Week of 10/03/04

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of Australia’s koalas? What organizations are working to help them and what can people like me do to make a difference?

—Amy Marcus, via e-mail

Seven to 10 million koalas inhabited Australia at the time of white settlement two centuries ago. Today only about 100,000 remain. Native to the eucalyptus forests of Australia’s eastern seaboard, koalas were hunted extensively by the continent’s first European settlers, who shipped as many as two million of the highly prized pelts abroad each year.

While protection efforts by the Australian government have since eliminated most koala hunting, today these climbing marsupials face an even more imposing threat in the form of over-development and sprawl. Koalas are becoming scarce even in their primary habitats, and are considered "vulnerable" by the Australian government and "at risk" by the World Conservation Union, a global consortium of scientists and experts.

According to a recent survey by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), the primary non-government agency working to protect koalas, a third of the country’s viable habitat no longer supports any of the animals, while the remaining two-thirds is becoming increasingly fragmented or degraded by human activity. "I truly believe that in my lifetime the koala will become extinct unless we do something," says AKF’s executive director Deborah Tabarat.

Tabarat and other environmentalists are urging the Australian government to protect the eucalyptus groves upon which koalas depend for food and shelter. Increasing urbanization has led to the removal of millions of acres of eucalyptus forest, especially on Australia’s east coast where most of the continent’s people, as well as koalas, live.

Australian authorities have relocated koalas from islands to repopulate some parts of the continent, including South Australia, where koalas were hunted to extinction, and Victoria, where numbers had been reduced to almost nothing. As a result, populations have bounced back somewhat, but new problems, such as inbreeding and overcrowding, which leave them more susceptible to disease, have resulted.

Additionally, more than 4,000 koalas die every year from dog attacks and car collisions. This "one-two punch," says Tabarat, could lead to Australia’s koalas going extinct in the wild within 15 years.

Those interested in the fate of the koala can support AKF’s efforts. The organization has created a Koala Habitat Atlas to identify and record koala habitat throughout Australia, and is lobbying the country’s legislature to pass a National Koala Act which would provide government funding to protect these lands key to the animal’s survival.

CONTACTS: World Conservation Union, www.iucn.org; Australian Koala Foundation, G.P.O. Box 2659, Brisbane QLD 4001 Australia, www.savethekoala.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What can be done to make office buildings more energy-efficient? So many leave thousands of lights on at night!

—- Deborah, Baltimore, MD

Office buildings are indeed the top energy guzzlers among commercial buildings in the United States, head and shoulders above retail and service establishments and even manufacturing facilities.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that office-building owners spend an average of $1.34 per square foot annually on electricity. Lights, office equipment and heating/cooling systems account for about 90 percent of this expenditure. Lighting is clearly the main culprit, comprising 44 percent of all usage. Office equipment—computers, printers, copiers, fax machines and telephone systems—accounts for about 23 percent.

Building managers can make a big difference by installing energy-efficient systems—from heating and cooling to lighting and waste disposal—but individual business owners and their employees can also have impact by simply turning off lights and shutting down dormant machinery during non-working hours.

According to Advanced Energy, a North Carolina-based non-profit organization that monitors and analyzes energy use in commercial spaces, replacing older traditional fluorescent tubes with newer and more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs can save as much as 30 percent on electricity. And installing occupancy sensors so that lights go on and off as people enter and leave rooms can save an additional five percent. Furthermore, building managers can save up to 15 percent on electricity bills by programming thermostats to trigger warming and cooling as needed during the workday while hibernating at night and on the weekends when buildings are mostly empty.

Periodically assessing and retooling heating and cooling systems can achieve additional energy savings. Any heating and cooling equipment older than a decade, for example, is probably ripe for an upgrade to a newer more energy efficient system. The federal government’s Energy Star program, administered jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, rates the energy-efficiency of lighting, office equipment and heating/cooling systems from a wide range of manufacturers. Purchasing administrators can browse the Energy Star website to find out which models and systems will save a company the most money.

A handful of environmental groups are walking the talk via recent "green" retrofits to their office spaces. The National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, for example, have installed occupancy sensors and compact fluorescent lighting throughout their offices, and in some cases have installed windows and configured their workspaces to make use of natural daylight instead of artificial light where possible.

CONTACTS: U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program, www.eere.energy.gov; Advanced Energy, (919) 857-9000, www.advancedenergy.org; Energy Star, www.energystar.gov.