2018: Not Such a Good Year (Environment)

The stats were not good.  The world’s population grew by more than 80 million, with over 140 million births, taking the total to 7.7 billion, of whom 41% live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly part of India), China and Tibet.

The combined population of China and Tibet still exceeds India’s, but only by 56 million.  Their combined population was up .41%, while India’s was up 1.11% (both growth rates much less than Australia’s).

Australia’s population ticked over 25 million, increasing by a person every 83 seconds.  According to Worldometer, Australia’s population increase of 1.32% is higher than just about any other wealthy country outside the Middle East.  More than two-thirds of us live in the capital cities (but more Queenslanders live outside Brisbane than live in it).  Victoria accounted for 37% of Australia’s population growth, more than that of NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT combined. 

By the time my kids are about my age, Melbourne’s population is predicted to be between 12 and 14.5 million and high temperatures of up to 50C are predicted.  Melbs has been growing faster than any other Australian city since 2011, and the second fastest growing city is Geelong.  Melbourne ticked over 5 million residents in 2018. No wonder both parties had prominent rail infrastructure policies in the election, and the Liberals proposed to relocate folk to the countryside.

Of course the world’s population is also getting younger, even in the west. In 2019, millennials (aged 23-38) will overtake baby boomers (55-77) as the single largest group in the United States, a generational shift echoed around much of the western world.  More than a quarter of the people in the world are 14 or younger.

Very alarming figures were published about the mass deaths of the world’s fauna (which make the tens or hundreds of thousands (or millions) of fish, including century old Murray cod, that died in the Murray Darling three years after the abolition of the National Water Commission and the appointment of Barnaby Joyce as Water Minister, pale into insignificance).  The numbers of insects collected in strictly standardized traps in protected areas in Europe over the last 27 years is down by nearly three quarters, vindicating the anecdotal experiences of motorists whose windscreens are no longer splattered by bugs and those who lament the disappearance of Christmas beetles (though I can attest that one showed up in Lerderderg Gorge just a few days ago).  Scientists say this mass death of insects is an ecological catastrophe in the making.  Presumably the King of the Insects would say that the catastrophe has already happened.  The paper is here

It was reported that humans have killed 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants.  A tiger in India seemed to have had enough, and killed 13 humans before being taken out by a government contracted sharpshooter.  India has 3,000 tigers, 60% of the world population.  Only 4% of the world’s mammals are wild.  Only 30% of the world’s birds are not caged.  We have wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.  More than three hundred species are at risk of being eaten into extinction, chimpanzees included.

Though former Liberal minister turned Radio National personality Amanda Vanstone tried to reassure a youth on Q&A that carbon emissions were coming down in Australia, that was untrue.  In fact, they’re still going up (though they are below our record level). Not everyone’s emissions are going up by any means.  The UK’s and the US’s are generally falling (though the US’s rose a little this year). Indeed global emissions are (unbelievably) increasing, 1.2% this year.  Believe it or not, they reached a record high this year.  I think it was in that episode of Q&A that a referendum was proposed on responses to climate change, in which only people under 35 should be allowed to vote.  A postal ballot, perhaps.

What good news there is on climate is well summarised here. The size of the renewables industry doubled over the last two years.  The US and China are going gangbusters on developing renewable energy industries.

Not surprisingly, the earth does not seem to be cooling.  Marble Bar, Australia’s hottest town, set a new high temperature record during a hot Christmas (48C on the 25th, 48.5 on the 26th, and – the record – 49.1 on the 27th).  (The highest temperature ever recorded in Australia is 50.7C at Oodnadatta.  The highest in the world is 56.7C in California after Libya’s 58C claim was debunked.)  The previous month, record temperatures were smashed from north of Townsville to Cooktown.  It was Australia’s third hottest year on record for maximum temperatures, the fifth hottest for mean temperatures.  It was New Zealand’s hottest year ever.  Most of the United States experienced its hottest ever summer.

Globally, it was the fourth-warmest year on record, and temperatures are now about 1.1 degrees above the pre-industrial norm. (Incidentally, my meteorologist mate explained to me what these measurements are an expression of: when we talk about ‘a degree’ in these conversations, it is an aggregation of the mean of daily maximums and minimums. So if more of the days were hovering in the vicinity of the maximum temperatures, the warming would be more pronounced than it sounds.) That’s more than half way to the 2-degree upper limit of warming almost 200 nations agreed to work towards under the Paris climate agreement signed in 2015.  Every year since 1978 has been above the 1961-90 average for mean temperatures, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

It is estimated that Australia has contributed 1.1% of all greenhouse emissions though today, even after our population has exploded, we only account for 0.33% of the world’s population.  In 2014 terms, Australia was the 15th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, emitting more than Saudi Arabia, the UK, South Africa, France and Italy amongst many others, and ours have been going up while some of theirs have been going down.  We have one of the highest emissions per capita in the world, even though that metric has been decreasing for most of the past 28 years as our population has grown rapidly through migration and manufacturing processes have become more efficient. 

The only good news the government tries to spin is this decrease in per capita emissions, an irrelevance to our Paris targets.  It’s a risky business, that bit of spin, because ‘even after all this reduction, Australia still has the highest per capita emissions of any developed country’ should be a relatively easy retort.  The federal government simply lies to its people that we are on track to meet the commitments we made at the Paris conference (we are in fact on track to get nowhere near them).  It drops the climate data just before Christmas each year, having hung onto it for months.  The whole question of how to count Australia’s climate emissions is bedevilled by an accounting trick negotiated by us into the Kyoto Protocol and carried into the Paris Accord.  The Guardian explains it well:

‘Rather disgracefully Australia is allowed to count [credits for chopping down fewer trees than in the base years on which reductions figures are based] towards its Paris agreement to reduce emissions by 26% below 2005 levels. The reason this is disgraceful is because it means we are able to take into account the high amount of forest clearing that was occurring at the time, and to bank improvements merely due to us being less bad now than we were, not because we have actually improved our emissions.  We did the same thing for our Kyoto commitment, which had 1990 as the base year – a year in which we had a massive amount of land clearing.’

The Australian states are taking the lead on climate.  By way of example, Victoria’s government has promised to install solar to 650,000 households at no up-front cost, paying half the price itself and allowing the other half to be paid back interest free over four years.  Indeed, my local government had already taken up the C02 cudgels and have promised to install solar at my new place with a ten year interest free loan.

Meanwhile, the federal government is looking for an energy policy following the collapse of the in fact rather pathetic but too-something-or-other for the right wing of the government to stomach National Energy Guarantee.  It is certainly doing nothing positive to advance renewable energy which might be switched on any time soon. (Snowy 2.0 is predicted to first produce power in 2024, 6 years before our 2030 deadline under the Paris Accord), and is talking it down a great deal.  Yet a study published in 2018 showed that renewable energy had decreased rather than increased electricity prices, even in South Australia, which has some of the highest power prices in the world.

As Sir David Attenborough warned that ‘If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon’, work began on the Adani coal mine.

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