Friday, November 30, 2012

Basin Plan is Historic But Let’s Not Lose the Whole Story

by Professor Lin Crase, Professor of Applied Economics at La Trobe University, The Conversation:

English: A panorama of the junction of the Mur...
A panorama of the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers at Wentworth, New South Wales. The Darling River is on the left of the photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reaching agreement on a Murray-Darling Basin Plan is undoubtedly a significant political accomplishment.

The water resources of the Murray-Darling have been the basis of disagreement between states, industries and communities for the best part of a century, and having a national plan is seen by many as a step forward.

The fact that the Opposition has now agreed to support the Plan assures its acceptance by Parliament, even if implementation remains a challenge for future governments and the states.

But before we become too exuberant about the political achievements embodied in a basin plan, it might be helpful to draw lessons from the entire episode. This is especially important as Environment Minister Tony Burke presents Australia’s water planning processes as a panacea to other nations dealing with water scarcity.

The Basin Plan was the latest attempt to rein in the proclivity of governments to treat water resources like a magic pudding. While water resources are renewable, they are also finite.

In addition, off-the-cuff decisions to allocate water perceived as “going to waste” is a sure recipe for creating problems for future generations. I can personally recall statements by former water bureaucrats describing water exiting the Murray Mouth as “waste”.

In an effort to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, we should treat cautiously recent proclamations by NSW Governor, Marie Bashir and mining entrepreneur, Gina Rinehart, on turning around river flows.

History suggests that a poor appreciation of the benefits conferred by water in different places and the role it plays in supporting a range of environmental processes can prove costly.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Saving Australian Endangered Species: A Policy Gap and Political Opportunity

by Professor Stephen Garnett, Professor of Biodiversity and Sustainability at Charles Darwin University, The Conversation:

Map shows biodiversity "hotspots" as...
Map shows biodiversity "hotspots" as defined by Conservation International, with color coding indicating number of Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Threatened bird species occurring in these areas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tim Flannery, in his Quarterly Essay After the Future, is right to deplore the sudden abrogation of responsibility for threatened species by state and federal governments.

The tragedy is that neglecting endangered species is the wrong thing to do on so many counts. It does not reflect the popular will of the people. And it is counter to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

To take the last point first. In Hyderabad recently the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity - which includes representatives of nearly all world governments - agreed to double the funding for the Global Environment Fund (GEF) to $10 billion a year.

Although still less than required for improving the status of all threatened species and for protecting critical habitats, this was still a big step forward.

Significantly, India and several African countries also agreed to contribute to the GEF. The world is taking a serious interest in saving species. And with good reason - there is increasing evidence that biodiversity loss has an influence on ecosystem service provision on a par with drought, ozone loss, acidification and climate warming. Species conservation is an investment in natural capital that provides enormous returns.

So why are Australian governments turning off threatened species? While Australia did contribute $23 million to the GEF through AusAid in 2011-12, here at home there is no coordinated national pool of funds for threatened species. The carbon fund and Caring for Country are lotteries in which winning tickets are too often captured by local agendas unrelated to the risk of species loss.

And the states and territories have always been poor cousins. While they have long employed threatened species managers - often deeply committed individuals who have devoted decades to retaining species for future generations - the operating money has usually had to be gleaned from a reluctant Commonwealth.

Since 2009 that money has been ever harder to obtain. That was when Peter Garrett got up at the INTECOL conference in Brisbane and said that funding would be given to protecting landscapes not species. I wonder if it weighs on his conscience, and those of his advisers, that this statement led directly to extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, the first mammal extinction in a generation.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Obama’s Second Term Challenges Must Include Tackling Climate Change

First Lady Michelle Obama applauds the staff m...
Michelle Obama at the EPA (Wikipedia)
by Dr Barry Naughten, Energy Economist at Australian National University, The Conversation:

In his acceptance speech of November 6, Barack Obama at long last reaffirmed the need to address global warming.

But unfortunately he also reaffirmed the spurious goal of US oil independence, which can be at odds with climate policy when used to promote CO2-intensive options such as tar sands and shale oil.

The fate of the Keystone tar sands pipeline will be an early test of Obama’s bona fides on climate change as distinct from his being hostage to the “oil independence” goal and Big Oil.

If US climate change policy is to be more than cosmetic, the real questions should be about its part in an internally consistent set of fundamental policies within a “whole of government” approach.

Pricing and regulating emissions

In the 2008 presidential elections, both Obama and John McCain supported cap-and-trade as a means of meeting designated abatement targets by 2050. But pricing US greenhouse gas emissions has been abandoned since the advent of the Tea Party’s power in the Congressional elections of 2010.

However, such political difficulties need not preclude regulatory policy action, such as by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has closed down emissions-intensive, coal-fired power stations and blocked new ones. Total CO2 emission reductions have also reflected federally subsidised growth in wind-power and tightened vehicle efficiency standards.

The aggregate level of US CO2 emissions has in fact declined to mid-1990s levels.

This is due also to the glut of natural gas which has displaced some coal-fired electricity generation. It is also an unintended side effect of the 2008 economic crisis, “off-shoring” (“deindustrialisation”) and the tripling of oil prices since 2003.

An integrated approach can address the above-noted political obstacles. Fiscal policy is a case in point.

“Green” investment and fiscal policy

To be effective, fiscal policy in the present deep slump needs expansionary investment programs but also to address the public debt concerns. Resulting sustainable economic growth helps the latter by augmenting tax revenues.

Additional revenues can also be sourced from taxing the super-rich, as Obama is seeking to do, and by taxing beneficiaries of infrastructure programs. Retrenching wasteful military expenditures (especially foreign) will also help.

To facilitate such investment in assets that are both productive and ecologically sound, the US also needs institutions such as Skidelsky and Martin’s proposed National Investment Bank.

Such a Bank (as the authors claim) “could take the lead in financing green technologies such as wind and geothermal power by evaluating and incorporating into its appraisals the value of their benefits to the broader economy”.

This proposal includes explicit criteria about due process and transparency, to prevent the kind of pork-barrelling evident in “Big Oil” and corn-based ethanol fuel supports.

A Republican-dominated House will no doubt seek to block such measures in favour of concessions to big business based on dubious “trickle down” or “sound finance” ideologies. The solution is not deals with economic libertarians in the re-arranged Tea Party.

Rather, the political challenge for the presidential arm would be to ensure that these elements bear the electoral consequences of seeking to grant further fiscal privileges to the rich at the expense of a sound macroeconomic strategy.

Effective policy and politics also need to include structural adjustment assistance to ensure fair burden-sharing as well as effective information programs about extreme climate events, imminent climate system “tipping points” and so on.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Don’t Write Off Antarctic Marine Protected Areas

Antarctica at its finest
Antarctica at its finest (Photo: HamishM)
by Dr Tony Press, CEO, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania, The Conversation:

The annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) wound up in Hobart on Thursday last week without declaring a system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic.

But this shouldn’t be seen as a defeat for marine protection.

The three proposals on the table at the Commission were:
  • a pre-emptive move to protect areas in the Antarctic peninsula region when ice shelves collapse
  • an MPA in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica
  • a proposal from Australia, France and the European Community for a series of MPAs in east Antarctica.
During the meeting the USA and New Zealand merged their competing proposals for an MPA in the Ross Sea. NGO groups and some CCAMLR members expressed their extreme disappointment that the Commission had not met the deadline it had set itself in 2009 to establish a representative system of protected areas in the Convention area by 2012.

A failure, or a brighter future?

The Commission decided, for only the second time in its history, to hold a Special Meeting. This Special Meeting, to be held in Germany in July 2013, will further consider the protected area proposals for East Antarctica and the Ross Sea.

It will be preceded by a special meeting of CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee. The last time the CCAMLR Commission held a Special Meeting was 1986 to discuss the application from Brazil to become a member.

CCAMLR operates by consensus. Ultimately all parties must agree to a decision, or at least choose to not disagree. Consensus decision making (a hallmark of the Antarctic Treaty System) leads to strong agreement and support for decisions that are made. But it can also mean that decisions can take a long time as doubts, criticisms and opposition are addressed.

In the case of the remaining protected area proposals (the Antarctic peninsula proposal will not be considered in the Special Meeting in 2013), enough doubt existed in some delegations that consensus could not be reached. But there was not enough opposition to scuttle the call for a Special Meeting.

The stakes will be high in Germany. All parties will have had many months to consider the MPA proposals, having already considered the science behind them in 2011. The fact that these MPAs will be the only substantive issue to be considered also provides added focus on reaching a decision in July 2013.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Shark Protection Developments Have No Bite

English: Great white shark at Isla Guadalupe, ...
Great White Shark (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Professor Erika Techera, Professor of Law at University of Western Australia, The Conversation:

Whether it’s from fishing and by-catch, finning or even culling, global shark populations are under a growing threat from human activity.

But how successful is international law at protecting some of the planet’s oldest species?

Only two of the global legal instruments that protect sharks are legally binding: the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

While there are other non-binding agreements aimed at addressing shark conservation and management, the overall legal framework is not comprehensive. The result is that international law offers at best only a limited level of protection for sharks.

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)

When species are listed under the CMS they are protected throughout their migratory range. Three shark species are listed on Appendix I: the Whale Shark, Basking Shark and Great White Shark. This means any states in their “range” must prohibit catching the species.

Range states include those countries in whose waters the species are found, and nations who register vessels that fish on the high seas.

Four further species are listed on Appendix II: the Porbeagle, Spiny Dogfish, Short Fin and Long Fin Mako. For these species, range states have to enter into agreements with each other to protect them.

CMS signatories signed up to a Memorandum of Understanding on sharks in 2010. In September 2012 they agreed involvement in CMS should go beyond States and that NGOs, scientists and fishing industry representatives also needed to be involved. Relevantly, the US and Australian chapters of the Humane Society International signed on to the Memorandum.

Importantly, the parties adopted a Conservation Plan for sharks. This recognises the importance of research, sustainability of fisheries, protection of critical habitats, public education and international cooperation.

The meeting also recommended that sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached. This measure is aimed at reducing the abhorrent practice of live finning - the fins are cut off the shark while it is alive, and the shark is left to bleed to death or drown. In some cases the sharks are dead when the fins are removed but the bodies are still wastefully discarded.

This finning should be distinguished from circumstances where sharks are landed whole and their meat and fins separately sold. It is the former practice that is most controversial, unsustainable and breaches guidelines on responsible fishery practice.

The shark fin industry is driven by the high prices fishers can get for fins. Meat is not as profitable. This recommendation is therefore a significant advance. It follows a 2008 UN General Assembly Resolution and comes in the wake of shark fin regulations in countries such as the US, and a number of Pacific nations.

Although not legally binding on countries, the recommendation illustrates growing consensus on the need to address shark finning and endorses the “fins naturally attached” approach. The recommendation will hopefully catalyse the development of binding regulations in regional fishery management organisations and at the national level as well.

Although the global community acknowledges the poor conservation status of some shark species, ultimately, the CMS Memorandum is not legally binding and only covers the seven species listed under the Convention. Furthermore, only 50 states have signed the document and by extension committed to the Conservation Plan.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

It's Global Warming, Stupid

Hurricane Sandy Flooding East Village 2012
Hurricane Sandy Flooding East Village 2012 (Photo credit: david_shankbone)
by , Business Week:

Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change.

Men and women in white lab coats tell us - and they’re right - that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode.

Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.

Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.

An unscientific survey of the social networking literature on Sandy reveals an illuminating tweet (you read that correctly) from Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

On Oct. 29, Foley thumbed thusly: “Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is the storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.”

Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

In an Oct. 30 blog post, Mark Fischetti of Scientific American took a spin through Ph.D.-land and found more and more credentialed experts willing to shrug off the climate caveats.

The broadening consensus: “Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.” Even those of us who are science-phobic can get the gist of that.

Sandy featured a scary extra twist implicating climate change. An Atlantic hurricane moving up the East Coast crashed into cold air dipping south from Canada. The collision supercharged the storm’s energy level and extended its geographical reach. Pushing that cold air south was an atmospheric pattern, known as a blocking high, above the Arctic Ocean.

Climate scientists Charles Greene and Bruce Monger of Cornell University, writing earlier this year in Oceanography, provided evidence that Arctic icemelts linked to global warming contribute to the very atmospheric pattern that sent the frigid burst down across Canada and the eastern U.S.

If all that doesn’t impress, forget the scientists ostensibly devoted to advancing knowledge and saving lives. Listen instead to corporate insurers committed to compiling statistics for profit.

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