ACT State of the Environment 2007

Issue: Climate and greenhouse

Summary

Canberrans continued to experience warmer and drier than average weather in 2003-2006. Rainfall at Canberra International Airport only reached above average in one of the reporting years (2005) and 2006 was the warmest year on record as well as recording the third lowest number of rain days on record.

Canberra also experienced some significant weather related events, in particular:

  • Bushfires burnt out 70% of the ACT in January 2003. Over 500 houses were destroyed, there were 4 deaths and the majority of Namadgi National Park was burnt out.
  • Severe thunderstorms following the fires in February 2003 in the Brindabella Ranges caused silting of the ACT water storages which had ramifications on water quality and the need to build a water filtration unit at high expense.
  • The recovery of flora after the bushfires combined with two very dry years impacted considerably on inflows into ACT water storages and resulted in level 3 water restrictions being implemented in 2006.
  • The central city area of Canberra was hit by a severe hailstorm in February 2007. Large hailstones and flooding to a depth of about half a metre in places led to many businesses being closed due to damage from the hail and flash flooding.

Measuring weather patterns in the ACT has traditionally been undertaken at the weather station at the Canberra International Airport. The expansion of the airport has affected the accuracy of measurements at the weather station. Carparks have now been built around the weather station significantly changing the micro-climate of the measurement area. This means that the data collected now cannot be effectively compared to previous data. This will affect the measurement of climate and weather trends in the ACT. With climate change and future weather changes becoming a significant issue, high quality long-term records are crucial for effective future planning and management. It is important that a new weather station in the ACT is established, with data adequately correlated with previous data from the airport weather station.

Update: Clarification and context for the statement about the weather station at Canberra Airport

The hole in the ozone layer continues. In September to October 2006 the hole broke all records for extent and depth. Since then the hole has reduced but is still larger than in previous reporting periods. Ozone depletion allows more UV to penetrate to the surface of the earth. This has implications for human diseases such as cataracts, cancer and eye damage as well as damaging plant and animal species.

Climate Change

Climate change has become a hot topic locally, nationally and internationally during the reporting period. Increasing evidence that human use of resources is and will continue to change our climate, combined with significant weather events such as droughts and hurricanes, has brought the issue of climate change to the public's attention.

Whilst it is not correct to attribute all climatic variability and severe weather events to human actions, there is little doubt that humans are changing the climate and we need to take action to address this.

The average Canberran was responsible for 13.7 tonnes of greenhouse gases1 in 2005. This is equivalent to having more than 3 cars on the road per person each year. This adds up to 4.45 million tonnes of greenhouse gases for 2005, an increase on previous years (see Figure 1). The ACT's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with per capita emissions increasing by nearly 10% since 1990. As the graph shows, the trend is for emissions to continue to rise unless significant action is taken to reduce them.

Figure 1: ACT greenhouse gas emissions, 2005 and projections

Graph of ACT greenhouse gas emissions, 2005 and projections

Source: TAMS, Climate Change Policy Unit (unpublished)

The ACT's emission profile is different to the national profile. There is almost no heavy industry or intensive agriculture in the Territory; instead our emissions are primarily (72.2%) due to heavy consumption of electricity (and gas) to heat, cool and light our buildings followed (distantly but significantly) by our use of motor vehicles (22.8%). Due to the ACT's unique emissions profile, it is very important that we address our building energy efficiency, urban planning and transport planning and practices. Education and behaviour change will also play a significant role in reducing emissions and helping the ACT community adapt to climate change now and in the future.

Are we doing enough to address climate change?

Since the State of Environment Report 2003, there have been many actions taken to address climate change including the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme, adopting 5 star minimum energy ratings on new residential buildings and developing a methane plant at the Mugga Lane Landfill. In addition, the ACT Government has introduced a number of plans that effect (but do not directly address) climate change. These include the Sustainable Transport Plan, the Canberra Plan, Think water act water, Turning Waste into Resources and ACT Green Building Codes.

Despite these actions, the Territory's greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase during the reporting period. Until recently the ACT has lacked an effective, direct and unified approach to climate change and its impacts.

In July 2007, the ACT Government released Weathering the Change, their climate change strategy and first action plan under this strategy. These documents provide a suite of actions to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. The target is to reduce emissions to 60% of those in the year 2000 by 2050. By 2025, the Territory intends to have reduced emissions to 2000 levels. In the strategy the Government has said "it will not be possible to deliver an immediate cut in emissions. Our emissions will be determined by actions here, actions nationally and globally, as well as by external pressures such as population growth." (TAMS, 2007:23)

Furthermore, the Government acknowledges that there is "likely to be an increase in our emissions before abatement actions, both existing and planned, will start to make significant reductions." (TAMS, 2007:23)

This is a sensible and honest assessment. Effective implementation of the climate change strategy can help in reducing emissions and help the community address climate change. The implementation of the strategy will be addressed in later state of the environment reports. For serious long term reductions the Territory – along with much of the rest of the world – will need to drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels such as oil derivatives, coal and natural gas. The obvious alternatives are wind and solar.

Moving Forward

A strong and unified approach is urgently needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the ACT. In particular, efforts must be focused on our heavy and increasing use of fossil fuels for electricity and transport. At the national level, both the Business Roundtable on Climate Change in 2006 and the Garnaut Climate Change Review in 2008 have indicated the importance of addressing climate change now to reduce the impacts and costs of delaying action.

An effective national and international emissions trading scheme can play a significant role in addressing emissions. However we must also be aware of the impact of the rising cost of food, electricity and petrol will have on disadvantaged members of our community and work to support those vulnerable to these impacts.

The Commissioner of Sustainability and the Environment welcomes the new climate change strategy with its focus on abatement and adaptation and will work with the ACT Government to implement actions and help the community to address climate change. In particular the Commissioner will work with the ACT Government in the pursuit of carbon neutrality with respect to government actions and a close relationship between government, business and the community to engage and empower all members of the ACT community to address climate change.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are made to the ACT Government with a commitment from the Commissioner to assist in advancing their implementation.

1. Ensure an effective response to climate change by:

  • Giving a high priority to the implementing the ACT Government's Weathering the Change Strategy and action plan.
  • The Commissioner's Office annually assessing the progress of Weathering the Change, in particular the Government's progress towards carbon neutrality.
  • The Commissioner, working with the ACT Government and key environmental and business groups, advocating climate change actions and community involvement.
  • Asking the Australian Government to establish a new weather station in the ACT and ensuring data is adequately correlated with previous data from the weather station at Canberra International Airport.

Data sources and references

The Indicators drawn on for this Issues Paper were:

TAMS Department of Territory and Municipal Services 2007, Weathering the Change: the ACT climate change strategy 2007–25, Canberra, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/live/sustainability/climate/weathering_the_change>
Notes

1 Greenhouse gases are those gases that regulate the amount of heat trapped by the earth's atmosphere. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that there is a more than 90% probability that human activities are causing global warming. See <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm.pdf>.

 

Update: Clarification and context for statement about the weather station at Canberra Airport

This update provides clarification and context for material in paragraph 4 of this page, that starts "Measuring weather" and concludes "...correlated with previous data from the airport weather station."  The information is provided by Associate Professor Janette Lindsay, Mr Clem Davis and Mr Stephen Lellyett  (Bureau of Meteorology) 26 August 2008

Further information about this topic (277 kB pdf) 

Measuring weather and climate conditions in vicinity of Canberra in the ACT has been undertaken at the weather station at the Canberra International Airport, one of a limited set of designated Climate Reference Stations in Australia, since 1939. Based on limited data it appears that the expansion of built infrastructure at the airport has affected measurements at the weather station for temperatures and sunshine hours, and possibly for evaporation and humidity. Carparks have recently been built adjacent to the weather station significantly changing the micro-climate of the measurement area for maximum and minimum temperatures in some months. A multi-story building constructed east of the weather station now shades the sunshine recorder shortly after sunrise. This means that data collected since these developments potentially cannot be reliably compared to the previous long-term record at this site. This would affect the long-term record and ongoing monitoring of climate and weather trends in the ACT. With climate change and future weather changes becoming a significant issue, high quality long-term records are crucial for effective future planning and management.

Hence, it is important that a new weather station with long term tenure be established at an appropriate location in the ACT as soon as possible, with a sufficiently long overlap period of concurrent measurements to establish a robust statistical relationship between the two sites through adequate correlation of new and previous data from the existing airport weather station.  To that end, the Bureau of Meteorology and Canberra International Airport have been actively working together to identify a site which would satisfy the requirements of a Climate Reference Station, aerodrome meteorological requirements, long term airport development plan, environmental protection, and property lease requirements.  The new comparison site is expected to be operational by the end of September 2008.

living sustainably

Click to expand sitemap