It’s election time! For one party the environment is not a priority. For the other, it’s not something to talk about.

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By Peter Burnett

With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?

Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.

First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).

Second, the issue is not just the target but whether there’s a credible path to achieving it. I’ve already criticised the government for tabling a plan for its new 2050 target without any new policy to go with it.

As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.

Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.

As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.

The Coalition on the Environment

The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.

Climate aside, three things stand out.

First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.

I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.

The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.

The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.

Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.

Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.

All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.

Labor on the Environment

While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.

Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.

They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.

A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.

Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.

All of this is at the margins.

But on the big issues … silence.

What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?

Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).

Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.

And the winner is …

If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.

The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.

With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.

Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.

Teal anyone?

Banner image: Look closely at what both major parties are offering on the Environment and there’s nothing to get excited over. (Image by yokewee from Pixabay)

International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

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By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

Last Chance Quiz – the Australian Government’s (non) response to queries on the environment

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By Peter Burnett

With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’

As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.

Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.

For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.

This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).

More budget honesty please

One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.

Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.

But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.

For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.

Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.

Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!

The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?

So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?

Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)

Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!

State of the Environment Report

We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.

So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!

Environment Restoration Fund

In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.

The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.

My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?

Threatened species at warp speed

The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.

It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.

That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!

More disingenuous bundling

The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.

But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.

Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!

The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.

What prospects for change?

You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.

But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.

Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.

Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.

Hope springs eternal!

Banner image: Image by Mietzekatze at Pixabay.

The IPCC has left me hanging on the line – more detail is not making a difference

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After six goes you’d think they’d try something different

By David Salt

The way we communicate climate change is not working. This is not a new situation but it’s about time we acknowledged it.

The IPCC has just released its sixth report on climate change. Did you miss it? Probably not if you’re a scientist or you worry about the environment. For the rest of humanity, it sunk without a ripple; which is pretty amazing when most of the world seems to be dealing with unprecedented supercharged weather, floods and droughts.

The story in detail

Thirty years ago I was a science writer working at CSIRO Education. I was doing a story on the ‘greenhouse effect’, something associated with global warming, a phenomenon scientists were talking about but governments were largely ignoring.

I was speaking by phone with the Information Officer at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, a former climate scientist himself.

“So, this greenhouse effect describes what’s happening on our planet?” I put to Dr Smith [not his real name]. “The Earth’s atmosphere is trapping heat like a greenhouse, is that the story?”

“No, no, no!” Exclaimed Dr Smith. “The ‘greenhouse’ analogy is completely misapplied because it doesn’t capture what’s really happening. The Earth’s atmosphere is not like a greenhouse holding in warm air. What really happens is the Sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere, over two thirds of it, anyway, and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. It then gets re radiated in the form of invisible infrared light and…”

But I didn’t hear anymore. Unfortunately, our phone connection had cut out. I rang Dr Smith straight back but I couldn’t get through to him because his phone was engaged. I tried again five minutes later but it was still engaged. I kept trying again and again.

Thirty minutes later I got through. The reason his phone had been engaged was because he hadn’t noticed the line had dropped out. He’d kept on talking to me – for 30 minutes without interruption, never pausing for breath or checking to see if I was keeping up with him.

This is a true story but it’s also emblematic of the problem of scientists communicating complicated stories to non-scientists. They include all the details, they lecture rather than listen, and they don’t have much awareness of their audience or how the audience hears the information. They are frequently unaware that their message is even getting through.

Well, that was 30 years ago. Things have changed, right?

We know a hell of a lot more now, that’s for sure. But we’re still not doing anything about it.

Summer of the Greenhouse

The science of global warming was well understood by the 1970s. Data collected since the 1950s was showing that carbon dioxide levels were steadily on the increase. By the mid 70s, it was well established that the rising carbon dioxide was due to anthropogenic emissions (ie, humans were producing them).

The consequences of this were even being observed by the late 1980s. 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history (at that point), and NASA’s Jim Hansen declared that the signal from climate change had emerged. He wrote: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Indeed, the hot northern summer of 1988 has sometimes been called the ‘greenhouse summer’. It’s very appropriate then that this was the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being. Jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC was created to review all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic international responses to this global concern. The IPCC does not undertake scientific work itself but rather reports a consensus position.

In 1990 the IPCC published its first assessment report. It noted that greenhouse warming could result in ‘several degrees’ of warming by the middle of the following century.

More and more certain

In 1995 the IPCC released its second assessment report. Considerable progress had been made since the 1990 report in distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic influences on climate. The balance of evidence, it said, suggested a discernible human influence on global climate.

By the time of its third report, in 2001, the possibility had become a strong probability, and the rate of change was ‘without precedent for at least the last 10,000 years’. The ‘several degrees’ had become a precise band (somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius). This band of possible future warming became the basis for a mechanism to implement the Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 178 governments (though not the United States and initially not Australia either, though we came around in 2007 after a change of government).

The fourth assessment report, released in 2007, reported that anthropogenic harm was ‘already evident’ (though, as I already indicated, prominent climate scientists were actually claiming this back in the 80s).

2015 saw the fifth assessment report released. It basically said everything previous reports had said but with greater certainty and urgency. The IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become. And it spelt all this out in a report coming in at over 2,000 pages long and citing 9,200 scientific publications.

The most detailed ever

Which brings us to the sixth and current assessment. It has 278 authors from 65 countries, cites over 18,000 references and is almost 3,000 pages long!! What does it say? I’m not sure. I haven’t had time even to read the 64 page summary for policymakers. I am interested, it’s just I’m not too fussed by the details. I accepted the basic story of ‘need for change’ over 20 years ago.

(Also, I got the gist of the assessment through comments I read on twitter, where brevity is the rule. And that gist is that climate change is real and now; the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal; cost of inaction is much bigger than doing something; everyone will suffer if we continue down the current path; and the window of opportunity is closing quickly.)

I’m more interested in the fact that such a detailed report can be so comprehensively ignored by pretty much most of the developed world, the section of humanity that has created this problem. News instead has been dominated by an actor slapping the face of comedian at the Oscars. (And in Australia, there’s also been much attention to historic floods destroying whole communities up and down the eastern seaboard. These reports often note the likely link to climate change and then revert to reporting efforts to put everything back just the way it was!)

The IPCC is like my Dr Smith. It’s feeding loads of climate detail down the phone to an audience that may not be there.

We don’t need more detail.

We do need more effective communication, greater engagement with more of the community, real policy integration and better leadership.

The next assessment report might want to consider that.

(I tried ringing them but their phone was engaged.)

Banner image: Monikas_Wunderwelt @ Pixabay

Federal budget: $160 million for nature may deliver only pork and a fudge

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By Peter Burnett

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s cash-splash budget has a firm eye on the upcoming federal election. In the environment portfolio, two spending measures are worth scrutinising closely.

First is a A$100 million round of the Environment Restoration Fund – one of several grants programs awarded through ministerial discretion which has been found to favour marginal and at-risk electorates.

Second is $62 million for up to ten so-called “bioregional plans” in regions prioritised for development. Environment Minister Sussan Ley has presented the measure as environmental law reform, but I argue it’s a political play dressed as reform.

It’s been more than a year since Graeme Samuel’s independent review of Australia’s environment law confirmed nature on this continent is in deep trouble. It called for a comprehensive overhaul – not the politically motivated tinkering delivered on Tuesday night.

A big barrel of pork?

The Environment Restoration Fund gives money to community groups for activities such as protecting threatened and migratory species, addressing erosion and water quality, and cleaning up waste.

The first $100 million round was established before the 2019 election. In March 2020 it emerged in Senate Estimates that the vast majority had been pre-committed in election announcements. In other words, it was essentially a pork-barelling exercise.

The grants reportedly had no eligibility guidelines and were given largely to projects chosen and announced as campaign promises – and mostly in seats held or targeted by the Coalition.

Given this appalling precedent, the allocation of grants under the second round of the fund must be watched closely in the coming election campaign.

A tricky Senate bypass

Australia’s primary federal environment law is known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Under provisions not used before, the need for EPBC Act approval of developments such as dams or mines can be switched off if the development complies with a so-called “bioregional plan”.

Bioregions are geographic areas that share landscape attributes, such as the semi-arid shrublands of the Pilbara.

In theory, bioregional plans deliver twin benefits. They remove the need for federal sign-off — a state approval will do the job – and so eliminate duplication. And national environmental interests are maintained, because state approvals must comply with the plans, which are backed by federal law.

But the government’s record strongly suggests it’s interested only in the first of these benefits.

Since the Samuel review was handed down, the government has largely sought only to remove so-called “green tape” – by streamlining environmental laws and reducing delays in project approvals.

Bills to advance these efforts have been stuck in the Senate. Now, the government has opted to fund bioregional plans which, as an existing mechanism, avoid Senate involvement.

Meanwhile, the government has barely acted on the myriad other problems Samuel identified in his review of the law, releasing only a detail-light “reform pathway”.

A rod for the government’s back?

Ironically, bioregional plans may create more problems for the government than they solves.

First, the surveys needed to prepare the plans are likely to spotlight the regional manifestations of broad environmental problems, such as biodiversity loss.

And the EPBC Act invites the environment minister to respond to such problems in the resulting plans. This implies spelling out new investments or protections – challenging for the government given its low policy ambition.

The federal government would also need to find state or territory governments willing to align themselves with its environmental politics, as well as its policy.

Of the two Coalition state governments, New South Wales’ is significantly more green than the Morrison government, while Tasmania is not home to a major development push.

Western Australia’s Labor government has been keen to work with Morrison on streamlining approvals, but fudging environmental protections is another thing altogether. And Labor governments, with a traditionally more eco-conscious voter base, are particularly vulnerable to criticism from environment groups.

The government may fudge the bioregional plans so they look good on paper, but don’t pose too many hurdles for development. Such a fudge may be necessary to fulfil Morrison’s obligations to the Liberals’ coalition partner, the Nationals.

Tuesday’s budget contained more than $21 billion for regional development such as dams, roads and mines – presumably their reward for the Nationals’ support of the government’s net-zero target.

Bioregional plans containing strict environmental protections could constrain or even strangle some of these developments.

But on the other hand, the government may be vulnerable to court challenges if it seeks to push through bioregional plans containing only vague environmental protection.

For a government of limited environmental ambition bioregional plans represent more a political gamble than a reform.

Morrison has clearly rejected the safer option of asking Ley to bring forward a comprehensive response to the Samuel review, casting streamlining as part of a wider agenda.

Such a reform would have better Senate prospects and created room to negotiate.

Morrison could also have promised to reintroduce the streamlining bills after the election. But he must have concluded that the measure has no better chance of getting through the next Senate than this one.

What price fundamental reform?

If the government successfully fudges bioregional plans, the result would be watered-down national environmental protections.

This would run completely counter to the key message of the Samuel review, that to shy away from fundamental law reforms:

“is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems”.

Clearly, good reform is too expensive — politically as well as fiscally — for this budget.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banner image: Feed them pork, win their votes. (Image by BeckyTregear @ Pixabay)

The Farm Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 – Watch out for weasel words

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By Peter Burnett

In 2020 I was a member of a consultative group established by Professor Graham Samuel in his review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

At several points in our discussions, Professor Samuel, a highly experienced and well-regarded former regulator, cautioned against ‘weasel words’: that is, hollow or ambiguous words that create a false sense of certainty or clarity.

I agreed with Professor Samuel whole-heartedly: one of the secrets of good regulation is to use simple and clear words that leave no scope for confusion or manoeuvre.

Say what you mean and mean only what you say. No legal fudges. It gives everyone certainty and increases trust in a regulatory system.

The Morrison government’s new Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Market Bill 2022 (Biodiversity Credits Bill), was introduced last month (February) with very little fanfare. It fails the weasel-words test by including words copied from a similar law on carbon credits, the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 (‘Carbon Credits Act’).

Creating biodiversity credits

Governments in Australia have experimented over the years with biodiversity stewardship schemes (for example, see Learning from agri-environmental schemes in Australia). Typically, these schemes pay farmers to protect or restore native vegetation on their land. The Morrison government is the latest to trial such a scheme.

One difference this time around is that the government is going further than before, using the scheme to lay foundations for wider biodiversity markets. A key to doing this is to create ‘biodiversity credits’ as a new form of property readily bought and sold.

This requires legislation and hence the Biodiversity Credits Bill. The Bill is modelled on the Carbon Credits Act.

In principle, this is a good thing.

Weasel Words

The problem is that the part of the Carbon Credits Act that deals with the integrity of carbon credits was watered down by the Abbott government in 2014 as part of its policy of replacing a carbon price with a (much more limited) purchasing of emission reductions by government.

At the time the government called this watering-down ‘streamlining’ and ‘simplification’, using its now-standard justification that the changes would ‘provide greater flexibility … while retaining the same high standards …’

Integrity is essential to ensuring that carbon or biodiversity credits represent a real gain for the environment at full face value. To achieve this, the credits must be both additional to business as usual and achieved in full compliance with a scientifically robust methodology (renamed ‘protocol’ in the new bill).

The methodology requirements for carbon credits, which are set by the minister, were watered down by the following changes:

The Biodiversity Credits Bill adopts this same watered-down system from the Carbon Credits Act.

It also lowers the bar on the integrity standards, dropping a requirement in the Carbon Credits Act that any necessary assumptions in an approved methodology be ‘conservative’ and replacing it with a requirement that any such assumptions be ‘reasonably certain’.

Superficially, the changes look minor, even trivial. In substance, they are very significant.

Their net effect was and is to weaken the benchmark for, and rigour of, the expert advice; to allow the minister to disregard the advice once given; and to allow more use of CSIRO scientists who, as government employees, can be subject to greater pressures from within government, subtle or otherwise.

In addition, the weaker and more subjective the language, the more difficult it becomes to mount a court challenge on the ground of failing to meet statutory requirements.

What now?

Rumour has it that the government is pushing for a quick passage of the Bill in the few days remaining before the Parliament is prorogued for a May election — presumably on the expectation of bipartisan support.

Such support would deliver another blow to the environment by opening the new biodiversity credits to political influence, compromising their integrity. As the market for credits grows, there will pressures from suppliers to make it easier to have approaches accredited, and from buyers to increase the supply of credits to meet demand and lower prices.

The 2014 carbon credit integrity model should not be adopted for biodiversity credits.

But more than that, biodiversity credits are like a currency. Just as the integrity of our currency has been entrusted to the Reserve Bank board, an independent and expert body, so too should the integrity of biodiversity (and carbon) credits be entrusted to an independent expert body.

I hope the Senate will not support the Biodiversity Credits Bill in its current form.

Act in haste, repent at leisure.

Banner image by monicore @ Pixabay

So, who actually does have the ‘duty of care’? Who is responsible for tomorrow?

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By David Salt

The Federal Minister for the Environment does not have a duty of care to protect young people from the harms of climate change. This was the unanimous finding of the Federal Court earlier this week. It was a finding that left high school students crying, legal scholars frowning and Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, beaming.

Given this, the big question I want answered is, if not the Minister for the Environment, then where (and with whom) does the ‘duty of care’ lie?

Many reasons

Much has been made about the Court decision and why the judges overturned an earlier decision that the Minister did have a duty of care when approving fossil fuel developments. (And for one of the best analyses of the legal case around this issue I’d point you to the excellent Sustainability Bite Does a ‘duty of care’ to future children make any difference to environmental approvals? written by my colleague Peter Burnett; who, incidentally, predicted exactly this outcome.)

Another excellent summary of this decision can be found at The Conversation (Today’s disappointing federal court decision undoes 20 years of climate litigation progress in Australia) which neatly brings together the facts, history and findings surrounding this appeal.

At the end of the day the three judges each ruled in favour of the Environment Minister who, in her appeal against the original finding, contended that the stated duty should not be imposed on the Minister. However, each judge had their own reasoning for why this should be.

One judge said that climate change is a matter for government, not the courts. The ‘duty’ involves “questions of policy (scientific, economic, social, industrial and political) […] unsuitable for the Judicial branch to resolve”

Another said there wasn’t a direct link between minister’s power to approve the coal mine and the effect this would have on the children.

And the third said the EPBC Act (under which the fossil fuel development was being approved and which the Minister is responsible for) doesn’t create a duty-of-care relationship between the Minister and the children. He added that establishing a standard of care isn’t feasible and that it’s not currently foreseeable that approving the coal mine extension would cause the children personal injury, as the law is understood.

If not the Minister, then who?

All well and good, and I expect this makes much sense to all the lawyers out there. But, for me, it begs the question: if not the Minister, then who should hold the duty of care?

If we are allowing a development today that is harming the people of tomorrow, then shouldn’t someone be responsible for allowing this development to proceed?

Of course, the people of tomorrow include the youth of today. Some of these young people are profoundly worried about what they are seeing around them, about what the science is telling us.

For God’s sake, it’s not even being worried about gloomy forecasts; society is actually experiencing the horror of climate change as we speak. Climate enhanced flooding is wiping away families, businesses, hopes and histories up and down Australia’s east coast. Climate-enhanced wildfires are scorching communities, forest biomes and wildlife with a ferocity and at a scale never before witnessed. We’re losing our coral reefs, our wetlands and woodlands. We’re trashing our natural heritage and our prospects for the future.

Young people see this, they can connect the dots; and they despair at the denialism and prevarication being shown by government. Many are self-organizing and protesting on the streets calling for change (only to be rebuked by our Prime Minister).

Others are exploring different pathways to get the ‘grown ups’ to do the right thing for the future they will inherit; and one of these pathways involves testing our laws about who is taking responsibility for developments (like new coal mines and gas projects) that will only be adding to the already catastrophic level of carbon emissions our species are producing.

Where to look

I don’t appreciate the detail of the law on this but, like the students at the centre of this current court case, it seems to me that our political representative who has been made Minister for the Environment is a logical place to aim.

But, as the courts have ruled, this is a question of policy, not law! This is for the politicians to fix up.

What?

Our political leaders are refusing to engage with climate change on any meaningful level. They’re happy to fight about over-the-horizon net zero targets that they will never be responsible for. They pay lip service to the mounting scientific evidence while happily turning a blind eye to the growing pile of misinformation and corporate malfeasance seeking to distract us from any measure to constrain (or reduce) our carbon economy.

If not the Environment Minister, then who? Our Prime Minister or the Minister for Emissions? Their track record for lies and integrity is even worse than our Environment Minister’s.

Is it the responsibility of our corporate leaders and billionaires? Seems their short-term interests are tied to unbounded economic growth, so I doubt we’ll see much effort here.

Or should we look to the world government to impose effective and just sustainability limits on us all. Sorry, I forgot; there’s no such thing as a world government (though conspiracy theorists like to pretend that one exists).

There are, of course, international agreements that sovereign nations can enter into on how we care for the environment and the future. Think Ramsar Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement; Australia has signed up to all of them, and then failed to meet our commitments on any of them, just like all other nations.

At the end of the day, whether you’re thinking (or acting) globally or locally, no-one is actually responsible for tomorrow. ‘Duty of care’ for tomorrow is more a ‘vibe*’ than an ‘actionable’ item.

If duty of care on climate change is a question of policy more than a question of law then our whole polity is failing us and is in need of transformation. Who’s up for some serious reform?

*‘Vibe’ is a particularly Australian term arising from the cult classic 1999 movie The Castle in which a lawyer, Dennis Denuto, struggles to articulate to the judge why his clients, the Kerrigans, should be allowed to keep their home and not be compulsorily acquired for an airport development. Denuto says: “In summing up: it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s the vibe and… no, that’s it. It’s the vibe.”

Banner image by byrev @ Pixabay

Senate Estimates – slippery answers like bare-handed barrel-fishing

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The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings

By Peter Burnett

Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.

In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.

Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.

As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.

Unfortunately, they usually do not.

The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.

Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)

I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.

My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.

(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)

The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.

The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.

Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.

Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.

The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.

You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.

The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!

Peas and thimbles

On 28 January the government announced an ‘additional’ $1 billion over nine years in funding for the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Estimates questions were directed to ascertaining how this money would be allocated.

In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.

So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.

Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.

Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.

Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.

That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!

A coincidence like that would never have done!

Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.

Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.

And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?

In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another

In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.

In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.

A better way?

As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.

And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!

One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.

To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!

Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)

What is ecology’s contribution to sustainability? And why does economics get the Big Chair at the dinner table?

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By Peter Burnett

For most people who take an interest in it, sustainability is the central idea of Our Common Future, a major United Nations report on environment and development. It was published in 1987.

You may know it as the Brundtland Report, after its principal author, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor who became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in the early 1980s and, later, Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Whenever I pick up my copy of Our Common Future I’m always drawn to a sentence on the back cover: ‘Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology…’

Due to the efforts of some pioneering economists and ecologists from the late 1980s, there is a marriage of economics and ecology within a new discipline created by those pioneers, that of ecological economics. But this marriage has few progenies beyond academia.

Even within ecological economics, there are some signs that the marriage is not an equal one. Ecology has influenced the approach of economics but not the other way round.

I began to wonder. What is ecology and what is its contribution to sustainability?

Economics comes in from the cold

Let’s start with economics. In the decades following the outbreak of World War II, economics ‘came in from the cold’, completely transforming itself from just another academic discipline, inhabited by retiring academics, to one that some critics attack as ‘imperialist’ or ‘hegemonic’ in its attitudes.

This transformation happened because governments invited economists into the very heart of government.

First, they wanted to win the war, a ‘total war’ requiring that the efforts of every sector of the economy be directed towards victory.

Then, governments wanted economists to assist them to win the peace, initially to find jobs for millions of returning allied soldiers and subsequently to show that capitalism had a better recipe for prosperity than communism in the ideological battles of the emerging Cold War.

The resulting mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ also helped win elections at home and became a fixed feature of the political landscape.

Economists delivered the goods. As a result, they wield an influence that is the envy of most other disciplines.

Oxford economist Kate Raworth encapsulated this influence in her description of economics as the ‘mother tongue of public policy’.

If economics is its ‘mother tongue’ then, unfortunately, ecology remains a foreign language to public policy.

What about ecology?

The term ‘ecology’ was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a 28-year-old German marine biologist, although some ecological ideas, like ‘the balance of nature’, go right back to the Greek philosophers.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things and their environment.

Ecology didn’t really take off until the mid-twentieth century. Raymond Lindeman’s (1915–1942) work on trophic dynamics (energy flows in particular food-web levels) was seminal for ecosystem ecology, while the brothers Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and Howard Odum (1924–2002)published their influential textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, in 1953.

Ecology entered the popular lexicon in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Many claim this book triggered what can be described as the modern environmental era.

The influence of ecology on sustainability

Sustainability seeks to identify the human behaviour that will allow the greatest possible level of economic activity consistent with maintaining the ‘ecosystem services’ that Nature provides to humans.

Because ecology is concerned with the natural relationship between plants and animals and their physical environment, ecologists can advise humans on what they may do, or must not do, if they want these ecosystem services to continue (let alone maintain Nature for its inherent value and beauty).

Economics is concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, all of which come, directly or indirectly, from Nature. Economic advice is given routinely in the context of constraints on the supply of resources.

Typically, those constraints have been related to humans factors, such as cost. But there is no reason why economics cannot operate equally well within restraints identified by ecologists, based on Nature’s ability to maintain ecosystem services.

In essence, this is the marriage of economics and ecology.

Economics does not have much to teach ecology in terms of its method, but it can help set ecology’s agenda: from a sustainability perspective, the key questions are ‘what is required to keep Nature operating’ and ‘how can humans restore ecological loss already sustained?’

Married, but not communicating

Both ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ come for the Greek oikos, meaning household, so it seems the attraction between the two disciplines is a natural one (pardon the pun).

However, they speak different languages and, unfortunately for ecology, the marital home, sustainability, lies in the (economic-speaking) land of government.

The challenges of communicating ecological insights in this foreign land are myriad. Apart from ecologists not being native speakers of economics (and vice-versa) their substantive ideas concerning ecological relationships and processes are not obvious to the ordinary person.

Great communicators wanted

It seems to me that, to put this marriage on a more equal footing, ecology needs more great communicators.

These are rare birds indeed. So rare, that of the first two who spring to my mind, one is of great age and the other passed away nearly 15 years ago.

Internationally, David Attenborough is a master and highly influential.

In Australia, the late Professor Peter Cullen of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also a master communicator. His passing in 2008 was a great loss to our country.

These two leaders exemplify the skills we need: they are (were) well-versed in biological science, relate naturally to ordinary people through media, speak fluent public policy and, to ice the cake, have mellifluous voices!

We need to do more to grow these skills.

In 2018 the ABC began awarding media residencies annually to Australia’s ‘Top Five Young Scientist Communicators’, a great initiative.

Who else will nurture our young ‘Attenboroughs’ and ‘Cullens’?

Building a truly sustainable future will require more of these vital bridge builders.

Banner image by geralt @ Pixabay

The existential toll of climate change on wetlands – maybe we should go with the flow.

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By David Salt

Every February we’re encouraged to think about wetlands as we celebrate World Wetlands Day. While society has come a long way in changing its mind about the value of wetlands – once they were smelly swamps, now they are precious, life-sustaining ecosystems – these days we’re stuck in a form of denialism about their prospects as climate change radically threatens their very existence.

The sad truth is, climate change modifies water levels, and the best protected wetland in the world ceases to be a wetland without water. Too much water, in the form of rising sea levels, will have the same outcome. If we can’t protect our wetlands in the space they exist today, do we need to make more effort to let our wetlands move with the flow?

Fifty-one years of Ramsar

Fifty-one years ago, on the 2nd of February 1971, one of the world’s most important international environmental conventions came into being with the adoption of the Convention of Wetlands. It’s important because it was the first international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international agreements on the environment. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas – being declared a Ramsar Wetland is akin to being listed as a World Heritage area – and the treaty has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

The adoption ceremony for the Convention was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and most people know this Convention as the Ramsar Convention. To mark the day of the treaty’s creation, the Ramsar Secretariat has promoted the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day, and it’s been run on this date every year since 1997.

The Ramsar Convention together with World Wetlands Day have transformed the way humans engage with wetlands. They’ve gone from ‘swamps’ only fit for draining and development, to critical land and water scapes that provide humans with a range of valuable ecosystem services in addition to being critical habitat for biodiversity conservation. Wetlands, in all their forms, are now recognised as precious and irreplaceable.

However, our efforts to increase awareness about the state and value of our wetlands have also revealed they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Secretariat’s Global Wetland Outlook (newly revised this year) tells us that over a third of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since the Convention was enacted. Indeed, wetlands are our most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests. Land-use change is the biggest driver of degradation to inland wetlands since 1970. Agriculture, the most wide-spread form of land-use change, has damaged more than half of the Wetlands of International Importance (often referred to as Ramsar Wetlands). Climate impacts to wetlands are happening faster than anticipated. Rising sea-levels, coral bleaching and changing hydrology are all accelerating, with arctic and montane wetlands most at risk of degradation and loss.

Land locked and lost (or drowned)

And here’s an irony the Treaty’s designers probably never envisaged: The city of Ramsar, the place that gave the treaty its name, is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea shrinks under climate change and water extraction. Its surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades.

The Caspian Sea is actually a landlocked lake with a surface that is already around 28 metres below sea level. And it’s dropping by 7 centimetres every year. As temperatures rise with global warming, evaporation will accelerate this decline. The Caspian Sea will be nine to 18 metres lower by the end of the century and lose a quarter of its size. How do you sustain a wetland that can no longer be kept wet? Researchers believe the unfurling crisis will result in an ecocide as devastating as the one in the Aral Sea, a few hundred kilometres to the east.

Falling water levels are challenging many other major landlocked lakes and seas (consider the Aral Sea and Lake Chad) but most coastal wetland systems face the opposite problem – rising sea levels associated with warming oceans, another consequence of climate change. Sea levels are currently rising by between 3-4 mm per year but this is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. This could lead to the submergence of 20–78% of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100!

Whether water levels are rising, falling or doing major damage through extreme weather events (think of this season’s unprecedented flooding all around the world), the prospects for the planet’s precious wetlands are darkening with every year. World Wetlands Day (and the Ramsar Convention) have played a valuable role in highlighting the importance of these watery ecosystems, as well as identifying wetlands of particular significance; but as climate change bites we need to face the grim reality that changing water levels mean that many, possibly most, wetlands cannot be protected by surrounding them in strong laws, good signage and a more receptive society. The sad truth is that shifting water levels mean many wetlands cannot be protected in their current spaces.

Just as the city Ramsar heralds this grim reality, the history of the Caspian Sea upon which it lies, may hold a possible solution. The Caspian Sea has a history of rises and falls. Around 10,000 years ago the sea was about 100 metres lower. A few thousand years before that it was about 50 metres higher than today’s level. Yet people who lived beside the sea were able to move with the fluctuating sea level. Back then, no large human infrastructure was around to be destroyed, and people moved (adapted) as required. The same applied to animal and plant species. Ecosystems simply moved up and down as the sea level shifted, as they had done over the past 2 million years or so.

In today’s world, with massive city infrastructure and property rights attached to specific locations, moving with a changing water level presents enormous challenges. And yet, doing nothing (ie, not moving) is not an option either. Roughly a tenth of the world’s population and assets are based less than 10 metres above sea level. Sea level rise means land currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable to annual flooding by 2050.

Water is the messenger

Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, recently observed that “Water is the messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighborhood, and to your front door.” Our first response, unfortunately, is usually to deny the message as we have so much invested in ‘sustaining’ the status quo. Economists would say we worry too much protecting ‘sunk investments’.

We’d rather reinforce and armour our shores against the rising tides, than consider moving to adapt to rising (or falling) water levels. Not only is this expensive and fails to address the underlying problem – sea level rise is predicted to accelerate, not stabilise – it makes us more vulnerable to the multiple threats being generated by climate change (eg, more intense storms and extreme rainfall).

In many ways, we’re doing the same with our wetland reserves. We’re managing them for the proximate dangers that threaten their natural values such as guarding against pollution, overexploitation and development. But, as with our cities and towns, we’re ignoring the consequences of changing water levels in a time of climate change. The places where we find wetlands today may not sustain wetlands into the future.

In some cases, wetlands have the capacity to move (migrate) with the water level as it changes. Some research is suggesting that sea levels could rise faster than a wetland’s natural migration rate. Other studies have shown their capacity to move is limited by how land is being used around existing wetlands.

The challenge of sustaining our precious wetlands in a time of climate change and changing water levels is enormous. The first step in meeting this challenge is getting beyond denial. Seas are rising. Lakes in many places are shrinking. We can see it happen, and there is a strong scientific consensus it’s only going to get worse. Given this reality, we need to extend the tool box of policy measures to conserve these vital ecosystems. It’s not enough to increase our protection of existing wetlands. We need to start planning on how we can facilitate their ability to move with changing water levels – to go with the flow.

Research is happening in many places around the world to explore what’s possible. For example, Australian scientists are developing the idea of “rolling covenants” to protect coastal ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise. These are conditions on land titles that permit productive use of land in the short term, while ensuring land use can shift over time to allow for coastal ecosystem migration in the medium to long term.

Of course, such provisions require considerable funding and a change in mindset on what is an appropriate way to use (and set aside future uses) of land. But such change is possible when society gets beyond denying what climate change means and works with the change rather than attempting to control it.

‘Making room’ for water

One of the best examples of this is the response of the Netherlands to the threat of rising sea levels and increased flood risk. The Netherlands is both flat and low lying, and has always been prone to flooding. More than half of the Netherlands is located on flood-prone land. Following two particularly horrifying floods in the 1990s, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, the Netherland’s government adopted a new paradigm in water management.

Rather than building bigger dykes and dams to control the floods, they adopted an approach called making “Room for the Rivers” in which floods were better accommodated by the landscape. Many farms were converted to wetlands (proving a boon for bird life), land around rivers was dedicated to allow for flooding, and cities and towns were adapted to cope with flood waters.

The approach cost billions of dollars, many land holders were required to give up their homes and their farm land, and the whole community needed to change the way they dealt with flooding.

The result? Dutch rivers can now absorb about 25% more water than they could in 1995, and the recent episode of historic floods that devasted parts of Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, left the Netherlands relatively unscathed.

If the Netherlands can make room for their rivers and demonstrate the value of this approach to flood control, what would it take for the world community to ‘make room’ for our wetlands?

This World Wetland Day, we all need to consider how we can better go with the flow.

This blog originally appeared on The Global Water Forum

Banner image: Climate change is moving water levels. Moving water levels means wetlands also need to move. We need to ‘make room’ for our wetlands. (Image by David Salt)