In the rainforests of northern Queensland, scientists and government are getting serious about protecting wildlife, plants and ecosystems from climate change. A couple of years ago, Mount Baldy in the Herberton Range near Atherton became part of Queensland’s protected area estate, in part because the mountains will remain cool enough under global warming for many species to survive there.
The area will act as a refuge as species move from the warming lowlands. Now the Queensland government is using resilience to climate change as the primary factor in deciding what new national parks to add across the state.
Climate change poses a significant threat to animals, plants and ecosystems over the coming decades. Queensland’s World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforests are particularly vulnerable, as many species are adapted to a narrow temperature range.
To save wildlife we’ll need to mitigate climate change (reduce our greenhouse gas emissions) and adapt to the warming already coming our way. New national parks are just one of the methods Queensland is developing to give wildlife room to move.From science to action
A whole host of research groups have worked on conservation in the Wet Tropics, supported by the Australian and Queensland governments. These include: the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Rainforest-CRC, Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility and the National Environmental Research Program.
Each of these groups has worked with the management authorities and built on previous research. That research is starting to pay off. Here’s how it worked.
Biodiversity research in the Rainforest-CRC fed directly into the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility program. In 2011 this research identified refugia that will remain cooler than average under climate change. This is due to buffering of temperature by cloud, forest canopy and the natural topography of the landscape.
The JCU team then combined projections of future species distributions with the refugia mapping to identify areas of high conservation importance. These areas have high refugial potential and both high current and future biodiversity value.
These analyses identified places that are currently cleared but could support many species in the future if the rainforest was restored and existing patches reconnected. This information directly informed the Wet Tropics Management Authority conservation plans and priorities and contributed to the new Mt Baldy National Park being gazetted.
The scientists, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, landholders and community groups worked together under a federal Caring for Country grant to figure out where and how to restore habitat in places that would connect remaining patches of rainforest. Connecting habitat patches is important. It allows animals to move across the landscape as the climate changes in order to stay in their comfort zone.
This led to the Making Connections project, which is actively revegetating and connecting rainforest areas. This helps build resilience for the region’s biodiversity.
The research was further developed and adapted nationally under the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to identify climate refuges Australia-wide.
The Queensland government then used this knowledge to make informed decisions about how to increase the state’s protected area estate in a way that would enhance the resilience of Queensland’s biodiversity into the future.
These examples clearly emphasise how science and research can have a real and positive influence on producing on-the-ground adaptation actions that will reduce the climate change impacts on biodiversity.Australia to the world
Tropical ecosystems are the most important reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the Earth, but the tropics also face the greatest conflict between human well-being, sustainable development and a healthy environment.
The three most important regions for global biodiversity are South America, the Asia-Pacific and Central Africa. These tropical megadiverse regions contain approximately 80% of terrestrial biodiversity with a high proportion of threatened species. They also provide significant ecosystem services to the Earth and the well-being of billions of people.
However, tropical ecosystems are under considerable threat. The tropics have 40% of the global human population, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people and the fastest growth rates in human population, economic change and habitat loss.
Until recently, habitat loss and degradation was clearly the major environmental threat in the tropics. However, in the 21st century the impact of global climate change in combination with other human-induced impacts poses the greatest challenge of our time.
It has never been more important to provide and disseminate knowledge that informs policy and natural resource management. This can then enable effective adaptation and mitigation measures to maintain the resilience of tropical ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.
We need to establish a global network that builds on the Australian model by including empirical research on adaptation and mitigation, monitoring, regional and global capacity-building and information exchange across the globe.
There are positive signs that governments in the tropics are recognising the importance of this issue and the potential benefits of bringing their scientists, stakeholders and the public together to increase their capacity to adapt and mitigate.
The Singapore government has expressed interest in establishing an Asia-Pacific network in collaboration with our Australian network. Similarly, the Ecuadorian government has funded the initial development of a South American network in partnership with Yachay Tech University.
We need to make the momentum created in Australia snowball into a global network of people, organisations and monitoring sites across the tropics. This will enable us to make the right decisions in the face of the combined threats of global climate change, habitat loss and illegal logging and poaching. This will hopefully reduce the negative impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and on the livelihoods of the growing economies and populations of the tropics.
Stephen Williams receives funding from Australian National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Earthwatch Institute and SENESCYT & Yachay Tech University, Ecuador.
Brett Scheffers receives funding from National Geographic Society.
Lorena Falconi does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
A plethora of economic studies on the costs of climate action share a common message: action on climate change is cheap, and delaying it will be costly.
This has implications for Australia’s post-2020 emissions targets, to be decided by government the in coming weeks or months. We’ve reviewed the evidence.
The results are published in two short reports for WWF Australia. Our first brief highlighted that there is a general consensus amongst economists on the costs of mitigating climate change. That consensus is invisible to most, but it is clear across all major reports and studies: the cost of reducing emissions for Australia, and the world, is low.
Our second brief, released today, shows another points of emerging consensus: that the costs of delaying action on climate change outweigh the benefits.The cost of taking action is low
All major studies find that the costs of achieving deep reductions in carbon emissions are a small fraction of future economic growth. And that is before extra benefits such as reduced air pollution and more stable energy prices are taken into account. These are significant benefits that most models ignore. The co-benefits of the US Clean Air Act have been estimated to be 30 times greater than the costs of compliance.
Australia’s economy will keep growing comparatively rapidly, to perhaps two and a half times its current size by 2050, while emissions are cut – and cut deeply if strong effort is made.
With each successive study, the estimated cost of cutting emissions to a given level has dropped, or the emissions reductions achievable at a given cost increased. More is possible at lower cost than we thought just a few years ago.
This is for several reasons.
First, the technological progress with many low-emissions technologies consistently outpaces projections, LED lighting and electric cars being among the examples.
Second, the costs of technologies are falling much faster than expected. Solar panels are the prime example. Astonishingly, large-scale solar panel power stations are already only half the cost that the Treasury’s 2008 and 2011 modelling studies estimated they would be in the year 2030.
Third, the underlying drivers of emissions growth are not as strong now than many thought they would be, including because of the end of the mining boom.
Fourth, analysts and businesses are becoming aware of ever more ways in which emissions can be reduced.
Given the plummeting costs of renewable energy it is reasonable to ask why doesn’t Australia wait until costs are even lower and then make the transition?
Unfortunately despite the falling price of renewable energy technology, delaying mitigation has a range of significant costs. It reviews the literature on delay, showing that the costs of delay outweigh any potential benefits.
The longer that emissions increase or plateau, the steeper reductions in the future must be, because greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. The longer we wait, the greater the risk that global climate goals get out of reach. Delaying global action by 15 years effectively pushes the globally agreed 2C target out of reach.
Delaying action also means relying upon currently commercially unavailable technologies. Such technologies include the large-scale use of bio-energy combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The IPCC finds that large-scale deployment of such “BECCS” technology could be necessary to keep warming to 2C under a scenario of delayed action.
Taking it easy at first and going for stronger action later would likely come at a high economic cost. A range of models have found that delaying global mitigation by 15 years could double or triple the cost of keeping to an overall carbon budget.
A key factor is that delay leads to the “lock-in” of emissions intensive infrastructure which becomes obsolete when action is taken to cut emissions. And rather than changing economic structures gradually, delayed action requires sudden adjustment that could cause economic and social disruption.
This is not just a question of economic efficiency but also an issue of intergenerational equity. Future generations are likely to bear the stronger impacts of climate change, and if we delay they will also face much higher costs in reducing emissions.Avoiding a fossilised economy
The risk of carbon lock-in and high adjustment costs from delay are particularly strong for Australia given our emissions intensive economy, exports and resources.
Global coal demand will fall under strong global climate action; already China’s coal demand is tailing off despite the Chinese economy continuing to grow rapidly. Some of Australia’s mining and coal transport infrastructure may be left stranded. Indeed, over-investment in the coal industry during the mining boom means that some infrastructure may already need to be prematurely retired. This poses particular risks for low-grade, high-cost coal.
There is significant financial risk in continued fossil fuel investment.
The reality is that a large share of global fossil fuel resources cannot be used if the world is to limit global warming to 2C. The lion’s share of coal resources in Australia will be “unburnable”. For developed countries in the Asia Pacific -principally Australia- this share of “unburnable” coal could be above 90%.
Strong global climate change action is in Australia’s interest, as acknowledged in the government’s issues paper on the post-2020 emissions target. What also needs to be understood is that strong and early domestic emissions reductions are also in Australia’s short and long-term national interest. Dragging our feet is not a smart, or fair, idea.
Luke Kemp receives research funding from an Australian Postgraduate Award.
Frank Jotzo receives research funding from the Australian government.
Nearly half of 200 Australian species are threatened by climate change, according to our research published today in PLOS ONE.
Climate change is one of the major contributors to global biodiversity loss, and plant and animal species can be affected by climate change in different ways. Some may be directly affected by sea level rise or snow melt, whereas some may lose a pollinator or prey species that they rely on.
Species that cannot move to more suitable habitats, or who have no suitable habitat left, risk becoming extinct. Understanding how each of our species is affected by climate change means we can help them survive it.
A recent global study showed that between 11-15% of amphibian species are threatened by climate change (depending on how much the world warms), yet we rarely know how to help these species because we don’t know why individual species are vulnerable.
We set out to document how many of Australia’s threatened species are likely to be impacted by climate change, and which aspects of their biology was leading to the vulnerability. We chose a balanced selection of species, including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and plants for our analysis, and assess them using a method developed by NatureServe.Which species?
Over 45% of all the threatened species we assessed were moderately to highly vulnerable, including a wide range of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and plants.
The species most vulnerable to climate change was the Mountain Pygmy Possum, threatened by increased snow melt, and further habitat loss through development of ski resorts.
Overall, and perhaps not surprisingly, amphibians are most highly vulnerable to climate change. They have small and fragmented distributions, and rely heavily on particular moisture regimes and aquatic habitats.
Plants were the next most vulnerable group, because they often have low dispersal ability (they cannot move freely like animals) and rely on specific soil types. Birds, who are very good dispersers, were the least vulnerable group.
The Green and Golden Bell Frog (Litoria aurea) is one of Australia’s threatened frog species. Potentially manipulating water sources or providing artificial water points may be the best way to ensure the future of many Australian amphibians under climate change. Jeremy RingmaWhere should we focus our efforts?
The three most pervasive factors for all the assessed threatened species were low genetic variation, dependence on particular patterns of disturbance (often fire, required for reproduction or to maintain suitable habitats), and reliance on particular patterns of rainfall or habitats.
Crucially, the reasons why threatened species are vulnerable to climate change varied markedly across Australia. Along the south-east coastline, the major driving factors were reliance on particular patterns of disturbance and low genetic variation, while in contrast one of key factors driving vulnerability of the species residing in the upper Northern Territory was reliance on particular moisture regimes and habitats.
Each of these regions will require a set of on-ground actions targeted specifically to address the factors causing climate change vulnerability of the species living there.
Fires play a large role in maintaining suitable habitat for many Australian species and are required by some for reproduction. Reliance on fire regimes is one of the factors driving species climate change vulnerability across the south-east coastline. Julian Murphy/WWFWhat can we do?
Once the drivers of climate change vulnerability are understood for different species, groups of species and regions, we can start to take action. Actions that are targeted to help species adapt to the changing climate and give them the best chance of surviving into the future.
But how do we go about it? As an example, we can increase moisture in an environment to help amphibians by installing microhabitat refuges (such as fallen logs and cover boards), or directly manipulating the moisture levels at breeding sites by installing irrigation sprayers.
We can target actions to specific sites. The south-east coastline for example could be benefited by having dedicated areas that are specially managed to maintain appropriate patterns of fire.
Other actions may be broader and target a larger number of species, such as habitat restoration, or corridors to counter increasing fragmentation. We need to identify and protect critical refuges for as many species as possible. Whatever the case, helping our species adapt to climate change is going to require novel and unique management strategies.
Now that we know which of our threatened species are being impacted by climate change and why, we can begin to design on-ground management strategies to start combating the impending changes.
In conjunction with increasing on-ground actions, we must keep in mind that the cost and difficulty of more intensive management to save threatened species underlines the importance of bringing about rapid and deep cuts to the greenhouse gas emissions that are creating this crisis.
Jasmine Lee received funding for this work from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the World Wildlife Fund Australia.
Ramona Maggini received funding for this work from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.
Richard Fuller received funding for this work from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the World Wildlife Fund Australia.
This long-read article is part of a series examining in depth the various threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
When the Great Barrier Reef was first placed on the World Heritage List in 1981, it was recognised as being home to a huge diversity of species, many of them threatened. Conserving the reef’s habitats would therefore be a great way to protect many different species all at the same time.
Naturally, some of these thousands of species have attracted more attention than others. Generally these are large animals with high tourism value – often called the “charismatic megafauna” – such as marine mammals, turtles, sea snakes, sharks, rays and seabirds. Many of these species are listed as either threatened or migratory under Australia’s environmental legislation.
Yet this hardly scratches the surface. Even counting only vertebrates, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) boasts a diversity of species (see page 23 onwards here) that can be found in few other places on the planet. It features 1,625 species of bony fish, six of the seven marine turtle species, 30 whale and dolphin species, dugong, 20 breeding seabird species, and some 136 species of sharks and rays.
There are also hugely valuable places such as Raine Island, the world’s largest breeding location for green turtles, which also hosts breeding colonies of 14 seabird species and provides habitat for up to 20 shark and ray species.
Yet of these thousands of species, we only have data on population trends for a small few, and most species have never been assessed. There are nine species or species groups of marine vertebrates in the GBR – six are rated as being in poor condition and four have deteriorated since 2009.
The lack of specific data makes it hard to work out which species will be vulnerable to human-generated risks, and to decide on policies to safeguard them. And of the ones that have been assessed, the news is a mixed bag of good and not-so-good.Good news stories
Humpback whales were hunted to near extinction in eastern Australia during the 1950s and early 1960s. Since whaling was banned in the early 1960s the population has recovered by an estimated 11% per year, and humpback and dwarf minke whales now support a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry (see page 32 of the GBR Outlook Report).
Loggerhead turtles breeding in Queensland declined between the 1980s and 2000s as they were hit hard by egg predation and fishing bycatch. Combinations of land based-management, protected area designations and fisheries regulations (such as the 2001 requirement for turtle excluder devices) led to population recovery, although it has still not regained its original level.
Reef shark populations have declined in some areas, probably as a result of previous fishing pressures. However, there are early indications of recovery for some species since the rezoning of the GBR and fisheries management changes introduced in 2004. The public has also shown increasing awareness of the need for and value in sustaining healthy shark populations.
Hawksbill turtles on the northern GBR are declining by around 3% per year. The key threats are international turtle hunting, and predation of eggs on Australian islands by native and introduced fauna. Without action, the population is forecast to decline by more than 90% by 2020.
Most sawfishes and the speartooth shark have seriously declined in abundance and distribution along the Queensland coast, with some species such as the green sawfish facing potential localised extinctions. Although these species are listed as protected species, they continue to be threatened by fishing and habitat loss and degradation.
Inshore dolphins such as the Australian snubfin and Indo-pacific humpback live in small, often isolated, local populations around the coastal areas of the GBR. Although there are no population size estimates for either species they are believed to be in decline and under considerable risk from human activities.
Dugong, despite being more abundant in the Torres Strait than anywhere else on Earth, are thought to be in decline in the southern GBR, according to aerial surveys, and there are concerns that declining sea grass abundance coupled with fisheries and boating related mortality are affecting the population.
Rather than focus on individual species, it is perhaps easier to look at the broad habitat types where they live. The different habitats that cover the GBR World Heritage Area include islands, beaches and coastline, seagrass meadows, coral reefs, mangroves, the lagoon floor, shoals, halimeda banks, continental slope and open waters.
The GBR Marine Park Authority’s Outlook Report states that the condition of five of the ten habitat groups have deteriorated between 2009 and 2014, and for three habitats rated as “good”, their condition was inferred on the basis of limited evidence. Each of these habitats is important for many of the GBR’s most recognised species.
In particular, there have been well-documented declines in seagrass and hard coral cover across the World Heritage Area, particularly in the southern inshore region of the GBR. Additionally, coastal, estuarine and lagoon floor habitats are also affected by impacts from land-use changes such as coastal modification. Restoring the condition to these habitats is complicated and will take a long time. What’s more, when habitats change we have little idea of the longer-term flow-on consequences for many species.
There are still crucial unanswered questions: how do seagrass seeds disperse along the coast and between coastal bays? What is the abundance, distribution and status of key species (and new ones yet to be discovered)? How and why do coastal species move within and between coastal habitats and coral reefs?
How does bottom-trawling affect seafloor invertebrate species and the flow on impacts to turtles? What is the impact of high seas and International fisheries on the GBR’s marine turtles? How will marine mammals and other vertebrates react to underwater noise from human activities?
The Commonwealth and Queensland governments' Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, released earlier this year, is big on ambition but low on detail. Targets are well defined for water quality, having been the subject of much discussion. But for marine vertebrates and their habitats the targets are often generic, and there is no guarantee that there will be enough resources to do the necessary monitoring to make them any better.
Yet we believe there are several things that can be done. Several of the threatened and declining species are migratory, so one thing we can do is strengthen international cooperation through jointly funded conservation projects. We should also strengthen Indigenous partnerships for research and management, not just in the World Heritage Area but in the neighbouring Torres Strait and southeast Queensland.
We need to strengthen the transfer of knowledge between groups doing work on the ground and people in Government who make decisions. There also needs to be concerted effort and political will focused on reviving the integrated planning and management schemes designed to manage and protect the coastal ecosystems that drive and support coastal and reef dwelling species.
From the sheer volume of media discussion about issues such as the Abbot Point port redevelopment, it could be inferred that the people are uncertain about the government’s ability to safeguard the reef’s outstanding value. Community attitudes and support are vital for a healthy reef, and we believe that a concerted effort is needed to restore community confidence and engage the community in conservation efforts.
Meanwhile, we need to identify the species of highest priority. For each species or group of species we then need to understand the threats, work out how to manage them, and properly evaluate the effectiveness of management actions put in place to protect them.
It is unlikely that sufficient resources will be available to address each individual threat for each species or multi-species group, so we need to develop tools which allow decision makers to determine priority actions which when complete provide best conservation bang for buck.
Marine parks work, but are they generally too small to protect mobile or migratory species, so we will need to work out how to conserve species on larger scales.
Monitoring marine populations and habitats is always challenging, especially in near-shore regions with cloudy water, but if we are to save the valued animals of the Great Barrier Reef, we will need research, results, and a solid plan with realistic priorities on which we can rely on to obtain the best conservation outcomes.
Mark Hamann receives funding from the Australian Government's Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility and the National Environmental Research Program. He is affiliated with James Cook University.
Andrew Chin receives funding from the Australian Government Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, and is affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University. He is an executive officer of the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society, a scientific organisation promoting the research and sustainable use of sharks and rays.
Today in Oslo – 44,000 petition signatures were delivered urging Norwegian politicians to divest their Global Pension Fund from fossil fuels, starting with companies mining and burning coal. Coal investments make up only 1.2% of the fund’s US$867bn investment portfolio, yet this is enough to make the fund one of the ten largest coal investors in the world.
This is about more than Norway though. This is about all the communities impacted by coal. The fund’s investments are not just numbers on a spreadsheet. Today during the petition delivery, messages from people around the world were projected onto screens.
Hopefully Norway will listen and choose a renewable future — for everyone.[View the story “Divest Norway Stories” on Storify]
Oil giant is wrong on climate policy and on the progress that will be made in renewables over next 20-30 years, says influential economist Nick Stern
Shell is asking investors to bet against the world taking action on climate change or in renewables displacing fossil fuels, says influential economist Nick Stern.
Speaking at a Guardian debate on divestment last night, Lord Stern said Shell and other hydrocarbon companies were getting it wrong on the potential of renewables technology and that people will insist on policies to hold global warming to 2C of global warming.
The event was organised in partnership with the British Academy and the Doen Foundation. Click here for the full report Continue reading...
Do you want to know the real reason for the advances by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Changing lightbulbs in America. This is the explanation given by John McCain, Republican chair of the Senate armed services committee. At the weekend he blamed Barack Obama’s inability to magic away Isis on the president’s belief that climate change is “the biggest enemy we have”. Never mind the role of the Iraq war – which McCain supported – in destabilising the region, destroying the Iraqi army and creating the opportunities Isis has exploited. Never mind the propagation of Salafi doctrines by Saudi Arabia, which McCain bravely confronts by grovelling before its tyrants. It’s the Better Buildings Challenge and the Solar Instructor Training Network that allowed Isis to capture Ramadi and Palmyra.
This catastrophe wiped out not just species within the world’s ecosystems but the ecosystems themselvesContinue reading...
The frontrunner for the Republican presidential ticket exhibited Stage 2 climate denial last week
Look, first of all, the climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t even have a conversation about it.
I think, as conservatives, we should embrace innovation, embrace technology, embrace science; it’s the source of a lot more solutions than any government-imposed idea.
We’ve had a decrease [in carbon emissions], a pretty significant decrease and it will continue on, not because of Barack Obama, but because of the energy revolution, because of free-enterprise, because of private property rights because of American innovation has created a combination of two existing technologies: hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling has created an explosion of lower carbon energy that is being used to replace higher carbon energy.
we need to encourage the (nations) states that have had an increase in carbon emissions, We’re not one of them!Continue reading...
The reach of our Keep it in the ground community has been wide and your commitment has been deep. We’ve got to know a bit about you. Here’s your opportunity to meet each other. Provide a photo and answer a few questions, and we’ll add you to our interactive
Submit your photo by clicking on the blue ‘Contribute’ button on this article. You can also use the GuardianWitness smartphone app or the Guardian app and search for ‘GuardianWitness assignments’. Then choose the photo option. If you’re having any problems uploading, email email@example.com
As we’d like to introduce you to each other, please do add the following information to the description box:Continue reading...
Rex Tillerson has a history of sparring with activist shareholders Father Michael Crosby and Sister Pat Daly, but external pressure this year could add extra spice
The chief executive of the world’s largest oil company will on Wednesday face two of the firm’s most persistent environmental activist shareholders – a nun from New Jersey and a friar from Milwaukee.
ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson has a long history of civil but strained sparring with Father Michael Crosby and Sister Pat Daly at its annual shareholder meetings. Crosby is leading a group of investors calling for Exxon to give a seat on its board to an eminent climate expert, while Daly is pressing for emission targets that would set the company on the the path away from fossil fuels.Continue reading...
About 5,500 glaciers could disappear or drastically retreat by the end of the century with severe impacts on farming and hydropower, say scientists
Most of the glaciers in the Mount Everest region will disappear or drastically retreat as temperatures increase with climate change over the next century, according to a group of international researchers.
The estimated 5,500 glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region – site of Mount Everest and many of the world’s tallest peaks – could reduce their volume by 70%-99% by 2100, with dire consequences for farming and hydropower generation downstream, they said.Continue reading...
UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy curates a series of 20 original poems by various authors on the theme of climate change
A thousand synonyms for wind
make up your song.
Those busy arms
may juggle any number of rumours
your Swish, for one—
Earlier this week the Grattan Institute released the report Sundown, sunrise: how Australia can finally get solar power right. It looked at the cost of solar subsides and explored emerging challenges and opportunities for solar power to “find its place in the sun”, and generated widespread reports of its headline figure, that the cost of solar photovoltaic take-up has outweighed the benefits by almost A$10 billion dollars.
That figure (A$9.7 billion, to be precise) was generated by comparing the benefits of greenhouse emission reductions from solar, against the capital and maintenance costs. The first part of this calculation is therefore dependent on the assumed carbon price of A$30 a tonne, which gives a total benefit to society of A$2 billion by 2030.
The Grattan Institute’s analysis says that rooftop solar photovoltaic panels have come at a large cost to society. Figures (in 2015 dollars) refer to benefits and costs of solar PV systems installed from 2009. Grattan Institute
But why A$30 per tonne? And what is the actual cost of carbon emissions?The real cost of carbon
One metric commonly used is the “social cost of carbon”. This is an estimate of the economic damages from the emission of one extra unit of carbon dioxide (or equivalent). There is a huge range and debate about what the social cost of carbon really is.
Earlier this year, a paper in Nature Climate Change estimated the social cost of carbon to be US$220 per tonne. This significantly changes the cost benefit analysis.
Rooftop solar PV has come at a large cost to society Aggregate net present benefits and costs to society of solar PV systems installed from 2009, $2015, with a carbon price of $220 per tonne Authors illustration
Last year, Nicholas Stern and Simon Dietz updated their internationally renowned model, finding that a carbon price between US$32 and US$103 was required today to avoid more than 2C of warming, (rising to between US$82-260 in 2035).
Other work suggests that should global greenhouse mitigation continue to be delayed, a carbon price of US$40 per tonne of CO2-equivalent would reduce the probability of limiting global warming to 2C by only 10–35%.
The Grattan report argued that “subsidies are expensive and inefficient”, but arbitrarily used a A$30 per tonne cost, significantly underestimating the most important subsidy: the fact that polluters are allowed to emit carbon dioxide for free.
While the choice of carbon price and costs significantly changes the calculus, looking only at the emissions and avoided generation really misses the point of the support mechanisms in the first place.Why do we have renewable energy support mechanisms?
The Grattan report concludes that “Australia could have reduced its emissions for much less money”.
This is undeniably true. As the report points out, the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund has purchased emissions abatement at an average price of A$13.95 per tonne, and the Warburton review estimated the cost of the large-scale Renewable Energy Target to be A$32 per tonne up until 2030.
However, the objective of renewable energy policy is not solely for cheap and efficient emissions reductions. In fact, the objectives within the legislation of the renewable energy target are to:
- encourage the additional generation of electricity;
- reduce emissions of greenhouse gases;
- ensure that renewable energy sources are sustainable.
It is not particularly fair to assess a support mechanism against objectives it was not designed to achieve. Only assessing the efficacy of the renewable energy target against emissions abatement efficiency misses an important component of renewable energy support policy: industry development.
Market mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, are widely acknowledged to be the most efficient method to reduce emissions. However, they are not sufficient by themselves and do not address other market failures.
In fact this is something that the Grattan Institute itself previously reported on in a previous report, Building the bridge: a practical plan for a low-cost, low-emissions energy future, which said:
Governments must address these market failures, beyond putting a price on carbon
…in order to develop, demonstrate and deploy the technologies that are likely to be lowest cost in the longer time frame of meeting the climate change targets, further government action is essential.
As indicated, deployment policies are an essential policy to tool to develop the renewable energy industry, and ensure the lowest cost in the long term. Typically, in the context of renewable energy deployment policies sit between R&D on one hand, and pure market mechanism (such as carbon pricing) for mature technologies on the other.
Such deployment policies are essential to enable learning-by-doing and realising economies of scale. The cost reductions enabled by this simply cannot be developed in the lab, or be captured in the market by individual companies (due to knowledge and technology spillovers and other similar positive externalities).The cost of reducing emissions
The report concludes that solar schemes have reduced emissions at a cost of A$175 per tonne to 2030. This figure has been derived by using the net present costs and for the emissions abated to 2030, which includes the capital cost of older and significantly more expensive systems.
If carbon costs were price at A$220 per tonne, the cost of abatement becomes negative, that is, a saving.
An alternative measure looks at the subsidy paid today. Households are currently purchasing solar systems subsidised by the RET at rate of approximately A$0.80 per watt installed, while receiving cost-reflective (unsubsidised) feed-in tariffs. Over an expected 25 year life, and an average grid carbon intensity of 0.85 tonnes per megawatt hour, the cost of abatement would be approximately A$28 per tonne.
Comparing this with the cost of abatement only a few years ago (in the order of several hundred dollars per tonne), the support mechanisms look very successful in delivering on objectives of industry development, and delivering cost reductions.
Most would agree that some renewable policies have previously been poorly implemented, and the Grattan report is right in highlighting these. However measuring their costs against objectives they were not intended to achieve is unfair.
The simple cost benefit analysis fails to incorporate all benefits of renewable energy support policy, and underestimates the avoided costs of carbon emissions.
Dylan McConnell has received funding from the AEMC's Consumer Advocacy Panel