Dispatches from the Frontline: Hope and Despair from Down Under

Climate Councillor Professor Will Steffen shares his thoughts on climate action in Australia – the lack of progress on the federal government front; but also the local leaders taking matters into their own hands and meeting the challenge head-on.

This article was originally published in Acclimatize Journal, an online project targeting climate change by Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

For more information about the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, check out our latest video and report.

I was walking down the streets of San Francisco in December 2015 with a NASA astronaut after a spectacular performance highlighting our accelerating scientific understanding of planet Earth, a performance liberally sprinkled with images of Earth from space. I asked the astronaut what he remembered most about Australia when viewing Earth from above. He answered immediately: the several thousand kilometre-long ribbon of coral reefs paralleling the northeast coast of the continent – the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). It was, he said, absolutely stunning in its size, colour and pattern.

At the same time, near the end of the warmest year on record since instrumental temperature records began in the 1800s, a massive pool of unusually hot water had made its way into the coral triangle bounded by Australia, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. The GBR had suffered sporadic bleaching events since the 1970s, but they had been localised and much of the bleached coral had recovered. But the reef wasn’t prepared for the early 2016 massive underwater heatwave.

The 2016 bleaching event was beyond anything that had occurred previously. Over 90% of the thousands of individual coral reefs that make up the GBR suffered some bleaching. The worst affected was a thousand-kilometre long northern strip of reefs, the most pristine section of the GBR and one that had been largely spared from previous bleaching events. This time it was dead-centre in the firing line.

Sea surface temperatures climbed to an astounding 33 degrees C in waters over the northern section of the GBR. Bleaching was extreme, with large stretches of reef converted to a ghostly white, now devoid of fish and other types of life. One marine scientist, as he flew over the stricken reefs, was overwhelmed with what he saw, describing it as “… the saddest day of my life”.

Initial estimates suggested that the mortality rate could be as high as 50% on average, an exceptionally high rate of death for coral bleaching. On some individual reefs, the final death toll is likely to exceed 90%. The toll includes not only the death of the coral itself, but also the death of many of the other creatures that depend on the coral for their existence. One scientist who snorkelled over a badly stricken reef reported that he could even smell the “strong stench of death” in the water as a large number of organisms perished from the bleaching.

The GBR is not alone. Australia experienced other climate change-fuelled disasters in 2016. A large area of pristine temperate rainforest in Tasmania, a forest that had never experienced fire before, was devastated by a huge bushfire driven by an extreme heatwave. Later in the year, a destructive storm from the Southern Ocean roared across the state of South Australia, knocking out the entire state electricity system.

But not all is doom and gloom down under. Despite a very disappointing lack of action on climate change by Australia’s national government, some Australians are taking things into their own hands and meeting the climate change challenge head-on.

The small jurisdiction of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), home of the city of Canberra, Australia’s national capital, has shown the way forward on climate change. Just a few years ago, a group of young people started a campaign called “Canberra Loves 40”, calling for a 40% reduction in Canberra’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. At first the campaign seemed unrealistically ambitious, especially when it translated into a staggering 90% reduction in emissions from the electricity generation sector in only seven or eight years.

But the campaign picked up support, and many of Canberra’s 400,000 citizens thought that reducing the city’s emissions was a very good idea. The ACT government agreed, although it was nervous about how, in a practical sense, the very ambitious target could actually be met in such a short time.

A series of citizens meetings were held across the city to discuss how the target could be met. The government suggested that “offsets” could be the way to go – paying for emissions reductions elsewhere in the world where it might be cheaper and quicker. Canberrans, much to their credit, would have none of this. They gave a very clear message to the government: if we’re going to go for this target, we’re going to meet it ourselves, not buy our way out of it. And the ACT government, much to its credit, took on the challenge.

The solution was a so-called reverse auction: the ACT government announced that it would purchase electricity for ACT residents only from renewable energy sources – that is, solar photovoltaic and wind. The government embarked on a “reverse auction” process. It announced that it would buy a certain amount of electricity from non-fossil fuel sources and opened the bidding to companies who were willing to supply that amount of electricity without emitting carbon dioxide.

The result of this process was impressive. Renewable energy companies lined up to supply non-carbon electricity and at lower prices than expected. Confidence grew. Further auctions were held. Canberra proved it could get its electricity from sources that didn’t emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and could achieve a 100% conversion to renewables by 2020. But at what cost? The result of the reverse auction resulted in long-term contracts for electricity for ACT residents that were not much different from the current costs – going 100% renewable resulted in an increase in electricity costs equivalent to one cup of coffee per family per week.

But the good news didn’t stop there. Wind energy companies who won contracts in the reverse auction processes located their headquarters in Canberra, boosting the local economy. Training programs for building and maintaining renewable energy systems were established in Canberra educational institutions. Canberra rapidly became known as a renewable energy powerhouse, positioning the city as a leader in 21st century energy technologies.

Now the city is extending its decarbonisation program rapidly. Battery storage technologies are being installed and smart grids are being established in some trial precincts. Canberra’s transport system is being decarbonised too. A light rail system, run on renewable energy, is being rolled out across the city. Electric buses are replacing the older diesel-powered buses, and the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is being installed. There is an increased emphasis on active transport – walking and cycling.

Canberra’s success is becoming contagious. The much larger state of Victoria is taking up the reverse auction approach, at a bigger scale, to decarbonise its electricity sector. South Australia’s electricity sector is already 50% renewable.

The mass bleaching of the GBR was the most recent of a growing number of climate change-driven shocks to Australia’s ecosystems. But rather than wallow in doom-and-gloom, the citizens of Canberra have responded to the challenge and shown that a medium-sized city can decarbonise its economy, and it can do so rapidly, at modest cost and with many benefits.

Image credit: Coral bleaching at Lizard Island by XL Catlin Seaview Survey