remnant forest left on the golf course. This will further impact significantly the already fragile ecosystem within this important wildlife corridor that is home to nine threatened fauna species. It is habitat to a family of Powerful Owls and their creek line roosting area is very close to the development site. They also want to raise the level of the flood affected portion of their land, which is a designated wetland area for many bird species.

The community is concerned that if this application is approved it will create a significant precedent for Bayview and the whole of the Northern Beaches area. If seniors three storey apartments can be built in the middle of a high priority wildlife corridor, and that is not considered 'environmentally sensitive', nor worthy of protection, then we can expect similar large-scale seniors living complexes to be built on any wildlife habitat or ecologically sensitive land across the Northern Beaches.

Click here to sign a petition organised by the Bayview residents community group and here for more information.

There is a parcel of land at the end of Chestnut Road, Mt Colah that has been privately owned for years. It is just below a playing field that was built on a former landfill site. Pollutants have been leaching out of the tip into the creek below. Nevertheless, the land has some high quality bushland and borders on Berowra Valley National Park.

The landowner submitted a subdivision plan for the land that would have created 49 housing lots on the 4.4 ha sloping site. The process has been ongoing since 2017 as Hornsby Council has requested further documentation and an EPA investigation was required of gas from the former landfill site.

Hornsby Council recommended refusal mainly on the grounds that most trees would be cleared, and major landform modifications would be required. Over 100 objections have been submitted by local residents on the grounds of site contamination, overdevelopment, traffic, parking and safety impacts, tree loss, flora and fauna impacts, acoustic impacts and unacceptable impacts on the catchment of the Berowra Valley National Park.

In October the DA went before the Local Planning Panel. It is a great relief that the Panel unanimously decided on rejection because the proposal did not comply with many principles of the urban bushland policies and the Hornsby Development Control Plan.

What happens next is not clear. Could some or all of the land be added to Berowra Valley National Park?

Sunday, 24 November 2019 16:07

Water Desalination

As this is being written in late-August, Sydney is enjoying another near cloudless day. There’s been no rain for weeks and none is forecast. Rainfall at the observatory has been 3.2 mm for the month so far.

This is not unusual for August. August 2018s total was 7.8 mm; 2017s 24.2 mm. But it can be very variable; 2014s was 215 mm. Sydney’s record daily rainfall was on 6 August 1986 – 328 mm with a total of 448 mm with the inclusion of the day before and the day after.

It has been dry and the dams are about 50% full and falling rapidly. As a result the desal plant at Kurnell is in operation to provide about 15% of Sydney’s water. Consequently our water bills are being increased from $2.11 to $2.24 per kL on 1 October.

Desal means desalination; i.e. the process of converting sea (saline) water to drinking water by the removal of salt. This is done by a process of filtration (reverse osmosis) but requires the water to be subject to massive pressure. It is very expensive in terms of energy consumption.

Brisbane (Gold Coast), Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide all got their desal plants as a result of the millennial drought in the early years of this century. They are only operated fully in drought periods – but see our update on Adelaide.

The Melbourne operation is quite marginal as the plant is located near Wonthaggi south-east of Melbourne not far from Phillip Island. It was impossible to locate it on Port Phillip Bay as water circulation in the bay is too low. So an 85 km pipeline had to be built as well and this of course gives rise to extra energy for pumping.

What about Perth you ask? This is the standout situation as this city depends on desal for about 40% of its supply year on year. Only about 10% comes from the dams in the Darling Ranges near Perth as most of this water is piped to the Eastern Goldfields (Kalgoorlie). One suspects that much of it is used by the gold mines.

The remainder is supplied by groundwater and recycling. The groundwater in future might become saline in which case it will be subject to desal too. This is also an issue in outback NSW.

The environmental impact of desal in Perth is somewhat mitigated by the use of natural gas to generate electricity.

Do Perth residents pay more than Sydney residents given that their water costs more to provide? The answer appears to be yes but it is not as simple as it might be. Perth has a sliding scale of charges. Like Sydney there is quarterly billing but the Perth charge depends on one’s annual consumption and can cost up to $4.442 per kL.

Sydney Water claims that its desal power is provided in an environmentally friendly way in that they have a contract with the 67 turbine Capital Hill Wind Farm, near Canberra.

This is a furphy. When the desal plant isn’t operating the wind farm feeds the NSW power grid. So when it is operating this feed is reduced and we have more reliance on gas and coal so increasing greenhouse gas emissions over what they otherwise would be.

A contrary view might be reasonable if we knew the pricing/contractual arrangements between Sydney Water and Infigen Energy, the owner of the Capital Hill Wind Farm. It may be that the farm would not have been developed without the desal requirement or not developed to the same extent.

Desal

CityLab article

Here are some excerpts from an article entitled A Water-stressed World Turns to Desalination.

The first large-scale desal plants were built in the 1960s, and there are now some 20,000 facilities globally that turn sea water into fresh. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with very little fresh water and cheap energy costs for the fossil fuels it uses in its desal plants, produces the most fresh water of any nation, a fifth of the world’s total.

Israel, too, is all in on desalination. It has five large plants in operation and plans for five more. Chronic water shortages there are now a thing of the past, as more than half of the country’s domestic needs are met with water from the Mediterranean.

Ecological impacts: It takes two gallons of sea water to make a gallon of fresh water, which means the gallon left behind is briny. It is disposed of by returning it to the ocean and - if not done properly by diffusing it over large areas – can deplete the ocean of oxygen and have negative impacts on sea life.

Another problem comes from the sucking in of sea water for processing. When a fish or other large organism gets stuck on the intake screen, it dies or is injured; in addition, fish larvae, eggs, and plankton get sucked into the system and are killed.

Contributed by Jim Wells

Update on Adelaide – November 2019

In another example of policy on the run like Snowy 2.0, PM Scott Morrison announced a drought relief package in early November. This includes a deal to crank up Adelaide’s desal plant in order to provide water for farmers to grow fodder for livestock.

Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia in an article in The Conversation points out that this is not such a brilliant idea.

The plan involves the federal government paying the South Australian government up to $100 million to produce more water for Adelaide using the little-used desalination plant. Adelaide has continued to mostly draw water from local reservoirs and the River Murray, which on average has supplied about half the city’s water (sometimes much more).

But with federal funding, the desal plant will be turned on full bore. This will free up 100 GL of water from the Murray River allocated to Adelaide for use by farmers upstream in the Murray Darling’s southern basin.

The federal government expects the water to be used to grow an extra 120,000 tonne of fodder for livestock. The water will be sold to farmers at a discount rate of $100 per ML. That’s 10 cents per 1,000 litre.

The production cost of desalinated water is about 95 cents per 1,000 litres, according to a cost-benefit study published by the SA Department of Environment and Water in 2016. That means the total cost for the 100 GL will be about $95 million. So the federal government is effectively paying $95 million to sell water for $10 million: a loss to taxpayers of $85 million.

The discounted water provided to individual farmers will be capped at no more than 25 ML. The farmers must agree to not sell the water to others and to use it to grow fodder for livestock.

The amount of hay that can be grown with 1 ML of irrigation water depends on many things, but 120,000 tonne with 100 GL is possible in the right conditions. In the Murray-Darling southern basin lucerne hay currently sells for $450 to $600 a tonne. That would make the market value of 120,000 tonne of lucerne $54 to $72 million.

It means, on a best-case scenario, the federal government will be spending $85 million to subsidise the production of hay worth $72 million to its producers. One question is how will the government distinguish between the fodder grown with the megalitres provided at low cost and any other fodder harvested on the same farm that has been grown from rainfall or other irrigation water? How much will it cost to monitor and enforce such arrangements?

It seems a long way from the type of national drought policy Australia needs. It’s hard to see how a policy of this kind does anything other than waste a large amount of public money and disrupt important market mechanisms in agriculture in the process.

Contributed by Jill Green

Sunday, 24 November 2019 17:50

We must Hit the Pause Button on Snowy 2.0

The article explains that the Snowy 2.0 project will be a financial disaster and that the project will also cause huge environmental damage. The National Parks Association has published a damning report on the project.

The federal government’s much-vaunted Snowy Hydro expansion is supposed to smooth out the bumps in electricity supply as Australia transitions to renewables. But not only is the project a bad deal for taxpayers, our analysis suggests it will deliver a fraction of the energy benefits promised.

Fossil-fuel power generators store coal or gas at the point of production. This means electricity can mostly be created on demand when homes and businesses need it. Renewable energy cannot do this. If wind or sun is not abundant, solar panels and wind turbines may not produce enough electricity to meet demand. At other times they might produce more than required.

The Snowy 2.0 project is supposed to provide a solution to this problem - storing renewable energy for when it is needed.

The project’s cost and time estimates have blown out massively. It would now be surprising if Snowy 2.0, including the transmission upgrades it relies on, comes in at less than A$10 billion or is finished before 2027.

But there is another serious problem. Our analysis has revealed that of the extra pumped hydro capacity promised by the project, less than half can be delivered. There is now overwhelming evidence the project should be put on hold.

The Tumut 3 scheme, with which Snowy 2.0 will share a dam. Snowy Hydro Ltd

The problems we know about: cost and time blowouts

The list of possible alternatives to Snowy 2.0 is long. Aside from other pumped hydro projects, it includes chemical batteries, encouraging demand to follow supply, gas or diesel generators, and re-orienting renewable generators to capture the wind or sun when it is less plentiful.

But despite this plethora of options, the federal government announced the Snowy 2.0 project without a market assessment, cost-benefit analysis or indeed even a feasibility study.


Read more: The government's electricity shortlist rightly features pumped hydro (and wrongly includes coal)


When former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the expansion project in March 2017 he said it would cost A$2 billion and be commissioned by 2021. This was revised upwards several times and in April this year, a A$5.1 billion contract for partial construction was awarded. This excludes the costs of transmission and other considerable expenses.

The main contractor says the project will take eight years to build - bringing us to 2027 before the full scheme is completed. We will happily wager that more delays and cost increases will be announced.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during a tour of Tumut 3 power station when announcing the expansion in 2017. Lucas Cochairs/AAP

Snowy Hydro has not costed the transmission upgrades upon which the project depends. TransGrid, owner of the grid in New South Wales, has identified options including extensions to Sydney with indicative costs up to A$1.9 billion. Massive extensions south to Melbourne will also be required.

Snowy Hydro contends it should not pay for the new transmission lines because the benefits would flow to the entire grid, not just its venture. In other words Snowy Hydro argues, conveniently, that we should count the benefits but ignore the costs when thinking about their project.

The numbers simply do not add up

The Snowy 2.0 project grandly claims it could generate at its full 2,000 megawatt capacity for 175 hours - or about a week. This capacity can also be expressed as 350 gigawatt hours (GWh).

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has talked up the project’s superiority to smaller-capacity alternatives such as batteries.

But the maximum additional pumped hydro capacity Snowy 2.0 can create, in theory, is less than half this. The reasons are technical, but worth taking the time to understand.

The figure below outlines the main physical features that define Snowy 2.0. It includes four dams: Tantangara, Talbingo, Jounama and Blowering. For simplicity, we have numbered these from 1-4 in the following explanation.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

When Snowy 2.0 generates electricity, water will be released from Dam 1 at the top of the system. It will flow through a long tunnel to the smaller Dam 2. The flow of water drives turbines which generate energy. When the turbines are reversed, the water is pumped back to the top to continue the cycle.

For Snowy 2.0 to produce the 350 GWh of electricity claimed, the top dam must be full and all that water released through the system. But replenishing the top dam after this event would take many months of pumping water from elsewhere in the system, and use up 40% more electricity than was originally generated. So the 350 GWh would never be achieved because it is extremely inefficient and inflexible.

In reality, the pumped hydro capacity of Snowy 2.0 is defined by the amount of water that the smaller Dam 2 can hold. If the scheme was a closed system, with no other water flowing in or out, it could produce around 230 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity.

But the system does not exist in isolation. Part of the existing Snowy Hydro scheme, known as Tumut 3, also uses Dam 2. It creates pumped hydro electricity by cycling water between that dam and the even smaller Dam 3 below it.

For Snowy 2.0 to operate at full cyclical capacity, Dam 2 must be empty to receive the water. That would entail emptying Dam 2 into the smaller Dam 3 and from there to Dam 4 at the bottom of the system. This water could not be used again to generate electricity. This “lost” water would have generated 60 GWh worth of electricity in the Tumut 3 scheme.

Khancoban Dam, part of the soon-to-be expanded Snowy Hydro scheme. Snowy Hydro Ltd

This means that as a cyclical pumped hydro system, Snowy 2.0 does not add 230 GWh of capacity. When you subtract the 60 GWh from the 230 GWh, Snowy 2.0 adds just 170 GWh of recyclable pumped hydro. This is less than half the claimed storage capacity.

And this is the maximum cyclical capacity in theory only. Snowy 2.0 would never produce continuously for the time needed to generate and then pump 230 GWh because it would never be economically viable to run it this way.

In practice if Snowy 2.0’s lower dam is operated in future as it is now – almost always close to full – the cycling capacity of Snowy 2.0 may be as low as 40 GWh – around one tenth of the promised number.

What does all this mean?

These facts put Snowy 2.0 in a completely different light. There are many competing alternatives that can provide storage far more flexibly for a fraction of Snowy 2.0’s price tag. These alternatives would also have far fewer environmental impacts or development risks, in most cases none of the transmission costs and could be built much more quickly.

It is always difficult to press the pause button on a major project once it has begun. But the evidence for doing this is overwhelming. In pursuit of the public interest, the federal government should put the project on hold and ask a reputable investment bank to publicly advise, perhaps through the Productivity Commission, what Snowy 2.0 would be worth if built.

A credible independent valuation would establish with some confidence how deeply Snowy Hydro will have its hands in the public’s pockets. A panel of independent experts should then be asked to publicly advise whether taxpayer money is needed to meet the demands of a renewables-dominated power system, and if so, the best way it should be spent.The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University

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

Lithgow coal miners want job security. Environmentalists want protection for the Gardens of Stone region’s upland swamps, endangered wildlife and the spectacular but fragile pagoda rock formations. Lithgow needs a boost to its economy. Centennial Coal has to pay millions as an ‘environmental offset’ for damage done to nationally significant and endangered upland swamps. They have identified the preferred swamp management program as reservation of the Gardens of Stone region. This is a no-brainer for a win-win situation.

The Colong Foundation, Blue Mountains Conservation Society and Lithgow Environment Group have launched a plan, called Destination Pagoda that will capitalise on this situation. The plan is to reserve the Gardens of Stone as a State Conservation Area to protect its pagodas and swamps. At the same time this designation will permit appropriate underground coal mining. New facilities will be created in the Lithgow area to develop tourism that will expand opportunities for visitors to experience the rock formations and aboriginal heritage of the area.

The plan will require a modest investment that will establish professional conservation management, improve access roads, develop visitor facilities, restore degraded areas, encourage visitors, support local enterprises and protect important values. The cost can be funded from Centennial Coal’s swamp offset funds of up to $14 million currently; mining company management of some roads and pest species, transfer of state forest expenditures to NPWS and Commonwealth and NSW government funds.

Getting the plan up has required much discussion. The process for getting a dialogue happening was facilitated by visits to Lithgow by unionists from the Combined Retired Union Members Association. Now the need is to get government support.

Events such as a bush dance in Lithgow on Saturday 23 November 2019 are being held to build the momentum of support for the plan.

The story about the campaign and the efforts to save the area are presented in Tom Zubrycki's documentary film called Gardens of Stone – A Living Landscape. The film will be screened on Tuesday 26 November at 6 pm at the Sydney Trades Hall Auditorium, Unions NSW, 4–10 Goulburn Street, Sydney – Gardens of Stone Alliance. For bookings contact Janine Kitson (0428 860 623, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Letters to the local MP for Bathurst, Paul O’Toole will help.

For more details go to www.gardensofstone.org.au.

Sunday, 24 November 2019 18:09

State Government News

National park land

At the Nature Conservation Council annual conference Environment and Energy Minister Matt Kean was positive in his support for some of the environment objectives of the member groups. We just hope that he can have enough authority in cabinet. He wants to increase the land in national parks by 200,000 ha and has funding to do this. Already 64,000 ha has been added with most of it in north-west NSW near Broken Hill. He recently announced that Radiata Plateau will be purchased for addition to the Blue Mountains National Park. This is a major win for the Blue Mountains Conservation Society that has been lobbying for this addition for years. There has been virtually no declaration of new national park land since 2011 under the previous Liberal environment ministers.

He suggested we approach our local MPs or councils to nominate suitable pieces of land in our local areas to be added to the portfolio of protected lands. He indicated that unprotected land in Byles Creek Valley should be on the list.

Bush fires and climate change action

At the NCC conference Matt Kean stated that he wanted NSW to lead the nation in achieving the goal of zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 and he would be setting interim targets. There was no detail on the policies that would aim to achieve these targets but the time available for his speech was short. The adoption of this policy could be problematic with the current refusal by the Deputy Premier, John Barilaro to talk about climate change while the bushfires are burning. Surely this is the appropriate time.

Coal mine refusals

In a landmark decision in September the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) knocked back an application by Kepco Ltd for a new coal mine in the Bylong Valley. The IPC is the statutory agency responsible for making arm's-length decisions on state-significant development.

The IPC based its refusal on environmental impacts other than climate change, including impacts of the project on strategic agricultural land, groundwater and Aboriginal cultural heritage. However, the IPC found the project's contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions was a factor that needed to be considered in its assessment, and placed weight on Kepco’s failure to propose any offset measures.

The IPC drew its decision on the principles established by the NSW Land and Environment Court in February regarding the assessment of cumulative greenhouse gas impacts in its decision concerning the Rocky Hill project near Gloucester. This project was for a new coking coal mine. The decision must be viewed in context, with the court stating it would have refused this particular mine anyway for other reasons, such as inconsistency with other land uses, amenity impacts (noise, dust), visual intrusion and social impacts of the mine. However the decision did state that the court had regard to, not only the direct emissions of the mining activities, but also the 'scope 3' indirect emissions, being the greenhouse gas emissions associated with third-party burning of the coal (which make up the vast majority of emissions associated with the coal).

Both these decisions have given great heart to people concerned about climate change and wanting to see Australia reducing its reliance on the coal mining industry.

Now we are shocked to learn that the NSW government is undertaking a snap review of the IPC saying that the reason for the review was another decision that didn’t follow due process. Terms of reference for the review, which will be overseen by NSW Productivity Commissioner Peter Achterstraat, include ‘whether it is in the public interest to maintain an Independent Planning Commission’, and whether changes should be made to the thresholds for referring matters to the IPC. The Minerals Council has launched a campaign against the IPC.

If the IPC is scrapped these decisions would be made by the planning minister and transparency would be lost. Submissions are now closed and the Productivity Commission’s report is due by mid-December.

Anti-protest laws

The right to protest is being attacked at the state and federal level.

The NSW government has passed its Right to Farm Bill and it will come into force early 2020, it will almost quadruple the penalty for ‘aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands’ from $5,500 to $22,000 and add a three-year prison term for people who merely ‘hinder’ a business while trespassing. The government claims this law is needed to protect farmers from ‘dangerous’ protesters but this protection already exists. The way the bill is drafted it would have ramifications for all protests on ‘inclosed lands’ such as protests against coal seam gas projects and forest destruction.

Now Scott Morrison wants to get in on the act with a ridiculous suggestion that environment activists should be outlawed from lobbying against businesses that are providing services to the mining industry such as banks and insurers. He said the government is ‘working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices’.

The idea has been roundly condemned by human rights lawyers and business among others as unlawful as well impossible to implement. It is a threat to freedom of speech.

Sunday, 24 November 2019 18:57

Young Scientist Awards

In this time when science is our main hope for combating climate change, it was so uplifting to attend the presentation of the Young Scientist Awards by the Science Teachers' Association of NSW in early November.

From the little kindergarten girl, who had done a maths project on blueberries, to high school student Angelina Arora and her work in cancer cells, the standard and range was inspiring, and it was such a delight to see each student's pride at being acknowledged.

Nine of the year 9 to 12 winners will be travelling to Anaheim, California, to represent Australia at the International Science and Engineering Fair. Two years ago, one of the NSW prize-winners carried off the top international award.

STEP is the only community environmental group that presents an award at this ceremony and this year it went to Suzanne Jones of Redeemer Baptist School for The Call of the Wild. She surveyed the abundancy and diversity of cicadas at Lake Parramatta Reserve from October 2018 to April 2019 and found 17 different species, including the ‘undescribed’ Ticking Ambertail Yoyetta!

Observation, questioning and experimenting are all part of building an interest in our natural world and these bright youngsters may make a huge difference to our understanding and our future. It was wonderful to see these talents recognised.

Article by Isolde Martyn

Sunday, 24 November 2019 19:03

Royal Botanic Garden Needs your Help

From January 2019 the National Herbarium of NSW has been closed while its collection of plant specimens is relocated from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney to a new purpose-built facility at Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. While construction for the world-class innovation hub is underway, the 1.43 million herbarium plant specimens will also be transformed into high-resolution digital images. In 2021, digital images will be available for everyone around the world to access. It will help researchers make new discoveries to advance science and conservation and it assists in protecting this valuable collection.

The Royal Botanic Garden needs help to prepare the specimens for the digitising process! Volunteers will have the opportunity to see the incredible collection up close and meet expert plant scientists. There are two sessions per weekday and each session runs for 3 hours. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information or to volunteer.

Sunday, 24 November 2019 19:07

Annual Report for the Year to 2019

The NSW and federal elections in 2019 had the unfortunate result of leaving us with business as usual. No policy decisions have been made to address climate change and the abuse of the environment continues unabated. As the drought becomes more serious the consequences of decisions to exploit forests and the Murray Darling Basin water supply are becoming increasingly apparent. For STEP it has also been business as usual. This annual report gives a brief summary of our activities over the past year. More details are in the issues of our newsletter, STEP Matters and on our website

Committee

The STEP committee has always worked cohesively with everyone willing to contribute to the smooth running of the organisation. They frequently come up with new ideas that expand or enhance our activities. I thank them all for the great contribution that they make to STEP. We welcome some new members to the committee, Peter Clarke, Beverley Gwatkin and Jan Newby. They all bring particular skills and good knowledge of our local bushland.

Publications

John Martyn’s new book, Rocks and Trees continues to sell well especially in the Blue Mountains. However there is a decline in interest in our older books. For this reason we have decided to offer bulk package where all our books can be purchased in a bundle at a substantial discount. The demand for maps is steady as the interest in bushwalking seems to be increasing. A paper map has the advantage of providing the big picture.

Accounts

Our operations incurred a very small deficit over the year but we remain in a sound financial position. The main activity has been sales of Rocks and Trees where John has been very active in visiting book shops showing the book. Membership has remained steady. We appreciate the pro bono work done by Allan Donald, Chartered Accountant, who completed the audit of STEP’s financial statements.

Environment Protection Fund

We have maintained the Environment Protection Fund which provides Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status for donations that support STEP’s environmental objectives. We received a total of $783 in donations in the past financial year. The donation process on our website has been simplified and there has been a good response! We had a strong response of applications for the John Martyn Research Grant which supports student research in an area relating to the conservation of bushland. This year the grant was awarded to an honours student at the University of NSW researching changes in soil characteristics in association with woodland regeneration.

Electronic media

The new email and newsletter system is being well received. It is a time-consuming process to put together its presentation with illustrations and the links to previous and related stories to each article. Peter Clarke is now helping Helen Wortham with this task but other volunteers are welcome. Trish Lynch and John Burke continue to alert readers to current issues and events through Facebook and Twitter. Readers are attracted to the terrific range of photos that show off our beautiful bushland.

Education

We support the Young Scientist Awards run by the NSW Science Teachers’ Association with a prize in the environmental sustainability category. The winner of the STEP prize this year undertook a phenological study of the population of cicadas at Lake Parramatta. We also supported the Children’s Threatened Species Art Competition. The primary school children produced some fabulous paintings that can be seen on the competition’s Facebook page.

Talks

Our talks have had a local focus this year covering Ku-ring-gai Council’s program supporting bushfire awareness, the Lane Cove environment, native bees and our 2018 grant recipient’s project. At our AGM we like to have a speaker who is an expert on a subject with a broader focus. In 2018 we were lucky to hear the latest on climate change science from Professor Lesley Hughes. She has a great ability to give a clear perspective on this complex issue.

Walks

Peter Clarke has led a series of local walks of up to about 5 km aimed at introducing walkers to our local bush. His entertaining walks have been well received. John Martyn led walks with the usual special features. The spring wildflower show along the Centre Trail was as spectacular. Tall trees were the feature of the walks in the Watagans and Winmalee.

Newsletter

Our newsletter, STEP Matters, is emailed to members as a pdf. The email also contains a list of links to the stories in the latest issue so readers can select the items they want to read. The pdf is a permanent record of the newsletters as all issues are available on our website. We reached the milestone of the 200th issue in April. We commemorated this issue by publishing some stories about the heritage, both natural and cultural, of the bushland areas of northern Sydney written by local experts. We hope that the newsletter can keep members up to date on local environmental events and issues. The newsletter email has a wide circulation including local councillors and politicians. We welcome alerts from our members of local events and developments and, of course, article contributions and feedback on articles is always welcome.

Collaboration with other local groups

We are increasingly working with other local environment groups to research and make submissions on local developments that will have a detrimental effect on the environment. This applies to major issues like the Mirvac development next to the Cumberland State Forest, the threats to Sydney’s national parks from development within and bordering on the parks and the perennial issue of degradation and clearing of urban bushland. The cumulative impact of these developments is rarely assessed by government. We may be sharing information but collaboration does not extend as far as sending submissions. We know that governments and assessment authorities count a submission from one person almost equally with one from a group representing a large number of people. However they do pay attention to submissions that have individual content and detailed arguments. STEP is a member of the Powerful Owl Coalition that is now supported by about seven local environment groups in northern Sydney as well as the Powerful Owl Project run by Birdlife Australia. We have been sending copies of the detailed position paper to local governments and organisations whose work influences the owl’s habitat. We would like to cover more than just northern Sydney as we know they are out there in other bushland areas of Sydney.

Advocacy

Once again there has been plenty of local issues to attract our attention. The Mirvac development proposals have had to be modified but it is still not clear how the large area of bushland, including Blue Gum High Forest, will be managed. Byles Creek Valley continues to be unprotected from subdivision and massive clearing. The push for use of synthetic turf on playing fields has become a controversial issue. At the state level the government there is hope that the new Environment and Energy Minister, Member for Hornsby, Matt Kean will be able to declare new national park land acquisitions.

Monday, 25 November 2019 16:48

What Happened at the AGM?

You may be wondering what happened on 12 November, the evening of STEP’s AGM.

Owing to temperatures in the 30s, low humidity and high winds the government declared a catastrophic fire risk, a first time for Sydney. Late in the afternoon a fire broke out near Canoon Road.

After much discussion and viewing of live coverage on TV we decided to proceed with the AGM. However our speaker Culum Brown was told by police to stay at home. In the end the fire was out but only seven people turned up. It was a quorum so the meeting was completed.

Click here for the president’s report and list of office bearers.

Hornsby Shire Climate Action has set up an online petition calling on Hornsby Council to declare a climate emergency. Declaring a climate emergency is a vital step in building support for the very large changes required to restore a safe climate.

Once declared, the council must enforce policies that will reduce emissions as much as possible. They must also educate the public about the state of emergency. Click here to sign the petition.

Monday, 12 August 2019 21:09

Good News for Streamwatch

From July the management of the Streamwatch program was taken over by the Greater Sydney Landcare Network. This is a great relief. As previously reported there was a risk that this valuable program would be discontinued because NSW government annual funding of a measly $100,000 was uncertain. Streamwatch, with almost 300 volunteers, plus 30 years of data has to have a paid coordinator.

Data will be migrated to the SEED platform – an open government repository of environmental information hosted by the environmental cluster within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The Landcare Network is delaying taking on new volunteers until the new testing system is finalised.

This is a great citizen science project that has given school, children community groups and individuals a meaningful way of getting out into the environment.

NSW Forestry Corp has lodged a proposal to sell off parts of the Cumberland State Forest for housing subdivision. More critically endangered forest would be cleared. Not just Mirvac but now NSW Forestry Corp want to decimate some of these forests in West Pennant Hills.

Documents have been lodged with the Hills Council applying for the rezoning of two areas that would then be the subdivided for low density housing. They claim the land is surplus to their needs but what about the needs of the people of Sydney to keep existing green space?

An on-site meeting was held with Greens MP David Shoebridge on 11 August.

For updates on the campaign go to www.facebook.com/pg/ForestinDanger.

The Office of Environment and Heritage has alerted the Hills Council to the fact that the presence of Blue Gum High Forest and Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest, both critically endangered ecological communities are listed as potential ecological communities that meet the principles and criteria for serious and irreversible impact as defined under the Biodiversity Conservation Act. Under this act development consent cannot be granted to proposals that impact on serious and irreversible impact entities.

The Office of Environment and Heritage and an independent ecologist have identified large areas of Blue Gum High Forest within the proposed development footprint and the bushfire asset protection zones.

The Forest in Danger group does not believe that the planning proposal 1/2018/PLP can be approved in its current format. The draft development control plan, the planning proposal and the voluntary planning agreement would have to be re-exhibited.

For more details see previous issue of STEP Matters or the Forest in Danger Facebook page.

Good news! The Land and Environment Court has upheld the decision by the Northern Beaches Council and Sydney North Planning Panel to refuse the seniors housing development application on part of the Bayview Golf Course land. The site compatibility certificate had been granted by the Department of Planning to allow a development, but the council still had to approve the details of the development approval. Council knocked back the application on the grounds that its size was excessive and its impact on local biodiversity.

The developer wanted to amend the site compatibility certificate so that the council would not have grounds for refusal. The site compatibility certificate has now expired. The developer will have to start from scratch if they want to try again.

Monday, 12 August 2019 21:25

Byles Creek Valley should be Protected

Hornsby Council is undertaking a four-month review at a cost of $70,000 into potential rezoning and acquisition of land in Byles Creek Valley that is currently unprotected. Council has come to this conclusion in all reviews and reports in the past.

In 2014 Hornsby Council made a very comprehensive submission to the NSW government pushing for acquisition of Byles Creek Valley land in 2014. In this document council’s expert environmental team stated that:

The Byles Creek catchment has been identified as environmentally significant due to the unique environmental values of the area … The preservation of these lands provides connectivity between the significant vegetation corridor along Byles Creek and Lane Cove National Park. The connectivity of this corridor ensures the ability for species to disperse between reserves and the national park and for the transferral of genetic material. The conservation value of this corridor is further emphasised by its inclusion as a core area in the NSW Biodiversity Investment Opportunities Map as part of the NSW government’s Green Corridors Program.

The valley is noted for the high quality of the water in the Creek that flows into the Lane Cove River. It is used as a reference standard for water quality in the shire.

As a member of the Powerful Owl Coalition, STEP strongly supports the protection of the valley as it links with breeding habitat for the Powerful Owl.

Our thanks to the Byles Creek Valley Union for this information.

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is one of the most popular national parks in NSW, with over 3 million visits each year. The existing plan of management for the park was written in 2002. Since that time there has been a steady increase in visitors coming to the park, new recreational uses have become popular, information about the values of the park has improved and new approaches to managing fire and pests and weeds have been developed. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is preparing a new plan of management for the park and island nature reserves.

As part of preparing the new plan of management NPWS has released five discussion papers exploring some of the key management themes that will be included in the new plan:

  •  aboriginal cultural values
  •  natural, visitor experience and shared heritage values
  •  recreational activities
  •  visitor destinations
  •  leases licences and consent

NPWS is keen to hear what the community has to say about future management of the park.

Comments close on 15 September 2019. Click here to contribute your ideas and comment.

There will be other opportunities to provide input to the plan of management when the draft plan is exhibited for public comment.

On 25 May the Friends of Lane Cove National Park put on a special celebration. They were founded in 1994 after major bushfires burnt out large areas of the park and exposed the bushland to weed invasion. They have been working for 25 years to restore the bushland of Lane Cove National Park together with the NPWS staff.

The occasion was also the official opening of Jenkins Kitchen after its restoration using a NSW government Heritage Near Me grant and resources from the Friends, their time and money, to restore the interior and set up displays of historical and wildlife items. The building built in 1855 is believed to be the oldest in Ku-ring-gai.

Monday, 12 August 2019 21:39

NSW Government News

Since the re-election of the Berejiklian government there has been a mixed bag of news in relation to the environment. Here are some brief points.

New Environment Minister

We welcome the appointment of Hornsby MP Matt Kean as Minister for Energy and Environment. He has made promising statements emphasising the importance of national parks and the need for new action on climate change and threatened species. However his power over the short-sighted members of cabinet is uncertain.

Changes to the Office of Environment and Heritage

The Office of Environment and Heritage is no longer a separate entity - it now comes under the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The level of influence that staff from the former Office of Environment and Heritage will have in the future is uncertain.

More National Park Funding Cuts

The abolition of the Office of Environment and Heritage makes it difficult to assess the level of funding for national parks under the budget relative to previous years. The ABC has reported that, in the latest budget, $80 million is being cut from NPWS.

In a statement to the ABC, the government said those cuts would come through more efficient work practices in the department. How can the department be made more efficient after the $121 million cut in the 2016–17 budget that lead to about 100 ranger positions being lost? We believe there is more restructuring of front-line staff to come.

Local Green Spaces Funding

The budget included $9 million to improve open space in Frenchs Forest with new green connections, walking tracks and bike paths linking the local community to nearby bushland corridors. This is a development to watch out for. Will there be more mountain bike tracks?

Land Clearing

The Audit Office released its assessment of the administration of the land clearing laws in June. The media release included this statement:

The processes supporting the regulatory framework are weak and there is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is carried out in accordance with approvals.

Maps of vegetation that landowners need to operate under the new legislation are still not available.

It was announced recently that the government will not be pursuing prosecutions of landowners who have cleared land illegally under the Native Vegetation Act that applied prior to the Biodiversity Conservation Act in 2018. This new act provides for a lot more self-assessment so the past clearing may have been legal under the new law.

Data show massive increases in land clearing over recent years. The data are often disputed on the basis that some clearing is of woody weeds or regrowth. Is that a reasonable excuse? There is no big picture data to help determine whether the regrowth should be encouraged, not cleared.

There are also severe concerns with the renewed Regional Forestry Agreements and the attitude to logging in native forests, particularly koala habitat. Detail about these issues is covered by the Nature Conservation Council.

No matter what data are revealed the area of native vegetation needs to be increased significantly, not decreased, to halt the trend of land degradation and species extinction.

Feral Horses in Kosciuszko National Park

A statewide campaign to protect Kosciuszko National Park from destructive feral horses has forced the government to debate its controversial Wild Horse Heritage Act. This will occur on 22 August.

Meanwhile the number of horses is increasing and the damage to the fragile mountain ecology worsens as the government has suspended the removal program.

Raising Warragamba Dam Wall

The proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by 14 m may have hit a couple of stumbling blocks:

  • a UNESCO world heritage committee says that the proposal could threaten the listing of the Blue Mountains as a World Heritage area
  • modelling of the reduction in flood risk shows the higher wall will have very little benefit

The government is currently preparing an environmental impact statement. Some of the work so far was leaked. It revealed that about 1,300 ha of the world heritage area would be permanently damaged including significant aboriginal cultural sites. The UNESCO committee has asked the government to consult with them before making the final decision. Federal government approval is also required because of the world heritage listing.

It has been stated that the objective of the proposal is to reduce the impact of flooding of the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain by holding back water after heavy rainfall for longer. However some of the charts from modelling the effects of the wall raising prepared for the EIS were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald.

As Figure 1 shows there is very little change in the water outflows during a likely flood event.

In the case of a major flood such as the 1867 flood that is the highest recorded, the picture is similar. This level is believed to be equivalent to a one-in-500 year event (see Figure 2).

The reason for the small reduction in flooding is that there are major rivers that flow into the Hawkesbury-Nepean system below Warragamba Dam such as the Nepean, Grose and Colo. This compounded by the flow downstream being held back at a number of pinch points where the river valley narrows.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

River red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, are among the most iconic of Australia’s eucalypts. They are the most widely distributed of all the eucalypts. They grow along rivers, creeks, waterways and flood plains where many Australians like to picnic, so most of us get to know and love them.

Formerly known as Eucalyptus rostrata, the species was one of the first eucalypts encountered in parts of Australia by European settlers. Curiously, the name camaldulensis comes from the Italian monastery of Camaldoli near Naples, where a specimen grown from seed in a private garden was given the name Eucalyptus camaldulensis in 1832. No one knows how the seed got to be there!

River red gums can be very large spreading trees with huge trunks more than 5 m around. In parts of Australia, such as along the Murray River, they can be very erect trees reaching more than 45 m tall.

Most specimens have smooth bark with a mottling of multiple colours ranging from creams to orange and red, but there may be a skirt of fibrous grey bark for the first few metres of the base. They are called river red gums because they grow along rivers and their wood when freshly exposed is a bright red; almost blood-coloured.

River red gums have been used by Indigenous people for canoes, bowls, shields, and other utensils. The wood is red is because it contains very high levels of chemicals such as polyphenols, which are a natural antibiotic when combined with air.

These chemicals not only protect the living tree from disease and some pest attacks, but make the timber very durable. These chemicals meant river red gums were used for medicinal purposes by Indigenous people. The wood has been widely used for railway sleepers, fence posts, and piers and wharfs where durability and water resistance are desirable. They have been widely planted overseas and in some countries pose a serious weed problem.

The trees can have very long lives, and may reach 1,000 years of age. They grow very rapidly when conditions are favourable and so become large trees quite quickly. But as they get older it is very difficult to age them without damaging the tree and putting it at risk of disease and decay. So their ages are estimated, as no one wants to be responsible for killing a grand old tree just to confirm its age!

Older specimens almost always develop large hollows, which can take centuries to form. The hollows provide refuges for birds, mammals and reptiles. The nesting sites are often raucously defended by brightly coloured parrots. The trees and the nectar from their small white flowers are also very important for honey production – a large tree in full flower over the warmer months can attract so many bees that the whole tree can be heard humming from many metres away; it’s a wonder the tree doesn’t take off.

At certain times of the year, often during summer, river reds can be very heavily grazed by insects to the point where their leaves are skeletonised. The trees look as though they are about to die, but they are very resilient and a few months later most are back to a full and healthy canopy. Another insect, the psyllid, also feeds on and skeletonises the leaves. It has a sweet, waxy covering called a lerp that protects the vulnerable insect nymphs beneath. Some Indigenous groups scrape off the lerps, roll them into a ball, and eat them like a lolly.

Surviving Floods and Driving Rain

Any tree that can live for a millennium must be adaptable, so like some other eucalypt species, river red gums can shed up to two-thirds of their foliage when soils dry out during a drought, which reduces water demand and prevents the trees from wilting. This shedding often causes people to complain about the trees when they grow in towns and cities, but when the rains come a few months later they rapidly produce new leaves and are soon once again in full canopy.

River red gums can tolerate immersion in flood waters for up to nine months. They do this by having extensive roots, some of which contain a spongy, air-filled tissue called aerenchyma that allows for the accumulation and transport of much-needed oxygen in waterlogged soils. This adaptation to stressed soils also means river red gums can do quite well in disturbed urban soils when the urban sprawl impinges on their natural domain.

River red gums readily seed after flooding events and great numbers of young trees may germinate. However, relatively few survive to maturity due to competition from other red gums, other trees, and weeds. They may also struggle to survive in some places due to a lack of water.

Because river reds occur in some of the driest and harshest parts of the Australian mainland, you might think they are very efficient users of water. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The trees can have very deep, spreading and searching root systems, which tap into subterranean water, even if the water is many metres from the trunk. They are luxury water users with very little capacity for water use control. If water becomes really limiting, they simply wilt.

Territorial Trees

E. camaldulensis produces a water-soluble chemical that is washed from its leaves by rain. These chemicals inhibit the growth of other plants, including river red gum seedlings, under the canopy. This phenomenon is called allelopathy, and along with a dense canopy inhibits plant growth under the trees. These chemicals are washed from the soil by flood water, which makes way for the germination of seedlings after floods. This is a wonderful mechanism that ensures seedlings do not germinate when conditions are dry and where they would compete with the parent tree for limited water, but germination is facilitated when there is plenty of water and soils are wet.

Some people think river red gums are dangerous because they shed large limbs without warning on calm, still, summer days. There is no doubt this does happen, but there is no clear evidence they shed limbs more often than other species.

The problem is complex, because they tend to grow everywhere people want to go. They provide shade along waterways on a hot, dry continent. In going to places where the trees grow, people tend to compact the soil with their vehicles and footpaths, which can be causes of limb shedding. The compaction of the soil affects soil moisture and aeration, which can lead to limb shedding.

In other contexts such as farms where limbs are shed, many old river red gums are growing in highly disturbed or changed ecosystems. Furthermore, many of these remnant specimens are often stressed and getting older and so more prone to shedding.

River red gums trace the watercourses of mainland Australia, and are easily seen from aeroplanes as you cross the continent. They connect the continental fringes with its arid heart. Their lives can span many human generations and it is nice to think that the majestic old trees that pull at our heartstrings have done the same to previous generations and, if we and they are lucky, will continue to do so for generations of Australians yet to come.

This article appeared in The Conversation on 12 July. It is written by Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany at Melbourne University.


Here’s some more information about the importance of river red gum in maintaining healthy landscapes and controlling salinity:

Stands of river red gum are associated with the surface flooding regime of watercourses and related ground water flow. The species is a profligate and opportunistic water user, and this is a contributing factor to the maintenance of water tables at depth. Even without large amounts of empirical data it is clear that loss of large tracts of the species in the Murray River corridor would have a major impact on the hydrology of the system, as well as on vegetation communities and associated biodiversity.

There is lots of research demonstrating the benefits of trees in urban areas. Not only do they camouflage the grey asphalt and concrete of roads and footpaths, they can reduce temperatures and the need for air conditioning in buildings. They also improve the microclimate by retaining moisture in the air and soil and they encourage residents to get out into the community and enjoy beautiful shaded areas.

Tree planting is an effective and efficient way to adapt to climate change. However as climate change leads to higher temperatures and more variable and lower rainfall we need to consider how the popular trees used in urban areas will respond to the changes.

Different species have different levels of tolerance of heat, lack of water and other threats posed by climate change.

Research teams from Macquarie University (including former STEP president Prof Michelle Leishman) and Western Sydney University, have embarked on a project called Which Plant Where. The project is supported by Hort Innovation Australia, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the Australian government. Their mission is to find the best plant species for urban landscapes that will be resilient to climate change.

The project works with the nursery industry to gather evidence on species’ resilience to extreme heat and drought by testing plants to their limits in research glasshouses. This work will inform plant growers and nurseries on how to adapt their business, by identifying the new challenges posed by climate change, as well as selecting diverse ranges of climate-ready species. They advise landscape architects, designers and urban planners about not only the best planting choices, but also how to increase the biodiversity of our cities.

We need to know how our current tree canopy will be affected as well as plan new plantings.

The research team recently published a study (Burley et al) that investigated likely climate change impacts on 176 of the most common tree species planted across Australian cities. The analysis showed more than 70% of these species will experience harsher climatic conditions across Australian cities by 2070.

Some of the most commonly planted trees are unlikely to survive. Conversely, in some cooler climate areas, such as Orange, the number of suitable species may increase. These impacts will progressively worsen as climate change intensifies. A proactive approach is needed to identify new climate-ready species and plantings. Tree species growing in warmer cities are more likely to be affected than those in cooler cities. Some species, such as the golden wattle (Acacia longifolia) or the prickly paperbark (Melaleuca styphelioides) might not make it in northern cities unless we invest precious resources – such as water – to maintain these civic assets. Other species, such as the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) or the tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides) will likely become more suitable for planting in southern cities.

Australian cities are blessed with a higher diversity of tree species compared to other cities globally. However, the 30 most commonly planted species make up more than half of Australia’s urban forests. This poses a great risk for our cities. If we were to lose one or two of these common species, the impact on our urban tree cover would be immense. Trees are a long-term investment that will be affected by the very factors that they are meant to mitigate. Consequently, our best insurance is to increase the diversity of our trees.

The study highlights the need for more research:

  • which species experience a reduction in growth or, even mortality, during extreme weather events and the duration of any growth reduction
  • variation of impacts in different climate zones, for example subtropical areas are likely to experience greater declines in growth than temperate areas
  • whether it is feasible with some species to mitigate impacts by providing more irrigation, selective pruning or planting in a more sheltered position
  • investigate new choices of species suitable for the urban environment from the huge range of Australian native species

The NSW government announced a plan in February to plant five million trees in Greater Sydney by 2030. They are counting trees planted in streets, parks, backyards, neighbourhoods and schools with an objective of increasing the tree canopy from 16.8% to 40%. Councils can apply for grants for tree planting projects. Individuals can register the trees they plant.

Reference

Hugh Burley, Linda J. Beaumont, Alessandro Ossola, John B. Baumgartner, Rachael Gallagher, Shawn Laffan, Manuel Esperon-Rodriguez, Anthony Manea, Michelle R. Leishman (2019) Substantial declines in urban tree habitat predicted under climate change, Science of the Total Environment 685, 451–462

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