Graduate seminar at the half way point

As part of the Graduate Seminar subject, all students take a turn in running a class. You also get to choose what topic you are going to present. That means there is a widely varying range of topics that we are being exposed to. So far we have looked at: The role for nuclear energy in biodiversity conservation, safety assessment of GM plants, next generation monitoring using environmental dna, human population reduction and environmental problems, antibiotic resistance and environmental contaminants and restoration and ecosystem services and biodiversity. Wow – what an eclectic bunch of environmental issues to cover. Then last week, we had my favorite two topics to date: Bias in the media, and Uncertainty in science.

The first paper we looked at demonstrated that US prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse. This failed discursive translation resulted from an accumulation of tactical media responses and practices guided by widely accepted journalistic norms. Through content analysis of US prestige press (New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal) the paper focused on the norm of balanced reporting, and showed that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.

Next we looked at how uncertainty is pervasive in ecology where the difficulties of dealing with sources of uncertainty are exacerbated by variation in the system itself. Attempts at classifying uncertainty in ecology have, for the most part, focused exclusively on epistemic uncertainty. In the paper, uncertainty was classified into two main categories: epistemic uncertainty (uncertainty in determinate facts) and linguistic uncertainty (uncertainty in language). In particular, the authors demonstrated the importance of recognizing the effect of linguistic uncertainty, by developing a clear understanding of the various types of uncertainty, how they arise and how they might best be dealt with.

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Direct Action – On the scrapheap?

Direct Action

People who thought that the minority Labor government was a dysfunctional group to work with didn’t count on the next Senate being basically run by minority parties.  From the goings on of the last two days it is going to be one bumpy ride in politics from next July. Pretty much at the heart of it all will be the Palmer United Party who seem to have a take no prisoners attitude to both major parties. The last two days have been fascinating with a major stoush played out in the media between Clive Palmer (Leader, PUP) and Greg Hunt (Minister Environment, Lib).

Yesterday, Palmer declared Direct Action to be “dead” stating that he will use his Senate votes to block the Coalition policy. Mr Palmer:

It’s goodbye Direct Action. It’s gone.

The government plans to spend up to $1.55 billion over the next three years on the scheme, but most senior economists have questioned whether Direct Action can meet its emissions reduction target of 5 per cent by 2020 with that budget.

We just don’t think direct action is any good. The Greens are not going to support Direct Action. Labor isn’t. And we’re not. It’s gone, it’s dead.

Mr Palmer said the details on the policy had been so scarce that Australians did not know what Direct Action was “other than a lot of money”

If they don’t know what the policy is two months out from the budget you have to assume it’s not a good one.

Then this morning, Hunt fired back a salvo:

The primary thing is of course allocation of the funds and that is what the budget process is for and I would be amazed if the opposition threatened to block the budget, I think that would be an extraordinary thing.

So the Coalition have basically said that Direct Action is all but a budget measure that doesn’t need the support of the Senate to pass. Nice one! Take that Clive Palmer. It would indeed be a brave Senate to block supply and send us all back to the polls just 9 months after voting. Hang on a moment, you don’t hoodwink Clive Palmer that easily. He then immediately accused Mr Hunt of “blackmail” and threatened to derail other key pieces of legislation if the government did not put its “direct action” policy to the upper house. He said that included using his numbers to block the carbon and mining taxes, which have already been voted down once in the Senate and would only have to fail one more time to create a trigger for a double dissolution.

I know that Greg Hunt said that he’ll link it to the budget papers but we just see that as trying to blackmail us. If he did that, we’d have to reconsider our position on the mining tax and the carbon tax. I hardly think they’re going to let Greg tie it to the budget papers if they realise there’s going to be trouble overall if they do that. If he ties it to the budget papers, it will be curtains for him.

Check.

OH, and on the way out, he had this to say about Hunt:

He had been ”spectacularly unsuccessful” as an environment minister.

And checkmate.

 

Take home your own piece of a Victorian National Park

NPs

The Victorian Government has recently approved recommendations from VEAC (Victorian Environmental Assessment Council) to allow recreational prospecting (usually for gold or gemstones) in eight areas of State and National Parks, with the main target being the Alpine National Park.

The Governments response can be viewed here:

http://www.veac.vic.gov.au/documents/Government-Response-to-VEAC-Prospecting-Investigation-Feb-2014.pdf

The VEAC investigation into additional prospecting areas of our State and National Parks is a very well written 51 page report which I encourage everyone to read. It is a balanced, thoughtful, well researched document that makes rational sense until the last chapter which details the council’s recommendations. At this point, the recommendations contradict everything the document had previously investigated. The Governments response is simply acting on VEACs submission to them, so closer scrutiny of the VEAC document is warranted.

The VEAC investigative report can be found here:

http://www.veac.vic.gov.au/documents/VEAC%20Prospecting%20Report_int.pdf

with further information on their website:

http://www.veac.vic.gov.au/investigation/investigation-into-additional-prospecting-areas-in-parks

The primary question still left unanswered through all the documentation is what was the motivation behind the Government requesting an investigation into opening up new areas of National and State Parks for prospecting? There must be a substantial lobby group of fossickers and miners beating down the door at Spring Street to be allowed into pristine areas of the Victoria. There must be considerable power in this group to have the Government even listen to them in the first place, and they must be supplying considerable wealth to state through licenses and fees. As of June 2012, records show that there are 4157 miner’s rights license holders in Victoria. This is made up of 3341 two year licenses and 816 ten year licenses. The cost of these licenses are $31.30 for a two year, and $87.70 for a ten year. That brings the average annual income for the state to $59,442 from miners licenses. To put this into perspective, there are 41,000 licensed hunters in Victoria providing more than $2 million in revenue and almost 270,000 recreational fishing licenses providing $6million in revenue. The $60 thousand paid in license fees would not have even covered the VEAC investigation and subsequent Government enquiry into opening up State and National Parks to prospecting. So hardly anyone in the whole state does this pastime, and the fees collected for it are miniscule. It seems like a very odd decision to even consider why this needs to be looked at in the first place.

The objectives, purpose and roles that National Parks play are slightly different around the world, but here in Australia we have legislated that:

The objects of this Act are to –

(a) to make provision, in respect of national parks, state parks … —

(i) for the preservation and protection of the natural environment including wilderness areas and remote and natural areas in those parks;

(ii) for the protection and preservation of indigenous flora and fauna and of features of scenic or archaeological, ecological, geological, historic or other scientific interest in those parks; and

(iii) for the study of ecology, geology, botany, zoology and other sciences relating to the conservation of the natural environment in those parks; and

(iv) for the responsible management of the land in those parks;

Section 4 of the National Parks Act 1975

This all seems crystal clear about why we set up National Parks in the first place. What also seems clear is that digging holes or disturbing water flows does not sit mutually with what the law requires. And the VEAC investigation recognises this. Many times. Here are just a few references demonstrating the damage envisaged by prospecting.

While it is recognised that recreational prospecting can be low impact, it is clear that it can also result in damage to natural and cultural heritage values, especially in waterways, but also in other vulnerable environments. Page 5.

 

Some activities undertaken by prospectors can damage natural values by causing disturbance of soils and damage to vegetation. For example, orchid tubers can be inadvertently damaged or destroyed by prospecting activities when dormant. Page 30.

 

The review concluded that prospecting activities in streams in Victorian national parks may result in appreciable ecological risks. Page 31.

 

Prospecting has the potential to disturb material containing contaminants resulting from former gold mining activities, and to mobilise contaminants which could then move into waterways. Page 32.

 

Even when holes are immediately and carefully filled in after prospecting, the soil structure and the biota are disturbed in the immediate area. While this impact may be acceptable in many areas of Crown land, it should be minimised in national parks which have been established to preserve and protect the natural environment. Page 35.

 

The Council has been shown clear evidence of unfilled holes, and of damage to stream beds and banks as a result of prospecting in waterways. It also notes the concerns of Melbourne Water, for example, that prospecting could undermine significant investment in projects and investments into improving the health of rivers. Page 35.

And so on. You get the picture. After all this research and information, and reading the entire document, you would think that prospecting would therefore not be allowed anywhere near National Parks. The review demonstrated there was very little upside to enhance the prospecting case. And even these small upsides (such as being a pleasurable activity for the prospector) were dismissed with stronger counter arguments introduced. And so it was with great amazement that on page 47 out of 51 you can read:

That recreational prospecting1 be allowed in the eight areas listed below and shown on maps B to G:

1 Yankee Creek, Lerderderg State Park

2 Morning Star, Lerderderg State Park

3 Jerusalem Creek, Lake Eildon National Park

4 Howqua Hills South, Alpine National Park

5 Howqua Hills East, Alpine National Park

6 Howittville, Alpine National Park

7 Wombat PO, Alpine National Park

8 Eustaces, Alpine National Park;

Puzzling. The previous 46 pages had all disputed any reason why additional prospecting sites in National and State Parks should even be considered. Then the recommendation is to allow it. One can only assume VEAC don’t endorse what they wrote in the foreward:

 Council believes that, while recreational activities that extract resources or may result in damaging impacts are able to be accommodated on public land such as state forest and some Crown land reserves, they do not sit well with the purposes of national and state parks.

Critique of the Emissions Reduction Green Paper

Emissions Reduction Scheme

The Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper was launched in late December 2013 as an early Christmas present to the Australian public. It is now open for public and business consultation until February 21 2014. At this point the Federal Government will then finalise exactly how Direct Action will work in preparation for the repeal of the carbon tax and the introduction of the Direct Action tax when the Senate changes mid year.

The preliminary details can be found on the Australian Government Department of the Environment website:
http://www.environment.gov.au/topics/cleaner-environment/clean-air/emissions-reduction-fund/green-paper

The Green paper itself can be downloaded here:
http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/66237232-3042-4cd8-99a3-040705fead3b/files/erf-green-paper_1.pdf

I read through the 60 odd pages of the document and was left hopelessly unimpressed. There is simply no vision and no “direction” (other than some catch phrases and slogans) from the Government. The document is uselessly repetative, to the point where I thought I was re-reading the same paragraph every 5 pages. I’m sure you could write a thesis on the strategies of the Green Paper how it works and how it will pan out, but I thought I’d raise three points that struck me whilst reading through the proposal. One to do with policy, one to do with implementation, and one small technical point that shows the ideological conflict of the Coalition.

I – POLICY
Direct Action is nothing more than a Big Business handout.

The whole point of Direct Action is to pay polluters to reduce their carbon emissions. Business (or individuals for that matter) can forward proposals to the Government on how they plan to reduce their emissions and get funding to implement those changes. The Green Paper constantly reinforces the core ideas that only projects that are cost effective in reducing emissions, and that can reduce significant amounts of emissions will only be successful in receiving funding. Which basically means get ready for big business handouts. Individuals don’t have the resources to be cost effective and small business doesn’t have large emissions to reduce.
So Australian tax payers are going to give money to large multinationals to reduce their carbon emissions. Which means their input costs are going to reduce. Which means their product will cost less to produce. Now do you think these companies are going to reduce the price of the product they are selling? Not a chance. So Australian tax payers are subsidizing Big Business to increase their profits.
Qantas have already started lobbying the Federal Government to design Direct Action so they can take advantage of it.

Qantas said it had identified several projects that could reduce emissions, including investing in a fleet of fuel-efficient aircraft and improving air-traffic management. With access to co-financing or other government support, such as funding under the Emissions Reduction Fund, this abatement and the long-term economy-wide benefits that accompany these projects could be unlocked.

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/qantas-wants-new-fleet-from-155b-emissions-reductions-fund-20140107-30fk5.html

So Qantas wants the Australian tax payer to help buy them new fuel efficient planes. Can’t see the price of a ticket to London coming down anytime soon.

II – IMPLEMENTATION
Direct Action is going to require significant resources to manage.

One thing that struck me was that Direct Action is going to take some serious resources if indeed the Federal Government takes the whole tender process seriously. Theoretically, any business or individual can submit a proposal which must be considered against various key factors. A tender process in the form of a reverse auction (lowest dollar value per CO2 reduced) is proposed to identify the best projects to fund. This however is too simplistic and will not suffice where so many inputs into emissions reductions must be taken into account.
Some serious manpower is going to be needed to administer, oversee, monitor and manage many thousands of Direct Action projects.

It abolishes the carbon permit market in favour of a heavily regulated grants/auction system. It creates more bureaucracy to replace the public servants who were administering the carbon price.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/southern-crossroads/2014/jan/12/greg-hunt-negligent-direct-action-climate-change-denialist

The Coalition have just dismantled a whole heap of environmental and climate change Government bodies, better get on the phone and start re-employing them.

III – IDEOLOGY
The Coalition doesn’t believe in funding public transport, and yet Direct Action specifically calls for it.

This really is a minor point in the whole grand scheme of Direct Action, but I think it is an important one. We should not overlook the subtleties of Direct Action, and whether or not there are sincere intentions behind it. By connecting all the dots, we get the complete picture of where the Coalition stand on climate change.
If its one thing we know in Victoria, its that the Federal Coalition Government hates Public Transport. They canned a cross town rail project, then backed to the hilt the contoversial East West road tunnel.

Now the Commonwealth government has a long history of funding roads. We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the Commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads. – Prime Minister Abbott.

http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/abbott-warns-victorian-libs-no-money-for-urban-rail-20130404-2h8uj.html

And yet, explicitly stated in the Green Paper:

Activities that could reduce transport emissions include: switching to lower emissions fuels,
using more efficient vehicles; improving management practices (for example, driver training or
supply chain optimisation); and shifting between transport modes (for example, from road to
rail).

So the Government readily admit that switching from road use to rail use significantly reduces carbon emissions, yet pulls funding from rail projects and siphons all money into road funding. Certainly demonstrates that Coalition priorities are once again with Big Business, motoring bodies, and oil companies all to the detriment of the environment.

Direct Action – At What Cost?

Carbon tax

Note: I researched and wrote this blog a couple of months ago after the federal election, however it remained unpublished. I understand that since then an Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper has been released (on Dec 20 2013) which does add significant information to what exactly Direct Action is. I think it is important to highlight that an election pillar was sold to the Australian people without any tangible body of work performed. Australia voted for a slogan.

 

It has been unanimously criticised as either not being able to meet Australia’s commitment to carbon reduction, or severely underfunded. The current costing of Direct Action is in the order of $3.2 billion over 4 years. The climate minister Greg Hunt has repeatedly stated that the money allocated to Direct Action will not increase, so the “commitment” to a five per cent reduction from 2000 carbon emissions levels looks to be on very shaky ground

The Treasury analysis says the Coalition’s direct action plan would be more expensive because it forgoes opportunities for cheaper, international sources of abatement and would be generally less effective. The modeling says a carbon price of $62 a tonne in 2010 dollars would be the cost needed to abate 159 million tonnes in 2020. Currently, Australia has a carbon price of approximately $23 a tonne.

Further studies suggest that just to reach the 5% target will require an extra $4 billion under the Direct Action scheme. Costings are only out by 100%. See:

http://www.smh.com.au/business/carbon-economy/direct-actions-carbon-cost-to-be-triple-an-emissions-trading-scheme-analysts-says-20131114-2xhn1.html

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/national-affairs/abbotts-direct-action-to-cost-double-that-of-labors-carbon-attack/story-fn99tjf2-1226128448888

http://econews.com.au/news-to-sustain-our-world/treasury-says-liberal-national-carbon-plan-to-cost-double/

Need I go on???

So it looks like Direct Action is going to take a lot more money than an ETS to achieve the same outcome.

Secondly, try and find the actual costings breakdown model for Direct Action, and you are going to be very hard pressed. The only publicly-available “model” of Direct Action is this table from the Coalition’s policy booklet.

financials

That looks like a grade 4 project, and a pretty poor one at that. Make of it what you will, but there is no breakdown of any of the numbers, so you can take all those dollars with a grain of salt.

Finally, I have a real problem with the language being used regarding Direct Action and the ETS. The principle mechanism of Direct Action is the Emissions Reduction Fund, which would pay polluters to make emissions reductions. This would be based on a grant system whereby the polluter places a bid and the government decides which projects to pay for with taxpayer money. Said Hunt:

The Coalition’s climate change policy is fully funded and fully costed – and does not require Australian households to foot the bill

Whatever a Coalition government spends on Direct Action, it will come out of general revenue. Every time the government spends money, it is spending Australian households’ money. So in effect, the Emissions Reduction Fund is a tax. Just like the carbon tax which we currently have at the moment. Whether or not the carbon tax is repelled is irrelevant, Australians will still be paying to try and reduce its carbon emissions.

Direct Action – What exactly is it?

direct action

Note: I researched and wrote this blog a couple of months ago after the federal election, however it remained unpublished. I understand that since then an Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper has been released (on Dec 20 2013) which does add significant information to what exactly Direct Action is. I think it is important to highlight that an election pillar was sold to the Australian people without any tangible body of work performed. Australia voted for a slogan.

It occurred to me recently that I knew very little of the Coalition ‘Direct Action’ Plan. I had certainly heard the sound bite over and over during the campaign, and how it involved something about planting trees, putting carbon into the soil and directly paying polluters to reduce their carbon emissions. All positive actions. A good start. Surely though, Direct Action would have to target emissions head on and strike at the root of problem if we are serious about reducing our emissions. It would have to directly fund renewables. So you would think. In essence, direct action would probably be the best way of tackling our carbon emissions. Simply fund what is needed to make renewables work. So looking at the policy, it was shocking to find that not only is there near on no investment in renewable technology, but the policy itself is little more than a slogan. THERE IS NO DETAIL. No wonder I knew very little about the Direct Action policy – IT DOESN’T EXIST!

So let’s go straight to the source for how Direct Action will work: The Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.

Under the Direct Action plan, soil carbons will be the major plank of our strategy, supported by other practical measures that will reduce CO2 emissions by 5 per cent by 2020.

http://www.greghunt.com.au/Issues/DirectAction/DirectAction-Index.aspx

That is the extent of the policy briefing. Looks like all that carbon is going to magically find its way into our soil.
The official Liberal party website doesn’t provide much more information.

Cleaning up our own environment.
We will take direct action to reduce carbon emissions – and establish a 15,000-strong Green Army charged with the clean-up and conservation of our environment – so that we can all enjoy a cleaner environment and a more sustainable future without the impost of the carbon tax which is causing real economic damage to our economy and affecting the living standards of Australian families.

Reducing carbon emissions inside Australia, not overseas.
We will take direct action to reduce carbon emissions in a practical, affordable way inside Australia, not overseas. We remain committed to a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020.

We will establish an Emissions Reduction Fund of $3 billion to allocate money in response to emission reduction tenders to projects designed to reduce carbon emissions.

All money spent will be on Australian green projects, not foreign carbon credits, keeping more jobs in Australia.
We will support projects such as the exploration of soil carbon technologies and abatement, putting carbon back in soils and providing for a once in a generation replenishment of our farmlands.

http://www.liberal.org.au/our-plan/environment

So we will get 15,000 people to plant trees and once again to put all the carbon we produce into the ground. Sounds like a massive Band Aid to me. No mention of renewables. No mention of reducing our reliance on coal. No real plan. Just slogans.

Snippets of public information regarding what Direct Action really is are scarce. The best information comes from consultancy firm Energetics who analysed the Direct Action Plan and have prepared a two page summary for business to understand its impacts. An brief description of the summary yields:

Direct Action covers a variety of initiatives to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions, including:

A $2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund to support direct action by business to reduce emissions.

  • The Fund will directly support emissions reduction activities pursued by business. Abatement will be purchased via a market mechanism in order to achieve the lowest cost per tonne.
  • Businesses that reduce their emissions will be able to offer this CO2 abatement for sale to the government. The mechanism will be a reverse auction.
  • Long-term contracts for abatement will be available to assist organisations to secure finance to undertake projects. The payment will depend on delivery.
  • Businesses responsible for emissions levels above their ‘business as usual’ levels will incur a financial penalty. The size of the penalties will be on a sliding scale commensurate with the size of the business and the extent to which they exceed their ‘business as usual’ levels.
  • Provision will be made to ensure penalties will not apply to new entrants or business expansion at ‘best practice.’

Boosting renewable energy, especially solar.

  • Supporting solar energy in homes. Funding for the One Million Roofs Solar Program would be halved. Householders will receive a payment of $500 rather than $1000, for the installation of solar panels and solar hot water systems.
  • Supporting Solar Towns and Schools. As of the pre-election costings announcement, funding for the installation of solar PV systems will be $15 million each year for three years, instead of $25 million.
  • Geothermal and Tidal Towns. The original Direct Action plan had allocated funding in the order of $50 million to support the establishment of micro, pilot and demonstration projects with the potential to provide renewable power to local communities.

Support for emerging technologies through the Renewable Energy Target.

  • The Renewable Energy Target is to incentivise larger renewable energy projects (over 50 MW) for emerging technologies such as solar fields, geothermal projects or tidal and wave projects over 10 MW.

The entire summary can be found here:

http://www.energetics.com.au/getmedia/45d0b04e-53c4-4b33-af6b-35e8f54a39ab/Direct-Action-Handout_An-overview_-part-1.pdf.aspx

So there it is. Direct Action unveiled in all its glory. An emissions fund will be set up to pay emitters to reduce their pollution. Renewable energy will be boosted by slashing solar energy funds for schools and homes (is that a double negative?), and large scale technologies may be supported thru the renewable energy target. Pretty impressive I have to say. If only there was some substance to the slogans.