Confessions of a Tree Hugger

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Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

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Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

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Rising sea levels and apocalyptic fiction

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Photo of Kulusuk, Greenland by Nick Russill, flickr/cc https://www.flickr.com/photos/nickrussill/146760303/

I’d always thought my song about the mountain dwellers ending up on waterfront row because of rising sea levels was not to be taken too seriously. It was an apocalyptic view of what might happen if it didn’t stop raining and, moreover, not a terribly original idea as it turned out. But the risk of flash flooding from above-average rainfall is only half the problem for people living down there, at sea level.

A loyal reader, visiting the coast from cooler climes down south was discussing his theories about rising sea levels and coastal tourist locations like Noosa, given news of the Arctic region’s third winter heat wave in a row. His attention had been drawn to Greenland, where temperatures have remained above freezing at a time of year when it should be at least 30 below. Clearly such weather extremes in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic region must accelerate the process of rising sea levels?

As The Independent reports, this is happening even though large parts of the Arctic Circle are trapped in perpetual darkness.

New global projections forecast a sea level rise of 2m by 2100, compared to a 0.74m rise in a 2013 study. So far, the forecasts that oceans would rise on average by 3mm a year has provoked a scornful debate between believers and climate sceptics. Yes, the science is not wholly believed. There are people in high places who have made naïve and disturbing statement such as “coal is good for humanity”, at a time when most scientists agree that CO2 emissions, produced largely from human activity, must be reduced.

The spectre of melting polar ice bringing an apocalyptic end to civilisation as we know it has been a favourite theme of science fiction writers for a long time. Now there is even a fiction sub-genre known as ‘cli-fi’ which has spawned many cataclysmic climate scenarios.

The spookiest forecast, before cli-fi was a thing, was The Drowned World, J.G Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962. Ballard’s main character is a scientist in charge of a floating research station, drifting above a submerged London, beset on all sides by encroaching tropical jungle. A 50th anniversary edition (with an introduction by Martin Amis) has been released and it is available as an ebook. I’ve not read it, though, relying on Peter Briggs’ review for the synopsis.

Ballard eerily conjured up a world where polar ice caps have melted and solar storms have left us in an irradiated world. Europe is a series of lagoons, devoid of human life, although the tropical bugs love it!

The most recent book in the cli-fi genre which I have read is The Ice by Laline Paull. Her 2017 mystery novel begins with wealthy tourists aboard the Vanir, traversing previously frozen Arctic oceans. The mission is to find a (now rare) polar bear, but instead they find the thawed body of an explorer who went missing years ago in mysterious circumstances.

Fiction aside, the alarming temperature rises in the frozen north have had a bizarre impact on Europe, the US and Canada in 2018, which at this time of year ought to be seeing the first thaws of spring. A day temperature of 1 degree celsius in Greenland might not seem too warm to us Aussies, but typically the days are often up to 30 degrees colder. And this is not confined to Greenland. The most northern US city (Utqiaguik, Alaska), has also been enjoying a balmy 1 degree celsius − again that’s 22 degrees above average.

Meanwhile,The Independent observed that a relatively high pressure system over Russia and the Nordic north and a relatively low pressure system across the UK resulted in freezing Artic air being drawn towards the UK and causing exceptionally cold weather there.

The chorus of Waterfront Row ponders: “Little did I think when I moved to the mountains, I’d end up on Waterfront Row, renting out my shed to all those who fled the torrents and the foment down below.”

Imagine my chagrin upon writing and recording this song to be told (by a country music fan), that the song was similar (in theme) to Graeme Connors’ A Beach House in the Blue Mountains. I had not heard of the song but googled it (as you do).

We’re not the only ones taking ‘cli-fi’ into the realms of songwriting. Sunshine Coast songwriter Noel Gardner made up this cheery tune about the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu. He takes the role of the climate sceptic to satirise the controversy about Tuvalu and rising sea levels.

Some years back, the tiny Pacific island nation was said to be so prone to inundation its citizens might have to become New Zealanders. As it happens, some 2,400 Tuvaluans have already moved to NZ or neighbouring islands, according to a not-for-profit group that monitors world poverty.

They may have moved too soon, if, as the article below says, Pacific atolls like Tuvalu actually grow and float, becoming impervious to rising tides.

Now, a study confirms what we’ve already known – atolls, and in particular Tuvalu are growing, and increasing land area, writes Anthony Briggs. “So much for climate alarmism”.

Nevertheless, the highest elevation on Tuvalu is 15 feet and it is perpetually exposed to rising sea levels, cyclones and tsunamis.

An article in The Conversation says previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have been conducted in areas where the rate of sea level rise is ‘average’ – 3mm to 5mm per year. A team of authors, led by The University of Queensland Senior Research Fellow Simon Albert unearthed outlying examples.

At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands, where sea level rises are in the order of 7mm-10mm a year, have been lost completely to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. A further six islands have been severely eroded. These islands range in size from one to five hectares and supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old.

Last year, new projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US revealed that global sea levels could rise by 2 metres by 2100 if emissions remain at their current levels. As the ABC reported, this is substantially higher than the 74cm increase proposed in a 2013 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Under these new projections, Sydney’s Circular Quay, Brisbane Airport, Melbourne’s Docklands and North Fremantle would be among locations at risk. So too Stradbroke Island, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, while in South Australia the seaside suburb of Glenelg would also be in trouble.

Scarier predictions have been made, with scientists taking into account the prospect of Antarctica melting, as well as the Arctic, doubling predictions of a 2m rise by 2100.

Should we care? By 2100, the youngest person I know will be 89, so maybe she will care. Her children and grandchildren definitely will.

And what does this mean for Australia, where the majority of the population live along narrow bands of coastal land on the east and west coasts?

You can scare yourself (or reassure yourself) by checking out this interactive website which allows you to see the predicted results of sea level rises wherever you happen to live.

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Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

renewable-energy
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.