Friday, July 31, 2009

A glimpse of the future for Victoria's hilltops

Adam Morton

The Age, August 1, 2009

SOME will tilt at them, but it would seem a pointless exercise: a surge in windmill construction is set to recast the Victorian landscape.

Two needs — offsetting the state's electricity-hungry new desalination plant and meeting an incoming national renewable energy target — are to trigger a huge expansion of wind power across the state.

The desalination plant dreamed up by Steve Bracks, John Brumby and John Thwaites in 2007 will transform not just the Wonthaggi coast, but parts of the Western District, too.

Energy giant AGL estimates it will need to build roughly 180 turbines to offset the power needed to run the plant once it starts operating in 2011. This will be extra power on top of the national target.

It announced that work on a 32-turbine farm at Oakland Hills, near the Grampians, would start in October. This is expected to be followed by a 183-turbine farm at Macarthur, north-east of Portland, with about 300 megawatts capacity.

"For us, it is all about Macarthur," says AGL merchant energy manager Jeff Dimery. "It will be the biggest wind farm in the southern hemisphere when it is constructed, and will more than meet all the energy requirements of the desalination plant." If it does hold this title, it may not be for long. At least two larger wind farms are proposed elsewhere in the country.

The likelihood they will get off the ground will increase dramatically once a renewable energy bill before the Senate is passed.

The Liberal Party supports the central point of the bill, which is to force electricity retailers to buy a fifth of their energy from clean sources by 2020. Energy analysts say unless it is changed the overwhelming majority — more than 90 per cent — of this investment in the short term will be in wind, easily the cheapest form of renewable energy.

Much of this will be in Victoria. The state has eight wind farms with 266 turbines. To date this accounted for less than 2 per cent of Victoria's energy generation.

Compare this with what is proposed: 20 farms with 850 turbines have been approved and are waiting to finalise finance and manufacturing deals so they can be built.

Another 27, with more than 1000 turbines, are at proposal or planning approval stage."If you look at a wind map of Australia, alongside Tasmania and South Australia, Victoria is the most attractive wind-yielding state," Mr Dimery says.

According to Environment Victoria, the proposed wind farms could be enough to replace one of the state's brown coal-fired electricity generators.

Pacific Hydro chief executive Andrew Richards says Victoria initially missed out on renewable projects in part because of a slow planning process, which took twice as long as South Australia and NSW. He says this is changing, but not fast enough. "Other states are more flexible," he says.

On a more positive note, he says Victoria was the first state to introduce its own renewable energy target.The impact of this was dulled by uncertainty over the delayed national target.

Wind power has faced criticism it cannot be relied on for baseload power.

The Energy Supply Association of Australia says the efficiency rating of Victoria's wind power plants last year was about 30 per cent because of fluctuations in wind strength.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heat on Australia-Pacific climate change talks

By Shane McLeod for TWT

ABC News Online, 31 July 2009

Australia's commitment to an emissions target is important to international negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen climate talks, says the head of the United Nations (UN) climate agency.

The UN's Yvo de Boer, on his way to Australia to meet Pacific leaders at their annual forum meeting in Cairns next week, says it would benefit Pacific countries to work with Australia in negotiating a global climate deal.

"The Pacific Island countries are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change - most likely to be impacted by sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and changes to their climate as a result of global warming," he said.

"I think it's in the direct geopolitical interests of Australia to ensure that we craft a response to climate change that addresses the concerns of your Pacific Island partners."

But environmentalists say Australia and New Zealand are a long way from matching what the Pacific nations want in terms of carbon emission reductions and money to help them develop without relying on fossil fuels.

Greenpeace climate campaigner Trish Harrup says the Pacific Island countries are clear about what they want.

"The survival of small island states to be set as a benchmark for a global agreement and that rich countries cut their emissions by 40 per cent," she said.

"That the rich countries put billions of dollars on the table to help with the adaptation, and share their intimate tool property and technology knowledge so that countries in the Pacific can develop cleanly."

None of those positions, as yet, are supported by Australia or New Zealand.

The joint statement that emerges from the Pacific leaders meeting will be the result of intense negotiations between the diplomats.

On an international scale, Mr De Boer says he is confident that the Copenhagen summit will yield a substantial deal, but says developed nations need to show how they are going to pay for it.

His hopes for Copenhagen outcomes are specific.

"We need ambitious emission reduction targets from industrialised countries, showing that they're willing to lead the way," he said.

"Secondly, we cannot have a meaningful response to climate change without also the engagement of major developing countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

"My third benchmark is significant international financial support that will allow developing countries, both with investments to limit the growth of their emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change."

But Mr De Boer says he wants to make sure Pacific nations' voices are heard in the global debate, and Australia's role as a big coal exporter should not stop it from negotiating the global climate agreement with Pacific nations.

"Oil is running out I think in the next 30 to 50 years perhaps," he said.

"We have enough coal on our planet to keep burning it for the next 600 to 800 years so clearly coal is going to be an essential part of the energy mix going into the future.

"But we can only have it be an important part of the energy mix if we can use it much more cleanly than we are doing at the moment and that implies clean coal technology, carbon capture and storage and technologies like that."

Alps face snow loss threat: research

ABC News Online, Thu Jul 30

A researcher is predicting a 96 per cent decrease in the amount of snow in Victoria's alpine areas, in 60 years.

Associate Professor Catherine Pickering says the alpine region is one of Australia's areas most threatened by climate change.

She says reliance on snow-making is not financially or economically sustainable.

"We've predicted by 2070 to lose something like 96 per cent of the snow cover of the Australian Alps, so it's going to be much sooner than we think," she said.

"Unfortunately because our current emissions and our current rises in temperatures are at the high end of the predictions, it's definitely coming to us sooner and faster.

"By 2020, we've found that the amount of water that the ski resorts are going to need to make snow, just to match current conditions, is going to exceed the amount of water that's used by Canberra."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Human activity is driving Earth's 'sixth great extinction event'

Population growth, pollution and invasive species are having a disastrous effect on species in the southern hemisphere, a major review by conservationists warn

Earth is experiencing its "sixth great extinction event" with disease and human activity taking a devastating toll on vulnerable species, according to a major review by conservationists.

Much of the southern hemisphere is suffering particularly badly, and Australia, New Zealand and neighbouring Pacific islands may become the extinction hot spots of the world, the report warns.

Ecosystems in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia need urgent and effective conservation policies, or the region's already poor record on extinctions will worsen significantly.

Researchers trawled 24,000 published reports to compile information on the native flora and fauna of Australasia and the Pacific islands, which have six of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Their report identifies six causes driving species to extinction, almost all linked in some way to human activity.

"Our region has the notorious distinction of having possibly the worst extinction record on Earth," said Richard Kingsford, an environmental scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and lead author of the report. "We have an amazing natural environment, but so much of it is being destroyed before our eyes. Species are being threatened by habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and wildlife disease."

The review, published in the journal Conservation Biology, highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat. In Australia, agriculture has altered or destroyed half of all woodland and forests. Around 70% of the remaining forest has been damaged by logging. Loss of habitats is behind 80% of threatened species, the report claims.

Invasive animals and plants have devastated native species on many Pacific islands. The Guam Micronesian kingfisher is thought to be extinct in the wild following the introduction of the brown tree snake. The impact of invasive species is often compounded by pollution and burgeoning human populations on the islands, which have outstripped their capacity to deal with waste. Plastics and fishing gear are an ongoing danger.

The impact of humans on wildlife is likely to increase in Australasia and the Pacific islands. By 2050, the population of Australia is expected to have risen by 35%, and New Zealand by 25%, while Papua New Guinea faces a 76% increase and New Caledonia 49%.

More than 2,500 invasive plant species have colonised Australia and New Zealand, competing for sunlight and nutrients. Many have been introduced by governments, horticulturists and hunters. In addition, the report says, average temperatures in Australia have increased, in line with climate change predictions, forcing some species towards Antarctica and others to higher, cooler ground.

The report highlights several studies that point to serious threats from diseases such as avian malaria and the chytrid fungus, linked to declines in frog populations. An infectious facial cancer is spreading rapidly among Tasmanian devils and populations of the world's largest marsupial predator are believed to have fallen by more than 60% as a result.

Plants have also fared badly: a root fungus deliberately introduced into Australia has destroyed several species.

The report sets out a raft of recommendations to slow the decline by introducing laws to limit land clearing, logging and mining; restricting deliberate introduction of invasive species; reducing carbon emissions and pollution; and limiting fisheries. It raises particular concerns about bottom trawling, and the use of cyanide and dynamite, and calls for early-warning systems to pick up diseases in the wild.

"The burden on the environment is going to get worse unless we are a lot smarter about reducing our footprint," said Kingsford. "Unless we get this right, future generations will surely be paying more in quality of life and the environment. And our region will continue its terrible reputation of leading the world in the extinction of plants and animals."

Dead and buried

Cretaceous-Tertiary 65m years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out in a mass extinction that killed nearly a fifth of land vertebrate families, 16% of marine families and nearly half of all marine animals. Thought to have been caused by asteroid impact that created Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan.

End of Triassic About 200m years ago, lava floods erupting from the central Atlantic are thought to have created lethal global warming, killing off more than a fifth of all marine families and half of marine genera.

Permian-Triassic The worst mass extinction took place 250m years ago, killing 95% of all species. Experts disagree on the cause.

Late Devonian About 360m years ago, a fifth of marine families were wiped out, alongside more than half of all marine genera. Cause unknown.

Ordovician-Silurian About 440m years ago, a quarter of all marine families were wiped out by fluctuating sea levels as glaciers formed and melted. again.

Coal exemption would cost $10 billion

Phillip Coorey, Chief Political Correspondent

Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2009

EXEMPTING the coal industry from the emissions trading scheme would cost the scheme $10 billion in revenue over 10 years and force the Federal Government to either cut compensation to households and other sectors or take money from the budget, Government experts say.

Senior departmental officials are urging the Government to stand firm as the coal industry and the Opposition increase demands for more money, free permits or exemption for coal.

The officials are also disputing claims by the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, and the coal sector that the scheme being developed in the US will treat polluting industries more favourably than the Australian scheme.

Today the coal sector is running more newspaper advertisements warning of job losses in NSW and Queensland. Yesterday Mr Turnbull used a business speech in Sydney to call again for the legislation to be delayed until early next year – after the international climate conference in Copenhagen and by which time the shape of the US scheme should be clearer.

But Mr Turnbull conceded that because the Government was determined to press ahead, it was likely the Coalition would come to a deal before the end of the year, thus avoiding a trigger for a double dissolution.

''We believe the scheme would be best legislated … or finalised after Copenhagen, but we will participate constructively in the debate about the design of the scheme in the course of this year.''

The comment brought Mr Turnbull another broadside from the renegade Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey, who sent his Coalition colleagues another email yesterday, blaming a drop in the polls on the attempts by Mr Turnbull and the Coalition to deal on the scheme this year.

''For those who wish to blame party division for their polling demise, just remember who broke ranks,'' Mr Tuckey wrote.

''Is it just possible we could get on a winner and criticise the ETS as the wrong solution to climate change?''

Last week, after an internal party brawl about when or if the Coalition should try to amend the bill, Mr Turnbull tried to unite the party behind a new position consisting of nine changes the Coalition would demand.

One of these involved exemptions for coal.

Under the proposed scheme, the coal industry is not counted as a heavy polluter or entitled to free permits. Most coalmines are low-emitting, open-cut projects that would have to pay for permits, and officials say this would add between $1.50 and $2.50 to the price of each tonne of coal.

The worst affected are 23 gassy, methane-emitting mines in NSW and Queensland. They pollute so much that the cost of permits would increase the price per tonne of coal from these mines by $20 to $25. Rather than giving them free permits and allowing them to go on polluting, the Government wants to give them $750 million to implement measures to reduce emissions.

Government officials argue this would lower the mines' emissions liability on a permanent basis, whereas exempting the coal sector, or giving it free permits, would cost $10 billion over a decade in lost revenue.

Coal industry urges fair emissions scheme

By Paul Robinson

ABC News Online, Tue Jul 28, 2009

The coal industry has taken out full page newspaper advertisements today calling for fair and consistent treatment in the development of an emissions trading scheme.

The Australian Coal Association says the Government's new Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute shows Australia is a world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal.

The association says the industry has committed more than $1 billion of its own money developing carbon storage projects in three states.

But the advertisement says an emissions trading scheme needs to take into account the actions of other countries so that jobs are not transferred offshore.

The Coal Association's executive director Ralph Hillman says coal companies will have to buy emissions licences, something that will not apply to other coal exporting countries, while other Australian industries will get concessions.

"60 per-cent of your permits would be handed to you by the government and liquefied natural gas is going to benefit from that, aluminium and cement, chemicals, but coal, even though it qualified easily under the government's own tests and criteria was excluded for political reasons," he said.

"The important thing is just not to move jobs offshore such as coal jobs to our competitor countries who are not going to impose these restrictions so you will lose good jobs in Central Queensland.

"There'll be more jobs in Indonesia or South Africa or Colombia who are our competitors, but they will just produce the coal and emit the gas anyway so the global will be no better off."

75 million to flee climate change: report

By Linda Mottram for Radio Australia

ABC News Online, Mon Jul 27, 2009

The report can be downloaded here -

A new report says climate change could produce 75 million refugees in the Asia Pacific region in the next 40 years.

It urges Australia to put new immigration measures in place to help with people movements, and to cut deeply into its own climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

The report, by aid agency Oxfam Australia and think-tank the Australia Institute, says the effects of climate change are already being felt in the region.

It says addressing the immigration question is vital, as is giving more financial assistance to the region targeted specifically at measures to help communities adapt.

The release of the report is timed to add to pressure on Australia over the issue when it chairs the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meeting in the Queensland city of Cairns next week.

Climate change is expected to be a major issue for the regional leaders.

The Australia Institute's executive director, Richard Denniss, says the Rudd Government has failed to live up to promises it made to the Pacific before its election, going silent in particular on immigration.

"Some areas, some low-lying atolls, are already becoming impossible to inhabit and we do need to assist these people. We need to be talking to their governments about how we can help them move within their countries," Dr Denniss told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program.

"But in time, we do need to discuss the very real possibility of some of these people having to move."

Oxfam Australia's executive director, Andrew Hewett, says the impact of climate change is already being seen in the Pacific.

"They're facing increasing food and water shortages, they're losing land, they're being forced from their homes, they're dealing with rising cases of malaria and they're facing much more intense weather patterns," Mr Hewett said.

He says Australia should be helping to build on work already being done by Pacific countries.

Australia has allocated $150 million to help with climate change in the Pacific.

The government says it is conducting research and already helping with local initiatives, such as building water tanks in Tuvalu.

The groups say at least double that amount will be required from Australia and they say tighter controls are needed to make sure the money is spent on adaptation-specific measures.

The groups also say that as the region's richest country and one of the world's biggest polluters, Australia has a responsibility to make deep cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions.

"Prevention is better than cure on this and step one is to demand tougher targets of ourselves and of other developed countries," Dr Denniss says.

The report has also called for a fixed percentage of Australia's planned carbon trading scheme to be allocated to the Pacific for climate change and for the Rudd government to fulfil an election promise to set up a Pacific Climate Change Alliance to strengthen the Pacific voice in international climate change talks.

US Copenhagen optimism

Anne Davies, Washington

The Age, July 29, 2009

CHIEF US climate negotiator Todd Stern has given his most bullish prediction yet of a successful outcome in Copenhagen, saying that China is equally keen to achieve a new climate treaty.

Speaking after the first day of a US-China economic and strategic dialogue, Mr Stern said: ''The issue has risen to the top of the US national security set of priorities.

''With respect to prospects, you know, we're slogging ahead. I think that we will get there. I think we will end up with an agreement.''

Mr Stern cautioned that the perspectives of the major developing countries such as China and India were still quite different.

''But I do think that we will get there, and I think that there is a lot of interest on the Chinese side to arrive at a constructive and successful outcome in Copenhagen,'' he said.

The US-China dialogue has provided an unusual chance for a large number of Chinese ministers and senior US officials, including cabinet secretaries, to hear directly from each other on climate change.

As a measure of how seriously China is taking the negotiations, Wang Qishan, the country's Vice-Premier in charge of economic and financial affairs, chaired the plenary session on climate change.

US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a noted scientist, provided an update on the scientific evidence of global warming, while Xie Zhenhua, China's environmental protection secretary-general, outlined the steps that China is taking to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

As to the likely agreement, Mr Stern said that the ''critical element'' would be different targets for the developed and developing countries.

''In the case of developed countries, that's a reduction against ... the baseline. And in the case of developing countries, that's a ... substantial reduction, but against a business-as-usual path, rather than something absolute,'' he said.

Mr Stern said the agreement would include measures to achieve longer-term, low-carbon paths, including a financing package to provide help to developing countries.

The different targets for developed and developing nations and talk of a financing package will be controversial with the US Congress and trade unions, which have expressed concern about the impact on US manufacturing if China and India are treated differently.

US President Barack Obama appeared to rule out tariffs proposed in the House of Representatives version of the climate change legislation passed last month.

Monday, July 27, 2009

World will warm faster than predicted in next five years, study warns

New estimate based on the forthcoming upturn in solar activity and El Niño southern oscillation cycles is expected to silence global warming sceptics

The world faces a new period of record-breaking temperatures as the sun's activity increases, leading the planet to heat up significantly faster than scientists had predicted over the next five years, according to a new study.

The hottest year on record was 1998, and the relatively cool years since have led to some global-warming sceptics claiming that temperatures have levelled off or started to decline. However, the new research firmly rejects that argument.

The work is the first to assess the combined impact on global temperature of four factors: human influences such as CO2 and aerosol emissions; heating from the sun; volcanic activity; and the El Niño southern oscillation, the phenomenon by which the Pacific Ocean flips between warmer and cooler states every few years.

It shows that the relative stability in global temperatures observed in the last seven years is explained primarily by the decline in incoming sunlight associated with the downward phase of the 11-year solar cycle, together with a lack of strong El Niño events. These trends have masked the warming caused by CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

As solar activity picks up again in the coming years, the new research suggests, temperatures will shoot up at 150% of the rate predicted by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The research, to be published in a forthcoming edition of Geophysical Research Letters, was carried out by Judith Lean of the US Naval Research Laboratory and David Rind of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Lean said: "Our paper shows that the absence of warming observed in the last decade is no evidence that the climate isn't responding to man-made greenhouse gases. On the contrary, the study again confirms that we're seeing a long-term warming trend driven by human activity, with natural factors affecting the precise shape of that temperature rise."

Lean and Rind's research also sheds light on the extreme average temperature observed in 1998. The new paper confirms that the temperature spike of that year was caused primarily by a very strong El Niño episode. A similar episode occurring in the future could be expected to create a spike of equivalent magnitude on top of an even higher baseline, thus shattering the 1998 record.

Furthermore, the study comes within days of announcements from climatologists that the world is entering a new El Niño warm spell. This development suggests that temperature rises in the next year could be even more marked than Lean and Rind's paper suggests. A particularly hot autumn and winter could add to the pressure on policy-makers to reach a meaningful deal at December's climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen.

Bob Henson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado said: "If El Niño continues to develop, it's quite possible that the Copenhagen meeting will take place during one of the warmest Decembers in the global record."

He added that the paper was a reminder that temperature patterns observed over periods of just a few years can be misleading when it comes to the bigger picture: "To claim that global temperatures have cooled since 1998 and therefore that man-made climate change isn't happening is a bit like saying spring has gone away when you have a mild week after a scorching Easter."

Temperature highs and lows


Hottest year of the millennium

Caused by a major El Niño event. The climate phenomenon results from warming of the tropical Pacific and causes heatwaves, droughts and flooding around the world. The 1998 event caused 16% of the world's coral reefs to die.


Most sunspots in a year since 1778

The sun's activity waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle. The late 1950s saw a peak in activity and were relatively warm years for the period.


Coldest year of the millennium

Ash from the huge eruption the previous year of a Peruvian volcano called Huaynaputina blocked out the sun. The volcanic winter caused Russia's worst famine, with a third of the population dying, and disrupted agriculture from China to France.

Pacific Islanders cry for help

Brendan Nicholson, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Sydney Morning Herald, July 27, 2009

REGIONAL leaders are preparing to bombard the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, with dire warnings about global warming and pleas for help at next week's summit of the Pacific Island Forum.

They will make clear their concern that they are already feeling the first devastating impact of rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms while Australia and other developed nations remain embroiled in debate about possible solutions.

The leaders say Pacific Islanders are already suffering and they need the help now that the Labor Party promised when in opposition.

In a report to be released today, Oxfam Australia says people are being forced to leave their homes and it is likely that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will have to relocate by 2050.

Oxfam's executive director, Andrew Hewett, said yesterday Fijians were testing salt-resistant varieties of staple foods, planting mangroves and native grasses to halt coastal erosion in order to protect wells from salt water intrusion, and moving homes and community buildings away from vulnerable coastlines.

In the Solomon Islands officials were looking for land to resettle people from low-lying outer atolls, and those living in the outer atolls of the Federated States of Micronesia were facing food and water shortages and moving to higher ground.

"People are facing increasing food and water shortages, losing land and being forced from their homes, dealing with rising cases of malaria and coping with more frequent flooding and storm surges," Mr Hewett said.

He said not all of those living on inundated islands would be able to relocate within their own countries so it was vital that Australia start working with Pacific governments to plan for that now.

"It would be in Australia's interests to act now because, as the situation worsened, it would be called on to respond to more emergencies in the region.

Mr Hewett said that, as the wealthiest country in the region and the highest per capita polluter, Australia must prevent further climate damage to the Pacific by urgently adopting higher targets - reducing emissions by at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 - and urging other developed countries to do the same.

The Government's commitment of $150 million to help Pacific Islanders adapt to climate change had to be at least doubled to meet their most urgent needs.

The Australia Institute says in a separate report that Labor made strong commitments while it was in opposition and symbolic steps early in its term in government, but there has been a disappointing lack of meaningful help to the Pacific since then.

The forum's meeting in Cairns would put the spotlight on Australia's failure to deliver, the report's author, Louise Collett, said.

Mr Rudd must fulfil Labor's election promise to establish a "Pacific Climate Change Alliance", allocate money from the carbon emissions scheme to aid for the Pacific, and allow islanders at risk of displacement to come to Australia, Ms Collett said.

We are stewing in our own oven


Sydney Morning Herald, July 27, 2009

You, reader, live in a primitive city. In a hundred years from now, the society we are building will look back and marvel at how little we really understood about the world we have constructed for ourselves.

We are stewing in our own juices.

Last Wednesday, a night of driving rain, I attended a seminar where more than 100 professionals, a standing room-only crowd, had gathered to learn about practical, cheap, achievable ways of stopping Sydney's pot from simmering. These were not wide-eyed utopians. In purely parochial terms, the heating of our biggest cities is even bigger than the global warming debate. Because the rise in temperature is mostly and demonstrably caused by outdated thinking.

The story starts on Observatory Hill, at the southern end of the Harbour Bridge, where weather records have been kept daily since 1860. What the observatory has recorded is a rise in the average temperature at the centre of Sydney from 20.5 degrees to 22 degrees. As Sydney grows, Sydney slowly heats.

At last Wednesday's seminar we learnt why - 27 per cent of the surface of the metropolitan area is covered by bitumen, the black tar which soaks and retains heat and thus changes the city's climate.

Nearly all the rainwater run-off on this 27 per cent of the city is lost to productive use, flowing into Sydney Harbour because it is designed that way. The city's rooftops also gather heat. Roads and pavements maximise the waste of arable land. Tree-planting is stunted for legal reasons. Topsoil is "scalped" by roadworks. The increasing use of air-conditioners is creating more energy. More heat begets more heat.

It is not just a Sydney story. The most telling detail lost amid all that was written and broadcast about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, which killed 173 people, was that more people died from heat stress in Melbourne than in the fires. During the oven-like temperature peak (three consecutive days above 43 degrees) Melbourne saw a spike of 1400 emergencies requiring an ambulance.

An extra 374 people died in Victoria that week compared to the average week. Most were heat stress related.

"To break this heating cycle we don't need more money, we need more intelligent use of what we already have," says the person who organised Wednesday's seminar, Michael Mobbs, the creator of Sydney's most famous experiment in sustainable housing. He was stunned by the size and quality of the turnout. The room was full of planners from councils across Sydney. He was especially pleased that the gathering was addressed by Arjan Rensen, a senior executive from ARRB, the company which writes the specification guidelines for all the road agencies in Australia.

"It was hugely symbolic having him there, willing to be associated with what we're trying to do," Mobbs told me. "It means the road authorities are at last starting to deal with the impact their roads are having on our cities."

The roads are Mobbs's starting point for reform, because they take up so much room and are so taken for granted. "We should just use existing bitumen and gravel but choose pale gravel, and mix it so that the gravel shows through the bitumen," Mobbs says. "We could also use dyes like those used in bus lanes, but paler than green or red. These were first used in the Harbour Tunnel, which was privately owned, because the owners wanted to cut the cost of their electricity bill. On streets with low traffic volume, these dyed surfaces will last 15 to 20 years."

Then there is the overlooked space, the humble pavements. They should be planted and widened where possible because of the cooling powers of plants and trees. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens should also be grown in public space such as roadsides. The practice is common in Germany.

Planners have started listening to Mobbs because, having transformed his own home into a dwelling with self-contained power, water and sewerage systems, he is busy converting his street, Myrtle Street, Chippendale, into the sort of micro-environment that, if replicated across the city, would cool it, slash energy consumption, and massively increase carbon sequestration.

In the block where Mobbs lives, much of the pavement is covered in mulch and supports a variety of plants, including fruit trees. The fruit is available to anyone. Large public compost bins store debris, each collecting three tonnes of food waste a year to create one tonne of compost. Pipes have been manipulated to retain rainwater run-off.

All this is so simple yet so innovative. Councils and planners have been trying to do their best with what they have inside a system they have inherited. What has been lacking is a sense of the whole, of the potential for policy symbiosis, a greater realisation of what Sydney looks like on Google Earth rather than on planners' maps. Google Earth shows a city that acts as a heat trap and an energy sink, especially in the sprawling, spreading western suburbs, away from the cooling salvation of the coast.

But when I asked Mobbs if he had received council approval for his innovations on public space on Myrtle Street he replies, "not quite".

The local authority, Sydney City Council, has an ambivalent attitude. It is on his side but it is also a bureaucracy operating under the morass of laws and regulations that sits like an oppressive weight on innovation in society. Says Mobbs: "It's all been done with the delicious sense of doing something without approval."

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Study backs UN panel on ocean rise

Sydney Morning Herald. July 27, 2009 

The UN's climate panel has been backed over a key question as to how far global warming will drive up sea levels this century.

The UN experts are right that the oceans are unlikely to rise by an order of metres by 2100, as some scientists have feared, the study published on Sunday says.

But, its authors caution, low-lying countries and delta areas could still face potentially catastrophic flooding if the upper range of the new estimate proves right.

In a landmark report in 2007, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted oceans would rise by 18-59 centimetres by 2100.

The increase would depend on warming, estimated at between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius this century, which in turn depends on how much man-made greenhouse gas is poured into the atmosphere.

It based the calculation on thermal expansion of the seas - when a liquid is warmed, it grows in volume.

Harder to calculate, the IPCC admitted, was how far meltwater from glaciers and icesheets on land would boost sea levels.

It ventured a provisional calculation, suggesting contributions from those sources could push the upper limit to 76 centimetres.

The new paper, led by Mark Siddall of Britain's University of Bristol, used data from fossilised coral and from ice-core measurements to reconstruct sea-level fluctuations over the past 22,000 years, from the height of the last Ice Age to the balmy era of today.

This century, they calculate, the seas will rise by between seven and 82 centimetres, all sources included, on the basis of a 1.1-6.4 degree warming - an estimated increase that is in the same ballpark as the IPCC's.

The study appeared in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday.

"Given that the two approaches are entirely independent of each other, this result strengthens the confidence with which one may interpret the IPCC results," said Siddall.

But, he said, no one should be fooled into thinking the flooding threat was over.

"The fact that this number is smaller than other numbers does not mean that this is not potentially a massive and very important sea level rise," Siddall said.

"Fifty centimetres of rise would be very, very dangerous for Bangladesh, it would be very dangerous for all low-lying areas. And not only that, the 50 centimetres is the global mean. Locally, it could be as high as a metre, perhaps even higher, because water is pushed into different places by the effect of gravity."

He added: "Extreme flood effects will definitely become more frequent. If you rise by 50 centimetres, floods that once happened every 100 years then become once a decade."

Siddall also pointed out that sea levels would inevitably rise even higher after the 21st century because of inertial effect.

It takes decades for atmospheric warming to translate into a warming of the seas because of the vast volume of the ocean, he said.

Thus the 22nd century and beyond will feel the impacts of the warming of the 21st century.

The IPCC's estimates on sea levels have been repeatedly challenged since the Fourth Assessment Report was published in 2007.

Several studies have suggested that runoff from the Greenland and Antarctic icesheets - which hold the world's biggest stores of freshwater - will be much higher than the panel suspected.

One paper, published in April by Paul Blanchon, a geoscientist at Mexico's National University, said that, in the distant past, the seas suddenly rose by 3 metres within a very short time.

There was "a distinct possibility" that a step change of this kind could happen within the next 100 years, said Blanchon.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wong turns up heat on Coalition

By Chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis for AM

ABC News Online, 27 July 2009

The Federal Opposition may have blinked in the stand-off over emissions trading but the Government is not yet ready to cut it any slack.

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong says the Government is not prepared to delay a vote on the issue after the Coalition outlined its nine principles for negotiating over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has promised to bring his party with him if the Government is willing to make the changes to the legislation.

But details about the amendments have not been provided, and with the first vote on the scheme expected in mid-August, time is running out.

"The Government has always been prepared to negotiate with the Opposition to pass this legislation through the Senate," Senator Wong said.

"But for us to do that, Mr Turnbull has to get a position that is supported by his party room and he has to put forward what he says the Opposition would need in terms of changes to the bill to pass the legislation.

"He simply hasn't done that."

Senator Wong says the Opposition should not be given more time to clarify its position given the bill was scheduled to be debated and voted on last month.

"It was delayed as a result, primarily, of the Opposition's delaying tactics in the Senate," she said.

"This is legislation has been out and public since March. It is based on policy that was announced in detail by the Prime Minister in December.

"So if Mr Turnbull has failed to get his house in order in this timeframe, he really only has himself to blame."

The minister gave no indication the Government would relent despite the first signs of the Coalition willing to negotiate, giving it a real chance of passing the bill before climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

"We have seen a range of positions being put forward by Mr Turnbull and his frontbenchers," she said.

"We are willing to have a discussion with Mr Turnbull when he gets clarity around what his position actually is.

"He really needs to get the support of his party room, and then the Government is willing to have a discussion with him and consider amendments he is going to put forward.

"We have always said that is the case."

The Government's stance can be seen as taking the first step on the road to a double dissolution trigger over the bill, pressuring the Coalition to come to the table.

"The Government has been clear about its timetable from the start," Senator Wong said.

"[The Coalition] is now seeking yet another reason for delay.

"In 17 days, Mr Turnbull will have to decide whether he votes to take action on climate change or whether he allows the climate change sceptics in his own party room to again dominate the Liberal Party's position."

Carbon scheme stand-off remains

Michelle Grattan and Brendan Nicholson

The Age, July 27, 2009

THE Government and Opposition remain in a stand-off over an emissions trading scheme, despite Malcolm Turnbull's offer to support it if extensive concessions are made.

Labor says Mr Turnbull must produce amendments as a condition of talks; he says there is no time for that if the Government insists on the planned August 13 vote on the proposed legislation.

In a slap to Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey and other sceptics, Mr Turnbull yesterday dismissed Liberals who oppose emissions trading as having been "asleep" during the last term, when the Howard government proposed a trading scheme.

Mr Turnbull said the Opposition would vote against an unchanged scheme on August 13, but "we may well present amendments later", calling on the Government to be willing to negotiate.

But Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said there had been plenty of time since the legislation was released in March for Mr Turnbull to suggest amendments, which the Government had always said it would consider.

Mr Turnbull outlined his demands after a shadow cabinet phone hook-up. Previously, the Opposition said it would oppose the proposed legislation if the Government refused to defer it until after December's Copenhagen conference.

Mr Turnbull also said he would reply in the Fairfax press to the Prime Minister's 6000-word economics essay, published in The Age on Saturday — but he would be briefer.

- Pacific Island leaders are preparing to bombard Mr Rudd with pleas for more help to adapt to climate change when they meet at next week's Pacific Island Forum summit.

Warning that Pacific Islanders are feeling the impact of rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms, they say their nations urgently need the help Labor promised in opposition. An Oxfam Australia report being released today says people in the Asia-Pacific region are already being forced to leave their homes because of climate change, with about 75 million likely to relocate by 2050.

Oxfam executive director Andrew Hewett said it was in Australia's interests to help the Pacific Islands now, because as the problem worsened it would be called on to respond to more regional emergencies. He said that as the wealthiest and highest per capita polluter in the region, Australia should show leadership by adopting emission reduction targets of at least 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

A report from the Australia Institute also found that Labor made strong commitments in opposition to help Pacific Islanders that it was yet to fulfil.


Timber body under fire over climate aid claims

Adam Morton

The Age, July 27, 2009

A TIMBER industry body is being investigated over claims it misled the public by asserting that buying wood products helps the fight against climate change.

The consumer watchdog has asked Forest & Wood Products Australia to respond to allegations it made two deceptive claims: that the carbon dioxide stored in trees is locked up when they are logged and converted into wood products, and that forestry is one of Australia's most greenhouse-friendly industries.

The "Wood. Naturally Better" print advertisement campaign was based on variations on the slogan "It's more than attractive furniture. It's a helping hand in climate change."

It prompted a complaint to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission by the Wilderness Society, backed by advice from community legal service, the Environment Defenders Office.

Wilderness Society forest campaigner Luke Chamberlain said the advertisements were "clear green washing", and failed to reflect that logging old-growth forest resulted in larger greenhouse gas emissions than plantation harvesting. "It's like somebody bulldozing a house, making a fruit bowl and saying: 'Isn't this great, I've made a fruit bowl from the rubble'," he said.

"Eighty-five per cent of what comes out when native forests are logged ends up as woodchips, waste and sawdust and most of the carbon is lost during the forest burn and the creation of woodchips."

He said suggestions that forestry was a carbon-positive industry were "unsubstantiated and debatable".

Forest & Wood Products Australia managing director Ric Sinclair said the complaint was baseless, citing a Federal Government report in 2005 that found forestry was Australia's only carbon-positive industry.

He said the advertisements made no claims about emissions from forest waste. They aimed to improve the public's poor understanding of the role timber products could play in storing carbon.

The organisation last week published its own research that found timber in Australian houses stored about 100 million tonnes of carbon, adding about 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year as new houses are built. "We're not interested in making misleading claims. Our campaign is based on science," he said.

"It is a statement of fact that wood products store carbon — half the dry weight of wood is carbon. We're trying to get people to be conscious about their purchase choices."

In a reply to the complaint, the consumer commission said it had not yet formed a view about the claims. It said it had told the wood products body it needed to make sure its claims could be substantiated.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming

Science 24 July 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5939, p. 376
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_376

Richard A. Kerr

The first reliable analysis of cloud behavior over past decades suggests—but falls short of proving—that clouds are strongly amplifying global warming. If that's true, then almost all climate models have got it wrong. On page 460, climate researchers consider the two best, long-term records of cloud behavior over a rectangle of ocean that nearly spans the subtropics between Hawaii and Mexico. In a warming episode that started around 1976, ship-based data showed that cloud cover—especially low-altitude cloud layers—decreased in the study area as ocean temperatures rose and atmospheric pressure fell. One interpretation, the researchers say, is that the warming ocean was transferring heat to the overlying atmosphere, thinning out the low-lying clouds to let in more sunlight that further warmed the ocean. That's a positive or amplifying feedback. During a cooling event in the late 1990s, both data sets recorded just the opposite changes—exactly what would happen if the same amplifying process were operating in reverse.

Climate researchers have long viewed clouds' reaction to greenhouse warming as the key to understanding the world's climatic fate. As rising carbon dioxide strengthens the greenhouse, will some clouds thicken and spread, shading the planet and tempering the warming? Or will they thin and shrink, letting in more sunshine to amplify the warming? The first reliable analysis of cloud behavior over past decades suggests—but falls short of proving—that clouds are strongly amplifying the warming. If that's true, then almost all climate models have got it wrong.

The new study "confirms with observations that low clouds are critical for the climate system's response," says climate modeler Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. But "it's really a challenge for models" to simulate that response, he adds. If real-world cloud amplification works the way the study indicates, researchers say, global warming could be even worse than the typical model predicts.

Clouds have been a climate conundrum in part because no one has been keeping an eye on them the way the weatherman has been recording temperature for more than a century. On page 460, climate researcher Amy Clement of the University of Miami in Florida and colleagues consider the two best, long-term records of cloud behavior over a rectangle of ocean that nearly spans the subtropics between Hawaii and Mexico. Other researchers had compiled one of the records from eyeball estimates of cloud cover made by mariners who passed through the region from 1952 to 2006. The other record, which runs from 1984 to 2005, came from satellite measurements, which Clement and her colleagues adjusted to account for calibration shifts from one satellite to the next.   Figure 1  Leaky clouds. Decades-long records show that when sea surface temperature (SST) warms, cloud cover—especially from low clouds (bottom)—decreases (blues, top), letting in more sunlight.

Between them, the observations recorded the two major climate shifts that roiled the North Pacific during the periods they covered. In a warming episode that started around 1976, the ship-based data showed that cloud cover—especially low-altitude cloud layers—decreased in the study area as ocean temperatures rose and atmospheric pressure fell. One interpretation, the researchers say, is that the warming ocean was transferring heat to the overlying atmosphere, thinning out the low-lying clouds to let in more sunlight that further warmed the ocean. That's a positive or amplifying feedback. During a cooling event in the late 1990s, both data sets recorded just the opposite changes—exactly what would happen if the same amplifying process were operating in reverse. "All of the elements of a positive feedback are there," Clement says.

Even so, positive low-cloud feedback was only a supposition until the group looked at another sort of satellite measurement of the second natural climate shift. That showed that when decreasing cloud cover let the sun leak through, the additional solar heating was large enough to account for much of the ocean warming. A positive feedback operating in the decades-long climate shifts "is real," Clement concludes. And other studies link cloud changes in the northeastern tropical Pacific to atmospheric changes across the Pacific.

But is such a feedback actually working to amplify global warming? To get some indication, Clement and her colleagues checked the archives of a study in which the international Coupled Model Intercomparison Project compared the results of 18 global climate models run under standardized conditions. Clement and her colleagues tested whether each model was properly simulating each element of the positive cloud feedback they had found in the northeastern Pacific.

When the results were in, only two models showed low clouds producing a positive feedback as observed. One of them stood out from the pack. The HadGEM1 model from the U.K. Met Office's Hadley Center in Exeter produced patterns of warming and circulation changes during greenhouse warming that resembled those of all 18 models averaged together—the best guide available. The group also concluded that HadGEM1's simulation of meteorological processes in the lowermost kilometer or two of the atmosphere—where the key low-lying clouds reside—is particularly realistic.

As it happens, the HadGEM1 model is among the most sensitive of the 18 models to added greenhouse gases. When carbon dioxide is doubled, the model warms the world by 4.4°C; the median of the models for a doubling is 3.1°C. That gap raises a red flag for Clement. "We tend to focus on the middle of the range of model projections and ignore the extremes," she says. "I think it does suggest serious consideration should be given to the upper end of the range."

Climate researchers agree that Clement and her colleagues may be on to something. "There's been a gradual recognition that this rather boring type of [low-level] cloud is important in the climate system," says climate researcher David Randall of Colorado State University, Fort Collins. "They make a good case that in [decadal] variability there is a positive feedback. The leap is that the same feedback would operate in global climate change." The study tends to support an important role for marine low clouds in amplifying global warming, he says, but it doesn't prove it.  One clear contribution of the study, Randall says, is to point the way toward more reliable climate models. The paper "is definitely a reasonable approach to deciding which models to pay the most attention to," he says. In its previous international assessments, Randall notes, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumed that all models are created equal. "I think we have to get away from that."