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Tipping Points in Australia’s Climate Change debates. Where to Now?

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A record-breaking high summer came early to Australia in 2019. By October, the daily weather map of the country was charting the rapid spread of catastrophic bushfires in disparate regions across the entire island continent. This meant recurrent, intense weather events that combined 40°C temperatures, ferocious winds and dry lightning storms, in which sparse rainfall evaporated before it reached the ground. With the forecasts came repeated warnings: the country’s substantial resources and manpower provided no guarantee the fires that were erupting in such conditions could be contained. Nor that local people and properties could be safeguarded.

For months on end came each day’s tally of the nightmarish realisation of the forecasts. By early January 2020, almost two million hectares of the countryside had been reduced to blackened landscapes. Among the hardest hit were the eastern states where 80% of Australia’s population live. Out-of-control fires in the tinder-dry old eucalypt forests and remote mountain bushland were merging into megafires. Along a 1000 kilometre front on the New South Wales seaboard this meant up to 60 metre walls of flame and ember showers that created windblown spot fires up to 30 kilometres away. With little chance of saving their homes, residents of towns and villages evacuated to makeshift community centres and nearby beaches. An estimated 800-900 houses were destroyed, with a higher number anticipated as evacuated families gradually return to streets of rubble and ash. Driven by the strong winds, a thick, toxic pall of grey smoke had also blanketed coastal areas, as well as inland regions including the national capital of Canberra. Peaking at around 20 times acceptable levels of pollution, the pure mountain air of Australia’s showpiece garden city now had an Air Quality Index that was among the highest in the world. The city’s government handed out free face masks, advised its citizens to stay indoors and for a time closed public institutions and offices. With the sun a spectral red in a sepia-coloured sky, the result was a sensation of eerie, off-world emptiness. As one commentator suggested, the bushfires were like some relentless, hellish creature stalking Australians from all directions.

Meantime, the season of horror and catastrophe has brought renewed momentum to the country’s climate change debates. These are strongly politicised debates. With at least a thirty-year history, they have ranged from the baneful nonsense of the Far Right’s outright climate change denial; to a hesitant, ill-informed scepticism about the limits and accuracy of the science that links Australia’s weather patterns of recurrent droughts, floods and bushfires to wider global climate change; to claims that our carbon emissions are insignificant when compared to those of China, Russia or the US; to apocalyptic predictions of an imminent ‘sixth extinction’ caused by wilful ignorance of the extent of humankind’s destruction of the planet’s eco-systems. In more recent years, there also has gradually emerged qualified optimism that innovative, adaptive technologies can and will provide solutions to the environmental threats.

But in the wake of the bushfires, the prevailing consensus among Australians is challenging the confusion and complacency generated by these debates. To an angry public, the destruction wrought was unarguably unprecedented and only explicable in terms of global climate change. This is evident across social media outlets, the mainstream press, elite opinion makers, the emergency services, the rural towns and farming communities, the more progressive voices in the corporate sector, and to the thousands of anti-government demonstrators on the streets of the state capitals calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissal. Their insistent view has been that their country was blindsided by its third-rate governance under Morrison’s extreme Right-Wing leadership. Specifically, this has meant federal government inertia, dismissal of warnings by independent experts, and funding cuts to key bureaucracies, climate change research institutes and fire control services. The result has been that Australia was drastically ill- prepared for the impact of the coming summer of extreme temperatures combined with prolonged drought.

Moreover, the Morrison government has been widely accused of falling back on traditional, nationalistic ‘meet and beat’ rhetoric. Here what is implied is that we resourceful Aussies would voluntarily rise to the challenge of the seasonal bushfires and emerge victorious. It has also been the Prime Minister’s sloganizing term for his repeated claim that Australia continues to advance towards its 2030 carbon emission reduction targets. For the country’s climate change researchers, and probably most of the rest of the world, this last apparent reassurance severely strains credibility. Not least this is because the current fires have been belching poisonous carbon monoxide and dioxide into the stratosphere, already reaching approximately twice the levels of Russia’s 2019 Siberian wildfires. According to data from a December, 2019 World Economic Forum Report, the bushfires had already pumped out half a year’s CO2 emissions. As well, the report warned that ‘vegetation vital for absorbing CO2 is being destroyed by the blazes.’ To paraphrase a recent media headline, when it comes to climate change debates, ‘Australia has a serious bulldust problem.’ In short, Prime Minister Morrison’s ad hoc political strategies have been perceived as omitting any substantial forward planning or persuasive policy agenda.

All of which raises the question of the extent to which the bushfires might prove to be a turning point towards a more enlightened, informed plan to protect and nurture our environment. The concern is that it might be slow in coming. With some fires yet to be extinguished and smog predicted to choke cities and regional areas at least until April, 2020, for the immediate future the focus is on clean-up and recovery. The Morrison government is providing a two billion dollar funding package for a range of welfare services and for rebuilding communities, as well as for the millions of injured birds and animals to be rescued, nursed and relocated to surviving bush habitats. Australia’s Defence Forces have also been deployed to help in the recovery efforts. Though much needed, it is a strategy that has been satirised by one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists as a panicked Morrison with his backside on fire holding out a fistful of dollars to a scornful polity.

What then of this alleged absence of substantial national policy-making, of the urgent need for transformational planning as the world changes? At a grassroots level the bushfires are already proving to be a further stimulus to a long list of environmentally conscious initiatives, from the rejection of plastic packaging, to voluntary community replanting of tree coverage and grasslands, to fashionable inner-city restaurants surrounded by their own patches of homegrown vegetables, to eco housing design that includes the use of fireproof materials and air filters, to cycling to one’s workplace. For example, in Canberra its territory government guidelines require all new housing to include a water storage tank under the foundations and solar panels on the roof; there is a network of bicycle paths across the city, weekend markets for regional organic farm produce, and fenced sanctuaries to protect native wildlife, which are monitored by park rangers. In line with other state capitals and countries, the city is also phasing out the use of gas, as a stepping stone towards a target of zero carbon emissions by 2045.

With the hope of a more fundamental impact that transcends federal government complacency, there is also an expanding, grassroots focus on the applied science of long-term regenerative agriculture, whose aim is to rescue the arid, drought-ravaged farmlands. Its methodologies go beyond the long-standing European techniques of artificial soil fertilisation and piped irrigation, of the kind that have risked turning the inland lakes and river systems, most notably the Murray Darling Basin, into shallow, permanently-polluted puddles. Instead the starting point is a geographical survey to identify the potential of a degraded, natural water course. The next step is the planting of an abundance of native trees, shrubs, reeds and rushes along its banks and erecting stock proof fencing. As well, ‘live weirs’ are built at intervals to provide erosion control structures that slow water flow and help to reinvigorate the surrounding floodplain through spreading seepage. Within a decade or so the result is described by its practitioners as: a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, filtering water through its extensive reed beds, capturing flood sediments, recycling nutrients and providing complex habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, fish and invertebrates. Productivity on the floodplain also increases by around 60%.

The success of an initial project on Mulloon Creek in the New South Wales hinterland has not only been profitable, but has led to establishment of the Mulloon Institute. The Institute has since been selected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as among its top five for its world class development of environmental resilience alongside agricultural productivity. Its current aim is to facilitate 100 landscape projects across Australia and internationally that are similarly profitable and sustainable. Incidentally, it has also been pointed out that these methodologies might well have prevented the fertile gardens of ancient Mesopotamia’s Tigris/Euphrates floodplain becoming the deserts of modern Iraq.

What follows considers a more comprehensive national economic plan that addresses directly the failures of successive, backward-looking conservative governments in preparing the country for the savage onslaught of climate change. The plan incorporates more than a decade of econometric monitoring by the University of Melbourne’s Professorial Fellow, Ross Garnaut, that compares the rising financial costs of maintaining our fossil fuel industries with the profitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources. When he began his study in 2007, Garnaut says, his data confirmed the prevalent assumption that a transition economy based on renewable energy and zero carbon emission technologies would be marked by a period of austerity detrimental to both developed and developing countries. His most recent book, Superpower Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, published in November 2019, reviews his earlier data, concluding that such economic considerations have changed fundamentally and will continue to do so. Falling global interest rates which have reduced the cost of capital, combined with the likely rising price of fossil fuels as a result of increasing demand in large developing countries, is making products and projects that reduce green-house gas emissions more lucrative alternative investments.

In addition, there have been relatively rapid transformative cost reductions in machinery for producing electricity from wind and sun, in battery storage of electricity, and decarbonisation through electrification of transport and in other areas from small to medium businesses to large-scale manufacturing. In other words, for an imaginative, forward-looking company there is a considerable wealth to be made in the transition economy. Garnaut also concludes that Australia is singularly blessed with the geography and resources to be a front-runner in the creation of multi- billion dollar domestic and export industries in renewables. ‘If we all understood the economic value of a transition to renewables,’ he says, ‘we could move from policy incoherence to hope.’ With regard to the issue of whether wishing makes it so, of whether despite his detailed pursuit of statistical evidence in the dismal thickets of economics, Garnaut errs on the side of optimism, his book elucidates a couple of core Australian case studies. The first charts his personal experience of applying research-based knowledge in partnership with private-enterprise. In 2015, he became Chairman of Zen Energy, a South Australian company, with plans to scale up from a relatively small supplier of solar energy and battery storage technology to providing renewables to entire communities and industries. In 2017, the company merged with the British- based, multi-billionaire, Sanjeev Gupta’s global GFG Alliance. Though the evidence is not yet available, the rebranded SIMEC Energy Australia has claimed it will supply 100% of South Australia’s electricity needs by 2019. As Garnaut puts it: ‘…what in 2008 and 2011 I had perceived to be a possibility of modest dimension had become a high probability of immense economic gain.’

A second of a number case studies outlined in Garnaut’s book is the massive investment in solar farming in the semi-desert expanses of Northern and Western Australia. A $20 billion development by a Singapore-based company, Sun Cable, together with substantial planning and investment by two of Australia’s wealthiest men, Michael Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest, is currently building what it promises will be ‘the world’s largest solar farm.’ The plan is for a 15,000 hectare array of 10-gigawatt capacity panels, backed by battery storage, which would not only supplement domestic electricity needs. The clean energy would also be exported to Singapore, using a 4500 kilometre, high-voltage, submarine cable. The company’s Chief Executive, David Griffin, describes the project as capturing ‘one of the best solar radiance reserves in the world,’ adding it will operational in less than decade. Further to the west in the Pilbara region, plans are also currently being developed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub for an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant, using giant wind turbines and solar panels. The electricity generated would be used primarily to run a hydrogen manufacturing hub to supply a proposed export market in Japan and South Korea.

Among many other researchers, Garnaut describes these projects as climate change mitigation. Implicit here is the deep-seated global concern that they will not be adequate in meeting the imperative that carbon emission increases should be less than 2% – and preferably closer to 1.5% — with a reduction target of zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the acceleration of catastrophic weather events. There is some comfort to be had for Australia in his findings that the country is already embracing a global trend towards a transition economy. But Garnaut also implies that there is little to be gained from a federal government that has continued to stump the debates for renewables against fossil fuels. Instead, state government support, grass roots initiatives, private sector enterprises, expertise that informs new developments, global partnerships and investment have been emerging as a way forward to a more hopeful future.

From our partner RIAC

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Green Planet

Climate Change and its Effects on Europe

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If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia. 

According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around FloridaAside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder.  Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream. 

This relatively even weather in England has undergone change.  More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F.  There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions. 

Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters.  This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods. 

July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021.  Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region.  Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area.  At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion. 

If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.

England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades.  None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter.  London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.

When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences? 

One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.

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Green Planet

The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response

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Photo: NASA

While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased.  So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.

The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France.  Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC.  The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.

In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year.  One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside.  They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain.  Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.

Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames.  The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.

In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.

Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar.  In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated. 

The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared.  Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed. 

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming.  Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so.  Is runaway global warming then our future?

The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges.  The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.

Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants.  Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.

In the meantime, we have to change our ways:  Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine?  Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.

Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on.  It is easy and just a matter of habit.  In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. 

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Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist

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Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.

You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally? 

At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.

Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field? 

My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.

Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale? 

We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.  

What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in? 

Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.

Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment.  Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.

How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture? 

Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.

At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.

How can farmers be empowered globally? 

Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.

Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?

Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.

Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling? 

It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.

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