East Gippsland Shire Consultations by Angela Crunden

Mitchell River Bairnsdale (Crunden)

A late start was not enough to dampen the positivity coming from East Gippsland Shire Council’s Bairnsdale community consultation held on Tuesday night 2nd March. Overwhelmingly the environment was seen as the most valued asset of our region.

The sessions have been well attended with good numbers in Lakes Entrance (15), and 35 in both Orbost and Bairnsdale. The Local Government Act requires councils to conduct consultations to determine a new four year plan which is done in conjunction with 10 year Financial and Capital Works Plans.

Small groups worked together to list what they valued most about living in East Gippsland, what were future opportunities and what were the challenges for our region.

It was gratifying as each table presented their discussion summaries that our beautiful region’s lakes, forests, mountains and rivers were the first thing mentioned. People born here through to new residents lived here out of love for the natural assets we enjoy.

Support for often hidden members of the community including LGBTQI, cultural and ethnically diverse people emerged along with the regional challenge of higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, poverty and lack of public housing. Council officers pointed to the shire relying heavily on rate revenue for its income, where city based shires were able to raise revenue from parking and other sources. Participants identified many traditional concerns of residents everywhere, such as roads, parking, and community safety. Social justice, business viability, tourism and environment protection were strongly present across all of the tables.

While not always using the term climate change, each table made reference to challenges that were impacted by this threat. By contrast, opportunities pointed to changes in farming practices, setting up micro grids especially in remote towns and expansion of solar and other power options. Issues of infrastructure to support more public transport, EV charging stations, and improvements for pedestrian and cycle traffic were also raised.

The participants finished the session by each making a short statement of what they would like to see in the region in ten years. The last participant praised the many good ideas raised in this final segment but he cautioned that none of these long-term goals would be of lasting benefit or even achievable until climate change was comprehensively tackled by all levels of government. This community consultation information will be used along with online surveys and a Community Panel process to ensure the needs identified by the community can be integrated into the plan over the term of this council.

The Burning Question Again


Country burned twice in less than 10 years deep red. Map Dr Tom Fairman

The time of year when the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning sets fire to the bush in controlled burns, and to the debris in logged coupes, is now with us. As a seasonal employee of the department forty years ago, I worked on these tasks. Also at my home in Ensay on a few acres, I would often burn some of the grasses and other areas I could not mow or otherwise reduce the fuel load for fire protection. These fires were of low intensity and very small, although twice in thirty years I had small burns get away from me. With global warming the task now is more complicated and difficult, as we need to both protect trees and the bush and limit burning as much as possible (for an earlier blog see here).

The logging industry is at the heart of this problem. It is quite clear that the bush is far more valuable as a carbon store than as timber for woodchips and paper. By ceasing logging, as any reasonable government that accepts the science would have done years ago, solves part of the problem. There remains the question of the emissions produced by the large scale, so called ‘controlled’, burns carried out in the name of bushfire protection.

Philip Zylstra Research Fellow on flammability and fire behaviour from the University of Wollongong noted that at “the heart of our traditional approach are hand-drawn dots on a graph from a leaflet published by Australian bushfire expert Alan McArthur in the 1960s. [There are] nine data points telling us that if we halve the fuel load – the leaf litter on the ground – we can halve the speed of the fire. It has never been backed by evidence, but in the absence of something better it became the bedrock of Australian fire management. One rule for all forests: burn them.” Our black summer bushfires have clearly shown that country that recently burned will burn again and that under severe conditions controlled burns are ineffective. Zylstra supports low intensity small scale ‘Aboriginal’ style burning, which has debatable relevance to Gippsland.

Research by David Cheal after the Black Saturday fires in 2009 has noted that all “fuel treatments (i.e. controlled or hazard reduction) 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.”

With global warming, the forestry practices of fifty years ago are no longer valid. It is time to end logging, and most burning, as quickly as possible.

Opportunities for Carbon Farming by Tony Peck

Fridays for Future demo Bairnsdale

Climate change is being felt by everyone in Australia and farmers already are among the worst affected, with deeper and longer droughts along with worse floods and storms.

There are many opportunities for farmers to benefit by action. It is gratifying that Gippsland Federal representative Darren Chester has acknowledged the concerns of many farmers that climate change is affecting them, despite dissenting voices within his party.

We are already very aware of the intense and more frequent bushfires, decreasing crop yields across the state and longer more frequent droughts caused by global warming. This is happening with only 1.1°C rise in global temperatures. Current targets for reductions in carbon emissions are just not enough and will result in very high rises in temperatures – more than 4°C by the end of the century. The impacts on agriculture will be profound. Luckily, there is plenty that can be done to keep temperatures under 1.5ºC which is seen as our best bet for a reasonable future.

Farmers can benefit by acting now. They are finding that they are using less fertilizer and their soils are both retaining more moisture and have increased crop yields. These techniques build up carbon in the soil, reducing the carbon available to cause the greenhouse effect that warms the planet. There are also opportunities to trade the additional carbon that is stored in the soil with industries that are also trying to reduce their carbon impact.

Techniques that are restoring carbon to our soils include minimal tilling and use of perennial grasses and planting native trees and shrubs. Managing stock to allow native forest to regrow not only provides potential shade and wind-breaks, but trees are a great store for carbon. Many trials underway show a number of ways to improve beef herds by reducing methane a potent greenhouse gas.

Farming organizations are providing effective targets and support. The Meat and Livestock organization has set a net zero carbon emissions target for 2030 for beef production. The Australian Farmers Federation has a net zero target of 2050. Groups like Farmers for Climate Action and Carbon Farmers of Australia each have useful web pages and they are keen to support farmers to understand what they can do to make a difference.

Agrivoltaics – Solar PV and Farms

An article in the current Renew magazine (No.154) by Remi Rauline et al entitled ‘Sharing the Sky’ caught my interest. The article introduced the term ‘agrivoltaics’ – using the land for both for agriculture and energy production to increase farm income and zero emissions electricity. The article concentrates on combinations of agriculture and photovoltaics though in Australia’s case it can also include wind generation.

Almost all the examples given in the article are overseas, where land is in short supply and expensive. Even so, the article listed a number of objections to solar projects in Victoria that were either delayed or refused due to objections from local farmers. An example of a dual land use project delayed is the Delburn wind farm west of Morwell though in this case wind and plantation timber rather than photovoltaics and cropping. Wind has the advantage over solar in that it does not take up so much land and can thus operate alongside most agricultural operations. It is notable that the wind farms at Waubra have drought proofed many of the farms in the district and helped revive the local community.

Using solar panels in irrigation areas such as the Macalister Irrigation district should concentrate first on covering channels with panels rather than farmland. This has a number of obvious advantages including evaporation from the channels is reduced, electricity production is enhanced by the cooling effect of the water and valuable land is not utilised. However when this is done perhaps then farmers can consider using some of the amazing advances made in Europe and Japan for their land.

Grazing stock with solar panels is an obvious, and easy, improvement providing control of undergrowth by the sheep and giving shade to the stock in summer but with a reduced carrying capacity. For grazing with cattle, heavier and higher construction is necessary. The high mounting of panels is standard for all cropping underneath to allow machinery access and is common in Europe and Japan for orchards and rice growing. Grazing under the panels is planned for the Perry Bridge Solar farm that is about to commence construction and presumably will also occur with their other Gippsland projects.

The advantages of agrivoltaics are many and include soil moisture retention, and utilising certain aspects of the light spectrum with translucent panels to boost plant production. The article concludes, “increased awareness of the opportunities of agrivoltaics, along with locally proven solutions, will build the confidence of developers to partner with farms to deliver agrivoltaic solutions.”

To deliver the 200 to 500% of energy required for the renewables revolution in Gippsland solar panels will be ubiquitous and found not only on rooftops of house and factory, but on water, and as agrivoltaic systems on farms. As usual Renew is always a good read and, in this issue, the article on agrivoltaics in particular.

An Election Strategy for Bush and Town

For more than a decade I have been pushing for citizens to ‘vote climate’ particularly in Gippsland, but anywhere in Australia. To ‘vote climate’ essentially is to vote for the candidate who understands the science and the need for urgent action and is prepared to act on it. Preferences on this ballot should flow in strict order until a denier (One Nation or the Nationals?) or major party candidate (primarily the LNP) is numbered last.

The ‘bush strategy’ aim should be the defeat of as many National Party sinecure holders as possible and corresponding with a strategy for ‘safe’ city seats held by the Liberals – especially the climate deniers in their ranks. The strategy means that strong and popular independent candidates are needed and they should be supported and promoted wherever possible. Aside from strong and popular candidates having a ‘grass roots’ organisation will be an essential element, like that pioneered by ‘Voices for Indi’, which first saw the election of Cathy McGowan and now Helen Haines. The ‘Voices’ groups have been springing up around the country, mainly in NSW.

The strategy also requires that a significant number of voters from all the major parties disregard party loyalties and cast their first preference for ‘the’ prominent independent and that preferences from other candidates flow tightly to the promoted independent. Many things can go wrong with this so some luck helps. It also requires both Labor and the Greens to conduct low-key campaigns in these seats and to direct their preferences the right way. The campaign in Kooyong at the last election misfired with two strong ‘climate’ candidates – Julian Burnside for the Greens and independent Oliver Yates – tending to cancel each other out, though for the first time they reduced the sitting members’ vote enough to go to preferences.

But if the triumph of Zali Steggall can be repeated in half a dozen other places in the bush with the incumbent independents holding their seats, and perhaps the addition of a green or two, suddenly we can have a powerful cross bench. Best of all would be a repeat of something along the lines of the minority Gillard government – preferably without a malignant and aggressive opposition leader or some power monger who championed coal.

Gippsland Farmers and Climate Action Now

Contrary to the lies being spread in the media by many in the National Party (our local member may be an exception) there are many actions that farmers can do now to act on climate. I have examined this many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). These articles are based on the truism that farmers suffer most from the effects of global warming and have the most to gain from climate action – action on both a personal and government level. Actions that can be done immediately follow.

Plant and/or protect trees. Trees are a carbon store and offer other benefits to farms in a warming planet not the least shade and protection in extreme weather. There are very few farms that do not have some unproductive corner or a fence line that can be planted or a place where a wind-break would be beneficial. Farms that are lucky enough to have a bush block should see it is well protected and maintained.

Install solar panels everywhere and electrify everything including fences, pumps, homes and sheds. Most of these installations will be depreciable. Isolated diesel pumps can be replaced with secondhand panels at low cost and no running costs. Dairies (or anywhere using large amounts heat or power) are the perfect location for large solar installations – either photovoltaic or solar thermal.

Soil carbon farming is a way of sequestering and storing carbon in the soil and getting paid for it. Already this is practiced in West Gippsland with the Soilkee process (image above). This practice generally has huge potential for drawing down large amounts of carbon in the atmosphere and creating a substantial income stream for farmers. It awaits smooth and rapid processes for measuring carbon uptake and calculating payments for this.

Plan both farm resilience and future actions. One example is the adoption of wind generators at Waubra north of Ballarat that has helped drought proof a number of farms. This example is a form of agrivoltaics (more in a later blog), a practice that involves farming and energy production existing side by side. Another would be for the adoption of feeding stock seaweed supplements to control methane output of stock. The CSIRO has developed a supplement which is about to go into commercial production.

The fact that the National Party is captive to fossil fuel interests should be making farmers very angry. Political action is the answer and can commence immediately. This will mean increased effort if you are already involved. At the very least, you can let your local member know your feelings. Consider joining or supporting Farmers for Climate Action. Make your views known in the various organisations you belong to and oppose or persuade those individuals within it who do not recognise the science of climate change. This shouldn’t be too hard to do and won’t cost you a penny. But in the end it may come down to who you and your neighbours vote for.

The Nationals, Gippsland and Climate Politics

Following on from my last blog on the pathetic statement of National Party leader Michael McCormack I had intended to make a brief summary of some of the many climate actions farmers can take to move towards zero emissions. I queried the performance of our local member and asked which way Darren Chester would jump on this issue. This was overtaken by the 24 hour news cycle with a statement by Chester on Sky News, which has been reported in detail in an article by Katharine Murphy and Daniel Hurst in the Guardian.

Darren is reported as saying: “It’s important we take our time to listen to what people are saying to us, and even in the agricultural sector there are very different views… I have farmers in my electorate who are very interested to know whether this technology approach around sequestering more carbon in soils provides a real opportunity for them. They are open to the conversation…My job is to reflect the views of the community. I would just simply say we’ve got to be part of the solution as a National party – we don’t want to sideline ourselves from big debates.”

Darren Chester MHR has been aware of global warming for many years. In 2013 I stood in Gippsland as a Climate Independent with a policy of ‘fee and dividend’* to replace the carbon tax and again in 2016 as a candidate for the Renewable Energy Party. During that campaign I spoke at a community election forum at which Darren also spoke. I assume he was listening. Recently he has met deputations from East Gippsland Climate Action Network (including the new East Gippsland Shire Mayor Mendy Urie) and local Farmers for Climate Action members. As well there was the joint climate group/ XR demonstration (image above, see here for blog) outside Darren’s office during the brief interlude between the bushfires and the coronavirus.

Darren is to be congratulated for speaking out (however mildly and belatedly**) against the coal troglodytes in his own party. These Nationals and a few liberals are the tail wagging the LNP dog and have been delaying or denying action for the whole of Australia for many years – an action that is criminal. As many commentators (including ex PM Turnbull) have stated the LNP is a split waiting to happen. Perhaps that ‘split’ is fast approaching. Will Darren’s next move then be to join a part of the Libs using science based policy?

*policy advocated by US climate scientist James Hansen for many years.

**My blog on Darren five years ago was far more critical.

Farmers, Politics and Climate Change

Recently National Party heavyweights, led by Deputy PM Michael McCormack, have come out fighting against the mildest of statements by our PM about a ‘possible’ 2050 zero emissions target.

Rachel Meyer in The Conversation noted: “On Sunday, McCormack told Sky News the Coalition government will not “whack regional Australia” just to meet a climate target. He went on: ‘There is no way we are going to […] hurt regional Australia, in any way shape or form just to get a target for climate in 2050. We are not going to hurt those wonderful people that put food on our table.’ But the Nationals’ push is deeply misguided. It dumps the burden of emissions reduction on other sectors, and puts Australian farmers and the broader economy at greater risk of climate change damage.”

By way of reply Anika Molesworth of the Farmers for Climate Action tweeted that McCormack’s “We are not going to hurt those wonderful people that put food on our table” was “Sweet sentiment mate, but that’s exactly what you are doing from inadequately addressing climate change. “

An ABC article by Anna Henderson and David Lipson noted: “NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said the group’s clear position was to support reaching net zero by 2050, while ensuring ‘agriculture is not worse off’, [and that] ‘Agriculture is in a unique position — different to any other industry in that farmers can sequester carbon and reduce emissions. Agriculture is too important to leave out and too important to ignore…’ [and] ‘Farmers are in the box seat to seize the opportunities from a reduced emissions future — and many are already doing just that. Any policy that restricts opportunities available to farmers and rural and regional communities would clearly be a negative outcome.’” The farmers’ national organisation and their political representatives are clearly at loggerheads.

For my 50 years residence in Gippsland the National Party have had just three MHR representatives – Peter Nixon, Peter McGauran and Darren Chester. Darren, the current member, says he accepts the science of climate change, but, as far as I know, has made no public statements about this*. By contrast, The National Party is the home to the bulk of the climate deniers in our Federal Parliament including Joyce, Canavan and Christenson – clearly identified as part of the ‘fossil fuel lobby’. This group has the support of the party leadership including McCormack and Senator McKenzie. The Nationals no longer represent farmers and country interests but are beholden to Coal and Gas.

With the threat of carbon duties being applied to Australian exports by the European Union in the near future it is clear to see that the question of meaningful action on Climate change is coming to a head, signalling a crisis for our Federal politicians – in particular the Nationals. The choices are plain. One wonders which way Darren Chester is going to jump.

*Breaking News: the Guardian has just reported that “Victorian Nationals MP, Darren Chester, has warned his party to listen to its diverse heartland and be ‘part of the solution’ when it comes to practical environmentalism and emissions reductions rather than ‘sideline ourselves from big debates’. More on this in the next blog.

Tim Flannery’s The Climate Cure – a brief review

Flannery is by far and away the best populariser of climate science in Australia. This volume follows on from best sellers The Weather Makers and Atmosphere of Hope in clearly and concisely outlining the climate related problems we face, the political ‘cul de sac’ we find ourselves in,  and offers a range of solutions.

The first part of The Climate Cure (Text 2020)* is called ‘The Great Australian Tragedy’ and speaks for itself. It is the story of the failure of our Federal governments (heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry) to act on global warming for more than two decades. Most of it is not new. Chapter headings like ‘A history of Folly’, ‘Megafires’ and ‘The Decade of Consequences’ elaborate on this theme.

Here Flannery states “Despite the growing desire of Australians for strong action on climate change, the Federal Government remains hostage to about twenty-five members of parliament… and in holding the government hostage, they are continuing to hold twenty-five million Australians to ransom. But we must act, even as our leaders fail to act.” (p.31) The magic number of 25 is now reduced with, for instance, the replacement of climate denier-in-chief Tony Abbott by Independent Zali Steggall, but the rump of the Nationals, and a few die-hard liberals, remains.

The second part of the book entitled ‘The Three Part Cure’ looks at both the political and practical solutions required. On the political aspects Flannery noted that the “most potent of all actions has been taken by traditionally conservative voters who are sick of being held to ransom by the climate deniers in parliament. Independents like Zali Steggall have run for a seat in Federal Parliament and won (with an astonishing 58% of the vote). More Independents supportive of climate action would do a lot to shift our politics in the right direction…[but electing them]…will not be easy.” (p.85)

The rest of the ‘Cure’ includes the need for a ‘just transition’ out of coal, looks at the obvious solutions of ‘hydrogen’ and ‘electric vehicles’ and how to attack the harder problems of shipping and aviation. There is also a short chapter on ‘Adaption’ and Flannery briefly touches on the problems of ‘geoengineering’ and ‘carbon drawdown’.

This book is an excellent summary of our current climate predicament. Please buy a copy and pass on to a friend when you have read it, or send it to your local MP.

*There are a small number of errors in the book. For example, the Menzies government went for 16 years not 26 (p.22). One that ‘got up my nose’ was calling Clive Palmer an ‘Independent’ (p.41). There is a copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library.

A Black Saturday Warning Revisited

(Wikipedia)

On 7 February 2009 – Black Saturday* – I was working in my shop at Swifts Creek until late afternoon and aware, via ABC local radio, of the horrendous bushfires sweeping the state. The day was very hot so, after work, I stopped in at the local for a coldie. But the six o’clock news on the pub tele gave me a shock and I knew that the burnt out cars being screened held the remains of those who had attempted to flee the fires. I shed a tear, finished my beer, and left as I found the images so disturbing.

About a week later, in collaboration with life-long friend Andrew Gunner**, a letter was penned to the Age*** on our bushfire history in the context of a warming planet and Black Saturday. Andrew recently recovered the letter and forwarded it to me. He wrote that it was a “bit of a shock to see this – because I was late in learning about climate change – and yet this is 11 years ago.”

Our final version of 24.2.09 to the Melbourne Age read as follows:

“Dear Sir,

In the 174 years since white settlement in Victoria, we have had 7 terrible fire seasons: 1851, 1898, 1939, 1983, 2003, 2006-7 and 2009. The shock is that 3 of these 7 fires have been in the most recent 7 summers. We are seeing frightening predictions about global warming confirmed: a rapid escalation of extreme and frequent fire, drought and floods. The CSIRO began warning us about this 20 years ago! It seems that these devastating fires are part of Victoria’s new climate. Energy companies, climate change sceptics and governments, including the Rudd and Brumby governments, continue to resist strong action to curb escalating climate change. Unfortunately, their resistance will worsen our long, dry, hot spells, and set up more terrible fire seasons – even as these politicians hug survivors and promise to rebuild. Urgent action is required now.

Andrew Gunner, Brunswick and Peter Gardner, Ensay Victoria”

Since then we have had one La Nina event in 2011-12 (and are currently experiencing another). From 2012 on we had only average or dry years, building up to a hot and dry 2019 fire season and our ‘black summer’. As Tim Flannery says in The Climate Cure (review to follow) we are entering the age of the ‘megafire’ of which 2019-20 is just the beginning. Tim noted how the “smoke was ubiquitous and inescapable…It insinuated itself into our houses – there was no way to keep it out. Opening the front door and being confronted with its intensity became a daily reminder that something had gone dreadfully wrong with the lucky country.”

Welcome to the Anthropocene or perhaps the Pyrocene. Urgent action is required now more than ever.

* It is a coincidence this blog appears on the 12th anniversary.

**Andrew has been a climate activist since about 2008. His website is here. Lately he has been concentrating on the good news of Australia as a renewable energy superpower.

***the letter was not published.