A community taking on the net-zero challenge

Five days before Tasmanians went to the polls on Saturday, the World Meteorological Organisation identified what ought to be the runaway top issue of every election campaign in every jurisdiction the world over – Earth’s surface is now above the “safe” global warming limit of 1.5C.

Every indicator is sounding alarms, said the WMO in its yearly report released last Wednesday. A day earlier, its monthly update noted that in February the global average surface temperature was 1.77C above the pre-industrial reference period of 1850 to 1900. If the March figure is in similar territory, we will have experienced a 12-month period averaging above 1.5C of warming. This is a shocking turn of events.

This is what global warming looks like – a single-line graph of the global average surface temperature over 174 years, recorded monthly since 1850 based on land and ocean data from thousands of points around the world. The 0°C circle in the middle marks the average of all readings for the period 1850 to 1900. The yellow line is the record from March 2023, which has taken us well outside the limit deemed by scientists to be safe.

The end of El Niño might deliver a reprieve, but current record-high ocean temperatures indicate this will only be temporary. Our historically stable global climate is now in an indefinite period of instability, and we’re perilously close to the point where no political party, even in a sophisticated economy like ours, will be able to ignore the impact of climate change. 

But we’re not there yet. On the day the WMO report came out, in their leaders’ debate Premier Jeremy Rockliff and Opposition Leader Rebecca White discussed housing, health, education and training, recreational fishing, and above all, an AFL stadium, with the environment getting a cursory mention. Climate change was nowhere to be seen.

The Greens aside, no party or individual candidate across the spectrum took on climate change as a major issue of concern. Perhaps they think it’s something for bigger fish to attend to, too big and all-encompassing for a state election. Some may even think it’s all just hot air.

However, some people and communities in Tasmania hear the urgency in the international climate reports and see climate change looming ominously above their children’s future – and also above their own lives now. They see that established political processes and institutions are struggling with this enormous challenge and that waiting for authorities to act will leave us far short of what’s needed.

One notable example is the community scattered along the D’Entrecasteaux Channel coast and hinterland, loosely based in Kettering. Guided by a well-established group of climate watchers chaired by semi-retired businessman Phil Tomney, people of the Channel have set up their own sustainability and resilience support group, called Net Zero Channel (NZC), formed in May 2022 and incorporated three months later. 

These are people who see the limitations of our political institutions and processes and are determined not to leave the future entirely in the hands of those we elect to office or the bureaucrats who do their bidding. In a nutshell, they’re activists – not a word beloved of many in authority, but one that’s becoming increasingly relevant.

Their activism is on two levels. There’s the individual or household level, where they do things to their homes and lifestyles to make both more climate-friendly. They are solid supporters of a big national push for a federal universal finance scheme to help Australians electrify their home – the Electrify Everything Loans Scheme (EELS) developed by Rewiring Australia, an independent non-profit organisation led by entrepreneur-physicist Saul Griffith. We’ll be able to gauge the success of the EELS push when Treasurer Jim Chalmers hands down the federal budget next month.

NZC’s second focus is setting up its Channel community to lead the state in cutting emissions by coordinating households’ electrification efforts, preferably but not necessarily using EELS finance.

Rewiring Australia has already recognised the group’s work to date by selecting it as the sole Tasmanian volunteer organisation among 10 such groups Australia-wide to receive a small grant ($1000) and online help to spread the word around the Channel – and by extension more broadly – about electrifying to cut community emissions.

One of NZC’s first projects is an online survey exploring strategies to help the Channel region (read, all of Tasmania) to transition rapidly into renewable technologies, seeking information on your home energy circumstances, current and aspirational. The survey is easily accessed on the Net Zero Channel website (www.netzerochannel.org.au).

Initiatives like NZC’s have been supported for years by groups like Sustainable Living Tasmania, Climate Tasmania  and the University of Tasmania’s Tasmanian Policy Exchange under Richard Eccleston, but their ideas keep getting lost in the swirl of power politics.

Yet the Greens and progressive independents were solidly supported in an election that saw the government vote plummet. On Saturday evening Greens leader Rosalie Woodruff spoke with conviction of the conservation movement’s continued success against big commercial and political interests. There is still hope.

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Why Macquarie Point needs a science centre

Tasmanian voters can be forgiven for thinking that a Hobart sports stadium is the only issue that counts in Election 2024. From the start of the campaign, the stadium (it needs no further identifier) has been front and centre in public debate.

You could sense the relief in Jeremy Rockliff’s government in late 2022 when he named Macquarie Point as the stadium site. After a decade of hope and disappointment as ideas aplenty appeared in the public spotlight and then vanished, the centrepiece for this priceless nine hectares of real estate was finally decided.  

If we’re to believe the official “plan”, Macquarie Point will essentially comprise a stadium and a working port, with small bits of land set aside for “residential and public foreshore” and “Antarctic facilities” respectively. The latter is all that’s left of an earlier idea for a “science and Antarctic precinct”, bringing together Hobart’s various Antarctic and Southern Ocean functions in a single location.

Back then the science precinct idea didn’t appeal to me. I saw little merit in spending millions just to move the Australian Antarctic Division from its established Kingston base, or CSIRO and the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies from their current Princes Wharf and Castray Esplanade locations. 

But that was before I learned of a proposal by Glenys Jones, who trained as a natural scientist before a career in heritage evaluation and science policy, and marine scientist Keith Sainsbury, an IMAS associate professor and former CSIRO senior research scientist.

Jones and Sainsbury raised their idea for a “Science Centre for Sustainability” in these pages in September 2020. They elaborated on it in October last year, around the time premier Rockliff and former premier Paul Lennon were arguing over competing stadium proposals. 

Needless to say, any public airing of their idea was drowned out by all the stadium noise, but their proposal is far too valuable to allow a sports stadium – whatever its own merits – to elbow it out of the way. 

It’s no accident that Tasmania is already home to more scientists per capita than any other Australian state, and their work is overwhelmingly focused on the natural resources from which we inhabitants of this island – and of the rest of the nation and the world – draw all our sustenance. 

As Jones and Sainsbury point out, besides CSIRO’s marine, atmospheric, agricultural and ecological research, Tasmania hosts complementary University of Tasmania research hubs covering marine ecology, fire research, agricultural and forest science. 

We’re also home to the national headquarters for Antarctic science, policy and administration,  the National Environmental Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, and the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), as well as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. 

A Tasmanian Science Centre for Sustainability would serve all these functions, but it would be far more besides. In the inspired vision of Jones and Sainsbury, it “would communicate, inspire and advance innovation and excellence in science for sustainability [and] actively support informed policy, planning and decision-making for our collective community and planetary wellbeing, now and for future generations.”

The centre would “communicate, inspire and advance innovation and excellence in science for sustainability,… engage and connect experts with policy and decision-makers and community stakeholders across multiple sectors.”

Such a centre “would establish an active link between what the science tells us and what we are trying to achieve,” delivering robust science to support a growing role for Tasmania “as a global leader and exemplar of sustainability.”

At the weekend Jeremy Rockliff himself put the case for science supporting sustainability, in an election promise to boost flathead stocks through relocation and captive breeding. He pledged to “work with the best of science within … IMAS to ensure that we can do both”. All without imposing any additional taxes or fees.

This is almost believable – until you factor in the government’s record of chronic disregard of any sort of objective science in managing resource activities affecting the natural environment – most tellingly the failure to regulate Tasmania’s clearly unsustainable salmon farming industry, but also in mining, forestry and water use. 

How we fund science while ensuring that it remains objective is a perennial problem. In aquaculture, forestry, mining and agriculture, in Tasmania as elsewhere, it’s too easy to use commercial-in-confidence contracts and other means to hide bias in research outcomes to favour those providing the money.

We need science to be – and to be seen to be – a public asset. Jones and Sainsbury offer an opportunity to give long-neglected environmental research the public spotlight it deserves. There can be no better use for Macquarie Point.

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The unstoppable scourge of plastic

Every day our newspaper is delivered to the driveway wrapped in a thin film of plastic to keep it dry in wet weather. The papers are recycled, but every day the plastic goes to the bin – because landfill is the only disposal option.

It wasn’t always that way. For some years we squashed the newspaper wrapper into a huge bag along with other soft plastic scraps, at intervals dropping it into a depository in our supermarket. Along with other customers we had been led to believe that chemical wizardry could make our waste into something someone wanted. 

All seemed well – until the supermarket chains sheepishly admitted their contractors’ warehouses were overflowing with plastic waste. They abruptly terminated the scheme and we were back where we started. We’re still there.

The news is now filtering out that since different plastics have different chemistry, recycling unsorted mountains of plastic is very complex, and therefore expensive. We used to send our discarded plastic to Asian countries, presumably thinking they had the means to sort it, until they too started drowning in the stuff and told us to keep it.

Recycling plastic turns out to be a serious health hazard. Last November a plan for a global plastics treaty formulated by the Plastic Health Council, an international expert group studying its health impacts, included a demand for an end to all chemical recycling.

Promoting chemical recycling would be “the worst outcome” of any kind of plastics treaty, the scientists wrote. Said Swedish chemist Bethanie Carney Almroth, toxic chemicals in plastics complicate their reuse, including processing in closed-loop recycling systems.

The Plastic Health Council also called for an end to subsidies to plastic manufacturers, banning the sale of all products with unnecessary plastic by 2030, and making dramatic cuts to production of single use plastic by half within a decade and the manufacture of virgin, or unrecycled, plastic by 70 per cent this year.

This is a controversial position for any body of experts to take. Some of the world’s biggest and most influential corporations manufacture virgin plastics using chemicals derived from fossil fuels (oil or gas). They can be made to meet almost any need and, under present cost regimes, are markedly cheaper than recycled plastic. Most telling of all, they make up about 99 per cent of all plastics. 

Collecting, sorting, processing and moving plastics for recycling requires more time, labor, and equipment than making virgin plastic from fossil fuels, and results in a lower grade product – less bang for the buyer’s buck. Against that, governments pay billions to support extraction and processing of fossil fuels, a level of subsidy that will always put recycling at a profound economic disadvantage.

Authorities around the world have come to realise that recycling plastic is a mug’s game. “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling”, a detailed study released last month by the Washington-based Center for Climate Integrity, points out that the only current markets for recycled plastics are for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles and jugs. The rest is low-grade junk.

Other plastics collected in kerbside recycling are incinerated or sent to landfill. Even in the near-impossible event that they get sorted into their different chemical types, the huge range of colourants or other additives in use prevents their recycling. 

Recycling (or as the report more accurately describes the process, “downcycling”) can usually happen only once, rarely twice and never more often. The quality of plastic degrades as it is recycled, reducing the usability of recycled plastic. This degradation continues with more recycling, making recycled resins unsuitable for most purposes. This is especially the case for food packaging because of the tendency of recycled plastic to leach toxins.

Where does this leave plastic recycling? Except for a tiny proportion of particular kinds of plastic, it won’t work, hence the supermarket chains’ undignified retreat from their soft plastics program. The truth of the matter is that recycling any plastics, including plastic bottles, is a hit-and-miss affair, and more likely the latter.

Last year Tasmanian Environment Minister Roger Jaensch spruiked the long-awaited Container Refund Scheme “to improve waste management and resource recovery”, but neither Liberal nor Labor have made recycling plastics an election issue. 

The Greens’ policy to “ban all single-use plastics” is clearly the way to go – except that it can’t be done on a local, state or even national scale. World commerce dictates that only a universal prohibition will do – a prohibition on any plastic that for all practical purposes cannot be recycled. That is, pretty well all of it.

How’s that for a political challenge?

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