The renewable energy train is unstoppable. The NEG needs to get on board

On the face of it, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), adopted as Coalition policy at a party room meeting yesterday, appears to promise the certainty that industry, consumers and experts have desperately sought for the past decade. But beware: there is a renewable energy train coming down the track that is unstoppable.

The NEG cannot stop the train, but it could act as a guide rail to steer it – or even safely accelerate it – by reducing investment risk and lowering the cost of finance for renewable energy projects.

The latest figures indicate that the renewable energy train will smash Australia’s 2020 Renewable Energy Target. Assuming that the current pace of renewable energy investment continues (and there is good reason to expect that it will, given the unarguable economics of plummeting renewable energy prices worldwide), then the electricity sector would be on track to hit the government’s 26% emissions reduction target by 2030 with virtually no policy help at all.

The unstoppable renewable energy train may even end up contributing the lion’s share of the reductions needed to achieve Australia’s economy-wide target of cutting emissions by 26-28% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

This would particularly be the case if we ramped up the electrification of other sectors such as transport and industry, and encouraged householders to replace gas with electricity for heating and cooking.

The big issue then would be whether the rest of the electricity system can adapt quickly enough as renewable energy reaches 50% and above. This would call for significant grid upgrades and storage systems, so as to provide efficient and reliable supply.

Missing the train?

With the NEG projected to deliver no more than 36% renewable energy by 2030, one could argue that this policy is simply waving from the platform as the renewables train goes whooshing by. But this argument ignores the impetus that the NEG would provide to advancing climate policy as a whole.

The NEG is widely regarded by energy analysts as the fourth-best solution – after a carbon pricing system, an emissions intensity scheme, or a clean energy target. But while many commentators have taken issue with both its ambition and its effectiveness, legislating the NEG would undeniably break the policy paralysis that has stopped Australia from moving forward for so many years.

There is no reason why a future government could not introduce other measures – such as an economy-wide price on carbon, regarded by most economists as the most efficient way to combat climate change. Such a scheme could be laid right over the top of the NEG and would drive further transformation not just of the electricity market, but every other sector of the economy. This would be complementary to the NEG and could help decarbonise the electricity sector even more rapidly.

Yet much of the opposition to the policy has come from government backbenchers concerned that it already puts too much emphasis on cutting emissions. How, then, can the NEG thread the political needle without being compromised as an effective tool for decarbonisation?

Making the NEG better

First, the mechanism itself needs to be decoupled from the ambition. That is, the politically charged emissions reduction target needs to be set not in legislation but by regulation, so that it can easily be used as a dial to tune the level of ambition.

Any future government could then ramp up the electricity sector’s emissions target beyond 26%. This could be done either to cover the inevitable shortfall in other sectors (where emissions reductions are harder to achieve), or to help deliver a steeper emissions-reduction trajectory if required by the world’s post-Paris progress. Bear in mind that signatories to the Paris Agreement have agreed to periodically review and tighten their emissions goals, meaning that Australia’s current target will probably be revised upwards.

Critics of this approach might argue that it provides less certainty to industry, rather than more. But the certainty would be established by the mechanism of emissions reductions rather than the rate. If that sounds hard to envisage, consider how financial institutions plan and prepare for changes to interest rates, within a broad economic regulatory framework.

A timetable for reviewing and adjusting emissions targets could be set in much the same way as the Reserve Bank of Australia handles interest rates, although this should perhaps be done on timeframes measured in years rather than months.

Second, the states need to be able to set their own renewable energy targets, independently of those states that currently have no target, such as New South Wales. One way to implement this would be for all states to agree to each comply with the minimum 26% target so there would be no free-riding on the back of those states that decide to be more ambitious than the national baseline.

Originally Published by The Conversation, continue reading here.

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Why temperatures at night are going up around the world and what we can do about it

History was made in the Middle East on June 28 when the world’s hottest night on record was set in Quriyat, Oman with the overnight “low” dropping to 42.6 degrees Celsius.

Oman’s hot night is just one of many temperature records to be smashed in the past few weeks.

Individual location records have been broken in the US, Russia, Canada, Scotland, Armenia and Georgia.

Africa could have reached its highest ever reliably recorded temperature of 51.3C in Ourargla, Algeria on July 5.

The World Meteorological Organisation recognises 55C as the highest temperature for Africa, recorded at Kebili, Tunisia on July 7, 1931.

James Goldie’s research is investigating how dangerously hot days are identified and how well they can predict public health impacts.

But there is widespread scepticism about the record’s accuracy because the temperatures recorded before the 1950s are mysteriously higher than anything to have come after them.

When it comes to heatwaves, the night-time temperature is important. If it stays above the mid-20s, overnight sleep can become difficult because the body needs to actively work to cool itself down.

University of New South Wales PhD student James Goldie, who is researching how temperature relates to health, said comfortable overnight temperatures were important in making sure people got a restful sleep.

“[It] is when our muscles recover from exercise. It’s when our brains consolidate memories,” he said.

“When night-time temperatures continue to be hot, when that heat just runs all the way through the night and onto the next day, we don’t get that recovery, and that’s when heat stress really starts to build up.”

Mr Goldie said heatwaves could be a real danger.

“They’re like rips at the beach; if you respect them, they’re tough but they’re manageable. If you don’t respect them, they can kill people,” he said.

Over the past few weeks Canada has been experiencing summer heatwaves, with local news outlets now reporting up to 70 heat-related deaths.

Nights are getting warmer

Research published in the International Journal of Climatology last year found night-time temperatures were increasing more rapidly than daytime temperatures.

According to the findings, minimum temperatures have been increasing at a rate of about 0.07 degrees per decade, compared with about 0.05 degrees per decade for maximum temperatures globally, for the period from 1960 to 2009.

Researchers proposed this was because night-time temperatures were more easily affected by an increase in greenhouse gasses.

Australia is not immune from warmer nights — our night-time temperatures have been increasing over the past 50 years and they are expected to continue to rise.

As part of the CSIRO’s Climate Change in Australia project, a threshold calculator has been created for the public to explore future climate scenarios.

The tool suggests an increase in over-25C degree nights into the next century, to different extents based on the different models and emissions scenarios.

Mr Goldie said some of the impacts of heatwaves from climate change could not be avoided.

“They’re happening. But we can control how bad they get, and the actions we take to reduce CO2 now will save people’s lives later down the road,” he said.

The World Health Organisation has said high greenhouse emission scenarios are projected to increase heat-related deaths in Oman, where it was so hot a few weeks ago.

What can we do about it?

Stephanie Jacobs is a PhD candidate working on different ways to mitigate the effects of heatwaves.

Aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there are things we can do to mitigate the impact ofheatwaves.

Monash University climate scientist Stephanie Jacobs said the best strategy to help reduce night-time temperatures was to plant trees and vegetation and keep them watered.

“When there are no trees, the sunlight heats up the ground,” she said.

“When there are trees, the energy from the sun is diverted to helping the water in plants evapotranspirate instead of heating the surface, so it becomes cooler.

“As a result, the ground holds less energy during the day and then emits less heat at night.”

Ms Jacobs said tree planting could be hard in desert environments, but it could be effective in cities.

“Plant more parks, gardens [and] lots of trees … it’s been found that a mix of vegetation is the best because different plants have different benefits,” she said.

Making buildings more reflective was another action Ms Jacobs suggested could assist in cooling temperatures.

“What I’ve looked at in my research is if all of the rooftops in Melbourne were white, and we basically turn Melbourne into a giant Santorini [where white-painted houses reflect dazzling light],” Ms Jacobs said.

Originally Published by ABC News, continue reading here.

Materials that make heat worse for our kids demand a rethink by designers

It is with some relief that Australians are leaving behind the excruciatingly hot days of summer. But did you ever stop to think about the role of design in making matters better – or worse? Spending all day in air-conditioned rooms before walking out to a car that has baked in the sun all day is an exercise in extremes that many of us have faced. It’s easy to forget these conditions are shaped and mediated by design.

Campaigns warn us about the dangers of leaving children in hot parked cars. However, there are many more designed microclimates in the city where “real feel” temperatures far exceed reported air temperatures. One example, where children spend many hours of the day, is the childcare centre, where we found some artificial surfaces can become dangerously hot.

Our preliminary study over the record-breaking summer of 2017-8 assessed the thermal characteristics of outdoor play spaces in three childcare centres in Western Sydney. We discovered that summer temperatures can vary dramatically, depending on the materials and environments being measured.

We measured air and surface temperatures to generate detailed information about the effects of heat on shaded and non-shaded surfaces at each facility. These included artificial materials such as “soft fall” surfaces and Astroturf, “semi-natural” materials such as bricks and woodchips, and natural materials, including sand and grass.

In full sun, the artificial surface materials became dangerously hot. Soft fall surface temperatures reached 71-84°C on days when air temperatures were in the low 30s. Astroturf heated up to nearly 100°C. Plastic toys in direct sun reached temperatures up to 73.7°C – that is one hot rubber duck!

You can see the effect of different surfaces in the thermographic image below. It shows tens of degrees of difference between soft fall and thick grass in full sun.

Hot materials undermine safety benefits

Soft fall, as the name suggests, is widely used to create “safer” environments for children should they fall. Rising heat undermines this safety benefit. Because it transforms the material into a source of potentially significant harm it also reduces the time that can be spent playing outdoors.

Contrary to their current widespread use, this study found that artificial materials like soft fall and Astroturf should be used sparingly and only in shaded settings. Shade does make a significant difference to the temperatures recorded, but shaded soft fall and Astroturf were still hotter than shaded natural surfaces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a centre with an old camphor laurel tree supplying ample shade in the play space recorded the lowest daytime air temperatures.

A thermally healthy outdoor play space is crucial for supporting children’s social, physical and cognitive development. However, the extreme temperatures recorded in this study turn such spaces into hostile environments that leave little option but to move indoors to cope.

Indoor activities tend to be more sedentary, which is linked to reduced physical fitness and rising obesity. We already spend around 90% of our time indoors in environments (including cars) that depend on air conditioning for habitability.

Of course, you can only air-condition a space effectively if it is enclosed. The rise of the “indoor biome” has been associated with poor air quality and a raft of other complex hazards.

Yet childcare centres with cool, comfortable outdoor play spaces, designed to enable both mobility and a connection with nature, are far from the norm in our rapidly densifying cities. The newest centre in our study, for example, had the smallest outdoor activity space, with the least shade, very limited natural ground cover and the greatest proportion of soft fall. This raises questions about the impact of design trends on the quality of outdoor activity spaces.

It is worth noting too that, given the level of demand, there is often little choice about where a child might be offered a place.

Climate change makes design even more important

How accountable should designers be for the everyday living environments that they create? For example, could the designers of the past have known about the environmental, social and cultural impacts of one of the most transformative designs of the 20th century, the car?

Perhaps not, but things have changed. The need to adapt to a changing climate makes good design important for our survival. And that, in turn, demands designers take greater responsibility for the harms arising from their work.

Originally published by The Conversation, continue reading here.