Energy & environment

If you think there's a climate-change conspiracy, ask yourself who's more likely to be lying: CEOs profiting from the top 100 corporations that are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse emissions produced since 1988 (with just 20 companies linked to a third of emissions), or scientists who - far from having been guilty of exaggeration - are finding that their initial predictions seriously understated how rapid and severe the changes would be?  But it doesn't matter if you still have doubts about the escalating impacts of human-induced global warmingit's a significant risk (if not a total certainty), but thankfully one we can still (just) readily address as there are many cost-effective solutions available for limiting climate change, if we're willing to take on vested interests.  Basically, it's the best value insurance you'll ever get - see m2006 SMH letter about managing these risks (responding to this article):

For thoughts on specific areas to pursue, see the following links and discussion on sustainable energy, pricing of electric carsenergy-efficient aviation & space technology, reversing land clearing for meat consumption and - looking beyond climate change - water pollution:

Reversing land clearing for meat production
Current animal farming practices are environmentally unsustainable and unethical (see this documentary showing the appalling way farm animals are treated), and always will be under pressure to remain so, in order to keep the cost of food low.  Cattle grazing occupies 25% of the world’s ice-free land, which on top of other human uses of land & oceans threatens many species with extinction, and along with other animal agriculture causes roughly 30%+/-10% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.  A low, UN/IPCC estimate of about 20includes emissions from new land clearing, whilst higher estimates include further "uncounted" emissions such as the lost opportunity to absorb CO2 by allowing forest regrowth on existing pasture land (an upper estimate of about 50% also includes over 10% for animal respiration which I don't think is valid).  In Queensland, Australia, where land clearing is on a par with that of the Amazon in Brazil (where it has surged in 2019 & been worsened by fires used for clearing), 73% of clearing is for beef production (& over 90% in Great Barrier Reef catchments).  Reversing this by investing in reforestation and coastal ecosystems, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil and China, could offset other greenhouse emissions over a couple of decades until the forests reach maturity, and thus buy us time for an orderly, non-disruptive phase-out of existing fossil-fuel systems (as well as restoring the habitats of endangered wildlife).  At the same time, sustainably grown, high-tech timber used for better, natural buildings (or better still, bamboo, which absorbs 5 times more CO2 & releases 35% more oxygen than hardwood trees, as well as saving pandas), offers the potential, along with low-carbon concrete and other strategies, to reduce the 8% of CO2 emissions created by cement production.

Meat production also requires huge amounts of water - e.g. 15,000 litres per kg of beef (vs 1000 litres/kg grain) - which means water use for food could be reduced 33-55% by switching to a vegetarian & fish diet (from typical levels of about 3,000 litres per person/day, though commonly 50% higher for the French as they need 7x more water per kg of wine than the 111 litres required for a kg of beer).  Similarly, cotton growing requires 2-3 times more land & water than hemp (& infinitely more agricultural chemicals & pesticides).

China is responsible for over a quarter of global meat consumption, but consumes half as much meat per capita as the US & Australia.  For health reasons (but with major environmental bonus) the Chinese government wants to further halve this.  In the UK, a third of Brits have already stopped or reduced their meat consumption, for health, ethical & environmental reasons (but they do miss their bacon sarnies & pork scratchings!).  However, far greater reductions in global meat consumption are needed to avoid environmental disaster, with Western countries needing to reduce beef consumption by about 90% to help avoid severe global warming, by encouraging "flexitarian" diets (with reduced but not zero meat, which may be healthier & more realistic than vegan and even better for the environment than a vegetarian diet that increases the negative impacts of dairy farming, unless you switch to vegan cheese & ice-cream etc.).

So instead of subsidising environmentally-damaging agriculture and unsustainable fishing, public policy should support sustainable farming, such as:
In the meantime, it would also help if we reduced the 25-30% of food that is currently wasted, perhaps by reducing global inequality, since the nearly 1 billion of hungry, undernourished people in the world tend not to waste food like the 2 billion overweight or obese adults (consumers in Europe & North America waste about 10 x more food than those in sub-Saharan Africa & South Asia, although the majority of food waste occurs during production & retailing, and at fairly consistent rates in all countries, although for different reasons).
Clean water & sanitation
According to Rotary Australia's June 2019 magazine, more than 80% of human wastewater is discharged into rivers and the ocean without any pollution control.  Besides the adverse environmental impacts for wildlife & crops in and around rivers & coastlines, the consequences of poor sanitation for people are shocking.  Even in 2015, 2.1 billion people (27% of the global population) lacked access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people (58%) lacked safely-managed sanitation services.  A billion people (13% of the global population) defecate in the open every day as they have no sanitation at all, and another 2.3 billion people still lack the most basic sanitation facilities or - like many indigenous Australians - live with substandard sanitation (which has prompted Bill Gates to support the development of new self-contained & affordable low-water-use toilet technologies).  Half of people in hospital beds in sub-Saharan Africa are there because of diseases directly related to poor sanitation, and every year around 14,500 children under five in East Indonesia die from diarrhoea - contributing to the 1.1 million annual global child deaths (plus 700,000 adults), including 500,000 infants, and US$233 billion p.a. in global costs caused by unsafe water, sanitation & hygiene.
In 80% of the households around the world without a direct water supply, women & girls are responsible for water collection, and this obligation, along with inadequate sanitary facilities, are major reasons why 20% of girls in India drop out of school when they reach puberty.  Moreover, with no toilet at home, up to half of reported rapes in some Indian states happen to females seeking a secluded place to go outside of daylight hours.

Improvements are being made; for example, in 2014 only 40% of Indian households had a toilet and in 2016, half of India's rural population practiced open defecation, but over the 5 years to 2019 the Indian government provided toilets for 90% of the 100 million homes that lacked one, reducing deaths from open defecation by two thirds.  However, there are still millions of people in the country without access to a usable toilet and many that have been built are not properly connected or maintained and being used.  Less than 5% of India's towns & cities have sewage treatment plants (& still only 30% of sewage is treated in big cities), whilst in 2018 nearly a quarter of school toilets were unusable and in four northern Indian states almost a quarter of people in households with toilets still defecated in the open.
Globally it's estimated that about 2 billion people are still at immediate risk of being without water, and by 2050 about a quarter of the world's population could well be affected by chronic and recurring freshwater shortages.

Does it make you think about what we take for granted when we're deciding how to spend our money in the West?  Frankly I can't think of a higher priority for global society to invest our limited resources in, so that's something I'm working on at the moment, combined with some ideas about solar energy, affordable, modular housing & stakeholder finance.

Ocean plastic pollution
Whilst there is thankfully increasing attention being paid to ocean plastic pollution, current community & government actions - mainly focussed on banning certain things like plastic bags & straws (the latter comprising a mere 0.025% of ocean plastic waste) - are largely tokenistic and not informed by the evidence of where the problem comes from - which as New Scientist reports, is substantially due to poor waste management in developing countries (like this open plastic dump island in the Maldives).  A 2015 McKinsey study found that 20% of ocean plastic waste comes from ocean-based sources like fishing vessels (nearly half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets, so it's no wonder they collect other rubbish), but of the dominant 80% of ocean plastic that leaks from land sources (especially when near the coast), 75% is from uncollected waste and the rest due to leakage from poor waste-management systems.  Clearly waste collection is the big problem, and moreover, 55-60% of all land-sourced ocean plastic comes from just 5 Asian countries, where waste systems are poor or non-existent.  For example, only 5% of waste is collected in rural China (40% in China overall) vs 90%+ in the Philippines & developed countries.  Also this study found that 90-95% of river-borne plastic in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 rivers - 8 of them Asian (e.g. the Yangtze, Indus, Ganges & Mekong) and two in Africa (the Nile & Niger) - with all having large populations and poor waste management along their catchments (although another study estimated two-thirds of river-borne plastic comes from the top 20 polluting rivers, also mostly in Asia).  Note however that the 1-1.5 million tonnes p.a. of river-borne plastic, which can come from places far from the coast, only contributes around 10-15% of the roughly 10 million tonnes p.a. total land-based plastic entering oceans, so by far the biggest source of ocean plastic is the roughly 8 million tonnes p.a. of uncollected & mismanaged waste nearer to coastlines, especially in poorer regions without any waste collection (and the total, including ocean-based sources, is about 12 million tonnes p.a., as in the chart below, although note there is a large uncertainty of some +/-40% in these total tonnage estimates).

My concern is that as recent public reaction to bag bans in Australia shows, there is a limit to what people are willing to "pay" (in $ & inconvenience) to address the problem of ocean plastic, so we need to ensure maximum "bang-for-buck".  I for one have already had enough of not being able to drink the last of my cocktail through a paper straw that's turned to mush, and that makes me more resistant to the next daft ban that's proposed (& though straws are given out far more than necessary, sometimes they are needed, especially by some disabled people, so there are better ways to reduce this plastic waste than simply banning them).  At some point, the community will say, "Enough!", but we will have done precious little to actually reduce ocean plastic.  You can think of it as a limited "green budget" that's available to spend, which we should use as effectively as possible before it's all gone, so we need a comprehensive plastic management strategy that prioritises the range of potential initiatives.  And given the majority of ocean plastic comes from regions of the world suffering extreme poverty, if we are going to be rational and focus on the most effective measures then top & urgent priorities over the short-medium term (more importantly than promoting recycling) should be for richer countries to help poorer countries improve (& actually have!) waste collection & management (perhaps with financial support being part of broader trade dealswhich seems fair given how much global wealth & polluting consumption is concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy % of the population).

Technologies for collecting existing plastic waste may also be part of the solution, although mainly in areas of high concentration within rivers & harbours and coastal beaches, since about 95% of ocean plastic is below the surface.  The chart below indicates 94% is on the sea floor, with just 1% on the surface and the remaining 4% on coastal beaches, but the concentration on beaches - which are a constant new source for ocean plastic - is about 30 times that on the sea floor.  However this video suggests 92% of ocean plastic that is concentrated in five major ocean garbage patches is comprised of large items, so although these patches hold a relatively small percentage of total ocean plastic (the largest of these five patches, in the Pacific, contains 80,000 tonnes or less than 1% of total ocean plastic) there may be a large flow of plastics towards & through these concentrated patches (which is why they form these congregated patches), where they break down into microplastics due to light degradation before sinking and being dispersed across the sea floor.  Therefore collecting plastic from these ocean patches may actually be an effective way of reducing plastic levels throughout the oceans.

In beach clear-ups, plastic cigarette butts are said to comprise about a third of all items collected, although this data suggests 12% (about the same as bags, straws & stirrers combined), with the next most common items of food wrappers, bottles & tops accounting for 22%.  This implies cigarette butts may be responsible for between 0.5 and 1.4 million tonnes of ocean plastic p.a. globally (scaled from 64kt p.a. in the US), which is some 5-15% of the roughly 10 million tonnes p.a. of land-based plastic entering the world's seas.  To address these major pollutants, tobacco (& other) companies need to be pressured/incentivised to develop biodegradable alternatives.  However, such regulation needs to be prioritised on the major culprits; for example, microplastics in cosmetics don't appear to be a significant problem (see chart below from a European Commission Study, and this industry link, although of course the latter isn't a neutral source).

For the longer term, the use of plastics may have relevance to oil & energy-use (unless replaced by bio-plastics), so we do also need to support innovation for more efficient reuse & recycling, but although plastic packaging can sometimes be taken to absurd levels, initiatives in these areas need to balance competing issues, like the benefits of plastic for food hygiene, preservation & waste reduction (which otherwise adds to greenhouse emissions), energy use (e.g. for otherwise longer refrigeration of fresh food or to make alternative packaging/carrying materials), cost etc., so it's not simply a case of plastic = bad & re-use/recycling = good.  For example, after California banned so-called single-use retail plastic bags, which people had actually been using as bin liners, 30% of the avoided plastic came back as new purchases of truly single-use rubbish bags (& more waste may arise from peopling throwing out the more resource-intensive thick bags that supermarkets issue instead, as appears to be the case in the UK, where supermarkets are now handing out more than a billion thick plastic 'bags for life' each year, which it's claimed is using more plastic than with the previous 'single-use' bags).  Depending on your assumptions and objectives, thick plastic bags and even paper bags need to be reused more than 3 times for a net environmental benefit vs a thin single-use plastic bag, whilst supposedly "green" cotton tote bags need to be used at least 130 times and perhaps more than 7000 times.  Single-use plastic shopping bags and drinking straws make up less than 1% of the more than 100 kg of plastic that each Australian uses every year, which if saved up over a year would only form the size of a volleyball, which (if the bags weren't used as bin liners) could be then thrown in the local recycling bin.  We would do better to focus on reducing and recycling the two-thirds of the plastic we use for packaging.  And of course things that cause problems also have benefits (e.g. faster check-out & hence lower grocery costs), so we need to be careful about banning things.  For example, any parent knows how beneficial disposable nappies are, and actually cloth nappies may be worse for the environment than disposables if they use non-renewable energy for washing & drying.  More broadly, dogs have a bigger carbon footprint than a 4WD, so should we ban dogs?!

Funding to support an evidence-based strategy like this should come from small, pragmatic levies on the worst culprits for plastic waste, e.g. retail bags, bottles & fast-food packaging (which of course isn't possible if you simply ban these items) and maybe a general virgin-plastic production tax.  Such price signals will also help to make recycling and bio-plastics (such as seaweed) more commercially viable (but a virgin-plastic tax would probably not be a very effective incentive for directly reducing ocean pollution since the chances of plastic waste blowing into waterways would vary inversely with weight).  As a relatively poor multi-island nation that is struggling with ocean plastic waste ("drowning in plastic"), Indonesia is also leading the way with major investment in the development of bio-plastics (which in the near term may still cost 30% more than virgin plastic), including genuinely biodegradable/soluble bags that animals can safely eat, as well as compostable coffee cups and even human-edible/soluble food packaging, water balls & bottles based on seaweed, which unlike other bio-plastic sources doesn't require land that's needed for other purposes (such as food production), and may be a major source of economic growth for Indonesia.  Likewise, East Timor is aiming to take a world-leading role in recycling plastics into new plastics or oil fuel, using Australian-developed technology.  Perhaps phasing out Australian waste exports (which probably makes sense in the medium term if you assume all nations have similar wage levels and environmental standards) will encourage us to use our own technology too!

And as a final option (or until bio-plastics can replace non-biodegradable plastic), since unfortunately so many people in our wealthy society are so wasteful & careless (whatever it costs them), yes, bans on certain items may be necessary - if the evidence clearly supports it.

But if supermarkets were to bring back bags similar to those they used to have, then I'd suggest very slightly thicker ones that can be more readily reused (& don't need the ridiculously wasteful "double bagging" for heavy items that they used to do), charging (or taxing) maybe 5c/bag for self-service (or rounding up to the nearest 5c), or 10c per $10 of shopping (rather than counting many bags) for a checkout assistant that bags your items for you (which may be quicker and hence save the supermarket and ultimately the customer money).