Australia: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

Australia is a huge island nation in the South Pacific. It is the 6th largest country in the world, with a total surface area of 7,741,220 sq km and if often considered a continent in its own right. The country is sparsely populated, with most of the population concentrated along the coastal areas.

The climate of Australia is mostly arid to semi-arid, with a large amount of the land covered by desert. The north of the country is also tropical in climate in some places. Due to the harsh environment, natural hazards are relatively common-these include cyclones, forest fires, floods and drought.

Australia is a wealthy country, with many diverse natural resources at its disposal. The industry sector, a large proportion of which is mining, accounts for over a quarter of Australia’s GDP.

Australia is responsible for around 38% of global coal exports and also has abundant reserves of iron ore, gold, copper and uranium. Due to the large expanses of arable land (6% of total area), agriculture also accounts for a significant proportion of the country’s wealth, accounting for 3% of total GDP.

Environmental Issues of Australia

With the large amount of mining and agriculture that occurs in Australia come the environmental issues associated with these practises.

Soil erosion from over grazing of cattle occurs with poor farming practises, which can lead to desertification (desert-like conditions that lead to agriculturally unproductive land). Clearing the land for farming use can also lead to the destruction of ecosystems.

The issues of soil erosion and land clearing are also present with regards to mining. Furthermore, if protective mining measures are not taken, both surface and ground water can be contaminated by waste chemicals that are harmful to the environment. These include mercury, sulphuric acid and arsenic. The coal industry, which as previously highlighted is extremely active in Australia, has many environmental issues attached, including large amounts of solid and air-born waste.

In recent years, large-scale natural disasters appear to have increased in Australia, including devastating floods and the forest fires. Some scientists are linking these natural disasters to climate change.

Other issues affecting Australia include increasing urbanisation and the threat posed to the Great Barrier Reef by increased tourism, shipping and rising ocean temperatures.

The Australian outback. The country faces a threat to workable land due to increased desertification

The Australian outback. The country faces a threat to workable land due to increased desertification. Image Credits: CIA World Factbook

Environmental Policies of Australia

Australia is involved in many key international environmental policies. Among these is ‘Desertification’. This is a United Nation policy signed by 193 nations, to reduce desertification and drought in countries that these issues affect.

Australia has also signed the ‘Hazardous Waste’ policy, which is used to measure and minimise toxic waste in the atmosphere, water and ground. This is especially important for the mining industry.

Other signed international policies include: whaling, biodiversity, marine dumping and various Antarctic protocols.

Australia also has strong national environmental policies in place and has historically had a high profile environmental movement. There are many non-governmental organisations in Australia that aim to influence the environmental policies of the government. The largest of these in Australia are Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Society.

A famous example of environmentalism in Australia came in 1989, when Bob Hawke of the Australian Labour party pledged to plant a billion trees during the following decade to fight soil erosion.

Recently in 2011, the Clean Energy Bill was passed by Julia Gillard’s government, which is a general bill designed to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce climate change.

Clean Technology in Australia

Australia has a good foundation in renewable energy and clean technology. In this section we will briefly look at how the major renewable energy resources and how they are implemented.

Hydro Energy

Australia does not lend itself well to energy from water, as it is the driest inhabited land mass on the planet, and rain is also extremely variable. According to the Australian government’s geoscience department, there are few hydro energy resources left in Australia that are not being used.

Despite the dearth of natural water, there are over 100 hydroelectric plants running in Australia, with a total capacity of 7800MW. Tasmania relies heavily on hydroelectricity as it provides the majority of the state’s power. In total, just over 13,000 GWh of energy arises from hydro energy and is the largest form of renewable energy produced in Australia, but this figure has been slowly dropping for the last few years.

Solar Energy

One energy source that Australia is not short of is the sun. The country has on average more solar energy per square metre than anywhere else in the world and receives 10 000 times more solar energy per year than it consumes.

However, the solar energy is extremely underused and only 2% of energy used in Australia comes from solar renewables.

Ocean Energy

There are many different areas of ocean energy, including tidal energy, wave energy and ocean thermal energy.

Given the impressive coastline that Australia has, tidal energy is a viable energy source for the country. The tidal energy resources on the Australian continental shelf have been estimated to be, on average, 2.4PJ (2.4x1015 joules). The majority of this can be harnessed off the coasts of Western Australia, Queensland and Northern Territory.

Wave energy has not had a tremendous amount of focus in Australia, though it is thought that there may be a large amount of energy to be found in wave power in Australia, especially around the southern coasts famous for surfing.

Ocean thermal energy is a relatively new energy resource, and little research on the ocean thermal energy has been undertaken in Australia.

The famous Great Barrier Reef, as seen from space. This natural marvel is under threat from increasing ocean temperatures

The famous Great Barrier Reef, as seen from space. This natural marvel is under threat from increasing ocean temperatures. Image Credits: CIA world Factbook

A Clean Future for Australia?

This year, Australia found itself only just inside the top 50 (48th) of the Environmental Performance Index produced by Yale University. A new World Bank initiative termed Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE) ranked Australia 15th in the world for sustainable energy. These results are less than satisfactory for a prosperous, modern nation. However, whilst steps are being taken to improve general sustainability in the country, many people fear that too much bureaucracy is getting in the way and is even contributing to some of the most expensive energy bills in the world.

The Renewable Energy Target produced by the Australian government outlines the government’s plans to increase renewable energy use by 2030. In particular, the Solar Flagships Program has committed AUS$1.5bn to implement four solar power plants in Australia. In addition, AUS$88bn has been forecast for adding power capacity through to 2040, of which it is estimated that 90% will go towards clean energy solutions.

The Australian government is also looking to encourage cleantech innovation and investment and now offers priority patents to clean technologies. The aim of this is to fast-track clean technology into the Australian marketplace, reducing the waiting time from 1 year to 4 weeks for no extra cost.

So, does the future look clean for Australia? It is certainly possible. Australia has the potential to become a world leader in terms of sustainability, given its wealth and natural abundance of solar and ocean energy.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on the 16th May, 2018.

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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