The government’s Murray-Darling bill is a step forward, but still not enough

The government’s Murray-Darling bill is a step forward, but still not enough

Philip Schubert, Shutterstock

This week, the Senate is debating changes to Australia’s most important water laws. These changes seek to rescue the ailing A$13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan to improve the health of our nation’s largest river system.

The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 is a crucial step forward. It proposes to lift the Coalition-era cap on water buybacks, allowing the federal government to recover more water for the environment through the voluntary purchase of water entitlements from irrigators.

It also proposes to extend the deadlines for the many beleaguered water-offsetting projects put forward by state governments.

Through the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists – an independent group working to secure the long-term health of Australia’s land, water and biodiversity – we strive to restore river health for the basin’s communities, industries and ecosystems. Here we ask whether the bill can fulfil the Albanese government’s 2022 election promise to deliver the plan.

Securing support of the Greens and crossbenchers

The bill is central to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s five-point election promise to deliver the plan, and Federal Water Minister Tanya Plibersek’s subsequent commitment to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full.

With the Coalition voting against the bill in the lower house, the federal government secured the support of the Greens with measures that considerably strengthen the bill.

It is now up to key crossbench Senators to secure passage through parliament. But they have said the bill doesn’t go far enough, citing serious concerns it excludes First Nations water rights and interests and ignores climate change.

The federal government must pass the bill in the next two sitting weeks to avoid triggering a statutory deadline, after which unfinished water offset projects would be cancelled and water recovery would be required instead.

Read more: Labor’s new Murray-Darling Basin Plan deal entrenches water injustice for First Nations

Water Act and Basin Plan: where are we at?

Born of the crisis of the Millennium drought, the Water Act 2007 was announced by the Howard government to “once and for all” address over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Five years later, the Basin Plan 2012 was established to recover 3,200 billion litres of water for the environment from other uses, or to implement projects that deliver “equivalent” outcomes. That includes securing 450 billion litres for the health of the River Murray, Coorong and Lower Lakes.

But this volume of water fell substantially short of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s best estimate of what was needed to “ensure the return to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction”, and did not take climate change into account.

All water recovery targets were expected to be met by June 2024. But while some progress has been made, water recovery has almost stalled in the past decade.

Only 26 billion litres have been recovered of the crucial 450 billion litres.

Of the 36 water offset projects meant to be operational by 2024, 16 are not likely to be complete, contributing to a likely shortfall of between 190 billion and 315 billion litres.

No onground work has commenced to alleviate flow “constraints”, leaving thousands of hectares of floodplain forests in the River Murray disconnected from their channels and at risk of drying out and dying.

The Water Act and the plan do not provide for First Nations people’s water rights and interests. And they fail to deal with climate change.

Reforms to both the legislation and the plan are desperately needed to address these major shortcomings.

Read more: Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be extended under a new agreement, without Victoria – but an uphill battle lies ahead

Voluntary buybacks are necessary

The new bill represents a clear step towards the first of the Albanese government’s five-point promises to “deliver on water commitments” by removing the cap on buybacks.

Without buybacks, it is unlikely the federal government will be able to deliver the 3,200 billion-litre plan in full.

While the Senate Committee acknowledged the impacts of buybacks on communities, the committee found some concerns were “overinflated and not supported by the high-quality evidence base”, referring to a literature review.

The Wentworth Group has long argued for funding to establish a regional transition fund to support impacted communities through these reforms. As part of these reforms, “significant transitional assistance” was announced by Plibersek.

Read more: Water buybacks are back on the table in the Murray-Darling Basin. Here’s a refresher on how they work

Statutory guarantees are needed

The bill requires additional measures to guarantee the unfinished business to which parliament agreed more than a decade ago:

  1. a legally binding 450 billion litre water recovery target. The public needs a legal recourse if governments fail to deliver the full volume. We understand the intent of today’s announcement is to make the target a statutory requirement, in line with other water recovery targets under the plan.

  2. improved integrity of the water offset method and withdrawal of unviable water offset projects The agreement reached today allows the Commonwealth to remove non-viable projects. Significant flaws in the method used to calculate water offsets still need to be addressed.

  3. milestones in the bill’s proposed “constraints roadmap” which specify targets linked to incentive payments.

  4. transparency and accountability measures to restore public confidence in water reform, such as whole-of-basin hydrological modelling, water accounting and auditing, and validation of annual permitted take models.

Several of these measures were announced today. We’re yet to see details but the high-level agreement is encouraging.

Urgent reforms can’t wait to 2027

Australia’s water laws have failed to address the rights and interests of Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples own a mere 0.2% of surface water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin.

In 2022, the Albanese government committed to “increasing First Nations ownership of water entitlements and participation in decision making”.

The Senate Committee found “overwhelming support […] that significantly more needs to be done to incorporate the values and interests of First Nations people in Basin Plan management”.

Many solutions can be readily incorporated into the bill. It should be amended so the legislation is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recommendations of Indigenous organisations, such as the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations.

The $100 million announced today for the Aboriginal Water Entitlement Program is welcome, although much was already committed and the remainder won’t make up for the lost value given entitlement prices, according to analysis commissioned by the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations.

The bill also needs to provide greater clarity for basin communities on how climate change will be incorporated into the Basin Plan review, and strategies for adapting to climate change. This cannot wait until 2027 – communities need to prepare now for their future.

Read more: Victoria’s plans for engineered wetlands on the Murray are environmentally dubious. Here’s a better option

The Conversation

Celine Steinfeld is Director of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Michael Vanderzee is a Water Policy Analyst with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. He is a former water policy adviser to the Victorian goverment with more than 12 years experience in national and Murray-Darling Basin water reform.

Burrup Hub gas project could release 13 times Australia’s annual carbon emissions, analysis suggests

Greenpeace-led research discussed in Canberra with independent Kate Chaney saying politicians need to understand ‘sheer scale’ of what is planned in WA

Planned gas developments on Western Australia’s Burrup Hub led by Woodside Energy could result in twice as much greenhouse gas being emitted as any other Australian fossil fuel development up for approval, according to an analysis by environment groups.

The analysis led by Greenpeace estimated the Burrup Hub expansion could lead to 6.1bn tonnes of CO2 across the decades ahead if fully developed – roughly 13 times what Australia emits annually. Most of the emissions would be released when the gas was sold and burned overseas.

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We’ve committed to protect 30% of Australia’s land by 2030. Here’s how we could actually do it

We’ve committed to protect 30% of Australia’s land by 2030. Here’s how we could actually do it

In the mid 1990s, only 7% of Australia’s land was protected for conservation. Now, it’s more than tripled to 22%.

But to reach our ambitious goal of boosting protection to 30% by 2030, we’ll have to sharpen our focus and boost funding.

In December last year, Australia joined 195 other nations in signing on to the Global Biodiversity Framework to tackle the world’s worsening biodiversity crisis. Each nation agreed, in brief, to set a goal of “30×30” – protecting at least 30% of land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems by 2030.

Our territorial waters already have 45% under varying forms of protection. But land can be harder. The question now is – how do we get to 30%, which includes land and freshwater ecosystems? In a new report, we show how we can do it.

Read more: Protecting 30% of Australia’s land and sea by 2030 sounds great – but it’s not what it seems

snaking rivers in Riverina region
‘Kakadu of the south’: these recently protected wetlands at Gayini in the New South Wales Riverina are nationally significant. James Fitzsimons, CC BY-ND

Four steps to 30%

1. Establish a new dedicated land fund

Buying land to protect it works, and works well. Between 1996 and 2013, the government’s National Reserve System Program channelled funds to state governments and land trusts to buy tracts of land to protect some of our most endangered and least protected ecosystems, such as native grasslands and wetlands.

Under fund-matching provisions, the program led to new state government and philanthropic money invested in conservation. If we fund a new A$5 billion program, we can begin making conservation gains again.

plains wanderer bird up close, resembling a quail
The threatened plains-wanderer needs native grasslands like those protected by the land purchases which became the new Terrick Terrick National Park in northern Victoria. David Cook/Flickr, CC BY-NC

2. Support creation of new Indigenous Protected Areas

Since the 1990s, two-thirds of the growth in Australia’s protected lands has come from expansion of Indigenous Protected Areas. Combined, these 84 areas now cover over 87 million hectares and account for fully half of all of our conservation estate on land across iconic places such as the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Cape York and the vast deserts of central Australia.

Traditional Owners are managing species such as bilbies, rock-wallabies and Gouldian finches to protect biodiversity. We will need more of these areas to hit our goal. One problem is funding has been largely short-term and insecure – we’ll need long-term funding for existing areas as well as new ones.

escarpment of red rock, green trees down to light blue sea. Northern Australia
Indigenous Protected Areas conserve some of Australia’s most iconic and intact landscapes. James Fitzsimons, CC BY-ND

3. More conservation on private land

For decades, environmentally focused private landholders have placed conservation covenants over their land. When the land is sold, the covenant goes with it, obliging the new owner to keep conserving nature.

To get to 30% protection, we will have to encourage more permanent covenants. That’s because many of our under-protected bioregions and ecosystems overlap with where we live – think coastal scrub or native grassland.

To galvanise this sector, we’ll need direct federal support for conservation covenant programs run by the states and territories.

forest in australia with sign saying land for wildlife
Australia has one of the largest networks of privately protected areas, including over 6000 conservation covenants on private land. James Fitzsimons, CC BY-ND

4. Scour public land for opportunities

In the 1990s and 2000s, Australia’s Regional Forest Agreements were dogged by controversy. But in retrospect, these logging-conservation deals led to significant gains in converting public forests into national parks.

As Victoria and Western Australia announce an end to native forest logging, we should explore the areas previously set aside for logging with an eye to protection based on ecosystem, carbon and water values. First Nations communities have rightly asked to be involved in what happens next.

Conservation isn’t just about hitting a target

Why do we need all four methods? To avoid temptation. When we set targets such as “30% of land”, it can be easy to look for the easy route. In Australia’s case, that might be by mainly conserving large new tracts of desert – many of which are already well represented in our protected estate.

Instead, we should look at what the 30% goal is for – to stave off the extinction crisis and stop the biodiversity freefall. To do that means protecting adequate samples of all of Australia’s unique species and ecosystems.

Australia is already internationally seen as an example of how to expand a nation’s protected areas. For the past 30 years, the expansion of the estate has largely been done well, increasingly focused on comprehensive, adequate and representative protection. New protected areas tend to cover landscapes and ecosystems with little or no protection.

While our national parks are known and valued by most Australians, agreements with Indigenous and private landholders are less known but increasingly vital.

Australia’s network of privately protected areas is already one of the largest in the world. Our network includes conservation covenants held by individual landholders, as well as land owned by conservation land trusts. These matter a great deal, because many threatened ecosystems and habitat for threatened species occur largely on private land. Protecting private land will have an increasingly important role.

yellow groundcover flower up close
One of the largest populations in Australia of the threatened Euroa Guinea-flower is found on protected private land. James Fitzsimons, CC BY-ND

Read more: National parks are not enough – we need landholders to protect threatened species on their property

Progress is welcome, but there’s more to do

Despite these successes, the growth of Australia’s conservation estate has slowed since federal funding for land purchases ended in 2013. Science tells us we urgently need more safe spaces for nature to protect wildlife, people and the planet.

Importantly, new protected areas have to come with funds for management. Drawing a line on a map isn’t job done. Our ecosystems are under great pressure from climate change, feral species and human use. If we don’t fund ongoing management, hard won gains for threatened species can quickly be lost.

The government’s proposed Nature Repair Market might help, but secure ongoing government funding will still be critical.

Australia has the toolkit to get to 30×30. Now we need substantial investment and interest to sharpen our tools.

Read more: The new major players in conservation? NGOs thrive while national parks struggle

The Conversation

James Fitzsimons is Senior Advisor, Global Protection Strategies with The Nature Conservancy, is a Councillor of the Biodiversity Council and a member of the Australian Land Conservation Alliance's policy and government relations committee. The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organisation dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Nature Conservancy partners with governments, NGOs and Indigenous communities on protected area outcomes to advance Australia's 30×30 commitments.

British empire’s past emissions ‘double UK’s climate responsibility’

Exclusive: Data shows that including CO2 from countries once under colonial rule makes Britain one of world’s biggest historical emitters

The UK is responsible for almost twice as much global heating as previously thought when its colonial history is taken into account, analysis has revealed.

The UK’s domestic emissions account for 3% of total world emissions dating back to 1850. But when responsibility for emissions in countries once under the British empire’s rule is given to the UK, the figure rises to more than 5%.

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‘Urgent’ calls for biosecurity funding after fire ants cross Queensland border into NSW

Authorities working to chemically eradicate three nests after ‘one of world’s worst super pests’ found in South Murwillumbah

Authorities are rushing to contain the spread of fire ants after the invasive species crossed the Queensland border into New South Wales for the first time since the infestation began in 2001.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries confirmed on Saturday that three red imported fire ant nests had been found in South Murwillumbah, 13km from the Queensland border in the state’s north-east.

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Cop28: Australia to bring evidence it can meet 2030 climate target but pressure builds over fossil fuels

Chris Bowen says country is ‘reaping the economic opportunities’ of clean energy as emissions projection improves

The Albanese government will head to a major UN climate summit in Dubai furnishing evidence claiming that Australia is all but on track to meet its 2030 emissions target, but facing calls that it must do more to limit the country’s fossil fuel exports.

A snapshot of an upcoming emissions projections report released by the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, suggests Australia will likely cut its CO2 pollution to 42% below 2005 levels by 2030 – nearly in line with the government’s 43% reduction target.

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World stands on frontline of disaster at Cop28, says UN climate chief

Exclusive: Simon Stiell says leaders must ‘stop dawdling’ and act before crucial summit in Dubai

World leaders must “stop dawdling and start doing” on carbon emission cuts, as rapidly rising temperatures this year have put everyone on the frontline of disaster, the UN’s top climate official has warned.

No country could think itself immune from catastrophe, said Simon Stiell, who will oversee the crucial Cop28 climate summit that begins next week. Scores of world leaders will arrive in Dubai for tense talks on how to tackle the crisis.

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Chris Bowen’s bold and sudden movement on climate sent the Coalition clutching at its pearls | Katharine Murphy

The existential battle against global heating requires connecting science, politics and community life, often much harder than it looks

A lot of the time, politics feels incremental. But every now and again, a big thing happens suddenly. Chris Bowen made it clear this week the government intends to transform the fundamentals of Australia’s energy grid. Labor has been saying this for ages of course, but this week, words were matched by a concrete plan of action.

Bowen unveiled a radical expansion of a capacity scheme intended to reshape the national electricity market. Coal is coming out, renewables moving in and taxpayers will underwrite the transformation. This is the biggest strategic shift Australians have seen in this policy area for a decade or more.

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Australian dolphins have the world’s highest concentrations of ‘forever chemicals’

Australian dolphins have the world’s highest concentrations of ‘forever chemicals’

A Burrunan dolphin Marine Mammal Foundation

As predators at the top of the food chain, dolphins tend to accumulate and magnify high levels of toxins and other chemicals in their bodies. So health problems in dolphins can be a warning that all is not well in the system as a whole.

One group of persistent pollutants has been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they almost never break down in the environment. Commonly known by the acronym PFAS, these per- and polyfluorinated substances are globally recognised as an environmental hazard and a potential human health issue.

In our new research, we found dolphins with the highest concentration of PFAS in the world live in Australian waters. One young Burrunan dolphin had liver concentrations almost 30% higher than any other dolphin ever reported.

This is a critically endangered species endemic to southeast Australia. While the consequences for dolphin health and the implications for humans remain unknown, the record-breaking concentrations are cause for alarm.

Read more: Controversial ‘forever chemicals’ could be phased out in Australia under new restrictions. Here’s what you need to know

The case of the Burrunan dolphin

The Burrunan dolphin was recognised as a separate species in 2011. Fewer than 200 individuals remain. Two small, isolated and genetically distinct populations reside in coastal Victoria, Australia.

In our research, we took liver samples from Burrunan dolphins and three other dolphin species found dead and washed up on beaches.

We found the critically endangered Burrunan dolphin had 50–100 times more PFAS than other dolphins in the same region. Their PFAS concentrations were the highest reported globally.

In 90% of these dolphins, the liver concentrations of these chemicals (1,020–19,500 nanograms per gram) were above those thought to cause liver toxicity and altered immune responses.

These record-breaking and potentially health-compromising PFAS concentrations are a major concern for the survival of the species.

A graphic illustrating the results of PFAS testing in Victorian dolphins
The Burrunan dolphin had the highest global PFAS concentrations in the study. Science of The Total Environment, CC BY-ND

Results from Australia and around the world

By far the highest PFAS concentrations in the dolphins we studied were of a particular compound called PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate). PFOS is one of the most studied PFAS compounds. It is listed on the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty on environmental pollutants, with international restrictions on use.

While Australia does not manufacture PFOS, heavy use of PFOS-containing firefighting foams occurred until the early 2000s. The Australian government still allows PFOS import for permitted purposes, such as mist suppressants in manufacturing and metal plating.

In recent years, public concern has prompted ongoing investigations into areas of high firefighting foam use, such as Royal Australian Airforce training facilities and airports.

While firefighting foam is a probable source of PFAS in waterways, there are others. Recent research in Florida in the United States found leaking septic and wastewater systems in urban areas were sources of PFAS runoff into the aquatic environment.

Read more: PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are getting into ocean ecosystems, where dolphins, fish and manatees dine – we traced their origins

The Burrunan dolphins are not alone. In 2017, the South Australian Environment Protection Authority investigated PFOS concentrations in dolphins from Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. Dolphins in the Swan-Canning River Estuary in Perth, and in Port River or Barker Inlet, SA, had high PFOS levels (2,800–14,000ng per gram and 510–5,000ng per gram, respectively). These PFOS levels are similar to those in the Burrunan dolphin (between 494ng and 18,700ng per gram).

The globally significant PFAS and PFOS concentrations in multiple Australian dolphin populations demonstrates potential widespread contamination. This highlights our limited understanding of the short- and long-term consequences in our oceans and estuaries.

It is crucial we understand where different PFAS compounds are coming from, particularly PFOS, and whether the contamination is from a time when we didn’t know better (known as legacy sources) or if we are still releasing them.

Isn’t PFOS getting banned anyway?

The Australian government has expressed an intention to further regulate PFOS and two other PFAS. This marks a significant step forward. However, the problem with forever chemicals is they will be around for a really long time.

Typically, these chemicals are substituted with alternatives believed to be less detrimental, but unfortunately that is not always the reality. For example, early replacements for PFOS were initially thought to be less readily absorbed by body tissues and pose lower health concerns. But studies have shown their high biomagnification potential (with levels increasing higher up the food chain) and accompanying health risks.

While PFOS levels were highest in the Burrunan dolphins we studied, emerging contaminants such as PFMPA, PFECHS, and 6:2 Cl-PFESA were also detected. The presence of these emerging and replacement compounds in dolphins shows they are accumulating within our waterways and suggests it is more than our historic usage that might be a problem.

It’s not too late

Dolphins are the “canary in the coal mine” for coastal ecosystems. They live their lives in these inshore waterways and they consume tonnes of fish within their lifetimes. Finding these alarming contaminant concentrations is an important first step to highlighting the problem.

So now we know there’s a problem, we need to ask why. Then we need to determine what can be done about it.

The next step is mapping sources of PFAS so we can more effectively manage this threat to our wildlife and ecosystems.

Read more: We found long-banned pollutants in the very deepest part of the ocean

The Conversation

Chantel Foord receives funding from a Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment Grant. She is affiliated with the Marine Mammal Foundation.

Illegal bird of prey killings fall to lowest level in decade, but ‘true figure may be far higher’

RSPB says figures distorted by failure to examine raptors caught in avian flu outbreak for signs of shooting or poisoning

Confirmed incidents of the illegal persecution of birds of prey have fallen to their lowest levels for more than a decade, according to the latest RSPB Birdcrime report.

But the conservation charity warned that the reduction in incidents to 61 in 2022 is distorted by a failure to examine dead raptors caught in the avian flu outbreak for signs of illegal killing.

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Moonlight basking and queer courting: new research reveals the secret lives of Australian freshwater turtles

Moonlight basking and queer courting: new research reveals the secret lives of Australian freshwater turtles

Rob D the Pastry Chef, Shutterstock

Australian freshwater turtles support healthy wetlands and rivers. Yet one in three turtle species is threatened with extinction. And there is still much we don’t know about them.

In today’s special issue of the journal Austral Ecology, 55 authors present the latest research on Australian freshwater turtles.

Along with other biologists, we have contributed to a series of research papers to inform ecology and conservation of freshwater turtles.

Our research reveals some fresh insights into turtle behaviour, survey methods and conservation strategies.

Read more: There’s a thriving global market in turtles, and much of that trade is illegal

Spy wear and other turtle tech

In one study researchers compared data from underwater video cameras to traditional trapping surveys and achieved similar results. They detected 83 turtles from 52  hours of footage and identified all species in the study area.

Overall, baited remote underwater videos proved to be a “useful, time effective, non-invasive technique to collect relative abundance and species richness estimates for freshwater turtles”.

Another study provided the first vision of a wild saw-shelled turtle attempting to court a mate. The male sought affection from the female turtle by waving his feet and pressing his nose into her face.

An image showing a male saw-shelled turtle 'kissing' a larger female
Underwater cameras captured a male saw-shelled turtle courting a larger female. Donald McKnight

Meanwhile, a different male was observed trying to mount a larger male. This was the first case of same-sex mounting seen in this species.

We are continuing to unravel curious turtle behaviour known as nocturnal basking. During the day, many reptiles regulate their body temperature by sunning themselves. But some freshwater turtles (and crocodiles) also emerge from the water and bask on logs at night.

To find out why, scientists in Queensland measured the preferred temperature of Krefft’s river turtles and watched them bask more when the water was hot. So it seems they do this to stay cool in hot weather.

A photo showing Krefft's river turtles basking at night, hauled out on a log
Krefft’s river turtles basking at night in the Ross River, Townsville, Queensland. Eric Nordberg

Over in desert country, we recaptured Cooper Creek turtles after two decades. While we were there, the site became surrounded with floodwater – this provided a rare opportunity to find turtles moving onto the floodplain to find food.

We also found lots of baby turtles. This is in contrast to most places around Australia, which have ongoing problems with foxes eating turtle nests.

Closeup photo of a large female turtle facing the camera, stretching out its neck to drink from a pool of water
This large female turtle at Cooper Creek was recaptured after two decades. Donald McKnight

Conservation success stories

Foxes target freshwater turtle nests across Australia, reducing breeding success. Researchers are experimenting with measures to protect nests from predators.

In the New England Tablelands, temporary electric fences served to protect turtle nests from foxes over three breeding spring-summer seasons from 2019 to 2022. But in the Murray River, plastic mesh over individual nests only protected some of them.

Nest protection supports conservation of the endangered Mary River turtle. Over 22 years, more than 100 members of the local community in the Mary River Catchment have led initiatives to protect Mary River turtles. Working with communities has dual benefits – for research and for the people involved, who enjoy connecting to nature.

These collaborations have helped improve river management, informing delivery of water for the environment and improving the quality of river habitats for turtles.

November is Turtle Month for the 1 Million turtles campaign, a national citizen science program bringing together scientists and the community, to support freshwater turtle conservation initiatives.

Through the free TurtleSAT app, people can do more than just report turtle sightings. They can actively contribute to data-driven turtle management.

The app provides real-time data visualisation. The program website also provides education, helping citizen scientists protect nests, establish predator-free turtle sanctuaries, engage in national experiments, and deepen their understanding of turtles and wetlands.

With more than 18,000 records logged, 1,200 turtles saved from road hazards and 500 nests protected, this initiative is crucial in light of the growing threats faced by freshwater turtle species.

Read more: Our turtle program shows citizen science isn’t just great for data, it makes science feel personal

Challenges and solutions

Of Australia’s 25 freshwater turtle species, 12 are so poorly known their national conservation status could not be assessed during this 2022 review. Many of these lesser-known species occur in northern Australia.

Of the 15 species or subspecies assessed, we recommended listing a higher level of threat for eight. This included western saw-shelled turtles, which were recently uplisted from vulnerable to endangered.

Threats include habitat loss, being eaten by foxes or feral pigs, disease, fire, and moving species into new areas where they breed with existing turtle species. To manage these threats, we need to move beyond engagement to an integrated approach, where conservation advice is co-determined by First Nations people who are closely involved in implementing recovery plans and action plans.

There is immense value in establishing long-term studies to track these long-lived species. And technology continues to provide new opportunities to learn more.

Future conservation and management will require working with communities to learn more about turtles and protect them. If one million people each save one turtle, collectively we will have made a big difference.

Read more: Turtles on the tarmac could delay flights at Western Sydney airport

The Conversation

Deborah Bower receives funding from the Australian Research Council, NSW Department of Environment and Planning, and the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services.

Donald McKnight works for the Savanna Field Station and received funding from the Australian Society of Herpetologists and Winifred Violet Scott Charitable Trust.

Eric Nordberg receives funding from the National Environmental Science Program Landscape Hub, Australian Departments of Environment and Planning, and Northern Tablelands Local Land Services.

James Van Dyke receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

Michael B Thompson has received funding for turtle research from the Australian Research Council. He is also involved with the 1 Million Turtles program funded by a Commonwealth Citizen Science grant.

Ricky Spencer receives funding from the Australian Research Council, WIRES and Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

US coal power plants killed at least 460,000 people in past 20 years – report

Pollution caused twice as many premature deaths as previously thought, with updated understanding of dangers of PM2.5

Coal-fired power plants killed at least 460,000 Americans during the past two decades, causing twice as many premature deaths as previously thought, new research has found.

Cars, factories, fire smoke and electricity plants emit tiny toxic air pollutants known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5, which elevate the risk of an array of life-shortening medical conditions including asthma, heart disease, low birth weight and some cancers.

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The government will underwrite risky investments in renewables – here’s why that’s a good idea

The government will underwrite risky investments in renewables – here’s why that’s a good idea

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen today announced a scheme to underwrite the risk of investing in new renewable energy generation and storage.

The expansion of the national Capacity Investment Scheme follows a successful pilot study with New South Wales. The government paid A$1.8 billion for just over a gigawatt of capacity, through a combination of batteries and other storage.

Bowen says the scheme “underwrites new renewable generation and storage, providing certainty for renewable investors and cheaper, cleaner energy for households and businesses”. And if all goes well, the scheme will provide a financial return to taxpayers.

Most of the country still relies on dirty coal-fired power. Several power stations have already closed and many more have flagged intentions to close. The ageing fleet is also unreliable, causing power outages. Before coal exits the system, we need to replace it. This scheme will ensure that happens well in advance.

Read more: Why Australia urgently needs a climate plan and a Net Zero National Cabinet Committee to implement it

What’s the problem?

The government was not on track to achieve 82% renewables by 2030. It was clearly under pressure to do something about that. And now it has.

If what’s been announced today actually is built, then it’s likely we will be able to hit the target. The amount of new capacity being considered will certainly make a huge difference. So that’s 23 gigawatts of new variable renewables such as wind and solar, plus 9GW of “dispatchable” capacity, which involves storage – mainly batteries.

If the scheme does its job, it’s also likely to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power stations.

That will help us to reduce emissions but it also raises the risk of blackouts from grid instability. That’s a worry as we head into a long, hot summer.

We need to close the gap between closure of coal-fired power and new generators coming online to firm up the system.

Today’s announcement takes us to a total of 32GW nationally. Compare that to the total generation capacity of the National Electricity Market at about 65GW.

Read more: How could Australia actually get to net zero? Here’s how

How does the Capacity Investment Scheme help?

Under the original scheme, the federal government has begun to run competitive tenders seeking bids for clean renewable generation projects.

Under the expanded scheme, successful projects will be offered contracts in which a revenue floor and ceiling are agreed with the Commonwealth.

This scheme will be rolled out with regular six-monthly tenders from the second quarter of the 2024–25 financial year through to 2027.

If revenue earned by a project exceeds the net revenue ceiling, the owner pays the Commonwealth an agreed percentage of revenue above revenue ceiling. The Commonwealth would pay the project when revenue is below the revenue floor. The Conversation

In principle, it’s a good idea for two reasons. First, it provides a much greater level of certainty for investors. Difficulty getting people to invest in the renewable energy sector is one of the reasons why we’re not on track. In this case the government will be paying directly, holding auctions to guarantee a certain revenue for those who invest in these projects. In other policy instruments it’s really the consumer who ends up paying.

The way it’s done, through “contract the difference”, is pretty sensible, in that the government is only underwriting the risk, rather than the full amount of money. If the revenue the project actually generates in the market is within the agreed range, the government doesn’t pay anything.

But if the people who invested are not getting the agreed amount of financial return, the government will pay the difference. Or most of the difference anyway, through a formula yet to be worked out – but the government will certainly be contributing towards that difference.

On the other hand, it’s not a one-sided arrangement. If the project generates more revenue than the agreed ceiling, that money goes back to the government. So the government’s not signing up to an open chequebook.

Second, this approach puts all the responsibility for reliability of the grid in the hands of the states. That is, dealing with the closure of the coal plants and making sure there’s enough capacity to replace it.

That’s probably a good idea, because some of the states have different views about how reliability should be addressed. Some would not want to see any gas-fired generation being used to back up renewables; others may be happy to have gas-fired power or even a hydrogen power station to back up reliability. It will be up to them now.

Alongside these steps federal and state governments still need to step up the pressure on building transmission lines to connect all of this new renewable capacity to the grid. However, today’s announcement does nothing to address how this will be done.

What will this do to power prices?

I don’t expect it to make much difference to prices. While new renewables themselves are cheap, the transmission and storage needed to back them up will not be. So they’ll probably largely balance each other out.

The bottom line is we will be getting a more reliable and lower-emissions electricity sector at a relatively low carbon cost.

Read more: Unsexy but vital: why warnings over grid reliability are really about building more transmission lines

The Conversation

Tony Wood may have a financial interest in companies relevant to the article through his superannuation fund.