COP21: Understanding Emissions and Targets

The 196 parties of the UNFCCC are coming together next week with the aim of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will likely keep global warming below 2˚C.  Check out my last blog post on COP21 for more information.

There has been a lot of talk about emissions reduction targets recently, but what are they and why are they important?


The Hazelwood power station in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley is one of Australia’s many power suppliers that produce greenhouse gas emissions and was once the most polluting power station in the developed world.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The emissions refer to Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Greenhouse gases are atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane and nitrous oxide, which are capable of absorbing infrared radiation and thus trapping heat within the atmosphere.

There are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions, both natural and human-made. Naturally, greenhouse gases are regularly produced by plant and animal respiration, microbial decay of organic matter and volcanic eruptions.

Since the industrial revolution of the 1850s humans have created a large increase in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). Other anthropogenic emissions come from deforestation, land use changes and agriculture.

Emission Reduction Targets

The governments of nations worldwide are setting emission reduction targets to indicate the amount of greenhouse gas pollution their nations will reduce in the next 15 years. These targets are a reduction of emissions based on an emission value reached in a previous year (the baseline year).

The emission reduction targets are important as they represent the commitment individual nations are making to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately tackle climate change. By combining the emission reduction targets of all nations, we get an idea of whether or not the world is on track towards limiting global warming at 2˚C.

The Baseline Year

A baseline year is a reference point in time against which future emission reductions are measured. The emission targets are heavily sensitive to the baseline year.

For example, if Australia has an emission reduction target of 13% of 2005 levels by 2020 this would equate to 5% reduction target of 2000 levels or 8% of 2010 levels because 2005 was a very high year for Australian emissions.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 10.07.34 AM

Comparing Australia’s 2020 target to different baseline years

Global Emission Reduction Targets

Now that you understand how the emission reduction targets are proposed, here are a few of the emissions targets for COP21 as released by the nations themselves:

Region Post-2020 Target
Australia 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030


Peak CO2 emissions around 2030

Cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 per cent from 2005 level

United States 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025
European Union 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels
Russia 70 to 75 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030

Many of the high emitting nations plan to reduce their emissions through a combination of renewable and low-carbon energy resources, land-use changes or carbon offset programs. Australia’s plan to reduce emissions is to be implemented through Australia’s Emissions Reduction Fund, a program which will pay businesses and households to reduce emissions. Along with this fund Australia also has a Renewable Energy Target which stipulates 23% of electricity should come from renewable sources by 2020.

The updated emission target goals  for all nations participating in COP21 can be found here and the official documents are here.

COP21: Paris Climate Talks

Next week one of the world’s biggest and most important diplomatic events will take place. But what is the UNFCCC COP21 and why should we care?

Understanding the Acronyms

UNFCCC stands for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this refers to the selection of leaders from 195 nations and the European Union who have come together with the aim of reducing the impact of human actions upon the Earth’s climate system.

The Conference of Parties (COP) is the leading body of the international convention. COP21 is the 21st annual gathering for the UNFCCC leaders and is to be held in Paris, 30 November – 11 December 2015.


Sunrise in Paris

Another important acronym that often pops up in relation to these climate negotiations is the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the group of scientists that produce the important scientific reports that support the UNFCCC. The IPCC reports are not original research but rather an assessment on the published peer-reviewed literature produced by scientists worldwide.


World leaders at a previous Climate Change Summit

The Aims of COP21

Each COP summit is an immense global conference whose aim is to produce a multilateral environmental agreement, such as the Montreal Protocol, which was on substances that deplete the Ozone Layer.

It is a big year for the UNFCCC as the aim of the 21st COP is:

‘to reach, for the first time, a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies.’

To achieve this goal, a successful agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be made to keep global warming below the critical threshold of 2˚C of warming since the Industrial Revolution. According to the latest IPCC report (released in 2014) the planet has already warmed by ~0.85˚C * and the gases we have already emitted into the atmosphere will guarantee us a warming of 2˚C.

Why should we care?

Climate change is impacting us all and the outcome of the Paris climate conference will be critical in taking action against man-made climate change. As the world gets warmer, the world is being badly affected; ecosystems are failing, fresh water resources are becoming scarce and food and drink (including chocolate, beer and coffee) supplies are under threat. Other major impacts of climate change are causing ice sheets to melt and leading to a rise in sea level, which won’t just impact small low-lying islands but many cities worldwide.

For more information on the Impacts of Climate Change:

  • The consequences of climate change by NASA

For more information on COP21:

  • Videos and Infographics from it! 
  • The Guardian is covering relevant worldwide news on Climate Change

* A recent release by the UK Met Office indicates by the end of 2015 we will surpass the 1˚C milestone of warming since the industrial revolution


The antipathy to apathy

By Anonymous


Lava and stress-ball tears

By Eleanor

This post begins with a crying stress-ball and ends with a video of me pouring lava. Curious? Read on!

On my desk, underneath my computer screen, I have a collection of bits and pieces. These include rocks found or given to me, a pocket English-German dictionary, and a smiley-face stress ball.

This is the stress ball soon after it was given to me. It had a habit of falling on its face so I propped it up with a rock.


I went away for three months this year, and when I came back, I noticed my stress-ball was crying.


Continue reading

Is Antarctica gaining ice?

What’s behind this story and why this publication is highly questionable.

By Bianca K.

Last week a newly published paper ( stated that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is actually gaining and not loosing ice. A statement that is quite the opposite to pretty much every other scientific study on this topic.

No need to mention that this sparked a new debate and released a media storm.


Wait, what? Antarctica is gaining ice? So climate change is a lie?

Unfortunately, this paper is a very good example on how to spot doubtful science, especially when published by a chief scientist at NASA (surely a NASA chief scientist is right, or is he?). Being an Antarctic scientist myself and working on a very similar issue as the authors, I will try to bring across the main issues about this study.

A brief summary about the paper:

The study uses satellite altimetry ( observations that provide us with information about surface elevation changes over time. This allows us to calculate changes in the ice sheet within a chosen time period.

There are different altimetry missions ( available and two of them have been used in this study: the European Remote Sensing Satellites ERS-1 and ERS-2, operating between 1992-2001, and NASA’s ICESat mission covering the period 2003-2009.


Altimetry missions between 1992-2014 []

While both satellites measure the same thing, they work slightly different. The European satellites use a radar ( altimeter, which is sent down to Earth, reflects off the surface and travels back to the satellite. NASA’s ICESat ( satellite uses a laser pulses that sends down a beam of light. The time it takes for these pulses to return to the satellite is measured and consequently converted into a distance. Over time these measurements allow us to obtain information about changes in surface height, if the measured distance between the Earth’s surface and the satellite differs.

However, the observations have to be corrected for other factors. One is the uplift of the underlying bedrock (, a process that is known to occur in Antarctica but remains largely uncertain in terms of the rate at which the bedrock is moving, as there are not enough observations due to the constant ice cover of the continent.

The other factor is due to the compaction of snow ( The actual glacier ice of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is covered by a layer of snow (usually called firn), which can be up to ~100m thick in some regions. Every time snow falls it is added at the surface. However, due to changes in temperature and loading weight (new snow that falls on top of previously accumulated snow) the consistency of the snow changes over time, a process that transforms snow into glacier ice. Because of these changes the thickness of the snow layer actually changes, as the snow gets more and more compacted. As a result the surface elevation decreases but the ice sheet hasn’t actually lost any ice.

While scientists know that snow compaction occurs, it varies across the ice sheet and, once again, introduces large uncertainties due to its complex physical processes.

While the authors of this paper considered both processes (bedrock motion and snow compaction), they only use one bedrock model, and further assume that their way of modelling snow compaction is correct. However, there are several models available that estimate both bedrock motion and snow compaction rates, usually showing different results. To overcome uncertainties that arise due to such model discrepancies, it is useful (and often done) to use various models in your study to compare the outcome, depending on the different results of the employed models.

But lets assume what they do is correct and their results are accurate, there are still more issues within their research: They use two satellite altimetry missions to cover the period between 1992-2008.

We are currently at the end of year 2015. What happened to the 7 years between now and then?

Satellite missions and observations improve every year; surely there are more datasets available?

For example, the ERS-1/-2 satellites have a follow on mission called ENVISAT, which began its observations in 2002 and operated until 2012. The ICESat mission actually provided observations until October 2009, and in 2010 another altimetry mission called CryoSat-2 was launched, which is operating very successfully since then.

And besides all those available altimetry missions, the GRACE ( mission that monitors changes in the Earth’s gravity field (including ice mass changes), has successfully operated since 2002, providing important insights into ice mass changes. All these mission observations have not been included in their study, although they are available and have been an important part of many other studies ( in the past years, indicating an increase in Antarctic ice mass loss.

I think if the paper had said something similar to “our findings suggest that the current ice loss of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is smaller than previously assumed” and “more research is needed to validate our findings” it would be a good and very interesting paper. But by saying that Antarctica is gaining ice, in contrast to every other study published, it has scientists up in arms and simply transmits the wrong message.

For example, the paper does state that, “while ice mass loss in West Antarctica continues to accelerate, mass gain in East Antarctica is slowing down, closing the gap to offset mass loss”. Obviously this is not mentioned anywhere in the news, as the statement about Antarctica gaining ice and, subsequently, the question whether climate change is still real, makes for much better news!

I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

                                                                                                            Dr Jay Zwally (

But what does it mean for our current climate if Antarctica indeed does not contribute to current sea-level changes? Sea-level is rising ( and if Antarctica does not contribute it is even more worrisome as this means other parts in the world are contributing more to sea-level than previously thought.

You can read more here ( and here (

PhD to Planeteer – Student Conference 2015

The world has a new Captain Planet and Planeteers. See your new world environmental saviors below:

Captain Planet: Eleanor Mare

Earth: Mike Jollands

Wind: Kelsie Long

Water: Kate Holland

Heart: Katie Harazin

Fire: Tim Jones


The winners of Student Conference, and an extra (Pete Tollan).

These candidates excelled amongst a tough and long list of highly qualified specialists in each field.

The Heart category, although once thought to be the most useless planeteer, was decided by the best cake baked by an applicant showcasing both their knowledge of science and good taste. Now they are arguably the most useful planeteer.


Judging the Heart category.


Some judges either couldn’t contain their excitement, or the excess food in their mouth.

Probably the most creative presentation came from Jennifer Wurtzel, who transposed her δ18O speleotherm record into a Cello piece.


by Louise Schoneveld

Anthophyllite asbestos SEM

Anthophyllite asbestos in SEM image (scale 50microns)

Asbestos has become a scary word, but do you know what it is? It is actually a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals that have an asbestiform crystal habit. This habit describes crystals that have a roughly 1:20 aspect ratio:

asbestos aspect ratio

The six minerals that have this asbestiform habit are:

  1. Chrysotile – Mg3(Si2O5)(OH)4 (WHITE ASBESTOS)
  2. Tremolite – ☐{Ca2}{Mg5}(Si8O22)(OH)2
  3. Anthophyllite – ☐{Mg2}{Mg5}(Si8O22)(OH)
  4. Amosite (grunerite) – ☐{Fe22+}{Fe52+}(Si8O22)(OH)2 (BROWN ASBESTOS)
  5. Crocidolite (riebeckite) – ◻[Na2][Z32+Fe23+]Si8O22(OH,F,Cl)2 (BLUE ASBESTOS)
  6. Actinolite – ☐{Ca2}{Mg4.5-2.5Fe0.5-2.5}(Si8O22)(OH)2

Chrysotile belongs to the serpertine mineral group and the remainder are from the amphibole mineral group.

Asbestos Mining

Asbestos was mined just like any other commodity. In Australia, a large blue asbestos (crocidolite) mine was opened in 1938 in Wittenoom in WA. The mine was shut down by 1966 but the damage of mining the crocidolite was already made with dangerous amounts of fibres on the roads which can be kicked up by vehicles. Wittenoom has now been removed from road signs and all power and services have been shut down.

The 1990 Midnight Oil song, “Blue Sky Mine” was based on this town and its mining history.

Click the title of the song if you feel like watching former politician Peter Garrett’s unique dancing style. Warning: intense harmonica solo contained within.

Warning in Wittenoom

Warning in Wittenoom

why did we use it?

Asbestos has many desirable properties in buildings; including sound absorption, fire resistance and insulation. In Australia, asbestos was used in construction between 1946 and 1980. The use of asbestos was banned entirely in 2003.

There are two main types of asbestos used in construstion: (1) Bonded Asbestos: this is where the asbestos is held in another type of material (eg cement) and (2) Friable Asbestos: this is asbestos that is crumbly, dusty, powdery (DANGEROUS)

One example of friable asbestos is the “Mr Fluffy” insulation used between 1968-1979 in Canberra homes. Mr Fluffy is a finely crushed asbestos that was blown into the roof spaces of canberra homes. It is so fine that 2 million fibres can fit onto a 50 cent piece.

Why is it so bad?

As asbestos is a stable mineral it is theorised that the toxicity of asbestos is not chemical but physical in nature. Some fibres are so small that they destructively tangle with chromosomes which can cause cancer.

As blue asbestos (Crocidolite) has much smaller fibres it is considered more dangerous than white asbestos.

What now?

“In general, the presence of asbestos in residential and non-residential buildings does not pose a risk to health if it is in a bonded form and in good condition” – ACT Government, Asbestos Awareness

While exposure to asbestos is considered dangerous, the most important thing to note is that most cases of asbestos related illnesses and deaths are from people who work directly with asbestos. Also, the latency period (period between exposure and symptoms) can be as long as 25 years.

More Info

If you are worried about asbestos in your home:

The website below includes a list of Mr. Fluffy houses in canberra.