Thursday, February 26, 2009

Polar ice melting faster than expected: report

ABC News Online, Posted Thu Feb 26, 2009 1:38pm AEDT

Icecaps around the North and South poles are melting faster and in a more widespread manner than expected, raising sea levels and fuelling climate change, a major scientific survey has showed.

The International Polar Year survey found that warming in the Antarctic is "much more widespread than was thought", while Arctic sea ice is diminishing and the melting of Greenland's ice cover is accelerating.

The frozen and often inaccessible polar regions have long been regarded as some of the most sensitive barometers of environmental change and global warming because of their influence on the world's oceans and atmosphere.

Preliminary findings from the two-year survey by 10,000 scientists revealed new evidence that the ocean around the Antarctic has warmed more rapidly than the global average, the World Meteorological Organisation and the International Council for Science said in a statement.

Meanwhile, shifts in temperature patterns deep underwater indicated that the continent's land ice sheet is melting faster than reckoned.

"These changes are signs that global warming is affecting the Antarctic in ways not previously suspected," the statement added.

"These assessments continue to be refined, but it now appears that both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass and thus raising sea level, and that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is growing."

Shrinking sea ice was expected around Antarctica, while Arctic sea ice decreased to its lowest level since satellite records began.

During the survey in 2007 and 2008, special expeditions in the Arctic also found an "unprecedented rate" of floating drift ice, providing "compelling evidence of changes" in the region.

But the focus was on the erosion of land-based ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic, which hold the bulk of the world's freshwater reserves and can generate sea level changes of global scale as they melt.


Dire climate fears for US

CLIMATE scientists have produced a blunt assessment of the impact of global warming on the US, warning of droughts that could reduce the south-west to a wasteland and heatwaves that could make life impossible even in northern cities.

In an update on the latest science on climate change, US Congress was told melting snows could lead to severe drought from California to Oklahoma. In the mid-west, diminishing rains and shrinking rivers were lowering water levels in the Great Lakes to the extent where shipping could be affected.

"With severe drought from California to Oklahoma, a broad swath of the south-west is basically robbed of having a sustainable lifestyle," said Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution for Science.He also warned of scorching temperatures in a range of cities.

"We are close to a threshold in a very large number of American cities where uncomfortable heatwaves make cities uninhabitable," Professor Field told the Senate's environment and public works committee on Wednesday.

The warnings were the first time Congress had been directly confronted with the growing evidence that the impact of climate change will be far more severe than revealed even in the United Nations' most recent report, in 2007.

The hearing was also the first time senators had been permitted to hear testimony about the dangers to human health from climate change. In 2007, the Bush administration censored testimony from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on the rise in asthma and other respiratory illnesses, as well as the increasing occurrence of "tropical" parasites.

This week's gathering of climate scientists, led by the head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, was designed to give momentum to efforts by the Democratic leadership to press ahead on energy reform.

"If we don't do it, people are going to die. They are going to get sick and they are going to die," said Senator Barbara Boxer, who as chairwoman of the Senate environment and public works committee is key to securing the passage of climate change legislation.

But even with the new Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress united on the urgency of acting on climate change, there were still signs of battles ahead.

The hearing produced a stream of bickering between Senator Boxer and her Republican counterpart, James Inhofe, renowned as a climate change sceptic. Republicans argued that President Barack Obama's proposed carbon cap legislation would be costly.

"I will certainly oppose raising energy costs on suffering families and workers during an economic crisis when the science says our actions (to combat climate change) will be futile," said Senator Kit Bond.

The White House was expected overnight to unveil a budget that assumes there will be revenue from an emissions trading system by 2012. A source familiar with the document said it would direct $US15 billion ($A23 billion) of that revenue to clean energy, $US60 billion to aid the working poor and further money to help offset higher energy costs for families and small businesses.

Mr Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, has previously estimated revenue from a cap-and-trade bill that died on the Senate floor last year would have generated $US112 billion by 2012. By 2020, he estimated, $50 billion to $300 billion a year might be generated.

Australia fires release huge amount of CO2

Reuters, Thu Feb 26, 2009 2:31pm EST


By David Fogarty, Climate Change Correspondent, Asia

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Bushfires that have scorched Australia's Victoria state released millions of tons of carbon dioxide and forest fires could become a growing source of carbon pollution as the planet warms, a top scientist said on Thursday.

Mark Adams of the University of Sydney said global warming could trigger a vicious cycle in which forests could stop becoming sinks of CO2, further accelerating the rise of the planet-warming gas in the atmosphere.

"With increasing concerns about rising CO2, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall in many of the forested areas, then we could well see much greater emissions from forest fires," Adams, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, told Reuters.

The Victoria fires, which killed more than 200 people, were the worst in the nation's history and many are still burning.

Firefighters battled seven wildfires in the state on Wednesday, hoping to control the flames before expected higher temperatures hit the fire-ravaged state on Friday.

"Scientists worldwide are worried about fires and forests. It doesn't matter if it's the Arctic tundra fires, or peat fires in Kalimantan or bushfires in Australia," said Adams, who has worked in collaboration with the Bushfire Co-operative Research Center.

In a submission to the United Nations last year, the Australian government said wildfires in 2003 released 190 million tons of CO2-equivalent, roughly a third of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions for the year.

Such large, one-off releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane, are not presently accounted for in Australia's annual list of national greenhouse gas emissions.

If they were, the country would vastly exceed its emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations' main weapon to fight climate change.

Which is why Australia is calling for amendments to rules on land use change under the United Nations so that only human activities that "can be practicably influenced" are included.

Adams said U.N. climate talks at the end of the year in Denmark that aim to agree on a successor pact to Kyoto, should discuss the growing threat from forest fires and how to develop better legal frameworks to tackle the problem.


Adams, who has studied how much carbon Australia's forests and soil can store, has estimated that fires in 2003, which ravaged the capital Canberra, and in 2006-07 released about 550 million tons of CO2.

The current fires had already burned hundreds of thousands of hectares, he said, in areas with total carbon content of 200 tons per hectare or more.

Australia, though, was not the only concern.

Annual fires in Indonesia also release vast amounts of CO2.

Huge fires in 1997 released up to 6 billion tons of CO2, covering Southeast Asia in thick haze and causing a spike in global levels of the gas.

Research on the forest and peat fires by a team of international scientists found the blazes released the equivalent of up 40 percent of global annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Adams said the research was a wake-up call.

"When you see the step-increases (of CO2) that they observed, we have to sit up and take notice, that fires are a major problem," said Adams.

He said in the past, native forest carbon had been in rough equilibrium over millions of years with fires, with very small accretion of carbon over very long periods of time.

"But then if you add rapid climate change and much greater fire frequency, the equilibrium carbon content of the native forests, instead of going up, is going to go down."

(Editing by Sugita Katyal)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another report says climate change risk underestimated

ABC News Online, Posted Tue Feb 24

The risk posed to mankind and the environment by even small changes in average global temperatures is much higher than believed even a few years ago, a study said.

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, updated a 2001 assessment by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that looked at temperature changes and the risks they pose.

"We have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago," said Dr Hans-Martin Fussel, one of the authors of the report.

The study found that even small increases to global mean temperatures could produce the kinds of conditions singled out as "reasons for concern" in the 2001 assessment.

Those included risks to threatened systems such as coral reefs or endangered species and extreme weather events like cyclones, heat waves or droughts.

Other "reasons for concern" involved the way the impact of climate change is distributed, the aggregate damage caused and the risk of "large scale discontinuities" such as the de-glaciation of the Greenland ice sheets.

The report says there is "growing evidence that even modest increases in GMT (global mean temperature) above levels circa 1990 could commit the climate system to the risk of very large impacts on multiple century time scales."

It is the third report published in recent weeks carrying grim news about climate change.

On February 15, a report by the Carnegie Institution's Chris Field, a former member of the IPCC, warned that greenhouse gases have accumulated more rapidly in the atmosphere between 2000 and 2007 than anticipated.

Three weeks before that, a study by Susan Solomon - the senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - said changes in surface temperature, rainfall and sea level are "largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after CO2 emissions are completely stopped."


Middle path on emissions is like doing nothing

THE Rudd Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme, better known as the emissions trading scheme, is under attack from all quarters. When opposing interest groups condemn their proposals, Labor governments often believe that they have picked a policy winner, that bipartisan dissatisfaction indicates the path between extremes.

But sometimes the middle path is simply no path at all. Indeed, most environmentalists think that the scheme must not be passed by Parliament in its present form.

The white paper on the scheme clearly outlines the policy design criteria by which the scheme should be judged and, in at least four respects, it fails.

First, the scheme must have environmental integrity. It must support the key objective of the UN Climate Regime, to avert dangerous climate change.

The present scheme fails this most critical test because its targets are so weak. A cap and trade scheme is intended to reduce emissions at a rate that reflects best scientific advice for tackling global warming.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that developed countries as a group need to reduce their emissions by between 25 per cent and 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 to help keep global greenhouse gas concentrations below 450ppm.

Leading climate scientists have recently indicated that the rate of emissions has increased in the past decade and therefore cuts need to be deeper and faster if we are to avert dangerous climate change and spare iconic sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, and Australia's food basket, the Murray-Darling, from permanent devastation.

The scheme proposes a medium range emissions cap target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, or 15 per cent if a "truly global" treaty emerges. It also permits a slight increase in national emissions before a subsequent gradual reduction over its first five years.

Targets set at these lax levels will be very hard to change for the first five years, and probably for the entire period to 2020. Even the 5 per cent target is far from secure.

The scheme allows companies to buy an unlimited number of international carbon permits to offset domestic emissions. Recent Treasury modelling projects that with such access to international permits Australia's domestic emissions wouldn't fall under minus 5 per cent until 2035. All this is wildly at variance with current scientific advice.

Second, the scheme has to be economically efficient. An efficient emissions trading scheme puts a "real" price on carbon — one that factors in the social and ecological impacts of carbon pollution, and drives investor and consumer behaviour accordingly. In the current economic climate, the threat of carbon leakage and job losses has panicked the Government into compensation measures that are economically unjustifiable and seriously weaken the scheme's price signal.

Instead of auctioning all permits, some 25 per cent will be issued free to the coal-fired power sector and to energy intensive trade exposed industries. In all, $7.4 billion worth of free permits given to these sectors and coal-fired power generators over the first two years alone. This will seriously weaken the carbon price. Such assistance is especially problematic as many of these companies have significant untapped capacities to reduce emissions. Without demands for change in performance, these transfers will merely serve as barely hidden subsidies and protectionist measures.

Third, the scheme should promote international objectives. Our aim must be an international climate treaty that minimises the risk of dangerous global warming to Australia. Yet the Rudd Government, with its

5 to 15 per cent target, appears — like the Howard government at Kyoto in 1997 — to be seeking special consideration "in the national interest" and flagging that Australia will lower the bar for all international negotiators at Copenhagen.

If we nevertheless are allotted a much more stringent target in Copenhagen, then the Australian taxpayer would be required to buy international credits to supplement the shortfall, something present deficit estimates do not consider.

Fourth, the scheme must be fair. Here the flaws of the present scheme are subtler. About half of the revenue from the auction of permits — about $6.3 billion — would be spent on compensation and fuel tax adjustment. Rightly, a significant proportion will be used to compensate low-income households against the regressive effects of energy price rises.

But why do we need a fuel tax adjustment of $2.4 billion, especially given the current level of petrol prices? More importantly, why do middle-income households need assistance at all? Again, the carbon price signal is diminished.

Much fairer for present and future generations would be to use this part of the revenue for genuine mitigation and adaptation measures. Yet climate adaptation gets nothing, despite the clear and growing need.

Fairer too, would be to credit the significant efforts of many Australians to reduce their household emissions by progressively reducing the cap. At present, the emissions they save are simply made available elsewhere in the economy.

The scheme in its present form carries a high risk of failing to reduce emissions in the short term, locks us into insufficient targets until 2020, and may help weaken international negotiations. It is far from the measure of decisive leadership we now need and can afford.

Peter Christoff teaches climate policy at the University of Melbourne and is vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Emission trading gets nod over tax

THE Opposition's chief economic adviser on climate change will urge it to introduce a strong carbon price and warn against adopting a carbon tax.

David Pearce, executive director of the Centre for International Economics, will tell Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull that an emissions trading scheme was no more complicated than a carbon tax and should be preferred.

"When you sit down with legislation you still have to deal with a lot of the same issues that come up with a carbon tax," Mr Pearce told The Age.

"You still have to deal with how it intersects with the existing tax system, you still have the trade-exposed issues, you are still going to want transitional assistance — none of that is going away."

The comments came as a senior European environment official backed the Federal Government's plan to introduce an emissions trading scheme as a bold sign of leadership on the eve of crucial negotiations over a new global climate deal.

Matthias Machnig, state secretary for the German environment ministry and the country's chief climate negotiator, said it was vital that nations embraced emissions trading so they could link schemes to reduce the cost of cutting emissions.

Mr Machnig said Australia was sending an important message internationally by introducing emissions trading legislation as the world prepared for a crucial UN climate meeting in Copenhagen at the end of the year. The European Union has had a bumpy start to emissions trading since introducing a scheme in 2005.

"Hopefully it is a very bold and ambitious scheme, but to my mind the most important thing is to say that the Australian Government is going to go for emissions trading because it is a step towards the system that we need — a global carbon market," he told The Age.

If Mr Pearce's recommendations are adopted by the Opposition it will direct them towards developing an emissions trading scheme rather than emphasising solely other programs to achieve emissions cuts, such as biochar and building efficiency.

But signs coming from a Coalition joint party room meeting yesterday indicated unresolved tension surrounding emissions trading policy. Mr Turnbull has instead promised members a chance to speak on the topic once Mr Pearce's report is delivered tomorrow.

Mr Pearce said yesterday he would not reveal the exact details of his report, citing client confidentiality, but he pointed to a recent report he co-wrote with ANU economist Warwick McKibbin as a sign of his thinking.

The report supported a hybrid emissions trading system in which an independent carbon bank capped the price of carbon annually at a low rate but aimed for a strong market-determined carbon price over the long term.

Mr Pearce said he had concerns about the Government's timeline for emissions trading, including its 2010 start date.

The Opposition's position on emissions trading has become crucial for the Government after independent senator Nick Xenophon said he would vote against the Government's scheme even with amendments or other inducements.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The fires of climate change

By Quentin Dempster

ABC News Online, Posted Fri Feb 20, 2009

Firefighters are urging all governments to follow scientific advice by halving Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. (Getty Images: Stephen Henderson/CFA, file photo)

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle" - George Orwell.

Victorian taxpayers are about to fund a full-scale royal commission into the catastrophic bushfires of February 7 in which 208 people - probably more - were burnt to death.

There will be no blame. Everything will be on the table: the adequacy of prescribed preventative burning or hazard reduction; the lethal crime of arson; escape clearways; warning alarm systems; 'go or stay' risk assessment and evacuation procedures; fireproof bunkers; planning regulations; building codes; the adequacy of fire fighting resources; and the usefulness of the forest fire danger index.

Submissions from everyone will be welcomed. Such is the local and national trauma and grief that the inquiry is expected to be therapeutic for those who need and want to tell their stories and those who listen to them.

It may be a year to 18 months before the royal commission completes its work.

It is significant to note that two stakeholder groups have already come to concluded views: the 13,000 professional firefighters of Australia and the Climate Institute, which commissions scientific research in Australia into fires and global atmospheric warming.

Climate Institute CEO John Connor told Stateline NSW (on February 20, 2009) that in his organisation's concluded view: "These are the fires of climate change that we've seen in Victoria and perhaps indeed in Port Lincoln in South Australia in 2005. Climate change is not just about warmer weather. It's about wilder weather. Climate change costs ... climate change kills".

In 2007 the Climate Institute ( commissioned research by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO Marine and Atmosphere Research. The researchers produced a paper, "Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia", which, like actuaries for the insurance industry, projected extreme and catastrophic fire weather risks for the regions of Australia through each increment in global atmospheric warming.

The paper did not then declare Sydney's 'Black Christmas' bushfires in late 2001, the Canberra bushfires in January 2003 or the 2003 and 2007 eastern Victorian bushfire to be directly related to climate change. The language was equivocal: "The recent observed rise in fire danger may be due to a mix of both natural variability and human-induced climate change. The relative importance of these two factors is not known at this time. Observations from the next few years to decades will allow the determination of the role played by each of these factors".

After the deadly Victorian bushfires of February 2009, the Climate Institute is now unequivocal. These were climate change fires. It is expected to make such a definitive submission and ask the royal commission to commission further research. There is much at stake: the lives of Australians living in bush settings; insurance premiums for all Australian property owners; the national economic impact from a massive increase in fire protection costs.

While some politicians have accepted that climate change is behind the exponential increase in extreme fire weather, no government - state, territory of federal - has yet declared the now deadly bushfire phenomenon in Australia to be by scientific definition 'the fires of climate change'.

To make such a declaration, of course, would require a coordinated national, state and territory policy response. The people of Australia would be entitled to ask why they have to wait for the Victorian bushfires royal commission to produce its findings on something that is already staring them in the face. The Canberra bushfires of 2003 and Victoria 2009 were off the scale of the forest fire danger index.

The 13,000 professional firefighters of Australia have collectively determined that climate change is producing the extreme fire weather conditions which have confronted them over recent years. This again is a significant declaration in a body (the United Firefighters Union of Australia) which is known to have its share of climate change sceptics within the membership.

In the open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (dated February 12), national secretary Peter Marshall said:

"Consider the recent devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a 'low global warming scenario' will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every 5-7 years by 2020, and every 3-4 years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days. However, under a 'high global warming scenario', catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect an up to 230 per cent increase in extreme fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for up to a massive 221 per cent increase in extreme fire days by 2050."

The union is calling for a national inquiry into the state of readiness of the country's fire services to confront yet more climate change fires. And it has urged all governments to follow scientific advice by halving Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

When I challenged the union's NSW secretary Simon Flynn on the practicality of Australia acting unilaterally on greenhouse gas emissions, which everyone understood was a global problem requiring a global response, he replied that firefighters on the west coast of the USA and the east coast of Australia had come to realise the enormity of the change in extreme fire weather conditions. After Victoria he now wanted Australia to take the lead in confronting climate change in particular, as well as the resourcing and preventative strategies for Australians living in all areas vulnerable to climate change bushfires.

Should we discount the urgings of the firefighters' union as stereotypical self-interest for more resourcing and membership? As they put their lives on the line for us, perhaps we could cut them some slack on this occasion and give the firefighters the benefit of the doubt about their now collective declaration of a link between climate change and extreme fire weather.

Should we discount the urgings of the Climate Institute, a privately funded NGO? It could be a front for vested interests in the renewable industry. (On its website the Climate Institute declares that it is primarily funded by the philanthropic Poola Foundation, through the estate of the late Tom Kantor, a nephew of Rupert Murdoch). That might be a worry in figuring out agendas and motivations, but the research it commissioned does carry the signatures of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.

It is obviously getting harder to put climate change fires into the too-hard basket.

The Climate Institute's website gives a state by state, region by region break down of FFDI (forest fire danger index) tracking the annual change in fire weather.

"Of most concern to firefighters are days classified as having 'very high' or 'extreme' fire dangers. The number of very high and extreme fire-weather days is projected to increase in all scenarios. For example, in Canberra, if the rate of global warming is low, the number of extreme days increases around 8-10 per cent by 2020, and 17-25 per cent by 2050. If the rate of global warming is high, the number of extreme days rises 25-42 per cent by 2020 and 137-221 per cent (around double to triple) by 2050."

As the politicians, economists, insurance companies and emergency services struggle to come to terms with what this means, Australians residing and working in the bush landscapes have clearly been warned.

Do they abandon their now-dangerous lifestyles, or do they push for policy responses which confront the fires of climate change?

Quentin Dempster presents Stateline NSW on ABC TV

Canberra gives solar cell factory thumbs up

Brendan Nicholson 
The Age, February 9, 2009

AS PRESSURE increases to boost renewable energy sources in the face of global warming, the Federal Government has declared that a company that wants to manufacture solar cells is of "strategic importance" to Australia.

Considerable home-grown expertise on renewables has been lost to Australia in recent years, with local innovators unable to win financial backing.

Now a company called Spark Solar Australia has been awarded "major project facilitation status" by the Federal Government for its planned $60 million high-tech solar cell factory.

Spark Solar's photovoltaic cells convert sunlight to electricity and are being used increasingly to provide safe and low-cost power.

The company is the first to be given such status by the government. Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese said the factory would produce more than 10 million solar cells each year, generating an estimated $135 million in annual export revenue.

No decision has been made on where the factory will be built, but Geelong, Canberra, Queanbeyan, Wollongong and Adelaide are all being considered. The company plans to start building late this year and produce the first cells in late 2010.

There is no funding tied to the major-product status but Mr Albanese said it would help private sector companies get through the approval processes of federal, state and territory governments and to head off problems that might arise.

Spark Solar said 10 million solar cells would produce 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 9000 homes. That could soon expand to 30 million cells producing more than 120 megawatts.

Emissions plan 'an incentive to pollute'

IT IS perhaps the least understood part of carbon trading - that action by households or communities to tackle climate change will not lower Australia's total greenhouse footprint.

Academics and environmentalists this week expressed alarm that under the Government's proposed scheme any voluntary cuts would leave heavy-polluting industries with less to do for the nation to meet its greenhouse target. They say the scheme must be redesigned so the biggest emitters are not let off the hook, and others - individuals, green businesses and local and state governments - do not face a perverse incentive to stop cutting emissions.

Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham called on the Government to find ways to measure voluntary emissions cuts and reduce the greenhouse budget available to big polluters accordingly.

"I don't think people are aware of this, but I think the Government is assuming that the community will continue to do its bit and it won't mind giving the polluters a free ride," he said. "At the moment there is a terrible incentive there to not buy green power and not ride your bike to work, but to actually pollute more - to use more energy or drive your Hummer to work to drive carbon prices up and force polluters to change their behaviour."

Alan Pears, an RMIT adjunct professor and policy adviser to the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association, said under the scheme anyone wanting to back renewable energy projects was better off investing overseas.

"Isn't our objective to mobilise the community and grow the industries that underpin a low-carbon future? And yet this is undermining the community and driving low-carbon industries offshore," he said.

Richard Denniss, executive director of left-leaning think tank the Australia Institute, accused the Government of falsely suggesting individuals could make a difference. He pointed to the Department of Climate Change website, which says: "By doing things smarter and more efficiently within our own homes we can all help to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions."

Dr Denniss said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may have misled Parliament earlier this month by claiming the Government's plan to insulate household roofs could be equivalent to taking a million cars off the road. "He either doesn't understand the system or he is misleading the population," he said.

The attack comes after 10 days of confusion over whether the Government was shifting its climate change policy. Treasurer Wayne Swan announced a surprise lower house committee inquiry into the scheme, but cancelled it when it was interpreted as a sign of cold feet.

Both the Opposition and the Greens have criticised the scheme's design.

A growing number of environmental groups are calling on the Senate to block the scheme in its current form. While some cite failure to directly count voluntary cuts, more oppose what they say are inadequate greenhouse targets - 5 to 15 per cent by 2020 - and $9 billion in compensation for big emitters over the first three years.

Not all environmentalists agree that the lack of recognition of individual action is a problem. Privately, some say it is an intrinsic part of any market-based scheme designed to cut emissions at least cost to the entire community.

A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the Government would help households do their bit through an energy efficiency package that would lower electricity bills and help achieve national greenhouse targets.

AUSTRALIA'S recycling effort is on the brink of a crisis as ripples from the world financial crash start lapping against kerbside rubbish collection around the country.

Prices for used plastic, aluminium cans, cardboard, paper and many scrap metals have plummeted by up to three-quarters since October, meaning that in some regions it is now cheaper to send sorted rubbish straight to landfill rather than to recycling stations, industry sources have told The Age.


Drought and fire here to stay with El Nino's return

VICTORIA is likely to come under the influence of another El Nino within the next three years, exacerbating the drought and the likelihood of bushfires, a senior Bureau of Meteorology climate scientist says.

David Jones, the head of the bureau's National Climate Centre, said there was some risk of a worsening El Nino event this year, but it was more likely to arrive in 2010 or 2011.

"We are in the build-up to the next El Nino and already the drought is as bad as it has ever been — in terms of the drought, this may be as good as things get," Dr Jones said. "And the repeated, severe bushfire seasons we have been seeing are a direct result of this very severe, protracted drought."

While climate scientists warn a single event such as Victoria's deadly bushfires cannot be blamed on climate change alone, Dr Jones said the conditions were "totally typical of climate change at the most pessimistic end of the models".

He said El Nino and La Nina events influenced rainfall but neither was controlling the drought, now entering its 13th year. A recent study co-headed by the CSIRO found the record-breaking dry may also be linked to the Indian Ocean's cycle of warming and cooling.

"In the past, La Nina usually meant wet in Victoria and El Nino meant dry," Dr Jones said. "For the last 13 years, the El Ninos have been associated with what could be best called devastating droughts and the La Ninas have been associated with close to average rainfalls, at best."

Concerns about another El Nino worsening the risk of fire in Victoria come as a growing number of climate scientists add their voices to concerns that global warming is being felt more rapidly and dramatically than expected. Climate experts are planning an emergency summit in Copenhagen next month to put pressure on leaders to act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris Field, co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told a science conference in Chicago at the weekend that tropical forests could dry out and become vulnerable to devastating wildfires as global warming accelerated.

He said soaring greenhouse gas emissions were driven by a surge in coal use in countries such as China and India.

Higher temperatures could see wildfires raging through the tropics and a large-scale melting of the Arctic tundra, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere that would accelerate warming even further, he said.

Dr Field said the IPCC's last report on climate change, in 2007, had substantially underestimated the severity of global warming.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Global warming worse than predicted, top scientist says

Posted Sun Feb 15, 2009 6:02pm AEDT

Professor Field says that a warming planet will dry out forests in tropical areas, making them much more likely to suffer from bushfires. (AAP: Simon Mossman, file photo)

One of the world's leading experts on climate change says a Nobel Prize-winning panel of scientists seriously underestimated the reality of global warming when it published its report just over a year ago.

Professor Chris Field, a leading member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released the report, says he and his fellow researchers did not have access to vital data.

Professor Field says that a warming planet will dry out forests in tropical areas, making them much more likely to suffer from bushfires.

He says recent climate studies suggest global warming could also melt permafrost in the Artic tundra.

These events would release billions of tons of greenhouse gasses that could raise global temperatures even more.

The report did not have data on emissions of carbon dioxide between 2000 and 2007 which show far more rapid rises than had been predicted.

These increases in carbon have been caused principally by the burning of coal for electric power in India and China.

He has told an American science conference in Chicago that global warming is likely to accelerate at a much faster pace and cause more environmental damage than previously predicted.

"Fossil emissions have proceeded much more rapidly than anticipated in any of the scenerios that were characterised in detail," he said.

"The consequence of that is that we are basically entering a domain of climate change that has not been explored by the models.

"We're on a different trajectory of emissions and therefore an unknown trajectory of warming."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Super idea to fund fight against climate crisis

Nicholas Taylor

The Age, February 6, 2009

Responsible investment can help save the world.

AS THE din fades from white to red over Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's spectacularly unimpressive Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, there is hope.

A recent Quarterly Essay piece — "Now or Never" by Tim Flannery — is just about the most moving essay on climate change written. I found only one instance where our views violently differ, captured as Flannery loosely remarks that for the once peaceful and remote indigenes of the tropics, "Both good and bad things come from joining the global community, yet none of this should prevent us from reaching out to our fellow humans and assisting them to ascend the first rung on the ladder to a better life".

Surely entering the capitalist system that has led us into a "climate crisis" would not necessarily result in a "better life" for the indigenous people of the tropics? Regardless, it seems they have no choice.

And yet nothing clouds the essay's punch: Flannery has laid down a polemic with grave implications and challenges for Australia. One politician owes it to all Australians to respond — a federal minister who arguably presides over the most potent portfolio in tackling the climate crisis: Senator Nick Sherry, Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law.

As Flannery outlines, the most obvious solutions presented to Australia need major investment, foresight and innovation. Fortuitously, Flannery et al are well placed to alleviate the present lack of understanding about climate science — as Now or Never demonstrates. The other two rocks in the road are somewhat harder to displace.

The Government's response so far has been "pathetic". Although I contend that the level of neglect is far more systemic than does Flannery: the lack of "political will and leadership" is in fact one of the chief causes of the "limitations of our economic system".

Indeed, the triumvirate of solutions Flannery outlines — deep emissions cuts, prompt exploration of Australia's geothermal energy prospects, and the development and transfer of clean coal technology — need strong government leadership.

Businesses will require investment capital to fund these projects. Australia's opportunity here is unique and promising: at $1.4 trillion, Australia has the fourth-largest investment market in the world — thanks largely to the 9 per cent employee superannuation guarantee. Super funds control about 75 per cent of Australia's investment capital and will do so while this compulsory system remains.

It will therefore be fundamental to any government response to the climate crisis that super funds exert their influence over the investment markets, as well as the economy as a whole, to ensure the sustainability of their investments.

For instance, while corporate environmental reporting is key to any national carbon pollution reduction scheme, the investment markets would heighten any scheme's effectiveness by recognising sustainability drivers in their decision-making, as well as further influencing corporate strategy and competitiveness.

With a firmer understanding of the likely impact of climate change and a price on carbon emissions imminent, issues relating to the environmental and social sustainability of assets are coming into view for institutional investors. Though this is a significant shift — and one that tackles many of the "limitations of our economic system" — it is occurring with little to no help from the Government. For instance, there remains an absence of any explicit reference to environmental or social considerations in investment trust law that governs super funds, and so the courts have repeatedly ruled against trustees who have made decisions based on so-called "non-financial" criteria. The burden of proof has been on demonstrating how these factors may have a material (financial) impact on the value of an investment portfolio.

This legal impediment has arguably stymied progressive funding of environmentally and socially sustainable initiatives. As is the case with most of Australia's government investment funds, it is unclear whether the $64 billion Future Fund will follow international best practice and make any public commitments to consider extra-financial factors such as climate change as relevant to its investments.

Sherry must elevate the rhetoric into a statement that is enshrined in statute. If he doesn't, given Rudd's announced Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Australian economy is unlikely to realise any of the solutions Flannery cautions we must move towards.

Nicholas Taylor formed Outcrop to offer independent advice and research on environmental, social and economic issues. In 2007, Taylor won the inaugural ESG Research award at the Australian Sustainability Awards. Email:

Obama's expert warns of doom

UNLESS there is timely action on climate change, California's agricultural bounty could be reduced to a dust bowl and its cities disappear, President Barack Obama's Energy Secretary has warned.

The apocalyptic scenario sketched out by Steven Chu was the clearest sign to date of the greening of America's political class under the new President.

In blunt language, Dr Chu said Americans had yet to fully understand the urgency of dealing with climate change.

"We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going," he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post.

He said raising public awareness was crucial. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up."

Dr Chu's doomsday descriptions were seen as further evidence that, after eight years of denial under President George Bush, the Obama Administration recognises the severity of climate change.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has blamed climate change for making forest fires a year-round threat in the state.

California's Department of Water Resources said last week the state's snow-pack was at 61 per cent of normal levels. The reduction was especially worrying because of the severely dry spring of 2008, leaving the state with little water in reserve. Two dozen local water agencies have already imposed rationing.

There are heightened concerns about water shortages in the west and upper midwest as well. Earlier this year, the journal Science warned of worldwide crop shortages because of rising temperatures.

Mr Obama ran a presidential campaign pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by the middle of the century. He made his first move to redeem that promise last week when he ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal when Mr Bush was president to allow California and 13 other states to regulate car exhaust emissions.

He also directed the car industry to produce cars that could achieve 35 miles per gallon (14.8 litres per 100 kilometres) by 2020.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Indian Ocean driving Australia's big dry: study

By Science Online's Anna Salleh

ABC News ONline, Posted 5 Feb 2009

Australia's severe drought is being driven by temperature fluctuations in the Indian Ocean, scientists have found.

The findings will help give farmers more reliable long-range weather forecasts, the Australian team, whose research is due to be published in the journal Geophysical Research, said.

"We have found the Indian Ocean plays a profound role in driving [the southern Australian] drought," Dr Caroline Ummenhofer of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales said.

"We really hope this will improve forecasting of rainfall in that area."

Traditionally, scientists have linked drought in Australia with El Nino - a climate pattern resulting from temperature fluctuations in the Pacific Ocean.

The reverse of El Nino, or La Nina, is thought to be responsible for bringing drought-breaking rains to Australia.

But, despite numerous La Nina events over the past 15 years, southern Australia has been virtually starved of rainfall, raising questions over the role of the Pacific Ocean climate pattern.

"El Nino and La Nina cycles cannot explain the cause," Dr Ummenhofer said.

Indian Dipole

Dr Ummenofer and colleagues investigated the role of a climate pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).

In its negative phase, the IOD is characterised by cool water to the west of Australia and warm water to the north, leading to winds that bring warm moist, rain-bearing air to the continent.

In the positive phase, water temperatures are reversed and less moisture travels to Australia.

Looking back over the last 100 years of data, Dr Ummenhofer and colleagues found that all of Australia's long-lasting droughts, including the Federation drought (1885-1902) and the World War II drought (1937-1945), were linked to a low number of negative IOD phases.

They said that the most recent big dry has seen no negative phases at all.


Dr Ummenhofer says for the past 15 years the IOD has been either neutral or positive and in the last few years there were three consecutive positive phases.

"This is something new that in the historical record has never happened before," she said.

She says there are some indications that positive IODs are becoming more frequent, although this needs to be investigated further.

Dr Ummenhofer also says IODs can be predicted 3 to 6 months in advance but it is too early to predict what will happen this year.

Her colleague, Dr Matthew England, says current trends could have serious consequences.

"If these IOD events do follow the trend that we're seeing of more positive events and less negative ones, this is a terrible piece of info for the Murray Darling Basin," he said.

Heatwaves and climate change

The researchers have yet to determine whether the IOD trends are linked to climate change.

But they say the severity of the most recent drought is partly due to higher temperatures.

Dr England says the record-breaking heatwave experienced in recent weeks in south-east Australia is not in itself a sign of climate change, but due to a blocking high pressure system over the Tasman Sea, which is a natural meteorological event.

"But obviously with the planet already about a degree [Celsius] warmer than its background state then any heat wave you get is then going to be that much worse in a warmer world," he said.

Drought's cause found

THE cause of the record-breaking drought in south-eastern Australia has been discovered far off in the Indian Ocean, according to the surprise findings of a study that overturns decades of weather research.

While drought in Australia has traditionally been linked to El Nino events in the Pacific Ocean, researchers from the universities of NSW and Tasmania and the CSIRO have found that it is the Indian Ocean's cycle of warming and cooling that is to blame.

The water cycles of the Indian Ocean, which is experiencing unprecedented warming 2000 kilometres away, dictates the strength of the moisture-bearing winds that travel to Australia.

Caroline Ummenhofer from the University of NSW's Climate Change Research Centre said the winds from the Indian Ocean had been weak since 2006, which had reduced the volume of water they picked up and transported to Australia.

The research explains why a string of La Nina events in the Pacific Ocean, which usually bring rain, have failed to break the drought.

The findings are presented in a paper to be published in the US journal Geophysical Review Letters.

City heatwave sends seasons into a spin

THE leaves may be turning brown and falling, but it's not an early autumn.

Melbourne's trees — along with leafy vegetables such as lettuces, beetroots and even potatoes — have fallen victim to last week's extreme heat.

Also falling are some of the creatures that live in trees, including possums and fruit bats. Animals at the Melbourne Zoo have needed special attention such as sprinklers, and our wine industry, already hit by stalling exports, has had about 20 per cent of its grapes scorched.

Even the sacred Aussie passion for sport is not immune, with Nillumbik Council in Melbourne's north-east shutting down 14 cricket pitches, causing the local cricket association to admit in an emergency meeting last night there would be fewer games this year.

With more extreme heat predicted this weekend, the game that originated on the village greens of England is struggling on the suburban browns of Melbourne.

Even though other councils have not closed grounds, Bruce Dowland from the Southern District and Churches Cricket Association said that on some grounds that had not received a water ration, the game was beginning to resemble beach cricket.

Melbourne's Botanic Gardens have been undertaking a program to save plants and director Richard Barley said they were in reasonable condition, but he is concerned about the long-term prospects for Melbourne's established street trees such as planes and elms. "Dropping their leaves is a normal reaction for trees in these circumstances. They have been hit by the two factors of the extended dry and the extraordinary hot air temperatures of last week.

"If we had cooler, wetter conditions to the end of April it is possible they could grow back some of their foliage, but if these conditions continue over the next two or three years, it will put them under enormous stress and it is likely a lot of them will die."

The City of Port Phillip, where plane trees in some streets have dumped large numbers of leaves, has introduced novel approaches to keeping itself green, including filling wheelie bins with recycled water to drip-irrigate those trees considered most vulnerable. It also has a recycling scheme with a company that pumps waste water from utility pits around Melbourne that is now treated and used to irrigate parkland.

At the City of Melbourne, which prided itself on recycled water irrigation, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has declared precious parkland must be saved and has ordered an increase in both potable and recycled water use to do this.

While horticulturists are concerned that their wilted vegetables will be spurned by supermarkets and consumers, they say they are still nutritious. ■The Adelaide morgue is almost full after a spike in deaths, some linked to the heatwave. The morgue can store 72 bodies but usually holds only about 25. On Tuesday, it had 71. With AAP

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

UK cuts carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5%

By Emily Beament, Press Association 

The Independent, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The UK's carbon dioxide emissions fell by 1.5 per cent in 2007, according to official figures published by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) today.

The final figures for 2007 also revealed that output of all six greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, was down 1.7 per cent on 2006 levels.

The greatest CO2 savings were made by homes, which produced 3.8 million tonnes (4.6 per cent) less carbon dioxide, and businesses, which cut their emissions by 2.4 million tonnes (2.6 per cent).

The energy supply sector also managed to cut its emissions.

But there was an increase in emissions from the transport sector of 1.3 million tonnes and an extra 1.2 million tonnes from industrial processes.

According to the statistics published by Decc, the UK's output of the six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, which sets legally-binding targets for countries to cut their emissions, was down 21.7 per cent in 2007.

This figure is slightly smaller, 18.4 per cent, if it does not include purchasing carbon credits under emissions trading schemes, but still puts the UK well ahead of its target under Kyoto to cut emissions by 12.5 per cent during 2008-2012.

However there are more domestic stringent targets including a goal to cut carbon dioxide output, the gas which makes up the majority of the UK's emissions, by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 - which it has long been expected to be missed.

Emissions of CO2 were 12.8 per cent down on 1990 levels in 2007, or 8.5 per cent without counting carbon trading.

The Climate Change Act has also set legally-binding targets for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and CO2 by at least 26 per cent by 2020.

Responding to today's figures, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said: "It's good to see us making progress towards reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and we are on course to double our Kyoto commitment by 2012.

"But we need to reduce emissions even more quickly and I believe the policies we are putting in place now will set us on that path to meet the challenging targets we set ourselves in the Climate Change Act."

But anti-poverty campaigners World Development Movement (WDM) accused the Government of "creative accounting" with the figures that showed significant cuts on 1990 levels of carbon dioxide because they did not count aviation and included emissions trading.

Benedict Southworth, director of WDM said: "Today's figures have been manipulated to include supposed reductions that have taken place outside the UK, not by the UK.

"The Government must stop cooking the books and cut carbon emissions in the UK, as well as encouraging cuts around the world, if they are not to be known as the biggest 'greenwashers' of all."