29 November, 2013

Securing the future of the Leadbeater's possum

Simon Lauder
7:30 Report, ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), Friday 29/11/2013

The fate of Victoria's faunal emblem, the Leadbeater's Possum, hangs in the balance and is the topic of heated debate.  Video

28 November, 2013

'Vested interests' are harming efforts to save the Leadbeater's possum

Oliver Milman
theguardian.com, Thursday 28 November 2013

Panel created to save Victoria's faunal emblem favours the logging industry, says Wilderness Society

The Leadbeater's possum is Victoria's faunal emblem. Photograph: guardian.co.uk
A government-formed panel tasked with saving the Leadbeater’s possum is hopelessly conflicted and has already discarded proposals to change logging practices that are driving the animal to extinction, conservationists have claimed.

Documents seen by Guardian Australia show the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group has picked a swath of conservation options including the installation of nest boxes, releasing possums outside their known habitat and even constructing artificial trees using 3D printing technology.

But the group has angered environmentalists by failing to consider winding up VicForests, the state logging agency, or shifting timber production to plantations, away from sensitive old-growth areas. There has been no suspension of logging in these areas during the group’s work.

The advisory panel was created by the Victorian government in June, with the task of devising a plan to save the Leadbeater’s possum alongside a “sustainable timber industry”. The species, which is Victoria’s faunal emblem, is perilously close to extinction, with remaining animals living in pockets of old-growth forest in the central highlands region of the state.

However, the composition of the panel has come under fire, with each of its members affiliated with either the government or the logging industry.

Robert Green, the chief executive of VicForests, is on the panel, as is Lisa Marty, the chief executive of the timber industry body VAFI. Jenny Gray, the chief executive of Zoos Victoria, Bill Jackson, chief executive of Parks Victoria, and Bram Mason, chair of the Leadbeater’s possum recovery team, make up the rest of the group.

Steve Meacher, a member of the Leadbeater’s possum recovery team, which was set up when the possum was listed as endangered, told Guardian Australia that Mason shouldn’t be its representative because he is a government employee.

“I don’t have anything against Bram at all, but we should be chaired by someone with more independence,” he said. “We need someone who can express opinions to government without fear or favour, but at the moment Bram is coming to us telling us what the advisory group is thinking, rather than the other way around. He’s not really representing us.

“The whole thing is compromised by the fact so many participants work for the government and have an interest in logging continuing. The basic premise of the group is that a way must be found to ensure the continuation of logging in Leadbeater’s habitat, but the lesson we’ve learned time and again is that the two aren’t compatible.”

The Wilderness Society has written to the government voicing its objections to the process, saying the advisory group’s terms of reference are too narrow and favour the logging industry.

“You’ve got a situation where VicForests is charged with saving a species which it is sending to extinction by logging its habitat,” Amelia Young, the Victorian campaigns manager of the Wilderness Society, told Guardian Australia. “The science so clearly shows the Leadbeater’s possum is on an extinction trajectory that Victorians are really looking for some action to save it. This group must do better.”

Young said the group needed to embrace the recommendations of the Australian National University ecologist David Lindenmayer, who has proposed a move to plantation timber, a new protected area for the Leadbeater’s possum and buffer zones between logging and known possum habitat.

“For the group to not consider alternatives, such as plantations, is a nonsense,” she said. “It’s like refusing a blood transfusion because the blood is at another hospital. Unequivocally, the clear felling of Leadbeater’s possum habitat needs to end. Building a nest box is a short-term answer that doesn’t address the problem.”

Data relied upon by the advisory group has been contested by conservationists, with the extrapolated estimate of between 4,000 and 11,000 remaining Leadbeater’s possums differing markedly from Lindenmayer’s surveyed estimate of up to 2,000.

The logging industry says the primary threat to the possum is fire, with the 2009 Black Saturday fires scorching nearly half of the species’ habitat. It’s estimated that just 1% of old-growth forest remains in the central highlands region.

The Victorian environment minister, Ryan Smith, has been contacted for comment.

11 November, 2013

Protester occupies forest treehouse to protect Leadbeater's possum

Thomas O'Byrne
The Age, November 11, 2013

Staying put: protester Hannah Patchett. Photo: Simon Schluter
Perched 25 metres off the ground upon a mountain ash tree, Hannah Patchett's new home lacks the luxuries enjoyed by most 20-year-olds.

But the bright red treehouse, high in the Toolangi State Forest 80 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, was designed for a purpose - to highlight the plight of Victoria's faunal emblem.

The spartan treehouse is located in a small pocket of old-growth mountain ash forest that forms vital habitat for the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum.

''I'm calling for an end to logging in the area, so that the Leadbeater's possum has a chance at avoiding extinction,'' Ms Patchett said.

She has pledged to remain in the 14-square-metre home until the state government announces plans for protecting the endangered creature. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries lists logging as a threat to the marsupial's diminished population.

The deadly Black Saturday bushfires also ravaged about 45 per cent of a 30,500-hectare reserve, established in 2008, in which the possum lives.

With the possum population on course for another severe reduction, the state government in June set up an advisory group to aid population recovery efforts.

Environment Minister Ryan Smith announced $1 million in funding to implement proposals stemming from the group's ideas.

Friends of Leadbeater's possum representative Steve Meacher, who has helped inform the group, said this was the last chance to save the possum. ''It's time to get serious if we really intend to save the state's faunal emblem.''

09 November, 2013

Climate debate cuts both ways

Richard Denniss, Executive director of the Australia Institute.
Canberra Times, 9 November 2013

Neither a $6 carbon price nor a direct action fund of $3.2 billion will minimise Australia's impact on dangerous climate change, Richard Denniss writes.

Do you think cars are better than planes? What about apples? Are apples better than sandwiches? It is hard to answer some questions because they don't make much sense. Take our political debate about climate change, for example.

Do you think we need a price on carbon or do you support direct action? I struggle with that question more than most seem to. To be clear, I absolutely think that we need a price on carbon, but we could do with some direct action as well. Surely I am allowed to want both?

Until recently the ALP, the Greens and most of the big environment groups were fans of direct action. Of course it wasn't called direct action then, it was called ''complementary measures'' and the environment movement loved them.

But the fact that the ALP and Greens used to support direct action by another name does not mean the Abbott government's scheme will work. It does, however, make the current debate about whether people are on the ''side'' of carbon pricing or direct action a bit silly.

The main reason that direct action has a chance of working is that it doesn't actually have to do much. The carbon price deal between the ALP and Greens ignored the scientific evidence in locking in a target of only a 5 per cent reduction below 2020, an unambitious and unscientific target that the Coalition shares.

Australia's emissions had begun to fall well before the carbon price came in and before direct action was even a twinkle in Tony Abbott's eye. In fact a significant slice of our new target comes from the ''surplus'' we generated by exceeding our 2010 target. That is, because we did ''too much'' emission reduction pre-2010, we don't have to do as much in the lead-up to 2020.

And then there is the high dollar and the devastating impact of the mining boom on the competitiveness of our manufacturing industry.

We have already seen two aluminium smelters shut down in recent years and Ford has said it is leaving. As more smelters and car factories close, our emissions fall. When the carbon price could be blamed for such closures it was a national tragedy, but when the miners cause such job losses via the exchange rate, it seems we just call it progress.

The high dollar is also killing off the last of the export woodchip market, which has for decades been subsidised to turn old-growth trees that sequester carbon into woodchips for paper and cardboard. The fact that we are now chopping down far fewer trees means that our emissions are far lower and, in turn, Labor's 5 per cent target is easier to achieve.

Next is the spectacular inefficiency of our electricity market. Despite the promises that the deregulation and privatisation of our electricity industry would lead to lower prices, the retail cost of electricity has surged by more than 100 per cent since 2007. The inefficiency and profitability of the electricity market has driven far bigger increases in electricity prices than the deepest of deep greens ever hoped a carbon price would deliver. In turn, households and businesses have reined in their demand for electricity.

Finally, consider the ALP's successful direct action policies. Schemes such as the renewable energy target and subsidies for rooftop solar panels have delivered a flood of renewable energy capacity which, contrary to popular belief, is putting downward pressure on the price of electricity. It is also significantly reducing the amount of coal we need to run the airconditioners and clothes dryers that we tell developing countries we can't live without.

There are, of course, some clouds on Australia's emission reduction horizon. The massive expansion of our coalmining industry and coal seam gas industry will generate big increase in ''fugitive emissions''. That is the methane that escapes when fossil fuels are being extracted.

Another problem for the Abbott government's plan to achieve a 5 per cent emissions reduction without a carbon price could be the exchange rate. If the exchange rate falls and the manufacturing sector rebounds strongly, so will our emissions. A problem that no doubt some in government hope they experience.

Even if the carbon price is not repealed and we move to a floating carbon price in 2015 as planned, the carbon price would fall to about $6. And of course big polluters get 94.5 per cent of their pollution permits for free, meaning they would pay an average carbon price of 33 ¢ per tonne. Let's be clear, a carbon price that low was never going to be the driving force in a ''transition to a low-carbon future''.

While a low carbon price is better than none, the ALP's complementary measures or the Coalition's direct action were always going to have to do a lot of the work required to hit the 5 per cent target.
Similarly, if the Coalition botches the design of its direct action scheme then it may struggle to deliver on its promises. So what should they do?

The biggest problem with direct action as it has previously been described is that it could be an administrative nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses asking for grants to cut their pollution will take too long and cost too much to administer.

But, if the Coalition is strategic, it could buy large chunks of emission reduction at relatively low cost and, importantly, with low transaction and administration costs. The most obvious targets for such a strategic approach would be the logging and forestry sectors. Paying small amounts of money to discourage the chopping down of trees would actually be cheaper than the large amounts of subsidies we currently provide to the same industry to chop down trees.

There is big scope for cash flow-positive investments in energy efficiency in commercial buildings. The government should start with the massive stock of Commonwealth buildings and then start some conversations with the state governments. Similarly, state governments own a large stock of public housing that was ineligible for previous efficiency policies, such as the Rudd government's insulation subsidies.

Dealing with the states allows the Commonwealth to significantly reduce its administrative costs.
Abbott and John Howard have said plenty of things that suggest they neither understand nor are concerned by, the scientific evidence about the need to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The decision to scrap the carbon price suggests the Coalition cares as little about economic advice as it does about scientific advice.

But, that doesn't mean that a $6 carbon price was going to tackle climate change. Nor does it mean the Coalition will inevitably fail to meet the ALP's 5 per cent target.
The important question facing Australia's leaders is not whether carbon pricing is good or bad. It is ''how far and how fast does Australia need to cut its emissions to minimise the impact of dangerous climate change?''
Neither a $6 carbon price nor a direct action fund of $3.2 billion will get us within cooee of that level.