Global carbon report: emissions will hit new heights in 2014

By Pep Canadell, CSIRO and Michael Raupach, Australian National University

As heads of state gather in New York for tomorrow’s United Nations climate summit, a new report on the state of the world’s carbon budget tells them that greenhouse emissions hit a new record last year, and are still growing.

The Global Carbon Project has released its annual report card on the global and national trends in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

It shows that global emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production reached a new record of 36 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2013, and are predicted to grow by a further 2.5% in 2014, bringing the total CO2 emissions from all sources to more than 40 billion tonnes. This is about 65% more fossil-fuel emission than in 1990, when international negotiations to reduce emissions to address climate change began.

Meanwhile, deforestation now accounts for just 8% of total emissions, a fraction that has been declining for several decades.

Global emissions chart

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel and cement production.
Source: CDIAC, Friedlingstein et al. 2014, Global Carbon Project 2014

The growth of global emissions since 2009 has been slower than in the prior period of 2000-08. However, projections based on forecast growth in global gross domestic product (GDP) and continuance of improving trends in carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) suggest a continuation of rapid emissions growth over the coming five years.

Global emissions continue to track the most carbon-intensive range among more than a thousand scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If continued, this situation would lead to global average temperatures between 3.2C and 5.4C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Graph of possible IPCC scenarios

Global carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, compared to four different possible futures as depicted in IPCC scenarios.
Fuss et al. 2014

There have been other striking changes in emissions profiles since climate negotiations began. In 1990, about two-thirds of CO2 emissions came from developed countries including the United States, Japan, Russia and the European Union (EU) nations. Today, only one-third of world emissions are from these countries; the rest come from the emerging economies and less-developed countries that account for 80% of the global population, suggesting a large potential further emissions growth.

Continuation of current trends over the next five years alone will lead to a new world order on greenhouse gas emissions, with China emitting as much as the United States, Europe and India together.

Country emission profiles

There are several ways to explore countries’ respective contributions to climate change. These include current emissions, per capita emissions, and cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution.

Cumulative emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and cement production for five regions. Cumulative emissions, production emissions (emissions generated in the region where goods and services are produced), consumption emissions (emissions generated in the region where goods and services are consumed), population, and GDP. 2012 is the most recent year for which all data are available.
CDIAC, Global Carbon Project 2014

The largest emitters in 2013 were China, the United States, the 28 EU countries (considered as a single bloc), and India. Together, they account for 58% of global emissions and 80% of the emissions growth in 2013 (with the majority the growth coming from China, whereas the EU cut its emissions overall).

Here’s how the major emitters fared in 2013.

China

Emissions grew at 4.2%, the lowest level since the 2008 global financial crisis, because of weaker economic growth and improvements in the carbon intensity of the economy. Per capita emissions in China (7.2 tonnes of CO2 per person) overtook those in Europe (6.8 tonnes per person).

A large part of China’s high per capita emissions is due to industries that provide services and products to the developed world, not for China’s domestic use. China’s cumulative emissions are still only 11% of the total since pre-industrial times.

United States

Emissions increased by 2.9% because of a rebound in coal consumption, reversing a declining trend in emissions since 2008. Emissions are projected to remain steady until 2019 in the absence of more stringent climate policies, with improvements in the energy and carbon intensity of the economy being offset by growth in GDP and population. The United States remains the biggest contributor of cumulative emissions with 26% of the total.

European Union

Emissions fell by 1.8% on the back of a weak economy, although reductions in some countries were offset by a return to coal led by Poland, Germany and Finland. However, the long-term decrease in EU emissions does not factor in the emissions linked to imported goods and services. When accounting for these “consumption” emissions, EU emissions have merely stabilised, rather than decreased.

India

Emissions grew by 5.1%, driven by robust economic growth and an increase in the carbon intensity of the economy. Per capita emissions were still well below the global average, at 1.9 tonnes of CO2 per person, although India’s total emissions are projected to overtake those in the EU by 2019 (albeit for a population nearly three times as large). Cumulative emissions account for only 3% of the total.

Australia

Emissions from fossil fuels declined in 2013, largely driven by a 5% decline of emissions in the electricity sector over the previous year (as shown by the Australian National Greenhouse Gas Accounts). Fossil fuel emissions per person remain high at 14.6 tonnes of CO2.

National fossil fuel emissions

National carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.
Source: CDIAC, Friedlingstein et al. 2014, Le Quere et al. 2014

Per capita emissions fossil fuels

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels for the top emitting nations.
Source: CDIAC, Global Carbon Project 2014

Is it too late to tame the climate?

Our estimates (see here and here) show that, at current emissions levels, average global warming will hit 2C in about 30 years.

Despite this apparently imminent event, economic models can still come up with scenarios in which global warming is kept within 2C by 2100, while both population and per capita wealth continue to grow. Are these models playing tricks on us?

Most models invoke two things that will be crucial to stabilising the climate at safer levels. The first is immediate global action to develop carbon markets, with prices rapidly growing to over US$100 per tonne of CO2.

The second is the deployment of “negative emissions” technologies during the second half of this century, which will be needed to mop up the overshoot of emissions between now and mid-century. This will involve removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in safe places such as saline aquifers.

These technologies are largely unavailable at present. The most likely candidate is the production of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a combination of existing technologies with high costs and with environmental and socio-economic implications that are untested at the required scales.

There are no easy pathways to climate stabilization, and certainly no magic bullets. It is still open to us to choose whether we halt our CO2 emissions completely this century – as required for a safe, stable climate – or try instead to adapt to significantly greater impacts of climate change.

What we have no choice about is the fact that the longer emissions continue to grow at rates of 2% per year or more, the harder it will be to tame our climate.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell received support from the Australian Climate Change Science Program.

Michael Raupach has previously received funding from the Australian Climate Change Science Program, but does not do so now.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.


Climate models – why they’re not just hot air

We rely a lot on climate models. They not only help us understand our present climate, but also allow us to understand possible future conditions and how different regions of our planet are likely to be impacted by climate change.

Having access to this information is vital for the community, government and industries to make informed decisions – sectors like tourism, farming and transportation to name a few.

As useful as these tools are, the reality is that the Earth’s climate system is incredibly complicated. It is affected by an infinite number of variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice, and biosphere.  How these factors interact with one another, and our socio-economic decisions, further complicates the issue.

Our climate system is affected by variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice and biosphere.

Our climate system is affected by variations in the atmosphere, land surface, oceans, ice and biosphere.

In the absence of a twin Earth to use as an experimental control, simulations are the only method we have to understand the future.

Using observed data, advanced algorithms and software systems, scientists have been developing and refining these valuable climate models for years. However in recent times, there has been conjecture about a key aspect of the reliability of these models; whether they are accurately predicting temperature trends?

A new study, published today in Nature Climate Change, shows that yes in fact, they are.

According to the study’s lead author Dr James Risbey, the key to evaluating decadal climate variations  is recognising the difference between climate forecasts and climate projections.

He explains that climate forecasts track the detailed evolution of a range of factors, including natural variations like El Niño and La Niña (which put simply is, warm water sloshing around the ocean). This is important because in El Niño and La Niña dominated periods, temperature trends will naturally speed up and slow down.

climate model

A visualisation of temperature projections for a mid-level greenhouse gas emission scenario (ACCESS)

“Climate projections, on the other hand, capture natural variations, but have no information on their sequence and timing. Since these can impact the climate on a short timescale as much as human activities, their omission from projections creates a mismatch with observed trends. In other words, comparing the two wouldn’t pass the old ‘apples with apples’ test,” he said.

For this latest study, James and his colleagues looked at a range of different climate models that were in phase with natural variability. In doing so, they were able to make meaningful comparisons between model projections and observed trends.

Their analysis showed that in these instances climate models have been very accurate in predicting trends in our climate over the past half century. In other words, climate change models are a lot more than hot air.

Fine out more about our research into climate in our recent report State of the Climate: 2014.

Media Contact: Simon Torok +61 409 844 302 or simon.torok@csiro.au


Drought in store as El Niño’s western cousin to grow stronger

Dried up lake

Drought conditions are set to become more frequent with the changing behaviour of the Indian Ocean. Image: Wikimedia / Peripitus

By Agus Santoso and Wenju Cai, CSIRO

Over the past few months, a lot of attention has been paid to the potentially strong El Niño event brewing in the Pacific Ocean. But there is also the potential for an emerging climate phenomenon in the Indian Ocean that could worsen the impacts of an El Niño, bringing drought to Australia and its neighbours.

The Indian Ocean Dipole is a phenomenon that has already been shown to have a significant impact on rainfall in countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The main effects are drought in Australia, while east Africa suffers floods. And our new work published in the international journal Nature today shows that the frequency of these extreme events is set to increase as the world warms this century.

See-saw pattern

The Indian Ocean Dipole is a year-to-year see-saw pattern in surface temperature and rainfall across the tropical Indian Ocean. During a positive Indian Ocean Dipole phase, sea surface temperatures off Sumatra and Java in Indonesia are colder than normal. Meanwhile, off east Africa, surface waters are unusually warm.

Like an El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole brings heavy rainfall to eastern parts of Africa and drought to countries around the Indonesian Archipelago, including Australia. A negative Indian Ocean Dipole phase tends to do the opposite.

General view of the Gash River flooding in Kassala, Eastern Sudan

Double trouble

When a positive Indian Ocean Dipole is coupled with an El Niño event, rainfall declines are more widespread across Australia, and more intense, particularly in the southeast.

Currently, as we move into Australia’s winter, the outlook is for a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole in October. But some models are projecting the development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole. This should not come as a surprise. Over the past 50 years, around 70% of positive Indian Ocean Dipole events coincided with an El Niño event.

Predicting an Indian Ocean Dipole event is more difficult than forecasting an El Niño. Like an El Niño, autumn conditions create a barrier that prevents forecasters from being able to predict accurately what state an Indian Ocean Dipole will be — positive, negative or neutral at its peak. This is because its development relies on easterly winds off Sumatra and Java which occur after autumn, and usually last until November.

So, unlike an El Niño, which peaks in summer, Indian Ocean Dipole events form in winter and then peak in spring. This creates a narrower predictability window that gives little warning to industries, such as farming, that depend on rain through spring.

What’s more, because of the strong monsoon seasonality, these events do not have a prominent warm water volume that an El Niño has as a precursor to the event, so there is no time to see the event unfolding. This is also partly because the Indian Ocean is smaller than the Pacific and is bounded by Asia to the north, which prevents a slow, large accumulation of heat like that seen in the Pacific.

In 2012, while conditions in the Pacific Ocean suggested an emerging El Niño, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole abruptly developed in July. The El Niño that year dissipated before it was expected to peak in summer 2013. The preceding two consecutive strong La Niñas helped to alleviate the Indian Ocean Dipole’s drying impact on Australia. But it could still have played a role in the January 2013 bushfires in southeastern Australia by drying out soils.

What the future holds

Just like an El Niño, Indian Ocean Dipole events can vary in size. Our work in Nature today shows that extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are characteristically distinct from moderate ones.

During an extreme event, the cold waters off Sumatra extend farther west along the equator as ocean currents and winds reverse their flow and head towards eastern Africa. This makes the western part of the Indian Ocean warm even more strongly than during moderate events.

Our research shows that global warming is likely to triple the number of these extreme events. This would increase the frequency of droughts over the southern parts of our continent. The research follows another recent study that showed extreme El Niño events were also likely to increase with global warming.

Even though the two climate phenomena are not directly connected, it makes sense that both would increase in frequency under global warming. This is because under a warmer climate, the Walker Circulation, which creates easterly winds in the tropical Pacific and westerly winds in the tropical Indian Ocean, is predicted to weaken.

This weakening will create a faster warming rate in the western Indian Ocean than in the east. As a result, westerly winds and ocean currents at the Equator weaken and so they can more easily reverse direction. This is exactly the environment needed in the Indian Ocean to create an extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole and in the Pacific Ocean to enable the development of extreme El Niño events.

Deadly floods and droughts

Extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are unusual and have only occurred three times in recent decades: in 1961, 1994 and 1997. Of these three, only the 1997 event coincided with a significant El Niño event. This El Niño turned out to be the strongest ever recorded in the 20th century.

Remarkably, Australia was spared the worst of this extreme combination, but other countries in our region and in Africa were not so lucky. There were devastating floods in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Indonesia suffered a serious drought that led to famine, riots and fires that caused smoke haze to spread across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

It is not inconceivable that the drought may have been one of the factors behind the political instability that brought down the Suharto government in 1998.

What’s in store this year?

At the beginning of June this year, the conditions in the Pacific Ocean are still on track to cross the threshold for an El Niño. The characteristics of this developing event suggest we could be in for a significant El Niño this summer. With models starting to suggest a possible development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, could we be moving into a situation like the 1997 event? We hope not.

The picture will become clearer over the coming months, but it is vital that we prepare for this potential event. More importantly still, we need to get ready for these extreme events to become more common as global warming continues in the coming decades.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


The economics of adaptation: protecting people, prosperity and environment in a warming world

By Dr Paul E Hardisty

Paul Hardisty

Dr Paul Hardisty

For a long time, people were hesitant to discuss adapting to climate change. Some called it defeatist, others worried it would be used as an excuse to delay action on emissions reduction. That was a long time ago. The science of climate adaptation – developing tools, systems and technologies that improve the ability of communities and businesses to survive and prosper as the climate changes around them – has come a long way.

What emerges from this substantial and growing body of work are four powerful yet simple conclusions:

First: adapting to climate change is about people.

As the world warms, people are exposed to greater levels of risk. The State of the Climate 2014 report, recently released by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, shows that climate change is here and is happening now . The risk of bushfires has increased. Communities are more exposed to extreme heat. Over the past several years, extreme flooding in Australia has caused incalculable suffering. Without serious action to reduce emissions, these trends will strengthen. Adaptation means protecting people from the impacts already occurring and that we’ll see in future by changing the way we plan, design, and operate the places we live: keeping cities cooler by retaining and enhancing urban tree canopies and greenspaces; building houses to current fire codes; continuing to improve our ability to predict fire weather and provide early warning so communities can prepare; planning housing development to avoid exposed floodplains and retrofitting existing buildings to ensure survivability. Adaptation saves lives.

Second: adapting to climate change is good business.

During the recent Queensland floods, mines were flooded, rail lines washed out, and power disrupted, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost production. Studies by Stern, Garnaut, and others estimate that climate change, unchecked, will cause economic losses in the billions. CSIRO estimates that by 2070, the value of buildings in Australia exposed to climate-related events will exceed five trillion dollars. But carefully planned and timed adaptation can reduce the damage and cost impact of climate change on businesses and our economy by up to half, and in some cases more. Many businesses in Australia are already starting to plan resilience into their operations, driving down risk levels. But many have not, and remain significantly exposed. Adaptation, properly done, saves money.

People up to their waste in flood water

The floods in Brisbane, 2011. Image: Glenn Walker

Third: Adaptation is a good deal, but the longer we wait to act, the lower the benefits.

Many of the practical adaptive actions we can do to protect our families, communities and businesses are low cost, and yield significant improvements in resilience. Some adaptation measures, like preserving coastal ecosystems (dunes and mangroves, for instance), protect homes, coastal infrastructure and industry from storm surges and sea-level rise, and cost almost nothing. Building or retrofitting homes to current fire codes costs relatively little, and substantially improves survival rates. Recent CSIRO research shows that protecting buildings from coastal flooding can yield up to $40 in net benefit for each dollar invested. Another study on protecting infrastructure from high winds shows that net benefits of adaptation are large, but drop by half if we wait 20 years to implement. Act early, reap the rewards.

Fourth: There are economic and ecological limits to adaptation.

Adaptation is good news, and compared to the challenge of cutting emissions, much can be achieved quickly and with little fuss. But it is important to recognise that there are limits to what adaptation can do.

There are economic limits. We will exhaust the lowest cost – highest benefit adaptation options first. Dunes and mangroves are great, if you have them, but they can only do so much. As the climatic changes persist and worsen, as is projected, other measures will be needed. Sea walls and tidal barriers can help protect coastal communities from sea-level rise and storms. But they can pose significant engineering challenges, and carry big price tags. In the next few decades, with business-as-usual emissions, the costs of adaptation could start not only to stress the ability of society to pay, but could begin to surpass the cost we would have had to pay to transform our energy systems in the first place.

There are ecological limits, too. While there are things we can do to help reduce the impacts on species and ecosystems, like planning reserves to provide corridors for migration, and transplanting vulnerable species into refuges in new suitable locations, the rates of ecosystem change implied by our current emissions trajectory will leave many creatures behind. Landmark work done by CSIRO predicts that at current emission rates, virtually every native ecosystem in Australia will have been replaced by something else by 2070.

Adaptation makes sense, on a number of levels. Understanding the practical and economic limits of adaptation will help us frame the case for emissions reduction, highlight the risks we face, and show the importance of starting our adaptation journey now.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II released its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability today. In this video Dr Mark Howden discusses how CSIRO is developing strategies to help reduce the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and communities:


State of the Climate 2014? It’s warmer.

State of the Climate 2014 report cover

Every two years CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology get together, crunch the numbers and release a definitive report on long term trends in Australia’s climate – The State of the Climate.

The SoC 2014 released today is focused on the changes that have been observed in Australia’s long-term climate trends and it shows that temperatures across Australia were, on average, almost 1°C warmer than they were a century ago, with most of the warming having occurred since 1950.

“Australia’s mean temperature has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910,” BoM chief Dr Vertessy said. “Seven of the ten warmest years on record in Australia have occurred since 1998. When we compare the past 15 years to the period 1951 to 1980, we find that the frequency of very warm months has increased five-fold and the frequency of very cool months has decreased by around a third.

“The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950. Extreme fire weather risk has increased, and the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.

“We have also seen a general trend of declining autumn and winter rainfall, particularly in southwestern and southeastern Australia, while heavy rainfall events are projected to increase. Australian average annual rainfall has increased slightly, largely due to increases in spring and summer rainfall, most markedly in northwestern Australia.”

History of data collection

State of the Climate 2014 draws on an extensive record of observations and analysis from CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and other sources.

CSIRO boss Megan Clark said Australia has warmed in every State and Territory and in every season.

“Australia has one of the most variable climates in the world. Against this backdrop, across the decades, we’re continuing to see increasing temperatures, warmer oceans, changes to when and where rain falls and higher sea levels,” Dr Clark said. “The sea-surface temperatures have warmed by 0.9°C since 1900 and greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.”

CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology play a key role in monitoring, measuring and reporting on weather and climate, contributing to improved understanding of our changing global climate system. State of the Climate 2014 is the third report in a series and follows earlier reports in 2010 and 2012.

Indicators of a world experiencing a consistent pattern of warming.

Indicators of a world experiencing a consistent pattern of warming.

Below are some of the main facts from the report.

Temperature

  • Australia’s mean surface air temperature has warmed by 0.9°C since 1910.
  • Seven of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.
  • Over the past 15 years, the frequency of very warm months has increased five-fold and the frequency of very cool months has declined by around a third, compared to 1951–1980.
  • Sea-surface temperatures in the Australian region have warmed by 0.9°C since 1900.

Rainfall

  • Rainfall averaged across Australia has slightly increased since 1900, with a large increase in northwest Australia since 1970.
  • A declining trend in winter rainfall persists in southwest Australia.
  • Autumn and early winter rainfall has mostly been below average in the southeast since 1990.

Heatwaves and fire weather

  • The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950.
  • There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.

Global atmosphere and cryosphere

  • A wide range of observations show that the global climate system continues to warm.
  • It is extremely likely that the dominant cause of recent warming is human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and not natural climate variability.
  • Ice-mass loss from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets has accelerated over the past two decades.
  • Arctic summer minimum sea ice extent has declined by between 9.4 and 13.6 per cent per decade since 1979, a rate that is likely unprecedented in at least the past 1,450 years.
  • Antarctic sea-ice extent has slightly increased by between 1.2 per cent and 1.8 per cent per decade since 1979.

Oceans

  • The Earth is gaining heat, most of which is going into the oceans.
  • Global mean sea level increased throughout the 20th century and in 2012 was 225 mm higher than in 1880.
  • Rates of sea-level rise vary around the Australian region, with higher sea-level rise observed in the north and rates similar to the global average observed in the south and east.
  • Ocean acidity levels have increased since the 1800s due to increased CO2 absorption from the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases

  • Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase due to emissions from human activities, with global mean CO2 levels reaching 395 ppm in 2013.
  • Global CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuel increased in 2013 by 2.1 per cent compared to 3.1 per cent per year since 2000.
  • The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 2011 to 2013 is the largest two-year increase ever observed.

Future climate scenarios for Australia

  • Australian temperatures are projected to continue to increase, with more hot days and fewer cool days.
  • A further increase in the number of extreme fire-weather days is expected in southern and eastern Australia, with a longer fire season in these regions.
  • Average rainfall in southern Australia is projected to decrease, with a likely increase in drought frequency and severity.
  • The frequency and intensity of extreme daily rainfall is projected to increase.
  • Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number but increase in intensity.
  • Projected sea-level rise will increase the frequency of extreme sea-level events.

Download the full report on our website. Follow the conversation on Twitter with #SoCAus

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Media: Huw Morgan  M: +61 417 834 547


Most Australians overestimate how ‘green’ they really are

More than half of Australians say they recycle for mostly environmental reasons. Image: Shutterstock/spwidoff.

More than half of Australians say they recycle for mostly environmental reasons. Image: Shutterstock/spwidoff.

By Zoe Leviston, Research Scientist

Most Australians overestimate how much they are doing for the environment compared to others, and are more concerned about water shortages, pollution and household waste than climate change, a new CSIRO survey reveals.

Taken over a period of July to August last year, it is the latest in a series of annual national surveys on Australians’ attitudes to climate change involving more than 5000 people from across urban, regional, and rural Australia. (You can read about past survey results here and here.)

More than 70% of people said they thought climate change was an important issue, which has remained consistently the case since we first asked this question in 2010.

However, compared to many other issues including health, costs of living and other environmental issues such as drought, we found that climate change was considered to be much less of a concern.

Biased towards ourselves

The way we perceive ourselves and others can influence how we respond to contested issues, including climate change. However, these perceptions are subject to cognitive biases or distortions as we attempt to make sense of the world around us.

Misperceptions about what others think about climate change extend to misperceptions about what others do.

One of the questions we asked people in this latest survey was what they were doing in their everyday lives to respond to climate change, and why.

For example, did they always recycle their household waste, had they installed solar panels, or had they changed their diet? The results are shown below.

What environmental actions people said they were doing in their everyday lives.

What environmental actions people said they were doing in their everyday lives.

When we added up all the actions people said yes to (regardless of why they were doing them), we found a normal distribution of responses: a few people did not much of anything; quite a lot of people did a moderate amount; and a few people did a great deal.

We then asked our respondents this question: “How much do you think you do compared to the average Australian: a lot less, a little less, about the same, a bit more, or a lot more?” Here’s what they said.

How much environmental action the survey respondents thought they took, compared with an average Australian.

How much environmental action the survey respondents thought they took, compared with an average Australian.

So how good were our 5000 respondents at guessing how they compared with others? To find out, we cross-referenced what people said they did with their estimates of how they compared with an average Australian.

Just under one-quarter (21.5%) got it about right: regardless of how many actions they performed, their assessment of where they stood in relation to other people was fairly accurate.

The same amount (21.5%) were what we might call “self-deprecating”: they undervalued their comparative performance.

But more than half our participants (57.1%) were “self-enhancing”: they tended to overestimate how much environmental action they were compared to others.

Research tells us that it’s not just the environment where we tend to think we’re better than others.

The “better than average effect” describes our predisposition to think of ourselves as exceptional, especially among our peers. The effect reflects our tendency to think of ourselves as more virtuous and moral, more compassionate and understanding and (ironically) as less biased than other people.

In a famous example, when people were asked to assess their own driving ability relative to peers, more than three-quarters of people considered themselves to be safer than the average driver.

How important is climate change?

When we asked people how important climate change was, just over 70% of people rated it as “somewhat”, “very”, or “extremely” important. That importance rating has remained unchanged when we first asked this back in 2010.

But this year we also asked people to rank the importance of climate change relative to a list of 16 general concerns in society, including health, the cost of living, and the economy. When framed in these relative terms, climate change was ranked as the third least important issue.

How people ranked a list of general and environmental concerns.

How people ranked a list of general and environmental concerns.

Similar to previous years, we found the majority of respondents (81%) think the Earth’s climate is changing, and people are more likely to think that human activity is the cause (47%) as opposed to natural variations in temperature (39%). When we look at repeat respondents (those people who participated in more than one of our surveys), we find no significant changes since 2010, although there was a very slight increase in the small proportion of people who say they “don’t know”.

Other changes have been slight, but noteworthy. There has been an increase in the levels of responsibility individuals feel to respond to climate change. People have also become more trusting about information from environmental and government scientists.

Zoe Leviston does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Take a look at our video exploring the key findings of the survey:


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