Thursday, August 20, 2009

Well That Was Fun Wasn't It?

Hello readers, just a short message to let you know we've realised early the limitations of a hosted blog and are taking the site (under a new name) to a self-hosted platform with all the bells and whistles.

We'll be a few days off air while we move house and rearrange the furniture but we'll be in touch on this site shortly to give you links to our new address and let you know our new name shortly!

Rich & Damian Read more!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Australian Government to Split Renewable Energy from Emissions Bill

By Rich Bowden

Img: Wind turbines. Credit: Moe/flickr

The Australian Government has moved to ensure the passing of renewable energy legislation in the Senate by decoupling a 20 percent renewables target by 2020 from its more controversial carbon emissions trading bill. The contentious legislation was rejected in the country's Senate earlier in the week where the government has insufficient numbers to ensure the bill's passage.

The Liberal/National Opposition and third parties had indicated their willingness to pass the renewable energy target but refused to do so due to it being linked to the government's Emissions Trading Scheme. In an interview with Channel Nine's Laurie Oakes this morning, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to the move as "safeguarding our renewable Energy Target Legislation."

Clearly blaming the Opposition for leading the obtruction over both the Renewable Energy Targets and Carbon Emission legislation, Gillard said: "Obviously the best thing here for tackling climate change is that the Liberal Party stops getting in the way and allows both the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and our Renewable Energy Target Legislation through."

"But we're in a world of Liberal obstruction, because of their divisions, so we are safeguarding our renewable Energy Target Legislation so it can come into effect, even if the Liberal Party continues to block the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme."

Promote Investment

Assisting Minister for Climate Change, Greg Combet, was quoted by Channel Ten as saying the design by the government to yield to environmental groups' calls to split the legislation was made to ensure the passage of the renewable energy component of the bill in the Senate.

Mr Combet said it would promote much-needed investment in Australia's renewable energy sector.

"What we're concerned to do is to ensure that the renewable energy legislation can get through Parliament, because that's going to unlock a lot of investment in renewable energy sources like solar power, or wind power or geothermal energy," he said.

However the federal Opposition has accused the government of "playing politics" on the issue, saying it had only linked the renewable energy scheme to the carbon emission reduction legislation to pass the entire bill.

Speaking to the ABC's Insiders, Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne said:

"What the Government wanted last Thursday was the beginning of a trigger for an election - it was purely politics," he said.

"That's why the Renewable Energy Target bill never needed to be part of that emissions trading scheme bill, and it's of no surprise to me at all that they will decouple that bill."

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Commonwealth and Fiji Agree to Continue Dialogue Despite Threat of Expulsion

By Rich Bowden

Img: Fiji Parliament House, Suva. Credit: timoshea95/flickr

Though recent moves by the Commonwealth to expel Fiji for not agreeing to commit to elections by 2010 have soured relations between the two, both have agreed to keep open lines of negotiations despite not being able to arrange a mutually convenient time for a visit by a Commonwealth delegation.

A statement released yesterday by Eduardo del Buey, the spokesperson for Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, said the Commonwealth had received an invitation from the Interim Government of Fiji inviting it to send a representative to discuss the body's move to ban Fiji if it refuses to commit to 2010 elections within a month.

The Fiji military government, which seized power in a December 2006 coup, revoked the country's constitution earlier this year and has refused to stage elections until 2014.

According to the spokesperson's statement: "...the Secretary-General conveyed an immediate and positive response to the Fiji Interim Government, proposing that a delegation led by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Fiji, Sir Paul Reeves, visit Suva on specific dates in August."

However the government of Fiji, led by interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama rejected the dates proposed for the visit by the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Fiji, Sir Paul Reeves as being unsuitable.

Both the Fiji government and the Secretary-General though have reiterated their agreement to initiate dialogue.

Commodore Bainimarama, speaking on Indian-Fijian radio station Radio Tarana, said his government was willing to arrange discussions with the Commonwealth.

"I will give a formal reply to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth on Fiji's position before September," he said.

"If the Commonwealth decides to suspect Fuji after receiving that reply, there's not much we can do about then, eh?".
Read more!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Australian Students Twitter Parkes Telescope Takeover

By Rich Bowden

Img: Parkes Observatory, NSW. Credit: Diceman Stephen West.

In what is believed to be a world first, Australian students have recorded their takeover of a major Australian telescope using the Internet and have employed micro-blogging social networking site Twitter to monitor their observations.

The program, known as Pulse@Parkes, has attracted international interest with observers from U.S. space administration NASA signing up to watch the event, reports the Commonwealth, Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in a news release.

Victorian schools Footscray City Secondary College, Braemar College, and Strathmore Secondary College are involved in the pilot project to observe distant pulsars.

Though hampered by some glitches, the success of the venture can be gauged by some of the Twitter responses:

"J0437-4715 still observing", starts one response.

"received really strong observation of pulsar. one of the brightest pulsars so far", observes another.

"really fast pulsar rotation, one period in 1.5 milliseconds", tweets another giving calculations.

Professor Brian Boyle, director of the CSIRO Square Kilometre Array (SKA)project, said the idea behind the collaboration was to put observations in the hands of students, including those who will eventually run the SKA -- an international radio telescope to be constructed on Australian soil that will be the most powerful such device in the world.

"We are putting frontline astronomical research straight into the hands of the young people who are going to be the ones using the SKA," he said.

CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF), which operates Parkes telescope, said the model will be extended. And, ATNF Education Officer and PULSE@Parkes coordinator Mr. Rob Hollow said there are also moves to include other telescopes in the program.

"From there we’ll be looking to make other kinds of observations, such as studying the hydrogen gas in space that is the raw material for forming stars," said Mr. Hollow.

Article first published in The Tech Herald.
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Australian Government Pledges $9 Million for Indigenous Languages

By Rich Bowden

Img: Aboriginal dance. Credit: Damian Baker.

The Federal Government has pledged to spend $A9.3 million on programs designed to save over 100 of the country's threatened Indigenous languages.

Arts and Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin told reporters at the announcement of the program yesterday that the money would go on services for translation of Indigenous languages, the promotion of languages in Aboriginal schools and a study to look at the the possibility of establishing a national Indigenous languages centre.

"These languages are... a significant part of Australia's heritage and we must ensure they are protected for the benefit of future generations," Garrett said at the ceremony.

"A focused and coordinated national approach is critical to safeguard indigenous culture and save these unique languages," he added.

Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma welcomed the initiative saying preserving the Indigenous languages was a necessary action as they were a an important part of the country's heritage.

“Protecting Indigenous languages is about protecting our futures, our cultures and our lives for future generations,” he said. “I applaud Ministers Garrett and Macklin for this initiative and the clear message it sends about the need to protect this vital connection between Indigenous languages, culture and country."

One hundred and ten of Australia's 145 dialects are at risk of dying out according to a 2005 government report and the focus of the program is on the education of young people who very often have little or no knowledge of their own language.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

NZ Emissions Reduction Policy Slammed By Environmentalists, Experts

By Rich Bowden

Img: Huntly coal-powered thermal station, NZ.

Yesterday's announcement by the New Zealand government that it intends to aim for carbon equivalents emissions reductions of 10 – 20 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels has drawn mixed reactions from the country's climate experts and environmental groups.

The agreement, which is conditional on a world agreement being reached which will limit atmospheric CO2 to 450ppm and limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, has been called a "first step" towards effective carbon reduction though is still considered conservative in many quarters.

However the announcement, which is based on the proviso that New Zealand access to world carbon markets, has come in for criticism by environment groups who say the government has neglected to include an unconditional component.

“Crucially, it has not offered up any unconditional target at all, making us virtually the only developed country in the negotiations without one,” said Greenpeace Senior Climate Campaigner Simon Boxer in a press release.

“What the New Zealand Government is saying with its highly conditional range of 10-20% is that unless other countries shoulder New Zealand’s burden, then there’s no deal. This is an incredibly dangerous position to take at such a crucial time," he said.

Barry Coates from aid organisation Oxfam agrees. "The losers here are the people from the developing world who stand to suffer from climate change, including our Pacific neighbours," he was quoted as saying by the ABC.

Elsewhere in the country, research carried out by the Science Media Centre has uncovered a nervous reaction to the announcement of the policy.

Dr Andy Reisinger, Senior Research Fellow at the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington told the Centre pointed out there was an increasing gap between short-term targets and long-term goals.

“The emissions reduction range of 10 to 20% below 1990 levels set by the New Zealand government goes in the right direction," he said. "However, there is an increasing gap between short-term targets and the long-term climate change goals that governments say they subscribe to."

“Apart from the concrete 2020 emissions targets, the New Zealand government has set long-term goals of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050, and to stabilise global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450ppm CO2-equivalent."

He continued: "A broad range of international studies indicates that if we want to limit global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450ppm CO2-equivalent, then developed countries collectively have to reduce their emissions by 25 to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80 to 95% by 2050."

"The New Zealand government’s target range of 10 to 20% reductions by 2020 is a move in the right direction but falls well short of this collective goal, Dr Reisinger said.

Another scientist whose opinion was canvassed by the Science Media Centre was Professor Janet F. Bornman, Director, International Global Change Institute at the University of Waikato. Prof Bornman warned carbon emissions reduction policy was in danger of being "compromised" unless the government's strategy met certain criteria.

“At first glance, the government’s target of 10-20% emissions reduction seems very conservative, given that this is not based solely on reducing domestic emissions," she said.

"One wonders how much of the emissions reduction will be offset by the softer options of carbon storage in forests and buying of emission reductions permits from other countries. Unless there is emphasis on the domestic emissions, the pathway to strong commitment will be compromised."

“The real message as to how we live and work lies in the fact that on a per capita basis, New Zealand is rated 11th in the world as an emitter," continued Prof Bornman.

"For the general community, targeted awareness campaigns, and where feasible, further financial contributions, to bring about a change in lifestyle practices are vital for buy-in towards a sustainable and exemplary New Zealand. The co-benefits to quality of life would be remarkable. But we all need to be caught up in this euphoria for a significant result to occur,” she concluded.

New Zealand will set its final emissions reduction target following the all-important climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

Originally published in The Tech Herald.

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Top UN Official Tells of 'Inhumane' Treatment of AIDS Victims

By Rich Bowden

Img: UNAIDS logo.

Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), has underlined the problem over the stigma that remains attached to AIDS sufferers and activists in the Asia Pacific by describing reports his office receives of “senseless, vicious and inhumane” treatment.

Speaking in a statement delivered by J. V. R. Prasada Rao, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team, at the week-long 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in Bali, Indonesia, Sidibé contrasted the economic and social development of the Asia Pacific region in recent years with the enduring discrimination against AIDS sufferers.

"The region has been achieving breathtaking economic growth and social development, especially in the last decade," he said in the statement reported by the UN News Centre, but added this achievement "...has not been matched by progress in creating the enabling environments and supportive social norms necessary to deliver a future generation free of HIV."

According to a report released in 2008, over five million people in the Asian region, and 74,000 in the Pacific, carried the HIV virus in 2007. The study added that AIDS was the most likely cause of death and work days lost of people between the ages of 15 to 44.

Sidibé said UNAIDS continued to receive reports of harrassment of AIDS sufferers and activists and said his organisation would continue to work towards supporting laws in the region which would lift the stigma from AIDS.

However he said that "...real transformation has to come in the hearts and minds of the people," pointing out that "...courts and parliaments can only create an enabling environment."

"Societies and communities have to change the social norms to end stigma and discrimination faced by transgender, men who have sex with men, sex workers and injecting drug users," he said.

Delegates from 65 countries are attending the event which will run until Thursday.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Australia: Sale of Carbon Permits Should Contribute to Rural Health and Environment

By Rich Bowden

Img: Country-style ute, Adelaide. Credit: BeauGiles/flickr

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) have joined forces to call on the government to spend at least a fifth of the revenue raised by the sale of carbon permits on rural health and environment.

The two organisations have proposed the establishment of two funds - the National Biodiversity and Climate Change Fund and a National Rural Public Health Fund - to ensure country communities have access to funding to help them weather expected change through climate change.

“Some of our great natural areas, like the Great Barrier Reef, the wet tropical rainforests and Kakadu, are at high risk from climate change,” said ACF executive director Don Henry in a news release.

“Investing in better protection and management of Australia’s natural areas will also help protect the hundreds of thousands of jobs and the billions of dollars they generate through tourism.”

NRHA Chair, Jenny May said such funding would help provide necessary resources for remote rural communities.

“It would provide resources for training, infrastructure, services and programs that promote healthy activities and illness prevention. The combination of environmental and health benefits that would flow from these efforts is what has brought our two organisations together on this critical current issue,” Dr May said.

The two organisations have said the twin funds could be set up along similar lines to that of the Clean Energy and Security Act 2009 recently passed by the US House of Representatives.

The submission comes as Pacific leaders used the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting held in Cairns, northern Queensland this week, to call on the world's rich nations to cut carbon emissions by at least 50 percent as part of the vital climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

"We call upon world leaders to urgently increase their level of ambition and to give their negotiators fresh mandates to secure a truly effective global agreement," the group said.

World leaders will meet in Copenhagen to agree to a replacement for the Kyoto Treaty.

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PNG: Opposition Calls For PM's Resignation

By Rich Bowden

Img: Sir Michael Somare, 2008. Credit: U.S. PO Mark Logico.

The Papua New Guinea Opposition has called for the resignation of Prime Minister Michael Somare, blaming him for rampant corruption in the country, failure to deliver services and a serious constitutional breach.

The 73-year-old leader, who was the first prime minister of PNG following independence in 1975, has been accused by the Opposition of being "too old," to run the country, reports the Post-Courier, quoting Opposition sources.

Sir Michael, one of the Pacific's iconic leaders, has come under pressure from Opposition figures who accuse him of making policy decisions on the run adding that the country systems were in danger of "collapse" should Sir Michael be allowed to continue as prime minister.

“Now is the time to change the Government and Sir Michael must resign,” the Opposition told reporters at a press conference held at Parliament house Thursday.

Opposition leader Sir Mekere Morauta drove home the point saying: “It is for the betterment of the country and the people that the Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare must resign.”

The call comes in response to accusation made during the week that the Opposition had locked up Government members and bribed them to vote with the Opposition on the recent forum on changes to the Oil and Gas Act security held in Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands province, reported Radio New Zealand in a August 6 news report.

According to Radio NZ: "...The Acting Prime Minister Sir Puka Temu claims the government has evidence that some of its members were locked up against their will in order for the opposition to seal their support."

This has been denied by Opposition figures saying the government had voted with the Opposition of their own accord.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Science: Clever Bees Quick to Learn 'Foreign' Language

By Rich Bowden

Img: European Honeybee. Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

First Published: The Tech Herald

In a remarkable study, Australian scientists have discovered that Asian and European honeybees have the capacity to understand each other, despite having different secret dance languages.

Scientists at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science and the Australian National University said bees tell the hive where a food source by intricate little dances which transmit information.

“Honeybees gauge the distance flown to a food source using a ‘visual odometer’ that logs the objects that flow past their vision as they fly,” explains Dr. Shaowu Zhang, a Chief Investigator at ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science and Australian National University in an ARC press release.

“On their return to the hive they transfer this information to their hive-mates using a tail-waggle dance, where the speed and pattern of the beats indicates the distance and direction of the food.”

However with different species of honeybee using different forms of the dance, Dr Zhang said researchers wanted to know if the difference was a handicap to the exchange of food knowledge.

“We also wanted to find out whether different species of honeybee can learn from, and communicate with, one another,” Shaowu says.

The team bred a mixed hive consisting of an Asian queen bee, Asian and European workers. The scientists observed that “We were often able to observe both species of foragers dance in the mixed colony and saw the other species of bees following the dancing bee”Shaowu says despite the Asiatic and European bees having quite distinct food dances.

“The team found that in the mixed colony Asian bees can be recruited by the European dancer to find the food source that the European bees had visited, Dr Zhang said. "We watched the Asian bees set out for and successfully locate the food."

“The same applied to the European bees, proving that the two species are able to communicate with one another despite their native ‘language barrier’,” Shaowu says.

“We concluded that Asian and European honeybees can learn to understand one another.”

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Pacific Islands Forum: Rudd Plays Down Calls For Fiji Coup

By Rich Bowden

Img: Pacific Islands Forum logo.

Speaking in Cairns at the annual Pacific Islands Forum, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has rejected calls for an uprising against the recalcitrant military rule of Commodore Frank Bainimarama in Fiji saying he was in favour of a "peaceful" settlement to the problem.

Mr Rudd, taking over as host of this year's Forum, was reacting to comments made by outgoing chairman Nuie Premier Toke Talagi, who appeared to support an armed takeover by the Fijian people to restore democracy.

Describing the military regime's promise of elections in 2014 as "unacceptable" Talagi spoke directly to the people of Fiji.

"Perhaps citizens of Fiji must now rise... to challenge their undemocratic rule of the military regime and restore democracy," Mr Talagi said.

"Their self-imposed road map for elections to be held in 2014 is unacceptable."

However Prime Minister Rudd used his acceptance speech in north Queensland to back away from the premier's comments saying Pacific nations must work together to form a "peaceful solution" to the Fiji crisis.

"I would emphasise in absolutely clear-cut terms the importance of a peaceful solution to the problems which exist within Fiji," he was quoted as saying by Radio Australia. "They are real problems and that is one of the reasons why the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum agreed on a mechanism for the suspension of Fiji."

"...I believe what the Premier of Niue was referring to was that the people of Fiji themselves ought also to be seized of the challenges which their democracy now faces."

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key also backed the Australian PM saying dialogue, not confrontation, was the best course of action.

“You can’t have a good coup and a bad coup, we have encouraged Frank Bainimarama to engage in dialogue with the Forum leaders in Fiji, both with Qarase and with Chaudhry, we think that’s the right course of action, not some sort of uprising by the people against the military coup,” Mr Key told Radio New Zealand International.

Military forces led by Commodore Bainimarama seized power in Fiji in a December 2006 coup. The interim Fijian government suspended the country's constitution earlier this year after a court found the coup illegal and reneged on promises for elections delaying them until 2014.

Fiji has been suspended from this year's Pacific Islands Forum.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Northern Territory Politics Rocked by Defection

By Rich Bowden

Img: NT Legislative Assembly. Credit: Lincolnite

The Northern Territory Labor party is uncertain of holding government this afternoon after the shock resignation of Indigenous Policy Minister, Alison Anderson. Ms Anderson allegedly attended a Cabinet meeting this morning before informing her staff of her decision according to this ABC Darwin report.

Ms Anderson said she had lost confidence in Chief Minister Paul Henderson after he had refused to rebut what she contended was a "racist" article in the weekend's Northern Territory News. Ms Anderson had also been in dispute with her own party over Indigenous Housing policy.

The NT parliament realignment now is on a knife edge with 11 Labor members, 11 Country Liberal members, two independents and Ms Anderson, who has yet to reveal if she will join the Opposition, or sit as an independent. Read more!

Utegate: PM, Treasurer Cleared; Treasury Official Admits Faking Email

By Rich Bowden

Img: Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. Credit: Adam Carr.

Godwin Gretch, the under-fire Treasury Official at the centre of the now-notorious "Utegate" affair, pre-empted an Auditor-General's report early today by admitting he concocted a vital email used to attack the Rudd government. The "evidence" was used by the Opposition to call for the Prime Minister and Treasurer's resignation over alleged special financial favours for a friend. The report, released after the official's statement, exonerated Mr Rudd and his Treasurer Wayne Swan of any wrongdoing in the affair.

Mr Gretch was reported by The Australian this morning as saying he fabricated an email alleging special favours for Ipswich car dealer John Grant under the OzCar scheme after Grant, a friend of the prime minister, had loaned the PM a car for his election campaign.

The Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Turnbull led the accusations against the PM and Treasurer after a Senate enquiry in June heard from Mr Gretch that an email existed from the PM's office that showed special treatment for Mr Grant. The special favours was alleged to have occurred under a government car financing scheme designed to improve Australia's car dealers access to funding. This email was later found by police to be a fake after investigations of Mr Gretch's home computer.

Speaking to The Australian Mr Gretch said he had fabricated the evidence under pressure from the Opposition in the hope that they would pass the OzCar bill in the closely-divided Senate.

"My concern was that the issue of Grant could be used to frustrate the passage of the bill," he said.

He described his actions in fabricating the email as an "error of judgement."

However the "utegate" affair, rather than damage the government, has instead rebounded on the Opposition Leader, throwing doubt on his future as the country's alternative leader. Mr Turnbull has mortified members of his own party after he led the attack on the Prime Minister and Treasurer in June based solely on the fabricated evidence.

Mr Turnbull and Senator Eric Abetz, who was behind the questioning of Gretch in the Senate enquiry, are alleged to have met with Gretch at Mr Turnbull's wife's office in Sydney to discuss the email and testimony one week before Mr Gretch was to give evidence before the Senate committee.

Mr Gretch, though working for the government as a senior Treasury official, has been accused of passing information to the Opposition, acting as a Coalition "mole" within Treasury.

The allegations against Turnbull go further than criticism of his political judgement, political commentators have noted. According to Gretch, pressure was placed on Gretch to release the email designed to bring down the Prime Minister. Turnbull is alleged to have "intimate involvement" in the coaching of Gretch and the handling of confidential Treasury information.

The government has said Mr Turnbull's position is now untenable and he should apologise and resign.

View Canberra in a larger map

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Pacific Nations' Development Should be Prioritised at Pacific Islands Forum: Oxfam

By Rich Bowden

Img: Oxfam International logo.

Aid organisation Oxfam has released a report on the eve of the Pacific Islands Forum calling for development of the Pacific Island nations to be prioritised over a standard free trade agreement. Delegates and press have begun arriving for the annual four-day forum which starts in Cairns, northern Queensland tomorrow.

The NGO report entitled "PACER Plus and its Alternatives: Which way for trade and development in the Pacific?" contends the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER), which is likely to be discussed at the Forum, has the potential to strengthen the economies of the Pacific nations to help them progress economically during the current global financial downturn but only if it covers essential development criteria.

Oxfam said the outcome of the negotiations could: " the Pacific to build on its assets, strengthen its resilience during global economic recession, and accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals."

However it warns that "Framed in the wrong way, it could exacerbate the problems of poor economic performance, growing economic hardship and conflict."

Oxfam New Zealand's executive director Barry Coates told reporters that any agreement signed should go one step further that a standard free trade agreement and focus on the Pacific nations' economic development.

“Against a backdrop of the enormous trade imbalance with Australia and New Zealand, and the lack of a strong base of productivity industry in the Pacific, it is clear that a new approach is needed,” he said.

The Oxfam report warns that a standard free trade agreement would be of little use to the Pacific. It concludes that such an agreement would: "...entail high costs and generate little benefit for the Pacific" which would include, "...lost government revenue and consequent reduction in essential government services, regressive measures that harm the poor, a failure to harness the potential benefits from utilising the Pacific’s resources, and loss of the Pacific’s productive capacities and damage to the welfare of its people."

Oxfam warns that the chief obstacle restricting Pacific nations' economic development is the lack of viable supply to available markets. It says any agreement signed should enable the productive capacity of Pacific countries' to be enhanced to take advantage of larger markets in Australia and New Zealand.

The aid organisation has called on additional funding to be made available to smaller nations to achieve these improved productive capacities.

Pacific nations will be looking to place a meaningful free trade agreement on the agenda at the annual summit along with discussions on climate change and its effect on the Pacific region and the restructuring of aid in the context of the global financial crisis.

View Cairns, Queensland in a larger map

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fiji On Edge of Banishment From Commonwealth

By Rich Bowden

Img: Fiji's Parliament House, Suva. Credit: jaredw_1986

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully has declared the Commonwealth's decision to give Fiji a month to commit to holding elections next year or risk banishment as a Commonwealth member as a "clear ultimatum" to the military government. However Fiji has said it would not comment on the suspension threat until officially advised by the Commonwealth.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully told reporters following the decision that Fiji was now clearly under notice to bring forward stated elections.

"Fiji needs to decide whether it wants to engage with the international community [or] whether it wants to stay in the Commonwealth," he said.

"If they intend to do so they need to hold elections next year. Fiji has [currently] said it will [not] hold elections [until] 2014."

McCully said he remained optimistic that the military government - which seized power in a coup in 2006 - would accede to Commonwealth wishes and hold election within twelve months.

“The economic situ
ation in Fiji has been deteriorating. There's got to be a point where the regime decides it's time to re-engage with the international community and accept some help,” Mr McCully said to the New Zealand Press Association.

“I hope this is the time but I'm not holding my breath.”

Img below: Fiji flag.
However Fiji's Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, was quoted by the Fiji Village website as saying his interim military government has received no official word on the threat and will reserve comment until discussions on the subject are held on the matter with the Commonwealth.

Recently the country has been seen the resignation of the respected figurehead President Ratu Josefa Iloilo and his replacement by the serving vice-president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, weakening further the military government's legitimacy. However real power in the military dictatorship lies with the enigmatic Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the defence forces commander and now interim prime minister who led the December 2006 coup.

His government has already reneged on a promise to hold elections earlier this year and lost any vestige of legitimacy when the Commodore annulled the country's constitution in May after the Fiji Court of Appeal had ruled his government illegal.

Since the 2006 takeover Bainimarama has ruled as a virtual dictator and refused repeated international requests to restore democracy on the islands. The country will not be present at next week's annual Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns, Australia due to a decision by the members to suspend the country from the talks - the first time this has occurred in the Forum's 38-year history.

View Suva in a larger map

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Australian Climate Scientists Strike Back at Sceptics

By Rich Bowden

Img: Air pollution. Credit: pfala/flickr

Fifteen leading Australian climate scientists have used the platform of a weekend newspaper article to hit back at what they see as creeping climate scepticism in the country's media and politics.

Declaiming doubters in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 1 named "Climate Change Poised to Feed on Itself", the scientists contend that there exists irrefutable scientific evidence on the world's ongoing climate change that lead to "four conclusions."

1. They contend the world is warming. The group say "global average temperature has increased by about 0.8 degrees since 1850, with most of the increase occurring since 1950" and while agreeing that there are some natural fluctuations in temperature, the natural trend is rising.

The scientists back their claim by pointing to rises in sea temperatures and a reduction in the world's sea-ice and snow cover. They claim that climate sceptics' view that the world has cooled since 1998 as a "misrepresentations of the full data" contending that the climate temperature trend measured during this time is inexorably upward.

2. That the most important factor behind global warming is the dramatic increase since 1950 of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases released by human activities, of which carbon dioxide (CO2) is the single most prevalent.

Critically the group assess this conclusion as being based on "... several independent lines of evidence, including basic physics, studies of climate changes in both in the geological past and in the industrial era, and finally – but far from solely – from the predictions of climate models. Together, these provide an overwhelming case that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations cause warming, and that CO2 is the largest contributor to the current warming trend."

3. The globe will continue to warm if nothing is done to restrict carbon emissions, and may even increase. The scientists state that if "business as usual" is continued, the planet may heat up to a nightmarish six degrees above current temperatures by the turn of the next century.

They warn of drastic rises in global temperatures as providing a "knock-on" effect with changing temperatures "...major disruptions to food supplies, river flows and water availability, significant and ongoing rises in sea level (of up to about a metre by 2100 and potentially metres over longer times), disease threats, disruptions to ecosystems including the extinction of many species, and social and geopolitical destabilisation."

4. That it will take many centuries to reverse the effects of climate change.

The group felt they needed to go public to refute many theories gaining prevalence in Australia that the world climate crisis is over and the globe is in fact cooling. Climate sceptics such as Senator Steven Fielding, who holds a vital balance of power vote in the coming carbon emissions trading scheme, has publicly declared himself a climate sceptic. His views have been endorsed by many in Australia's conservative parties as the Senate looks to debate the trading scheme within the next two weeks.

The group say they put their views in an article partly to refute these "unscientific" views from Australia's political right but also to hit back at popular misconceptions that the Earth is cooling or that any warming is caused by sunspots, not man-made activity.

The scientists, many who have worked on the subject of climate change for the United Nations, also warned of the inexorable approach of a number of climatic "tipping points" if nothing is done to curb carbon emissions, a state of affairs which had the potential to throw the world into a new, more serious state.

The group are: Michael Raupach and John Church, CSIRO; David Griggs, Amanda Lynch and Neville Nicholls, Monash University; Nathan Bindoff, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre; Matthew England and Andy Pitman, University of NSW; Ann Henderson-Sellers and Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, University of Queensland; Roger Jones, Victoria University; David Karoly, University of Melbourne; and Tony McMichael and Will Steffen, Australian National University.
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Interview: APMG Talks to Heather Saville of Quaker Service Australia (QSA)

By Rich Bowden

Img: Heather Saville at book launch. Credit: QSA

Quaker Service Australia (QSA), one of Australia's most highly respected charities, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the publication of the book Friends in deed: 50 years of Quaker Service Australia. APMG spoke to the QSA's Heather Saville on the Service's aid operations in the Aust Pacific region and talk of its future.

The book follows the development of QSA -- the aid and development arm of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia -- in its overseas aid work and chronicles the Service's history, adventures and laudable achievements throughout its first five decades.

From its humble beginnings in March 1959, to the re
nowned NGO that it has become today, QSA has worked in regions as distant as the Pacific Islands, Indo-China, India and Africa, operating in over 20 countries during its existence. The book charts the different challenges the Australian charity now faces in its aid work, compared to those it encountered in its beginnings, with the scourges of climate change, AIDS and overpopulation now very much to the fore.

Friends in deed also describes aid methods us
ed by the QSA, including permaculture techniques and organic principles, that have helped set up farms and food gardens in countries as far apart as Uganda and Cambodia.

In the following interview, the book's author, Heather Saville, kindly took some time out to discuss with the Auspacific Media Group's correspondent Rich Bowden the achievements of QSA over the last fifty years as well as give a more in-depth view of the Service's operations and talk of its future.

Friends in deed was launched on Friday Mar
. 20 at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Melbourne, Australia. The book is available for purchase through the QSA website ( Heather Saville is a former convenor of the Quaker Service management committee.

Rich Bowden: Your book "Friends in Deed" was launched in Melbourne recently to celebrate fifty years of the foundation of Quaker Service Australia. During those five decades
of aid work, what do you see as QSA's greatest achievements and greatest disappointments?

Heather Saville: Two of the QSA's greatest achievements have been the successful handing over of its two largest programs in Cambodia to loca
l organisations.

The Cambodian English Language Training Project, which now forms part of the University of Phnom Penh English Department, and the QSA HIV/AIDS project, now a local NGO -- the Cambodian HIV/AIDS Education and Care (CHEC) -- which has continued and expanded the work done by QSA.

Also, with our permaculture and other organic farming activities, end of project evaluations have indicated that many hundreds of families have been able to achieve food production sufficient to feed themselves and produce a surplus, often in areas where long-terms levels of hunger had been endemic.

Disappointingly though, the work with our project partners in Zimbabwe has been severely limited with the political upheavals in that country and as a result many of the most disadvantaged in the community have been even further disadvantaged (see the work with the King George V School in Chapter 7 of the book).

However our greatest disappointment would surely be that not only is our work still needed after 50 years but that the need is greater and the numbers needing assistance is growing.

RB: What have been the overall aims of QSA in its first fifty years?

HS: Our Statement of Purpose is "to express in a practical way the concern of Australian Quakers for the building of a more equitable, just and compassionate world. To this end, QSA works with communities in need to improve their quality of life with projects which are economically and environmentally appr
opriate and sustainable." I think that pretty much encapsulates our aim back then in 1959 and remains so today.

RB: In its work, how closely does QSA look to follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as outlined by the United Nations?

HS: QSA’s Strategic Plan takes as its starting point the MDGs, particularly Goals 1, 3 and 7 (1 = eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 3 = pro
mote gender equality and empower women and 7 = ensure environmental sustainability).

Img below: Author Heather Saville at launch with friend Veda. Credit: QSA

RB: Does QSA prefer to focus its activities more on emergency aid relief or the long-term development of communities?

HS: Like most NGOs QSA began its work with providing short-term emergency relief. Gradually as the role of development NGOs has changed and become more multi-faceted, QSA has concentrated on long-term projects with local communities, where there is the possibility of ensuring sustainability of skills exchanges. Today the complexity of emergency relief work is too great for agencies of the size of QSA to carry out usefully.

RB: What criteria does QSA use to assess requests for grants/aid?

HS: Our project selection criteria appear as an appendix in Friends in deed. If a project proposal meets these criteria we then examine whether it is in the sort of work in which we have particular skills or expertise and whether it is in a geographic region where we have other projects or can call on local knowledge. We seek through our project selection to promote human rights and dignity of all involved, to enhance gender equity and community development and ensure as far as is possible that the environmental impact of projects is positive.

RB: Does QSA utilise microfinance programs as a means of assisting communities to develop? If so, how successful has this system of small loans been?

HS: Yes, QSA has used microfinance within many of its projects over many years. We have always found it to be a highly successful way of assisting poor individuals to break out of extreme poverty.

RB: Can you elaborate on the type of work done by permaculture author and consultant Rowe Morrow and others amongst developing communities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere?

HS: Though Rowe Morrow is not a member of QSA, she is a Quaker and has worked as a consultant to QSA on many occasions over many years, including in Vietnam, Cambodia and the refugee camps in Hong Kong. Most of our Permaculture activities in these countries have focused on marginalised communities and have concentrated on small-scale home gardens. Chapters 2, 3 and 10 of Friends in deed give details of these projects.

RB: To what do you attribute the success of the teaching of these permaculture techniques in war-torn countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia and have they been continued on by these communities?
HS: Food and water security are essential to all people, and this is particularly true for those who have emerged from war. The techniques QSA have used in our permaculture work have been based on principles of ensuring the knowledge is entrenched within local communities and is, therefore, sustainable once the project ends.

Our consultants work with local project partners so that they become fully trained permaculture trainers and can continue to pass on knowledge to others. Our end-of-project evaluations show that not only do the people who have actively participated in the projects gain, but so do their neighbours. The systems are replicable.

RB: How does QSA help encourage organic farming in its aid projects?
HS: The type of organic farming which QSA has supported has been small-scale rather than broad acre. Permaculture is one form of this farming but other projects use similar methods including crop varieties, natural disease and pest control and seed banks.

RB: Looking back to when QSA first sent aid workers overseas, how much has the world changed in regard to the challenges aid agencies now face?
HS: Throughout most of our 50 year history we have only sent people overseas for short periods, as consultants or trainers. There have been exceptions to this of course. The most obvious change is the way in which communication between the field and Australia has altered. This has greatly improved the way in which local partners and QSA can interact and solve any problems that may arise during the course of a project.

The challenges that agencies face are more complex, the demands of those needing assistance, particularly the needs of displaced people are greater, and the huge increase in the world’s population since 1959 are all factors that the entire development sector now faces.

Changes to international lending bodies, the advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the pressures on developing countries to give greater emphasis to export crops rather than food security are all matters that have an impact on all development agencies including QSA.

RB: Can you outline how the scourge of AIDS in countries has affected QSA in its focus on aid work?
HS: There have been two large projects in which QSA has been involved (Uganda and Cambodia) that have been specifically designed to deal with HIV/AIDS. In Uganda at present, some of our work is with child-headed households, who are usually orphans because their parents have died of AIDS. In the case of the women-headed households in the same project they are often AIDS widows.

RB: Does your work focus more on care for AIDS patients or teaching prevention?
HS: In both the two major projects QSA has been involved in education and prevention activities rather than direct care. However, a palliative care project in the Philippines has included HIV/AIDS patients.

RB: In your work in the South Pacific and Asia region, what effect has climate change and lack of water supply had on local communities and what strategies has QSA developed to deal with this?
HS: A variety of approaches to ensuring food and water security are being used, including seed banks and use of different strains of crops to cope with changing climate. Water harvesting and management is also used. In our three main projects (Uganda, Tamil Nadu, India and Cambodia) during 2008 our partners took part in discussions on how these changes were being experienced and how these matters had changed in the past 30 years.

According to the women interviewed in India, fresh water could be found 30 feet (9.14 metres) below the ground 30 years ago but is now 240 feet (73.15 metres) down. Where patches of forest used to exist there are now none, people used to use saris to carry food but now plastic bags line the streets. There are more mosquitoes, fewer cattle, fewer fish and traditional grains such as corn, millet, dahl and patti have been replaced by rice and peanuts. These are some of the changes which QSA and its project partners are seeking to rectify in our work [which includes] the use of solar panels, water storage, revegetation using indigenous local plants and nurseries of traditional medicinal herbs and plants.

RB: As you mention in your book, the question of supporting wider social and political change in countries is a hot topic in Quaker circles. Do you believe certain political conditions must be encouraged to build on development work done by QSA?
HS: Our approach to our work over 50 years has consistently recognised the need for human rights to be protected, for the empowerment of women to be supported including women’s education and access to birth spacing. Land tenure security is essential regardless of the nature of land ownership. QSA believes in the value of advocacy and does so usually in concert with other agencies through our umbrella body of ACFID. On other occasions we will participate in advocacy direct to the Australian government.

RB: How important is the absence of armed conflict to successful aid projects?
HS: The absence of arm conflict is crucial if longer-term development work is to be successful.

RB: Looking into the future, say fifty years hence, what do you believe QSA aid workers will see as their greatest challenge?
HS: When contemplating the future it seems clear that the current financial crisis can either assist countries to work together in a collaborative way or to become territorial over resources. For the average farmer with whom we work global politics means very little. They are only concerned with finding enough food to eat and clean safe water to drink. If political changes mean that every resource, be it land, food, crops or water becomes government owned or in some other way out of their control, then their lives will be changed irrevocably.

Add to that, the impact of climate change which means that rains are unreliable and other natural disasters may increase, seeds do not germinate and crops do not grow, then relief efforts will be more necessary.

QSA has tried to raise awareness of climate change, environmental care and use of different strains of plants so communities will survive. In a Utopian existence access to resources would be more equal and NGOs would be unnecessary. I doubt that in another 50 years QSA will be redundant although I would like it to be so.

RB: In your book you pose a number of questions concerning NGO aid in general, its aims and the success it has achieved. What conclusions did you draw for smaller aid agencies such as the QSA?
HS: Obviously I do believe that there is a place for organisations such as QSA or I would not continue to be involved in its work. The lessons learned over the years could be summarised as:

* start small;

* develop local relationships and trust;

* modify the projects as needed;

* recognise political realities;

* ensure knowledge and skills are shared

* know when and how to leave.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Solar Power the Key to Sustainable Future says Prof Flannery

By Rich Bowden

Img left: Tim Flannery. Credit: scienceinmelbourne2007

Img right: Climate change protesters, Parliament House, Canberra 2009. Credit: Paul Hanly.

Author, environmentalist, scientist and former Australian of the Year Tim Flannery has used a keynote address at Australia's foremost solar industry conference to reiterate his support for solar power as the globe's single most useful renewable resource. Prof Flannery also called on China and the U.S. to exhibit leadership in climate talks in Copenhagen.

Speaking in an address to the ATRAA 09 [Appropriate Technology Retailers Association of Australia] Conference and Exhibition in the capital Canberra yesterday, Professor Flannery outlined how harvesting the sun could be the basis for a sustainable energy future. He said the renewable energy "...directly harvests the ultimate source of Earth’s power, the sun, and costs to deploy it are coming down," according to a report by EcoGeneration magazine.

Prof Flannery said though various attempts by the renewable energy industry to harvest the power of the sun in a sustainable way had met with problems, not least through the sometime lack of government support, he stated he looked forward to the age when solar energy was used, not only as the major source of renewable energy, but also to provide power to major projects such as the desalination of water at plants around the globe.

Moving on to the world's climate change crisis, Prof Flannery also commented optimistically on the progress he expected the world to make at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Citing positive new leadership shown by the United States on climate change since the election of the Obama administration, he called for the U.S. and China to set an example for the rest of the world in Copenhagen.

“Between them, China and the US account for 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If they were to come together with an agreed position at the table at Copenhagen then we will see advances being made and the rest of the world will have very little choice but to move forward with the initiative taken by those countries,” he said.

Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald has today quoted Prof Flannery as calling on the Australian Government to set up a single trading desk for farmers to sell carbon credits to the United States.

He says the government-operated single desk had the potential to earn up to 10 percent of the one billion tonnes of carbon offsets the U.S. would need to buy offshore under an U.S. emissions trading scheme expected to pass the Senate later this year, said the SMH.

Outlining the scheme, Prof Flannery said: ‘‘The Government could then buy a certain amount of permits from farmers for carbon soil storage … at, say, $15 a tonne and sell them on to the US at $20 through the desk,’’ Mr Flannery said to the SMH in an interview. ‘‘If we could get 10 per cent of the US market at, say, $20 that would be about $2 billion a year coming into Australia and [would] help Australian farmers expand carbon storage projects.’’

He said the single desk plan would ensure carbon offset schemes were legitimate before they were bought by the government-run single desk as government assessors would examine the offsets before purchase.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Veneer of Earth's platinum was from extraterrestrial source say CSIRO scientists

By Rich Bowden.

First printed in The Tech Herald 30/7/09.

Img left: CSIRO headquarters, Canberra, ACT. Credit: CSIRO

Img right:Outcrop of komatiite lava, South Africa. Credit: CSIRO

An Australian study has concluded that a "late veneer" of the Earth's platinum came from extraterrestrial sources.

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have concluded in a report that study of the platinum content of lava flows called komatiites had changed markedly over time. The CSIRO is using the search for platinum as a guide to the availability of nickel.

Their theory is that the Earth's core drained all the available platinum during its formation however later increases can be attributed to "a steady rain" of meteorites which bombarded the planet.

In a CSIRO news release, the organisation's Minerals Down Under Flagship researcher Dr Stephen Barnes said their research had found the amount of platinum had increased between 3.5 billion years to 2.9 billion years ago.

“We found that the oldest komatiites have the lowest platinum content,” Dr Barnes said.

“The platinum content gradually increases from about 3.5 billion years to 2.9 billion years ago."

“This tells us that the deep source where the komatiite came from, down near the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle, was gradually gaining platinum over time.”

Just how the early platinum vanished is explained by the authors.

“When the Earth’s core formed, it took all the available platinum with it, leaving the mantle and crust with none,” Dr Barnes said.

“Following that, a steady rain of meteorites created the so-called Late Veneer – a thin surface layer of meteorite debris rich in platinum.”

Over time the extraterrestrial platinum was "stirred" in the Earth's interior, says the study.

The authors consider the work to have fundamental benefits for those who study the dynamics of mantle processes and the mechanisms that cause plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes, the release said.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Town that Banned Bottled Water Will Save Millions

By Rich Bowden

Img: Plastic bottles. Credit: Shazari/flickr

The southern New South Wales town of Bundanoon, which found itself on the world map recently by banning the sale of bottled water, (see story here) is set to benefit by up to $A2.5 million, according to a well-known environmental campaigner.

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), "Clean Up Australia" environmental chairman Ian Kiernan said the southern highlands township of Bundanoon would benefit financially from being the first community in the world to ban bottled water at a vote taken at a town meeting earlier this month.

Calling it a "sign of things to come" Kiernan said: "Bundanoon's move is a sign of things to come ... communities are going to start taking matters into their own hands," he said.

The ABC quoted Clean Up Australia as saying people can save up to $A1,000 a year by using tap water instead of bottled water and save in carbon emissions.

"The manufacture of every tonne of PET [polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle production] produces around three tonnes of carbon dioxide," he said.

"Australians purchase about 118,000 tonnes of plastic drink bottles a year but only recycle 35 per cent of them," he said.

"The 76,700 tonnes left behind either goes to landfill or ends up in our environment as rubbish."

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