Climate Tasmania

A Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Troubling signs from Antarctic ice

While global surface temperature records continue to fall, warming seas raise the spectre of irreversible melting in Antarctica [28 October 2014| Peter Boyer]

Some news we could have done without: Planet Earth has just had its warmest September since global thermometer records began 134 years ago.

A coastal view of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, largest in the world. PHOTO MICHAEL VAN WOERT, NASA

A coastal view of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, largest in the world. PHOTO MICHAEL VAN WOERT, NASA

That came straight after the warmest August and, a month or two earlier, the warmest May and June. There have been quite a few such monthly records in recent years. By contrast, the last time the world had a coolest-on-record month was nearly 100 years ago, in December 1916.

The 12-month period to September was the warmest ever recorded, and 2014 is on track to be the warmest calendar year on record. Remarkably, all this has happened in the absence of an El Niño weather event, which would have caused even greater warming.

Such surface temperature information (this comes from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is prima facie evidence that we have long-term climate warming. An even more telling indicator of this is the great block of ice to our south.

The huge Antarctic ice sheet holds 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water and over 90 per cent of its ice, which being mostly well above sea level has the potential to cause a big rise in ocean waters around the world. If it lost even a quarter of its ice, seas would be 15 metres higher.

Antarctica as a whole has been slow to respond to a warming atmosphere and ocean. Satellite instruments are revealing that increased snowfall is actually making part of the ice sheet bigger. But this is more than countered elsewhere by coastal melting caused by a warming ocean.

Antarctica as a whole is losing 300 million tonnes of ice a day, mainly around the coast of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, south of South America. A 2013 research paper reported ice loss on the Peninsula had risen tenfold in 1000 years.

But satellites can give only a broad-brush picture. To know what’s happening in particular places we need information on the ground, which is where “Necklace” comes in.

The scientists who coined that title describe it as an “over-engineered acronym”, somehow derived from “network for the collection of knowledge on the melt of Antarctic ice shelves”. But it’s an apt name for a project that aims to encircle the continent with ice measuring stations.

The Antarctic coastline is punctuated by massive slabs of ice, hundreds of metres thick and sometimes covering many thousands of square kilometres, fastened to the main ice mass but also floating on the sea. It’s from these ice shelves that icebergs are formed.

By slowing the rate at which ice flows into the sea, ice shelves help to keep Antarctic ice in place. Past events have shown that when ice shelves break up the ice banked up behind flows much faster, so if we know how they’re changing we have a good handle on the status of the whole ice sheet.

UK scientists have developed a specialised downward-looking portable radar device that can be left on the surface of ice shelves to measure the thickness of the ice underneath them down to the last millimetre, along with the rate at which it flows and compresses.

Advanced long-life batteries enable each radar to make several measurements a day over several years, storing the data locally while transmitting a reduced data set via satellite to its research team.

This Antarctic summer the Necklace program gets into full swing with the roll-out of radar stations around the continent’s perimeter. Two of the units will be deployed on Amery Ice Shelf (southwest of Perth) by an Australian Antarctic Division team led by Hobart glaciologist Ben Galton-Fenzi.

The Necklace data will help to identify the points around the Antarctic coast where the greatest ice loss is occurring. That in turn will feed into a growing bank of information about the interaction of Antarctic ice with the Southern Ocean.

Besides causing Antarctic coastal sea levels to rise much faster than the global average of a little over 3 mm a year, the melting ice sheet is producing a layer of freshwater, which being lighter than saltwater floats on the ocean surface.

Recent Dutch, New Zealand and Australian research has identified two key effects of a freshwater surface layer: it freezes at a higher temperature than seawater causing more sea ice to form, and it prevents heat loss from subsurface water, increasing the melt rate underneath ice shelves.

That may help explain the anomaly of a small expansion in Antarctic sea ice at a time when Arctic sea ice is diminishing. It is also a troubling warning that the rate of ice sheet melting around the Antarctic coast today will get worse as the years pass.

• “BEYOND Left and Right: Politics in a Hotter Time” is this year’s Richard Jones Memorial Lecture (Friday from 7.30 at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania) to be delivered by David Orr, professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, Ohio (US).

Coal is starting to look like a stranded asset

Government support for King Coal is misplaced, short-sighted and foolish. [21 October 2014 | Peter Boyer]

You might think money and power are what motivate the people who make those huge holes in the ground to dig up vast quantities of black stuff to ship off to Asia.

Rio Tinto’s Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO LOCK THE GATE ALLIANCE

Rio Tinto’s Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO LOCK THE GATE ALLIANCE

Banish the thought. All those mines, railways, ports and ships that make up the coal export industry are really all about a benevolent, generous spirit and the long-term well-being of the world.

Don’t just take my word for it. Last week environment minister Greg Hunt talked about how Australia’s energy exports were helping “to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”.

Tony Abbott sings from the same songbook. In May the prime minister told miners that “it is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world” by exporting coal to poorer countries. Coal is king, he declared when opening a new mine in Queensland last week.

On the same day in London, interviewed on the BBC about Australia’s “dirty” coal-exporting practices, treasurer Joe Hockey said we do it “so that nations can lift their people out of poverty”.

The earnest mantra coming from Big Coal and its political friends is that exporting coal to China and India is a massive humanitarian mission. You could almost believe they mean it.

But China and India don’t seem to share the love. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi says he wants to reduce his country’s dependence on coal and is seeking finance for a 10-year plan to generate 200 gigawatts of wind and solar energy.

China now taxes imported coal and keeps raising taxes on coal-fired power. And only three months after Australia abandoned its pioneering carbon pricing system, China announced that it would bring forward its own national pricing scheme to 2016, two years earlier than originally planned.

The burning of coal, mainly to make electricity, is the world’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The burning of oil-based fuels is the second biggest, and so-called “clean” natural gas is another significant greenhouse pollutant.

The International Energy Agency says that a safe climate future requires us to leave untouched at least two-thirds of all the coal, oil and gas that we know is still in the ground. I know of no government or industry challenge to the IEA analysis anywhere in the world.

The Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has advised companies, investors and policymakers that “the vast majority of reserves are unburnable” and urged them to incorporate long-term climate change into their planning.

Yet for Australian governments, enthusiastically backing an expansion of coal exports, King Coal reigns supreme, and there can be no other way of looking at it. It’s a foolhardy position to take.

This only partially explains why government ministers and miners got so upset last week about the Australian National University’s decision to sell its holdings in seven mining companies which the university determined didn’t meet its own “socially responsible investment” requirements.

To Tony Abbott, the decision was “stupid”. Assistant infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs said it was “reckless”. Other angry outbursts came from Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and education minister Christopher Pyne, not to mention an array of state government ministers.

Industry didn’t hold back. “Green imperialism at its worst” was the view of big NSW miner Whitehaven Coal. The Minerals Council of Australia thought it was anti-mining and anti-business.

The Abbott government says it stands for business independence, yet it complains about a decision by an investing entity about where it wishes to put its money. That smacks of hypocrisy.

To judge by the noise you’d think the ANU’s action was a massive sell-off, but the $16 million worth of shares involved were less than 2 per cent of the university’s investment portfolio and a much tinier proportion, about 0.03 per cent, of the companies’ value.

The seven Australian companies, Iluka Resources, Independence Group, Newcrest Mining, Oil Search, Sandfire Resources, Santos and Sirius Resources, were identified in a commissioned independent review of companies’ environmental, social and governance policies and practices.

There are no coal companies in the list and only two, Oil Search and Santos, are in the oil and gas business. But in various ways, all seven showed a disregard for investors’ concerns about how climate change might affect their asset valuations in five, 10 or 20 years’ time.

This is especially an issue in the fossil fuel sector, most notably coal, which must face the risk that as the impact of emissions is more widely appreciated their reserves will become stranded assets. The larger the reserve (such as those in Queensland’s Galilee Basin) the greater the long-term loss.

The ANU is far from alone in deciding to sell shares of companies which fall short on the carbon test. Anglican and Uniting churches and local government superannuation are among increasing numbers of Australian entities that are divesting on this basis.

They see what Australian governments, with Tony Abbott as the cheerleader, cannot. Coal as a global commodity is in terminal structural decline. Jingoistic fast talk won’t change that. All it’s doing is sending money, and our national reputation, down the drain.

Forget ideology. What’s in play here is pure business.

The world-wide trend toward sustainable communities

Local administrations around the world are stepping up efforts to build resilience into their communities. [14 October 2014 | Peter Boyer]

“He’s from Barcelona.” That was Sybil Fawlty’s way of explaining the physical and verbal ineptitude of Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the 1970s British television series Fawlty Towers.

Touring Barcelona streets on a hired electric scooter. PHOTO GREENELECTRICMOTO.COM

Touring Barcelona streets on a hired electric scooter. PHOTO GREENELECTRICMOTO.COM

Barcelona was then a catchword for sad failure. Now the city has a new reputation as a world-leading sustainable community.

“Your definition of a sustainable community please? Just what would that look like?” asked one of my more enduring critics on the Mercury website last week.

A fair question, and the “smart city” of Barcelona is a good place to begin. The city’s ambitious climate response, drawing on urban planning, information technology and environmental data, is already yielding dividends to a supportive citizenry. Some examples:

• The city has significantly cut energy costs by rolling out computer-controlled smart power meters across the city and water-regulated heating and cooling covering 21 square km.

• Barcelona’s street lighting now costs half what it did to operate, and it will get even cheaper. Remote control of lighting and its conversion to LED technology is about half rolled out.

• Water for parks and fountains is controlled remotely, providing maximum value from the city’s water supply during hot, dry summers, for a small fraction of the cost.

• Barcelona has deployed over 260 electric vehicle recharging points drawing on nuclear and renewable power. It now has about 300 public electric vehicles and an estimated 400 private ones on its streets, along with 130 electric motorbikes and 500 hybrid taxis.

The city expects that in each remaining year of the current decade its greenhouse gas emissions will be cut by an amount equal to 18 per cent of 2008 levels to bring it to zero net emissions by 2020.

Among many North American cities pursuing climate action agendas is Portland, Oregon (US). A year ago it updated its already-ambitious plan with 150 new measures aiming to halve emissions from city operations by 2030. The plan includes cutting energy use in all pre-2010 buildings by 25 per cent and zero net emissions from all new buildings and homes, recycling 90 per cent of all city waste, and creating neighbourhoods where 80 per cent of residents can walk or cycle to meet basic non-work needs.

New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is investing in local renewable power, home insulation, public transport and alternative transportation, recycling and composting regimes, innovation in energy conservation and developing the city as an urban planning centre of excellence.

Australian capital city councils, notably Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, have adopted highly-innovative carbon-cutting policies. Sydney, for instance, has a 2030 target of 70 per cent lower emissions using power generated from currently-available waste and biomass.

Hobart had a less ambitious climate plan, but without top-to-bottom support it was never much more than window-dressing. It has never been updated and expired in 2013, presenting the incoming council with the challenge of coming up with a new one.

Last week I explored how the idea of a sustainable city had infiltrated campaigns in this month’s elections. Looking further into election manifestos, the most detailed and comprehensive suite of climate measures that I could find was put together by Greens candidate Anna Reynolds.

Reynolds seeks ambitious and specific goals, using as an example Melbourne’s target of zero net emissions by 2020. She advocates a zero-waste regime such as that being rolled out in Brisbane, and among her adaptation measures are limits to home-building on bushfire-prone land.

But the vision of elected representatives goes only so far. Success isn’t just devising a plan but implementing it well, and that requires motivated and committed council staff.

In other municipalities climate change is understood as a factor in council affairs now, let alone tomorrow. Kingborough is leading the way in putting measures in place to cope with increasing damage from bushfire, storms and coastal flooding. Others, such as Clarence, aren’t far behind.

Money speaks. Councils are being forced to grasp the nettle of climate planning because insurance companies, alert to their own bottom line, are backing up council assessments that the physical and financial impact of drought, fire, storm and flood is increasing, not tomorrow but today.

The same is reflected in growing numbers of cities and towns around the world pursuing stronger programs for a better energy return from town precincts, individual buildings and transport, and for monitoring local climate shifts and adapting practices accordingly.

This is ground truthing at work. Local administrators are seeing things happening that higher levels of government have missed, to their shame and to the detriment of us all.