My September challenge
A couple of weeks ago I decided to set myself a challenge: to do something personal about climate change each month. My challenge for September was to find out which was the least damaging petrol for the environment. Spending time in the bush at Tapitallee is a wonderful antidote to the pressures of city living, but driving down here is an environmental burden.
It turned out there was no simple answer to my question. And the answers I found were dispiriting – more evidence of woeful environmental leadership in Australia. The articles on the subject were unanimous – ‘compared with most of the rest of the world, our fuel is filthy’ and ‘… this country still uses much dirtier fuel than most of the rest of the world. Indeed, Australia is ranked 70th in terms of fuel quality because of the relatively high percentage of sulphur permitted.’ and ‘Australia’s 91-octane standard fuel is allowed to have sulphur levels as high as 150 parts per million. The world standard in markets such as China, Europe, India and Japan is 10 ppm.’
The levels of sulphur in our petrol are a problem because our petrol is ‘pumping significantly more sulphur dioxide – a common cause of breathing problems and generator of acid rain – into the atmosphere than other OECD members, creating excessive engine wear for consumers and even costing us more at the pump, because the dirty fuel doesn’t burn as efficiently as if it had less sulphur.’ Moreover, because our petrol has these high levels of sulphur, ‘the latest-technology, low-emission engines cannot be supported in the domestic market. “If you go to a higher quality fuel, the vast majority of vehicles on our roads automatically (become) more fuel efficient,” said Mr Weber [chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI)]. “There would be an improvement in the fuel economy of vehicles across the fleet of 17 million vehicles in Australia, not just the new ones”.’ The FCAI has said that ‘improving Australia’s fuel quality would offer a “3% to 5%” improvement on CO2 performance “overnight”.’
We have four types of petrol available: 91RON, 95RON, 98RON and E10. (RON means Research Octane Number – ‘Octane is the measure of a fuel’s ability to resist the phenomenon known as ‘knocking’ … [which] is the uncontrolled combustion of fuel that can destroy engine internals.’) 91RON petrol has a 150 ppm sulphur content, while 95RON and 98RON have a 50 ppm sulphur content. So even our best petrol has five times more sulphur than the world standard.
E10 is not the obvious choice either. ‘E10 is a blend of regular unleaded (RON 91) petrol and between 9% and 10% ethanol. Blending the ethanol at this ratio increases the RON to 94.’ So E10 has 90% of the sulphur of 91RON petrol (so, 135 ppm). The manufacture of the ethanol is probably less environmentally detrimental than the production of petrol, and ethanol ‘is a clean burning fuel that produces less greenhouse gases than unleaded petrol’. However, ‘the sustainability certification of Australian produced ethanol is not transparent. We know from studies conducted by organisations including the European Commission that when coal is used to produce ethanol, it can result in “little or no greenhouse gas emissions saving for ethanol compared to gasoline” on a well-to-wheel basis. This is a significant consideration for Australia, given our current reliance on fossil fuels.’ Also, ‘E10 has around 3% less energy than the equivalent amount of RON 91 petrol. On average, this can translate to an increase in fuel consumption of around 3%, which has about the same effect on fuel consumption as driving on tyres with inadequate air pressure.’
So what, I hear you clamour, is our government doing about this? High levels of sulphur polluting our air and choking our people; dirty fuel leaving us unable to use the latest technology of low-emissions vehicles; unclear certification on ethanol – surely they’re keen to listen to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries and improve our CO2 performance ‘overnight’?
Well, in December 2016 the Department of the Environment and Energy released a discussion paper called ‘Better fuel for cleaner air’ which set out the problem succinctly:
- Motor vehicle emissions can be split into two categories: noxious emissions which affect human health and the environment and contribute to respiratory illness, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.
- Petrol fuelled light vehicle emissions are one of the major causes of air pollution in urban Australia. Our expanding vehicle feet, increasing urbanisation and aging population mean that further action is needed to improve air quality and reduce the health impacts of air pollution.
- Improving fuel quality can help reduce the level of noxious emissions, which improves air quality and health outcomes.
- Some advanced vehicle technologies (including advanced emissions control systems and certain fuel efficient engine technologies) require higher quality fuel to work effectively. The quality of fuel influences which engine and emission control technologies can be supplied to the Australian market.
It also states that ‘Catalytic converters in vehicles are designed to filter emissions and reduce noxious substances emitted from vehicles. Sulfur clogs the catalytic converters making them less effective.’ It then outlines five alternative approaches, ranging from ‘no change’ through to the staged introduction of world standards from 2020. Sadly, the decision that was reached was closer to the ‘no change’ than introducing the world standards. The sulphur in petrol will be reduced to 10 ppm – from July 1 2027. The aromatic content in petrol will be reduced from 42 per cent to 35 per cent, effective 1 January 2022, to be reviewed and reduced by 2027. [‘Aromatic content’ refers to chemicals like benzene, toluene and xylene used to increase the petrol’s octane rating since lead was banned. The effect of these chemicals is being increasingly questioned. ‘The chemicals get released into the air as nano-sized particles – ultrafine particulate matter, or UFPs – that can be absorbed through the lungs or skin. Studies in peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Environmental Health Perspectives and Particle and Environmental Toxicology, have linked these particles from aromatics to diseases ranging from ADHD to asthma.’]
So where does that leave us? I’m thinking that E10 is only 10% ethanol, has 135 ppm sulphur, is less efficient, and even the production of the ethanol is not necessarily clean. So for now I’m opting for the petrols with less sulfur (RON95 and RON98). But I’m also looking into carbon offsets, and electric cars. My October challenge.
At dusk – that soft time of day when the fading light brings out the fantastical – a wombat wandered into the yard. I saw it under the wattle tree – yellow flowers reduced to grey, billowing scent and heady hum of bees vanished with the setting sun – tugging at a tuft of grass, scratching the hard earth with its no-nonsense paws. I crept off the balcony and slowly made my way across the yard. The wombat gave no sign of seeing me, yet somehow the distance between us never varied. I would creep, it would waddle nonchalantly, even stopping to attack another clump of grass, but I didn’t seem to get any closer. It went around the end of the shed, past the chairs that it had clearly knocked over on a previous expedition. I thought to cut it off at the pass, but it veered off, again turning its large square rump to me.
It made me realise I know very little about wombats. Could it hear me, or see me, or detect me in some other way? Or was it simply unafraid? All I knew of wombats I had learnt in Tasmania, at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (‘Here, knock on that’, the assistant invited us, and we each took a turn of knocking on the thick square bony bum of the obliging wombat, each of us astounded in turn by its solidity. ‘If it’s in danger it ducks into its burrow head first and blocks the entrance with this rump’, she explained. ‘It can crush a dog’s head against the side of burrow,’ she added cheerfully.)
So I turn to the Australian Museum and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment websites for information on wombats. Ok, so I can’t go further without mentioning that I was intrigued to read the museum’s section on Conversation status – unfortunately not a section on how to converse with wombats, but nevertheless pleasing as it reveals that the Common Wombat (our wombat) is not listed as being under threat, even though its distribution has been greatly diminished in the past 200 years.
From the websites: The wombat is a marsupial with an average length of a metre and an average weight of 26 kg. They are very strong and can run at up to 40km/hr over short distances. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. They are usually seen after sunset, when they leave their burrows to graze. (Yes!) Their main food is fibrous native grasses. They are generally solitary animals, although they can share their burrows. They are very territorial about their feeding grounds, and will defend them aggressively. I like this bit about communication from the Australian Museum:
A warning call is usually a low guttural growl, but when a wombat is alarmed or angered, rasping hiss can also be heard. The animal repeats this high, loud call as it expels air. Sometimes the call can be a more aggressive ‘chikker chikker’ sound and/or a more guttural sound similar to that of an angry brushtail possum. Communication is also apparent between younger animals and their mothers. Young make repeated, softer ‘huh huh’ calls when they lose sight of their mother, and she usually responds in the same manner.
Wombats usually have one joey at a time. It gestates for about 30 days then makes its way to the mother’s pouch, where it grows for up to 10 months. It leaves the pouch after that but remains with its mother for a further 8–10 months before becoming independent. The pouch faces backwards so the joey is protected when the mother is digging (or diving down her burrow). Mating takes place after an exhausting series of chases over a wide area and includes much rump biting.
It’s neither of those websites, but the Wildlife Rescue South Coast website that answers my questions about the wombat’s perception of my stalking presence:
While their eyesight is poor, wombats have a keen sense of smell, excellent hearing and very large brains.
So yes, it knew I was there, it maintained the distance between us, and it was in no danger of me taking a better photograph.
Black lines loom above us
Blooms are appearing on the wattles by the side of the road and on the tree in the middle of the yard. The activity of the birds increases, week by week, as they intuit the coming of spring. Birds that I don’t know in this dry sandstone country, so different to the rolling hills and green valleys, rainforest, rivers and creeks of Gloucester. I have to start again with our massive, cumbersome Cayley’s What bird is that? ($20 at a second-hand shop many years ago – a purchase that seemed Quixotic at the time – pointless folly – but which has given us hours of entertainment and illumination, even when it has to be cross-checked with the two volumes of A field guide to Australian birds by Peter Slater).
A black and grey flycatcher in the wattle darts out and then, as if it realises it has forgotten something, darts back to the tree. There’s a black and white treecreeper on the gums behind the house, then on the poles near the pizza oven, making its hopping way up and around. When I went down to the chook house I walked past the canopy of a eucalypt full of silent silvereyes, giving themselves away only through the sudden flutter of their wings as they flew from branch to branch. From another tree nearby came a deep and melodious ‘whoo’, rising from ‘wh’ to ‘oo’: a white-headed pigeon, its large white belly puffed out. Closer to the house a different ‘whoo’ – a repetitive, shortened ‘whup whup’, very low, very rhythmic – a bird I’ve heard before and searched for in vain. It’s not the loud and proud wonga pigeon that we used to hear at Gloucester, its unstoppable call filling the valley, but almost the antithesis with its sombre, nearly sub-hearing vibratory noise.
Next to the house there is a little cloud of tiny birds in the eucalypt making their weightless way from leaf to leaf, searching, needle sharp and fast, for insects. Looking up towards the sun it’s hard to make them out, but maybe there are dots, and golden yellow bellies. Maybe they are weebills, or spotted or striated pardalotes. When I consult Cayley I think I can rule out the spotted pardalote, which is described as having ‘a monotonous call-note, like “slee-p ba-bee”’, as they cheeped constantly and vivaciously, but my imprecise ear hasn’t retained the difference between a ‘wit-e-chu’ (striated pardalote) or ‘weebill’ (weebill). Striated pardalotes would be so exotic! Even though they occur all over Australia, I’m yet to see one. I remember my upswelling of jealousy when a visitor to the farm told us of the pardalotes who return every year to his property in Victoria, to nest in a tiny gap in the wall of his house.
I haven’t had one full year here at Tapitallee yet, so I have no way of knowing how the bush has changed over the past 10, 20, 50 years. I can only observe the now. Yet, I’m sure it is changing.
Today’s news story from the Copernicus Climate Change Service says that it looks like July was the warmest July on record, following on from June having being the warmest June on record. Average temperatures in Europe were more than 2 degrees C above ‘normal’ (whatever that is now) and the global-average temperature was about 0.1 degrees C higher than the previous warmest in 2016. A graph on their website showing the daily average temperature for Europe in June has a dark line of dashes snaking above a tangle of other lines – the dark dashes represent 2019, the others represent every fifth year since 1979. The previous warmest year was 1999, but that never reaches the consistent heights of 2019. I can’t help but see the heavy black lines of the warmer years dominating the gentler pink and blue lines of other years, leading them to rise ever higher, a horrible metaphor for our world.
We can see now that climate change isn’t just affecting us this year, or last year, but for many years past. After many years denying the warnings of scientists, and more years believing it was way in the future, we are feeling, not the first faint stirrings, but the full and mature effects of a radical change to the climate.