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Tempers have flared once again over the long-term plan to return water to the Murray-Darling River and improve its health.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has released its report into the northern basin (in Queensland and New South Wales). The report finds that the plan, agreed in 2012, has already affected communities. It recommends that less water be returned to the river.
The plan aims to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water from human uses for the environment, but also allows for an extra 450GL to be recovered.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has signalled that returning the extra 450GL would be extremely difficult – which has outraged South Australian politicians at state and federal level. In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised extra monitoring.
While it may seem like a political bunfight, the current argument sheds light on serious flaws in the management of the river.Liquid gold Murray-Darling Basin Authority, CC BY
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan originates in national water legislation developed as a response to the Millennium Drought. Since the plan was passed in 2012, rains have given breathing space for those seeking to massage the detail around rebalancing Australia’s most famous river system.
The premise of the plan and the related Water Act is shifting water away from irrigation to the river to improve long-term sustainability. Leading up to and during the Millennium Drought, ecosystem health declined.
Too much water was being taken from the river, and it seemed the states were too weak to deal with the politics of sharing water allowances.
However, Joyce’s recent comments show that federal governments are equally susceptible to backsliding on commitments to securing water for the environment.Flaws in the plan
The plan has two main flaws.
First, the states and federal government are relying on a single planning instrument to miraculously optimise water-sharing for social, economic and environmental outcomes.
Second, the only mechanism for achieving these outcomes is by adjusting the volume of water allocated to the environment.
Various interests have exploited both of these weaknesses since the plan came into force.
First, the requirement to blend multiple policy objectives into a single plan has provided an opportunity for disaffected parties to claim all manner of fallout. This has led to governments opting for high-cost reallocation mechanisms, such as providing infrastructure to farms in return for water for the environment.
Simply buying entitlements from willing sellers would have been much more cost-effective and likely better in the long run. This remains the case. But buying back is now off the table, at least while the next round of expensive infrastructure-for-water swaps occurs.
Second, focusing solely on the volume of water returned to the river is now being exploited by those who know that the environmental needs of riverine systems are more complex than simply “add more water”. Complexity means opportunity for some, and there are two groups at play here.
One is the irrigation enthusiasts reluctant to transfer their water rights. In part, this is because they know if they hold out they can secure more benefits through subsidised on-farm infrastructure that can be capitalised into private assets. These forces are obviously more pronounced in the upstream states where irrigation is most developed – NSW and Victoria.
The second group are environmental groups with particular agendas for which they have struggled to gain support.Turning wine into water
Collectively, these groups have been active in persuading upstream states and some at the federal level that there are alternatives to simply taking water from irrigators and returning it to the environment. These alternatives have become known as “works and measures”.
In simple terms, some infrastructure can be used to mimic environmental processes but with less water. For instance, a series of water regulators could be constructed on a riverside wetland to mimic natural flood events.
The proponents of works and measures are primarily upstream and have sought to count these interventions as equivalent to water returned to the river – meaning they count towards state targets. Similarly, there are efforts to convert programs that reduce invasive species, such as carp, into an equivalent volume of water.
In practice, the challenge of converting these programs into water is scientifically problematic.
While the Water Act and the basin plan were always flawed because of their heavy focus on water volumes, the prospect of adding alternatives has simply created opportunities for more blurry metrics.
There is also a real prospect that these measures are simply not equivalent. As an ecologist explained to me privately: “It’s like saying the environment is thirsty and offering a hamburger.”
The hamburger may be welcome for some, but ultimately it won’t do the same as a drink of water. We need both water and non-water measures and it would be foolish to think the politically expedient hamburger is a perfect substitute for the politically sensitive water, as others have noted.
The South Australian government has been keen to prevent backsliding by upstream states through these types of deals. Ideally, this would be out of concern for the status of the river system, but history shows that states, including South Australia, are equally keen to use the rivers for their own consumptive ambitions.
Nonetheless, the South Australian government does have a point, even if it has been expressed recently with zeal.
The lesson, of course, is that federal governments using the plan have found shifting water away from irrigation at least as difficult and costly as it is for the states.
Lin Crase receives funding from ARC; ACIAR.
Many state schools struggling to help disadvantaged pupils (Report, 22 November) are facing a further demand on their shrinking budgets. Prudent schools that have invested in solar panels to reduce their electricity bills now face a retrospective six- to eight-fold hike in their tax rates, if the government gets its way. This would be socially divisive, as it will apply to state schools but not to the private schools that have charitable status. The higher rates will also apply to businesses and other organisations that use solar electricity internally. This is yet another blow to the solar industry, already reeling from four separate subsidy cuts since May 2015. UK solar had been expanding exponentially, creating many new jobs and reducing both the wholesale price of electricity and our carbon emissions.
Emeritus Professor Keith Barnham
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The Australian government is reviewing our electricity market to make sure it can provide secure and reliable power in a rapidly changing world. Faced with the rise of renewable energy and limits on carbon pollution, The Conversation has asked experts what kind of future awaits the grid.
Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) is under review following the state-wide blackout that hit South Australia in September.
The review, led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, will “develop a national reform blueprint to maintain energy security and reliability”.
Importantly, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) specifically agreed that the review would consider Australia’s commitment under the Paris climate agreement, and how climate and energy policy can be integrated.
Before we consider how the NEM might need to change, it is important to understand how it came about.State responsibility
Electricity supply began as a state responsibility. Originally, state-based utilities owned and operated the entire supply chain, from generation to transmission, distribution and retail. With the exception of the Snowy Hydro Scheme, there were no interstate transmission lines.
Accessibility and affordability were (and still are) key concerns for the states. As such, electricity prices were equal for all citizens, irrespective of their location or the actual cost of bringing electricity to them. This is still partly reflected in network tariffs today.
In the late 1980s, concerns about rising costs to government, but also a worldwide ideological move towards privatisation of public services, drove a shift away from publicly owned utilities. This began with a New South Wales inquiry, which found that NSW could avoid billions of dollars in new investment by connecting its network with Victoria.
This set the scene for the development of a more interconnected grid and more general reform. In particular, this was followed by a report from the former Industry Commission in 1991 and the Hilmer Review on National Competition Policy in 1993. These reports were dominated by market logic. They argued that competition would make the system more efficient.
Governments specifically agreed to reforms that would lead to a fully competitive national electricity market. This involved breaking up and selling the three layers of the electricity sector: generation, networks and retail.
The network businesses were seen as natural monopolies, and were to be regulated as such. Generators and retailers were to compete within their own layer, increasing efficiency and keeping prices down.The national system
Following these preparatory measures, the state and federal governments agreed to pass the National Electricity Law (NEL) under a cooperative national arrangement. This provided the legal basis to create the National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM is the national electricity market governed by the NEL and includes the wholesale markets as well as network regulation.
In 2001, the state and federal governments established the Ministerial Council on Energy with the broad aim of overseeing and coordinating national energy policy. In 2002, the council commissioned an independent review of energy markets, which highlighted many deficiencies, including governance and regulation.
The review found that the state-based regulators’ responsibilities overlapped with those of the national regulators and led to costly inconsistencies. It also found that greenhouse policy responses were “ad hoc and poorly targeted”.
The ministerial council subsequently proposed a package of reforms. This led to the formation of the Australian Energy Market Commission for developing market rules, and the Australian Energy Regulator for enforcing them, which governments endorsed through the Australian Energy Market Agreement.
This agreement contains a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, this remained outside the National Electricity Objective, which was introduced in 2005 and is the highest point of reference for policy setting. The National Electricity Objective is to:
…promote efficient investment in, and efficient operation and use of, electricity services for the long-term interests of consumers of electricity with respect to price, quality, safety, reliability and security of supply of electricity; and the reliability, safety and security of the national electricity system.
Parallel to these regulatory developments, the states participating in the market became increasingly intertwined. Five new interconnectors were added between 1990 and 2006.
The competitive layers of the industry also began a period of consolidation, leading to the emergence of the so-called “gentailers”. The wholesale market is now dominated by three gentailers (Origin, AGL and Energy Australia), which collectively supply 71% of all retail customers.The new review
Shortly after the blackout in South Australia, Federal Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg called for harmonisation of state renewable energy policies, and announced the latest review.
The Finkel Review is a review into the “security and reliability” of the NEM. However, its scope is wide enough to allow for a fundamental rethink of the role of the electricity sector in addressing climate change.
The blackout provides a great example of the kind of challenge the NEM will face in the future. On one hand, climate policies, especially the RET and state-based renewable energy goals, put pressure on the networks and influence the wholesale electricity market.
On the other hand, climate change is expected lead to more frequent and increasingly severe storm events, such as the one that destroyed transmission towers in South Australia. Networks, markets and their governance framework under the NEM aren’t necessarily prepared for these changing conditions.
As shown by the 2002 review, the overlap of state energy policies and ad hoc climate policies is not a particularly new phenomenon. But market governance frameworks have so far kept climate policies separate from the narrow efficiency concerns of the electricity market and network regulation.
Clearly, in the age of climate change, the NEM and its regulatory and institutional frameworks will need to take account of these new and increasing climate mitigation and adaptation pressures.
Recently, South Australian Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis called for the federal government to “get serious about bringing climate policy and energy policy together”.
With the energy and environment portfolios combined in some governments (including now the federal one), perhaps the Finkel Review can support a convergence of climate and energy policy on a national level.
For more details on the history of reforms in the electricity market see Environmental norms and electricity supply: an analysis of normative change and household solar PV in Australia and A Barrier for Australia’s Climate Commitments? Law, the Electricity Market and Transitioning the Stationary Electricity Sector.
Dylan McConnell has received funding from the AEMC's Consumer Advocacy Panel and Energy Consumers Australia.
Anne Kallies does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Living largely on the fringes of a giant island continent, Australians rely on sea transport for the exports and imports that sustain our economy and lifestyle. Australians also have a strong affinity with the ocean, as reflected in the growth in recreational boating and cruise shipping. But these numbers risk putting people on a collision course – literally – with whales, turtles and other marine life.
In the decade to 2011–12, maritime activity in Australia grew by more than two-thirds, while vessels also grew larger and faster. By 2030, bulk freight is projected to increase by half and container throughput will double.
Australia has good shipping regulations, and the general public strongly values marine life. Even so, these drastic increases in both commercial and recreational vessels are likely to lead to more injuries and deaths of marine mammals, large fish and turtles that are hit by vessels – particularly among whale populations that are rebounding in number since the end of whaling.
In response to increasing concern about collision risk, the Department of the Environment and Energy has released a draft national strategy for reducing the risk of vessel strikes. It is open for public comment until January 31, 2017.
The strategy suggests that before we can develop ways to avoid collisions, we need to know exactly where animals are most in danger, by mapping the risk of vessel strike on a national scale. We are working on a project to do just that.Looking to the past
The first step is to collate and interpret the existing data. Focusing specifically on whales, the current International Whaling Commission (IWC) database shows 51 reported strikes in Australian waters. Only two happened before 1990.
It would be tempting to think that vessel strikes are therefore a modern issue. But the more likely explanation for this pattern is that there has never been a systematic collection of historic Australian data.
We addressed this challenge by searching online media database archives, in particular TROVE. We found reports of vessel strikes dating back to 1872, and an extra 90 records not captured in the IWC’s database. We have thus created the most comprehensive record of whale vessel collisions off Australia.
Our searches brought the number of reported vessel collisions off Australia up to 141. Meanwhile, we also found an extra 145 suspected unrecorded incidents worldwide.
It is hard to compare strike rates around the world because of different record-keeping methods, but our best estimate is that Australian strikes account for 17% of the total worldwide incidents since records began. This challenges the view that these incidents were historically rarer in Australia than elsewhere.
In the records of Australian collisions where the species could be identified, the majority involved humpback whales (52%), followed by southern right whales (12%) and sperm whales (7%). Based on 95 reports in which the fate of the whale could be reliably determined, 52% of strikes were deemed to be fatal or probably fatal; 23% were reported as injuries or probable injuries; and in 25% of cases the whale was unharmed.
Most modern-era strikes are reported in Queensland, which plays host to the east coast humpback breeding and migration route, as well as lots of recreational vessels which are more likely to report incidents as they get damaged. But again, it is very hard to tell how many strikes go unreported, both in Queensland and elsewhere. It may simply be that Queensland has a better system than other states for reporting incidents.
After reading news reports of whale strikes spanning more than 140 years, we were also struck by the changing public and media perception of these events. Early reports from the 1800s refer to ships coming under attack from frightful monsters of the deep. During much of the 20th century collisions were seen as exciting or interesting events during voyages, whereas modern reports are far more concerned with animal welfare and environmental impacts.
You might ask why it matters what happened decades or centuries ago. But of course the past helps us interpret the present.
For example, modern data do not show many large vessels striking animals in Australian waters, whereas these kinds of collisions seem to have been more common in previous eras. This is possibly because, historically, most large vessels had large crews and/or many passengers, potentially making collisions more likely to be spotted than they would be aboard today’s large automated vessels with small crews. This raises the question of whether significant numbers of collisions are happening without being noticed.
Recording vessel sizes will also help to devise the most effective strategies for avoiding collisions. For example, if small recreational vessels pose the most significant strike threat in a given region, then changing the region’s commercial shipping lanes will be of little use.What can be done?
The jump in the number of reported vessel strikes in the late 1990s suggests that reporting rates have probably improved, but also highlights the need for a much more rigorous system. With this aim, the Australian Marine Mammal Centre has developed an online tool for reporting collisions.
The next task for our project is to compare information on shipping density and average speeds with data about the habitats and migration routes of at-risk species. This will help us draw up relative risk maps to identify specific areas and times where the risk is greatest, and where efforts to reduce them should be focused.
Some measures, including route changes, speed restrictions and exclusion zones, have already been successfully used in waters off the United States and New Zealand.
With Australia’s increasing appetite for international trade and recreational boating, it is time to develop some effective methods of our own to avoid running over our marine wildlife.
This article was co-authored by Dr Simon Childerhouse, a marine mammal biologist with Blue Planet Marine based in Nelson, New Zealand.
David Peel receives funding from the Marine Biodiversity Hub of the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Programme and previously from the Australian Marine Mammal Centre.
Joshua Smith receives funding from the Department of the Environment and Energy and previously from the Australian Marine Mammal Centre.
Exclusive: ‘Confidential’ draft acknowledges coral bleaching but does not make any attempt to address climate change
The Australian government’s official “response plan” to the worst ever bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef commits it to no new action, pledges no new money and does not make any attempt to address climate change, according to a draft seen by the Guardian.
The Northern Great Barrier Reef Response Plan, marked “draft” and “confidential”, begins by describing the bleaching event as “the worst ever coral bleaching” and attributes its cause to climate change.Continue reading...
Queenstown, on the remote west coast of Tasmania, is known for two things: copper mining and the harsh gravel oval that is home to the local Australian rules football team. A series of deaths at the Mount Lyell mine brought operations to a standstill and put the future of the town in doubt. Thomas Hyland’s evocative film, shown here after screenings at the Unconformity festival, tracks the story of the town, the people and their football team through shock, grief and change
• Devastation and beauty collide in Tasmanian mining town
Timelapse footage shows the construction of a steel shelter designed to prevent radiation leaks from the site of reactor No 4 at Chernobyl. The series of videos captures the shelter’s progression over several years up to its placement on Tuesday. High radiation levels near the reactor meant parts had to be assembled several hundred metres away and then slid slowly into placeContinue reading...
It isn’t a great surprise to learn that a director of Greece’s Public Power Corporation believes in exemptions for lignite – an especially polluting type of coal burnt at Greek power plants (Letters, theguardian.com, 24 November). However, the claim that Greece is “among the best performers in emission reductions” must not go unchallenged.
In a recent report, Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud: How cutting coal saves lives, we revealed how Greek lignite plants, responsible for hundreds of premature deaths and thousands of cases of respiratory illness every year, have in fact been granted special exemptions to EU limits set in the industrial emissions directive. As a result, when it comes to emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOx), dust and mercury, Greek plants are undoubtedly among the worst performers in Europe.Continue reading...
In the week Britain exports electricity to France for first time in four years, Gérard Magnin says renewable power will match Hinkley Point C on cost
The French nuclear industry is in its “worst situation ever” because of a spate of plant closures in France and the complexities it faces with the reactor design for the UK’s Hinkley Point C power station, according to a former Électricité de France director.
Gérard Magnin, who called Hinkley “very risky” when he resigned as a board member over the project in July, argued that the situation for the state-owned EDF had deteriorated since he stepped down, with more than a dozen French reactors closed over safety checks and routine maintenance.Continue reading...
Urgent climate action must be taken and communities are willing to participate in their own electricity production – if the incentives are right
The challenge of climate change is global and it demands action on an international scale, such as the Paris Agreement. But a large part of the solution will be local, involving all of us in the way energy is produced and consumed.
The potential for citizen involvement in electricity production is considerable. A recent study showed that by 2050 half of all Europeans could produce their own electricity either at home, as part of a cooperative, or in their small business. Counting generation from wind and solar power alone, these small actors could meet almost half of Europe’s total electricity needs.Continue reading...
High-carbon infrastructures lock planet into irreversible greenhouse gas emissions, says campaign group
By the end of this decade it may be too late to limit global warming to scientifically guided limits, if the infrastructure built in the next four years is constructed along the same lines as currently planned.
Building high-carbon infrastructure – from transport systems predicated on motor car use, to new coal-fired power plants, and buildings that leak energy – effectively “locks in” a future of greenhouse gas emissions that are likely to far exceed the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon.Continue reading...
An extract from Liberatum’s documentary In this Climate, in which a range of cultural and environmental figures including Noam Chomsky, David Attenborough and Mark Ruffalo respond to the threat of climate change and to the deniers. The full-length film is scheduled for release before the World Economic Forum in January 2017