The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from coral bleaching

Coral bleaching is jeopardising our reefs – government action on climate change can save them

Coral reefs are an important part of a healthy global ecosystem. They function as nurseries for many fish and provide important coastal protection for low-lying islands.

An estimated 400 million people in developing countries depend on coral reefs for protection and income. According to a report by Deloitte Access Economics, tourism at the Great Barrier Reef alone is a $6.4 billion a year industry, providing 64,000 jobs.

But the future of our coral reefs is at risk. Back-to-back coral bleaching events caused by a warming climate are jeopardising their survival.

Marine biologist Professor Terry Hughes has dedicated his career to studying coral reefs. I recently had the chance to talk to him about his research on the linkages between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people and the role of governance.

The poster child of climate change

“In the context of climate change, coral reefs are often called the canary in the coalmine,” says Terry. “ I am not sure if this analogy is accurate or that coral reefs are more vulnerable than other ecosystems.”

Professor Terry Hughes
Professor Terry Hughes

“In Australia, we are currently dealing with burning rainforests, so one could argue that many other ecosystems are equally at risk. But coral reefs are very photogenic and iconic, so with their increasing degradation, they have become the poster child for the impact of climate change on biodiversity.”

The other issue with the canary metaphor is that it suggests that we’re still in the early stages of understanding and responding to the impact of climate change on the natural environment.

Scientists Thinkers
Australian farm

From tree changers to regenerative farming trailblazers

Murray Prior and his wife Michelle had been thinking about a tree change for a long time before they finally took the leap and bought a farm. “Inner City Sydney seemed like a very intense place to raise children. And as our two kids got older, it was time to make a decision,” says Murray who purchased a 220 acres property near Gundaroo in the Southern Tablelands of NSW just over 18 months ago.

The mixed-grazing plot ticked a lot of boxes. It had access to a river and the relatively short distance to Sydney made it possible for Murray to continue to work as International Marketing Director at a law firm four days per week before returning to his family and farm life over the weekend. 

Murray Prior regenerative farmer in the Southern tablelands of NSW
From tree changers to regenerative farmers: The Prior Family. Image credit: Murray Prior .

But the change in surroundings brought about much more than just a lifestyle change for the Priors. Murray and Michelle are now right in the middle of turning their property into a model for regenerative farming practices. 

Of mentors and newly minted farmers

It’s a transformation that was set in motion by a colleague’s book recommendation. Call of the Reed Warbler is an urgent call to move to less intensive agricultural practices. The author of the book is 5th generation Australian farmer, Charles Massy. His book is a powerful mix of personal memoir and scientific evidence. 

“Reading Charlie’s book changed our lives,” remembers Murray. “His story changed our perspective on the enormity of what we had just done. We started to think about our responsibility as custodians of the land we now owned.”

Entrepreneurs

The transformative power of environmental art: Creating beauty from plastic waste

When John Dahlsen first started experimenting with what would soon become his creative medium of choice, it had some of his friends slightly worried. The huge piles of plastic rubbish – all neatly sorted by colour – that had taken over much of the available space in the artist’s house certainly raised eyebrows. “Some of my friends asked me if I was OK”, the Byron Bay based environmental artist remembers laughingly.

Byron Bay based environmental artist John Dahlsen.
John Dahlsen is an environmental artist based in Byron Bay. Image credit: John Dahlsen.

But what may have initially looked like an odd quirk, turned out to be a tremendous source of inspiration for John. An influence so big that it would change the course of his career. The artworks he created from plastic rubbish washing ashore on local beaches catapulted him into the Australian art scene and helped him win international acclaim.

John received the prestigious Wynne Prize for his Thong Totems sculpture in 2000 and was selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004. His work featured in exhibitions in Florence, Milan, New York, Beijing – and countless places in between.

Absolut and Nespresso commissioned work from him to raise awareness about plastic pollution and recycling long before the David Attenborough effect brought the issue into the mainstream.

The accidental environmental artist

All of this was set in motion by happenstance. In 1997, John discovered the potential of plastic rubbish as a means for creative expression while scouring remote beaches in Victoria for driftwood to make furniture. “I noticed all this plastic washing up, so I started picking it up with the intention to take it to the local tip for recycling,” recounts John.

Creatives

Connecting communities to fight food waste

Food waste is a common problem in all industrial societies. According to the Department of Environment and Energy, Australia produced 7.3 million tonnes of food waste in 2016-17. Of this, 34% was created in our homes. At the same time, more than 4 million Australians have experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months.

Queensland impact start-up Spare Harvest is looking to bridge this divide. The app-based community facilitates the swapping, sharing, selling and sourcing of produce, pantry items, gardening equipment, and much more… “We have left the categories and ways in which people interact very open to make it easy for anyone to participate,” explains company founder Helen Andrew.

Over a period of three and a half years – and with very little technical knowledge –  Helen bootstrapped an online marketplace with 3,000 members and around 300 listings.

An idea to fight food waste – grown in the backyard

And it all started with a problem in Helen’s own backyard. When she traded life in the City and her corporate career in favour of a plot of land on the Sunshine Coast and raising her children, she knew one thing for certain: she wanted to be able to grow her own food and provide her kids with an experience similar to her own childhood in suburban Brisbane.

Helen Andrew is fighting food waste
Spare Harvest founder Helen Andrew. Image credit: Spare Harvest

The Sunshine Coast property looked like it would allow her to fulfill that dream. It had many established fruit trees with the potential to add more varieties over time.

Entrepreneurs

Protecting Australian native stingless bees from rising temperatures

Ann and Jeff Ross became beekeepers by accident. A few years ago, a hive of European honeybees had made themselves at home in one of the walls of Jeff and Ann’s car mechanic shop on the Sunshine Coast. Instead of just getting the hive removed, the couple decided to relocate them to their backyard and with that became hobby beekeepers overnight.

Hive Haven co-founder Ann Ross invented the bee box for Australian stingless native bees.
Hive Haven co-founder Ann Ross with version 9 of their bee box. Image credit: Hive Haven

Little did they know at the time that their new hobby would soon turn into a business. Ann and Jeff are the founders of Hive Haven, an Australian agricultural start-up that is one part boutique honey producer and one part award-winning manufacturer of insulated hives designed for the needs of the Australian stingless native bee.  

From hobby beekeeper to industry innovator

“I was doing a business degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast when we got that first hive”, remembers Ann. “While I was studying, Jeff’s interest in bees grew and he started growing his apiary .”

Entrepreneurs

This Aussie inventor is making wave energy affordable

In the search for a more sustainable energy mix, solar, wind and nuclear power are clearly dominating the discussion. But there’s another source of renewable energy that has great potential: ocean waves.

“Unfortunately, no wave energy technology has managed to be cost effective until now”, says Oceanographer Tom Denniss. “But we believe that will soon change.”

Wave Swell Energy Founder Tom Denniss
Wave Swell Energy Founder Tom Denniss. Image credit: WSE

Tom and his team at Australian energy technology company Wave Swell Energy (WSE) are about to prove that wave energy has the potential to become a serious player in sustainable power generation. WSE is about to construct and launch a 200 kW wave energy project on King Island, with Hydro Tasmania integrating the electricity from the unit into the local hybrid grid, alongside its existing wind, solar, and diesel generation.

Producing energy through waves at a competitive price

Proving that wave energy can be captured in a cost-competitive way has long been a challenge for the sector. WSE is aiming to demonstrate this capability via the King Island project – and as a result of that to become the first wave energy technology to enter the commercial phase.

Entrepreneurs Thinkers
compostable alternative soft plastic

This Kiwi start-up offers a compostable alternative to soft plastic

As the former owner of three busy restaurants in New Zealand, Ben Grant knows a thing or two about the issue of packaging. “We had about 10,000 people moving through our premises every week and around 50% of our customers were ordering takeaway”, he recalls. “Add to that all the packaging the produce is coming in and you’re dealing with huge piles of rubbish and recycling every day.”

Having always been conscious about the footprint he’s been living, Ben decided to change the packaging industry for the better after he sold his restaurant business in 2018. Together with Josh Kempton he founded Grounded Packaging, a start-up company that is aiming to replace soft plastic with compostable packaging from bio-based materials.

“The reason why we focussed on soft plastic is that it is the most problematic area within our current waste and recycling system”, says Ben.

Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging offering compostable alternatives to soft plastic.
Ben Grant is the co-founder of Grounded Packaging.

Soft plastic cannot be processed through the kerbside recycling system because it gets caught in the machinery (side note: soft plastic can get recycled through RedCycle). At the same time, soft plastic – like most plastics – is made from petrochemicals and is therefore detrimental to the environment in more than one way.

Why we still need packaging

Yet, while the movement against single-use plastic is gathering momentum in some regions, it’s difficult to imagine a modern world without packaging.

“Packaging material fulfils an important role in life – and especially in the food industry”, says Ben. For instance, packaging is known to significantly increase the shelf life of fresh produce which in turn helps to reduce food waste.

Entrepreneurs
Tasmanian Devils

Saving Australian wildlife from extinction

Hayley Shute has her hands full as we are about to start our chat. A couple of koalas need her attention before we get the chance to talk about her work at Aussie Ark, a wildlife conservation organisation dedicated to protecting Australia’s endangered species. “That’s one of the things I love most about my job: you never know what they might spring on you next”, she says with a laugh.

With the koalas safely moved, Hayley shares her love for Australian wildlife conservation with infectious enthusiasm. “Most people get so excited about lions and elephants, and other exotic animals from far-flung locations, but we are so lucky to have so many unique animals here in Australia – and we need to do much more to protect them”, she asserts.

As the curator at Aussie Ark, Hayley Shute is working to protect enadangered Australian wildlife
Hayley Shute is the curator at Aussie Ark.

As the curator at the non-for-profit organisation she’s working to save some of Australia’s most vulnerable species from extinction and to educate the public about the need to protect them. “Unfortunately, many people have never heard about some of our most threatened animal species”, she says. “And the less awareness there is, the harder it is to secure their future.”

Saving the Tasmanian Devil

Aussie Ark is a project-based Australian wildlife conservation organisation founded by Australian Reptile Park owners John and Robyn Weigel, and conservationist Tim Faulkner.   

Australian wildlife: Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil is endangered because of a contagious form of facial cancer.

In 2011 they launched Devil Ark with the aim to establish an insurance population of the endangered Tasmanian Devil on the Australian mainland. The iconic marsupial – that now can only be found in Tasmania in the wild – is under threat because of a particular nasty form of cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

Conservationist
Sarah wants to raise awareness for Australian threatened species

wild_ about Australia’s threatened species

Australia is home to some of the world’s most unique wildlife. Yet, sadly we’re not doing such a great job in protecting the continent’s rare natural environment. More than 1,800 plant and animal species are at risk of becoming extinct and the environment department has admitted to having no clue if Australia’s threatened species plans are actually being implemented.  

Raising awareness for the plight of Australia’s wildlife is something that’s close to Sarah Ash’s heart. A couple of years ago the Queensland based mother, photographer, videographer and musician started wild_ –  a photo project, showcasing Australia’s endangered wildlife.

Eclectus parrot
This Eclectus parrot was more interested in what’s happening behind the camera than posing in front of it.
Image: wild_

Sarah took the time to chat about her creative project.

What motivated you to start wild_?

I started wild_ a few years ago while I was working for an environmental management company. I was doing some research for the company’s social media page and came across all these animals I had never heard about.

These species were also listed as endangered and I wanted to do something to raise awareness. If I hadn’t heard about them, this was probably also true for most Australians. So, I decided to use my skills to try and do something about it.

Koala
Urban expansion continues to threaten Koalas.  Image: wild_
Creatives
Sustainable cities start with communities

Why sustainable urban development requires major philosophical shifts

Bustling streets, tons of creative energy and the promise of new opportunities – large cities have always drawn people like magnets. And while the world’s modern metropolises still lure with the promise of excitement and infinite possibility, they also represent one of the biggest challenges for sustainable development.

According to projections by the United Nations, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. While cities only take up 2% of the world’s surface, they consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s inevitable then that any serious attempts to reverse climate change will need to include a framework for sustainable cities.

Gregor Mews is an urban planner and the founder of the Urban Synergies Group. After having studied urban planning and design in Berlin, he travelled the world to learn more about the human condition at different stages of urban development.

Now based in Australia’s capital, Canberra, Gregor is working with local governments, non-government organisations, businesses and UN Habitat to create healthier, more connected and sustainable communities. In short, if you want to have a philosophical discussion about what the future of the city should look like, Gregor is your man!

Gregor Mews talks about the role of cities for a more sustainable future. Image: Urban Synergies Group.

 “We’re at a historical moment in time”, says Gregor about the urgency of the problem. “We have three years to turn the trend in global warming around until we enter the adaptation phase.“ However, to tackle this problem, it would require more than just installing solar panels on rooftops.

It’s in this context that Gregor identifies 3 fundamental shifts required in our thinking that will ultimately lead to sustainable urban development.

1. Putting human needs at the heart of urban planning

Most people will have heard about the Mercer Global Liveability Index that ranks cities based on the quality of life they offer to their citizens.

“The issue with this ranking system is that it’s basically designed for rich minorities – highly educated people with a high socio-economic status who want to travel to and live in those places. But these rankings tell us very little about what ordinary life looks like for the majority”, says Gregor.  “For example, Sydney has often been ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. But I doubt that most people in Western Sydney would agree with this assessment.”

Thinkers