Cyclists bringing sexy back

10 11 2010
by Katie Silver, cyclist, journalist and materialist
In response to a chic, space-age Swedish invention (we’ll get to that later!), the Sydney Morning Herald is debating – and voting – over whether wearing a helmet when biking should be mandatory by law.

With some 5,000 people already having voted, the race is surprisingly close, representing an interesting challenge to conventional wisdom.

Ever since 1991, when Australia became the first country in the world to insist that donning a helmet is obligatory, it has been unquestioningly accepted as the right way things should be done – even though there has been no decrease in head injuries since the laws were introduced.

Many an Australian traveller has tut-tutted at the tuk-tuks of Thailand. “So many people on the one contraption! So dangerous! Is that a chicken?”

But is our unchallenged upholding of the “helmets-only” policy outdated? Does it instead just mean that hardly anyone bikes… and that we are increasingly an overweight, petrol-guzzling, glass-is-half-empty kind of people?

Why yes, it does, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. 3000 other people have voted that helmet laws should be overturned. Something needs to change because as the situation currently stands, bike riding in Sydney is pathetically low.

As Sydney University’s Public Health Professor Chris Rissel told the ABC, “You’ve got helmets creating a barrier to cycling”. It puts people off  “and makes people think that cycling’s a dangerous activity, even though it’s a really healthy thing to do and it increases people’s physical activity,” – not to mention that cars are totally sucky for the environment.

Sydney, by all respects should be a perfect city for biking.  With a pleasant climate year round and such beautiful surrounds to observe from a bicycle seat (think: scooting through Centennial Park, buzzing by Circular Quay, seeing the sunset across Sydney Harbour,) it’s a wonder not everyone is embracing the breeziness of bikes.

Instead – biking in Sydney is super, hardcore dangerous and bike-riders, with their neon orange body-suits and their trusty helmets, are super, hardcore dorky.

On the other hand, currently living in New York, biking is probably my favourite pastime. Nothing gives me a greater buzz than whizzing down Park Avenue, leaving the yellow taxis in my wake.  To be sure, it’s still not entirely safe but at least they have bike lanes and plenty of bikers. Not to mention that here, it’s super, duper cool.

And so, in the interests of cool, the Swedes –probably would win the prize for the Most Effective nation in the world – have invented an inflatable airbag helmet…

In Europe, where both bikes and fashion are both a Big Deal, two Swedish designers from the University of Lund have developed an alternative to the antiquated helmet.  The scarf – or collar, to be more accurate – has inbuilt sensors which, based on how your body and neck move, can detect a potential head impact from any type of accident.

On sale next year, the inflatable helmet is devilishly stylish and ultra sexy (as you can see), but perhaps a tad on the pricey side at roughly $500 a pop. Even cycling, once the domain of the poor student, the environmentally minded or the unnecessarily athletic, is now just a part of the rich man’s world. Luckily, I’m a material girl…

Now Money Grows on Trees

27 10 2010

Salamat tengahari.

We all know the old saying, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Perhaps it is time for us to abandon this saying. Forests are valuable. I don’t think that this has ever been in doubt: they have served as a rich resource of timber, foods and medicines for centuries. But the financial value of the ecological services they provide has only been recognised recently.

Forests protect topsoil, filter waterways, moderate rainfall, provide pollinators and shelter biodiversity. These functions are vital to our own health and wellbeing. At last, we can ascribe a tangible financial price to capture at least some of this value, thanks to the advent of the carbon market. Forests are key carbon sinks. Tropical forests on peat store over 1000t of carbon per hectare. It is not surprising, therefore, that deforestation and land degradation contribute nearly 20% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

20%. That’s more than transport, manufacturing or construction.

I started Redd Forests nearly two years ago because we need to stop the deforestation and degradation of the world’s great forests. Our philosophy is simple; these forests, the soils of the land they rest on and the biodiversity and communities they protect, must be of greater value left standing and properly managed than cut down and degraded. No man-made plantation can perform their function of sequestering greenhouse gases as well or as valuably. Redd Forests therefore seeks to realise the commercial value of these forests as environmental assets and remunerate their owners for their safekeeping.

The question is “How best to do this?” The international REDD framework is still being developed and refined. We saw dramatic progress during the Copenhagen and Oslo conferences, with the developed world committing some six billion dollars towards REDD+ projects and policy development. This support is being maintained, with REDD+ arguably the focus of the 16th Conference of Parties at Cancun in November of this year. This is no doubt because REDD is one of the few areas of agreement, as even sceptics of anthropogenic climate change agree on the need to protect and preserve our forests. We therefore have an opportunity, with almost unanimous support among developing and developed countries, to slow tropical deforestation by providing a competitive commercial return for conservation.

The key question in this sector concerns how REDD will develop. Will we see a UN-based approach comparable to the Clean Development Mechanism? Will REDD credits be produced within bilateral agreements at the national level such as the deal we recently saw between Norway and Indonesia? Or will there be a thriving, project-based global market for REDD carbon credits driven by the private sector?

Malaysia has not yet introduced a formal REDD+ policy, despite the immense pressure on its forests. The main driver of deforestation in this region, and we can include Indonesia here as well, is the rapidly expanding oil palm plantations: Malaysia itself is now the second largest supplier of palm oil in the world. We need our forests, but we need palm oil as well. It is a necessity for both food and fuel, and we must recognise global demand for its provision. How can we do this and yet avoid losing more of our tropical forests? There is an answer, and I will get to it shortly.

Back to REDD though. There are four reasons to develop Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation projects in Malaysia.

  1. Any mechanism that provides a competitive income to landowners while maintaining the integrity of the asset itself must be the preferred land use. Revenue from REDD can be competitive with revenue from palm oil for landowners, while protecting the forest. Moreover, REDD projects can be integrated with oil palm plantations if developed with the right safeguards. Again, more about this later.
  2. The carbon market serves to diversify income, reducing national dependence on the volatile timber and palm oil markets. A hedge, if you will.
  3. Forest ecosystem services are critical for maintaining all other land uses. They maintain watersheds, encourage rainfall, ensure water quality, protect topsoil and provide pollinators. In this way, oil palm plantations can benefit from proximity to REDD projects – hence my previous comment about integrating land uses. It is imperative that we maintain the forests of Malaysia if we want these other land uses to remain viable. REDD offers a means to fund this conservation, which in turn achieves important social and environmental outcomes.
  4. Finally, REDD hedges against the risks of not protecting the forest. If we follow a business-as-usual trajectory, we are likely to see increased landslides, susceptibility to invasive species, unpredictable weather… In my own country, the steady decline of the Great Barrier Reef epitomises this danger. Forests on the Queensland and northern NSW coastline have been replaced by agriculture, which produces run-off in the form of both fertilisers and pesticides. The result – compounded by climate change – is the likely slow death of the world’s largest living organism and one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions and fishing resources. The financial cost will be immense – and the social and environmental costs greater still.

It is clear that REDD has the potential to fuel sustainable economic growth and development in Malaysia. However, this demands that we create a suitable policy environment that does not subsidise destructive land practices but, instead, rewards landowners who choose sustainable options. For this reason, I would advocate strongly against the ‘Plus’ in REDD+.

Let me explain.

The term ‘REDD’ describes avoided deforestation, and consequently reduced emissions from land use change. REDD+ extends this concept to the enhancement of carbon stocks by increasing forest cover, and the alleviation of poverty by working with indigenous and local communities. These are worthy goals and I applaud them. However, they also create an added regulatory and financial burden that alternative, much more detrimental land uses do not face. REDD+ is not competing against traditional land uses or forest conservation. It is competing against logging and conversion to plantations. What regulations do these land uses face? Well, not much. The much acclaimed Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – whilst noble in many of its practices and all of its objectives – allows plantation companies to decide what standards they are willing to adopt. Their projects are not assessed according to indigenous opportunity or ecological improvements, but by their financial returns. This is not a level playing field. Conservation is being disadvantaged, often by those agencies who most support its goals, while rampant conversion and deforestation continue apace.

For this reason, I argue that the ‘Plus’ must be a regulatory requirement for all land uses, not a requirement applied solely to REDD projects. In other words, the rigorous guidelines being developed by UN-REDD should be extended to all land use policy. This allows REDD credits to be sold in a free and open commodity market, complying with policy and private sector certification standards. This will create an environment where REDD-plus competes against Oil Palm Plus, Jatropha Plus and Micro-agriculture Plus. Then there need be no doubts about the social, ecological or financial value of alternative land uses. If and when we face that situation, I am sure that landowners will move to protect their forests.

We are making rapid progress with the international frameworks for REDD, thanks to contributions from the supranational organisations such as the World Bank and United Nations, governments, think tanks such as Avoided Deforestation Partners and NGOs such as WWF. However, we face the ongoing challenge of obtaining finance for demonstration projects in an uncertain sector. Many investment banks have tested the waters, from Merryll Lynch to Australia’s Macquarie Bank. Indeed, BNP Paribas in Africa recently invested $50 million in forest carbon initiatives. However, there are more reliable and effective means to attract investment in REDD.

One such mechanism is forest bonds. The World bank issued its inaugural green bonds in 2008, and an equivalent of $1.5bn have since been issued. These have successfully mobilised private funding from the capital markets for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. However, green bonds have historically demanded an element of business-as-usual: they have consequently been directed more to sustainable forestry management projects than carbon-financed conservation… Of course, the problem with “sustainable forestry” is – as we all know – that it is not always sustainable. I believe that FSC has huge potential, and Malaysia has embraced this potential, with the largest number of FSC projects in the world. However, until every plantation imposes FSC standards and every timber-importing country demands FSC labels, we will face sub- par ‘sustainable forestry’ practices and ongoing deforestation. In addition to promoting ‘sustainable forestry’, one of the World Bank’s objectives is carbon reduction through reforestation and avoided deforestation. Little funding has actually been allocated for this purpose. However, the project has inspired forest bond schemes from other agencies, including the IMF and the UK government. One model involved the issue of forest bonds as asset-backed securities. In 2006, the Malaysian Nature Society and Prime Minister Badawi modelled forest carbon bonds, generated in conjunction with Malaysia’s Belum-Temggor Forest Complex. These did not get issued because, at that time, there was no carbon market mechanism to support them. There is now! And Redd Forests will use this rapidly growing carbon market in our innovative plan to promote forest carbon bonds.

Let me tell you about one of our models. When faced with appalling living conditions in any community, Oxfam International use what they term the ‘positive deviancy’ model. Effectively, you find the individual who is doing the best and encourage the rest of the community to emulate them. This works because it does not impose traumatic sudden change, but rather recognises and highlights what is already possible. Once the entire community are living in those improved conditions, ongoing (albeit gradual) social improvement can be achieved. In the same way, we intend to work with landowners who engage in sustainable practices so that they can utilise the potential of REDD – and this will show others how they might also improve their land management practices to financial benefit.

When working amidst the uncertainty of poverty, inequality and lack of regulation, the standout mechanism for development programs has been microfinance. We believe that the future for forest bonds accordingly lies in emulating microfinance schemes. In short, it may be easier to protect a million hectares of tropical forest by having a thousand individual contracts with landowners – whether traditional indigenous individuals or groups, governments or current concession-holders – than by establishing a single contract over a million hectares. The micro-contracts can be packaged – or securitised – into a financial vehicle that can be traded. The bond would be issued and underwritten by a financial institution. The yield on this forest bond? The income from the sale of carbon credits. In other words, we would finance a landowner annually in advance in return for an expected quantity of REDD carbon credits each year. In this model, we therefore combine an environmental microfinance scheme with an element of the asset-backed security concept and the positive deviancy principal; and in this way we have strengthened the security of the investment and the return to the investor.

This achieves three things:

  1. Clearly defined provision-of-service contracts and upfront finance for the landowner, with continued annual income for as long as they meet their obligations and the carbon market lasts.
  2. No need for land ownership changes or transfers. I repeat, no need for land ownership changes or transfers.
  3. A dramatic reduction in the risk of delivery failure across our million hectares, as the probability of default is minimised to each individual contract.

Just like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the Bandhan in India or Sanasa Development Bank in Sri Lanka, we would expect higher administrative costs from working with more landowners. However, this approach opens up vast new tracts of land to REDD projects. We can obtain cost savings from the economies of scale achieved during technical implementation, particularly using remote sensing to measure carbon stocks. We can expect higher rates of contract fulfilment from small landowners: microfinance institutions have experienced repayment rates of 98% and higher (compared with the 93% of commercial entitites) and we can utilise independent relationships between landowners to supplement the forest protection Above all, we can expect higher social and ecological returns from operating in this scale, which should encourage national governments to support the bonds. Attracting private finance to such a vehicle should not be difficult, as the bonds will deliver a fixed income competitive with any other corporate bond market equivalent. Maintaining standards should also not pose an obstacle, as we have access to both policy instruments and private sector certification processes, such as CCBA and VCS. Forest bonds make it much easier and more financially competitive to put the Plus in REDD-plus. The only real risk is the future of the carbon market itself, and from your presence here today, I presume that you too are confident of that future. The one ingredient we’re missing in this plan is a project developer.

Here’s my card.

Redd Forests is now one of the first and only companies in the world to have completed and validated an avoided deforestation project. Specifically, our pilot project in Tasmania was the first in the world to use the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance’s Second Edition Standards. Since that achievement, we have expanded our projects to a further 12,000 hectares of native forests across Tasmania. We expect validation through both CCBA and the Voluntary Carbon Standard on all of our projects by the end of this year. But that is Australia, I hear you say. Indeed, but we have demonstrated the skills and capacity to successfully deliver project results. We have also worked in Indonesia, in East Kalimantan, not too far from here as it happens.

The reason for our steady expansion and success – as the carbon cowboys are being hauled over the hot coals – is that we demonstrate the highest standards of integrity, transparency, accountability and responsibility. As a matter of principle and until REDD+ is firmly established, we will insist on meeting CCB standards in addition to any carbon credit generating standard such as the VCS. Redd Forests offers a proven working model for carbon-financed forest conservation.

So the final question, and it’s an important one: where might this money come from? It seems to me that Zakat might be the solution. When we look at the principles behind Islamic finance, we start to see some amazing synergies. Without a Muslim heritage, forgive me if I am less than exact. As I understand it, the principle of Zakat is the sharing of wealth to the betterment of Muslim communities and is seen as an integral part of the Islamic faith. Zakat finance or Islamic bonds therefore offer the ideal form of investment to implement REDD projects.

REDD projects can generate a sustainable stream of revenue for local forest communities across Malaysia and Indonesia. This is sustainable development, providing the income for health, education and infrastructure projects from environmental conservation. There’s the real plus in REDD+. We need a kickstart from Islamic financial institutions, and I call on them today. With your initial support, communities of landowners can use forest carbon credits to build up their own capital base to start paying Zakat themselves. This can create a self-sustaining investment model while simultaneously conserving the pristine forests that form their rich natural heritage. If you agree with the potential of this idea, please speak to me afterwards; I would be happy to elucidate on our proposal.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have to start seeing that our native forests provide invaluable services to humanity. They are the lungs of the earth. The idea, therefore, of remunerating those that have managed and preserved the forests for centuries is no different to remunerating the utility companies that provide us with energy or water. And the future of plantations? There are over one billion hectares of already degraded land in the world today. Not all of it in the right place, I grant you, but more than enough. The wood and forest products we need can be obtained from plantations and reforestation of those lands: we do not need to fell the forests that have been thriving for thirty million years to produce Palm Oil, pulp and paper. We do not have to fell the trees to extract their value: at last, the market is placing a competitive price on standing forests.

Forests provide one of the richest resources known to man. They are a source of food, timber, medicine, spiritual and cultural wellbeing, and the very air we breathe. It was long overdue, but at last we are finding a place in our economies, on our balance sheets and in our personal values for such an asset.

Thank you.

Gorilla warfare

4 09 2010

Many more eloquent writers than myself have condemned the tragedy of war. Despite the power of their words and the pain of the lesson, violence continues to rage across pockets of the Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mexico, Israel/Palestine and many more regions of the globe. Too often the victims, indeed the targets, are civilians. We have all read the horrific accounts of child soldiers in Côte d’Ivoire, rape centres in the Balkan conflict and suicide bombers drawn from the poorest and least educated margins of society through promises of glory and financial reward.

Yet surprisingly, a series of recent studies suggest that war may actually be serving to protect a traditional victim. Typically, the human cost of warfare corresponds to large-scale environmental devastation. Consider the trenches which carved up Western Europe after WWI and the use of Agent Orange in the forests of Vietnam; or more recently, the deforestation in Darfur and rapid disappearance of large animals from the jungles of Central Africa. Indeed, the northern white rhino is considered the most endangered mammal in the world, in no small part due to regional conflicts.

By comparison, war has been a positive boon to nature in Korea, Russia and even the open ocean. In these examples, a military presence – or legacy – has served to keep humans away from the area for decades, and nature has grabbed the opportunity to launch its own invasion.

The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is practically impassable to humans, thank to the abundance of landmines scattered throughout the area. However, these have proven no impediment to the highly endangered White-napped crane, Red-crowned crane, Asiatic bear and Korean tiger, whose populations have boomed in this rare and human-free haven. A similar phenomenon has been observed at Chernobyl. In the wake of the accident, radiation levels remain some 10 000 times above standard background levels. People avoid the place. It is perhaps little surprise that animals have returned: it seems that hunting and farming are worse than radiation for the average moose or wolf.

When we think of a blighted natural environment, the first image that springs to mind is a desert moonscape, pitted and bare of life. Well, just add water. Our oceans are among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet. Once again, and against all our expectations, war offers a brief glimpse of hope to crashing fish stocks.

Cod, haddock and whiting stocks are incredibly valuable resources, and there is correspondingly an immense amount of data on their populations. Recent analyses suggest that World War II – and more specifically, German submarines – led to a hiatus in fishing in the North Sea. In just the six years of war, previously plummeting fish stocks staged a dramatic recovery. Today, two of the richest ocean regions in the world are to all intents and purposes protected by military activity in the area. Somalian pirates are deterring both the big trawlers and illegal fishing boats off the Kenyan coasts, while the British navy patrols the Chagos Islands. The fisheries and coral reefs of these respective sites are positively thriving.

In no way do I want this article to be interpreted as advocating for war. Almost invariably, war has tragic consequences for both humanity and the natural environment. Rather, these examples illustrate how depopulation allows nature to recover even in the most degraded and hostile places. War just happens to provide an unusually powerful deterrent.

We do not have enough parks and reserves to convincingly protect nature. Corporate social responsibility and funding for ecosystem services may allow us to conserve vast swathes of habitat in the near future: consider the recent advances in REDD+. However, until then and in the face of an accelerating extinction crisis, we can take hope from these impressive examples of environmental regeneration.

Will the real Bear Grylls please stand up?

21 08 2010

In the pursuit of the perfect environmental policies – on catchment management, climate change mitigation, avoided deforestation – we return constantly to the science. Academic papers and scientific reports form the basis of our understanding of ecosystems and human impacts, and are therefore essential to sustainable use and successful conservation. However, when perusing these documents from the comfort of an office, it is easy to forget both the labour and the passion behind the research.

I have spent the past week in the field with a team of six, preparing a forest inventory. While this sounds very sophisticated, it literally entails tramping several kilograms of mud through gullies and over ridges while we measure the diameter of trees in ‘representative sample plots’. While the thrill pales by the end of an eight hour day in the snow (!), we were lucky enough to be working in one of the most beautiful areas of Australia. Our project site epitomised the famous Tasmanian wilderness and the unique beauty of Australian eucalypt forests:

The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,

The sapphire-misted mountains, the hot gold hush of noon,

Green tangle of the brushes where lithe lianas coil,

And orchids deck the tree-tops, and ferns the warm dark soil.

~ Dorothea Mackellar

Until this past week, I have been largely confined to my office writing papers and running statistical analyses. It was wonderful to return to the environments we are seeking to protect. It was even more enjoyable to be surrounded by those people who have shirked the shackles of a desk job because they are passionate about working in the natural environment. They could read the terrain, use bush medicine, navigate (a gift I lack even in familiar city streets) and continually demonstrated a genuine love of the great outdoors.

This enthusiasm was a phenomenon I first encountered among other biology students (though at that point, we distinctly lacked the practical skills and depth of knowledge). Walking through campus, they would pause to plunge into the bushes and extract, with cries of joy, a leafhopper or centipede. A distant bird call would inspire all the twitchers to search frantically through the tree tops for the perpetrator. Cries of “snake” would yield not a single scream, but rather a thrilled “Where?!”, as herpetologists stampeded towards the unlucky reptile, armed with their identification manuals and snake hooks.

This passion for animals is exemplified by David Nelson, amateur photographer and herpetologist, prospective Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin. In his mid-twenties, I don’t know if I can credit Dave with ever having held down a ‘serious job’ as baby-boomers would understand the term. Instead, he has trekked across Australia following the – sadly limited – demand for herpetologists.

It is perhaps worth noting here that ‘herpetology’ describes the study of reptiles and amphibians, rather than the catching of herpes.

Dave has accumulated a vast collection of photos and anecdotes during his travels. Most of these star those creatures which the ordinary traveller would hate to find in their swag or – more likely – would fail to even notice. He reminds me that many scientists entered the field because of a real passion for creepy crawlies, and that saving them requires some of us to get out there, get our hands dirty and find out everything we don’t know about the natural world.

Many thanks to Dave for agreeing to share some of his more impressive photos, and for reminding office environmentalists of the beasties we’re working to save.

Centralian Treefrog (Litoria gilleni)

Southern Spiny-tailed gecko (Strophrurus intermedius)

Cupmoth caterpillar (Doratifera sp)

Fire-tailed Skink (Morethia ruficauda)

Spencer’s Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum spenceri)

A Tenebrionid beetle leaves tracks in the desert sand

Sleepy lizard / Bobtail / Shingleback / Pine-cone lizard (Tiliqua rugosa)

Between Looten Plunder and Captain Pollution: just another Australian election

10 08 2010

In a battle between the (perceived) far Right and far Left, we deserve a fierce battle over ideology and policy, culminating in an exciting election. Instead Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard have successfully demonstrated that Australian politics is dull across a very limited spectrum. Rather than a meaningful assessment of policy alternatives, the media consistently returns to his budgie smugglers and her red hair. It has not helped that Abbott is decidedly coy when sharing details about his platform of ‘direct action’, while Gillard clearly finds ‘moving forward’ difficult without a destination in mind.

When deciding how to vote, I visited each of the major parties’ websites to examine their stance on environmental issues. First consider the three prongs of the Liberal Party’s proposal:

  • “The Liberal Party is committed to return balance and fairness to marine conservation.” The priority, in other words, is on maintaining fishing industries in already overfished waters. Their first step halts the identification and development of marine conservation regions, giving the party a chance to sit back, reap fishermen’s votes and dabble with a new policy. Meanwhile, over half of Australia’s 70 principle fish stocks are fully utilised or overfished.
  • The Liberal Party envisions targets for the capture and reuse of stormwater by July 2012. They will not push for a higher price on water beyond a certain volume: such a policy may actually curtail consumption in agriculture and industry, which consume the vast bulk of Australia’s water resources. Nor will the Liberal Party make provisions to purchase additional water quotas in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is difficult indeed to see how the Liberals’ water conservation policy satisfies the description of ‘direct action’.
  • “A Coalition Government will implement a climate change strategy based on direct action to reduce emissions and improve the environment.” Under the leadership of a climate sceptic and as a party with a long history of inaction, I have little hope even for this expensive jumble of proposals. More importantly, the Liberal Party will not put a price on carbon under Abbott’s leadership, either through a tax or an emissions trading scheme. This cheerfully ignores the fact that economists universally agree that a price on carbon is the most efficient and effective way to reduce production of greenhouse gases.

The Liberal Party has consistently rejected the market and price-based mechanisms it once endorsed as the most efficient means to allocate resources. Instead it has pursued expensive, populist measures that may garner votes but have minimal environmental value. Forgive me for resorting to cheap political one-liners, but it is devastatingly clear that a vote for the Liberal party is a vote against the environment.

The Labor Party’s environmental policies provide a glimmer of hope. When Labor and Liberal policies address common issues – management of water resources, marine conservation and protection of the Murray-Darling Basin – Labor offers both more pragmatism and detail. Even more reassuringly, Labor has actually articulated policies on biodiversity conservation in the face of the extinction crisis, the other “moral challenge of our time”.

The showstopper is, of course, climate change.

Labor has a much better history of fighting climate change. The party has accepted the scientific evidence, pushed aggressively for an emissions trading scheme and dramatically increased funding for renewable energy. However, beyond escalating their support for green power, Labor effectively lacks a climate change policy. This makes it difficult for an environmentally minded voter to choose Labor on the ballot sheet.

The Pollut-O-Meter (a title with all the subtlety of a Captain Planet episode) provides a good overview of the green voter’s dilemma. Developed by the Climate Institute, this model reveals that both the major parties’ climate policies will lead to significant increases in our annual emissions. Using projects based on current proposals, Labor is actually the greater villain. The Liberal policies, however, are limited in scope, particularly with Abbott’s refusal to countenance a price on carbon.

Reading through the proposed policies of the two major parties, it was disheartening to see the amount of space committed to detailing their opponents’ failings rather than their own plans. The Labor and Liberal parties are preoccupied by pointing the finger of blame at each other, but the biggest loser on election day will be our unique and beautiful environment.

If you want Australia to act on climate change, I implore you to write to your representatives in government. My own letter is attached: if you share the sentiments, feel free to borrow the words. You can find out who your local minister is here, and also submit a copy to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. Hopefully enough people will speak up, and on August 21 we will be able to vote for a meaningful policy on climate change.

Dear Minister

I am writing to you now to express my concern about the absence of a meaningful climate change policy as we approach the election.

I recognise that legislation for an emissions trading scheme was introduced to the Senate on two occasions. The blame for failing to pass this legislation falls at the feet of both the major parties.

The Liberals should be criticised for their unwillingness to implement the most efficient mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, i.e. an emissions trading scheme. It is widely recognised that cap-and-trade policies allow carbon pollution reductions at the lowest possible cost, as those producers who can lower emissions more cheaply than the market price of carbon will do so and trade their permits. This explains why the European Union, New Zealand, western Canada and a host of American states have established a carbon market, as it is the most efficient means to reduce emissions. By comparison, Tony Abbott’s so-called ‘climate change policy’ rewards polluters, incurs heavy costs for government and depends on the government successfully ‘picking winners’. In addition, he has conveniently ignored the fact that the money for his proposed $3.2 billion climate change fund will effectively be paid for by a ‘great, big tax’. The Liberal Party should be ashamed both of the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of their so-called ‘direct measures’.

I recognise that the Labor Party has promised strong support for REDD+ (though there has been little actual progress) and has introduced legislation for an emissions trading scheme to the Senate on two occasions. However, like the Liberal Party, the ALP should be criticised for proposing policies with such limited scope. A 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions is pitiful compared to the commitments of the European Union (20-30%), Japan (25%) and New Zealand (10-20%). Even the mitigation commitments of developing nations such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia put Australia’s efforts to shame. The proposed Climate Change Commission and Citizens’ Assembly merely continue to substitute talk for action. Labor should have worked with the Greens to pass an emissions trading scheme that would meaningfully reduce Australia’s carbon emissions.

On August 21, I will be voting for the Greens in the (name) electorate. I recognise that preferences will flow back to the ALP. However, I wanted to make it clear that neither major party has my vote, and that this is entirely due to the absence of a substantial climate change policy.

Yours faithfully,


If you are not voting for the Greens and/or other considerations are also shaping your vote, please consider using the following as your concluding paragraph instead:

As my representative in (name) electorate, I ask you to advocate for more ambitious targets and the more rapid introduction of emissions reductions policies. My vote will be significantly influenced by developments in climate change policy.

Yours faithfully,


No more games: voting on climate change

28 07 2010

World of Warfare and Guild Wars have successfully dominated their niche markets, but have never managed to capture my attention. Finally, however, there are some online games for environmental nerds. Since I fit neatly into this category, my email has been recently inundated with a host of interactive climate change programs.

Some of these are just beautifully designed variations on old themes. I recommend the ‘Footprint Calculator‘, which adjusts your sim’s neighbourhood according to your lifestyle. I was dismayed to find that we would require 1.8 Earths to support the world’s population at my living standards, though it pales compared with the 7 Earths required by some of the wealthier suburbs in Sydney. Breaking down individual impacts even more precisely, ‘The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ yields some interesting titbits. For instance, bananas may be the new carbon superfood, while greenies may have to wean themselves off caffeine thanks to coffee’s immense carbon footprint.

When we move from individual impacts to global trends, ‘Breathing Earth’ provides an impressive overview of climate change. This real-time simulation of population and carbon emissions is an incredible demonstration of the relative footprint of different countries.

The focus of the map is on national emissions. Each country glows a deep red for every thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide produced. China blushes every 5.2 seconds, and the US every 5.3 seconds: between them, these two nations set the rhythm for the whole globe. Russia and India are next, producing a tonne of CO2 every 20 and 20.9 seconds respectively. This model presumably does not recognise emissions from deforestation, which would push Indonesia and Brazil into third and fourth place.

By examining the statistics at the bottom, we can see that the few countries with decreasing populations are largely concentrated in Western Europe or the former Soviet bloc. By comparison, those countries with decreasing carbon emissions are mainly African nations facing civil war and/or extreme poverty. Of the developed world, only Norway, Scandinavia and Monaco have declining carbon emissions. One can only presume that Monaco misread carbon offsets for tax offsets, and is now suitably incensed.

‘Breathing Earth’ reveals that the USA, Australia and Canada have the highest carbon emissions per capita. This is old (albeit shameful) news. However, I didn’t realise that we emit nearly double the carbon dioxide of other developed nations. To put this in perspective, Saudia Arabia is a distant fourth in terms of carbon dioxide per head of population.

Despite our disproportionate contribution to climate change, Australia’s climate change policies grow ever weaker. Firstly, let me reiterate that we are one of only a tiny handful of nations still debating the validity of the science behind climate change: this alone leaves us ten years behind the rest of the world. The emissions trading scheme (ETS), while an excellent policy, was not designed with the scope to ensure a meaningful impact on our carbon emissions. This explains the Greens’ reluctance to endorse it. Blame for the weakness and ultimate collapse of the ETS consequently lie at the feet of both major parties. Labor refused to implement an ETS which would have a meaningful impact on our carbon emissions, while the Liberals proposed  policies which were both economically and environmentally disastrous.

Last week saw the latest travesty in the development of Australia’s climate change policy, with Julia Gillard’s presentation, ‘Moving forward together on climate change’. I quote:

My Government will create an independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice – a Climate Change Commission – to explain the science of climate change and to report on progress in international action…

And my Government will support a rigorous process to work through the issues and test the level of consensus. There will be ongoing national debate and vigorous parliamentary debate. This should not just be a debate between experts. It must be a real debate involving many real Australians.

I have so many, many problems with her speech, but let me focus on three.

Firstly, the question of expertise. The government is seeking to reinvent the wheel with its proposed Climate Change Commission. Merely by suggesting it, Gillard implies that the Garnaut Report, Stern Review and IPCC Reports are not adequately independent and credentialed. These are the works of some of the best researchers in the world, drawing on the global body of peer-reviewed literature. These far-reaching studies both explain the science of climate change and assess its validity. Establishing a Climate Change Commission is not equivalent to a climate change policy: it merely continues a debate which the rest of the world resolved a decade ago. It is a poor excuse even for an election ploy.

Secondly, the question of international action. Our politicians perpetually imply that Australia alone is bearing the burden of fighting climate change. I’m not sure what convinced them of this, whether it was our ‘better late than never’ stance on the Kyoto Protocol or the absence of any measures to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. Let us compare Australia’s progress with the rest of the world. Compliance emissions trading schemes have been imposed in the European Union, New Zealand, four Canadian provinces and at least seventeen American states. Nine developing countries have committed to REDD-readiness programs through the United Nations. Sweden and Norway have actually reduced their carbon footprint over recent years. Australia is, as ever, the climate change laggard.

Finally, the issue of ‘many real Australians’. When we debate policy – health care, education, defence or welfare – we seek expert opinion. Of course, there should be an avenue to include stakeholders in the decision-making process. However, it is the experts’ responsibility to design a policy that best balances the needs of all stakeholders. We deviate from this approach only with respect to climate change, where every carbon-belching business and scientifically illiterate individual is asked for their opinion. I can only assume that this is because the most important stakeholders in climate change policy are not here to voice their concerns.

Though we are already seeing evidence of climate change, the real impact will occur over a long-term horizon. The burden will not be borne by the baby boomers, Generation X or perhaps even Generation Y. It is our children and grandchildren who will be feeling the consequences of our actions today. The ‘many, real Australians’ of the future cannot sit on Gillard’s Citizen’s Assembly, but they will face its legacy. Currently, that legacy looks bleak. Consider this final interactive program, ‘Act on Copenhagen‘, which reveals a very bleak future for us and the only Earth we have.

Australia will suffer disproportionately from climate change, thanks to our vulnerable natural environments and long coastlines. It is a bitter irony that, per capita, we are one of the biggest contributors to this looming threat.

We currently have no meaningful policies in place to reduce our greenhouse emissions. More worrying still, neither of the major parties is proposing ambitious targets or effective strategies to tackle climate change. With Greens preferences flowing to Labor, Australians who care about the environment will have nobody to vote for on 21 August.

Therefore, please write to your Member for Parliament and tell them that your vote depends on a meaningful climate change policy. We have to speak up now, because future generations cannot.




Other bloggers’ thoughts:

In defence of Penny Wong

The future of renewable energy and energy efficiency in Australia: this missing policies

Politics: engaging with humanity

The (true) story of bottled water: how it just might be half full

21 07 2010

Annie Leonard launched the classic The Story of Stuff in 2007. According to a recent interview on Treehugger Radio, it has had a remarkable eight million online views. This may not compete with something as profound as a prairie dog’s dramatic look (23 million views) or Aerosmith’s classic ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ (65 million views), but it is nonetheless an impressive achievement. The Story of Stuff has been recognised at both ends of the political spectrum, heralded as an educational tool by The New York Times and condemned as – gasp – anti-capitalist by radio host Glenn Beck.

As one of the “dam hippies” (sp – see the comments under Beck’s article), I have looked forward to all of Leonard’s later productions. One of her most recent achievements is The Story of Bottled Water, available online since early 2010.

Videos about the environment and sustainability usually enthral me. I was on the edge of my seat during Home, nodding enthusiastically through An Inconvenient Truth, gripped by Food, Inc and glued to the screen by The End of the Line. At the end of The Story of Bottled Water, however, I just wanted to say, “Yes, but…”

Leonard does make some excellent points. It is horrifying that America consumes half a billion bottles of water in the US every week. In Australia, sales of bottled water increased by 10% last year. These are countries with publicly available clean water and excellent sanitation infrastructure: there is no reason to buy so much bottled water. This message is clearly communicated for her target audience: those wealthy consumers who may not have considered or recognised the unsustainability of their actions.

We are all too prone to ignoring common sense when confronted with the magic trifecta of advertising: scaring us, seducing us and misleading us. Leonard’s story echoes across industries and continents. Breastfeeding is condemned because multinationals wish to sell infant formula, and a generation of newborns face weakened immunitry. The key to weight loss is carbohydrates. No, protein. Wait! Carbohydrates strike back!

We can call it ‘manufactured demand’ or regard it as a fad. Regardless, Leonard has a convincing argument when she says that we should not regard a bottle of water as the standard drink. Choosing tap water – cheaper and often healthier – saves thousands of tonnes of waste in both energy and material. Bundanoon is leading the way.

I question, however, the vilification of bottled water.

Firstly, bottled water is a minor villain in the scheme of things. Soft drink and juice have a far, far bigger environmental footprint. They consume more water, since crops must be irrigated to provide the fruit or corn syrup. They consume more energy: the crops must be converted to juice and corn syrup respectively, and the juice dehydrated and reconstituted for transport. This does not even recognise the energy inputs for bottling and transport. The Department of Environment and Climate Change estimates this demands 200mL of oil for each litre of bottled water, which must be at least matched by juice and soft drink. At least juice can offers nutritional value: soft drink can make no claims. Even if we win the battle against bottled water, we are losing the war against cola and lemonade.

More importantly, bottled water plays a vital role in crises. Access to bottled water has saved countless lives, whether it is distributed in the aftermath of a natural disaster or purchased in developing countries with no clean water supply. Bottled water provides an invaluable stopgap before wells, pumps and filters can be established, and protecting people from drinking water on the roadside. While it may be acceptable to spurn bottled water in the developed world, we do not want to send that message to the one in eight people without access to clean water supplies.

It is unfortunate that such people can rarely afford to buy bottled water. Nonetheless, we must be careful not to condemn it too thoroughly. After all, many of the poorest people in Africa could not afford infant formula… but they made sacrifices after misleading campaigns about the danger of breastfeeding. The threat from unsafe water sources is much more real: a child dies every twenty seconds from water-related diseases.

In the first world, we can afford to make environmentally sustainable choices and use a refillable bottle. But let’s not vilify bottled water yet. It’s still saving lives.




Other bloggers’ thoughts:

The hidden truth of bottled water

Adding to the three ‘R’s: REFUSE!

Bottled water torture