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Ecological Literacy and Restoration

By Benjamin Richardson

(Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania; Tilburg University’s Global Law Visiting Chair 2017)

In early 2015 my wife and I purchased 66 acres of wild landscape in our homeland, Tasmania, and set about ensuring its indefinite protection by putting a conservation covenant on the property title.  With this legal protection to “Blue Mountain View”, as we call our land, we joined other like-minded neighbours committed to safeguarding this beautiful niche in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. We have also since participated in some wildlife monitoring projects with environmental groups to better understand the local biodiversity and thereby facilitate long-term conservation planning.

Blue Mountain View, Tasmania (photo: B. Richardson)

Blue Mountain View, Tasmania (photo: B. Richardson)

Becoming an environmental steward with legal responsibility to protect and improve the ecological values of a small piece of our planet is a great privilege, providing exceptional opportunities to forge a more intimate relationship with, and knowledge of, the natural world. This experience reminds me of the writings of Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson who hypothesized that human beings possess biophilic tendencies.[1] Yet biophilia, like other affections, is unlikely to flourish if not nurtured. If our experience of nature is limited to desolate landscapes with few wildlife beyond the ubiquitous rats, pigeons and common weeds, we are unlikely to appreciate nature’s richness and beauty. Equally, if our daily lives are spent amidst car parks and shopping malls, we will hardly understand the complexity of ecosystems and the need to care for them. In our highly urbanized, consumer lifestyles, the impoverished opportunities for direct interactions with wild places are one of the principal obstacles to making environmental conservation a social priority.

My association with Blue Mountain View has enabled me to acquire much greater ecological literacy than I ever gained from just reading literature and watching nature films. I have come to learn much about the habits of rare or engendered species that inhabit it, such as Tasmanian Devils and Eastern Quolls, and develop a greater sensitivity to nature’s temporalities as observed from the fruiting and flowering of vegetation or the seasonal migration of birds.

Tawny frogmouth, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

Tawny frogmouth, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

But how can we engage the general public with the natural world so as to similarly build ecological literary, respect and affinity?  This is a multidimensional task of which environmental law can only play a part.[2]

A key strategy must be community participation in ecological restoration, the practice of repairing historic or recent damage to landscapes and seascapes. The practice is evoked by the work of New York artist Alan Sonfist. He erected numerous monuments in cities around the globe to commemorate and “heal” their lost ecology. His archetypical work is “Time Landscape”, constructed over 1965 to 1978 in Manhattan in cooperation with the City Botanical Gardens. His “landscape” recreated the original indigenous vegetation of New York on an empty street corner in Manhattan, and the living artwork evokes the processes of nature reclaiming itself.  Serious ecological restoration, of course, must be tackled on a much grander scale.

Restoring nature is vital to defend against the upheavals of the Anthropocene. We shouldn’t assume that sustainability – the dominant goal of modern environmental law – is achievable using current environmental conditions as baselines for legal protections because those conditions are often too degraded to meaningfully sustain. Instead, attaining sustainability may also require some recapturing of prior ecological conditions – lands may need to be replanted with vegetation, fish stocks replenished, and landscapes cleansed of contaminants.

Southwest Tasmania’s world heritage (photo: B. Richardson)

Southwest Tasmania’s world heritage (photo: B. Richardson)

The law must prioritise ecological restoration, a task that will require a major shift from current legal precedents. Major environmental legislation in most countries offers few provisions devoted to this task, mostly focusing on remediation of contaminated brownfields or former mines rather than restoration of entire ecosystems.[3] Fortunately, the governance deficits are starting to be filled by some fascinating initiatives from non-state actors, namely environmental NGOs, community groups, farmers and Indigenous peoples, collaborating voluntarily to restore and rewild nature.[4]

The examples include Gondwana Link, restoring a 1000 km stretch of Western Australia that suffered catastrophic land degradation from misguided farming. Began in 2002, the project aims to reconnect fragmented natural habitats to create a holistic ecological system, through outright purchase of high priority lands and conservation covenants on other properties that are then subject to various restorative interventions.[5] In North America, the Y2Y project – denoting Yellowstone to Yukon – is using a similar approach to Gondwana Link, except over a bigger scale along the Rocky Mountains and involving more jurisdictions and actors.  In New Zealand, which has suffered among the world’s worst biodiversity loses – don’t believe the deceptive “100% Pure” slogan that the country advertises – restoration has been led by community groups sometimes in partnership with government land managers. They are creating huge fenced sanctuaries in which exotic vermin are removed to allow the remnant avifauna to regenerate.[6] And in Scotland a charity called Trees for Life is restoring 230,000 hectares of the ancient Caledonian forest that was grazed and logged to near destruction several centuries ago.[7]

Another approach, better suited to urban denizens, is called “reconciliation ecology”. The term was apparently coined by Michael Rosenzweig to describe restoration projects that benefit people by drawing them closer to their natural environs, including providing aesthetic and recreational benefits.[8] Such reconciliation often takes place in urban areas to bring nature closely into people’s daily lives, such as expanded city parks, restored waterways, and green roofs. One outstanding example is “Zealandia”, a restored bird-rich sanctuary, located near the heart of Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. Through reconciliation activities, people become more aware of their degraded environs, the opportunities to improve them, and thereby hopefully acquire greater ecological literacy.

‘Citizen science’ is another movement that touches on similar ideas but uses different methods. Citizen science projects involve lay people participating in environmental monitoring to help researchers understand environmental baselines and changes that can then feed into management actions including restoration. Citizen science taps into a valuable community resource while enhancing participants’ ecological knowledge and commitment. Citizen science projects include tracking marine plastic debris[9] and counting birds.[10] Advances in information technology, both in recording and sharing the data such as GPS and remote camera ‘trapping’, have greatly expanded opportunities for citizen science to recruit larger audiences of volunteers. I have been involved in one such project on Blue Mountain View recently.

Trees in heaven, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

Trees in heaven, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

But such community-based initiatives aren’t enough. Volunteerism may not be sustainable in the absence of reliable funding, may lack influence when confronted with uncooperative landowners, and may be undermined by antagonistic government policies and regulations that enable inappropriate economic developments. For instance, some Australian states have enacted recent legislative changes that make it easier for landowners to clear native vegetation.[11] Environmental lawyers must advocate ways for governments to play a more positive role, while preserving community initiative. Such roles could include more generous seed funding and tax breaks, coupled with reforms to land use planning and inclusion of stewardship obligations in all property tenures. Legislative mandates for sustainability should also be redefined to include obligations for restoration and reconciliation where existing ecological baselines are too degraded.

Of course, social change will require more than just law. The arts can also play a special role in enlivening people’s imagination and building their commitment to restoring nature. German artist-entrepreneur Dirk Fleischmann’s project “My Forest Farm” is one of the most ambitious artworks that illustrate this stance. The zero-carbon footprint art “work” is a voluntary carbon–offset program in the form of a reforestation initiative in the Philippines. In 2008, Flesichmann began planting nearly 2,000 trees on four acres with the aid of the local community. His project aims to challenge the booming carbon offset-market which he believes wrongly simplifies the issues of climate change by pretending that the problem of greenhouse emissions can be solved simply by purchasing offsets (an efficient transactional mechanism suited to busy people with no time to contemplate the environmental issues at stake).  My Forest Form reveals the complexities and time-consuming process of carbon-dioxide sequestration. Although his project results in carbon off-setting, he does not offer the carbon credits for sale. Instead, Fleischmann offers art – each of the trees is photographed and its GPS location recorded, and then exhibited in galleries and sold via the project website for 10 euros each. The earnings help fund the reafforestation project and educate the public about nature’s time-scales.

Dragonfly – austrogomphus guerini, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

Dragonfly – austrogomphus guerini, Blue Mountain View (photo: B. Richardson)

In conclusion, when reflecting on the roles of environmental restoration and reconciliation, we should appreciate that it is not just about improving nature but also improving human society. Restoring damaged ecosystems is not a viable long-term proposition if humankind remains emotionally and cognitively detached from its natural environs. Without inculcating greater ecological literacy, society will likely just repeat its past mistakes and undo any gains from new restorations. Participation in restoration projects can help communities understand their place in the deep time-scales of Earth’s landscapes, and may help nurture their biophilic impulse. Not everyone can elope to a place like Blue Mountain View, but we should all have some opportunities to engage with and learn about nature in which we are embedded and dependent like a cell within a body.



[1] Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984).

[2] See further Benjamin J. Richardson, Time and Environmental Law: Telling Nature’s Time (Cambridge University Press, 2017): in press.

[3] Margaret A Palmer and JB Ruhl, “Aligning Restoration Science and the Future of Law to Sustain Ecological Infrastructure for the Future” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3(9) (2015): 512.

[4] Benjamin J. Richardson, “Reclaiming Nature: Eco-restoration of Liminal Spaces” Australian Journal of Environmental Law 2(1) (2016): 1; Caroline Fraser, Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (Picador, 2009).

[5] Keith Bradby, Amanda Keesing and Grant Wardell-Johnson, “Gondwana Link: Connecting People, Landscapes, and Livelihoods Across Southwestern Australia” Restoration Ecology 24(6) (2016): 827.

[6] Dave Butler, Tony Lindsay and Janet Hunt, Paradise Saved (Random House, 2014).

[7] Adrian Manning, David Lindenmayer and Joem Fischer, “Stretch Goals and Backcasting: Approaches for Overcoming Barriers to Large-scale Ecological Restoration”, Restoration Ecology 14(4) (2006): 487.

[8] Michael Rosenzweig, Win-Win Ecology (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[9] Paul E Duckett and Vincenzo Repaci, “Marine Plastic Pollution: Using Community Science to Address a Global Problem” Marine and Freshwater Research 66(8) (2015): 665.

[10] Jeremy Greenwood, “Citizens, Science and Bird Conservation” Journal of Ornithology 148 (2007): 77.

[11] E.g., Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (New South Wales); Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (Queensland).



Reducing Emissions from Agriculture: Australia’s Unique Approach (Part 2)

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

In my previous blog, I showed how various countries around the world are in the process of setting up offset schemes for agriculture, in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. I also explained that Australia has a unique position as it has the longest operating system in place, and one that currently is not linked to emissions trading but is a stand-alone system. Technically, therefore, Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative, is not an offset instrument, but a regulatory instrument aimed at achieving emissions reductions in the land use sector on its own. In this blog, I will focus on some of the results that have been achieved with the system so far, based on an empirical research that I carried out.[1] In case studies into selected CFI-projects and in a series of interviews with the key stakeholders, I searched for the experiences with the scheme in Australia, with the objective to draw lessons for other countries, including the EU as a whole, that wish to establish a policy aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture.

Sunset over rural Australia (Photo: J. Verschuuren)

Sunset over rural Australia (Photo: J. Verschuuren)

My research found that the current legislation on carbon farming in Australia provides an elaborate, yet reliable legal framework that seems well suited to assess project applications and issue credits to participating farmers who, through these projects, generated real and additional emission reductions. It was especially interesting to find that a major overhaul of the legislation in 2015, delinking the scheme from emissions trading, really pushed the scheme forward. Not having to sell credits on the volatile international carbon market, but being able to rely on long term, fixed government money (called ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’), spurred Australia’s farmers into action. It shows that it is important to create long term certainty for farmers. Farmers who want to introduce carbon farming have to implement structural changes to their farming practices with long term impacts on their business. The policy environment, as well as the agribusiness’ financial environment, has to accommodate such long term impacts. This also implies that relying on the carbon market for funding should only be done when there is long term certainty that carbon credits will earn an acceptable minimum price.

Another interesting finding is that, although Australia’s carbon farming policy and the associated regulatory framework is only aimed at achieving as much greenhouse gas abatement as possible against the lowest possible costs, many project actually have important co-benefits. These co-benefits often are an as important and sometimes even more important stimulus for farmers to convert to carbon farming than the direct financial benefits arising from selling generated carbon credits to the government. Generally, it is found that the policy is leading to the introduction of better farming methods in an overall conservative sector. These methods are not just good for combatting climate change, but have many benefits for farmers and even for food security. Vegetation projects generally reduce salination and erosion and improve water retention. Soil carbon projects were especially mentioned for having an astonishing impact on soil quality. Research indicates that an increase in the level of soil organic carbon, leads to a drastic increase of water availability and fertility, and thus to an increase in agricultural production. One respondent referred to an example he knew, of two brothers who had farmland adjacent to each other: ‘One of them was involved in a soil carbon project, the other was not. After a while, you could clearly see the difference, with much more and better growing crops on the land of the first. The other brother had to drive across his brother’s land to reach his own land and saw the difference every day.’ Although many respondents stressed that conservatism, especially among older farmers, slows down the adoption of these new climate smart practices, they all felt that the farming sector is slowly changing and is taking up these new practices. Assessing the impact of soil carbon projects, however, is complex and several stakeholders indicated that ‘we are still learning how to do it under different circumstances.’ Since the regulatory framework requires farmers to carefully monitor what is happening in the soil, a lot of new knowledge is generated. One respondent said: ‘We are in fact doing large scale experiments with soil carbon, all thanks to the Emissions Reduction Fund.’ There are many interesting case studies available remarkable results of reduced carbon emissions, better growing conditions, more water availability, and more biodiversity under such programmes as ‘soils for life’ and ‘healthy soils’.

Increasing soil carbon, therefore, has strong positive side-effects on adaptation as they increase the resilience of the land and lead to greater efficiency. Here, mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand. The same is true for some of the other sequestration methods that are allowed under the Australian scheme, such as native tree planting in arid and semi-arid areas both to store carbon and to stop degradation and salinization of farmland.

Sometimes, there are also direct economic co-benefits associated to carbon farming projects. In the piggeries sector, for example, there are producers who save A$ 15,000 (roughly € 10,000) per month on energy bills and earn an additional A$ 15,000 by delivering energy to the grid after having adopted methane capture and biogas production technology. When asked whether the CFI/ERF was the push factor, or the expected economic co-benefit, the respondent from the pork sector said that the CFI/ERF was the main driver for the distribution of this technology: ‘About half of the participating producers jumped because of the CFI/ERF push. It especially pushes medium sized producers, because it increases their payback just enough to get involved. Eighteen biogas projects in piggeries have to date generated A$ 6 million (€3.9m) a year in electricity savings and A$ 10.2 million (€ 6.6m) through carbon credits under the Emissions Reduction Fund. The Fund really was the driver for most of these eighteen producers.’ It is clear, though, that for the longer term, these co-benefits will continue to exist on a yearly basis, also without carbon credits being purchased by the government.

Grazing land regeneration project in western New South Wales (Photo:

Grazing land regeneration project in western New South Wales (Photo:

From these findings, the lesson can be drawn that a policy that has a wider focus on adaptation, food security, resilient and sustainable farm businesses and securing and creating jobs in the agribusiness sector, is likely to be more successful than one that only focuses on reducing emissions from agriculture. Several of the methods accepted or under development in Australia, such as those dealing with soil carbon, show that such co-benefits can indeed be achieved. Developing climate smart methodologies that not only deliver real, additional, measurable and verifiable emission reductions but also foster long term innovation and create economic, social and environmental co-benefits is essential for the success of any policy aimed at stimulating climate smart agriculture. Science has to be central in the development and adoption of methods that are accepted under the regulatory framework. In Australia, much research effort has already gone into method development. This now has to be taken to a global level. In order to avoid that every country is trying to invent the wheel, international collaboration in method development is pivotal. The aim has to be to roll out climate smart agriculture policies across the world, so as to stimulate our farmers to make a switch from conventional farming to climate smart farming.


[1] An article covering all the results of the project will be published in early 2017.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 655565.



Reducing Emissions from Agriculture: Australia’s Unique Approach (Part I)

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Not many countries have regulatory schemes in place aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. As indicated in the blog on the Paris Agreement and agriculture, the agricultural sector is responsible for almost 25% of anthropogenic GHG emissions, both through CO2 emissions caused by deforestation and peatland drainage, and through methane (NH4) emitted by livestock and rice cultivation, as well as through nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions caused by the use of synthetic fertilizers and the application of manure on soils and pasture. There is a dark cloud hanging over this because emissions are expected to rise over the coming years and decades because of an expected sharp rise in food demand. The Australian Climate Change Authority, in a 2014 climate change policy review for that country, for example, reports that the agricultural sector is expecting a doubling of demand for agrifood commodities in emerging economies in Asia, particularly China and India. It is expected that Australia is in a good position to meet this increased demand, as a consequence of which Australia’s production of agrifood is expected to increase by 77% in 2050 (from 2007 level). The Climate Change Authority in its  report is pessimistic about what that means for climate change. Because of the strong economic incentives of the global food market, increasing emissions are inevitable: the expected production growth is likely to offset emission reductions achieved through the introduction of climate smart agriculture practices and technologies.

Photo by Flickr user Oli.

Photo by Flickr user Oli.

Doing nothing, however, is no option, as this will lead to an even bigger rise in emissions. And what is more: the agricultural sector has the potential to store large quantities of carbon in soils and vegetation. Domestic regulators, however, have been reluctant to address agricultural emissions, partly because of regulatory difficulties. It is, for example, difficult to measure emissions at the individual farm level since a variety of factors determine the amount of emissions (such as the diet of individual animals, soil composition, weather systems of individual regions, the way in which fertilizer is applied, etc.). In addition to emissions, removals are relevant as well since crops and other vegetation absorb CO2 from the air, and lots of carbon is stored in soils (more carbon is stored in soils than what is present in vegetation and the atmosphere). Soil carbon may be released, or remains there, or is increased, depending on how you manage the land.

A growing number of countries is setting up regulatory schemes aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture, mostly in the form of an offsets scheme linked to emissions trading. Under these schemes, industries and energy producers can buy credits generated by agriculture, and use these partly to comply with their obligation to hand in allowances equal to their emissions. This is the case in California, Quebec, Alberta, and Ontario. Under the California ETS, two types of agricultural offset projects are accepted, both aimed at reducing methane emissions: biogas systems in dairy cattle and swine farms, and rice cultivation projects. In Alberta, agricultural offsets include a wide range of projects: nitrous oxide emission reductions, biofuel production and usage, waste biomass projects, conservation cropping, several types of projects concerning beef production, projects aimed at reducing emissions from dairy cattle and biogas production.

The country with the longest experience in this area, however, is Australia. Despite the country’s much criticized poor overall climate policy, Australia adopted a Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) as early as 2011, which spurred farmers into action and, therefore, potentially provides the rest of the world with a model to reduce emissions from agriculture. In 2011, the CFI originally was set up as an offset scheme under its ETS. Since the repeal of the ETS in 2015 (just before trading was set to start), the initiative, now called Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) functions on its own and is enjoying rapidly increasing attention from farmers.

Instead of having to rely on the (unreliable) international carbon market, under the ERF farmers can offer the credits that they generated to the government through reversed auctions. Farmers can obtain credits for both emission avoidance projects and sequestration projects and offer these credits to the government. The government buys up credits from projects that achieved the biggest emissions cuts against the lowest costs. Agricultural emission avoidance projects mostly focus on methane emissions reductions: methane capture and combustion from livestock manure and methane emissions reduction through manipulation of digestive processes of livestock. A third important emission avoidance project for the agricultural sector is the application of urease or nitrification inhibitors aimed at reducing fertilizer and manure emissions. Sequestration projects are for example projects aimed at sequestering carbon in soils in grazing systems, on farm revegetation, rangeland or wetland restoration, the application of biochar to the soil, and the establishment of permanent plantings on farmland.

Since 2011, an enormous amount of expertise has been built up in Australia, and a very elaborate and effective regulatory system has been developed that on the one hand seems to ensure a high level of environmental integrity, while on the other hand not overburdening farmers with costly administrative obligations. The Australian scheme, therefore, is an interesting example for the rest of the world, particularly for the EU, that has yet to tackle emissions from agriculture. A government funded, project based system of emissions reductions seems to fit well in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

In May 2016, the results from the latest auction were released. After three auctions a total of 309 carbon abatement contracts have been awarded by the Australian government to deliver more than 143 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent abatement, earning the project proponents a total of A$1.7 billion (about € 1 billion). The vast majority of abatement is by vegetation projects, which often are on farmland (but not always). Carbon farming has grown into an important new income stream for farmers in Australia. In a country prone to droughts, floods and bush fires, the scheme, therefore, not only helps to reduce emissions from agriculture, it also assists in diversification of agricultural practices and leads to a more resilient sector.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 655565.



Ongoing debate

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

This is my final blog from Australia, from tropical Queensland to be precise. It’s hard to believe, but throughout the six months I have been here, climate change has never been out of the news. Let’s have a look at the latest headlines, starting with the approval rating of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which has hit an all-time low. She has brought it on herself by introducing a carbon tax in anticipation of an emissions trading scheme similar to the European model. Her days as Prime Minister appear to be numbered in a country where leadership of political parties is determined by the prevailing popularity of politicians in the polls. In the meantime, the introduction of the carbon tax does appear to be proceeding and the debate is focusing on the compensation program: how much money will the government give low-income households to compensate for the predicted rise in energy bills as a result of the carbon tax?

And then there are the death threats made to climate scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra. The university’s governing body subsequently moved them to secret locations in order to foil the threats. The university’s rector told the media that the scientists were severely affected by the threats. “Academics and scientists are actually really not equipped to be treated in this way. The concept that you would be threatened for your scientific views and work is something that is completely foreign to them.”

A new report was also published containing the latest insights into the rise in sea levels around Australia. Existing estimates are too low. Between 2000 and 2100, the average rise in sea level will be between 50cm and 1 meter rather than between 18cm and 76cm, as had been assumed till now. This has major consequences for low-lying cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. There are also huge regional variations. For instance, sea levels around Arnhem Land (named after the Dutch town by Dutch seafarers in the early 17th century) in northern Australia are rising by 7 mm per year, while the global average is 3.2 mm. The region’s Kakadu National Park, one of the world’s most beautiful tropical wetlands, will undergo a complete character change. From being a large fresh-water area, it will transform into a tidal salt-water area with completely different flora and fauna. This is bad news for the harmless fresh-water crocodiles (known to Aussies as ‘freshies’), which can still be found here, but good news for the highly dangerous salt-water crocodiles, which can grow up to 6 meters in length and are already present in large numbers.

Category: Australia, Climate


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…


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…


Do you know today’s Bush Fire Danger Rating in your area?

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

This question jumped out at me from a large roadside billboard while I was heading down to the south coast of New South Wales for a weekend break. Hmm… Come to think of it, just a few kilometers back I had seen a sign, divided into a number of colored areas ranging from green to red, with an arrow at the bottom. Now which area had that arrow been pointing to?

Australia has recently experienced a severe drought, which lasted for many years and resulted in a huge number of major bush fires. The most notorious of these were the Black Saturday Bush Fires in Victoria, on 6 February 2009, which resulted in 173 deaths. Bush fires are increasing in number and intensity, as a result of climate change. For this reason, a comprehensive adaptation program has been developed to help people be better prepared for these fires. Most people know very well whether they live in a bush fire prone area. In such areas, there are many ways of finding out the day’s Bush Fire Danger Rating (varying from Low-Moderate to Extreme or even Catastrophic). There is a Bush Fire Household Assessment Tool that you can use in the event of a fire to identify the best course of action to take in your own personal situation: Leave Early, or Stay and Defend. There is a Bush Fire Survival Plan giving details of what you need to do to better protect your house against a fire. The Plan comes complete with a “prepare your property” checklist.

A comprehensive government program recently completed in NSW concluded that all schools should be made fire safe through the implementation of a series of measures, depending on the situation on the ground. This might involve clearing vegetation from around buildings, creating or improving escape routes, and making buildings more fire resistant. In one case, where the risk remained high despite these measures, a helicopter was also purchased to evacuate the children in the event of a fire. The fire services also carry out regular hazard reduction burns to reduce the intensity of “genuine” bush fires.

Australia is trying to live with bush fires. In the Netherlands, a period of drought like the present one is exceptional, and measures such as these are hopefully unnecessary.


Political climate change

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

6 April, 2011

Protests about environmental policy – when did that last happen? In fact, last weekend in Sydney, there were two demonstrations – in one park they were demonstrating in favor of the climate change levy, while in another there were protests against it. It seems you can’t turn on the television without seeing a program about carbon taxes. Even I’m getting a bit tired of it!

The opponents of environmental measures come across as particularly shrill. Right-wing politicians speak of ‘human-induced political climate change as a result of carbon taxes’. The left, meanwhile, like to make references to Europe, pointing out that measures to tackle climate change have led to more jobs and faster technological progress there. One important difference with Europe is that Australia actually has vast reserves of coal. This has meant that Australians have never had to give much serious consideration to other sources of energy. Australian consumers can’t just tick a box to choose ‘green energy’ from their energy supplier, for example.

Even so, Australia, with all its sun, wind and sea, has unparalleled potential for generating sustainable energy, although there’s still a long way to go before that potential is realized. The government is seeking to encourage people to generate sustainable energy – by reducing the price of solar panels for private individuals for example, but so far, the impact has been limited, partly because there aren’t enough people with the right skills to install the solar panels… “Will workers who lose their jobs in the coal industry be offered retraining?” was one question I heard being put to a Green politician by a more skeptical participant in a television debate. She said they would be.

However, a more relevant question is actually whether a gradual transition from coal to green energy in Australia will mean that all Australia’s coal will stay in the ground. I’m not so sure about that. China has an enormous appetite for coal. Even now, at least one coal-fired power station a week is being opened there – even though these are some of the most modern (and least polluting) in the world. China consumes more coal than the US, Europe and Japan put together. The World Bank announced this week that it would no longer provide finance for coal-fired power plants except in the very poorest nations. That is an important step, although it will not worry countries such as India and China. They are now engaged in a race to buy up Australian coal mines for astronomical sums of money. The mineworkers won’t have to worry about unemployment any time soon, then.



By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

26 April, 2011

Scientists are seeing the first effects of climate change primarily in natural phenomena. Migratory birds are returning earlier or they do not migrate at all. Butterflies are being seen in completely new habitats. Plants are growing at higher altitudes. Biologists investigating these phenomena conclude that many species will die out simply because there is a limit to their ability to adapt. A bird may return from its migration early, but if the caterpillar which is its main food source does not appear as expected, then the bird will not survive. And mountains are only so tall: plants cannot grow beyond the summit! Scientists are impressing upon policymakers the need for large, interlinked nature reserves. This will give plants and animals space to migrate to new, suitable habitats.

‘Connectivity’ is a hot topic in Australia, as it is in many other countries. Several initiatives have been put forward to create natural corridors between current nature preserves crossing through agricultural areas and towns and cities. By developing clever projects with the close involvement of private parties and local communities, natural corridors stretching for thousands of kilometers can be created, such as the ‘great eastern ranges corridor’ that stretches along the entire eastern Australian coast. Despite the call for greater connectivity, the current cabinet in the Netherlands is phasing out the ‘ecological main structure’, mainly to save money and because of opposition from the agricultural sector. The ‘great eastern ranges project’ does not have many financial resources. Rather, a local, project-based approach is used that offers small financial incentives to emphasize the ecological and economic benefits and to encourage landowners to get on board. The way in which the Netherlands’ policy on ecology is currently being communicated and implemented pales into insignificance when one compares it with the enthusiasm and passion displayed by Australian politicians who are active in this policy area at the state and local levels.


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.

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