Thursday, April 27, 2006

An Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act primer: Part 2

Yesterday, I looked at the limited scope of the Act and why it is inappropriate for dealing with cumulative impacts, in the context of the Australian Environment Minister's decision to refuse consent to a windfarm which could harm the endangered orange-bellied parrot. Today I look at how imposing conditions under the EPBC Act allows for win-win outcomes and some lessons for us from this situation.

Win-wins are commonplace under the Act

The media reports on this issue seem to have assumed or implied that the Minister had only two choices: to approve the windfarm or to reject it. Harry Clarke has pointed out that there was a straightforward win-win solution here: the parrots can be successfully bred and returned to the wild, so the windfarm could be allowed with the condition that it pay for a breeding and release program that returned a few parrots each year to the wild population.

Similarly, Chris Tzaros, who co-ordinates the Orange-bellied Parrot Project said he was surprised by the Government's decision, saying he thought Bald Hills could have been safely approved with a conservation management plan.

As I understand it, either solution was well within the Minister’s power, which makes you wonder whether the decision was more political than environmental. The Minister can approve project with all sorts of conditions.

The Age reported that the Minister's decision was only the fourth time an environment minister has invoked the EPBC Act to veto a proposed development, out of 2745 developments referred to the Government since it came into force six years ago. I spoke to one of the main EPBC Act decision-makers in the federal Department of Environment and Heritage last year about the success of the Act and this statistic. He made the point that many hundreds of projects had been modified substantially by conditions imposed by the Minister which made a huge difference to their environmental impacts. In his view, this was the real power and success of the Act.

He also commented that projects were never refused outright unless they were so inherently destructive that no conditions could be applied that would moderate their impact. In most of those cases, the projects were illegal under State law anyway and had been submitted only to make some kind of political point. This sounds very different to the situation with the Bald Hills windfarm project.

It's unclear why sensible conditions were not considered by the Minister in this case.

Some conclusions

Whether the Minister’s decision was politically-driven or not, it was certainly a bad one for the environment and in terms of social costs and benefits: it will likely save one bird every 109 years while sacrificing an otherwise viable development. And, in my opinion it represents appalling administration of the Act:

  • It uses the Act inappropriately to address a cumulative impacts problem by prohibiting a development which will have a truly trivial affect on the problem;
  • It does not consider imposing conditions which could actually have done something positive for the orange-bellied parrot while allowing an important renewable energy development to proceed.

There are reports that a legal challenge to the Minister’s decision is being considered. I would have thought such a challenge would have some legs. I think there’s questions about whether a windfarm that could kill on average one parrot every 109 years is a ‘significant impact’, as is required under the Act. I think there’s also an argument that the Minister’s consideration of the ‘cumulative impact’ of other sites, rather than just looking at the marginal impact of this development means that he has taken irrelevant factors into consideration, which would invalidate his decision. (I should point out that that’s not an argument that would be very popular with green groups, who have been pushing consideration of ‘cumulative impacts’ under the EPBC Act).

One last thing

Getting away from our discussion of the Act a little, but it would be remiss of me not to point out some pretty naughty out-of-context quoting by the Minister. In his media release he quotes this half of a paragraph from the report Wind farm collision risk for birds – Cumulative risks for threatened and migratory species (pdf) as being the reason for his decision and he even puts it all in bold:

Given that the Orange-bellied Parrot is predicted to have an extremely high probability of extinction in its current situation, almost any negative impact on the species could be sufficient to tip the balance against its continued existence. In this context it may be argued that any avoidable deleterious effect - even the very minor predicted impacts of turbine collisions - should be prevented.

He fails to quote the very next sentence though, which puts rather a different complexion on it. Let’s read the sentence now in its original context:

In this context it may be argued that any avoidable deleterious effect - even the very minor predicted impacts of turbine collisions - should be prevented. Our analyses suggest that such action will have extremely limited beneficial value to conservation of the parrot without addressing very much greater adverse effects that are currently operating against it.

Hmm. I guess saying "I have today made this decision which I’m advised will have extremely limited beneficial value" probably doesn’t sound quite as good in a press release, does it?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act primer: Part 1

(OK, not the catchiest title, I’ll admit).

The recent debate over the decision by the Australian Environment Minister to refuse consent to a wind farm because of its possible impacts on the endangered orange-bellied parrot has prompted me to say a few things about Australia’s primary piece of environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

In case you missed the story, orange-bellied parrots are highly endangered, with less than 200 left in the wild. They migrate between Tasmania and Victoria each year. The proposed wind turbines, on the Victorian coast, are in the vicinity of the parrot’s migration zone. Though no birds have ever been sighted near the site there is, according to reports provided to the Environment Minister, a possibility that windfarm turbines in coastal Victoria might kill one bird every year. With the population so endangered, the Minister made the decision not to allow an additional windfarm to go ahead.

The best summary of the political context for the decision – which is important if you want to understand the decision – is this article in the Age. I recommend reading it.

I want to make some comments about the EPBC Act, because an understanding of the Act is also important if you want to understand what has happened here.


First, the scope of the Act is quite limited. Under the Australian Constitution, the States have general power over things such as the environment. The federal government has power over certain specified national issues, such as defence, trade and foreign affairs. Most of the federal government’s powers to affect the environment derive indirectly from the foreign affairs power: the federal government has entered into environmental treaties – such as the Convention on the Protection of Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention – and therefore must have the power to meet its obligations under those treaties. So its power over the environment is mostly limited to certain areas relating to its treaty obligations.

Under the EPBC Act, you need the Environment Minister’s approval for a project if it significantly affects a matter of "national environmental significance". These are:

  • World Heritage values of World Heritage properties;
  • wetlands of international importance;
  • Commonwealth listed threatened species and ecological communities;
  • listed migratory species;
  • Commonwealth marine areas;
  • nuclear actions; and
  • listed National and Commonwealth Heritage places.

It is worth pointing out that the federal government would normally have no power to prohibit a windfarm. It has that power in this instance because the windfarm may have a significant impact on a threatened species.

This is relevant because if the federal government wanted, politically, to gain some control over windfarm policy in Australia, it would have to do so in a roundabout way, such as prohibiting any windfarms that happen to get caught in its jurisdiction and then putting pressure on the States to negotiate with it on a national policy. That is what some people have suggested this decision is really about and it is interesting that the Environment Minister has recently called for a national code on wind energy.

Inappropriate for cumulative impacts

An interesting aspect of this decision is that the Environment Minister has refused the proposed 52-turbine windfarm at Bald Hills but has approved substantially larger projects nearby – including one that, according to the Age article (and presumably under the curious licensing scheme of the Act), he has expressly authorised to kill three of the parrots each year.

The Minister has claimed that it is precisely because he has approved these other projects that he can’t approve this one:

The orange-bellied parrot was at such dangerously low levels in terms of population that any additional wind farm in this particular area would have an impact on the survival of the species. The fact is we have had a massive increase in investment in wind farms: 400 turbines have been built in the past four years and there are 145 more in the pipeline. That has cumulatively a new impact on the environment which we have for the first time sought to assess.

Interestingly, and contrary to every media report that I’ve seen, the report on impacts did not say that the Bald Hills windfarm could kill up to one parrot per year, it said that, in total, all existing and proposed windfarms in Victoria and Tasmania could kill up to one parrot per year. The contribution of the Bald Hill windfarm itself to this number is trivial. (The Minister never claimed that the Bald Hills windfarm would kill one bird per year either – I know journalists don’t read reports but surely they could at least read the Minister’s one-page media release). Incidentally, if you look hard enough and do a simple calculation, the report cited by the Minister does contain the actual number of parrots estimated to be killed by the proposed Bald Hills windfarm: one every 109 years.*

This illustrates one of the major limitations of the Act: it is a project-by-project approval scheme. Project approval schemes are good at dealing with the particular local impacts of individual projects. What they are not good at is dealing with cumulative impacts: where each project has only a small additional impact but many projects will collectively have a major impact. And yet the EPBC Act is meant to deal not with local impacts but with matters of national significance. Green groups have been calling on the government to use the EPBC Act to prohibit or modify projects – such as coal-fired power stations – that have relatively large greenhouse gas emissions. In my opinion, the EPBC Act is ineffective for this: you need national policies that cover energy, transport, etc, not tinkering with projects one by one.

(Economic instruments are perfect for addressing cumulative impacts: this is one of their major advantages).

Tomorrow I'll talk about how imposing conditions under the EPBC Act allows for win-win outcomes and some lessons for us from this debacle. I'll also point out how the Minister selectively quoted from the Report he relied on to imply that the Report said almost the opposite of what it actually said.

* Page 30 of the orange-bellied parrot chapter of the report (PDF here) sets out the most likely survivorship rate of the population at Bald Hills: 0.9999392. I have used the calculations set out on pages 32 and 33 to arrive at a figure of 0.00912 parrot mortalities per year, which equals one every 109.6 years.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Can we strip carbon directly from the atmosphere?

The Prometheus science policy blog has an interesting discussion on the economics of carbon dioxide "air capture". From a bit of reading around the topic (eg, this PDF), the idea seems to be that you build big carbon dioxide scrubbing towers near a site appropriate for geosequestration. You pump air through the towers and chemicals remove the carbon dioxide from it. The CO2 is then pumped away and stored underground. This is an extension of the geosequestration (carbon capture and storage) concept, but instead of capturing carbon dioxide as it's released from power stations, you capture it directly from the air. The advantage is that you don't have to compress the carbon dioxide and transport it from a power station to an appropriate geosequestration site.

Apparently the likely costs of this technology are in the range of US$200-$500 per tonne of CO2. This is a lot: the cost of replacing a coal power station with a wind or solar one are in the range of $50 - $100 per tonne of CO2 avoided (and coming down) and even this cost seems to be far too high to be politically palatable. (Let's also remember that renewables have other benefits such as reducing air pollution and reducing reliance on exhaustible forms of energy).

Have you heard of this technology? Do you have any thoughts? Is this sci fi kind of stuff?

My thoughts are that this kind of technology - mainly because of its price - has a very limited role to play. One possible role is that if it becomes clear that the damage of global warming is likely to exceed $500 / tonne and other methods haven't been effective or fast enough, then maybe - maybe - we can erect these towers to avoid a climate catastrophe. In that sense, this technology could represent a sort of last resort.

In the meantime, there's a whole lot of relatively low-cost solutions we can be implementing now.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

"The environment must be the centre of policy worldwide"

So says Gordon Brown, the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, in an editorial in the Independent today.

Brown says that the UK will be setting out international climate change proposals at the UN, G7, IMF and World Bank forums coming days:
So today at the UN in New York, Britain will call for the first global emissions trading scheme to cut carbon emissions. Tomorrow at the G7 meeting in Washington I will tell the world's richest countries that Britain will invest in a private- public institute for new research into alternative sources of energy and new environmental technologies - and ask other countries to join us in a lobal network researching into better uses of energy.

I think it's quite remarkable for a nation's leader on economic policy to be placing the environment squarely in the centre of economic policy:
For too long too many governments thought their objectives began and ended with economic prosperity and jobs. But I believe that the world needs a new paradigm that moves the environmental challenge to the centre of policy...

We can and should demonstrate that economic growth, social justice and evironmental care can and must advance together. For years no international consensus has been possible that recognises how our global duty of stewardship to the environment can be discharged while delivering economic and social progress.

But I believe that global economic goals and global environmental goals are converging and can reinforce each other and that the basis for a new global consensus which all countries should be challenged to join lies in new detailed and substantive policies.

Brown sets out four environmental / economic linkages:
First, higher energy prices will and must now encourage the development of new cleaner sources of energy...

Second, we can now demonstrate that scientific advance can bring forward new environmentally friendly technologies that can provide jobs as well as wealth for the future...

We can also show that new market-led mechanisms such as carbon trading can change the behaviour of companies and communities...

And we must demonstrate the benefit of public investment in the environment.

It will be interesting to see what the UK proposes over the next few days and whether this bold rhetoric is matched by some real action.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More dodgy analysis: moderate drinking might not be good for you

One of the aims of Oikos is to expose dodgy analysis on environmental and economic issues. Economic data is particularly susceptible to problems because it rarely comes from controlled experiments but rather from observing the real world, where all sorts of unexpected or unseen causes can confound the results.

If we want to see how strong environmental protection affects a country’s economy, for example, we need to work out what ‘strong environmental protection’ means and how to measure it (and ditto for a country’s economic performance). We could then compare a country’s environmental regulation over time with its economic performance over time. Or we could compare different country’s economic performances and level of environmental protection. The problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to isolate the real effect of environmental protection as there are an enormous range of things that can affect economic performance.

Let’s assume that we do a study and find that generally, the stronger the environmental regulations in a country, the stronger the country’s economic performance. It’s a big leap to go from this finding to the conclusion that strong environmental protection assists economic performance. It could be (and more likely is) that a strong economy gives us sufficient wealth to be able to direct more to protecting our environment.

The same problems exist in other social sciences and in population health research. The most effective research is to set up randomised trials – where participants are randomly assigned to a treatment group or a control / placebo group – this can give a very good measure of how effective the treatment is. Unfortunately, these trials are expensive and can take a long time. Sometimes they’re impossible (or extremely difficult) to perform.

Take, for example, the effect of alcohol on heart disease risk. It would be ideal to randomly assign participants to a heavy drinking group, a moderate drinking group or a non-drinking group, get them to follow that regime for a few years and then measure their levels of heart disease over the next decade or so. But that’s not feasible. For a start, no-one would agree to be in the non-drinking group. So instead, we need to observe people’s drinking behaviour over some years and their heart disease risks. We could get this data cheaply and fairly easily for example by surveying patients admitted to hospital with heart conditions and comparing that to a survey of drinking habits of the general population.

The problem is this: If we find a link between drinking patterns and heart disease, how do we know that it is the drinking habits that have caused the different rates of heart disease? It may be, for example, that the incidence of heart disease affects drinking habits (having a heart attack may prompt you to cut down on your alcohol intake) or it could be that some other factor causes both (perhaps having a stressful job or lifestyle encourages you to drink and increases your risk of heart disease).

This is exactly the problem that a recent study of alcohol and heart disease has uncovered. It’s become accepted wisdom over the last few years that moderate alcohol intake reduces your risk of heart disease. That’s not necessarily wrong, but this study suggests that many of the studies that this finding has been based on are flawed:

Researchers at UCSF pored through more than 30 years of studies that seem to show health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, and concluded in a report released today that nearly all contained a fundamental error that skewed the results…

The common error was to lump into the group of "abstainers" people who were once drinkers but had quit.

Many former drinkers are people who stopped consuming alcohol because of advancing age or poor health. Including them in the "abstainer" group made the entire category of non-drinkers seem less healthy in comparison.

Without the error, the analyses shows, the health outcomes for moderate drinkers and non-drinkers were about the same.

The first lesson for us I think is to read scientific and economic research with a critical eye. The second lesson (one which I am ignoring right now!) is to read primary sources and not just media reports of studies, if the results of those studies are important to us. I don’t think journalists ever read the studies they write about.

The third lesson is that drinking a good red is its own reward.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Everything is connected: wetlands and bird flu

I'm probably preaching to the converted here but here's another reminder that things are connected in ways we don't always understand and the environment isn't just something "out there" that we can ignore: environmental problems far away can have surprising impacts on us.

A United Nations (UN) report just released says restoring the world's wetlands may be critical to preventing outbreaks of avian flu, as their revival will keep migratory birds from mixing with domesticated fowl. It says the degradation of wetlands has forced wild birds, some carrying the deadly H5N1 strain, into alternative habitats. That increases the risk of the spread of the disease to poultry and, in turn, humans:

"The loss of wetlands around the globe is forcing many wild birds onto alternative sites like farm ponds and paddy fields, bringing them into direct contact with chickens, ducks, geese and other domesticated fowl," the report said.

The report, which has been presented at a two-day conference at the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP), notes that contact between migratory birds and their domesticated cousins is a major cause of the spread of avian flu.

That includes the H5N1 strain, which is potentially deadly to humans. "We know there is a very tight link between the conditions of ecosystems and the likelihood of threats to human health," David Rapport, a Canadian professor of ecosystem health and the lead author of the study, said.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Birds and windfarms

In Australia last week, the conservative federal government invoked a rarely-used power to block a proposed windfarm, citing the need to protect the orange-bellied parrot.

Windfarms are an interesting political issue, often pitting local environmental concerns against global environmental concerns, as this quote from the story indicates:
Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell has rejected a $220 million 52-turbine wind farm because of a perceived threat to the endangered orange-bellied parrot.

There are only 200 of the birds left in the wild and Senator Campbell has received a report that predicted one could be killed every year.

Mr La Fontaine [from the Wind Energy Association] says the Minister's view is too narrow. "The Minister is rightly concerned that the bird is to become extinct by 2050 but if we don't do anything about greenhouse challenge and how Australia addresses climate change the world is in danger of losing a quarter of all it species," he said.

Harry Clarke suggests that economics can provide a way out of the apparent impasse. That seems sensible to me, when the political alternative is that the potential death of one bird a year stops a $220 million renewable energy development.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Selling sustainability

Check out the advertisements above. They were commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation to sell sustainability:

It's not every day that advertising companies are approached for advice on reducing consumer product sales that cost the earth. For an industry that does a wonderful job at stimulating our desire for the latest consumer product, it was a whole new concept. Now you can judge whether the ad industry can also do the hard sell on sustainable living. The advertisers were asked to use their powers of innovation to design a billboard to promote the messages Live More, Spend Less and Living Light is the New Cool.
The other two were:
  • a picture of the earth as the meat in a hamburger, with the slogan Stop consuming our planet

  • a picture of a logged and burned patch of forest with the slogans Buy now pay later and We can't afford the cost of overconsumption

So which, if any, make you feel enthused about Living Light?

To my mind, only one even comes close: the barcode. The others are dismal.

Advertisers are experts at associating a product or cause with things that we want to have or who we want to be. They promise us luxury, contentment, popularity, tranquility, glamour, romance, fun - if we buy their product. I haven’t seen many ads that offer us only guilt. Why is the environment different?

Why are you interested in environmental issues? Because you’re passionate about nature? Because you’ve visited places that are beautiful and think we can make our backyard a little more beautiful too? Because you can envisage a world that’s healthier and fairer and feel good about trying to give the world a little bump in that direction? Or because you want to ease some of your guilt about existing and eating and breathing and buying nice clothes? I don’t know anyone who does it for the last reason.

Have you ever seen an ad for Diet Coke that says "Stop eating sugar you big fat slob"?. Hardly. They show slim active people having fun and imply that’s what we’ll be like if we drink Diet Coke. Manipulative? Maybe. Effective? Certainly.

I applaud ACF’s initiative and these advertisers for having a go. But quite frankly these ads don’t cut it. If we’re going to play the advertising game we need to play it right.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Roll up… for the Magical Mystery Tour

Western Australian transport blog On the Broad Gauge reports on recent innovations in Perth’s bus service: they don’t publish a timetable and they don’t travel any fixed route at night.

What do you think? Innovations and flexibility in public transport are a good thing and I think we will need more tailored solutions. I can certainly see both benefits and problems with these ideas. I suppose time will tell whether people see these as improving or diminishing the service they get.