Gippsland News & Views

Urgent Action on Climate Change and our Politicians

In my last blog I was critical of the Victorian Labor government and their defence of ‘status quo’ forestry operations. My conclusion was that there were enough holes in the Kyoto forestry rules to ‘drive a truck through’ and that the government, probably with some union support, was using these loopholes to claim forestry operations in Victoria were a ‘carbon sink’ – something that anyone familiar with logging operations could easily see was false. The problem with both major parties is that a substantial number of their elected members do not understand the global warming threat or how urgent action is required. They are, at best, happy to play by the rules with perhaps token actions.

Labor’s predicament can be clearly seen with its support at both a Federal and State level for the Adani mine in Queensland. No politician who understands the warming threat – that further fossil fuel use will make the warming worse – can even consider such a proposal. Understanding the dire nature of the threat – that it is existential and already an emergency – means we have to transition from the use of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.

At the other extreme we have a most enlightened SA government (also Labor) that, as it has recently been reported,  if it was a separate country would be the world’s leader in the adoption of renewable energy and innovative technology of the future. Victoria is following SA with support for a number of wind and solar projects but still clings to the brown coal generators and outmoded forestry practices which as I have said indicates a level of ignorance of, or unwillingness to cope with, the problem.

Almost nothing has been said of the largest and most immediate benefit of saving carbon dioxide emissions through energy efficiency as it is not something that the pollies can easily sell. The same is also true with ‘demand response’ where energy users are paid not to use energy when there is peak demand. Batteries and energy storage can help facilitate the latter.

Whilst the reactionaries – many Liberals and most of the Nationals – and others still cling to the idea of ‘clean coal’, and even nuclear energy, their window of opportunity has long passed. Both wind and solar are now cheaper than these energy sources with the huge advantage that they can built in a very short period of time and their fuel is free and emits no greenhouse gases. This is exactly what the climate emergency requires. We should be covering the available flat surfaces of all our cities with solar panels in large and small projects, on rooftops, carparks, roads and dams.


Gas Backflip by Debbie Carruthers

Paynesville CSG Free Declaration 2016

Letter from Bairnsdale Gasfield Free Co-ordinator published in the Bairnsdale Advertiser (13.10)

It is with deep concern that I write about the announcement on Monday from Hon Matthew Guy, Victorian Liberal Party leader, about their revised policy on gas. Having recently supported legislation in Parliament to permanently ban fracking and support a moratorium on onshore conventional gas mining until 2020, they will now lift the moratorium on onshore conventional gas mining if elected into government next year. This is extremely concerning for a number of reasons.

The Victorian Government is currently undertaking an extensive scientific study investigating the feasibility and prospectivity of onshore gas mining, headed by our lead scientist with industry representatives. With their final report due in 2020, it would be more prudent to continue the moratorium until there is authoritative advice available.

It has been claimed that given what is known about the geology in Victoria, that onshore conventional gas would need to be fracked to be extracted (the above study should provide the answer to this, another reason to wait for the study to be completed).

And although the Liberal Party has said they would support a continued ban on fracking, they have back-flipped on supporting the moratorium on onshore conventional gas extraction, and faced with a probable outcome that onshore conventional gas would need to be fracked, this would be the slippery slide to justify fracking.

The gas shortage is a problem that could be immediately fixed by the Federal Government. They could impose a domestic gas reservation policy that would reserve gas to meet our domestic use and bring down the pricing. Australia is set to soon become the world’s largest exporter of gas so there is plenty of supply, the Federal Liberal Government just needs to put the needs of Australians first.

Some Questions for VicForest’s Carbon Accounting

I note the Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio in an answer to a question in parliament recently stated Victorian ‘forestry management’ was a significant ‘carbon sink’.  This, she said, was according to Kyoto Protocol accounting rules. How could this possibly be done? Is this a ‘pea and thimble’ trick?

After a brief survey of the Kyoto accounting literature (National Inventory Report 2015) and not completely lost in the detail two aspects so far seem important to the ‘carbon sink’ statement – the initial amount of carbon stored in the various forests and whether reafforestation projects are counted as part of the account.

Under Kyoto reafforestation the rules only cover land cleared before 1990 and then reafforested. Are the blue gum plantations of the Howard tax dodge era relevant to this? As they were all planted on cleared land are they included in these accounts as carbon sinks? Generally speaking they were planted on marginal pastoral land with inadequate regular rainfall for blue gums and many are now being ripped out. Most were poorly maintained making them fire hazards and some were destroyed by fire in Gippsland in 2009. Are these phantom sinks still counted in the carbon accounting?

Many questions remain as to how logged coupes are accounted for? Are they treated as carbon neutral in that they are replanted more or less immediately? This disguises the fact that to recover the carbon lost in each mature logged coupe may take the best part of 100 years and that they therefore are not carbon neutral until then. Thus areas clear fell logged in Gippsland nearly 50 years ago are still not carbon neutral and will not be until 2070. How many of these coupes did not regenerate? I have not been in the bush for many years but remember a large coupe on the Angora Range where the regeneration failed completely and there was just a large bracken patch.

My own, perhaps flawed, accounting assumes the latest science that 1900 tons of carbon are stored in a hectare of mature ash forest is correct. So I was surprised that the top grading in the Kyoto accounting, and presumably used by DELWP, was only 250 tons per hectare and above. A loose definition at best! How much carbon do the accounts say is in each logged coupe? The discrepancy is amazing and when the amount stored by a single mature tree is probably in the vicinity of 100 tons common sense indicates that the latest science is much closer to the mark.

The Kyoto forestry rules are obviously being misused. The main concern of our governments, and more so the relevant departments, appears to be seen to abide by the rules rather than trying to help solve the problem of climate change. That indicates that they either do not understand the problem or how serious the consequences of inaction are. Can the minister can spell out in detail how her conclusion was arrived at?


A Paradox of Climate Change Denial

Signing the Climate Emergency Petition

The die-hard deniers of climate change are almost invariably champions of free enterprise – advocating small government, little or no regulation and reduced bureaucracies where the ‘free market’ solves all political problems. They are supported by wealthy think-tanks in the US who in turn are funded by some of the wealthiest companies and individuals on earth. Their lofty aim is the promotion and preservation of the free market (their base aim preserving their own finances and power). In this they have been remarkably successful both in the US and Australia and strong action on climate change has been delayed by 30 years. This has been achieved by two main strategies – creating widespread doubt on climate science wherever and whenever they have been able and by politicising the science and making it a left-right issue. In this they have been strongly assisted by a compliant mainstream media.

This has been a substantial ‘win’ for these vested interests in the short term but in the longer term is doomed to fail. Eventually the crisis will be visible to all – including ‘Blind Freddy’. By successfully deferring action on this they have not solved the problem but merely transferred the required action to sometime in the future – possibly a lot closer than most people think. But as well as this they have compounded the problem many times over. Delays in the climate system mean that even if by some miracle we were able to stop producing greenhouse gases instantly the planet would still keep warming for many years to come. We are already in the climate emergency – it’s just that few people recognise this, and even fewer politicians or journalists.

So the paradox for climate deniers and cheerleaders of the ‘free market’ is as follows – the longer decisive action on climate change is delayed the sooner the need for the climate emergency to be recognised and acted upon, thus bringing an end to the ‘free market’. Those champions of the free market will, by their negative, rear-guard actions, have actually condemned their own cause.

The climate emergency will mean many things but inevitably will require large scale intervention by government. It will probably be of a ‘wartime style’ with controls on wages, labour, profits and many other aspects of our lives. No doubt the bogy of ‘socialism’ will be raised but as in wartime political dissent of this nature will be effectively silenced. History will see the actions of the deniers – especially those of big money and their pollie and media acolytes – as bordering on the criminal. Whether anything is ever done about this is another matter entirely.


Combining the Solar and EV Revolutions

Recently a cousin asked on facebook where is the energy coming from to power the electric vehicle revolution? He pointed out that if coal powered electricity was used to charge the batteries then we would make no progress in reducing greenhouse gases. The answer is that the energy for EVs must come from renewable sources. Fortunately these ‘revolutions’ are not synchronised – the solar revolution is well underway whilst the EV revolution has barely begun. Photovoltaics will have to be erected across available flat surfaces wherever we find them – on rooftops, road surfaces and carparks. Floating solar farms are almost economic in Gippsland now and should be combined with energy storage.

Russell Peel’s blog ‘The Magic of the EV” noted how difficult it was for an EV powered “with renewable electrons to reduce your global warming impact.  To use your own solar energy you need to be prepared to spend thousands on a solar system at your house, plus an inverter, and unless you want to leave your car plugged in and going nowhere when the sun is shining, you also need a separate battery to time-shift the power.  And even if you purchased a 10 kWh battery for your home, it would only top up about 10% of the car’s capacity each night (50ks of range), these cars have big batteries that take a lot of charge.”

This prompted me to do some ‘back of the envelope’ calculations whilst admitting that getting 50ks for 10kwh did not seem like a very good start. In our own system we have no battery and 4kw of rooftop solar which produces on average 24kwh per day of which we use 4kwh. If the surplus 20kwh – for which we currently receive a credit of $2.20 – was used instead to charge an EV’s batteries you would get a 100k range. I then compared this with our small Getz which travels 100ks on 7 litres of fuel. The equivalent use of power is thus 7 X $1.20 per litre = $8.40. The value of that electricity if used in in an electric vehicle is 42c for each kwh – nearly 4 times the amount we are currently being paid.

There are many other savings with EVs including reduced services and less moving parts. Readers are encouraged to look at one of the videos by Tony Seba on the EV revolution. See here. There is also the fact that we use our cars less than 5% of the time and the rest of the time they are parked. Further the average trip in a vehicle is somewhere around 30ks – well within all EVs range. The ultimate aim is to have an EV with a battery that can also supply power to the grid and the home as well as being used for transport. Known as ‘vehicle to the grid’ some companies are already developing this.

Having said all this it is most unlikely that I will ever have an EV. I intend to keep walking everywhere that is in a reasonable distance whilst I am able, then to use public transport, and only use a petrol driven vehicle when necessary.

The Disappointing National Party

Waubra Wind Farm (Yes2Renewables)

letter in the Bairnsdale Advertiser (22.9)

In February this year I wrote congratulating the State Nationals on their support for the permanent ban on coal seam gas in parliament. But I warned against them joining the Federal government’s war on renewable energy. I then wrote:

“Without a shred of doubt all aspects of renewable energy including solar, wind, battery storage and micro-grids are beneficial to regional Victoria, country towns both large and small and to farmers, businesses and ordinary citizens.

“…the Waubra community north of Ballarat have drought proofed their farms and their community by earning $8000 per annum for each wind generator installed on their land. As there are 128 of them this adds an extra one million dollars to the community each year. The community also receives an annual return – enough to bring their local pub and other organisations back to life. Further there were 200 people employed in the manufacture (which could be done in Morwell or somewhere in Gippsland) and installation of the generators and 26 permanent onsite jobs. This keeps a large amount of money in the community and helps revive it. As well as providing renewable energy there is no pollution, greenhouse gases are saved, there is no big hole in the ground and farming continues with minimal disturbance.

“It is fairly obvious that there are large parts of Gippsland that are suitable for either wind or solar development and these are still compatible with current farming practices. Where conditions are not suited to wind solar may provide the answer like the recent project for a $20 million community solar farm at Wangaratta. Other types of renewable projects might be suitable for community adoption. For example tidal energy at Lakes Entrance or pumped hydro in the Latrobe Valley.

“As well as provide jobs many of these projects could be financed locally with our savings which currently are likely to be invested in the Adani coal mine (along with your tax dollars) or one in outer Baluchistan…Every dollar not spent on your electricity bill is a dollar that remains in the community. It is decentralisation in action – a policy mouthed by the political parties but rarely acted upon.

Now the Nationals are at it again with their recent motion against renewable energy at their Federal conference. Their recalcitrant attitude in state parliament towards renewable energy continues with their recent vote against the Victorian Renewable Energy Target and worse still their threat to repeal it when elected to government. Their promotion of coal in the face of a mountain of evidence – that with climate change our use of this energy source has to be phased out rapidly – is antediluvian. It has been obvious for years that country people are the most likely to suffer from the deleterious effects of climate change. They are also in the best position to benefit from the coming boom in renewable energy.

So now our representatives are not only not voting in regional Australia’s best interests they are actually voting and campaigning against them. It’s time for country people to consider changing our vote.



Climate Change and the Unexpected: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Volcanoes

The recent discovery of 91 volcanoes under the ice (Guardian Weekly 18.8) corresponds with these areas of West Antarctic ice loss

I have been aware that changes on the earth’s surface may cause earthquakes or volcanic activity for some time. A seismologist once pointed out to me that the increased weight of water of a new dam could easily trigger one. More than 3 years ago I noted in an addendum to an article on Gippsland Sea Level Rise that melting ice on the West Antarctic Peninsula was causing the land underneath to rise, distort and deform, possibly leading to increased volcanic activity under the ice which in turn could vastly accelerate ice melt and sea level rise.

Recently there has been some tweets on the social media associating the spate of hurricanes with the earthquakes in Mexico which I thought far-fetched and so completely ignored. However I have just come across an old article in the Guardian by Professor Bill McGuire of the University of California on precisely this topic.

McGuire noted an association between large earthquakes and typhoons. He cited research in Taiwan that documented earthquakes following the passing of a typhoon. The authors explained that the reduced air pressure in the typhoons was enough to allow the underlying faults in the earth’s crust to move more easily. The analogy used was that the energy at the fault lines is like a coiled up spring waiting for a trigger to set it off. He states: “It is possible that floodwaters are lubricating fault planes” and notes another researcher, Wdowinski, “thinks that the erosion of landslides caused by the torrential rains acts to reduce the weight on any fault below, allowing it to move more easily.” McGuire noted the likelihood of increased volcanic activity with climate change and also looked at Tsunamis caused by vast undersea landslips.

He continued: “If today’s weather can bring forth earthquakes and magma from the Earth’s crust, it doesn’t take much to imagine how the solid Earth is likely to respond to the large-scale environmental adjustments that accompany rapid climate change…The last time our world experienced serious warming was at the end of the last ice age when, between about 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, temperatures rose by six degrees centigrade, melting the great continental ice sheets and pushing up sea levels by more than 120m. These huge changes triggered geological mayhem. As the kilometres-thick Scandinavian ice sheet vanished, the faults beneath released the accumulated strain of tens of millennia, spawning massive magnitude eight earthquakes.”

His conclusion is “that as climate change tightens its grip, we must be prepared to expect the unexpected”. I hope to look at McGuire’s book Waking the Giant in some detail in the near future. And the social media’s association of the Mexican earthquakes with Hurricane Harvey and tropical storm Norma is perhaps not so far-fetched after all.

Firestick Farming, Controlled Burns and Climate Change

One of the problems with the social media is that people often see an image without reading the article associated with it and jump to erroneous conclusions.  I am fairly certain that such was the case when my controlled burn article was recently criticised. The implication of the criticism was that as Aboriginals had practiced ‘firestick farming’, using gentle controlled burns, across Australia in pre-European times it was therefore okay to do so now. This was a simplified version of the Gammage thesis – itself a simplified generalisation.

Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia (Allen & Unwin Melbourne, 2012) was released to general acclaim and awarded many major prizes.  He came to Bairnsdale as the keynote speaker at a seminar organised by the East Gippsland Wildfire Taskforce (EGWT) in November 2014. The EGWT was a pressure group comprised of the mountain cattlemen and the timber lobby. They were campaigning for a widespread and regular burning of forest and bush areas – basically advocating indiscriminate burning. Gammage gave an aura of respectability to what was otherwise a procession of biased and anecdotal accounts. His talk implied that everywhere was burned without exception regardless of rainfall, terrain, vegetation, aspect or soil type when obviously this was not so.

With regards our region much of Gammage’s work strongly relies on a few pages of Alfred Howitt’s Eucalypts of Gippsland, yet a closer examination of his works can give you facts opposing, as well as supporting, the Gammage thesis. None of the claims Howitt made applied to East Gippsland, much of which he thought a ‘jungle’. Further large tracts of west and south Gippsland were impenetrable scrub according to both the Strzelecki and Brodribb parties and therefore unburned in the years before they were traversed.  At a recent seminar in Bairnsdale Gunaikurnai descendant Wayne Thorpe denied that the practice of firestick farming was used in Gippsland at all.

So where, if anywhere, in Gippsland was burned in the pre-European era? Howitt’s observations apply mainly to the Omeo district high country and the observations of Strzelecki and Brodribb indicate that a number of large plains in central Gippsland were the most likely to have been frequently burned.  The paradox is that all these areas are now substantially farmed or closely settled and thus protected from all burning except the occasional bushfire.

How does this relate to climate change? All burning produces CO2 and the only possible justification for large scale controlled burns in Gippsland and the alpine country now is if it protects the forests from catastrophic fire. Evidence for this is not clear and there is a suggestion that the over-use of controlled burns – as implied by Gammage – may actually promote fires.  I may at some future date do a more detailed analysis of the historical and scientific evidence on this subject.


The Seaweed Solution and the ‘Silverbuckshot’ Approach

Kelp Drying King Island

A recent Catalyst show on ABC TV featured Tim Flannery of the Climate Council put forward a ‘silver bullet’ solution to climate change. Cultivating fast growing seaweeds would draw down the CO2 in the atmosphere thus mitigating greenhouse enhanced global warming. Flannery wrote about this in his Atmosphere of Hope (Text, Melbourne, 2015) when he said:

“Seaweed is hugely productive, outstripping the fastest growing land-based crops many times over in its rate of growth and CO2 absorption. Globally, the potential scale of seaweed farming is 600 times greater than any other method of cultivating algae… One study asserted that seaweed farming could produce 12 gigatonnes per year of biomethane, while storing 19 gigatonnes of CO2 per year directly from biogas production, plus up to 34 gigatonnes per year from carbon capture of the biomethane combustion exhaust gas. All of this would come from seaweed ‘forests’ covering and area equal to 9 per cent of the world’s ocean surface.” (p.41)

In the TV show Flannery emphasized the carbon captured by the seaweed dropping to the deep ocean floor where it would be permanently stored. He also outlined many of the problems facing such a massive project such as the problem of nutrients required for seaweed growth in the open ocean.

Personally although the optimism associated with Flannery is a breath of fresh air I have a problem with concentrating on a single solution – the ‘silver bullet’.  Washington and Cook in their Climate Change Denial (Earthscan, London, 2011) talked of the ‘silver buckshot approach’. They noted:

“Climate change also impacts on almost everything we do – whether it’s water use, food production, forestry, house building or industry. If we accept the reality of the problem how do we go about solving it? Hume refers to what have been called ‘wicked’ problems, a term derived from cultural theory. Wicked problems have no simple solution…Rather than just one ‘silver bullet’ to solve the problem he suggests silver buckshot. No single solution is sufficient (Pittock 2009). The silver buckshot are the multiple solutions one applies to the problem. We agree that solving climate change – and the underlying environmental crisis it is a symptom of – will require several different approaches, a number of ‘silver buckshot’. (p.119)

The ‘silver buckshot’ solutions are manifold. I prefer options that can be implemented immediately in our currently hostile political environment like planting trees or installing rooftop solar. Many other possible ‘silver buckshot’ have been suggested by organisations such as Beyond Zero Emissions. Carbon sinks including soil carbon, fast growing trees, mangroves, biochar, CO2 absorbing cement (recently proposed by BZE) are among the suggestions. Some of these were mentioned on the Catalyst program.

There is a need to work simultaneously on a wide range of solutions some of which will be far more successful than others. On the other hand applying a ‘silver bullet’ like Flannery’s seaweed solution, whilst ignoring the CO2 we keep putting into the atmosphere with our coal-fired generators, cars and forestry operations is a recipe for disaster.

Controlled Burns, Asset Protection and Climate Change

(Weekly Times)

A long press release from the Burning Issue symposium held recently in Bairnsdale (see below) made the front page of the East Gippsland News (6.9). By far the most important news in this event came from keynote speaker Dr David Cheal who relayed the findings of research done by P. Gibbons et al after the Black Saturday bushfires indicating that asset protection beyond 40 metres of the asset being protected was of little or no value.

He stated the research: “Used the 2009 wildfires in the Kinglake-Marysville region, modelled fire behaviour and loss of houses versus fuel characteristics (a very simple consideration of shrub and tree cover, particularly within 40m of houses, and planned burning within 5 years, so most sites in sclerophyll forests, at housing interface)” and that “modifying fuel levels could reduce house loss by 76-97%, but close to the houses, not in the wider landscape.”

David Cheal continued: “All fuel treatments were more effective when undertaken close to houses.  For example, 15% fewer houses were destroyed if prescribed burning occurred at the observed minimum distance from house (0.5km) vs. the mean distance of 8.5 km.  The results imply a shift in emphasis away from broad-scale fuel reduction to intensive fuel treatments close to property will more effectively mitigate impacts.”

The importance of this should not be lost on the authorities – that most of the ‘controlled burns’ currently conducted in Gippsland and elsewhere are, in terms of asset protection, useless and a waste of resources. Unless, of course, the asset being protected is the timber in logging coupes. It is clear that if we are to meet our climate commitments in Paris, both the logging of native forests and using fossil fuel for energy generation must be phased out as quickly as possible. In particular many of these forestry practices, for instance clear-fell logging in coupes and controlled burns, were instituted and well established before we became aware of the threat that global warming posed. To borrow the title of Naomi Klein’s book – “this changes everything” for forestry in Victoria.