Waste and the circular economy

With human excess driving the extinction crisis, two Glenorchy-based specialists put a powerful case for a waste-free economy.

In case you missed it, science is considering a new name for the epoch we live in now. If it finally agrees, we will be said to be living in the Anthropocene, or the time of humans.

Like earlier geological times, the Anthropocene is marked by a global extinction event. This time the cause is no natural event, but us.

Assuming enough of us survive the Anthropocene to keep civilisation going, future archaeologists will find this time easy to identify. In sediments everywhere they will find traces of burnt landscape and a host of unnatural industrial and agricultural chemicals, including hundreds of different forms of oil-based plastic, which can survive unchanged for millennia.

And near what were urban centres they will find huge accretions of stuff: landfill sites where the waste that didn’t escape into the environment will reveal who we were and what we were about.

Whatever happens to human civilisation, one thing beyond dispute is that even this far into the Anthropocene, when the lessons about excess should long ago have caused us to change our ways, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from degrading Earth’s biosphere.

Since municipal authorities decided to do something about littered, smelly cities and towns, when we discovered coordinated landfill and the flushing toilet, we have been able to conceal our waste from ourselves, living our lives without giving it a thought.

Richer countries have chosen to send their waste for “recycling” to poorer nations. Now that strategy is falling apart as the recipients of our garbage declare they want none of it. Australia is one of those rich nations facing a problem of epic proportions, and growing.

Some people are seriously troubled by the impact of our waste on natural systems. Some have made it the whole focus of their lives, like Brad Mashman and Rena Dare.

Since I last wrote about Mashman and Dare and their Glenorchy waste reduction team in 2018, Mashman took up a Churchill Fellowship to travel with Dare to countries in Europe, where waste is news and the idea of a circular economy is taken seriously by whole countries.

Governments and the rest of us have been complicit in hiding the environmental consequences of human life. Not only do we not know how our waste is suffocating the planet, but we don’t seem to want to know. Turning around this sleepwalk to oblivion is the life’s work of Mashman, Dare and other members of their “Recovery” team.

Last year, Mashman and Dare undertook an intensive study of key elements of the European Union’s push for a circular economy – one in which material goods are reused, shared, repaired, remanufactured and otherwise recycled so as to minimise or even eliminate waste.

The linear economic system we inherited, on which all decisions of government and big business continue to be based, is about taking, making and disposing. In a circular economy there is no disposing. What used to be waste becomes a resource for another product or for regenerating nature.

The EU has created a world-leading framework for transition to a circular economy, with directives for structural reform that demand a close relationship between each key element of a civil society – the community, the government, business and the environment.

Visits to key initiatives in Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom brought home to Mashman and Dare a multitude of possibilities available to Australia, and Tasmania in particular, if we were to embrace a circular economy.

In Belgium, the government sector drives reform with rewards for authentic performance. In Sweden materials recovery included re-use shopping with a strong focus on product design and changing attitudes. The UK is working toward global leadership through industry-society partnerships to recover, repair and restore “waste” products.

Increasing circular economic activity, say Mashman and Dare, “presents an extraordinary wealth creation opportunity for Tasmania, and Australia”. All that’s missing is commitment at the top and a whole-of-government framework that everyone can follow and confidently invest in.

They propose a national circular economy commission, oversighted by the federal Treasury, seeking to reshape the Australian market including obligatory manufacturing standards, product labelling and consumer protection.

For Tasmania, they envision a circular economy packaged as “Brand Tasmania” and driven by all levels of government. It would take in the plastics economy, biological products, tourism and the creative economy, and training in reuse, repair and restoration.

Mashman and Dare’s “Circular Economy Blueprint” deserves the urgent attention of government and business leaders, here in Tasmania and across the country. Theirs is no pie-in-the-sky notion, but a survival strategy for a nation now at the leading edge of a headlong rush to extinction.

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The planet strikes back

Five months of flame and ash are the starkest possible warning of what dangerous, unmitigated climate change will deliver to us. We must now face up to what must be done.

Even before the weekend’s horrors, the 2019-20 fire season was easily the worst in our nation’s history. It is now shaping up as the biggest fire event in human history.

The death toll in past big events – Victorian fires in the 1920s and 1930s, Tasmania in 1967, Ash Wednesday in 1983 and Victoria’s 2009 catastrophe – was greater than our present losses, but in every other respect those were mere blips compared to what is happening this season. And who knows what the rest of summer might bring?

Having begun early last August on the NSW mid-north coast, this fire season will be the longest on record, with homes destroyed fast closing on 2000, and 500 million native vertebrate animals killed.

Crop and livestock losses will add yet more pressure to a food economy badly shaken by years of drought. The fires will push up the cost of many staples and the economy generally will be damaged, perhaps massively.

The fires have led to social disruption on a wartime scale. Aside from extreme levels of stress and anxiety across the population, there is a physical health risk from smoky air, underlined by the death of a woman from a reaction to Canberra’s smoky air last week.

Smoke from the fires has temporarily put pollution in major Australian centres ahead of the world’s most polluted city, Delhi. Vast plumes have crossed the Tasman Sea, indicated by a red sun in New Zealand and the snow of that country’s Southern Alps turned brown by smoke particles.

The fires’ carbon dioxide emissions are now well on the way to matching Australia’s “normal” yearly figure from all sources. On the basis that forests will regrow, Australia doesn’t account for such emissions. But biologists say the exceptional heat of these fires will kill enough trees to blow that assumption out of the water. So much for meeting and beating targets.

The scale of these fires is off the charts. Global attention last year was on Amazon basin burning, covering 900,000 hectares, and California (770,000 hectares burnt). But that pales into insignificance alongside Australia’s 6.3 million-plus hectares burnt this season – seven times more than the 2019 Amazon fires and over eight times the size of California’s summer from hell.

Straight after the news that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year since records began, on Saturday several centres broke all-time heat records – in Penrith’s case jumping to just 1.1C shy of 50C. I start melting when it’s over 30C; I can’t begin to think what 50C is like.

The Bureau of Meteorology says conditions may slowly improve through summer with changing weather signals over the Indian and Southern Oceans, but we may not see this for weeks yet. Without soaking rain these vast fire grounds will smoulder until a breeze delivers enough oxygen for yet another breakout.

In the cold and dark of a German winter, far removed from the extreme drought, heat and fire confronting our own leaders, chancellor Angela Merkel said this about climate change in a New Year message last week:

“The warming of our planet is real. It is dangerous. Global warming and the crises that arise from it are caused by human activity. This means that we must do everything humanly possible to meet this human challenge. It isn’t too late.”

She asked her people to find “the courage to think in new ways, the strength to leave well-trodden paths, the readiness to venture into new territory, and the resolve to act more quickly… guided by the conviction that unfamiliar approaches can succeed.”

For the record, Germany pledges to have its 2030 emissions 55 per cent lower than they were in 1990 – double Australia’s commitment for the same period – and to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Many Germans think this is not nearly ambitious enough.

Until last spring it was not impossible to assume that a growing economy, innovative technology and democratic institutions would see us through whatever nature threw at us. Now we know Merkel is right. We’re not in charge. We have changed the climate and the planet is striking back.

Before these fires, Australian governments were able to distract us with subterfuge and spin to hide the fact that they didn’t take climate change seriously, here and internationally. That attitude will no longer work, not for any government, federal or state.

Some politicians keep raising non-issues. A favourite one is hazard reduction burning, but against that are a vanishing off-season, the vast scale needed to make a difference and the prospect of year-round smoke pollution. Green firebreaks around towns and suburbs make a lot more sense.

As for fighting fires after they take hold, in the new era we now confront helicopters simply won’t cut it. To fight the fires of the future we will need a fleet of 20 or 30 large fixed-wing aircraft able to refresh their water supply without landing, managed by the military and resourced by a permanent, fully-funded national agency.

The real issues are how we got to here – how our landscape became so hot and dry that nothing in the remarkable arsenal of modern fire-fighting will stop it burning – and what we must now do to remedy an awful situation.

There are no easy answers – tough luck for leaders used to glib one-liners. And it won’t be cheap – tough luck for politicians bleating about their budget surplus. It will require new revenue regimes – including a price on carbon.

As Merkel says, we must find the courage to tread new paths. The science is complex, the politics even more so. Ultimate success is generations ahead. To get there we need to rediscover two attributes that seem to have been relegated to history: visionary thinking and bipartisanship.

After this fire season every Australian will surely know that climate change is truly dangerous, and that all of us, governors and governed alike, must ensure everything humanly possible is done to mitigate its impact. Because if we don’t, today’s appalling news will only get much worse.

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The hidden player in Scott Morrison’s climate game

Could the PM’s religious beliefs be behind his climate policy paralysis?

Ten years ago this month Australia came within an ace of becoming the first nation to put a price on carbon – until a single MP’s vote saw Tony Abbott take Liberal leadership and pull his party out of the pricing deal.

Since then, any move among Liberals for better climate policy has been promptly snuffed out. Now, amid an undeniable climate emergency, we have no effective policy at all. In world climate forums our country is a pariah.

In 2014 Abbott abolished Labor’s carbon tax, which government data shows brought coal emissions down. Malcolm Turnbull thought he should have another go but failed, while Scott Morrison offered his own cameo performance by brandishing a lump of coal in parliament before handing it to another coal champion, then-deputy PM Barnaby Joyce.

It should be noted that those three leading opponents of action to cut fossil fuel emissions – Abbott, Morrison and Joyce – all have strong and openly-expressed religious convictions.

Many religious people speak out for climate action and are in no way to blame for Australia’s policy failure. But it’s worth speculating on how the personal faiths of these three men shaped their attitudes to climate change, and how this might affect our future.

Abbott’s scepticism about man-made warming was evident before he took over as leader. A practising Catholic, he had a close relationship with George Pell, well known for preaching that climate could not be changed by humans.

Joyce has set himself up as the parliament’s go-to man-on-the-land who, unlike the hopelessly ignorant city slickers opposing him, really understands nature’s forces. He too asserts that all change is natural and has repeatedly derided the proposition that humans influence climate.

And he too is a man of God. That came to the fore in a Christmas post on Twitter featuring an eye-opening video selfie of him feeding his cattle and ruminating on the climate, which he admitted is changing.

“My problem’s always been whether you believe a new tax is going to change it back,” he continued. Then this: “We’ve just got to acknowledge there’s a higher authority, beyond our comprehension, right up there in the sky”, and if we don’t respect that authority “we’re just fools and we’ll get nailed.” So climate change is divine retribution.

Abbott and Joyce are past history, but Scott Morrison holds the most powerful, most influential office in the land. Last week he conceded that the drought and “broader fire events” – he avoided calling them a disaster – were linked to global climate change.

He added that it wasn’t credible to link climate change to “any single fire event”; the fires had a “multitude” of causes including carelessness, arson, dry lightning strikes and desiccated fuel. He also opened avenues to compensate brigade volunteers for their efforts.

All fine, except it counts for little when the PM has not acknowledged the gravity of our situation: years of drought topped off by raging wildfires and repeated heatwaves, all ahead of summer’s hottest months. We’re not after bland reassurance, just clear-eyed recognition of our plight.

Doing that could open a door to all sorts of things. Morrison could call the military out in force, agree to modify military aircraft to fight fire and accept Californian offers of more aircraft. And he could put his weight behind a national summit on managing fire risk long-term.

Most important, he could say what must clearly be said: that we are in a climate emergency requiring a wholesale policy rethink, and that we must commit to a massively stronger 2030 emissions target. But the potential conservative backlash would probably stop him.

Something else may also be stopping him. The prime minister’s Pentecostal faith holds that the universe and all that it contains, including all of humanity, is in the hands of its creator, God, and that God will determine its future through the second coming of Christ and the final judgement.

It’s a small step from here to see climate change as part of God’s grand plan where God both causes the change and decides the outcome. In that scheme of things, mere humans are powerless. A Pentecostal Scott Morrison would find it hard to swallow the proposition that humans, as the cause of climate change, must now do all they can to reverse it.

The PM likes to keep his beliefs and his politics in separate boxes. He says people should not assume that his religion affects his policies, and we may feel obliged to take him at his word. But in this time of turmoil – many have called it apocalyptic – we have reason to feel very nervous.

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