Gippsland News & Views

A Climate Question for our Politicians Refined

During the recent State Election (see here) a small number of activists asked various candidates the Simon Holmes à Court basic question “Do you accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming?” After planning to ask the question of all candidates across the five Gippsland electorates – Narracan, Bass, Morwell, and Gippsland South and East – the task became overwhelming and I decided to concentrate on my own electorate of Gippsland East.

The positive responses here were from Labor, the Greens and two independents and these were publicised on the social media. Of the seven candidates 6 replied and only one failed to respond. Two of the replies were interesting in that they skirted around the central question but implied acceptance and in the case of the Liberal Democrat candidate expressed enthusiasm for renewable energy. Both these replies slightly contradicted their party positions.

Sitting member Tim Bull accepted that climate change was happening but took the position that the human influence aspect is ‘still open to debate’. This is basically a denialist position and a rear guard action, probably to remain within National party guidelines.  It emphasises his, and his party’s, failure to grasp the basics of climate change – the greenhouse effect, the role of carbon dioxide and of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels.

As most readers will be aware the question and social media had no immediate effect in Gippsland East. But activists should not be too disappointed. For a start the social media campaign goes everywhere and the statements of support for the various candidates were circulated far wider than the Gippsland region. It also means we have to work harder and smarter and in greater numbers to extend the message well beyond the social media.

Simon Holmes à Court was aware of the Tim Bull reply and possibly partly because of this has improved his question to “can you please confirm that you accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming and tell us what *you* will do to address the challenge?” Hopefully this will allow less leg room for candidates in their replies and being able to avoid answering the question.

This is the question we should be asking now, not just once but many times and asked by as many people as possible, by writing to our local papers and by word of mouth. This then will be small but significant part of the task of turning the upcoming federal election into a ‘climate referendum’. After our trial run last year we will be better organised.

Farms, Trees and Climate Change

A recent op shop purchase of John Fenton’s The Untrained Environmentalist (Allen & Unwin, 2010) reminded me of how important trees are both to farms and helping solve the climate emergency. Fenton started with a treeless farm near Hamilton in the Western District and a lifetime later had transformed it into a wonderland with a network of windbreaks, farm forestry and a block of restored native vegetation.

Fenton championed what he called Farm Stewardship which called for payments to farmers (and private landholders) for protecting natural habitat in bush blocks and for assistance with farm forestry. This reminded me of a climate change meeting in Bairnsdale some years ago when a farmer outlined the financial difficulties he had in keeping a substantial bush block from which he received no income.

This blog has frequently repeated the call to phase out logging of native forests as quickly as possible. But this is of no use whatsoever to tackling global warming if we immediately replace that timber from an overseas source – Indonesian rainforests for example. So farm forestry should be encouraged with as much government assistance as possible preferably planting native species but also including exotics like pinus radiata. And one can only lament that this was not done thirty years ago when many scientists, including the CSIRO*, were already pointing out the immensity of the problem of human caused warming. Thus we need to look at timber substitutes, reused timber, as well as farm forestry and phasing out timber as a fuel in towns.

My late brother-in-law Jim Lane was one of those farmers who had the foresight and could afford to experiment with farm forestry. At his Buckleys Hill, Fish Creek property in South Gippsland he planted 13.2 hectares (32 acres) of various native species between 1999 and 2002. Some have been more successful than others. The 6.3 Ha of Southern Mahogany (Eucalyptus botryoides) has been form and lift pruned, thinned twice, and as of December 2018 looking pretty good. They are due for harvest in 2027 as sawlogs. The remainder including Blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon) are due for harvesting over the following 8 years. The exception has been the block of spotted gums (Corymbia maculata) which are suitable only as firewood.

The only farmers who can afford to have their land non-productive for 30 years are either those relatively financially independent like Jim Lane or the rare exceptions like John Fenton who succeed with determination and perseverance. But what is required is a substantial number of farms to convert suitable parts of their farms to forestry with every assistance including selection of suitable species, silviculture advice and financial support. Fenton’s ‘farm stewardship’ is a good idea that should be implemented as soon as possible. Without extra financial assistance any significant farm forestry will remain in the doldrums.

*see Pearman, G.I. (ed) Greenhouse: planning for climate change, CSIRO Publ. 1988.

Gippsland Lakes, Kalbar and Climate by Chas Becket

Mine free Glenaladale

(letter to the Bairnsdale Advertiser – unpublished)

The Gippsland Lakes is one of those rare entities that once had many Earth Mothers. These were the Thomson, Latrobe, Nicholson and Tambo catchments and closer to home, the Mitchell catchment. The Mitchell is the last wild river and true Earth Mother that helps to feed and maintain the beautiful Lakes system. All the other catchments have been exploited for economic reasons in such a way that unfortunately has altered the ecology of the Gippsland Lakes.

Mother Nature is creaking under the weight of interference from the human race. This interference is manifesting in a climate change condition the symptom of which is extreme weather behaviour. It is either the presence of extreme heat and dryness, a catalyst for bush fires, ferocious winds or just too much water causing major flooding. All these symptoms impact on lives, property and infrastructure. Sand mine notwithstanding, the local agricultural industry will have enough on its plate adapting to the severe conditions of climate change let alone having to adapt to a potentially industry and environment polluting sand mine.

World renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough opened the UN climate summit on Monday 3rd December with the following observation in reference to climate change and I quote. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world are on the horizon”. We may attribute this extreme natural behaviour to human inducement or we may not. Regardless, the change is happening and a new metrological term has emerged. ‘Accelerated Climate Change’

So, it is proposed to have a large 1700 odd hectare mineral sand mine operation with twenty years of operating life on high ground adjacent to the pristine Mitchell River and an economically significant and intensely inhabited agricultural food bowl within the Mitchell catchment. This food bowl is so critical that even house building, a non-agricultural activity, is now regulated by the Planning Scheme so not to impact on the integrity of the agricultural industry. Therefore, how could the Lindenow Valley sustain this major extractive industry?

The mineral sand mine application process has been navigated through to the State Government for a judgement based upon an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) being prepared for Kalbar Resources. Even under normal and predictable conditions, the EES is seen by State Government Auditor General as a flawed document that is traditionally skewed in favour of the applicant. Politicians of either stripe are always positive towards applications requiring an EES in fear of discouraging future investments in a process known as ‘Sovereign Risk’.

How can Kalbar Resources or their consultants anticipate what form these extreme weather conditions will take and what remedial measures they intend to adopt over the life of the mine? This may explain why many local people are disgruntled when at public forums Kalbar Resources consultants allegedly gave the mushroom reply to people’s queries followed with the ubiquitous ‘wait until the EES is concluded’. Are Kalbar being disingenuous or they just don’t know? Sadly, even the perception of contamination can ruin the marketability of Lindenow Valley produce.

I am trying to contemplate the impact this mine may have on our beautiful inland waters. Could the Gippsland Lakes survive losing the last Earth Mother? Do the dozen or so ‘out of town’ board of directors, secretary and executives of Kalbar Resources really care?

Climate Change education and Government Action

In a recent post I briefly touched on the desperate need for some basic scientific education in our body politic. This will be especially so when governments start implementing some of the more unpopular laws required to combat the climate emergency. The education process should be everywhere – especially in government departments, legislative chambers, across the media, schools and the general public. It should especially be part of any climate strategy which can be directed immediately to the elites – upper levels of government – as suggested by Alan Pears.

The promotion in the media should be science based and ubiquitous. Above all it should non-political. There is already a mass of visual material on the net that could be easily crafted for television and the print media giving basic explanations in a variety of ways on the greenhouse effect and all aspects of climate science. It should be information based – not a scare campaign – and a huge budget is probably required to counter the reaction from fossil fuel and other vested interests. Schools are almost certainly the best organised in this regard but provision of extra learning materials may assist in some areas.

Had something of this sort had been introduced by the Rudd/Gillard governments the ‘carbon tax’ may well have succeeded. On the one hand the negative scare campaign of the Abbott opposition would not have fallen on such fertile ground. The legislation may have been more carefully crafted and introduced possibly even in a bipartisan manner if the legislators themselves had been more thoroughly informed on the issue. Finally if PM Gillard had honestly admitted her mistake of her pre-election ‘no carbon tax’ claim public sympathy would have helped. It is clear still that many of our leaders on both sides of politics have yet to come grips with, or understand, the problem.

Within the media the unprincipled Abbott opposition was cheered on by the anti-science Murdoch media and this anti-science stance of the largest player in the print industry continues to this day. Strategically it may be necessary to direct the science based publicity campaigns away from this sector though perhaps unwise to exclude them completely. Science based adverts provided by the CSIRO for instance, would make interesting reading placed next to an opinion piece by Andrew Bolt in the Peoples Paper.

Finally, and in conjunction with the education campaign, any legislation that is introduced in the future should be revenue neutral – all the money collected is returned equally to the people. This in turn will mean such legislation will be more readily accepted, and is basically James Hansen’s ‘fee and dividend’ proposal. A carbon ‘fee’ of this kind is currently being implemented in Canada. Another way the ‘fee and dividend’ could be gradually introduced is by applying it to targeted areas – for instance on exports of coal and other fossil based fuels.

Solar Revolution takes off in Gippsland

Bruthen General Store

In 1976 I first saw a tiny solar panel in action on the Mt Nugong fire tower. Ten years later I installed my first panels at home – 2 X 30 watt panels that cost more than $10 a watt (incidentally they are still producing energy).  Around 2000 we swapped from wind energy to solar with the help of Howard government subsidies installing 6 panels to have just under half a kilowatt of panels in our stand alone system. In 2012 we installed 4 kw in 16 panels on our retirement unit. Since then the efficiency of panels has continued to increase and the cost continues to come down – heading for around 50 cents per watt if it is not there already.

Now the solar revolution has taken off in Gippsland. There is plenty of evidence for this both regionally and nationally (see here and here). The high prices of electricity and gas make solar doubly attractive. As well the low feed in prices paid by electricity retailers for residential rooftop solar almost ensures a future, rapid take-up of batteries to store energy for home consumption when they become a bit cheaper.

Bulk buys of solar panels organised by shire councils have been operating across Gippsland for more than a year. Many of the installations are not visible from the street but solar installations are going up on community buildings, schools, halls and sporting facilities including a recent addition on one of the buildings in the Gellen complex at Bairnsdale.

The Latrobe Valley Community Power Hub Newsletter noted the “independent agency, Solar Victoria which is to be based in Morwell, will work with industry, regulators and training organisations to deliver the Solar Homes Package” and “Mirboo North Community Shed Co-operative has just been awarded $88,000 to develop 82.5kW of behind the meter solar PV to be installed on four buildings in Mirboo North.” As well there were othering interesting and innovative projects such as the solar lit footpaths in Yinnar.

But the real revolution is in businesses installing large, behind the meter, rooftop PV to approximately match their power consumption. This is the obvious step for businesses to significantly reduce their power bills. The panels are often purchased by loan and adds to the value of the business. Again many of these are not visible from the street but often involve covering roofs completely with panels. I saw two examples of this for the first time on a recent trip to the Bruthen market noticing that both the general store and the microbrewery had both done this. It is an action that significantly reduces their power bill at little or no cost to the business.

Each panel installation reduces energy demand from coal fired generators. When installed in large numbers this must be having a substantial effect on their profits and it is not going to get any better. Within a few years – say to 2025 – panels will cover most rooftops, some car parks and there may be even a solar road. The rapid solar adoption may well force the closure of all the Latrobe Valley generators by 2030.

The Latrobe Valley Hydrogen Fiasco

Governments are notoriously wrong at picking winners and the coal to hydrogen fiasco in the Latrobe Valley is a case in point. DELWP has just announced a $2 million investment in the “green hydrogen economy” which has all the appearances of more ‘greenwash’. One suspects that the coal to hydrogen project will be the chief beneficiary of this largesse.

These funds can be added to the $100 million already contributed by the State and Federal governments to the coal to hydrogen project to produce an estimated 2 tons of hydrogen. It is also not clear whether the Victorian government’s offshore drilling program to locate places to store carbon dioxide – the chimera of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – is part of, or extra to, the Victorian government’s contribution.

As readers will know the coal to hydrogen plans cannot be described as a ‘green process’ (see here). Using fossil fuel means that CO2 will be produced and contribute to global warming unless all this greenhouse gas is captured. The best result of CCS trials to date has been to capture up to 30% of CO2 which was prohibitively expensive (see here for more detail).

This is not to say that ‘green’ hydrogen cannot be produced but rather that the Valley coal to hydrogen project is a ‘dud’. The CSIRO have been working for many years on sustainable hydrogen processes. They produce the hydrogen by electrolysis from water using renewable energy and using air convert the hydrogen to ammonia for safety, storage and transportation. I know of no plans for anything like this in Victoria although the water being evaporated in the cooling towers of the electricity generators may be the resource to exploit rather than brown coal.

Another problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that any substantial production is at least ten years down the track. It is touted as the green fuel for transport but in the area of cars, buses and light trucks it has already lost the battle with battery powered electric vehicles. The Sea Electric operations in Morwell is just the beginning. One expert predicts that no new internal combustion engines will be manufactured after 2025 and the winner will definitely be the electric vehicle. This does not exclude hydrogen as a source for heavy vehicles, trains, shipping amongst various options.

It is difficult to imagine why these decisions have been made. Governments have probably been receiving poor or incorrect advice from department heads – especially DELWP and Earths Resources. These departments are welded to the status quo supporting what is already there – the coal deposits. They are fixated with brown coal and cannot see beyond it. And most of all they do not comprehend the enormity of global warming and the enormous task to reduce greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050.

Mining brown coal for generating electricity or converting coal to hydrogen is not the future for the Latrobe Valley. Numerous proposals have been made for generating more than enough jobs to assure a just transition in the Gippsland to a sustainable and non-polluting era. Most of them do not require any government funding but just general support and fast tracking the various renewable energy and industrial solutions. The Star of the South offshore wind project is a good example of this.

The Tree Vandals of Gippsland

Massive trunk of Yellow Box between Ensay and Swifts Creek. (Ros Crisp)

Twice every day for the last 8 years of my life as a shopkeeper I drove past a magnificent old yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora) near the crest of Connors Hill. Many years earlier when returning from a party we stopped there and three of us joined hands around this great specimen measuring its circumference at roughly 24 feet. The age of the tree was not known but as a slow growing species it almost certainly was there when Angus McMillan journeyed down the Tambo Valley in 1840 and was quite possibly there well before the first Europeans landed at Botany Bay. Now it is gone.

A number of estimates of the amount of carbon stored in its body were made. A local Ros Crisp, who worked hard to save the tree from the Vic Roads chainsaws, measured the tree accurately in July before it was cut down. It was exactly 6 metres in circumference measured 1.4m above ground level. Calculations varied according to what calculator was used but it stored between 15-30 tons of carbon with a 50-100 ton CO2 equivalent. Using the top estimate and an arbitrary value of $30 per ton of CO2 gave the tree a monetary value of $3000.

Unfortunately the tree vandals are in charge in a number of government departments – DELWP in particular as well as Vic Roads – and tree removals continue unabated in Gippsland justified under various headings including public safety and fire prevention. Massive clearing along roadsides in the bush has been ongoing for a number of years as was detailed by Deb Foskey at Dellicknora nearly 3 years ago.

Deb noted: “People who live in the border region of Far East Gippsland – Bonang, Dellicknora, Tubbut – were shocked to see what has turned out to be hundreds of trees felled …on the Dellicknora road. On inquiry to DELWP we were told that these were ‘hazardous trees’… The trees may have been felled for no purpose, equating their demise with extreme environmental vandalism. In any case, the entire concept of ‘hazardous trees’ deserves close scrutiny.”

More recently a block of Native Forest at Mt Alfred near Bairnsdale was logged for firewood. See the Gippsland Environment Group’s website for more detail. As well a recent private survey of regional Australia found the logging industry had very little public support.

The whole operations of DELWP need a thorough reorganisation. Trees should be protected and removed only as a last resort. Each tree so removed should be replaced with more than enough seedlings to recover the carbon lost to the atmosphere in one year.

DELWP’s major role should now be on forest protection with the science of climate change being the major input. The whole area of burning and community protection should be revisited and re-examined. New procedures should be adopted in accord with the latest science.  And it goes without saying that the logging in Native Forests for whatever reason should be quickly phased out.

Six years of Gippsland Climate Blogging

After a few initial mishaps I have been regularly posting twice a week on this blog since December 2012. It was conceived as a commentary on climate change related as closely as possible to Gippsland. The first posts, without images, were made by my sister in Canada who presented me with the website (and a twitter account) as a Xmas present in 2012. The first couple of posts were made by her from brief articles from a climate change newsletter I was producing at that time and done before I was aware the website or blog existed. It was a most pleasant surprise and the newsletter was quickly superseded.

Although concentrating on local content occasionally some of the more general posts have attracted international interest. One of these was a post I wrote almost two years ago on the threatening effects of high wet bulb temperatures – basically a measurement of both humidity and temperature. Many people are still surprised to know that wet bulb temperatures over 30 degrees are life threatening and at human body temperature will cause death in a short time. This post still has occasional visitors – six in the last month. Generally in a popular post the interest is overwhelming Australian with unique website visits over 80% of visits. Usually the Australian visitors figure hovers around the 60% mark with the remaining visitors from around the globe and all continents. It is an audience I have never had before.

Statistically the web site visits have grown and currently sits between 500 and just under 1000 unique visits per month with 971 visits a recent high.* So far there have been about 600 posts of 400 to 450 words on average – more than 250,000 words in total. Somewhere between 10 and 20% of the posts are from guest bloggers and others are republished online articles of local interest. This year Paul Treasure’s post on a pumped hydro proposal on the Thompson River was a high for guest posts which was also republished elsewhere and quite controversial.

As works of journalism the posts are sometimes hastily written for a deadline, so occasionally an inaccuracy or small error creeps in, though they are generally as accurate as possible. Where they are basically an opinion piece or some future projection no doubt there will be discrepancies – sometimes large – which will eventually become obvious with hindsight. The blog remains a political, but non-partisan, tool. It is politicised only to the extent that vested interests have, and continue, to overrule best science. Hopefully the blog is having some effect for this cause. To paraphrase Gandhi in one of my favourite quotes: “you may never know the results of your actions but if you do nothing there will be no result.”

*almost all these visitors are to the climate blog with occasional visitors to history articles on the publications page

Gippsland’s First Big Battery for Mallacoota

Republished From Environment Connect Summer 2018-19 (East Gippsland Shire Council)*

Mallacoota will be among the first towns in Australia to have a grid-connected energy storage system in its local network, after eastern Victorian electricity distributor AusNet Services announced plans to install a large-scale battery near the town in 2019.

The Mallacoota Area Grid Storage (MAGS) is an innovative $2.5 million project that will greatly improve power reliability in Mallacoota.  A power storage facility is planned to be installed at the East Gippsland Water treatment plant on Genoa-Mallacoota Rd, just outside the Mallacoota township.

MAGS is expected to reduce the number of local outage events by around 90 per cent. This includes both planned and unplanned outages (faults).

The heart of MAGS is a lithium ion battery array with a total storage capacity of 1MWh and will be combined with a diesel generator of similar capacity connected to the AusNet Services** electricity grid. This could power 1,000 average homes for approximately two hours. The battery will be charged from the grid, and will then feed power back into the town during local outages.

A community meeting on Wednesday 21 November was well attended and many technical questions were asked and answered.  An important outcome will be that household solar panels will now remain connected and feed into the local network when the town is ‘islanded’ and will help keep the battery running for longer.

*contact the East Gippsland Shire Sustainability Officer here.  From the information provided this means Mallacoota will be able to operate as a micro-grid. It is further anticipated that as residential batteries from new state government’s battery plans are put in place that it will be able to function independently from the grid for a considerable period of time, mostly from renewable sources. The state government’s plan is for batteries to be installed at residences with already operating rooftop solar, of which Mallacoota has a substantial number.

**further information here.

A Vote Climate Strategy

As part of a ‘vote climate’ strategy I have often called for ‘climate Independents’ to oppose those Liberal and National MP climate change deniers that occupy safe seats in our Federal parliament. Those climate Independents should necessarily be from the centre or conservative side of politics and preferably be high profile and media friendly – the more well-known the better. A ‘hit list’ of these deniers in the current Federal parliament should be easy to compile – starting with ex PM Mr Abbott and including a few Victorians such as Kevin Andrews.

Now prominent Liberal Party member Oliver Yates has called for the Liberal party to split and for independent Liberals – those that accept the overwhelming evidence of climate science and the need for the Adani coal mine to be stopped – to oppose sitting members. Writing an opinion piece in the Guardian Yates noted: “We must provide alternatives for Liberals to vote for at the next federal election, and I hope to see independent Liberals provide electors in safe Liberal seats with that choice. We need to return to the day where politicians know that their job is not to retain their job but rather to represent their electorate, who, if they are lucky, reward them with their job.”

There are a growing number of environmental and progressive political organisations that have joined the ‘vote climate’ movement. These include Environment Victoria and the Friends of the Earths’ Act on Climate collective in the Victorian election and Get Up and Stop Adani in the recent Wentworth by-election. By-elections allow groups to concentrate their efforts in seats that they would otherwise discount or ignore in a general election.  And yet both these elections illustrate that there is a strong demand for rational climate policies in these conservative seats.

Since actual climate deniers number only about 5% of the population and around 70% accept human caused climate change then it follows that there is a substantial body of voters on the conservative side of politics waiting for a suitable candidate. Now the ‘Vote Climate’ campaign has been joined by the Australian Conservation Foundation these groups should co-ordinate their campaigns so that ‘climate independents’ in safe seats are not only not forgotten but encouraged and assisted wherever possible. Included in this should be the issue of some sort of ‘Conservatives for Climate’ How to Vote Senate tickets in all states – especially those where climate deniers, like Senator Abetz in Tassie, head the Lib ticket.

By all means the various organisations should continue to run their own specific campaigns. But there is much to be gained by co-operation between these groups and to shift Federal parliament back to an active bipartisanship on climate by the removal or marginalising of the deniers. In some electorates prominent individuals should be requested to stand if no suitable candidate appears to be forthcoming. They should then be supported in many as ways as possible especially in online promotions. A co-ordinated ‘vote climate’ campaign would also ensure that preferences from both the sympathetic parties – the Greens and Labor – flow in the right direction.