Environment: A bleak, hot future for Australia

Oct 16, 2022
Sunset over a dry part of Lake Moogerah-image-iStock

New data confirms Australia’s vulnerability to climate change. Nitrous oxide emissions set to become a climate battleground. Answers to where I’ve been for the last month.

CSIRO’s megatrends – environment accounts for 2 of 7

The CSIRO has released its ten-year update on global megatrends – ‘trajectories of change that typically unfold over years or decades and have the potential for substantial and transformative impact’. Hardly surprisingly, two of the seven – ‘Adapting to a changing climate’ and ‘Leaner, cleaner and greener’ – relate to environmental concerns. Summaries of all seven are in the graphic below.

The climate change section highlights:

  • the financial, infrastructure and human costs of increasingly common extreme weather events;
  • climate change as a health emergency;
  • the need to prepare homes and cities and transport, energy and health systems for living in a generally hotter world, including more frequent, more extreme heatwaves;
  • declining freshwater quantity, quality and availability;
  • the increasing cost, and declining uptake, of insuring against climate change related events;
  • the increase in mass migration precipitated by sea level rise and the 3.5 billion people who will live in extremely hot zones in 2070;
  • and the impact of warmer water and ocean acidification on marine species and human food supplies.

The leaner-greener section focuses on:

  • the impact of promoting environmental sustainability on food supplies and systems;
  • the benefits and problems associated with the transition to renewable energy and net zero;
  • the supply of essential minerals;
  • the need to reduce and recycle ‘waste’;
  • and the opportunities offered by a range of new technologies.

It’s a shame that pages 2 and 3 of the report (where the graphic above appears) include a picture of ‘Wild Brumbies roaming the High Plains of NSW’. The inappropriately named ‘Wild Brumbies’ are introduced feral pests – no better than other introduced vertebrate pests such as rabbits, cane toads and foxes and feral pigs, deer, goats and camels. They cause immense damage to Australia’s fragile alpine ecosystems and have no place in our landscapes. The CSIRO should know better than to glorify such a pest and to attach an inappropriate romantic caption to the image, particularly as invasive species pose a major threat to Australia’s biodiversity, the decline of which and the need to manage pests are both highlighted by the CSIRO in the leaner-greener section of the report.

More frequent high temperatures coming for Australians

To avoid leading anyone up the (increasingly warm) garden path, let me make clear from the start that this piece is all based on modelling and probabilities. But then again, so are all of the projections used in not just climate science but also economics, business, epidemiology, politics, etc.

By connecting projections of the level of CO2 in the atmosphere (in the absence of the deployment of effective negative emissions technologies) with data about local temperature and humidity conditions, projections have been made of the frequency with which daily temperatures will exceed 39.4oC and 51.1oC (defined as ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Very Dangerous’ for human health respectively) around the world in 2050 and 2100.

The global projections for ‘Dangerous’ days per year for both years are summarised in the maps below. (If you wish to view these in detail, I suggest that you look at and expand Figure 3 in the link to the original article.)

Focussing on the more immediate and more common 39.4oC level in 2050 in the tropics and subtropics, the Dangerous level, which was exceeded on 5-15% of days each year between 1979 and 1998, will be experienced on 25-50% of days in 2050. In the mid-latitudes, the frequency of exceeding 39.4oC will increase roughly ten-fold to 15-90 days per year.

Inevitably, things get a lot worse in 2100 with large areas of the tropics, including tropical Australia and the archipelagos to the north of us, experiencing more than 200 days per year of dangerously high temperatures.

The researchers also show that the global mean temperature increase will likely be approaching 2oC by 2050 and that there is only a 0.1% chance of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5oC by 2100. They conclude:

‘It is likely that, without major emissions reductions, large portions of the global tropics and subtropics would experience Heat Index levels higher than considered “dangerous” for a majority of the year by the end of the century. Without adaptation measures, this would greatly increase the incidence of heat-related illnesses and reduce outdoor working capacity in many regions where subsistence farming is important.’ And for lots more places, occupations and activities as well, I’d say.

Nitrogen wars brewing

Nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, is the third most important greenhouse gas (GHG). Compared with CO2, it is produced in relatively small (but increasing) quantities and gram for gram it is 300 times more potent than CO2 as a warming agent. Overall, it is responsible for about 7% of global warming to date. The major sources of anthropogenic nitrous oxide are synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, the urine and faeces of livestock and to a lesser extent fossil fuels.

While fertiliser use has contributed to the ‘green revolution’ in food production since the middle of the last century (fertiliser use has increased 8-fold since the 1960s), it is frequently over-applied on farms and applied at the wrong times. Much of it simply leaches away to do damage to waterways and oceans.

Despite the green revolution and the abundance of calories produced from the land, many people around the world continue to be malnourished and suffering from famine. Clearly, nutritional problems are associated with the price and distribution of food, not overall shortages. Of course, this may change as global warming increases.

Research suggests that farmers could save money and time by using less nitrogen fertiliser and it’s unlikely that a reduction in use will lead to a reduction in crop yield. Indeed, reducing air pollution with nitrogen oxides could raise yields. Not surprisingly, the big agrichemical fertiliser producers aren’t too keen on this line of argument.

Another consideration is that it would be a good idea for nations in the Global North to reduce their meat and dairy consumption and increase their consumption of plant-based foods. This would help the health of the planet and the health of the people.

With the unrealistic and irresponsibly slow, but nonetheless emerging, movement to reduce all GHG emissions globally, it is inevitable that nitrous oxide will be increasingly drawn into the climate wars that have focused on CO2 and methane for the last three decades. Indeed, preliminary skirmishes and sniper fire are already occurring:

  • Dutch farmers blocked highways, airports and food distribution centres in July after the government announced plans to cut GHG emissions by 50% by 2030. One part of this is that farmers will have to comply with new restrictions on fertiliser use in 2023 and reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 40%. Government subsidies are being made available to assist the transition. While the protesters were characterised by some media outlets (Sky, for instance) as small-scale, mum-and-dad farmers suffering under the yoke of needless government bureaucracy, there’s little doubt that large agribusinesses (fertiliser manufacturers and meat and dairy producers) were active behind the scenes.
  • Farmers in several other European countries took to the streets soon after, concerned that they would be next in line for fertiliser restrictions.
  • In Canada, the same story has been playing out slightly differently. Fertilizer Canada, a peak organisation of manufacturers and distributers of fertilisers, issued a report claiming that federal government plans to reduce emissions from fertiliser use by 30% by 2030 would cost farmers C$48 billion over the next eight years. Farmers for Climate Solutions called the report a deliberately misleading attempt to scare and anger Canadian farmers.
  • It’s worth noting that banks and other financial institutions have significant interests in these issues as they have large investments tied up in farms and agribusinesses.

It can’t be long before these issues surface in Australia.

Hunger in Africa

Across Africa 278 million people suffer from chronic hunger. This is 20% of the population; globally the figure is 10%. The main drivers of hunger in 2021 were war, climate change and Covid.

In case your ability to name many African countries is not what it once was, the burgundy ‘Severe’ country is Somalia (where 51% of the population is affected by hunger or malnutrition) and the red ‘Very serious’ countries, progressing roughly north to south, are Chad (40%), Central African Republic (43%), South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (39%), Burundi, the Comoros and Madagascar (36%). Even in the orange ‘Serious’ countries 20-35% of the population suffers from hunger or malnutrition.

Holiday snaps

Finally, a couple of vaguely relevant photos from my recent sojourn in Europe:

An Indian vegetarian restaurant in Angel, London extolling the health and environmental benefits of vegetarian food (this restaurant was very generously offering free food and drink all day to all-comers on the day of the Queen’s funeral);

And a dried-up river bed in Cison di Valmarino on the edge of the Dolomites in northern Italy. The high boundary walls are indicative that the river can be a raging torrent.

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