Can Mayors Save the World From Climate Change?

Australia’s northern coast is a case study on the impacts of a warming planet. Small-town leaders there are struggling with constituents who doubt reality.


Bucasia Beach in Mackay, Australia, is a mining and agricultural hub. The coastal town offers a view of the rapid effects of climate change.CreditMatthew Abbott for The New York Times

BUCASIA BEACH, Australia — Mayor Greg Williamson crunched through the dead branches and kicked the sand. His government had planted trees near the shore to protect this northern Australian beach community from the effects of climate change, but someone had cut them down, apparently for a better view.

“It looks to me like they started at the beach and worked their way back,” he said, pointing to the 18 felled trees. “Bloody fools — look, you can still see the saw marks.”

“What they don’t realize,” he added, “is that if these dunes aren’t here, they’re not going to have a house or a view.”

When international leaders met last month at the United Nations to discuss climate change, and when millions of young protesters took to the streets, the focus was on sweeping global action. But for much of the world, the response to climate change looks more like the parochial struggles of Mayor Williamson: small-town leaders laboring to persuade a skeptical public about complex science and expensive decisions.

In few places is the challenge of adapting to climate change more immediate than in Australia, where 80 percent of the population lives within a few dozen miles of a coastline susceptible to rising seas and more punishing storms, and where the arid interior bakes under record temperatures.

CreditMatthew Abbott for The New York Times

A decade ago, the country was at the forefront of adaptation expertise, creating a national research center to collect and share knowledge among academics and officials. But over time, the federal government lost interest, and in 2018 the facility’s funding fell to zero.

The conservative government has mostly dismissed calls for action on climate change, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently arguing that young activists like Greta Thunberg are causing “needless anxiety.” It’s a reversal that resembles what is happening in the United States, where the Trump White House has rejected established climate science, and cities like Miami have paid for their own coastal protection.

But the absence of national leadership does not change reality. It just puts more pressure on mayors and councils, including those in less populated areas, forcing them to become the climate infantry — the grunts who push through solutions on their own.

In Australia, they are the ones grappling with roads falling into the sea, with disputes over home insurance as costs rise, and with who will pay for preventive measures like taller barriers at marinas. They are also managing little-noticed budget ramifications, like the hiring of flooding consultants and the quicker depreciation in value of fleets of cars battered by increased salt and sand.

And that is just along the coast. Farther inland, local governments are trying to become experts in drought-monitoring technology, while areas that had never thought much about fire — even in rain forests — are suddenly examining worst-case scenarios.

Houses along Eimeo Beach in Mackay.
CreditMatthew Abbott for The New York Times

Among mayors, there is anger about the burden, said Dorean Erhart, who runs a state-level adaptation program. The group is helping Mackay, the sprawling area of 180,000 people and 32 beaches that Mayor Williamson leads, and other regional councils in the state of Queensland.

“They understand this is something they are going to have to deal with,” Ms. Erhart said. “It’s not going away, and it involves a thousand small decisions.”

For the regional council in Mackay, the challenge is especially palpable because the causes and effects of a warming planet stand side by side. MORE

The new electricity boom: renewable energy makes staggering leap but can it last?

Australia now has enough projects committed to meet the national 2020 renewable energy target


A solar farm in Canberra. The clean electricity being sent into Australian homes and businesses could rise 36% this year. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Thriving doesn’t quite cover it. New data released quietly late last week underscores the staggering pace of growth of renewable energy across Australia.

Nearly 3.5 gigawatts of large-scale clean energy projects were built in 2018. In capacity terms, this is more than twice the scale of Hazelwood, the giant Victorian brown coal plant that shut abruptly a couple of years ago, and it more than tripled the previous record for renewable energy installed in one year, set in 2017.

In generation terms, the amount of clean electricity being sent into Australian homes and businesses is expected to increase 36% this year, and should grow another 25% next year.

The Clean Energy Regulator, which released the report, says this makes Australia the global leader in per capita renewable energy deployment.

He says the new renewable projects in NSW should comfortably fill the gap that will arise when the Liddell coal-fired plant shuts in 2022, a planned event deemed so potentially disastrous a year ago that the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull attempted to put pressure on the plant’s owner, AGL, into reversing its decision.

The surge in clean generation is creating conditions that would have been unimaginable not so long ago. For a brief period last weekend, so much energy was being captured from the wind and sun, and demand for electricity use dropped so low, that the spot price for wholesale electricity simultaneously fell to $0 in each of the five eastern states connected through the national grid. At that moment, 44% of the electricity being used across the market was from a renewable source, compared with 26% across the week. MORE

 

Energy analysts forecast ‘the end of coal’ in Asia as Japanese investors back renewables

Australia’s largest export customer for thermal coal is scrapping plans to build power plants

An offshore wind turbine off the coast of Naraha in Fukushima, Japan. Across the country, 13 offshore wind projects are undergoing environmental impact assessments. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Major Japanese investors, including those most indebted to coal, are seeking to back large-scale renewables projects across Asia, marking a “monumental” shift that energy market analysts say is “the start of the end for thermal coal”.

At the same time, Japanese banks and trading houses are walking away from coal investments, selling out of Australian mines and scrapping plans to build coal-fired power.

Japan is Australia’s largest export customer for thermal coal. Of the proposed pipeline of coal power projeAustraliacts in Japan in 2015, figures from the Global Coal Plant tracker show three-quarters are now unlikely to proceed.

The most recent proposal likely to be shelved, a 1.3GW coal-fired power station in Akita, in Japan’s north-west coastal region, follows the cancellation of two others earlier this year. Sojitz Corporation this week announced further divestment from thermal coal, following Itochu announcing a coal exit last month, and Mitsui in November. MORE