Koalas Killed by Climate Change

Australia are playing a key role in climate change as a large exporter and user of coal which emits greenhouse gases when burnt to create energy. So what’s this got to do with koalas?

Well, climate change is causing Australia to get hotter year upon year which isn’t ideal when you’re covered in thick fur.  It’s now the norm for temperatures to reach high 40s for several days thanks to climate change, however koalas are much more comfortable at 37.7°C or lower as shown by koala expert, Dr Clive McAlpine from the University of Queensland. Their fluffy appearance gives koalas that cute and cuddly appeal that tourists die for but also makes them extremely vulnerable to heat stress and dehydration.

The iconic Australian marsupials are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they are a habitat and food specialist. This means that climate change actually reduces the nutritional quality of the species of eucalypt that the koala eats because it makes the plants grow faster but reduces the protein levels through a process called carbon fertilisation. Koalas can’t simply overcome this problems by stuffing their faces with more of their favourite food because this would only speed up digestion and limit nutrient intake even more. Koalas are forced to go searching for food, putting them at risk from predators and cars which kill 4,000 koalas a year alone as their slow movements make them easy targets.


Koala enjoying a eucalyptus leaf Source


Eucalypt forest habitats are destroyed by wildfires and drought which are increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change, leaving koalas homeless and hungry! Habitats are also being cleared to make way for coal mining, urban development, agriculture and logging which is “putting extra strain on the already declining koala population in New South Wales and Queensland” according to a spokesperson for the Wilderness Society.


A map of koala sightings showing their habitat confinement Source


No need to reach for the tissue box yet! There is still hope as the Australian Government created the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy in 2009 in an effort to save koalas after declaring them a ‘vulnerable’ species a decade earlier. But populations have been declining for the last 20 years which Dave Burgess of the Total Environment Centre, Sydney warns “unless meaningful action is taken to protect the koala habitat, it may get to the point where the species relies on extensive captive breeding programmes for its survival”. Efforts from organisations like the Australia Koala Foundation have begun by saving the eucalypt forests to help protect the natural koala habitat and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the government seem to care more about coal than koalas and the climate, and fail to recognise that koalas are a national symbol that attract millions of tourists and will have a significant knock on effect on the future economy if they face extinction.




World’s most polluted city fails to clean up its act


In one of the largest megacities in the world, is it possible to protect the planet and maintain economic growth? Mexico City has been facing this challenge for quite some time…

A UN study found Mexico City had the world’s dirtiest air in 1992 but have since been overtaken by Delhi and Beijing. Air pollution  in Mexico City is mainly caused fossil fuel combustion in motor vehicles  with 5.5 million cars used daily which has been a major social concern for the Mexican government and its citizens since the mid 1980s. The transport sector should be tackled first because it is responsible for all carbon monoxide emissions and 80% of nitrous oxides which are two of the main greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Since 1988, the air quality standard of ozone has been violated for 80% of the year as well as being at twice the recommended level by the World Health Organisation along with other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, dust and carbon monoxide. These gases trap radiation from the Sun which causes climate change as the average temperature increases. Mexico City is surrounded by a chain of mountains which is an unfortunate geographic location in terms of air pollution as it prevents the dispersal of pollutants, leaving a blanket of smog over the city as the pollution accumulates.


Scatter graphs showing that there has been little improvement to concentrations of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides Source


Policies were first driven by concerns for public health, rather than the environment. This is because many of the pollutants released have been linked to premature deaths in the elderly and infants and are responsible for causing respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular illness which leave thousands of people hospitalised each year. These effects on health create massive economic and social costs to society which could be avoided if there was investment in emissions reduction. By 2025, diesel cars will be banned from the city because they produce the most dangerous pollutants to human health. But what about the environment?

In order to address this pressing issue, Mexico City introduced ‘Hoy No Circula’ or ‘One Day Without a Car’ in 1989 . This policy is a license plate based driving restriction which uses the last digit of the license plate to ban vehicles from the road for one day a week . For example, a plate ending in 5 or 6 couldn’t be driven on Mondays. After being one of the first countries to implement a policy of this kind and many other countries following their example, Mexico City seemed to be a leading figure in air pollution policy. However, the programme was abandoned due to its inefficiency, but was reinstated including a driving ban for one Saturday a month based on the original license plate based system after Mexico City entered its worst environmental crisis in a decade on 15th March 2016. The city experienced two days of pollutant filled fog which forced the community to remain indoors and called for serious action. Scientists believed the upgraded policy would reduce vehicle emissions by 15% but this was not the case…


A map showing the area of Mexico City where the policy is implemented Source


The policy hit several roadblocks along the way with citizens finding ways to avoid it. Firstly, drivers began using taxis, as well as Uber and Lyft in recent years, on days they couldn’t use their car which didn’t reduce the number of vehicles on the road or emissions they released. Other strategies used were car pooling with family members and even purchasing extra vehicles! This did nothing to reduce emissions because the extra cars purchased were old, cheap  and high emitters. Other elements to the policy have been curbed by corruption where vehicle maintenance and clean air checks can be ‘passed’ in exchange for as little as $20.

Heavy traffic still persists despite Hoy No Circula   Source


Hoy No Circula was also introduced in the hope that citizens would turn to public transportation in a further attempt to reduce air pollution. Public transportation is widely available and inexpensive in Mexico City, so why didn’t people want to use it? Well there’s a general belief that public transport is slower and less convenient as well as a status belief associated with private car ownership. Dr Lucas Davis from the University of California, Berkley explains how “driving is a real status symbol in Mexico City, and once a family have raised enough money to buy a car, there’s a status associated with private vehicles that’s tough for people to break” that creates a cultural and socioeconomic barrier and public resistance against using public transport. Many residents are also concerned about safety public transport which needs to be addressed for use to increase. Public transport has seen significant government investment but the problem of corruption reared its ugly head again when the new subway was built in 2012. The subway has already been shut down due to structural faults caused by private payment authorisations for work that was never done. This is a significant loss to emissions reductions because the subway had the potential to transport 400,000 people a day . Several new bus transit lines have also opened recently as well as a bike sharing scheme that will be the largest in North America.


A graph showing that the number of registered vehicles in Mexico City has increased which can be attributed to continued economic growth Source


As an emerging economy, population growth and increasing private car ownership will make the problem worse before it gets better. Dr Davis has been studying air pollution levels in Mexico City and concluded that he “couldn’t find any evidence that the programme improved air quality” which shows that the current Hoy No Circula policy is simply not enough. An array of appropriate strategies need to be implemented and regularly evaluated with the focus on urgently reducing air pollution levels not only to benefit population health but to lower Mexico City’s significant contribution to climate change. The current policy has been banning vehicles for one day a week for more than 20 years and to still see no results really is a poor effort.



Hot New Energy Technology Discovered in Iceland

Iceland were already at the forefront of tackling  resource and emissions targets by solely using renewable energy to power the country, but their new technology is leading the way in renewable energy production…

Renewable energy can be made by drilling into hot rocks which are heated by magma within the Earth’s interior. The project is located on the Reykjanes peninsula in South West Iceland and began on 12th August 2016. This area consists of old lava fields and was last active around 700 years ago but can still be used to harness energy from the Earth’s interior as it is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which is a boundary where new magma is continuously produced.


A map showing the location of IDDP-1 drilling project at Krafla and IDDP-2 drilling project on the Reykjanes peninsula                              Source



At almost 5km, the ‘supercritical zone’ is reached which is where molten rock mixes with water. Water heated at such depths is then brought back to the surface at 400-600°C. It forms superheated steam which isn’t a liquid or a gas but has the ability to hold more energy than both which is why it is such a valuable discovery. It can then be used to produce electricity once purified .


A diagram showing how the enhanced geothermal system works   Source


The project is run by the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project or IDDP who are a collaborative company comprised of scientists, the government and the energy industry. Their aim is to determine whether it is feasible to produce energy using supercritical steam fluids to improve overall power production. Based on geothermal technology, which is already a well established form of renewable energy, the IDDP have taken the next step by drilling twice as deep as necessary for previous geothermal technology to create the world’s first enhanced geothermal system. IDDP-2 was completed on 1st February 2017 after drilling halted at 4569m where temperatures reached 430°C. Over the coming months, cold water will be pumped into the well to open it up in the hope that once the water heats up again, temperatures will exceed 500°C. This would make IDDP-2 the world’s hottest borehole!

The project began in 2003 with the drilling of IDDP-1 in the Krafla caldera. IDDP-1 raised concerns after the borehole filled with magma at just 2.1km and could not be completed. However, hitting active magma whilst drilling is rare but risky when drilling directly into the Earth’s interior. The magma only impacted the drilling operation itself, which was minor in comparison to surface eruptions produced naturally from Iceland’s volumes of volcanoes. IDDP-1 was not a complete disaster because it still provided valuable research by proving that this technology was capable of heating water and producing energy which left IDDP-2 to take the next step and generate electricity.

IDDP-1 borehole produced a small ash column when it hit magma at depth Source

In comparison to geothermal technology, these superheated wells can produce 10 times more energy and even have the capacity to power 50,000 homes which could make IDDP-2 an international superhit due to the enormous amounts of energy one well can produce! Following on from the success of IDDP-2, another well is planned at the Hengill volcano and should be generating power by 2020. If this form of energy production can be harnessed at other young volcanoes across the globe, it could revolutionise the renewable energy sector and make a significant cut to carbon emissions. Could this be the answer to all our problems? I say full steam ahead!