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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Climate risks and opportunities for Victoria - the Climate Commission comes to Melbourne

I attended the Climate Commission public forum in Melbourne last Tuesday night with my daughter. I felt that it was important that she came along to see the charts on the screen, to hear from the Climate Commissioners and climate scientists directly, and perhaps question them about her future. Because global warming will have an increasing impact on the climate of the future, and the life of the kids of today, and eventually their children and future generations.

I didn't really find out anything new from the session, but I'm not really surprised as I have been blogging directly on climate issues since 2004.

So what ocurred at the forum? There was a brief introduction by Professor Tim Flannery who outlined the latest report on the impact of climate change on Victoria.

He then introduced Professor Will Steffen, a respected climatologist, who gave an ever so brief rundown of climate science and the problems we face.

Steffen was followed by Professor Leslie Hughes who presented on climate impacts and adaptation.

You can view some of the slides used in from this Climate Commission presentation:

And then the meeting was thrown open to questions. I put up my hand early on, but was never selected. So there were plenty of questions. Probably about 500 people in Storey Hall.

Carbon Tax? Didn't rate a mention at all. I think people, at least in Melbourne, are over complaining about the carbon tax. It's in place, time to move on. Early this week we even had the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra (NATSEM) crunch the numbers and say the cost to most consumers will be even less than expected and forecast in Treasury modelling. The ACCC are investigating complaints of inappropriate pricing with some 1260 complaints already received, but with the number of complaints already declining.

Most of the questions were about energy policy, the psychology and communication of climate change and adaptation information, and how to effect change, and the need to work on multiple levels.

My two questions were related to perceived absences from the full report, but I didn't get an opportunity to ask them:

  • what will a warmer drier climate mean for agricultural production and food security in Victoria?
  • Given that coastal wetlands are important carbon sinks, moderate storm surges and provide an important animal nursery ecosystem, what measures are being taken to allow coastal wetlands to migrate inland as sea level rises?

Another person asked a question about food security and was answered that agricultural adaptation will be important, especially in the Murray Darling Basin as water flows reduce. The report highlighted that in the recent 13 year long drought agricultural production was hit particularly hard, "in the Wimmera Southern Mallee region – one of Australia’s main broadacre cropping and grazing zones – the Big Dry resulted in an 80% reduction in grain production and a 40% reduction in livestock production (BCG, 2008)."

I asked Professor Lesley Hughes my second question in the foyer after the session. Her brief answer? "None". So there is no planning to allow wetlands to advance, which will have major ecosystems consequences along our coasts in the long term.

Tim Flannery summed up that the Commission had felt a change of emphasis, away from debating the climate science to working on ways to become more energy efficient, more sustainable. He highlighted the example of the new Royal Children's Hospital for it's sustainable design and architecture reducing it's energy and carbon footprint.

But I felt at the meeting there was a lot of community frustration with corporate interests and politicians continuing to favour fossil fuel extraction and export.

Bill McKibben, who founded, put forward Global Warming's Terrifying new Math in a July 19 article in Rolling Stone. Basicaly, the world has agreed to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees C. From this, scientists estimate we have a carbon budget of 565 Gigatons before we reach this temperature. But known and accessible fossil fuel reserves amount to 2,795 Gigatons, more than 5 times the carbon budget. That's why Gina Rhinehart, Clive Palmer, and politicians from both Labor and liberal/National Party are so keen to rip the fossil fuels out of the ground to make a quick buck before limits are placed on fossil fuel extraction. One of the questions asked was how to curtail the mining and export of fossil fuels - the real elephant in the room. The Commissioners could not provide a reasonable answer to this.

So the Commission latest report - Victorian climate impacts and opportunities - outlined the areas of most concern to Victoria, but also the opportunities available for the uptake by Government and business sector.

Climate Impacts for Victoria

The impacts for Victoria outlined in the Climate Commission report include:

  • Rising sea levels - are tracking at the upper end if scientific projections and may reach or possibly exceed 100cm by 2100. Many Victorian coastal regions will be affected but particularly Kingston, Hobsons Bay, Greater Geelong, Wellington and Port Phillip local government areas being the most at risk from rising sea level.
  • Heatwaves - much of Victoria is aleady experiencing more days over
    35°C each year. Much critical infrastracture, including roads, trainlines and electricity production are not designed to withstand extreme temperatures. For example, many suburban train lines buckled in the extreme heatwave of February 2009 stranding hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Bushfire - Very high and extreme bushfire days are becoming more common and ill continue increasing as the number of hot days increase and the climate becomes drier. The Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 gives us a glimpse of the sort of fire weather that may be in store for us on a more frequent basis.
  • Rainfall, drought and floods - The last two decades Victoria has shown a strong trend for a drier autumn and winter, resulting in less rain and proportionately less runoff for water storages for drinking and irrigation. Due to a strong La Nina we have just experienced the wettest two year period on record with a third of Victoria suffering flooding. As the atmosphere warms it can carry more moisture, so even though we are heading into a drier climate, we are likely to experience heavier rainfall events in the future, when it does rain.
  • The Victorian Alps will be extremely vulnerable with snow depth decreasing by up to 40% in some areas since the 1960s. Snow season tourism will be impacted. But of even greater consequence is the challenges to biodiversity with species moving up the mountain as the climate warms, and timing of species’ life cycles being disrupted. The species who live on top face extinction.
  • Human Health. As more extreme weather events occurr, there will be greater risks for heat-related illnesses and mortality. Children, elderly people and those with medical conditions will be more at risk, as well as those living in indigenous and rural communities. Heatwaves and extreme hot days pose particular strong risks for human health, but the increase in bushfire weather and extreme rainfall and flooding events can also pose increased health risks.

Opportunities for Victoria

The report also highlighted that there are significant business opportunities for Victoria in developing it's renewable energy resources, transforming business to a clean and more efficient energy model, and transforming cities to be more sustainable by more efficient building design, better public transport and greater emphasis on active transport (walking and cycling).

Renewable energy currently supplies only 5.5% of Victoria's electrical consumption, but it has the capacity for solar energy in the north of the state to supply more than double the state's energy needs. Solar PV farms and Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) power stations with molten salt energy storage to provide 24/7 power could be established to harness this resource.

In addition to this solar resource Victoria has enormous capacity to expand wind power energy production. Denmark, with similar onshore wind speeds currently has seven times the installed wind capacity as Victoria. But the Baillieu Government has imposed highly restrictive planning regulations for wind farms at the behest of small but vocal anti-wind farm lobby when there is no scientific or medical justification for such onerus restrictions. The planning regulations has resulted in closing down new development and investment in wind farms in Victoria.

Moving away from coal to renewable energy will change the jobs mix in regional areas, but there could be a substantial number of jobs creating in building and maintaining renewable energy projects across regional Victoria to replace the decline of employment in mining and coal fired electricity generation in the La Trobe Valley.

But the Baillieu Government is not being pro-active in employment and training recently cutting $300 million from the TAFE budget which will have a major impact particularly in the regional delivery of TAFE training programs which are important for retraining in regional communities.

There are also important opportunities to transform our cities through long term building and infrastructure planning. Sustainable design is already being incorporated in new buildings such as the Royal Children's Hospital, the NMIT Green Skills Centre, the CH2 building and many other new and retro-fitted buildings.

NMIT Green Skills Centre at Epping Panorama

Transport is the second largest contributor to Victorian greenhouse gas emissions. Enormous savings could be made through upgrading and improving the efficiency of public transport in Melbourne and encouraging active transport modes such as walking and cycling. But here again the Baillieu Government is also failing through committing funding to the East West road tunnel to enhance the freeway system, while funding for public transport infrastructure remains stagnant. Cycling funding, which actually returns a five fold return on every dollar invested, has been cut to zero.

So what we see in the Climate Commission report are growing risks for the state, but also incredible opportunities to address these risks. Unfortunately the Government led by Premier Ted Baillieu is more fixated on expanding the mining of Victoria's massive brown coal reserves, and pandering to vocal sectional interests, policies directly antagonistic to tackling climate change mitigation. While the public want the Baillieu Government to act on climate mitigation.

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