Climate laws for the environment and for people

Sep 3, 2022
Mallard duck in flight
Image: Pixabay Ralphs Photos

A roadmap for reforming Australia’s climate laws and Chile rewrites its constitution with the environment and people to the fore. Greater warming where and when its coldest.

Australian climate laws for the critical decade

‘Australia currently has over 80 pieces of legislation relating to energy and various elements of climate policy, however the sum of these parts does not equal an effective legal framework,’ so the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) has developed a Roadmap for Climate Reform. The EDO asserts that now is the time for an Australian Climate Act, a strong legal framework to set the path to real net zero greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5oC.

The Roadmap identifies five opportunities and 58 specific recommendations for the reform of Australia’s climate laws during the current term of the Albanese government. This is the critical decade for climate action and delaying the reforms until a possible second term would mean nothing happening until 2026 at the earliest.

The EDO’s five opportunities are:

  1. Implement a Climate Act. This is the first and most succinctly expressed opportunity. There is just one recommendation: ‘Establish a national Climate Act’ that contains legislated targets, standards, timeframes and duties, and establishes an independent Climate Change Advisory Council and a transition authority.
  2. Provide clarity and certainty for business and the community by charting a path to real net zero. EDO’s suggested emissions reduction target is challenging, probably too challenging for the new government: at least 74% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2035. But the government’s timidity doesn’t mean challenging targets aren’t sorely needed.
  3. Define leadership responsibility for meeting targets. This includes: establishing clear duties on decision makers; establishing a legal right to a safe climate and a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; including scope 3 (exported) emissions in emissions reduction targets; and establishing a national Environmental Protection Authority.
  4. Incentivise innovation in our climate transition. Under this inoffensive heading appears some of the more contested ideas: defining renewable energy; redirecting fossil fuel subsidies to emissions reduction, the economic transition and community development; deadlines for phasing out domestic use of fossil fuels; an emissions trading scheme; requiring climate impact assessments of energy and other major projects; strengthening requirements and scrutiny of carbon offsets; and including First Nations Peoples and Pacific Island states in the design and delivery of transition policies.
  5. Plan for and measure success. This would include a regularly reviewed National Climate Adaptation Plan, Climate Impact Statements for new laws and policies, State of the Climate Reporting by all states and sectors, and mandatory financial reporting of climate risks by companies.

The EDO wants these and many more recommendations to be legislated so that civil society can take legal action when governments and others fail to meet their obligations.

In a footnote to this, on Thursday of the past week the report of the Senate inquiry into the government’s two Climate Change Bills was released. The report makes just three recommendations, two of them being that the Senate pass the two bills. The third recommendation is that subsequent to the passage of the bills the government should consult on further legislative and policy responses, specifically mentioning two areas: the use of native forest wood waste for renewable energy and transition arrangements for workers affected by decarbonising of society.

Ceci n’est pas une forêt

Any idea what type of tree is featured above? Hint: it might have qualified for Australia’s favourite tree poll but I doubt it would have won.

It’s a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. The plantation is owned by Suzano, the world’s largest producer of eucalyptus-based pulp and paper products. Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) is routinely used to control weeds in monoculture plantations such as these. Over time the weeds develop tolerance for the glyphosate, which incidentally is regarded by the WHO as a probable cause of cancer, and increasing amounts need to be applied, which the eucalypts don’t much like. A Brazilian government biosecurity agency has now granted Suzano a licence to plant eucalypts that have been genetically modified to make them more resistant to glyphosate so that more of the herbicide can be used.

Suzano had a display at last year’s Glasgow COP meeting where it promoted its ‘nature-based solutions’ to fighting climate change. Suzano was pushing two dodgy arguments. First, that its plantations absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the trees. Second, that they are replacing fossil fuels by burning biomass from their trees in electricity power stations. Suzano has the gall to market itself as a company that practices conservation and restoration while destroying native forests and the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Its Brazilian plantations cover an area about the size of twelve ACTs.

Here’s what Carol King thinks about chopping down forests. (Millennials, she’s a singer-songwriter who was quite famous in your parents’ time. Check her out.)

Blue-bibbed Mallard

It’s tempting to make a joke about it – ‘new species of Mallard discovered’ – but this is no laughing matter. Birds all over the world are living amongst plastic, occasionally using it productively, but mostly suffering and dying as a result of its countless forms invading their environment. Nearly a quarter of the photographs submitted to Birds and Debris, an online project collecting photographs of birds and rubbish, show birds and, you guessed it … disposable face masks. There may be an element of selection bias occurring here – photographers being especially attracted to snapping and submitting examples of this relatively novel pollutant – but you’d need to be blind not to be aware of the now ubiquitous nature of intentionally or accidentally discarded masks. Warning, many of the pictures on the links are rather more challenging than the one above.

Warming is greater where and when it’s coldest

Recently, I published a map that clearly showed that the North Pole (and to a lesser extent the South) is warming faster than the rest of the world. What I have now learnt, however, is that both theory and observations indicate that global warming is more marked wherever and whenever it’s normally coldest: not only at high latitudes but also during winter and at night.

The nocturnal change is well illustrated in the graph below of daily minimum temperatures averaged across July in the contiguous 48 states of the USA between 1895 and 2022. In the 53 years from 1970 to 2022, only 11 have been below the 127-year average. The red line in the graph demonstrates the overall trend for the last 53 years – an increase of 0.5oC per decade.

If you’d like to play around with more weather data for the USA, head over to the NOAA website. For instance, and to illustrate further the point about more warming occurring when it’s cooler, the average maximum July temperatures shows a lesser increase of 0.35oC per decade, and the average January minimum (graph below) shows an increase of 0.97oC per decade.

‘Chile is a mining country’

Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium, mostly from underground mines. Chile is the world’s second largest, mostly from a completely different source. Underground brine is pumped to the surface, mixed with Chile’s scarce fresh water and piped to ponds (photograph below) where the high solar radiation in regions such as the Atacama Desert evaporates the water and leaves a sludge that is rich in elements such as magnesium, potassium and lithium. The sludge is processed to produce powdery lithium carbonate for use in batteries.

Chile, a country of 19 million inhabitants, is mineral rich and it has prospered, or rather some Chileans and others have prospered, by extracting those minerals. Mining companies and many politicians see mining as crucial to ongoing prosperity and want to expand the industry, particularly as Chile’s minerals are highly sought for the green transition. The problem is that the production sites cause immense damage and have become ‘sacrifice zones’, with people’s lives and the environment being sacrificed.

What makes this story different from similar ones elsewhere around the world is that Chile is in the process of writing a new constitution to replace the one imposed during the Pinochet regime, and climate change and the environment are playing a central role: How should mining be regulated? What voice should local communities have over mining? Who owns Chile’s water? Is brine water? Should nature have rights? How to look after future generations?

‘Someone buys an electric car and feels very good because they’re saving the planet. At the same time an entire ecosystem is damaged. It’s a big paradox,’ says Dr Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist and one of the 154 members of the Constitutional Convention.

Of course, not everyone supports restrictions on mining. According to the President of the Mining Council, ‘I hope this is not what we will have in our Constitution because Chile is a mining country’.

Chileans vote on the proposed new constitution, which includes important sections on the environment, Indigenous rights and gender parity, tomorrow, September 4th. Perhaps Chile won’t be such a mining country in the future and perhaps the fruits of its natural resources will be distributed more equitably.

Nice picture, shame about the sea level rise

The picture comes from a story about the 27cm or more rise in sea level that is expected from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet even if we were to stop burning fossil fuels today. But mainly I just liked the photo by Kerem Yucel.

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