Australia, 2013: The flat earth society… Good for international relations?

“Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.  And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here.”

– Obama, Remarks by the President on Climate Change, June 2013

Australia disagrees.

We have actually elected the new Prime Minister of the Flat Earth Society, for a meeting to run its course of the next three years.

Am I being harsh?

The individual in mind is notorious for his dismissal of anthropogenic climate change and global strategies to decarbonise economies. His direct action approach is akin to quadrupling the annual Australian forestry industry with the most optimistic assumptions, but worse in that it relies upon methodology that is highly uncertain and difficult to measure; soil sequestration. This, as a voluntary contribution from farmers with modest returns for the efforts seems far from a compelling strategy.

Australians voted in such a person, arguably not in favour of him personally, but rather against the frayed ALP. That, and the nice ideas of scrapping tax and persistent xenophobia regarding desperate refugees.

So yes, I’m drawn to such a conclusion and haunted by fear summed up but the last sentence of the quote above.

What will future Australian’s think of us who, when the world actually started building up some momentum on action on climate change, now including China and the US, both of which are showing genuine progress, we ducked out of the procession and down the nearest ally to hide out and have a few cigarettes?

The current Australian government does not speak for me. It is one that promotes unreasonable levels of individualism that stands in direct contrast to the evidence that shows increased equality and social mobility are positively correlated with happier, safer and healthier societies. It is one that promotes ideas such as the great northern development and direct action with total disregard for the empirical environmental evidence to the contrary. It is one that points to surplus in its most recent period as example of fiscal management, while ignoring that this came as a quick cash grab on what would have otherwise remained sources of revenue into the indefinite future, that is, privatisation.

It will be a government that provides much fuel for writers like myself, but will I be able to or will I simply balk?


Will a voluntary ‘Green Army’ really pack a punch?

At 19, I had left school a couple years ago and gave the prospect of university no serious thought. For me, the only sensible option that I felt was open was a trade or traineeship of some sort.

In the end, I selected a retail traineeship with a large company, which promised managerial certification to those who excelled in this initial year of training.

I had done well enough. However, I remember the day my involvement in this traineeship ended.

The course overseer came into the store I worked in and asked me to complete a 250 word essay and I would have the level 2 certificate in my hot little hand. Anyone familiar with NewAnthro knows how easily I can put together as many words (in fact I’m half way there now), but yet I refused to.

The store kept me on, however, yet part-time and I turned back to schooling and went to uni instead…

Why didn’t I complete it, you may ask? It would have looked good on the CV of a young bloke such as myself, if nothing more.

I just couldn’t do it.

The life of a retail trainee

In this role, my wage was pathetic – lower than any part time worker of 16 filling a weekend position around school. One other trainee who was actually 16 scrapped in just shy of $5 per hour. The two of us both worked more than 50hrs a week each to make ends-meet. Worst of all, we were largely fodder for the jobs no-one else wanted. The store manager even had the other trainee wash his car in working hours! At $5 per hour, he was getting a good deal – especially as it was the company paying for it.

There’s just over 250 words and my reason for rejecting any accreditation on offer. We were told our wages were docked to pay for our training. Yet it was easy to see, from the amount of trainees going through and the frustrations that many shared with me, that the company was making a killing on cheap labour.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve only recently become aware of the cogs behind the Coalition’s “Green Army”. Their method brings back memories of more than a decade ago.

Troops without cause

This Green Army is to be made up of trainees and volunteers. The incentive for the workers is apparently the reward of doing a good job (and maybe some piece of paper for their efforts). For the government, the incentive is clearly getting a crappy job done on the cheap.

School leavers and work-for-the-dole candidates are to make up this team.

I have been a school leaver, I have worked a traineeship and I am environmentally motivated. But how would I fair day after day, regardless of wind, rain or harsh sun, digging up weeds, planting seedlings and collecting rubbish in a short term role akin to community service?

Strapped to a mast or collecting samples in a pit, my work is always interesting. However, I get variation and recognition for my effort, which I doubt could exist in the Green Army
Strapped to a mast or collecting samples in a pit, my work is always interesting. However, I get variation and recognition for my effort, which I doubt could exist in the Green Army

Working in environmental research today, I do a lot of field work, from soil sampling to establishing new research facilities. It is often hard work, but I get my respite when I return to the office with data to manage and validate.

There will be none of this for the Green Army and unlikely to be much job prospects following the short term position as what they were trained to do will be done cheaply by new recruits after them.

I simply cannot see how this initiative will attract ongoing voluntary effort from young people when the prospects of the first few groups to finish prove to be little better than their own. Why would a young adult run around in the rain or heat in a high-vis vest for 6 months to obtain marginally better job prospects?

Sure, not all people in my position would have turned down the little report as I did – a certificate is better than none – but who is really benefiting from this initiative?

“Green Fodder”

When it changed so as employers could not dock the wages of trainees in my position, I saw the initiative quickly reduce in size. This tells me that the company was not doing it to obtain a high quality body of staff, but rather cheap fodder.

The “voluntary” in the Green Army rings alarm bells, at least to me. The Coalition are betting on a great uncertainty for the basis of their environmental package – one that seems to be based on exploiting cheap labour options.

I doubt the Green Army will be washing many cars, however I wonder if they would ever be to meet and maintain their desired troop numbers. If not, it is nothing but another failed act just waiting to happen.

Cheap Labour and Poor Working Conditions: Who really is to blame?

The working conditions and wages paid for cheap goods from developing countries have again been in the news recently. People are quick to vilify businesses that supply such goods in their stores while turning a blind eye to this problem.

Yet, the critics themselves are without a doubt more often wrapped in clothing from suppliers undertaking inhumane practices. The problem itself is nothing new. The critics therefore are just as guilty for the demand of these product and wilful ignorance of the conditions behind their production.

All we want is reliable goods at rock bottom prices.

Well there’s your problem. Thoughts of this nature are no better than Gina Rinehart’s lament over the cheap labour costs of African workers when compared to Aussie workers.

To remain viable, business activities need to undertake cut-throat behaviours. Now forty years into the neo-liberal market, the “consumer” is detached from the realities of production across the board. For instance, seasonality of fresh produce is something long forgotten. Mending, indeed the expectation of a household item simply lasting, are long gone; it’s easier and apparently cheaper to upgrade and replace household items.

This is only true because some poor sap has no other option but to scrape out an existence on a daily wage less than we would spend on a coffee on our way to work.

These practices are so often reported on that no-one can be excused for buying goods ignorant to the fact. K-mart or Apple or whoever the critic wants to pick on today is guilty, true, but so are each of us for the purchase of these goods. Equally, the “designed obsolescence” and the throw away culture make all parties, from production to user, guilty of ridiculously mounting levels of waste.

Personally, I doubt anyone should be so quick to vilify producers and sellers, due to the risk of hypocrisy. Instead, what we need is a movement aimed at overcoming this paradigm. Of course, the alternative could not be as cheap, but it could be more durable and sustainable. It would definitely be more humane and otherwise ethical. Surrounded by growth economy which has evolved little beyond the lessons learnt by an invasive weed, the community of this movement would need persistence too.

If we do not like implicit involvement and thus guilt, we would do better to set a new example rather than trumpet hypocrisy to our personal activities. If business cannot fulfil the needs of the consumer, then it does not deserve the consumer dollar.

The Ord River: the unlucky horse shoe in the Coalition’s northern development

Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.

Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.

While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.


Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.

The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.

But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.

Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.

Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.

Gross Primary Productivity - MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage
Gross Primary Productivity – MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?

I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.

In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).

So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.

Water… again

Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.

How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.

The Ord River Irrigation

This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.

No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.

Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.

Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.

Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?


My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.

The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.

The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).

In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.

The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.

Part one here.

The Honest Truth of Australia: we need a different economy

The Aussie tradition is so strong that you can almost hear it sign, “We build this country… We built this country on sheep and coal!” [noting the need for Starship’s melody]

However, what does this mean to us today?

“Oh, do you remember…”

Shoosh! We’ve moved on from raw primary producers regardless of the urgings of Gina Rinehart.

Australian’s in fact do want to work, but they expect more than a couple dollars for their efforts – how else are they expected to buy essential goods and services at Australian prices?

So we’re told that Australia is moving away from production and into services, but do we really believe it? Wherever possible, companies making money off of Australians do so at the expense of Australian jobs. Manufacturing is increasingly seeking greener pastures where they needn’t share so much of their returns with their labour force. Even “made in China” is getting too expensive as that country develops.

The same is true with services provided through telecommunication. The bulk of our enquiries by phone and internet are increasingly answered by third party groups overseas where business can get away with providing lower wages.

The latest news from ANZ shows that this venture is being contemplated within the bank as well, regardless of their health profit growth.

So Australian labour is too expensive for much production and services, at least as far as businesses are concerned. Yet, moving all these jobs overseas also risks the other side of business lust – the consumer. How can you spend if you don’t have a job from which to earn? Debt growth is the only option.

Without change, we risk the erosion of the economic prosperity Australians have come to expect. Acting like a third world economy will lead us back to one.

We need to think differently.

Agriculture provides a suggestion; wine and cotton are so appealing, where the climate allows for their production, due to their high returns to weight ratio. It reminds me of the economic successes of Switzerland who rely on specialty manufacturing for export.

Take Australia; thinking third world, we dig up and cut down raw material and ship it away at rock-bottom prices, only to buy the back premium goods from these materials at top dollar. That’s mind-blowingly silly.

We could refine our uranium locally. We could process our meats locally (as opposed to live export). We could work the wood into paper and furniture, sending none of it as logs overseas. In each case, we build industries and sell the goods at a higher price.

Further, we have excellent tertiary education and revenue that could go into additional research and development. We could be exporting tomorrow’s medicines, medical equipment and medical strategies (ie. international students paying to learn at our universities). We could be leading the way in green technology, urban development, agricultural practices and technology in much the same way.

We still have a strong enough economy at least for the time being. We ought to be capitalizing on that and specialising for the top dollar, not scrounging around for quick dirty pennies.

Unless we make a change, aiming high, our economy will drift into obscurity as business erodes locally locked in an unrealistic portrait of Australia in the twenty first century; incapable with the Australian of today.

Dead-Head Denialism: Challenging “Sceptics” of Climate Change to Fluoridation is Zombie Warfare

It has been a while since I’ve commented on much in the way of climate science and the denial movement. Although aware of the recent noise regarding the supposed “proof” of the unfounded “scare” regarding anthropogenic climate change, citing Otto et al (2013) or foaming bile in reply to the Cook et al (2013) study illustrating that experts within relevant fields of science simply do not share the popular “scepticism” and, in fact, have moved beyond proving it – simply taking it for granted – I’ve chosen to say nothing. (see reflections on each, here and here respectively)


Because it’s the same damned nonsense that proliferated the internet when I started blogging.

The “Sceptics”

The self-titled “sceptics” illustrate their denialism in this continual rejection of the standing body of evidence. The loathed consensus is nothing more than the body of relevant human knowledge which illustrates that our emissions include gases that have a greenhouse effect and those gases are in concentrations great enough to increase the energy load within our atmospheric reservoir, changing our global climate.

The “sceptics” pretend to be reasonable – stating that all they want is sufficient proof for the position – but then reject the available body of scientific evidence and consensus (not simply two sides to the same coin, but effectively, the same thing). Yet, they up and down jump hysterically whenever they catch a whiff of a paper that sounds like it supports their position. That is not scepticism; that’s denial of the potential that one’s position could be wrong.

They don’t wait for sufficient evidence of any position, but instead for their favoured position to be proven right. And just like the creationists, they’ll have to wait for the second coming which will never happen.

The Dead-Heads

On zombies and denial, I came upon a great article by Readfearn, in which he links to a recent publication of the American Behavioral Scientist devoted entirely to the climate change denialism phenomena, which I’ve since been reading.

It all comes back to the same point; denialism, regardless of the subject matter, from climate change or evolution to what I’ve recently challenged – water fluoridation – such positions, that is, a rejection of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are simply symptomatic of deeper ideological biases.

Creationists understand that they need creation to validate their faith (the most honest of the Abrahamic followers). The anti-vax, anti-fluoridation and even the anti-wind farmers all share a fear in the unknown; “they are exposing us to something – it must be a trap!”

And climate change feeds on many, be it, free market ideologies, fear of imposing governmental input, generational differences that rub people up the wrong way etc.

As such, correcting the wrongs, as we tend to attempt within media, is like wiping the puss without fixing the infection. Or burying the zombie still intact.

This is why the zombies exist; we fail to realise that you must lob off the dead brain within (no Mad Monckton, I’m not suggesting you should be killed – it is a metaphor).

All humans are susceptible to such leanings. We all want to think we have a good handle on the workings of the world and often don’t take too kindly when core principles of this are shattered. It’s easier to go on believing in our core values / beliefs and instead to shoot the messenger, than take the time to reflect on ourselves, admit to personal fault and adapt.

Deniers keep on denying not because they are deniers, but because they are human; individuals with certain principles that make sense to them.

Sceptics will change and can remove themselves from personal attachment to ideas where they need to, but there are far fewer of them than anyone of us is likely to admit.

So, what is the answer?

Change is a slower moving creature than we wish it were.  I have no doubt the deniers of climate change, evolution, anti-vaccination etc will exist beyond my life span. The same will be for individuals and groups opposed to same-sex rights, as do exist pockets of racists and sexists today, even within generally progressive states.

However, to challenge them with any potency, it isn’t enough to expose their denial. In fact, it’ll have little to no effect on the very people one aims the effort at.

Rather, the best approach must be to work instead on the core values leading the charge. If you promote the scientific accuracy of evolution, your primary focus must be the Book of Genesis. Without that, there is no justification for creation.

If it is one of the “they are exposing us to…” mobs, you need to refer to epidemiology as well as get to the root of “they” and the motivations of this entity. For instance, the anti-fluoridation crowd suggest fluoridation is marketing. However, one of the primary benefits pointed out by WHO, alongside the obvious health benefits, is its cheapness. Where are the fat fluoride barons?? These are very much a secret enemy conspiracy ideations.

With climate change, in reality, the question is clearly pointed at how well the free-market ideology can sustain human activity. One doesn’t need to look at climate change, but can look at the accelerated need for primary resources, increasing waste production, the rate of population growth and environmental degradation (from where many goods and services are derived); each one of them is essential to the free-market currently promoted. The nine planetary boundaries highlighted by Rockström et al (2009) are all negatively impacted by our current economic objectives.

Zombies die when you remove the dead head driving the drooling creature aimed solely at bringing everyone down. The dead head in this case is the thoughtless ideological principles driving denial against overwhelming contrary evidence. These outdated memes are the undead that really need to be challenged.

Rinehart’s Bleeding Heart Over Her Poor Business Model

Gina Rinehart has produced a poor-hard-done-by video, which screams hypocrisy, hypobolic, guilt by association and “poising the well” arguments as much as stupidity.

It is mind-boggling that she can whine about the tax placed on profiteering on common goods, but then to state that “without mining and mining related industries, this country has no hope of repaying our record debt”.

Something that would be made more difficult quite obviously, if we continue to allow such industries to make such massive profits on resources that belong to the country without due return.

I won’t bother saying much on her continual slugs at the “carbon tax” except to repeat; it is not a tax. A tax is income-based. This is charged per unit. It’s a price, not a tax and it provides market based incentive to decarbonise economic activity. More here. Of course, Rinehart isn’t really well known for her concern for anthropogenic climate change, so no surprises for her comments.

Her push for the northern development and how it “has the potential to develop beyond our imagination” is based entirely upon imagination. All I need for evidence of this is that provided from ecology. Why is it largely open savannah or open dry land apart from a few coastal regions? It’s a hard land, with old, nutrient deficient soils and strong seasonal fluctuations.

The reason most people settled along the east and southern coasts and not the north is because of the climate and fertility of the regions compared to the north. Sure, there may be resources that Gina could exploit, but it will come with increased cost in shipping in essential resources and to provide increased water security and flood prevention (ie. think about the wet season). You cannot make a food bowl out of the north unless you plan to strip the remaining few forests and wetlands, which are the only places where fertile lands exist up there.

However, what really annoyed me was her complaining about the high wages in Australia. Late last year, she took this point further;

“…west African competitors can offer our biggest customers and average capital cost for a tonne of iron ore that’s a hundred dollars under the price offered by an emerging producer in the Pilborough [Western Australia]. Furthermore African’s want to work and it’s workers are willing to work for less than two dollars a day. Such statistics make me worry for [Australia’s] future…” (8mins in)

Clearly she feels Aussie workers expect too much… Shame to her profits I guess…

Yet, she misses a number of major factors. Firstly, an African can buy more with the equivalent AUS$2 in their country and an Aussie can here at home for the same AUS$2. The expectations of the Aussie consumer to fork out more for an item is far greater. Only recently was it in the news that the IT industry marks up their products here seemly only because Aussies can pay extra for it.

Aussies demand higher wages because profiteers squeeze them harder for the contents of their bank accounts. High Aussie wages is caused by private industry, so it’s interesting when someone from private industry complains about it as a hindering overhead.

Furthermore, I would argue Gina mustn’t have a very good business model. Think about it. Her Aussie workers demand higher wages than African workers. The infrastructure required to develop her projects in remote northern locations is a big overhead, due to lack of people silly enough to live in such regions (no wonder she pushes for the government to develop the north – it would surely save her a healthy quid). Not to mention that there is obvious justification for sharing a slice of the profits with the commonwealth, seeing as it is due to common goods and Aussies are not stupid enough to overlook this.

In short, mining is clearly not globally competitive in Australia. Yet, Gina plays the hard-done-by; “I choose to mine here when I could make more money elsewhere, because I care. But you guys are mean to me!”

Such minerals will not go anyway if Gina doesn’t extract them all as soon as possible. Maybe future generations could make a healthier return from them in a global market where the local costs are not so comparatively high…?

No, Gina, mining industries are not simply ATM’s and yes, mining industries deserve what they have earned from their efforts. However, this is due to wealth within the crust of Australia. It is made on the wealth of Australia and not simply your investment.

There has to be something seriously wrong with anyone willing to be spoon-fed such industry hype.

China’s Coal Power and Australian Devotion to Obscurity


“Why should we do anything when China is building a new coal power station every week?”

I had this one hurled at me just the other day over dinner. It is both misleading and irrelevant, but serves the point of misinforming.

Moreover, the Climate Institute / GE Low-Carbon Competitive Index, released today shows that China is actually a high performer, rating 3rd (up from 7th) on the index. On the other hand, Australia  rates 17th and the US has declined from 8th to 11th.

Far from world leaders, we seem devoted to a carbon economy that is quickly being left behind. This would seem especially so if the LNP come into power and Mr. Abbott lives up to his promise of scrapping a market-based mechanism designed to decouple economic activity from carbon emissions, namely, the price on carbon.

This is the reality behind such banter as, “they’re telling us what light globes we can use!”

Well, no. If you’d like, why not use a washboard or go all out and move next door to the Amish?

The money to be made in the 21st century will increasingly be carbon neutral and the trend setters will be on the cusp of such technologies and social changes. By fighting against the inevitable economic and social trends, we are damaging our own long term prosperity.

Unlike much of Europe and the US, our economy has not faced as much hardship in the last few years. We ought to have been investing in tomorrow’s industries and exporting it to a hungry world.

Instead, we’ve decided to pitch up tents on either side of the political soap opera being played out, while people like Rinehart make a healthy dollar from common resources and pay for the priests of misinformation to carry out an Orwellian-styled sermons around the country, with equality, progress and unity the antagonist and business-as-usual the messiah.

We should want a globally competitive economy. The pro-business-as-usual message that seems to have sucked many Aussies in just isn’t in our national interest.

Building more dams will bring a bigger emissions headache

In mid February, a Coalition draft dams plan was leaked to the media. This plan suggested the potential for an additional 100 dams across Australia to help with water security and flood mitigation as well as provide hydro-power.

While this plan does not officially form part of the Coalition’s environmental strategy, Tony Abbott has thrown his support behind it, suggesting Australia needs to move beyond it’s “extreme greenism” and “dam phobia”.

One aspect of reservoirs that is not widely appreciated is that they are a source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the inundation of land with a storage of organic matter. If the water column is highly oxygenated, the degradation of this organic matter will produce CO2. If there is little available oxygen, methane is produced. Both are greenhouse gases.

To explore this, I combined data on Australian large dams with a recent comprehensive review of reservoir emissions within the science literature.

Initially, I used the global average surface area emission rates for the comparison, but found that the estimates were unrealistically high. This number was more than 860 million tonnes of CO2 annually. This is probably due to the poor quality of Australian soils in general, which in turn reduce productivity and lead to lower than average organic material storage and thus resultant emissions.

Instead, I used the global total emission from reservoirs (upstream only). This comes to 163 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, of which Australia is currently responsible for 2.1%, or, 3.42 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Within the dam database, 564 large dams are listed. This returns an average of 6069.15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per dam, annually. Therefore, an additional 100 dams could provide 0.61 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.

To provide some scale; if this sequestration was achieved through tree plantation, the annual yield required to compensate the average greenhouse gas emissions of 100 new dams would be an additional 0.55 million m3 of wood. This translates to more than 15 thousand hectares of plantation.

As this is utilising the same overly optimistic assumptions as that of my analysis of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, the real world figure would likely be much higher.

Data on Australian reservoir emissions came from the height of Australia’s recent prolonged drought, where many reservoirs were far from full and thus covered less land. Emissions downstream (that is, degasing water once it has left the reservoir) were not accounted for in the data also. Additionally, no data on greenhouse gas emissions from dam production is included within this analysis.

Lastly, with the potential for these additional dams to support a new “food bowl” in northern Australia, it is likely subtropical and tropical dams will be favoured. A review of the reservoirs studies globally found that tropical reservoirs produced more greenhouse gases than subtropical which in turn produce more greenhouse gases than temperate dams.

This difference has been suggested to be related to water temperatures, which tend to be warmer closer to the equator, which in turn, speed up the process.

For the reasons listed above, the estimate for average emissions from Australian dams derived above can be seen as conservative (it should be noted that boreal dams were the second highest emitters, due to the tendency for organic rich peat land inundation, however this is irrelevant to Australian climates).

Coupling this with my previous analysis of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, if this dam plan is implemented, this additional greenhouse gas contribution would require sequestration above the proposed 85 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, Australia naturally experiences shifts between drier-than- or wetter-than-average years. Generally, though, Australia is an arid country. Climate change due to increasing greenhouse gas forcing is likely to reduce precipitation globally. For this reason, Australia has strong motivations to lead the path of climate change mitigation.

Should the Coalition win the upcoming September election, my previous analysis illustrated the immense scale and thus cost required to implement the Direct Action Plan. The selected path, soil sequestration, is notably less certain scientifically than other methods, such as plantation. This also comes at the expense of removing the price on carbon which in turn can be utilised to provide market based motivations to decouple carbon emissions from industrial activities and economic growth.

It is not unreasonable therefore to raise concerns about the ability of the Direct Action Plan to assist with climate change mitigation.

Alone, the draft dam plan will contribute a comparatively small greenhouse gas contribution. But by building more dams, the Coalition is making its direct action plan even more difficult to implement.

Find the full report here.