The emissions that no-one talks about

The climate impact of flying is already significant, but it’s set to get bigger.

That exotic holiday is costing more than we think. PHOTO Qantas

“Things are going great for airlines worldwide,” says Jason Rabinowitz, a self-described “aviation geek” based in New York.

Rabinowitz reports that the industry expects travel demand to grow by six per cent in 2019, and that aircraft makers are inundated with thousands of orders. Aviation is now bigger, richer, sexier, more popular than it ever was.

This is all very exciting. No-one is immune from the allure of air travel – bustling airports and big jet engines, the lure of exotic places and the power to be transported there in a matter of hours. It has become so entrenched in our culture that for some it’s almost routine.

The bug is catching everywhere. Business and leisure travel in China, India, Brazil, Russia and other developing economies has driven a doubling in airline passenger numbers world-wide since 2005, to a mind-numbing 4.3 billion bums on seats in 2018, or nearly 12 million every day.

Industry projections have numbers doubling again by the late 2030s, driven by rising Asian middle-class incomes and cheaper fares, a result of competition and more fuel-efficient planes.

All of which explains the huge demand for new airliners. Hundreds of them are being added to fleets every year. A single Boeing model is now being produced at the rate of 1.4 planes every day, and the company expects to come close to two per day in 2019.

This kind of exponential growth is the dream of every government minister and company executive, including tourism leaders like Luke Martin, CEO of Tasmania’s Tourism Industry Council.

Before the Gell River fire became page one news, Martin wrote a prescient article for the Hobart Mercury last year highlighting the negative impact of wildfire on tourism. In the article he declared his industry’s support for wilderness values and the need for more climate-savvy tourism policy.

One extension of this discussion would be to look at the impact of tourism on the environment. Martin pointed out that the industry is aware of local impact and seeks to minimise it. But it would seem less aware of another impact, more widespread and more insidious.

The booming aviation industry is powered by fossil fuel. Last year, air flights globally consumed 288 million tonnes of it, emitting 907 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 29 tonnes every second.

Taking account of the high-altitude impact of these emissions, this amounts to at least 2.5 per cent of the total from all sources. The industry claims the figure is around 2 per cent, but either way that proportion is only going to grow as other sources diminish, such as coal-fired electricity.

There are some mitigating factors. New aircraft today are about 10 per cent more fuel-efficient than those made in 2010, and under a global scheme starting this month the industry has agreed that from 2021 to 2035 it will offset 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 173 million tonnes a year.

But given that air traffic is expected to be double today’s level within two decades, these developments cannot cut emissions. Slowing their rate of growth is the best we can hope for.

International aviation is governed by a 74-year-old convention that exempts it from the government fuel taxes that apply to other transport modes. The same hands-off-aviation approach saw the industry excluded from climate agreements, including Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015.

Last October’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on limiting warming raised the unsolved problem of aviation emissions, but offered little in the way of a solution other than replacing short-haul flights with very fast electric trains.

We all must bear some responsibility. For the record, in the past decade I have flown to overseas destinations six times, raising the awkward matter of hypocrisy. But I am slowing down, and although there are many foreign places I’d still like to see, I’ll be content if I see none of them.

Obviously I and millions of others should fly less often and over shorter distances, inform ourselves of aviation’s carbon footprint and pay more for effective offsets. Preferably we should stop flying altogether and use alternatives such as land or sea transport, video conferences and local holidays.

But this won’t happen at scale without some sort of coercion, and cheap flights have made that all but impossible. Picture the result: would-be travellers, egged on by tourism, aviation and all manner of opposing political and corporate interests, venting their fury on hapless governments.

Besides, politicians, business leaders and all the other string-pullers are personally addicted to aviation, for both their convenience and, as they would say, their nation’s economy. Short of climate catastrophe, there can be no resolution to this until we learn to fly without fossil fuel.

Mass air travel is cognitive dissonance writ large. We continue to take to the skies in numbers while being fully aware that it helps significantly to destabilise the climate. No wonder everything to do with climate change is so intractable.

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The difficult path to sustainable aquaculture

If Tasmania wants to lead the world in fish farming it will have to deploy public resources for environmental monitoring.

Salmon pen, south-east Tasmania. PHOTO CSIRO

Humans need food, but producing it is hard work. A long time ago they worked out that most people could avoid such work if they corralled four-legged animals and tilled the soil.

This is farming, which over thousands of years has enabled cities to grow, along with governments, creative arts, science, sport and everything else that adds up to civilisation. But it came at a price.

As hunters and gatherers we moved through the landscape; as farmers we transformed it, draining marshes, clearing forests and making barriers to free movement in the form of fences.

We see clearly now that farming the land has its limits The swamps and forests we saw as obstacles turn out to have their own value as biologically diverse, productive natural habitats, while trees contribute massively to a stable global climate.

Given those limits and the eternal and growing demand for food, where should we turn? Where else but the sea? That story is playing out around Tasmania as various aquaculture interests compete for a share of a rapidly growing market in farmed finfish, mostly Atlantic salmon.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Tasmanian government, whose recently-released Sustainable industry growth plan for the salmon industry described Tasmanian farmed salmon as “not only the largest primary industry in the State… but also the nation’s largest seafood product by volume.”

A written introduction to the plan by primary industries minister Jeremy Rockliff described the government as “a strong supporter of the salmon industry”, pointing out its important contribution to jobs in regional Tasmania.

Tasmania’s biggest producer, Tassal, says the industry employs over 2000 people directly and another 10,000 indirectly. An Australia Institute study commissioned by the abalone industry puts the total at around 1000 jobs, less than the combined total for fishing and shellfish aquaculture.

Tassal’s website points out that its active farming leases amount to just 0.010561 per cent of the area of Tasmania and its territorial waters, which is true as far as it goes. Except that not all bits of land and sea are equal, especially when it comes to living things.

Shellfish like oysters and abalone feed on phytoplankton, which need sunlight to survive. Nearly all that is gone below about 30 metres, so shallow coastal waters are especially important for these wild sea-floor species. There, they have to coexist with fish farms.

It takes a lot of food to grow penned salmon. Much of that, with salmon faeces, falls into water below and to the sea floor. In some places, notably Macquarie Harbour, the waste has been found to cause a marked decline in dissolved oxygen in bottom water, affecting all sea-floor species.

Nearly all Tasmanian fish pens occupy sheltered inshore waterways, with a few in the more open waters of Storm Bay. No location could accurately be described as oceanic or deep-water.

If Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna are the farmers of the sea, professional and recreational fishers are its hunters and gatherers. Among these are abalone divers, part of an established, lucrative Tasmanian industry with a colourful past which it is now trying to put behind it.

Besides its earning capacity, the abalone industry has one other invaluable attribute. Abalone fishers secure their catch through diving, which means they have more personal knowledge of the undersea environment than any other active industry player.

According to the Tasmanian Abalone Council, the state’s $100 million a year wild abalone export industry, the world’s largest, is under threat from finfish farmers who don’t understand and cannot control the complexities of the natural environment into which they venture.

In its submission on the industry plan, the TAC identified the key impacts on the sea floor of open-cage salmon farming as sustained loads of nutrients and sediments, coming mainly from artificial feed and excreta but also including chemicals used in maintaining the pens.

It recommended an environmental buffer zone separating salmon farms from inshore reef systems to enable pollutants from pens to be diluted and dispersed by natural water movement, and requested a formal role in developing future finfish aquaculture policy.

The international standard for dealing with potential environmental impact is the precautionary principle, requiring transparent decision-making with public input and a clear demonstration, before any proposed activity begins, that it will not damage its natural surroundings.

Instead, the government has agreed with aquaculture companies that “adaptive management” is the way to go, whereby industry players make decisions based on their own monitoring and learning, with the only oversight being from government officers whose positions are funded by the industry.

This is a huge call. Contrary to world’s best practice, and rejecting advice from fishers able to see what is happening on the sea floor, the government has effectively put primary regulatory power into the hands of the finfish farmers themselves.

A genuinely sustainable, well regulated finfish farming industry with widespread public support ought to be eminently feasible. This could include more onshore operations that recycle water and recover waste as fertiliser.

But the best prospects seem to be in moving out of contested coastal waters to deeper, more dynamic waters able to disperse sediments. Huge, self-navigating submersible pens able to sink below damaging waves are already being trialled in North American and European waters.

In a world increasingly hungry for protein, Tasmania’s aquaculture industry can be a global leader, but that will require unimpeachable environmental credentials and informed, transparent regulation that is completely independent of industry, in both funding and operations.

That is not happening. The government, conflating straight-out political opposition with genuine public concern about environmental consequences, seems intent on casting its lot with the farmers. It needs to correct that bias, and the sooner the better.

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In this New Year, what are we celebrating?

A string of calamitous weather events and our rising carbon emissions leave a sense of foreboding for the year to come.

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Celebrating is what we do in the festive season, but it’s hard to feel good about the truly grotesque year we’ve just had, nor about the one that’s to come.

Underlying our unease is a clearly changing global climate. Governments now know there is no legitimate counter to the fact that this is caused by atmospheric pollution, supported as it is by tens of thousands of scientific studies and by all the world’s major scientific institutions.

Science is discovering some disconcerting trends in extreme weather, including more very heavy rainfall events, more intense, longer-lasting heatwaves, more severe fire outbreaks and more dry-lightning storms.

Reflecting this, public concern over exceptional weather events and political responses (or their absence) has grown steadily, to the point of undisguised alarm in some quarters, such as communities on low-lying islands. In 2018, triggers for that concern piled one on top of another.

In the Arctic over a few days last February, when the region is normally at its coldest, temperatures reached 20C above average. Sea ice began to disappear, and in northern Greenland the period of time above freezing on those days was more than three times the year-round average.

Out-of-season fires in Queensland and NSW prompted some local authorities to open the annual bushfire danger season in August – earlier than ever before. In November, a record-breaking hot spell in tropical Queensland fuelled fires of unprecedented severity.

Meanwhile, extreme summer heat across northern countries sparked many large wildfires including a blaze in Greece that killed 100 people and Scandinavian outbreaks north of the Arctic Circle.

California had its worst-ever summer fire season in July and August. Then in November yet more devastating fires obliterated a town called Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, killing 85 people.

Major flash flooding events, too numerous to list here, occurred about every two days through 2018. Most involved multiple lives lost and all of them drove people from homes, at incalculable emotional cost and billions in property damage.

Science has affirmed climate links in a multitude of droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods over recent years, with ominous implications for humanity, including food shortages, disease, income loss, warfare and forced migration.

A global survey of flooding events published in October by Nature Communications found a rising trend in the incidence of extreme flash floods, markedly higher than indicated by models and well beyond the capacity of existing infrastructure to cope.

The premier climate science authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported two months ago that the world has about 12 years to get carbon emissions declining steeply enough to offer reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The IPCC report, requested under the Paris Agreement of 2015, called for coal power to be phased out and transport, energy and industrial systems to be radically transformed by mid-century, a global effort with “no documented historic precedent”.

Current emission trends indicate we’re not about to break that mould. After a brief levelling off in 2014-16, global emissions rose by 1.6 per cent in 2017. In 2018 emissions are expected to rise 2.5 per cent, to a record 37 billion tonnes.

Hugh Saddler’s National Energy Emissions Audit revealed just before Christmas that Australian emissions have been rising steadily for four years, including 2018. Lower electricity emissions have been more than offset by rises in transport and stationary energy.

All this is feeding into public disquiet about government’s response to the clear and embarrassing evidence that climate policies are failing. In our own federal election this year we can expect climate change to figure more prominently than ever before.

As things stand, this can only benefit Labor, whose emissions policies – modest at best when set against the IPCC findings – are streets ahead of what is presently on offer from Scott Morrison.

Yet South Australia has shown that it doesn’t have to be this way. Steven Marshall’s Liberals took power from Labor in March, and despite a contrary stance in the election campaign the new government has taken on its predecessor’s role as a champion of clean energy.

The previous government’s renewable target of 75 per cent by 2025, attacked in Canberra as being too ambitious, is being exceeded by a wide margin. The Australian Energy Market Operator now calculates that the state could achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by then.

Informed by this and by voters’ clear preferences, Marshall’s team knows its electoral future rests heavily on strong support for renewables. It understands what its federal counterparts cannot – that conservatism and renewable energy can happily coexist.

The struggle to contain emissions has lost many good years because politicians could not admit they were wrong. But South Australia is showing us that change can happen quickly. Getting this experience onto a national stage can’t come soon enough.

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