Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze


Multiple large, intense fires are stretching from Australia’s coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.
AAP Image/Supplied, JPSS

Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University

Last week saw an unprecedented outbreak of large, intense fires stretching from the mid-north coast of New South Wales into central Queensland.

The most tragic losses are concentrated in northern NSW, where 970,000 hectares have been burned, three people have died, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.

A catastrophic fire warning for Tuesday has been issued for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Shoalhaven and Illawarra areas. It is the first time Sydney has received a catastrophic rating since the rating system was developed in 2009.

No relief is in sight from this extremely hot, dry and windy weather, and the extraordinary magnitude of these fires is likely to increase in the coming week. Alarmingly, as Australians increasingly seek a sea-change or tree-change, more people are living in the path of these destructive fires.




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It’s only October, so what’s with all these bushfires? New research explains it


Unprecedented state of emergency

Large fires have happened before in northern NSW and southern Queensland during spring and early summer (for example in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002, and 2018 in northern NSW). But this latest extraordinary situation raises many questions.

It is as if many of the major fires in the past are now being rerun concurrently. What is unprecedented is the size and number of fires rather than the seasonal timing.

The potential for large, intense fires is determined by four fundamental ingredients: a continuous expanse of fuel; extensive and continuous dryness of that fuel; weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire; and ignitions, either human or lightning. These act as a set of switches, in series: all must be “on” for major fires to occur.

Live fuel moisture content in late October 2019. The ‘dry’ and ‘transitional’ moisture categories correspond to conditions associated with over 95% of historical area burned by bushfire.
Estimated from MODIS satellite imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion.

The NSW north coast and tablelands, along with much of the southern coastal regions of Queensland are famous for their diverse range of eucalypt forest, heathlands and rainforests, which flourish in the warm temperate to subtropical climate.




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Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


These forests and shrublands can rapidly accumulate bushfire fuels such as leaf litter, twigs and grasses. The unprecedented drought across much of Australia has created exceptional dryness, including high-altitude areas and places like gullies, water courses, swamps and steep south-facing slopes that are normally too wet to burn.

These typically wet parts of the landscape have literally evaporated, allowing fire to spread unimpeded. The drought has been particularly acute in northern NSW where record low rainfall has led to widespread defoliation and tree death. It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.

Annual trends in live fuel moisture. The horizontal line represents the threshold for the critical ‘dry’ fuel category, which corresponds to the historical occurrence of most major wildfires in the Bioregion.
Estimated from MODIS imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion

Thus, the North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires. A continuous swathe of critically dry fuels across these diverse landscapes existed well before last week, as shown by damaging fires in September and October.

High temperatures and wind speeds, low humidity, and a wave of new ignitions on top of pre-existing fires has created an unprecedented situation of multiple large, intense fires stretching from the coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.

More people in harm’s way

Many parts of the NSW north coast, southern Queensland and adjacent hinterlands have seen population growth around major towns and cities, as people look for pleasant coastal and rural homes away from the capital cities.

The extraordinary number and ferocity of these fires, plus the increased exposure of people and property, have contributed to the tragic results of the past few days.




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How a bushfire can destroy a home


Communities flanked by forests along the coast and ranges are highly vulnerable because of the way fires spread under the influence of strong westerly winds. Coastal communities wedged between highly flammable forests and heathlands and the sea, are particularly at risk.

As a full picture of the extent and location of losses and damage becomes available, we will see the extent to which planning, building regulations, and fire preparation has mitigated losses and damage.

These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. The week ahead will present high-stakes new challenges.

The most heavily populated region of the nation is now at critically dry levels of fuel moisture, below those at the time of the disastrous Christmas fires of 2001 and 2013. Climate change has been predicted to strongly increase the chance of large fires across this region. The conditions for Tuesday are a real and more extreme manifestation of these longstanding predictions.




Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire


Whatever the successes and failures in this crisis, it is likely that we will have to rethink the way we plan and prepare for wildfires in a hotter, drier and more flammable world.The Conversation

Ross Bradstock, Professor, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University

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

Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air



Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting.
Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author provided

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, The University of Queensland

Last month, scientists uncovered a mineral called Edscottite. Minerals are solid, naturally occurring substances that are not living, such as quartz or haematite. This new mineral was discovered after an examination of the Wedderburn Meteorite, a metallic-looking rock found in Central Victoria back in 1951.

Edscottite is made of iron and carbon, and was likely formed within the core of another planet. It’s a “true” mineral, meaning one which is naturally occurring and formed by geological processes either on Earth or in outer-space.

But while the Wedderburn Meteorite held the first-known discovery of Edscottite, other new mineral discoveries have been made on Earth, of substances formed as a result of human activities such as mining and mineral processing. These are called anthropogenic minerals.

While true minerals comprise the majority of the approximately 5,200 known minerals, there are about 208 human-made minerals which have been approved as minerals by the International Mineralogical Association.

Some are made on purpose and others are by-products. Either way, the ability to manufacture minerals has vast implications for the future of our rapidly growing population.

Modern-day alchemy

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. While governments debate the future of coal-burning power stations, carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. We need innovative strategies to capture it.

Actively manufacturing minerals such as nesquehonite is one possible approach. It has applications in building and construction, and making it requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.




Read more:
Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate


Nesquehonite occurs naturally when magnesian rocks slowly break down. It has been identified at the Paddy’s River mine in the Australian Capital Territory and locations in New South Wales.

But scientists discovered it can also be made by passing carbon dioxide into an alkaline solution and having it react with magnesium chloride or sodium carbonate/bicarbonate.

This is a growing area of research.

Other synthetic minerals such as hydrotalcite are produced when asbestos tailings passively absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, as discovered by scientists at the Woodsreef asbestos mine in New South Wales.

You could say this is a kind of “modern-day alchemy” which, if taken advantage of, could be an effective way to suck carbon dioxide from the air at a large scale.

Meeting society’s metal demands

Mining and mineral processing is designed to recover metals from ore, which is a natural occurrence of rock or sediment containing sufficient minerals with economically important elements. But through mining and mineral processing, new minerals can also be created.

Smelting is used to produce a range of commodities such as lead, zinc and copper, by heating ore to high temperatures to produce pure metals.

The process also produces a glass-like waste product called slag, which is deposited as molten liquid, resembling lava.

This is a backscattered electron microscope image of historical slag collected from a Rio Tinto mine in Spain.
Image collected by Anita Parbhakar-Fox at the University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Once cooled, the textural and mineralogical similarities between lava and slag are crystal-clear.

Micro-scale inspection shows human-made minerals in slag have a unique ability to accommodate metals into their crystal lattice that would not be possible in nature.

This means metal recovery from mine waste (a potential secondary resource) could be an effective way to supplement society’s growing metal demands. The challenge lies in developing processes which are cost effective.




Read more:
Wealth in waste? Using industrial leftovers to offset climate emissions


Ethically-sourced jewellery

Our increasing knowledge on how to manufacture minerals may also have a major impact on the growing synthetic gem manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the world was awestruck by the engagement ring given to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, valued at about £300,000 (AUD$558,429).

The ring has a 12-carat blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, with a setting made from 18-carat white gold.

Replicas of it have been acquired by people across the globe, but for only a fraction of the price. How?

In 1837, Marc Antoine Gardin demonstrated that sapphires (mineralogically known as corundum or aluminium oxide) can be replicated by reacting metals with other substances such as chromium or boric acid. This produces a range of seemingly identical coloured stones.

On close examination, some properties may vary such as the presence of flaws and air bubbles and the stone’s hardness. But only a gemologist or gem enthusiast would likely notice this.

Diamonds can also be synthetically made, through either a high pressure, high temperature, or chemical vapour deposition process.

Synthetic diamonds have essentially the same chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.
Instytut Fizyki Uniwersytet Kazimierza Wielkiego

Creating synthetic gems is increasingly important as natural stones are becoming more difficult and expensive to source. In some countries, the rights of miners are also violated and this poses ethical concerns.

Medical and industrial applications

Synthetic gems have industrial applications too. They can be used in window manufacturing, semi-conducting circuits and cutting tools.

One example of an entirely manufactured mineral is something called yttrium aluminum garnet (or YAG) which can be used as a laser.

In medicine, these lasers are used to correct glaucoma. In dental surgery, they allow soft gum and tissues to be cut away.

The move to develop new minerals will also support technologies enabling deep space exploration through the creation of ‘quantum materials’.

Quantum materials have unique properties and will help us create a new generation of electronic products, which could have a significant impact on space travel technologies. Maybe this will allow us to one day visit the birthplace of Edscottite?




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In decades to come, the number of human-made minerals is set to increase. And as it does, so too does the opportunity to find new uses for them.

By expanding our ability to manufacture minerals, we could reduce pressure on existing resources and find new ways to tackle global challenges.The Conversation

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Senior Research Fellow in Geometallurgy/Applied Geochemistry, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, Principal Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Nuclear power should be allowed in Australia – but only with a carbon price



The Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney. It does not produce nuclear energy but is used to produce medical radioisotopes and for other purposes.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Looking at the state of policy on energy and climate change in Australia, it’s tempting to give in to despair. At the national level, following the abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee last year, we have no coherent energy policy and no serious policy to address climate change.

In this context, the announcement of two separate inquiries into the feasibility of nuclear power (by the New South Wales and federal parliaments) could reasonably give rise to cynicism. The only possible case for considering nuclear power, in my view, is that it might provide a way to decarbonise our electricity supply industry.

Yet many of the keenest boosters of nuclear power have consistently opposed any serious measure to address climate change, and quite a few have rejected mainstream science altogether.

Activists dressed as nuclear waste barrels protesting at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in 2001. Nuclear technology in Australia has long raised concern among environmentalists.
Laura Frriezer/AAP



Read more:
Australia should explore nuclear waste before we try domestic nuclear power


Yet in a situation which all responsible people view as a climate emergency, we can’t afford the luxury of despair. For this reason, rather than dismissing these inquiries as political stunts, I made a submission to the federal inquiry setting out the conditions required to allow for any possibility of nuclear power in Australia.

The submission was picked up by the national media, which largely focused on my proposal to lift the state ban on nuclear power and implement a carbon price.

The reception from commentators on the right, who want the ban lifted, and from renewables advocates, who want a price on carbon, suggests a middle ground on nuclear power may be achievable.

The three big problems with nuclear power

Three fundamental problems arise immediately when considering the prospect of nuclear power in Australia. First, the technology is expensive: more expensive than new fossil-fuelled power stations, and far too expensive to compete with existing fossil fuel generators under current market conditions.

Second, given the time lags involved, any substantial contribution from nuclear power in Australia won’t be available until well beyond 2030.

Third, given the strong public opposition to nuclear power, particularly from the environmental movement, any attempt to promote nuclear power at the expense of renewables would never get broad support. In these circumstances, any investor in nuclear power would face the prospect of losing their money the moment the balance of political power shifted.

A technician uses a hot cell which shields radioactive material at the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

On the first point, we have some evidence from the contract agreed by the UK government in for the construction of the Hinkley C nuclear power plant. This was the first new nuclear construction project to be approved in an OECD country for a number of years.

The agreement to construct Hinkley was based on a guaranteed “strike price” of £92.50/ megawatt hours (MWh), in 2012 prices, to be adjusted in line with the consumer price index during the construction period and over the subsequent 35-year tariff period. At current exchange rates, this price corresponds to approximately A$165.




Read more:
Nuclear weapons? Australia has no way to build them, even if we wanted to


Prices in Australia’s National Electricity Market have generally averaged around A$90/MWh. This implies that, if new nuclear power is to compete with existing fossil fuel generators, a carbon price must impose a cost of A$75/MWh on fossil fuel generation.

Assuming emission rates of 1.3 tonnes/MWh for brown coal, 1 tonne/MWh for black and 0.5 tonnes for gas, the implied carbon price ranges from A$50/tonne (to displace brown coal) to $150/tonne (to displace gas). On the basis that nuclear power is most plausible as a competitor for baseload generation from brown coal, I considered a price of A$50/tonne.

A blueprint for reform

The central recommendations of my submission were as follows:

Nuclear power, while costly, could dramatically reduce Australia’s electricity sector emissions.
AAP

Recommendation 1: A carbon price of A$25/tonne should be introduced immediately, and increased at a real rate of 5% a year, reaching A$50/tonne by 2035.

Recommendation 2: The government should immediately adopt the recommendations of its own Climate Change Authority for a 40% to 60% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 2000 levels, and match other leading OECD countries in committing to complete decarbonisation of the economy by 2050.

Recommendation 3: The parliament should pass a motion:

  • affirming its confidence in mainstream climate science and its acceptance of the key conclusions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change;
  • legislating a commitment to emissions reductions;
  • removing the existing ban on nuclear power.

Let’s all meet in the middle

Rather to my surprise, this proposal received a favourable reception from a number of centre-right commentators.

Reaction from renewables proponents, on social media at least, was cautious. But it did not indicate the reflexive hostility that might be expected, given the polarised nature of the debate.

There are immediate political implications of my proposal at both the state and federal level. It will be more difficult for the Coalition-dominated committees running the two inquiries to bring down a report favourable to nuclear power without addressing the necessary conditions – including a carbon price. If the government’s hostility to carbon pricing is such that a serious proposal for nuclear power cannot be considered, it will at least be clear that this option can be abandoned for good.

Former Nationals leader and now backbencher Barnaby Joyce is a strong advocate for nuclear power.
Lukas Coch/AAP

In the admittedly unlikely event that the Coalition government shows itself open to new thinking, the focus turns to Labor and the Greens.

Given the urgency of addressing climate change – a task that is best addressed through a carbon price – it makes no sense to reject action now on the basis that it opens up the possibility of nuclear power sometime in the 2030s. And, if renewables and storage perform as well as most environmentalists expect, nuclear power will be unable to compete even then.

Political hardheads will doubtless say that this is all impossible, and they may be right. But in a world where Donald Trump can win a US presidential election, and major investment banks support UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “impossible” is a big claim

In the absence of any prospect of progress on either energy or climate, the grand bargain I’ve proposed is at least worth a try.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

With climate change likely to sharpen conflict, NZ balances pacifist traditions with defence spending


New Zealand’s military aircraft are used for disaster relief, such as following a series of earthquakes in Sulawesi in 2018.
EPA/Holti Simanjuntak, CC BY-ND

David Belgrave, Massey University

In most countries, the question of whether to produce guns or butter is a metaphor for whether a country should put its efforts into defence or well-being. In New Zealand, this debate is much more literal and has been won easily by butter.

Dairy exports made up around 5.6% of New Zealand’s GDP in 2018 while defence spending only accounted for around 1.1%, with the tiny local defence industry adding little to that total.

Relative geostrategic isolation means New Zealand’s security has been more about ensuring global trade routes stay open for exports, like butter. But climate change is now challenging that notion as environmental change is expected to generate instability in the South Pacific.

While the government doesn’t expect core day-to-day defence spending to increase over the next few years, as much as NZ$20 billion will need to be spent on new equipment.

Replacing ageing equipment

Big ticket items such as warships and military aircraft last for decades and purchases are often years in the planning. Platforms purchased for the New Zealand military, including some acquired during the Vietnam War, are now reaching the end of their life.

New Zealand is facing significant bills as major aircraft, ships and army vehicles will need to be purchased in the next few years. The timing is particularly awkward for the government as it is shifting its spending towards well-being.




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To manage this problem the government has released its Defence Capability Plan 2019, which outlines its NZ$20 billion shopping list to resource the military into the 2030s.

The first purchase to come consists of new C-130J-30 Super Hercules transport planes. They will replace the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s existing C-130s which are now more than 50 years old. At the time of writing, all five of these planes have been grounded due to maintenance problems. A major justification for the upgrades is greater need for a variety of relief, monitoring and peacekeeping missions caused by the effects of climate change.

A recent New Zealand Defence Force report warned that extreme weather patterns will threaten water, food and energy security in the region and shortages could spark violence. New Zealand’s military provides humanitarian aid and disaster relief in the Pacific and the climate crisis is shifting the rationale for defence spending and the politics of defence in general.

Criticism from the opposition National Party has been less about the plan and more about whether it fits with the government’s overall well-being approach. But the real flak has come from the coalition government’s Green Party support partner.

This shows the complexity of defence politics in New Zealand, as different political parties represent distinct strands of public opinion on the role of the military.

Balancing pacifist and martial traditions

The last 50 years have seen significant disagreement over how the country should engage with the rest of the world and what it should do with its military in particular. Decisions over big purchases and overseas deployments can open up major divisions over New Zealand’s strategic identity.

New Zealand’s strong martial and pacifist traditions are both represented in the current government and major defence decisions have to be made with care.
Jacinda Ardern’s coalition is managing this complex balancing act. The coalition is made up of the centre-left Labour Party and the moderately populist New Zealand First Party, with the Green Party providing confidence and supply.

NZ First is the strongest supporter of the country’s martial traditions. It has always had a hawkish attitude towards China, which has become more relevant in recent years.




Read more:
New Zealand’s Pacific reset: strategic anxieties about rising China


While Labour is generally seen as more dovish than the National Party, the differences have been largely over tone rather than substance. Attitudes towards anti-nuclear policies, the scrapping of the RNZAF fighter wing, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been major points of difference in the past.

Labour has generally differentiated itself by being slightly more willing to criticise allies and placing more faith in collective security, the United Nations and disarmament.

To limit criticism that it is spending on “tanks not teachers”, Ardern’s coalition has skilfully outsourced the job of replacing ageing defence equipment to NZ First’s minister of defence Ron Mark. It was probably no coincidence that last year’s announcement that NZ$2.3 billion would be spent on new maritime patrol aircraft was made by NZ First leader Winston Peters while Ardern was on maternity leave.

Ardern has let NZ First claim the political credit and take the political risk with expensive defence replacements, lest they take the shine off Labour’s focus on social policies. That balancing was on show again last week when Ardern announced that New Zealand was ending its military training deployment to Iraq.

Pacifism in the age of climate change

By sitting outside cabinet, the Greens are able to represent the pacifist end of the political spectrum. The party has its roots in the Values Party of the 1970s, which helped make anti-nuclear attitudes mainstream in New Zealand and, by 1984, Labour Party policy.

The party’s defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman described the transport plane purchase as “war making capability” when New Zealand is good at humanitarian aid delivery, monitoring and supporting Antarctic research. She reconfirmed the Green Party’s commitment to peacekeeping through the UN.

This attitude is problematic as it forgets that the tools for war fighting are the same as those for peacekeeping and disaster relief. As the focus of Green movements worldwide has shifted to climate change, the commitment to disarmament is becoming more at odds with the realities of climate change. Rising sea levels, crop failures and mass migration will be massively destabilising to the international system.

It is not tenable to criticise the purchase of aircraft that will be largely used to send relief missions to the Pacific, scientists to Antarctica and peacekeepers to UN missions, simply because they could be used to send soldiers into combat. The challenge for the Greens will be to find a coherent message on the military that tackles the climate crisis and represents the views of its pacifist base.

The challenge for New Zealand’s allies will be to understand and respect how these contradictory threads of New Zealand’s strategic culture direct and constrain its defence spending.The Conversation

David Belgrave, Lecturer in Politics and Citizenship, Massey University

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

View from The Hill: Malcolm Turnbull’s home truths on the NEG help Labor in the climate wars


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

An Easter weekend in an election campaign might be a bit of a challenge for a pair of leaders who were atheists. But fortunately for Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten, declared believers, it wasn’t a problem.

Both attended church services during the so-called campaign cease-fire that the main parties had proclaimed for two of the four days.

Morrison on Sunday was pictured in full voice with raised arm at his Horizon Pentacostal church in The Shire, where the media were invited in. On Friday he’d been at a Maronite Catholic service in Sydney.

Sunday morning saw Shorten at an Anglican service in Brisbane, his family including mother-in-law Quentin Bryce, former governor-general.

Neither leader was hiding his light under a bushel.

Church, chocolate and penalty rates

Sunday was an opportunity to wheel out the kids, chasing Easter eggs (Shorten) or on the Rock Star ride at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (Morrison). This was campaigning when you’re not (exactly) campaigning.

The minor players weren’t into the pretend game. For them, the relative restraint on the part of the majors presented rare opportunity. Usually Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick would have little chance of being the feature interview on the ABC’s Insiders.

But while Friday and Sunday were lay days for the major parties Saturday was not (and Monday won’t be either).

For Labor, Easter has meshed nicely with one of the key planks of its wages policy – restoration of penalty rate cuts by the Fair Work Commission. Even on Sunday, Shorten pointedly thanked “everyone who’s working this weekend”.

It was the start of Labor’s campaign focus turning from health to wages this week, when it will cast the election as a “referendum on wages”.

Turnbull resurrects the NEG

The weekend standout, however, was the intervention of Malcolm Turnbull, who launched a series of pointed tweets about the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Turnbull was set off by a reference from journalist David Speers to “Malcolm Turnbull’s NEG”.

“In fact the NEG had the support of the entire Cabinet, including and especially the current PM and Treasurer. It was approved by the Party Room on several occasions”, the former prime minister tweeted.



“It had the support of the business community and energy sector in a way that no previous energy policy had. However a right wing minority in the Party Room refused to accept the majority position and threatened to cross the floor and defeat their own government”.

“That is the only reason it has been abandoned by the Government. The consequence is no integration of energy and climate policy, uncertainty continues to discourage investment with the consequence, as I have often warned, of both higher emissions and higher electricity prices.”

He wasn’t finished.



“And before anyone suggests the previous tweet is some kind of revelation – all of the economic ministers, including myself, @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg spent months arguing for the NEG on the basis that it would reduce electricity prices and enable us to lower our emissions.”

And then:

“I see the @australian has already described the tweets above as attacking the Coalition. That’s rubbish. I am simply stating the truth: the NEG was designed & demonstrated to reduce electricity prices. So dumping it means prices will be higher than if it had been retained. QED”

“The @australian claims I ‘dropped the NEG’. False. When it was clear a number of LNP MPs were going to cross the floor the Cabinet resolved to not present the Bill at that time but maintain the policy as @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg& I confirmed on 20 August.”



(Frydenberg, incidentally, has lost out every which way on the NEG. As energy minister he tried his hardest to get it up, only to see it fall over. Now he is subject to a big campaign against him in Kooyong on climate change, including from high-profile candidates and GetUp.)

Turnbull might justify the intervention as just reminding people of the history. But it is damaging for the government and an Easter gift for Labor – which is under pressure over how much its ambitious emissions reduction policy would cost the economy. It also feeds into Labor’s constant referencing of the coup against Turnbull.

Turnbull’s Easter tweets are a reminder

  • the Coalition sacrificed a coherent policy on energy and climate for a hotchpotch with adverse consequences for prices;

  • it dumped that policy simply because of internal bloodymindedness, and

  • the now-PM and treasurer were backers of the NEG, which had wide support from business.

Shorten has strengthened his commitment on the NEG, indicating on Saturday he’d pursue it in government even without bipartisan support.

“We’ll use some of the Turnbull, Morrison, Frydenberg architecture, and we will work with that structure,” he said.

Given the hole it has left in the government’s energy policy, pressing Morrison on the economic cost of walking away from the NEG is as legitimate as asking Shorten about the economic impact of his policy.




Read more:
VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the starting line of the 2019 election campaign


The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The government’s electricity shortlist rightly features pumped hydro (and wrongly includes coal)


Mark Diesendorf, UNSW

The federal government this week released a shortlist of 12 project proposals for “delivering reliable and affordable power” to be considered for subsidy under its Underwriting New Generation Investments program.

The shortlist features six renewable electricity pumped hydro projects, five gas projects, and one coal upgrade project, supplemented by A$10 million for a two-year feasibility study for electricity generation in Queensland, possibly including a new coal-fired power station.

The study is unnecessary, because the GenCost 2018 study by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator already provides recent cost data for new power generation in Australia. It shows that new wind and solar farms can provide the lowest-cost electricity, even when two to six hours’ worth of storage is added.

Hence there is no economic case for new coal-fired power in Australia. After a century of coal, it should not be subsidised any longer.




Read more:
It’s clear why coal struggles for finance – and the government can’t change that


State of the states

While Queensland and Victoria have state government policies to drive the rapid growth of large-scale solar and wind, New South Wales does not even have a renewable electricity target. Yet the retirement of large, old coal-fired stations is in the pipeline: Liddell, nominally 1,680 megawatts, in 2022 and Vales Point, nominally 1,320MW, possibly in the late 2020s.

Coal baron Trevor St Baker bought Vales Point from the NSW government for the token sum of A$1 million in 2015. He wants to refurbish it and run it until 2049 – and his plan has made it onto the government’s shortlist.

Given that Vales Point is now arguably a A$730 million asset, St Baker has made a huge windfall profit at the expense of NSW taxpayers, and so a government subsidy to upgrade it would be unjust.

With the price of solar and wind electricity still falling, it will soon be cheaper to replace old operating coal stations that have paid off their capital costs with new renewable electricity, including storage.

Unfortunately, the newly elected NSW Liberal-National Coalition government has no policies of substance to fill the gap left by retiring coal stations with large-scale renewable electricity. It will therefore be up to the federal government after the May election to provide reverse auctions with contracts-for-difference, matching the policies of the ACT, Victorian and Queensland governments. Also, increased funding to ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is needed for dispatchable renewables (those that can supply power on demand) and other forms of storage.

Driving the change

The transition to renewable electricity is already well under way, as even the federal energy minister Angus Taylor admits. The low costs of solar and wind power are driving the change. To maintain reliability, dispatchable renewables (as opposed to variable sources such as solar and wind) and other forms of storage are needed in the technology mix.

Batteries excel at responding rapidly to changes in supply and demand, on timescales of tens of milliseconds to a few hours. But they would be very expensive for covering periods of several days, even at half their current price. So there is a temporary role for open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) to meet demand peaks of a few hours, and to fill lows of several days in wind and/or solar supply.

Small-scale pumped hydro, in which excess local renewable electricity does the pumping, has huge potential for storage over periods of several days, but takes longer to plan and build, and has higher capital cost per megawatt, compared with OCGTs.

Small-scale pumped hydro should be the top priority for the federal program. In particular, the off-river proposal by SIMEC Zen Energy, which is part of Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, will use a depleted iron ore pit and provide cheap, reliable, low-emission electricity for both GFG’s steelworks at Whyalla and other industrial and commercial users.




Read more:
Five gifs that explain how pumped hydro actually works


Hydro Tasmania’s proposed “Battery of the Nation” would involve building a new interconnector across the Bass Strait, together with possibly three new pumped hydro plants. It’s very expensive and is already receiving A$57 million in federal funding. Its inclusion in the shortlist is worrying because it could soak up all the program’s unspecified funding for pumped hydro.

Furthermore, the need to greatly increase Tasmania’s wind capacity to deal with droughts appears to be an optional extra, rather than an essential part of the project.

Little information is available for the other shortlisted pumped hydro projects. UPC Renewables is proposing a huge solar farm, together with pumped hydro, in the New England region of NSW. In South Australia, Sunset Power (trading as Delta Electricity, chaired by Trevor St Baker), in association with the Altura Group, is proposing an off-river pumped hydro project near Port Augusta, and Rise Renewables is proposing the Baroota pumped hydro project. BE Power Solutions, which does not have a website, is proposing pumped hydro on the Cressbrook Reservoir at Crows Nest, Queensland.

Pumping for Snowy 2.0 (which is not part of the program) will be done mostly by coal power for many years, until renewables dominate supply in NSW and Victoria. Therefore, I give low priority to this huge and expensive scheme.




Read more:
Snowy hydro scheme will be left high and dry unless we look after the mountains


To sum up, new coal power stations and major upgrades to existing ones are both unnecessary. They are more expensive than wind and solar, even when short-term storage is added – not to mention very polluting.

A few open-cycle gas turbines may be acceptable for temporary peak supply during the transition to 100% renewable electricity. But the priority should be building pumped hydro to back up wind and solar farms. This will keep the grid reliable and stable as we do away with the old and welcome the new.The Conversation

Mark Diesendorf, Honorary Associate Professor, UNSW

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

View from The Hill: Tony Abbott tries some climate adaptation for the winds of Warringah



File 20190308 150683 rfeju5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Tony Abbott is being challenged in Warringah by Zali Steggall, who has climate policy at the centre of her platform.
AAP/Peter Rae

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Tony Abbott pulled the panic lever on Friday, and Malcolm Turnbull pushed the revenge button.

The gainers from these spectacular plays were Zali Steggall, the independent candidate who is trying to oust Abbott in Warringah, and Bill Shorten, who is handed another break in his campaign to defeat the government.

Years ago, in a much earlier round of the climate and emissions wars, Abbott referred to himself as a “weather vane.” That accurate self-assessment invited ridicule, but his latest change of direction is beyond absurd.

For months, Abbott was calling for Australia to exit Paris, like the Americans. It was part of his unremitting campaign against Turnbull, and the then PM’s drive for a national energy guarantee.

But Abbott’s new view is that leaving Paris is unnecessary.“I’m not calling for us to pull out now,” he told a Warringah candidates’ debate on Friday.

“We had an emissions obsession that needed to be broken and it’s now changed”, with a new prime minister and a new energy minister, he said.

“We can meet our Paris targets without substantial policy change and without significant additional costs on the economy.”

Abbott’s beef with the Paris agreement – for which his government set Australia’s targets – was tied to his jihad against his successor.

What’s mostly changed, though, is Abbott’s own circumstances. He faces what’s for him an existential threat – the risk of being driven out of parliamentary life. Steggall has climate change at the centre of her campaign.

But can Abbott really think his local voters are so naïve that they’ll be convinced by such an obviously expedient shift of position? They know him too well for that.

University of Canberra research has shown they are critical of him, especially over his opposition to same-sex marriage and his wrecking behaviour.

Isn’t his risk that they could simply become more cynical, concluding he’s taking them for mugs, and he could worsen rather than improve his position?

And apart from how Warringah will read his latest shift, what about his vocal right-wing supporters? You’d expect they would be shocked by this backflip.

Abbott didn’t do a full conversion, however – he remains a coal advocate, suggesting the Snowy Hydro Corporation could invest in it.

“Coal-fired power remains the cheapest form of baseload power,” he declared.

That was enough to bring in Turnbull, who slapped down his nemesis from afar. Oceans and time zones mean nothing when your anger burns hot and Twitter’s at hand.

“But it isn’t, ” Turnbull tweeted from London in response to Abbott’s
claim about cheapness. “Today the cheapest form of new dispatchable or
base load energy is renewables plus storage.

“We are now able to have lower emissions and lower prices but we need
to plan it using engineering & economics rather than ideology and
innumerate idiocy”.

In another tweet Turnbull continued, “The reason the fossil fuel lobby and their apologists rail against Snowy Hydro 2.0, and have tried to stop it, is because it delivers the massive storage which does make renewables reliable and this enable our progress to lower emissions and lower energy prices”.

Turnbull was already fired up, having in a BBC interview (recorded on Wednesday London time) once again canvassed the circumstances of his political demise in that “peculiarly Australian form of madness” of last August. Unloading on those who’d brought him down, he contended that “you could argue, that their concern was not that I would lose the election but rather that I would win it”.

If it isn’t enough for a government, weeks out from the announcement of the election, to have two former PMs refighting the climate/energy wars, the Nationals are parading their own obsessions and divisions.

A letter this week from half a dozen Queensland Nationals called for the government to underwrite a new power generation project in regional Queensland (they refrained from specifying coal but that’s what they were thinking). They also said the government should put its “big stick” legislation to discipline power companies to a parliamentary vote – despite the fact it would be amended unacceptably
and so get nowhere.

This was followed on Friday by a Courier Mail report that some Nationals, discontented with Michael McCormack’s leadership, were pushing to have him replaced by Barnaby Joyce before the election.

The agitation is driven particularly by the situation in Queensland, where several Nationals’ seats are at risk – notably Capricornia, Flynn and Dawson.

Joyce did nothing to calm things on Friday when he told the Northern Daily Leader he was “not driving the process”, but if a spill were called “of course I would stand”.

McCormack is not cutting through electorally and critics are unhappy he does not stand up enough to the Liberals.

He’s considered certain to lose his leadership post-election, assuming the loss of Nationals seats.

But any attempt at moving him before the election would be madness – and most Nationals do appear to accept that.

Consider how it would look, in budget week (the only time the parliamentary party is scheduled to be in town before the election) if the Nationals were to roll the Deputy Prime Minister, or make a move to do so.

Anyway, Joyce is now a highly controversial figure within and outside the party. He might win some votes in Queensland, but he might well lose some for the government elsewhere.

With a battle for the “women’s vote” so live at this election, and Labor going all out to exploit Coalition weaknesses in this area, it would be lunacy to think of bringing back someone whose exit from the leadership was partly triggered by allegations (denied) of sexual harassment.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Morrison to announce $2 billion over 10 years for climate fund


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison will announce $A2 billion over a decade for a Climate Solutions Fund, as the government seeks to counter criticisms that it is not doing enough towards dealing with climate change.

The money will extend the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), set up under the Abbott government’s “direct action” program, which at present has only $226 million uncommitted in it. More than $2.3 billion has now been committed under the ERF.

The new money – which will be about $200 million annually starting from January 2020 – will be used to partner with farmers, local government and businesses to reduce emissions. The government gives as examples

  • Remote indigenous communities will be assisted to reduce severe bush fires.

  • Small businesses will be supported to replace lighting, air
    conditioning and refrigeration systems to cut energy costs.

  • Farmers will receive assistance with revegetation and drought-proofing.

  • Local communities will receive help to reduce waste and boost recycling.

In a Monday speech, part of which has been released ahead of delivery, Morrison defends the government’s record on climate and attacks Labor’s policy as irresponsible.

The speech will contain further environment announcements beyond the $2 billion.

Climate change was an issue to the forefront in the Wentworth
byelection, the loss of which threw the Coalition into minority
government. It is considered a potent issue in Victoria, where the government has several seats at risk. In the high profile contest in Warringah, NSW, independent Zali Steggall, Tony Abbott’s main opponent, is running hard on it.

There has been debate over whether Australia could on present policies meet its Paris target – that Abbott set – of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030.

Morrison has repeatedly said this will be reached “in a canter”. But the annual UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, released late last year, had Australia among a number of countries that are not on track to reach their 2030 target or have uncertainty based on current projections.

Morrison’s announcement will shore up Australia’s effort.

Moderate Liberals, in particular, have been pressing for more action from the government on the climate front.

In his speech Morrison says: “Our government will take meaningful, practical action on climate change, without damaging our economy or the family budget.

“Our Climate Solutions Package will ensure Australia meets our 2030 emissions reduction target – a responsible and achievable target – building on our success in comprehensively beating our Kyoto commitments”.

He says that Liberals and Nationals “don’t believe we have to choose between our environment and our economy.

“We acknowledge and accept the challenge of addressing climate change, but we do so with cool heads, not just impassioned hearts”.

The government’s 2030 target is the equivalent of cutting per capita emissions by about 50%, one of the largest cut of any G20 country, Morrison says in his speech.

The target is not “a slouch” but nor is it reckless, he says. In
contrast. Labor’s 45% target would require “more than three times the amount of emissions reduction by 2030”.

Modelling by BAEconomics confirmed Labor’s target would put a
“wrecking ball” through the economy, slashing jobs and wages and
increasing wholesale electricity prices, Morrison says.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

A Trump-aligned World Bank may be bad for climate action and trade, but good for Chinese ambitions


File 20190130 108355 11qgq1d.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A World Bank in sync with Donald Trump’s views about climate change and multilateralism would probably help to increase Chin’s role in international development and finance.
Shutterstock

Usman W. Chohan, UNSW

The seat of World Bank president is becoming vacant. Its president, Jim Yong Kim, will step down on January 31, three years earlier than his term formally ends.

His move – described as “sudden” and a “shock,” particularly since the World Bank has been going through significant internal restructuring – gives US president Donald Trump the chance to appoint a replacement more aligned with his outlook.




Read more:
World Bank president: list of reforms African states should be demanding


This is because, since the World Bank’s establishment in 1945, the United States has had outsized influence as its largest shareholder. Its president has always been an American citizen nominated by the US government. Kim was chosen by the Obama administration in 2012.

Rumours circulated early on that Trump was considering his daughter Ivanka for the job. Even though that has since been denied, it’s likely he will choose a candidate sympathetic to his worldview.

This may mean a substantial change in the World Bank’s priorities. In particular, in two areas the bank has played an important and positive role: funding sustainable projects to deal with climate change (“climate resilience”); and encouraging robust international connectivity through trade.

Focus on climate resilience

The World Bank has put substantial emphasis on funding projects in developing countries that address climate change. Last financial year 32% of its financing – a total of US$20.5 billion – was climate-related.

Recently approved World Bank projects included climate resilient transport in the Oceania region (such as in Tonga and Samoa), and solar projects across Sub-Saharan Africa. This is all part of a detailed five-year Climate Change Action Plan underway since 2016.

This concern about the consequences of climate change stands in marked contrast to the Trump administration’s record.

Trump’s disregard of climate science is reflected in the defunding or reorganisation of climate-related research projects and institutions. His appointee to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, played a key role in the US withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and energetically worked to gut pollution protection regulations.

So there’s good reason to believe the Trump administration’s pick for the World Bank will reflect its hostility to climate security, and that the bank’s priority towards funding climate resilience will change as a result.

Antipathy towards multilateralism

The Trump administration has already sought to curb salary growth among World Bank staff. More severely, Trump’s National Security advisor, John Bolton, has argued the World Bank should be privatised or simply shut down.

This is part of a wider “antipathy towards multilateralism” that includes institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.




Read more:
Australia has to prepare for life after the World Trade Organisation


Trump’s belief that free trade has hurt the US is at odds with the World Bank’s long history of facilitating reforms designed to promote international trade.

Part of the original logic for the World Bank was that trade was seen as a means to create interdependence, and thus reduce economic conflict that might lead to war.

The Trump administration has shown it is more than willing to revert to an old-fashioned trade war.

Its tariff contest with China (which joined the WTO in 2001 with the World Bank’s help) is already hurting global manufacturing, with the International Monetary Fund downgrading its global economic growth forecasts as a result.

Though a Trump appointee might not upend the World Bank’s commitment to free trade in principle, the result might be an organisation less active in promoting multilateralism in practice.

Playing to China’s strengths

Ironically a Trump-compliant World Bank might result in promoting its sidelining to the advantage of China.

In its first six decades of existence the World Bank was an immensely powerful international institution. But its relevance to international development and finance is now being overshadowed by alternative funding mechanisms such as private-sector lending and particularly institutions related to Chinese international development initiatives.

China is planning through its Belt and Road Initiative to spend US$1 trillion on international infrastructure projects over the coming decade. Much of these are focused on Eurasian and African regions where the World Bank has struggled most to promote sustainable prosperity.

China has also has built a rival to the World Bank in the form of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), which has a sizeable balance sheet and a proactive approach to funding projects, including those in sustainable development.




Read more:
US sparks new development race with China – but can it win?


But in climate resilience and global economic integration, the World Bank still retains the mantle of global leader. Thus far it has welcomed cooperation with the AIIB, signing a memorandum of understanding in 2017.

Blunt its work in these two areas and the World Bank becomes more irrelevant. Combined with the organisation’s serious governance problems, which are most unlikely to be addressed by a Trump appointee, the future for the World Bank is not bright.The Conversation

Usman W. Chohan, Economist, UNSW

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

Coal does not have an economic future in Australia


Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Australian National University

Renewables are stealing the march over coal in Australia, and the international outlook is for lower coal demand. Today the international Coal Transitions project released its findings, based on global coal scenarios and detailed case studies by teams in China, India, South Africa, Australia, Poland and Germany.

Our research on Australian coal transition – based on contributions by researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne – looks into the prospects for coal use in Australia and for exports, and the experiences with local transition in the case of the Hazelwood power station closure.




Read more:
Hazelwood closure: what it means for electricity prices and blackouts


Coal exports

Coal production in Australia is likely to be on a long term declining trajectory. Almost all coking coal (coal used for making steel) mined in Australia is exported, as is around 70% of steam coal (for electricity generation). Australia supplies about a fifth of the global steam coal trade.

A question mark hangs over the future of steam coal exports. Economic, technological and policy developments in other countries all point to likely falling coal use over time. The international coal transitions synthesis report expects that global coal consumption will go into reverse by the early 2020s.

In most industrialising countries, there are big concerns about local air pollution, and renewable power alternatives are becoming cost-competitive with coal. Add to that the pressure to meet Paris emissions targets.

China and India, on which much of the hopes of Australia’s coal export industry are pinned, mine coal themselves. When overall coal use in these countries falls, imports may be curbed, if only because of pressures to prop up domestic coal mining.

Coal in Australia’s power sector

Most coal used in Australia is for power generation. We are at the start of a fundamental change in the system, where coal power will be replaced by renewables, with energy storage and flexible demand-side response to firm up the system.




Read more:
Want energy storage? Here are 22,000 sites for pumped hydro across Australia


This change now reflects market economics. New wind farms and solar parks can now provide energy at much lower cost than any new fossil fuel powered generators. A new coal fired power plant would need subsidies, take a long time to build, and suffer exposure to future carbon policy.

The competition is now between renewables and existing coal fired power stations. Wind and solar power cost next to nothing to run once built, so they are dispatched first on the grid and tend to bring wholesale market prices down. In turn, the economics of coal power plants deteriorates. They will not be able to sell as much power, and get lower prices on average for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced. New wind and solar is now contracted at prices close to the operating cost of some existing coal plants, and renewables costs are falling further.

Coal plants will be less and less profitable. They will tend to be shut down earlier, typically when major repairs or overhauls are due. Major refurbishments will tend to become unattractive. And the system does not need coal plants to run reliably. A combination of regionally dispersed renewables, pumped hydro and battery storage, gas plants and demand response will do the job.

It is difficult to predict just when coal plants will shut down. The following graphic illustrates the difference between a flat 50-year retirement pattern (as used for example by the Australian Energy Market Operator), with plants retiring at 40 years of age, in line with the average retirement age of plants over the past decade, and two illustrative scenarios that capture the fact that coal plants will come under increasing economic pressure.

In our “moderate” scenario, remaining coal plants retire at 55 years in 2017 and progressively retire younger until they exit at age 30 by 2050. In our “faster” scenario, plants exit at 50 years now, then progressively younger until they exit at age 30 by 2030.

Coal closure scenarios from Coal Transitions Australia report.

Even more rapid closure scenarios are plausible if the cost of renewables and storage continue on their recent trends. We do not present them here, instead opting for relatively conservative assumptions.

The pace of closure makes a big difference to emissions. In the “moderate” scenario, cumulative emissions from coal use are around 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO₂) during 2020-50, and in the “faster” scenario around 1.8 GtCO₂.

As a reference point, a “2 degree compatible” emissions budget for Australia proposed by Australia’s Climate Change Authority has a total national emissions budget of around 5.8 GtCO₂ from 2020-50. Our “moderate” scenario has coal emissions take up around 44% of that cumulative emissions budget, while the “faster” scenario takes up around 32%. By comparison, coal currently makes up around 30% of Australia’s annual net emissions.

It is no longer true that reducing emissions in the electricity sector necessarily means higher prices. These days, and in the future, having policy to guide the replacement of ageing coal capacity with cheap renewables is a win-win for consumers and the environment.

We had better get ready

We better put our efforts in preparing for the transition, rather than trying to stem the tide. That includes a meaningful policy treatment of carbon emissions, and mechanisms to allow more predictable exit pathways. The relatively sudden closures of the Hazelwood power station is an example of how not to manage the transition.

Wholesale prices jumped up because the replacement investment takes time, and governments scrambled to provide support to the local community after the fact.

We can do much better. Australia is well placed for a future built on renewable energy. The change can be painful if it’s not well managed, but the future looks bright.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


The Conversation


Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Research Manager, Crawford School of Public Policy; and Principal at NCEconomics, Australian National University

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