Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

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Renewable energy – Mount Majura solar farm, ACT (image courtesy Climate Council)

Have you ever noticed, after giving your dog a bath, how it will head straight for the nearest patch of renewable energy? Ours has a favourite sunny spot next to the dining room table where he will happily bask, while our solar-powered camping lamp, calculator and torches are recharging on the window sill.

Free sunshine – what’s not to like? As it happens, we have been preparing our little caravan for a weekend music festival in the bush. The 160 watt portable solar panel slides snugly under the bed. At $159, this has proved to be a worthy investment for our outback and bush music weekend adventures. It means you can keep topping up the caravan’s battery (if the sun is shining) and go to bed early if it’s not.

We are not expecting rain. No-one is expecting rain.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed the winter just past was the hottest since records began in 1910. It was also the 9th driest winter on record. The average maximum temperature was almost 2 degrees above the long-term average.

Meanwhile, Texas is suffering unprecedented flooding courtesy of Hurricane Harvey, the reporting of which has somewhat overshadowed devastating monsoon flooding in South East Asia. So far, in the latter disaster area, 1,200 people have been killed and almost two million children were unable to get to school.

As we ironically say in the privacy of our own home – “Just as well there’s no such thing as climate change, then!”

Now all, some of, or only a small part of these extreme weather events could be ascribed to global warming/climate change, which, 97% of scientists agree, is mostly caused by human activity.

Despite this consensus on behalf of an apparently overwhelming majority of scientists, sceptics disagree. I happened to read that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to deliver a speech, “Daring to Doubt,” at an annual climate sceptics group meeting in London on October 9.

You might remember Tony Abbott – his reign as PM at one year and 361 days (cumulative terms), was longer than that of Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, but not by much.  Abbott the Climate Change Sceptic is infamous in some quarters as the man who canned the government-funded Climate Commission as part of a Budget cost-cutting exercise.

The Climate Commission bounced back as the privately-funded Climate Council. A new report by the Climate Council concludes that the individual States are going their own way, with mixed results.

South Australia is a clear leader in the renewable energy field, the stakes raised by the government’s decision to replace ageing coal-fired power stations with a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant.

FOMM foreshadowed this in 2014, when the SA government was trying to negotiate the future of the coal mine which fed its Port Augusta power stations. Now, after five years of lobbying and debate, the SA government is aiming to invest $650 million in renewable energy.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that 1,900 kilometres away, the Queensland Government, in a contrarian move, remains committed to the country’s largest Greenfield export coal mine. The Carmichael mine, which includes a dedicated railway line to take coal north to Abbott Point, is deeply unpopular among environmental groups because of the potential damage it could cause to the Great Barrier Reef, both by the number of ships traversing the narrow channels, and through coral bleaching as a result of human-induced temperature increases.

On the other hand, Queenslanders’ love affair with domestic solar panels is demonstrated by the fact that  32% of households are covered in 2017. Lobby group Solar Citizens (almost 100,000 members), welcomed last week’s decision by the Queensland Government to increase the regional feed-in tariff (FiT) program. This will allow solar systems up to 30kW to receive 10.1c per kWh – six times more than what was previously agreed.

Solar Citizens has an ambitious target of one million solar roofs by 2020.

“Queenslanders know a sensible idea when they see it – with 520,000 solar homes, our State has the highest rooftop solar uptake in the country,” a spokeswoman said.

However, critics of domestic solar energy say the flaw is that those who can afford to become self-sufficient do so, and those who cannot end up paying disproportionately more for energy.)

This week, the Climate Council presented its annual ‘state of the States’ renewable energy report. CEO Amanda McKenzie said the State survey showed a major step up from last year. All States and Territories (apart from WA), have strong renewable energy or net zero emissions targets. South Australia is building the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility, and over 30 large scale wind and solar projects are under construction across Australia in 2017.

“The good news is that many States are surging ahead and doing the heavy lifting for the (Federal) government.”

Last week, the Victorian government flagged new legislation which would increase its renewable energy target to 40% by 2025. There is also an intermediate plan to lift Victoria’s clean energy target to 25% by 2020.

So yes, it does seem as if individual States (and Councils) are setting their own renewable energy policies, in the absence of clear leadership at a national level.

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington did not miss an opportunity to talk up his region’s commitment to solar panels. Noosa Shire, which de-merged from the larger Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC), claims 9,000 households in Noosa Shire have solar installations, which is better than the State average. Cr Wellington told the Sunshine Coast Daily Noosa’s goal was to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050.

Not to be overshadowed, the SCRC opened a 15 megawatt solar farm in July. The SCRC was the first local government in Australia to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with energy from a renewable source.

But what can humble citizens do, as pro-coal lobbyists clash swords with the solar and wind farm warriors? The go-it-alone mentality arises from a failure on the part of our Federal Government to stimulate investment in the renewable sector. Australia has already promised, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. But Tony Abbott’s call as PM to reduce the renewable energy target (and now he advocates scrapping it altogether), was unhelpful.

Whatever way you judge it, a former PM addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not a good look. The last Australian PM to do so was John Howard in 2013 (when he claimed global warming had stalled and was sceptical about the possibilities of an international agreement on climate change).

There have already been reports in the UK media which seized on old quotes by Mr Abbott referring to climate science as ‘bullshit’ and recycling his coal is ‘good for humanity’ comment. 

As readers will know, we spent a week out at Carnarvon Gorge in July, a time of year when it is common for the temperature to dip below zero at night. We packed accordingly, then spent four nights kicking off the doona and keeping each other awake as the mercury stayed above 15.

It should be cool at night for the Neurum Creek Folk Festival, but I packed my shortie pyjamas, just in case there is such a thing as climate change.

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The dangers of plastic waste

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Photo of plastic recycling plant fire in Birmingham (2013) courtesy of West Midlands Fire Service Photographic 2017

I wish someone had told me about Plastic Free July before August arrived. But hell, it’s never too late to start learning new tricks, eh!

In case you missed it too, this is a global initiative started in Western Australia. From its humble beginnings in 2011 with 40 people in Perth, Plastic Free July has now spread across the country and around the world. In 2016, 100,000+ Western Australians and more than 1 million people worldwide took part.

Every bit of plastic ever made still exists and in the first 10 years of this century the world economy produced more plastic than the entire 1900’s.”

The initiative aims to educate people to cut down on their consumption of single-use plastic. The main thrust is to get people to stop using disposable shopping bags. Australians already have an incentive, in that there is already a ban in Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

About a third of the plastic consumed in Australia ends up at recycling plants to be ‘down-cycled’ into other products. Plastic, as we know, lasts forever, unless of course it catches fire, in which case it burns as fiercely as oil or natural gas. Fire is an ever-present risk at waste and recycling plants because of the highly combustible nature of the stored materials.

In mid-July, a major fire broke out amid stockpiles of paper and plastic at the Coolaroo Recycling plant north of Melbourne. The political fall-out from this fire spread further than the smoke plume, sparking a class action threat and a move by the Victorian government to audit all recycling plants in the state.

Victoria (and other States) would probably want to avoid something like the UK’s record of fires at waste and recycling plants (300 per year), including the one depicted (above) at a recycling plant in Birmingham. 

Meanwhile back home…

No-one knows for sure how many recycling plants there are in Australia because many are private companies licensed by their respective Councils. However, Deakin University environmental science lecturer Trevor Thornton, writing in The Conversation, quoted 2013 figures from the Department of Environment and Energy which estimate there are 114 waste recycling plants in Australia.

Thornton says the industry needs a national registry, updated annually. Governments need to provide tax breaks so plant operators can upgrade their equipment and also provide manufacturers with an incentive to use recyclable material in their products.

“At the same time, we should consider penalising businesses which use non-recyclable packaging when alternatives exist,” Thornton said. He cited retailers who sell goods in multi-material packaging like polystyrene and plastic without providing an alternative.

I was musing about all of this and more after realising I need to break a habit of asking for bags at the supermarket. I’ve been kidding myself that they are being re-used at home as rubbish bags. Just because a plastic bag gets used twice or even three times doesn’t make it any better for the environment.

Major supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths have already made a commitment to phase out single-use bags within a year. Woolies has revealed it uses three billion bags a year. Coles has not released data but it is probably of a similar scale.

Plasticfreejuly.org says six out of 10 Australians are already refusing single-use bags and using a variety of alternatives, all of which involve bringing your own container when you go shopping. But it’s not just a shopping problem – cling wrap, plastic water bottles, drinking straws, plastic takeaway containers and plastic cutlery are all potential sources of pollution. But as we’ll read later, it’s not as simple as chucking everything into the yellow bin.

​The Waste Authority of WA says Australians use one million tonnes of plastic a year (most of it packaging) and 320,000 tonnes of it goes to landfill. But even the refuse, reuse, recycle mantra won’t be enough to hold back the tide of plastic garbage which is engulfing oceans.

Some plastic ends up in waterways and the ocean – where scientists predict there will be more tonnes of plastic than tonnes of fish by 2050.

​The Plastic Oceans Foundation says the world is producing nearly 300 million tons every year, half of which is for single use. More than eight million tons is dumped into our oceans.

As for the oceans becoming a massive plastic rubbish dump, how in hell does plastic end up there? Some of it is microbeads from the manufacturing and recycling process which finds its way to the ocean via drains and runoff. Containers carrying plastic product to foreign ports fall off ships. The best-known example is the container full of thousands of yellow toy ducks lost at sea in 1992. You can read more about this phenomenon and how ocean currents play their part by browsing this educational website created by clever people at the University of NSW.

Data from plasticoceans.org underlines the impact of this pollution on the planet (plastic manufacturing uses 6% of the world’s fossil fuels). Every year 500 million bottles and one trillion bags are discarded as waste (not to mention 24.7 billion disposable nappies). On the scale of things, it’s good that a third of this waste is recycled.

While Australia seems on track to phase out single-use  bags, we need to do something about our addiction to bottled water. A Choice Magazine story in 2014 highlighted the fiscal folly of choosing bottled water over tap water. If you drink two litres a day from the tap, you’ll pay about $1.50 a year, Choice said. Drink the same amount from single-serve bottles you could be looking at more than $2,800 a year.

The Australasian Bottle Water Institute says ours is a $500 million a year industry selling the equivalent of 600 megalitres (600,000,000 litres) of water a year, 60% of which is sold in single-serve bottles.

If we do use plastic, then we should at least know how to sort the different types of waste for recycling. The ABC’s Amanda Hoh, following up on the ABC’s popular War on Waste TV show, interviewed Brad Gray of Planet Ark for some tips.

Gray says the most common mistake is that people throw soft plastics such as bags, food packaging or “scrunchable” plastic in with containers. These soft plastics get caught in the conveyer belt and the whole recycling system has to be stopped so they can be removed.

“All “scrunchable” plastic including shopping bags, plastic food packaging, fruit netting and dry cleaning bags can be recycled, although most often not via your home recycle bin,” says Gray.

“The best method is to bundle all your plastic bags into one bag and take it to a REDcycle bin located in most metro and large regional supermarkets. These plastics are then recycled into plastic school furniture.”

So now I have finished this week’s FOMM, it’s hi-ho to the supermarket and co-op, sturdy hemp shopping bags in hand. Well, that’s the goal.

 

Carnarvon open for business

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Carnarvon Gorge – The Ampitheatre by Bob Wilson

It doesn’t seem too widely known that the once-notorious black soil road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon Gorge is now completely sealed. True, there is an unsealed section between Takarakka Resort and the National Park headquarters, but it’s a few hundred metres at best.

In the 1970s, a hired car full of adventurous Kiwis set off for Carnarvon, 720kms west of Brisbane, having heard it was a must-do wilderness experience in Queensland.

“Mind you, it’s four-wheel drive country only,” we were warned. Even with a four-wheel drive vehicle, after heavy rain, the black soil roads to Carnarvon from Injune or Rolleston could become impassable. You either couldn’t get in or couldn’t get out. We naïve Kiwis of course hired a conventional six-cylinder sedan and went close to running out of fuel as the car made slow and slippery progress. We turned back and kind people we met in the pub at Injune offered space in their homes for our tired bodies.

In 2017, the 40 kms of new sealed road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon completed in June, makes it a dream run. Even last year, when the road between the turnoff and Takarakka Resort was still unsealed, Carnarvon Gorge attracted 65,000 visitors.

The gorge is a spectacular sight after driving across the seemingly endless central Queensland plains. It’s a scenic drive in from the A7 Carnarvon Highway between Rolleston (100 km to the north) and Injune (150km to the south). The only tip for the novice in 2017 is to make sure you have plenty of fuel and to realise that you might need to forego Facebook for a few days.

There was a long period when the remoteness of Carnarvon Gorge and the spirituality of a place held sacred by local Aborigines was the key attraction for hikers keen to soak up the solitude and silence. Friends who recently stayed at Carnarvon Gorge during school holidays were disenchanted with the numbers of people staying there. They have a four-wheel drive vehicle so also visited Mt Moffat, which they said was less spectacular but comparatively devoid of people.

After spending four nights at the gorge (during school holidays), I’m wondering what sort of growth pressures the park will face in coming years. But I’m thinking that Carnarvon Gorge visitor numbers will stay fairly constant. Unless you like a 10-hour driving day, you’ll have to stay overnight at least once between Brisbane and your destination.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 management plan for Carnarvon noted there were 27 separate tourism operators allowed to do business within the national park. These include coach and helicopter tour operators but no flying in the park itself – drones, as the sign at the headquarters said, are not allowed either. Accommodation and camping ranges from a camp site at the National Park headquarters (36 sites), which, for some reason, is only available in school holidays. At Takarakka Resort, 4 kms outside the park, one can choose between pitching a tent, hooking a caravan up to power and water or staying in one of the powered safari cottages (canvas roof and walls and timber floors). Alternatively, there’s the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Resort just down the road where you can enjoy most of the comforts of home.

Unlike some travel articles, which carry coy disclaimers that (writer) was a guest of (airline-travel agency-resort), this blog pays its own way. She Who Organises Things paid in advance for the four nights (powered caravan site at $46 a night). We also signed up for the Sunday night roast dinner ($25 per person).

If I found anything at all less than satisfactory it was the cleaners with leaf blowers.

That minor irritation was offset by the free outdoor movie night (The Castle), which is cornier than I remember but somehow very dinky-di.

Carnarvon Gorge is rugged and remote, and even with its well-marked tracks and the support of local rangers, it would not be hard to get into a spot of bother. One has to rock-hop over the six creek crossings and there are ladders and vertical steps involved with other walks. We walked about 12 kms on our first day and ran out of water by the end of the trip. So you evidently have to carry at least one and probably two litres per person. A reasonable level of fitness is required.

If you are a serious bush-walker with a four-wheel drive vehicle you could spend some weeks exploring this 164,000ha national park and the unsealed roads into nearby Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi national parks.

Carnarvon Gorge was surrounded by pastoral properties, parts of which have since been incorporated into the national park.

In the mid-1880s, white explorers Thomas Mitchell and Ludwig Leichhardt made the public aware of the area’s permanent water. This led to settlers taking up blocks in Central Queensland and sparked off two decades of open aggression between local indigenous groups and the newcomers.

Libby Smith’s historical account of European settlers living on Carnarvon Station (now owned by Bush Heritage), chronicles the hardships suffered by successive owners of the 59,051ha station north-west of Carnarvon Gorge.

They had to battle droughts, floods, bushfires and invasive pests like prickly pear and feral animals. Above all was the remoteness of the property, which sits between Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi.

Even in 2001, the resident managers described Carnarvon Station as more remote than their last posting in Kakadu. Co-manager Steve Heggie said the biggest challenge was the inability to enter or exit the property after the rains. A trip to town involved four hours of hard driving ‘before you even hit the blacktop’.

“We had to plan for adequate supplies of food, fuel and work stores, medical emergencies and for volunteers stranded after rain.”

Smith writes that Carnarvon National Park was extended in the 1960s and 1970s to include pastoral holdings which had been surrendered. They include Salvatore Rosa National Park (1957) and Ka Ka Mundi (1973). The park was also extended west in the 1980s and 1990s. Smith notes there was initially fierce opposition to proposals to expand national parks into pastoral leases.

“There was a fear of any change in land use and ‘locking up country.’

Smith’s story deals only with pastoral history, but considering that Aboriginal history in Carnarvon long preceded European settlement, the reaction by pastoralists to the conservation ‘threat’ is quite ironic.

In 2001, Bush Heritage purchased Carnarvon Station for conservation. It has since been found to contain 25 regional ecosystems, including seven that were endangered.

Feedback from last week

The Prickly Pear column, also inspired by this trip, engendered a lot of feedback. One reader wrote to say her grand-father had to walk off the land near Roma as a result of prickly pear infestation and became a land valuer instead. Some readers were keen to say the pear has been maligned and that many people grew up used to eating the fruit, which is tasty and nutritious. Another emailed to correct us, saying the river at Nindigully is the Moonie, not the Balonne.

Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville once again took issue with my claim that white settlers introduced cats. A topic for another Friday, perhaps.

Ah well, Queensland still won!

Further reading:

 

 

 

Prickly Pear makes a comeback

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Photo of Prickly Pear near Roma by Bob Wilson

You don’t have to travel far inland in Queensland to see that Prickly Pear, the invasive scourge of farmland in the early 1900s, is making a comeback. ‘The Pear’ as it is sometimes known by farmers, has started to re-appear, growing and spreading after the floods of 2011 and 2012.

The Opuntia species (a member of the Cactaceae family) was introduced to Australia (by white settlers) in the late 1880s to form hedges and provide fodder for times of drought.

Prickly Pear, a cactus plant from the Americas, thrived in the Australian outback. The combination of cacti and rabbits, another introduced species, took a heavy toll on Australian farmland at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Prickly Pear was a major problem. After some years of experimentation, authorities introduced a biological control in the form of the Latin American Cactoblastis Moth. The moth lays eggs on the prickly pear and its larvae eat the cactus. This was hailed as one of the world’s most successful examples of biological control (the moth eggs were distributed manually). Within six years all varieties of the prickly pear cactus had disappeared.

Not so circa 2017, with varieties of Prickly Pear re-emerging along roadsides and in paddocks around western Queensland and the southern Downs. When we travel I notice things like this and habitually make notes (usually when I’m a passenger).

In some areas (Goondwindi to Inglewood is particularly bad); the cactus has spread into farmland back from the road. Some plants look unwell, though whether through poisoning or biological controls we don’t know.

At this point it should be noted that the variety known as Tree Pear (photos) has some resistance to Cactoblastis, though it can succumb to a cochineal insect. The Southern Downs Regional Council recommends the application of herbicides.

In the interests of moistening a dry subject, let me digress and mention two folk bands that enshrined the Prickly Pear legend into folklore.

Toowoomba musicians John and Sandy Whybird formed Cactoblastis Bush Band when John, then a high school teacher at Chinchilla, saw what Prickly Pear could do to the land. He taught students about the pest and the late 1920s solution to the invasive species.

The band, which recently recorded a CD, performed at the Chinchilla Museum last September to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of Cactoblastis to the area.

A Brisbane folk duo (Jan Davis and the late Tony Miles), adopted the clever stage name Prickly Pair. They played together for eight years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My research led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines Prickly Pair as slang for the stubble growing back on a man’s testicles after shaving (for an operation or whatever).

Anyway, the Common Pest Pear is back and local farmers ought to know that notification of infestation is required under the Biosecurity Act 2014. No-one expects a problem of the scale which caused farmers to walk off their land after ‘The Pear’ and rabbits finished off what floods and drought had missed. There’s a plaque alongside the Moonie River at Nindigully that commemorates the success of the Cactoblastis moth, when the use of poisons and cochineal insects proved to be ineffective.

Early settlers, in their wisdom, decided to set up a cochineal industry to provide dye for clothing. The cochineal is a scale insect from which the natural dye is extracted. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti then brushed off and dried.

The Pear is commonly spread by birds and animals eating the fruit and excreting seeds. However, the new spread of Prickly Pear has been accelerated by floods moving broken cacti pads from one location to another.

The State Government’s Business Queensland website describes the Pear as “vigorous in hot, dry conditions, causing other plants to lose vigour or die. It competes and invades pastures and impedes stock movement and mustering.”

Authorities took the rampaging cacti seriously and began investigating biological control agents in 1912. More than 150 insect species were studied, with 18 insects and one mite released in Queensland.

Today, eight insects, including Cactoblastis cactorum remain established in Queensland. An article by Leonie Seabrook and Clive McAlpine in the Queensland Historical Atlas describes Prickly Pear in Queensland as a generic term for five different Opuntia cacti.  Three are low-growing shrubs up to 1.5 metres high and two are tree pears, growing up to three metres. The article observes that at the height of the infestation in 1925, prickly pear had spread across 24 million hectares in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the (imported) Cactoblastis Moth was hailed as a biological saviour, early settlers must shoulder the blame for importing invasive species and pests into Australia. Apart from prickly pear and many other weed species, settlers also introduced cane toads, rabbits and feral goats, pigs, cats, brumbies, foxes and camels.

Prickly Pear observations aside, we had four lovely days hiking in Carnarvon Gorge where the weather was balmy. It did rain on the last day but I went for a walk anyway. It’s only rain, as they say in NZ.

As you’ll have gathered, we just spent 10 days towing our little caravan out to Carnarvon Gorge via Rolleston and back via Injune, Roma, St George, Nindigully, Goondiwindi and Warwick. Today we headed home, via Toowoomba and Esk.

Other on-road observations included a lot of road kill, a feral cat, a lone kangaroo out in the middle of the day, a couple of pelicans in a dam, two emus foraging in the long grass, an abandoned car that had been pillaged for parts and a bloke on a recumbent bicycle (the rider lying down and pedalling in a reclining position). We saw two vans smaller than our 12-footer and a massive RV being towed by a 4×4 (with a small car being towed behind that).

We had the usual (and unusual) mishaps common to most caravan expeditions. Like trying to move the car when it was still shackled to the caravan by metal chains (good one, Bob). I bought one of those stainless steel coffee percolators you brew on the stove. First cup I poured tasted a little soapy. As I sipped further down the cup it transpired someone had left a spoonful of congealed dishwashing liquid in the bottom of the cup. (Guess who usually does the dishes? Ed.)

A highlight of the trip was the free camp at Nindigully, where about 50 caravanners were camped beside the Moonie River. A goodly number of them gathered in the pub to watch the State of Origin decider. Many people left at half-time (we assume they were NSW supporters or maybe they were just cold). The ones who remained were in good spirits, taking their crushing defeat like good sports. As we headed back to the van in the dark we heard a chorus of cheering and the war cry ‘Queenslander!’ from the pub.

How do you reckon NSW will go next year?” I asked She Who Spilt A Pot of Pepper In the Van But Didn’t Want It Mentioned.

“I reckon they’re cactus,” she said, chortling quietly under her maroon beanie.

Online subscribers might have noticed we did not file a FOMM last week. That’s because we were out bush and offline. I did post a 2014 column to email subscribers. You can read it here:

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/approval/v2?auto=false&response=code%3D4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s&approvalCode=4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s