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What are fossil fuels doing to our planet’s ecology and economic systems

By David Holland,
December 2016
Grad. Dip. Environmental Management, B.A.S Env. Planning.
This article has been derived from research related to studies in the subject climate change impacts, mitigations and adaptation compiled by Professor Andrew Rawson as part of a Master of Environmental Management at CSU.

This blog is about a scenario of a briefing note to a minister on anthropogenic climate change.

This briefing note is to a government official somewhere in the world whom is somewhat convinced of the existent of climate change and recognises that climates do change over thousands and even millions of years, but is unsure of the fact that the effects of climate change are actually caused by man-made processes and that the burning of fossil fuels has made any difference to something as fundamental as the climate. He is unconvinced that a few degrees will make any large difference to the climate in the long or short term and such changes, he would suggest, would have little effect of the national or world economies. (A. Rawson 2016)

This note below is an attempt to convince a government politician of the need for urgent action to reduce the causes of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change that will occur in the near future that will affect global natural and economic systems.


A fictitious briefing notes to a Minister on anthropogenic climate change

 From the start of the industrial revolution in the 1880’s, the world has used fossil fuel energy to power an ever increasing amount of applications for industry and the home through coal powered electricity generation and fossil fuel powered transport. The invention of the steam engine and then the coal fired steam turbine has been at the forefront of the transformation. In the early 1900’s Road transport changed from bullocks to truck and buggies to cars, both powered by the application of burning fossil fuels in the form of petrol and diesel.

Staggering amounts of oil based fuels are used every day. Coal is still used in very high quantities to power all our homes and workplaces even though many countries have small plants of more sustainable fuels to generate power. The use of this type of fuel has a cost and that cost is the by-product of the burning process which is carbon dioxide (CO2).

In pre-industrial times humanity burnt wood and then trees were replaced by natural processes or planted giving the opportunity for more wood fuels to be burnt and the cycle did not add a considerable amount of CO2 to the atmosphere, but over the last 150 years mankind has been mining fossil deposits at an ever increasing rate and burning this to produce energy. These fossil deposits are materials laid down over millions of years. These materials contain carbon that has not seen the light of day for millions of years and now millions of tons of this material is burnt and produces tons of CO2, liberating it to the global atmosphere.

As a result, the carbon cycle from plants to the atmosphere is now out of balance. This means that there is a CO2 positive contribution to our atmosphere.

But out of that positive contribution 93% of the CO2 is able to be absorbed by the ocean and other carbon sinks. So where is the problem?

The problem is that the CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as methane and nitric oxide create a warming effect in the atmosphere. This warming is created by the suns radiation being converted to heat energy when it hits the land and the heat being trapped in the atmosphere by these GHGs.

As the concentrations of these gases increase over time more heat is retained and the average global temperature increases in the atmosphere. This increase is set to change global climate.

That means that although we will still have cooler days and warmer days, overall combined the temperature will be warmer.

Increased global temperatures will also have a flow on effect where warmer atmospheres will make the oceans warmer. Warmer oceans will affect a range of weather patterns over time through changes both to evaporation patterns and the potential for oceanic currents to change. 

 Monsoon rains will move from the tropics to the temperate zones. There will be more precipitation along the coastal regions and less in the interior. There will be bigger storms creating more damage to life and property.

With warmer atmospheres and warmer oceans there will be more glacial retreat and more melting of the sea ice in the polar regions. This will affect the food supply, breeding habits and habitat of many cold region animals.

Agriculture will be affected in the inland due to less rainfall. Coastal regions will have higher storm surge events creating flooding.

With the warming of the oceans, the melting of polar ice and the melting of mountain ice caps there will be more water in the oceans and with higher temperatures there will be an expansion of the sea water, both contributing to an overall sea level rise along our coastlines.

This sea level rise increases the risk of storm flooding and will affect not only private property but sensitive eco-systems in salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. It will affect low lying agricultural land and the net result will be higher insurance premiums.

It is true that the climate has changed over the period of the earth’s existence, but present changes are much more rapid than the earth has ever seem.

 Although there have been many extinctions over the years, because of this rapid change many more organisms will be at risk simply because they will not have the capacity to move in the face of this rapid change. In past global warmings and coolings extended over thousands of years. Animal species and their food sources had time to migrate to suitable climates. But this climate change event is different and ecological systems will be severely affected.

Coral’s symbionts are sensitive to warmer water and on many occasions over the last few years coral bleaching has occurred were these symbionts have been killed off.

Polar bears are reducing in numbers due to the sea ice retreating and now in 2016 very little remains in many areas of the habitat of the polar bear.

There have been paleoclimate changes in the past. Ice ages and interglacial periods have often been driven by changes in the earth’s orbit. And as far as can be determined the earth is now in an orbital pattern that should be providing cooler climate conditions, but in opposition to this pattern the earth is heating up. (according to recorded data over the last hundred years and from ice core data going back in time over 400,000 years)

By assessing the ice core data and correlating the atmospheric temperatures when the ice was laid down and measuring the concentrations of CO2 found in tiny air bubbles in the samples, scientist can make a correlation of the temperature and the CO2 concentrations over that 400,000 year period.

Their data analysis concludes that long term temperature trends are affected by CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

But there is a large amount of CO2 mixing with the ocean waters and this is tending to acidify the oceans ever so slightly. This, over time, may have an effect on a range of marine animals not least shell accreting molluscs which may find it harder to build shells in acidic conditions.

Warming seas causing more coastal precipitation could produce fresher waters in coastal regions and saltier waters in mid oceans, potentially altering subduction patterns, which in turn could alter sensitive and important ocean currents.

Changes to these currents, in particular currents that bring nutrients from the ocean floors could affect food chains for fisheries in some regions.

It is not just about the atmosphere warming it is about changes to a range of ecological system that will affect human habitation and our life style long term.

 If we were to consider the precautionary principal, we should reduce our emissions of CO2 immediately. But it is evident that the volume of new CO2 that has been poured into the environment over the last 150 years is massive and it has to have gone somewhere.

The volumes of methane (one of the GHGs) from agriculture that goes into the air from farm practices and animal husbandry is massive let alone what emanates from land fill.

The amounts of nitrates (that produce nitric oxide another GHG) that come from agricultural fertilisers and from other source is huge and all contribute to not only global warming but a range of other effects as well.

Can the planet cope with the CO2 humanity is producing? The answer is yes it can for a period, but when the oceans become effectively saturated with the gas CO2 and conditions for the growth of phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain in the oceans becomes too toxic for them and they die, the oceans will become hypoxic and will no longer be able to absorb the CO2. In fact, the oceans will tend to produce CO2 putting it back into the atmosphere. By then large amounts of the oceans will be unable to sustain habitats for many marine creatures.

 It is evident that man-made CO2 emissions is not just about global warming and a shift of warmer climates towards the poles, it is about fundamental changes to the way ocean currents run which effect global weather patterns. It is about fundamental and deep changes to ecologies and the very survival of mankind in the medium and long term or at least how humanity lives and what resources will be available to help create any kind of stable economy into the future.






Renewable Energy and Non-bulk Rail Freight to replace Road Freight

by David Holland

There are some great opportunities for rail non-bulk freight transport to become powered by renewable energy without any large advances in technology. Presently rail freight is powered by diesel locomotives. But the massive diesel engines in each locomotive simply power electric motors to drive the wheels through generating electric power by a generator. This system allows a much more smooth transfer of power by the diesel engine to the wheels. Many outer metropolitan train services use electric power straight from the line to drive the electric engines that are placed in several locations along the train. By electrifying any freight line, a similar system could power any freight train.

Many electric rail networks have dedicated generators to power the rail network. By substituting these generators with renewable energy sources of electric power, any rail network could become powered by a sustainable source of renewable energy today.

On the other hand, road transport has a long way to go to develop appropriate technologies with enough electrical power to replace a diesel engine in a road transport prime mover. The problem, although not insurmountable, is to find a technology that is sustainable and that can store enough power in a portable form to power these freight  trucks over long distances. Until this can be found, transport operators will continue to use diesel power as a main source of locomotion for road freight transport.

However to move towards rail transport for non-bulk freight and take advantage of this conversion of rail to renewable sourced energy we need to identify the inefficiencies of rail and examine how these came about in a competitive market place with road transport in the non-bulk freight sector.

Over the years successive governments have built more intercity roads and made them more durable and safer for long haul transport. The reasoning has been to make the roads safer for the private vehicle travelling these roads. As a result this investment has given a competitive advantage to road transport over non-bulk freight rail transport.

There is an augment made and studies have shown that non-bulk road transport has been largely subsidised by tax revenues in many of the Australian states. It could even be said that it is flatly subsidised by grants from the Federal government.  Spending on roads over the last 50 years has been a political motivator for voting in one government or another. Road freight transport, in conjunction with private vehicle transport has been the beneficiary of this spending.

This has led to an inequity in the improvements made to the road networks for non-bulk freight as opposed to infrastructure spending on rail over this time.

I would like to introduce a paper I wrote as my thesis for my final year of a degree in town planning. The paper was published in 1995 and pulls together a range of documents produced by government studies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that indicate that there has been an unfair competitive advantage given to road transport over the preceding decades to the writing of the my paper.

In the paper  “Melbourne – Sydney Freight Transport Corridor” by David Holland a range of issues about taxation and government subsidization of road freight over rail non-bulk freight is addressed. A statement is made that rail has had to pay higher costs for developing new infrastructure than road and that externality costs paid by the public good for road transport allow transport operators to have an unfair advantage when directly competing with rail forwarders. (Melb -Syd Freight Transport. Corridor pp. 4-5)

The paper suggests that the improvements up until 1995 have shaved off 5 hours of travelling time for a freight truck between Melbourne and Sydney. This can only have been improved in recent years with the completion of the Hume dual highway between these two cities in the last 12 months.

The paper suggests that road transport has a 20% market advantage over rail due to these efficiencies caused by government spending on this road asset. If road transport were to pay this 20% extra cost it would be able to operate in a similar cost structure to rail.

However this is also a fallacy. Rail has not had money spent on  modern systems of rail transport. Rail transport would be still taking the same time to haul its freight between the two cities as in the 1970s. This inequity on spending is borne out by the drop in rail freight between 1965 to 1986 from 51% to 25% with an overall Australia wide increase of 3% in a climate where road freight increased between 1976 to 1989 from 63% to 75%.

Freight loading systems may have had marginal improvement over the years but nothing like the improvements made in bulk freight handling at the ports. Bulk rail is where rail forwarders make their money and common sense dictates that investing money into non-bulk freight is not smart business.

The paper tells us that the rail industry is able to pay for all its own maintenance from revenues from freight. In contrast road freight through truck registrations and fuel tax doesn’t come close to paying for road pavement maintenance needed to repair roads due to truck movements on the roads. In fact the paper states that private car users pay for much of this overall maintenance cost. (4-5, 7-11)

To make matters worse, truck forwarders can register there trucks in a state that has cheaper registration costs but still operate on any states roads. This means that in reality a business cost associated with road damage are not  related in any way to the operation of the business. They are externalities of running a trucking business and never appear on the balance sheet. Even the governments with the best road infrastructures do not account for road damage by trucks.

As mentioned before, much of this road infrastructure money comes from the federal government and trickles down to local government. (pp.12) But even local roads constructed by local governments have heavy vehicle damage due to what is called the first and last kilometre of the non-bulk freight operation.

If we look at carbon emissions from freight transport we get a whopping 78% of carbon emissions from road transport the paper states. This may be because we have more trucks on the road due to the bias caused by government spending.

But if we were to look at diesel-powered rail as opposed to road in the non-bulk sector only, rail produces  60 grams per tonne-kilometre as opposed to road transport at  237 grams per tonne-kilometre for rigid trucks and 104 grams per tonne-kilometer for articulated trucks. Clearly rail is more sustainable when considering climate change effects even using diesel powers freight methods. (pp. 5-7)

It is interesting to note that even with all these advantages provided by the public purse to the non-bulk road freight industry it is still only just breaking even. Small operators are continually being swamped by freight pricing pressures. There seems to be an over-supply of operators vying for a slice of an ever smaller market place. Larger operators are employing larger trucks and gaining better efficiencies. And this seems good, but because of business investments of the truck and rig that take many years to play out through repayments, corners are continually cut by both smaller operators, and larger ones as well.

This is where driver fatigue and financial stress issues surface in the debate. This is not a pretty subject, but if any  changes are considered to boost the rail non-bulb freight sector, this part of the road freight sector will suffer badly. Union power will surface and any good progress to curb carbon emissions and improve Australia’s inefficient non-bulk freight sector will be politically nobbled.

It is interesting to note that the writers of the NSW LONG TERM TRANSPORT MASTER PLAN 2012 -2013 recognise that there is a distortion on the economics of the non-bulk freight transport sector in NSW between road transport and rail transport. Although they cite a conflicting report that agues that registration and fuel excise cover the full cost of the road freight industry and therefore the sector is fully paying for its own costs.

This is erroneous as explained above and the writers of the NSW master plan are correct in the first instance in observing that inequity in the sector is caused by government funding of roads over many years.

It is also interesting to see the short-term plans for NSW transport from the master plan which are in the following statement and how they relate to plans made from before 1995:

Develop a metropolitan network of intermodal terminals

We will seek to increase the share of freight that is transported by rail by developing an efficient and competitive network of intermodal terminals in Sydney. 

In the short to medium term, we will complete the new Enfield intermodal terminal and work with the Australian Government and industry on the development of the Moorebank terminal precinct. These intermodal container terminals will be located on dedicated freight lines and will each provide around one million additional TEUs of rail capacity per year in the Sydney metropolitan area, providing a more competitive rail alternative to road freight. 

Development of the Moorebank intermodal container terminal precinct will have impacts on the local road network. Initial analysis suggests that traffic on the M5 (between the Hume Highway (M31) at Casula and Moorebank Avenue) could exceed capacity as early as 2016, and capacity will be exceeded at key intersections that provide access to the precinct. We will work with the Australian Government on a road access strategy for the intermodal terminal precinct.”

In the paper dated 1995 many of these projects are itemized as improvement from 1989.

1. Upgrade intermodal terminal at Enfield by extending siding by 1500 meters

2. Construct a dedicated freight track to Enfield terminal

3. Extend main line cross loops to 1800 meters

4. Increase height clearance to 6.6 meters to allow double stacked containers.

5. Upgrade track alignments in New South Wales to increase speeds and reduce fuel consumption

6. Replace timber with concrete sleepers

7. Rail improvements including primarily replacements with heavier gauge to raise axils loads from 19 tonne to 25 tonne.

8. Upgrade signalling, communications and information systems

The question must arise as to how much of these planned improvements were actually have done over the last 20 years?

The paper by David Holland suggests that a reduction in fuel excise and/or pay-roll tax for the public run rail freight provider would go some way to even the playing field between road and rail freight.

Follow the link to see an argument that puts forward a link between government funding of roads and the loss of market power for rail non-bulk freight system.

Melbourne – Sydney Freight Transport Corridor

It is important for the future sustainability of non-freight transport systems that intermodal infrastructure is prioritized for government funding to equalise the distortion caused by road funding over the last 30 years. It is also important to design appropriate road access to these intermodal terminals to allow efficient egress and entrance for the local truck transport.

Intermodal systems should include roll on and roll off systems for prime movers and trailers as well as container handling systems. Trains should accommodate drivers on the journey in either sleepers or seater carriages.

Electrification of the rail lines should be progressive as more and more renewable energy sources of power come on-line. In fact dedicated wind and solar plants should be planned along or near the rail route, providing low-cost power to the freight system.

With these improvements and adjustments to the price of road freight to better account for road user externalities through taxation, a more sustainable and more efficient non-bulk freight system is possible between our capital cities and throughout Australia.

Introducing the Habitat Association’s Centre for Renewable Energy

The Habitat Association for arts and environment is proud to introduce our new official section for the development of renewable applications for Australia. The centre for renewable energy is designed to be a forum for discussion on the subject of renewable energy. With a new emphasis on the development of renewables as part of the new direction Australia has embarked on with the recent passing of the federal legislation package to introduce a price on carbon for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere of this planet, renewable energy production is set to explode within Australia.

The Habitat Association has a number of relevant articles already, with a relatively large readership to draw on, telling the story of the uptake of alternate energy generation over the last few years. Members of the Habitat association have been communicating with the Australian government at the highest level, and have several letters from key federal government departments that have been reviewed by the Habitat Association and published. But now with this landmark decision made by the Australian Parliament, the brakes on renewable energy research should be released allowing Australia to become the leader in the world of renewable technologies.

The Habitat Association will continue to be part of this revolution of energy production from the past of dirty and unsustainable energy production to a clean future of renewable sustainable energy production.

Although there are some compelling reasons to reduce carbon emissions due to real threat climate change, Australia will in reality be only a small contributor of carbon dioxide reduction within the world. The economic reality will energy over time and investors will realise that Australia is perfectly placed to take advantage of renewable energy production. Along this economic reality, will come a prosperity based on the development of clean energy production within the country which will inevitable spill over to Australia’s export markets.

Australia is poised to capitalise from two markets where is has a comparative economic advantage. It will still be competitive in its export of carbon commodities for some years that produce energy in other parts of the world, but with vision australia can capitalise on the export of energy produced for sustainable resources. The see how this may happen see the link to our article on the Hydrogen economy.

Australia, and our world, don’t lack vision, take a positive view of our future, think hard and find those innovations much needed to solve those challengers in our world.

You are invited to become a member of the Habitat Association and contribute to our effort to promote the uptake of new innovative technologies and ideas in the subject area of renewable energy.

Link to the Habitat Association’s Main Site.