Climate Change News

A decade ago climate experts were deeply worried - now they are terrified

South Australia is leading not only the nation but the world in many ways as we address climate change. Having lived here for seven years, I know that things aren’t easy, nothing is easy when we start undertaking these great transitions. But from the outside, South Australia looks like it has been going at light speed towards a future that we all want to get to.
When I came here in 1999 there wasn’t a single windfarm. Today, on many occasions wind is producing 50% of the state’s electricity and is a major export, and that is really only the beginning.

World’s largest lithium battery
You have also put in the world’s largest, grid-connected, lithium ion battery. SA is about to lead the charge into the hydrogen economy. Plans were announced today for a hydrogen superhub at Crystal Brook, and you already have plans afoot to build a 15-megawatt hydrogen plant
at Port Lincoln, which will be providing … my guess would be 10% to 20% of Australia’s nitrogenous fertilisers, from the wind, from the sun. How incredible is that?
Today we make nitrogenous fertilisers through using fossil fuels. As the hydrogen economy builds a head of steam, you will be contributing disproportionately to storage, to transport and the decarbonisation of transport, and to gas substitution.
If the rest of the world was doing what SA is doing, we would have the biggest part of the climate problem on the way towards being solved, but the problem we have is that the world is way, way behind.
Just how far behind we are is shown by the raw figures that dictate the extent of climate change. On 4 March, 2018, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were just the tiniest shade below 410 parts per million.
CO2 concentration is rising at an unprecedented rate,
a rate at which the warming that has been driven by that CO2 is increasing about 100 times faster than any other period recorded in geological history. We are facing the beginnings of what will become very severe problems
in coming decades unless we pull out all stops now.
Despite the signing of the Paris Agreement, we haven’t done as much globally as we should. For three years, between 2014 and 2016, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from human sources had stabilised,
but 2017 saw an increase of 3.5%, partly because America was dead in the water, not decreasing as it had been up to that point, and partly because there was a very dry year in China which minimised hydroelectricity, along with a very strong economic stimulus package that increased Chinese emissions by 3.5%. As all of this is happening, we are entering what I would call the acute stage of the climate problem. Up until now we have seen climate impacts, some of them have been spectacular, but we haven’t seen mass systemic change yet of the scale which is almost certainly to come. And how can I say that it is almost certainly going to come? It’s because the greenhouse gases that will drive that change are already in the atmosphere.
We have already put them in, they will be accumulating heat close to the earth’s surface for several decades to come, and what that means is that the 2020s will be worse than the teens, the 2030s will be worse than the 2020s. Maybe by the 2040s if we really start pulling a finger out now we can start improving things. But we will face two decades of change now, even if we do our utmost. We’ve just missed the chance to get in early and solve the problem.
By 2030 we will have passed through this acute phase
and we will be in a phase, if we do nothing, which will be a future where it will be very hard to alter the outcomes. If we leave it another decade, the greenhouse gas burden will have built up so much that, no matter what we do, it is going to be very difficult to reduce the impacts.
As it is now, in this acute phase of the problem, we not only have to cut emissions as hard and fast as we can from all human sources, but we also have to build carbon negative technologies that will get gas out of the air in
an attempt to minimise the future impacts. As it is now, there’s a moderately good chance that even if we never omitted another kilogram of CO2 we would still reach 1.5 degrees of warming. By 2030 that’s going to be an inevitability, and probably 2 degrees of warming will be an inevitability. So that is a scenario that we’ve got to act now in order to avoid.
When you look at the cost of runaway climate change you can see how severe they will be. A fair case can be mounted now that the Barrier Reef has suffered terminal or near terminal damage. We’ve had back-to-back bleaching events in the last several years. There was never a bleaching event recorded before 1976. It takes coral a decade or more to recover.
So as these bleaching events get more frequent, closer together, the coral has less time to recover and the reef will slowly vanish. So what happens if the reef is mostly dead in a decade or so from now?
We lose all that biodiversity, we lose our tourism, we’ll lose our fisheries, and we will have increasing damage on the Queensland coast because the great barrier that always protected that coast from storm events will be gone.
So the costs will simply escalate.
If we look to the planet’s north in the Arctic we can see the melting of those icecaps. You probably read in March that temperatures at the North Pole in the dead of winter were above freezing, and stayed above freezing for a number of days in what climate scientists said was an unprecedented event. It’s hard to see Arctic ecosystems surviving if we continue on our present trajectory. There’s a lot at stake but there is a lot that can be done.
Carbon negative solutions – Seaweed
One of the largest opportunities for carbon negative technology that South Australia is uniquely positioned to take up concerns seaweed.
Seaweed grows 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants. It likes cold, nutrient-rich water and a lot of seaweed is sequestered in the deep ocean, so the carbon in that seaweed gets into the deep ocean and that carbon doesn’t resurface over timescales that are meaningful … 
in terms of climate change.
So if we can grow seaweed in areas where we can get some of the crop into the deep ocean, we are on a winner. We can sequester lots and lots of CO2. South Australia not only has the cold water to grow seaweed, it has a marine typography that is uniquely suited to sequestration.
Most of the seaweed that gets into the deep oceans seems to get there through submarine canyons.
There are about 660 submarine canyons identified around the planet, and one of the largest and deepest is right here off Kangaroo Island, a 4km deep submarine canyon, that is like a super highway for taking seaweed, if you want, into the deep ocean and out of the system, along with all of the carbon that’s in that seaweed. Can you imagine a marine permaculture system operating off Kangaroo Island, which is producing not only seaweed but high-quality marine protein for export to Asia, which is utilising some of that seaweed crop while some of it is being sequestered in the deep ocean.
In the US over the last budget cycle, which was President Trump’s first budget, I hate to say but I must say, two very important tax credits were given for the sequestration of carbon. One was a $50-a-tonne tax credit for the geological sequestration of carbon. That could mean the disposal of seaweed into the deep ocean because it’s on a geological timescale in terms of storage. The other was a $35-a-tonne tax credit for the profitable use of sequestered carbon.
And again, that marine permaculture is front and centre for those sort of tax credits. They are the sort of incentives we need at the state government or federal government level to start building new industries that will not only help feed the world but will help sequester carbon at the gigaton scale eventually.
SA has led the way for the rest of Australia and much of the world, and yet the opportunities are there to do much more. What we do now and over the next four years will have a disproportionate impact.
Tim Flannery
Chief Councillor – Climate Council
Honorary Professorial Fellow – Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute
The University of Melbourne

Edited Transcript printed courtesy The Science Show, ABC Radio National, Saturday 5th May 2018

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Prof. Tim Flannery is an Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, Australia’s leading conservationist, explorer, and global warming activist.

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