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Climate



28/06/2011

CCS or algae?

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Storing CO2 under the ground, which climate change specialists often refer to as CCS (carbon capture and storage), is seen as an important step on the road to a society in which we are no longer dependent on burning fossil fuels. The technology for removing CO2 from the air has existed for quite some time already (as evidenced by the addition of carbonic acid to drinks to make them fizzy). In a new generation of power plants, the CO2 could be removed before it ever has the chance to get into the atmosphere. But the transportation of the CO2 to the storage site, and the process of storing it, are more problematic. This is because the CO2 must be transported and stored in such a way that it cannot escape – ever again. A blow-out would not only defeat the whole object of storing the CO2 in the first place, it could also be very dangerous. A small leak from a pipeline in Berkel en Rodenrijs in 2008 received international attention, even though casualties were limited to a few ducks. But the worst case scenario at the back of everyone’s minds is the large-scale escape of CO2 from a lake in Cameroon in 1986 as a result of volcanic activity. The escaped gas suffocated 1700 people. Storage in thinly populated or uninhabited regions or under the sea bed would seem to be the best solution, but the disadvantage of this is that it requires long pipelines. Many trial projects are underway in both Europe and Australia, mostly still in their initial phase. In 2009, an EU directive was issued including regulations on the underground storage of CO2. These focused particularly on preventing any harmful environmental effects, especially over the longer term. The most important legal issue is liability. Who will be responsible if in the future, say 100 years from now, damage is caused despite all the security measures that have been taken? For American and Australian companies, this is now a cause for extreme caution in moving forward with CCS. In the EU, this problem has been solved by the automatic transfer of liability to the state after a certain period of time.

However, it now seems that new technology is becoming available which could be much more lucrative than CCS – that is recycling CO2. In Australia, a company has been set up which uses an industrial application of CO2 to cultivate algae and produce commodities such as cattle food, bio fuels and raw materials for medicines. I’m certainly curious about the legal issues that will arise from that!


02/06/2011

Coastal adaptation

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Around the world, coastal defenses are an integral part of climate policy. The risk of flooding is increasing due to a number of factors – the rising sea level (which in the Netherlands is being exacerbated by subsidence), the increasing intensity of storms and rising water levels in rivers. The Dutch parliament is currently looking at proposals for a new Delta Law, which is designed to address these increasing dangers. This law, as well as the legislation that already exists, is among the most advanced in the world. But of course, that is because half of our country is susceptible to flooding, either from the sea or from rivers.

Unlike in the Netherlands, most of the coastal areas around the cities of southern and eastern Australia are in the hands of private landowners. These ‘ocean view properties’ are spectacular, and extremely expensive. That makes it difficult for the government to build coastal defenses. Many interesting legal cases are already underway in this area which will clarify how this aspect of climate law will be put into force in the future. Essentially, the law states that the authorities must create a coastal protection area where they can make provisions for the effects of climate change. This policy will determine whether projects in coastal areas are allowed to go ahead. But what should be done in cases where houses are under threat from the sea?

One of the most famous cases is that of a rich landowner in Byron Bay to the south of Brisbane. The government had decided not to defend a section of the coastal area against the increased risk of erosion, but rather to let nature take its course as a part of a wider plan that involved protecting other, more important areas. The owner of the land decided to take measures to protect the land from erosion himself by renewing the old coastal defenses. The government denied him permission to do this, for the same reason as it had decided not to do so itself. When it looked as if the dispute would be settled in favor of the landowner, the government decided to renew the coastal defenses after all. However, it is clear that this is only a temporary measure until the next storm comes along. There is no prospect of a definitive solution, not least because land owners are opposing the construction of new coastal defenses for the future. After all, this would mean their land would no longer be located directly on the coast, and so it would be worth considerably less…


30/05/2011

Cycling in Sydney

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Cycling to work in Sydney is only recommended if you get a real kick out of danger and don’t really mind whether you arrive in one piece or not. Basically it involves dicing with death. In an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and relieve the pressure on Sydney’s overloaded traffic infrastructure, the government is trying to encourage people to take up cycling. Policy papers are being drawn up, short sections of cycle paths are being constructed here and there, and they have even produced a very nice plan of the city which shows the location of all those little pieces of cycle path. Many companies have installed showers for employees who cycle to work and want to shower and change before starting work, because cyclists here generally use racing bikes and wear cycling gear.

But it’s a risky undertaking. Those stretches of cycle path begin and end abruptly. When you do come across one, you’ll be happy that you can cycle safely for a while, but then when you suddenly reach the end of that particular stretch of cycle path, you’ll have to work out how to cross five busy lanes of traffic so you can continue your journey on the correct side of the road. Many roads in the city center are full to capacity. There is limited space, with as many lanes of traffic are squeezed in as possible. Basically, there’s no room for cyclists, and if you decide simply to ‘make room’, the best you can expect is to be hooted at by irritated motorists. In the worst case, car drivers will simply take back the space that you are occupying and run you off the road. Motorists tend to get angry with cyclists, which is understandable to some extent when you see how cyclists behave on the road. They are mostly tough young guys (think: broad-shouldered, tattooed Australian surfers). They use the footpath to avoid queues of traffic, cycle diagonally over intersections, ride straight through red stoplights – basically, they ignore all the rules of the road. And even the more cautious cyclists – and I count myself among them – often choose to cycle on the footpath. That is not allowed either, but in reality the police tolerate it because they understand that it is safer than cycling on the road.

Sydney still has a long way to go before cycling becomes as easy and as normal as it is in the Netherlands. But there is one similarity: on the very first day I used my bike here, it got stolen…


02/05/2011

Historic swing

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

28 March, 2011

Elections were held last Saturday for the parliament of New South Wales, the state where one third of the Australian population live (and of this third, more than half live in Sydney). These elections are crucial because the vast majority of policy issues, including environmental policy, are decided at the state level. We watched TV every night, astonished at the political ads that consisted of little more than insinuations and slurs. “What else does he have to answer for?” and other sentences along these lines. And hardly any information at all about the policy intentions of the ad’s sponsor.

The elections resulted in a historic loss for the incumbent Labor government. Never before in the history of Australia did so many districts switch their electoral preference (of the 50 Labor seats in the 93-seat parliament, there are now only 17 left). Labor had been in power here for 16 consecutive years. Until today. Wiped out, mainly through a series of internal disputes and scandals, including bribery scandals involving major projects. For many voters, the Labor coalition had become symbolic for deals in which project developers filled their pockets and for the unabated rise in the cost of living for ordinary people.

Opinion polls have shown that the climate tax proposed by the prime minister (also Labor) at the federal level, which I wrote about previously, played a crucial role in Labor’s monumental defeat in New South Wales. The coalition of the Liberal Party and National Party used this convenient little ‘present’ to underscore Labor’s role in the tenacious inflationary trends plaguing the country. High energy prices, layoffs, a real campaign of fear mongering on the climate tax issue. There were some who voiced dissent, of course, basing their opinions on lessons learned from experiences in Europe. They pointed out the number of jobs created in Germany because of the government’s commitment to renewable energy. However, this small voice of reason was drowned out completely by the bombastic rhetoric used by politicians down under.


02/05/2011

Climate tax about-face

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

10 March, 2011

The news this past week in Australia has been dominated by the government’s plans to introduce a climate tax. The proposal has provoked something of a storm. Politics and the media here in Australia are rather more polarized and populist compared to the Netherlands. Scenes that you might expect from Fox News are part and parcel of Australian TV’s daily offering. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is milking all the drama he can out of the situation, even in parliament. He says he will fight the carbon tax every minute of every day of every month of his political life. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been called a liar by a TV journalist; he came up with a nickname for her that I’m sure he thinks is really funny: “Juliar Gillard”.

What’s going on? The Labor government of Australia wants to assign a monetary value to greenhouse gas emissions as a financial incentive to reduce emissions of these compounds. A system of emissions trading was chosen for this purpose. We’ve been using a similar system in the EU since 2005. Businesses must see to it that they have enough emission trading rights. If they have a surplus of rights due to the introduction of energy-efficiency measures, for example, then they can sell them. Companies can also earn tradable rights by investing in clean energy in other countries (e.g. by financing a hydroelectric plant in a developing country). This makes reducing greenhouse gas emissions interesting from a financial point of view. Emissions trading systems like these are very complex, however, and it takes time to get them set up. This is why it has been decided to introduce a fixed price for CO2 emissions until 2015, and to let the market determine the price thereafter. The system will initially function as a fixed fee, or tax. All this has been proposed even though Gillard promised in her election campaign last year that she would tackle climate change, but not through fiscal means…


02/05/2011

Sydney, 22 February 2011

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

At the end of my three-year term as vice dean of Tilburg Law School on 1 January 2011, my family and I headed down under for a six-month research sabbatical at the University of Sydney, at the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law (ACCEL) to be precise. In the weeks we have been here, this country has been hit by its worst-ever floods, the worst cyclone in living memory, a record-breaking heat wave and fierce forest fires. The impact of climate change is huge here, and climate law and policy are consequently the focus of a great deal of attention. There is even a separate Ministry of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, which in itself is an indication that the importance the government attaches to this theme is quite different from that in the Netherlands. Yet there is still a great deal to be done. Unlike in the Netherlands, for instance, a start is only just being made on earmarking flood areas along major rivers. It took the severe flooding in Queensland in January to get that far. Moreover, Australia holds huge reserves of coal, which is complicating the debate on the transition to sustainable energy.

Over the next few months, together with my new ACCEL colleagues, I will concentrate on the new, fascinating and rapidly-evolving legal discipline of climate law. I shall focus on adaptation, in other words adapting society to the changing climate. In order to be able to deal with the changes we will face over the next few decades, initial signs of which are already visible, far-reaching global measures are required which involve many legal issues. This blog will look at these issues in more detail over the next few months.

Category: Australia, Climate

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