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Australia Warming Faster Than World

by: Virginia Marsh    3 January 2007

The seriousness of Australia's environmental problems was underlined Wednesday with the release of data showing that the country appears to be experiencing the effects of global warming more deeply than other parts of the world.

In its annual climate report, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said 2006 had seen the warmest spring on record, with average temperatures up 1.42 degrees centigrade. The mean temperature for the year was 0.47 degrees above the 1961 to 1990 average. Average global temperatures in 2006 were 0.42 degrees above their 1961-1990 average.

2006 was consistent with longer term data, showing mean temperatures in Australia had increased faster than the global average since 1910, the bureau added.

"Most scientists agree this is part of an enhanced greenhouse gas effect," said Neil Plummer, the bureau's senior climatologist. "Of Australia's 20 hottest years [on record], 15 have occurred since 1980."

The bureau also warned that rainfall patterns were becoming more extreme. While overall rainfall in 2006 was in line with historical averages, this was because unusually wet weather in the north and west cancelled out drought in the southeast, parts of which suffered their driest year on record. This trend has also been experienced in previous years.

Many of Australia's most important resources projects are located in its north and west, from the world's biggest iron ore producing region in the Pilbara through to all the country's liquefied natural gas projects and several alumina, bauxite and gold mining operations.

The trend to more marked droughts, meanwhile, is afflicting the country's most important agriculture regions. Australia is usually one of the world's top three grain exporters and the sharp reduction in its expected wheat crop this year has already pushed up global prices.

This summer's dry weather in the southeast, the latest in a series of droughts, had been exacerbated by an El Nino weather system in the Pacific Ocean, the bureau added.

"Aspects of this multi-year drought are highly unusual and unprecedented in many years," it said.

Publication of the bureau's report coincided with the first tropical cyclone of the season. The approach of Cyclone Isobel, off the country's north-west, forced the suspension of production at at least two significant oil fields as well as the closing of BHP Billiton's Port Hedland iron ore export operations. Last year, Cyclone Larry caused more than A$1bn in damage to north Queensland, including the destruction of almost all of the country's banana crop.

The government has responded to growing public concern over climate change by, among other things, establishing a taskforce to investigate carbon trading systems, something it previously opposed, and through a number of water initiatives.

In his New Year message earlier this week, John Howard, prime minister, singled out tackling the country's chronic water problem as one of four key priorities for 2007, alongside educational standards, security and maintaining low unemployment.

"This will require us more than ever to look at [the water] issue from a national perspective," he said, urging the states to put aside regional rivalries.

But both Labor, the main opposition party, and environmental lobby groups say the government, which has maintained its opposition to the Kyoto protocol, is still not doing nearly enough on the environment.

"Without meaningful and urgent action on climate change, category-five cyclones are projected to become more frequent," the Australian Conservation Foundation said yesterday. "In 2007, we need the Australian government to respond to science by adopting a plan that dramatically cuts our greenhouse pollution."