Have I got a (new green) ‘deal’ for you

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Open your eyes to a new framing for environmental reform and you’d be amazed what can be achieved.

By Peter Burnett

Reform is tough and environmental reform is no exception. It’s tough because the choices on the table almost invariably involve looking at the status quo, figuring out the trade-offs, and revealing winners and losers. The losers often use, or threaten to use, their political power to try and block the reform. As a result, instead of transformative and enduring change, we usually end of up with incremental shift that solves little.

But it may not have to be this way if we enter the reform process with a different framing of the problem and potential solutions. I’m going to try some reframing here by building on two things: overlaps in ecological and economic thinking and a change in Australian political culture produced by the pandemic. What might be achieved if this reframing was applied to the current review of the EPBC Act (Australia’s premier environmental law)?

On free lunches

Writing nearly fifty years ago for a public that was showing unprecedented concern about a degrading environment, ecologist Barry Commoner explained ecology by formulating four simple laws.

The first was ‘everything’s connected to everything else’. The second and third were ‘everything must go somewhere’ and ‘nature knows best’.

The last law was already familiar to economists: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ (which, by the by, also happens to be the slogan of our blog).

Economists had long recognised that every choice involves costs, starting with the opportunity cost of not doing something else. A choice to commit resources to one project inevitably means that those resources are no longer available for another.

Commoner was simply pointing out that environmental choices have a cost too. To take a straight-forward example, the more we use the airsheds above our cities as a sink for pollution, most of which comes from vehicles, the less those airsheds can do for us in supporting health and amenity. While we can certainly opt for some of each, the laws of nature preclude us from having both – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The facts of life

These ‘facts of life’ often leave us making binary choices and trade-offs (more of this and less of that). We can’t avoid choices, but sometimes we can change the facts that we are choosing between by reframing the problem.

Consider this energy example: developments in battery technology have made electric vehicles a feasible alternative to vehicles powered by fossil fuels. But they cost more, at least for the time being.

Returning to our urban air quality example, instead of choosing between driving more kilometres and reduced air quality, we could decide that high pollution levels are unacceptable and take polluting options off the table. Instead, technology would now allow us to frame our choice as between restrictions on (fossil-fueled) vehicle use and the cost of switching to (unrestricted) electric travel.

Yet we tend to stick to traditional framings. New approaches can be expensive and risky, or challenging to assumptions, values and interests. Consider our last federal election. The Opposition put forward a policy promoting electric vehicles; the government ran a scare campaign somehow connecting this to tradies losing their (fossil-fueled) utes.

Same old, same old

You see this phenomenon in politics all the time. It’s much easier to frame a debate in traditional ways than to risk rocking new boats or getting lost in complexities.

Take the current review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, best known for requiring environmental impact assessment (EIA) of developments affecting threatened species and other ‘matters of national environmental significance’. The review is led by Professor Graeme Samuel, a commercial lawyer and regulator.

You can see the arguments playing out in the media. Pro-development interests emphasise the cost of duplication and delay while sloganeering about cutting green tape, while pro-environment groups argue that the current law has failed to slow accelerating environmental loss, while also demonising big business.

Same old arguments, same old replies.

Slogans aside, both sides are right. There is duplication and delay between federal and state EIA, and the EPBC Act is failing to put a measurable dent in environmental decline. If ever there was a time to attempt a reframing of the debate, surely this year, one of unprecedented bushfire crises and an economy king-hit by COVID-19 and in need of some wins, is it.

An inter-connected whole

There is another approach, a deal to be done here, but we’d have to think differently about how we do government.

Everything’s connected to everything else. Not just in the physical environment, but in the way we manage things in a federal system, which prefers to slice the environmental cake neatly into Commonwealth and State slices.

Back in the early 1990s we dealt with this problem through COAG (the Council of Australian Governments), drawing up an ‘Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment’.

With that agreement moribund, it’s time for a new one. The trick would be for both levels of government to agree that the environment is an inter-connected whole, requiring a common policy framework and a shared commitment to high standards of conservation.

Implementation would be based on three main principles: scale, planning and cooperation.

The first is the principle of scale. This would see the Commonwealth focusing on the issues of largest scale, whether in terms of geography, politics or environmental significance, while the States would focusing on issues of regional and local scale. So the Commonwealth would lead on climate change for example, while the States would focus on development approval and catchment management.

The second is to plan, with those plans taking a proactive stance, a bias to conservation. This would involve preparing regional plans, which would protect areas of high conservation value while also identifying priority degraded areas for restoration.

The States would prepare these plans but the Commonwealth would accredit them as protecting matters of national environmental significance appropriately. It would then back that protection with investments, large ones; enough to restore environmental function to the point of resilience.

In return for legally binding State protection of its interests, the Commonwealth would bow out of EIA completely, saving considerable time and resources.

The third principle is good old-fashioned cooperation. This is never easy in a federal system, because the practical incentives to cooperate are often trumped by the political incentives of playing for advantage.

Not always however. As COVID-19 has shown, where there is real common cause, politicians of all stripes can get along famously.

Not a ‘Green New Deal’ but a new ‘Green Deal’

For this approach to work we’d have to agree that the environment is so important that federal-state politicking should come second. No easy task. We could start by asking independent statutory bodies like the Bureaus of Meteorology and Statistics to gather and hold environmental information, and to produce environmental accounts. This would guarantee an expert and impartial foundation of information for informed decision-making.

After our deadly Black Summer most people agree something needs to change.

In the Depression-era USA, President Franklin D Roosevelt enacted a wide-ranging and radical set of economic and social programs called the ‘New Deal’, to enable his country’s recovery. Currently there is much talk in the US about a ‘Green New Deal’ that will address climate change and economic inequality. This talk has spread to other countries, including Australia.

While the ‘Green New Deal’ might be seen as a project of the Left, could it be that in this extraordinary year of environmental, health and economic crises, the time for a new framing, a ‘New Green Deal’ has come?

The choices might still be hard but at least the trade-offs would be different. It’s at least time to start talking about it.

Image by FreePhotosART from Pixabay

The man who shamed the PM

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and thereby saved Australia

By David Salt

How did we do it? How did Australia beat COVID 19 when most other countries failed; failure being their inability to prevent the overloading of their health systems and the consequent death of tens of thousands of lives that should have been saved.

Is it because Australia has better leaders? Better health officials? Better people? Better geographical positioning?

Maybe our island continent’s physical isolation helped a little but I don’t think the other human factors had much to do with it, not directly anyway. Our health officials delivered similar advice to those health officials overseas but leaders in other nations often ignored this advice and shut the gate only after the horse had bolted (then searched for a scapegoat when their citizens started dying needlessly).

But our leaders followed the scientific advice pretty much to the letter. However, this is not in keeping with their behaviour in recent years in which they felt free to ignore, discount, denigrate or deny scientific advice that ran counter to their politics and ideology – think death of rivers, collapse of coral reefs and skyrocketing extinction rates.

And yet this time they did listen. What’s more, they showed how effective our federal system of governance could be when federal and state governments pulled together. How did we do it? Why did we do it differently this time?

The answer, I believe, is that our nation was primed for an unprecedented national response to an unprecedented national emergency by an earlier unprecedented national emergency. And I’ll make my case on this using what happened when our Prime Minister mis-read this earlier unprecedented national emergency.

Our PM’s Black Summer

Remember our Black Summer? The fires were extinguished only a couple of months ago but COVID 19 has relegated that disastrous time to a different age. But I reckon it was our experience of Black Summer that made the difference on how Australia responded to the ensuing COVID 19 pandemic.

And maybe the defining moment during this horror season on wildfire was when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rebuffed after making a unilateral announcement to bring in the army reserve on Saturday 4 January.

It was already clear by that stage that the Federal Government’s standard command-and-control approach wasn’t cutting the mustard. But, true to form, our leaders pushed on hoping to push through. And they played down the connection with climate change: ‘let’s not talk about that now, we must focus on the emergency’.

But the fire emergency was still escalating so the Government called out the army reserve without telling the states and simultaneously put out a political ad telling Australia what a great job it was doing. And they did it on the very day the wildfires were at their unstoppable worst.

The real heroes of the moment were the firies and emergency workers. When the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was told of the army reserve call out (by the media, not by the Federal Government) he was flabbergasted describing the manner of the announcement as “atrocious”.

And the whole country sat back and wondered what an earth the national government was playing at. Can they not see that in a time of national emergency that politics and ideology has to take a back seat to reasoned, evidence-based, co-operative action?

Well maybe that reality became apparent because after that incident they went decidedly quiet, letting the states, who have primary responsibility for fire management, take the running.

Not a panacea

A little bit later during this unfolding catastrophe, Conservative political leaders including our Prime Minister started looking around for a scapegoat for the wildfires and, predictably, targeted environmental groups and the Green Party as responsible for preventing hazard reduction burning in the lead up to the Black Summer.

Again, Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke truth to power saying that hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.

Fitzsimmons also pointed out that hazard reduction burning itself is extremely challenging and hazardous. What I didn’t know at that time but subsequently discovered on ABC’s Australian Story is that Fitzsimmons knows the perils of hazard reduction personally – his father burnt to death in a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s north in the year 2000.

So one of our true national heroes of the Black Summer, Shane Fitzsimmons, called out our national government on at least two occasions while simultaneously showing what calm dedicated leadership looked like. Many hold him up as the type of leader we need in a national emergency.

It takes a disturbance to be prepared for a disturbance

If there is a silver lining on our Black Summer it’s that it knocked the hubris and arrogance out of our national government’s approach to dealing with mass disturbance. Had it have been a ‘normal’ summer I believe we would have taken our lead from the UK or the USA on how to deal with Covid 19. And, in prioritizing the economy over the environment and discounting the science (our normal modus operandi), we would likely have led to the same death rates those countries are now experiencing (an outcome many are putting down to failed leadership).

Much has been written about how different countries have coped. It’s been suggested that South Korea and Taiwan have both fared well because they both previously experienced SARS and MERS, two respiratory pandemics very similar to Covid 19. They didn’t take it for granted and didn’t treat it like a flu, they responded appropriately.

I think our biggest risk now is believing the myth that Australia has done well because Australian’s (and Australian leaders) are a cut above the rest, that we are superior. We aren’t. We were lucky. Above all else, our decision makers approached the task of keeping Australia safe through the pandemic with a degree of humility, acceptance of the evidence and collegiality that has been missing from Australian politics for many years.

The smirk is back

And now, as Australia looks to be ahead of the (flattened) curve, I fear the smugness and arrogance is creeping back in. The idealogues are seizing back the pulpits, and tribal politics is beginning to strangle our winning formulation.

The months ahead look uncertain and strange. We’ve beaten the first wave but how will we go with the second and third?

The biggest national disturbance prior to this was the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Once again, as a nation, we reacted strongly and well. But there was collateral damage. In the following year the GFC helped knock the wheels off our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and our politics has been a shameless dog fight ever since.

There are two lessons here for our national leaders. The first is that circumstances (history and path dependency) play a large part in our triumphs and failures. The second, contained in the first, is that pride goeth before a fall.

Image by David Salt

Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites

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66 bites / 5 sustainability themes / the story continues

By David Salt

In a world staggering from one crisis to the next, stricken with plague and quarreling over solutions, where lies the true path to sustainability? Have we got a story for you, and we present it in 66 compelling chapters.

But can we sustain it

When we began Sustainability Bites I’m not sure how long Peter or I thought we could sustain it. It was a nice idea to write up our reflections on sustainability but how many blogs did we have in us? What would run out first: ideas, enthusiasm or available time?

Well, as it has turned out, we’re still putting them out a year and a half later. Indeed, we’re two thirds of the way to cracking a century!

I attempted to reflect on possible emerging themes arising from our musings back when we had completed 33 blogs (a third of a century; see Have we bitten off more than we can chew?), and I thought I’d repeat the exercise now at 66.

Back at blog #33 I suggested I could see five themes constantly emerging in our commentaries:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Well I think these five overarching themes still apply to our musings but I’m happy to say I don’t think we’re simply rehashing the same words over and over again.

History in the making

Our first 33 blogs set out what we believed sustainability involved, with commentaries on how governments here and overseas (though mainly Australian) were tackling the goal of sustainability. We reflected a little on the history of sustainability, called out inconsistencies between government rhetoric and action, and delved in to the ideology and culture of science and politics.

I’ve listed those first 33 stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Our second tranche of 33 essays covered the same basic ground but were developed in a time when sustainability policy seemed to go through enormous upheaval and contention as our nation endured disaster after disaster.

The big stories we commented on in several ways in our second 33 blogs included:
-the review of Australia’s premier environmental law, the EPBC Act
-the growing societal rejection of government inaction (and denialism) on climate change
-a season of unprecedented wildfires (and the politics it provoked)
-the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef
-the consequences of the pandemic on business as usual; and
-the use and abuse of crisis, hyper partisanship and ideology
I’ve listed those second 33 stories at the end of this blog as well (see Appendix 2) if you’d like to jump into any of these pieces.

Here are a few comments on the five themes I see overarching our individual stories:

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

In our first 33 blogs we came to the repeated conclusion that achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions. We concluded on several occasions that enduring change is probably only achieved through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Well, be careful what you wish for. This recent ‘summer of our discontent’ has brought more crisis than anyone thought possible (though all of it is well within predictions made by the scientific community).

Will change result? Almost certainly. Will it be change for a more sustainable future? Maybe. Or maybe it will see a massive decline in environmental protection as the economy ‘snaps back’ to full speed (double speed?) and crushes everything in its path.

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

This theme continued to develop in our second set of 33 blogs. Scientists cried apocalypse, wrote massive public letters, and called governments out time and again on climate denialism. Meanwhile forests burned, coral reefs fried and landscapes withered.

Everything the scientists were warning us about seemed to be coming true and yet our government held fast to its line that everything is okay and Australia should be proud of its performance. While grudgingly acknowledging that there might be a connection between the fires and climate change, it wasn’t something they could deal with till the crisis was passed. Having got passed it, now we only talk about the plague.

So what do I expect scientists to do? I really don’t know. If they become advocates or start manning the barricades then they’re no longer practicing science. And yet the science by itself seems so impotent.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

Surely something has got to give? The neo-liberal conservative ideology that sits behind climate denialism cannot be sustained given what our country (and the world) is enduring – surely? And yet it does. Could it be that when everything else has been burnt, withered and wasted, our ideology will still be standing, still declaring its intrinsic rightness – that would be the ideology of whoever is left standing. (It’s been pointed out to me that ‘denialism’ is driven by more than neo-liberal ideology. That might be so but it paves the way by promoting the view that the market will solve all problems and that non-market things do not count. Of course it’s much more complex than I present here, and there’s a strong thread of libertarianism interwoven through this tapestry of deceit. The net effect is continuing poor outcomes in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should be doing something different.)

4. The value of good policy

Whereas I tend to despair and begin to rant (as in point 3) when I consider the rampant environmental decline all around me (largely discounted by government), Peter looks for constructive policy solutions that may or may not be applied but at the very least deserve serious consideration. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies and how they relate to effective environmental protection (in both sets of 33 blogs).

It will be interesting to see if good policy takes the fore as we move deeper into this crisis riven year.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

The historical antecedents of sustainability policy was a much greater talking point in our first 33 blogs though it still featured in many of the second tranche. Possibly the reason for this is that it seems that history was being made even as we wrote the second set, and it was all we could do to reflect on what was unfolding around us.

Last year’s drought seemed to be a game changer but it was dwarfed by the scale of ensuing fires which in turn has been swallowed by the enormity of the Covid 19 pandemic (and somehow, while all this was happening, no-one seemed to notice that the Great Barrier Reef had been king hit by another mass bleaching event, the most extensive to date).

What will come out the other end of this run of crises is anyone’s guess but it’s a sure bet that what we think is happening now will likely be revised and reinterpreted many times as we move away from these tumultuous times – though possibly towards even more tumult.

Maybe I’ll have the answer by blog #100.

Image by Flo K from Pixabay

Appendix 1: Our first 33 Bites [in order of appearance with themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: Our second 33 bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

34. Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites – looking back on 33 blogs[reflection, history]
35. What’s in the EPBC Box? – Unpacking Australia’s primary environmental law [policy, EPBC Act]
36. I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon – playing the crisis game [crisis, politics]
37. Federal environmental planning – planning should be strengthened in the EPBC Act [policy, EIA]
38. Shame Greta Shame – the use of ‘shame’ to affect change [politics, shame, denialism]

39. Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’? – [business, social responsibility]
40. On the taboo of triage – why politicians don’t talk about triage [politics, policy, denialism]
41. 2019 Senate Environment Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
42. I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!! – the value of the ‘letter’ from experts [politics, science culture, denialism]
43. Supplementary Environmental Estimates – [politics, policy, news]

44. The script that burns us – predicatable responses to wildfire [politics, ideology, denialism]
45. Announcing ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’ – what’s in this new policy [politics, policy]
46. But we’re only a tiny part of the problem! – unpacking denialist cant [politics, policy, denialism]
47. Will next year be a big one for biodiversity? – the importance of 2020 [policy, environmental accounts]
48. Positioning ‘The Environment’ – rearranging government departments [policy, politics]

49. Insights on government thinking from 20 years ago – release of parliamentary papers[policy, history]
50. Five lies that stain the nation’s soul – the government’s worst lies [politics, denialism]
51. Now is the summer of our discontent – reflecting on an awful summer [politics, disturbance]
52. On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster – hiding behind notions of resilience [politics, disturbance, resilience]
53. By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity? – environmental accounts to the rescue [policy, environmental accounts]

54. Conversations with the devil – false news is amplified by tribalism [polarization, tribalism]
55. A tale of two climate bills – laws proposed by an independent and the Greens [policy, politics]
56. Dawn of the new normal (?) – when will we acknowledge climate change [policy, politics, disturbance]
57. Insensible on coal – why is coal the elephant in the room[policy, politics, disturbance]
58. The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions – ‘net’ zero carbon emissions[policy, politics, offsets]

59. ‘Practical Environmental Restoration’– the Government always talks about ‘practical’ [policy, politics, offsets]
60. A good decision in a time of plague – the process is more important than the decision itself [policy, governance]
61. A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act – the 2020 climate policy toolkit [policy, politics, climate change]
62. Entering a no-analogue future – Covid 19 is giving us the world to come [Anthropocene, Covid 19]
63. Who’s the BOS? – Biodiversity offsets – state vs commonwealth [policy, politics, offsets]

64. Three letters on the apocalypse – putting a human frame on disaster [climate change, communication]
65. Washing off the virus – what happens to environmental regulation after the plague [policy, politics]

Washing off the virus

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Will we throw the environmental baby out with the bathwater?

By Peter Burnett

In canvassing our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made bold statements about giving first priority to growing the economy through a business-led recovery. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has deployed equally strong language about an ‘aggressive’ deregulation agenda.

The strength of such language must give anyone concerned about the environment pause for thought. There’s no doubt the economy will need some heavy duty kick-starting as we recover from the COVID-19 disaster.

However, might this crisis be used to justify a political narrative about environmental regulation being ‘green tape’? Could we, in the name of curing the current big crisis, end up accelerating the next big crisis, brought on by environmental decline?

Wrapped in green tape

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley already has a predilection for the green tape narrative. Announcing the current review of the Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) last October, she cast the review as an opportunity to cut ‘green tape’ and increase certainty for business.

The environment itself was only mentioned in the context of ‘maintaining high environmental standards’. Ley expressed no concern about the ongoing decline of the environment itself. And this was well before the COVID-19 crisis.

It is fair enough for the Government to look for increased efficiency, including in regulatory processes, as part of a plan for environmental recovery.

In federal environmental regulation, my first suggestion for efficiency would have been to fund the regulatory process properly. Successive governments have reduced efficiency by whittling departmental resources away through inflated ‘efficiency dividends’, code for general cuts. As a result, delays have gotten longer and longer, but of course they could have been reduced again by restoring the money.

But it seems that the Government is already on top of this one.

In November 2019 (ie, still before the crisis), it announced a $25m ‘congestion busting’ initiative to reduce delays in federal environmental assessments, including by establishing a major projects team ‘to ensure assessments can be completed efficiently and thoroughly in accordance with the Act.’

Recently, Ley announced that this initiative was delivering what appears to be significant progress. As of December, only 19% of ‘key assessment decision points’ were being met. But by March 2020 this had improved dramatically, to 87%. What’s more, the Minister says that figure should reach 100% by June 2020, all without relaxing any environmental safeguards under the EPBC Act.

In other words, the problem of slow environmental approvals will be solved in a couple of months.

I must admit to scepticism about this claim. I suspect that the assessments are much more superficial than they once were, more reliant now on accepting information provided by proponents and state regulators.

I also suspect that the introduction of user-charging for federal environmental assessments a few years ago, together with limited resources for compliance, mean that there are fewer projects under assessment. This is because proponents abandon a bias towards referring projects on a ‘just-in-case’ basis, in favour of a risk management approach, under which proponents weigh the costs of referral against knowledge that compliance action for failure to refer is unlikely.

However, let’s take the Government’s claims at face value for the moment and accept that regulatory delays, at least at the federal end, are on the way out. What else could they do to speed up environmental approvals?

More juice in the efficiency lemon

Even if individual statutory timelines are met, overall timelines can still be reduced, first by removing duplication between federal and state processes and also by removing delay at the proponent’s end. This latter kind doesn’t count as regulatory delay but is, of course, still delay.

Duplication is a complex issue and reform is a medium term task. But short-term gains could be achieved administratively, by forming federal-state task forces, ie by putting regulatory staff from both levels of government into a single team, tasked with shepherding the project through all processes as quickly as possible.

In the past I would have said the politics wouldn’t allow this, but I would also have said that a thing called ‘National Cabinet’ would never work. These are extraordinary times.

Proponents could also contribute to a task force model. I wouldn’t recommend direct secondment of proponent staff to task forces, as this is mixing the foxes in with the hens, but by increasing resources for their own project teams proponents could improve quality and responsiveness, both of which are essential to timely environmental assessment.

Avoiding the temptations of short-termism

So there are some gains to be had. Yet the temptation in a crisis is to grab onto anything and everything that might conceivably help deal with the problem at hand, taking a ‘tomorrow-can-look-after-itself’ attitude to any longer term consequences. And this is no ordinary crisis.

Beyond the marginal gains of efficiency, trading parts of the environment itself for a short term economic hit could look very tempting.

The OECD is alive to this issue and has come out with all guns blazing. In a recent statement, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría argues, not just against weakening environmental standards, but in favour of stronger standards. In his view, governments should seize ‘a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery … a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader well-being goals at its core, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience.’

In other words, kill two birds with one stone. Use your spending on post-virus economic recovery to advance longer term environmental recovery. Gurría has a three point plan for this:

First, align short-term emergency responses to long-term economic, social and environmental objectives and international obligations (ie, leverage your investment).

Second, prevent lock-in, not only of high-emissions activities, but also of impacts on vulnerable groups, who have been the worst affected by COVID-19. A key way to do this is through a fair transition to a low-carbon economy.

Third, policy integration. Integrate environmental and equity considerations into the economic recovery. This means that infrastructure investment, as well as government support to virus-affected sectors, should pass the test of contributing to a low carbon economy.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The OECD is often described as a club for rich nations. And rich nations, including Australia, could be expected to take a conservative view about maintaining wealth.

Yet this advice sounds rather left of centre. In fact, in an Australian context, it is redolent of the mostly unlamented Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government, which aligned its short term emergency responses to long term environmental objectives (think Pink Batts, 2008) and also pursued a fair transition to a low-carbon economy by compensating low income earners for the impact of the carbon price (think Clean Energy Future, 2011).

In my view the OECD is right but, in Australia, its advice may be cruelled by our recent political history. If the Government were to take the OECD’s environmentally-responsible but mildly collectivist advice it would be accused of taking the Rudd/Gillard path to disaster.

On the other hand, if the Australian Government follows through on its current rhetoric of a growth-led recovery and aggressive deregulation, we may be headed for solutions that throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Which will it be?

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

A good decision in a time of plague

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Could it be there is no ‘right’ decision, just a good process?

By David Salt

What’s the best decision to make in a time of plague? Close your borders? Isolate your citizenry? Ration supplies? Close schools? Scorch the landscape? (Actually, for our east coast, the forests have already all been scorched and it doesn’t seem to be slowing the rate of infection.)

Of course, versions of all these actions are being applied in different measures here and overseas in the face of COVID-19. We have all been impacted by these decisions and most of us have strong views on which decisions are good and which are bad. Indeed the ‘strength’ of those views is on clear view in the twitterverse and in the mass media, and at times that strength is verging on the hysterical.

I can say from my own family’s experience, we are scared.

There is no perfect

I think most fair minded people would acknowledge that no-one has the perfect solution (or even a near perfect solution). Every option is problematic. Each comes with difficult trade-offs including constraints on personal freedoms, social isolation and reduced access to important goods and services. For some (eg, the wealthy), these trade-offs are inconvenient but they’ll cope. For many they are life changing; and for some they are life threatening.

What’s more, given the complexity of the systems being managed here, there is enormous uncertainty about how different options will actually pan out.

Given all this, surely we should all be more passionate about the process by the which a decision is made rather than it’s ‘rightness’ – because there simply isn’t a ‘correct’ answer. Or, in other words, rightness is actually more about the process of making a decision rather than the decision itself.

Good decision making

What are the ingredients of a good decision-making process in a time of crisis?

Here are a few key elements: the process needs to make use of the best information (and experts) available; it must be transparent, fair and adaptive. Above all, the process needs to be trustworthy.

Trust is not a given, it’s earned. It’s difficult to build and is easily lost. However, if the process is genuinely well informed by the science – and is transparent, fair and adaptive – the trust bank is built on solid foundations and will continue standing regardless of tough operating conditions, setbacks, slip ups and sub-optimal decisions – all of which are a given in a time of plague and mass disruption.

So far our governments haven’t done too badly. They have acknowledged the gravity of the situation, been open about the medical expert advice they have been receiving and how it informs their decisions, and have made some massive resource commitments to bolster the economy and ecology of our society.

Yes our governments (state and federal) have made many slip ups and sub-optimal decisions including slow responses, ambiguous and contradictory messaging, and letting cruise ships unload in Sydney with zero vetting. Yes it’s been messy, and social media has been even more venomous and judgmental than usual. But society is still functioning, riots don’t appear likely and the general public is acknowledging the need for harsh restrictions in the face of an unprecedented threat. (I hate using the word ‘unprecedented’ but it really does apply here. However, every pandemic is unprecedented because each is different. The Spanish Flu pandemic may have been bigger – so far – but it was a different world 100 years ago.)

In any event, while our response hasn’t been perfect, I trust our system and I’d rather be in Australia at the moment than in the US or the UK. The US, in particular, looks to be headed for grief on a massive scale. And they have a leader who says this disturbance will be over in a fortnight.

Transparent, fair and adaptive

For trust to be sustained in our decision making we need to see what it is based on. It needs to be a transparent process. We live in an open society with a free press and a strong set of institutions to validate information and the manner in which the government hand out resources.

Authoritarian governments might find it easier to impose draconian measures to counter a plague but the lack of transparency in such places is also a recipe for a plague to take off. Such was the case with the birth of the COVID-19.

We have a strong belief that government resources should be used for the common good and that the most vulnerable in society are looked after. In a time of plague this is doubly important, something our elected leaders are all too aware of.

The ‘rule of law’ is a particularly important component of being ‘fair’. That is the rules and constraints applied to the community are applied to everyone without fear or favour, something that is ensured by transparency and strong institutions. ‘Exceptionalism’, the practice of making rules for others but believing you are the exception – will simply not be tolerated in a time of plague and politicians caught out doing it are essentially robbing from the trust bank. That’s one reason I’m glad I’m not in the US at the moment. Their leadership has raised exceptionalism to an art form.

Being adaptive – changing your strategy to adapt to changing circumstances – is less often spoken about when it comes to coping with a massive disturbance. I think that’s because our leaders want to convince the population that they have the answers and there is nothing to worry about. I think this was on show during our recent bushfire emergency.

Such hubris is simply unacceptable in a time of plague. Our leaders need to acknowledge the enormous uncertainties facing us and have the humility to say they don’t have the answers and that we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is not a sin, not learning from them is.

This is where a brains trust of experts feeding into a transparent process of decision making is critical.

What decision will we make next week?

Have we done enough to counter this pandemic? Have we gone too far? It’s impossible to say. We’ll probably know in a month.

The only certainty is that more big decisions will need to be made in the coming days, and the situation will change significantly in the coming weeks. None of the decisions our leaders make will be perfect. I accept that. But, for the sake of my family and my society, may those decisions be transparent, fair and adaptive. If they’re not, my trust will wither.

And in a time of plague, trust is everything.

Image: Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

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The new Government mantra (and more grist from the Estimates’ mill)

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held another round of its regular environmental estimates hearings and, once again, I thought I’d share with you what emerged. As I’ve said in the past, these hearings often contain valuable evidence on Government thinking and action.

The topics covered this time were mostly grist for the mill, but one item really stood out: the Government has become focused on something called ‘practical environmental restoration’? Heard of it? Neither had I.

Practical environmental restoration

The government has a bit of a thing about taking ‘practical’ action when it comes to the environment. This theme emerged as a way of contrasting the Coalition Government’s main climate initiative, the Emissions Reduction Fund, with the complexities of the previous Gillard Government’s carbon price (which Tony Abbott had labelled, confusingly but very successfully, as a tax).

And then there was the Government’s obsessive focus on the second-order environmental issue of plastic pollution while ignoring the first-order issue of climate change because this government is all about practical solutions.

In the last budget, brought down in the lead up to the 2019 election, the Government developed this ‘practical action’ theme further, introducing two new programs, an Environmental Restoration Fund ($100 million over four years) and a Communities Environment Program ($22.6 million in one year only).

Smells like a pork barrel

On the face of it, the Environmental Restoration Fund seems respectable. However, look a little closer one and it takes on the appearance of a pork barrel. With the fund established and an election called, the Government proceeded to make election commitments covering nearly 80% of the fund. According to a non-government Senator, some of the groups nominated as recipients knew nothing about the grants coming their way until contacted by someone from a Coalition Party.

With the government re-elected, these election commitments prevented the Environment Department from giving the standard advice about holding competitive grant rounds. It had no choice but to advise the Government to hold what officials described as a ‘closed, non-competitive’, funding round. This meant that the grant guidelines actually specified the recipients as the groups nominated in the Governments election commitments.

None of this is illegal, because various policy guidelines allow for standard procedures like competitive grant rounds to be overridden by election commitments. The theory is that the Government has a mandate to implement his commitments.

So it’s not a second ‘Sports-Rorts’ affair, with attendant allegations of illegality.

It is, however, a blatant case of pork barrelling, likely to lead to poor policy outcomes because the politicians have specified the grant amount, purpose and recipient without any public service or other expert advice.

With the environment in continual decline and a desperate need for restoration, this is another example of very poor governance.

School yard stuff

And the response of Minister Birmingham, the minister representing the Government at Estimates, to Opposition criticisms of the program? ‘I don’t have to sit here and accept hypocrisy from you. You made similar promises at the election.’

In other words, you are just as bad as us, so we can get away with this. At a time when trust in government is very low and the environment in significant decline, this is school yard stuff and a very sad state of affairs.

The Communities Environment Program is not much better. The fact that the program is limited to one year, immediately following at election, is unusual and strongly suggestive of the program being another pork barrel. The fact that the money is allocated to all MPs ($150,000 per electorate) allowing non-government MPs to access to the pork, is hardly a saving grace.

Again, this is bad policy. Small numbers of piecemeal local grants in a one-off program make no contribution to the big environmental issues that face the national government.

So what does ‘practical environmental restoration’ mean? Pork barrelling, obviously.

Grist for the mill

To finish, some quick ‘grist for the mill’ themes from Estimates:

  • There was the usual manoeuvering in which the Greens asked the Bureau of Meteorology questions designed to elicit strong statements about the severity of climate change, while One Nation asked questions directed to showing that the Bureau was cooking the books.
  • The Opposition was in pursuit of Warren Entsch, the Government’s backbench Reef Envoy: why was he so focused on single use plastics in the marine environment when it is such a small component of marine waste?
  • There were the expected questions concerning the impact of bushfires on threatened species. In short, the Government has convened an expert panel and the Threatened Species Committee is reviewing conservational advice and recovery plans, but it really is too early to have much data from bushfire-affected areas.
  • Opposition and Green senators are still pursuing Minister Angus Taylor’s alleged intervention in a compliance investigation concerning his brother’s farm in southern New South Wales. Officials advised, yet again, that this long-running investigation remains incomplete.
  • Senator Matt Canavan, formerly Resources Minister and now on the back bench, asked about climate change as an issue in environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. He is clearly concerned that an environmental assessment for a large oil and gas project off the coast of WA, requires the proponent to assess the impact (if any) of greenhouse gases (including scope 3 emissions) on features such as the Great Barrier Reef, which lie on the other side of the country.
  • While on the topic of environmental assessments, officials revealed that the Environment Department had received some funding for extra environmental assessment staff under the government ‘congestion-busting’ initiative. This reverses the trend over the last few years of regular staffing reductions in this area. It’s ironic that governments cause the problem through general cuts (the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, then ‘fix’ the resulting ‘congestion’!
  • Senators pressed the government on it’s electric vehicle strategy, due out in mid 2020, particularly given pre-election comments by the Prime Minister and other ministers about electric vehicles putting an end to the weekend. Perhaps rehearsing the lines that will be used to explain these pre-election comments away when the Government starts to promote electric vehicles in its forthcoming ‘Technology Roadmap’. Minister Birmingham made it clear that the electric vehicle market was ‘obviously one that is adapting in terms of the technical specifications’ and that ‘the electric vehicle strategy will no doubt take into account how those technical specifications are evolving.’

Image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions

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A game for mugs or a magic pudding that just keeps giving?

By David Salt

Zero net emissions by 2050! It’s the goal proclaimed by many countries around the world*, and it’s aimed at stemming the tide of climate change.

Zero net emissions is the recipe for enabling business as usual (ie, strong economic growth) while supposedly dealing with the externalities resulting from business as usual (ie, civilisation-ending climate change).

And it’s a political winner because governments aren’t targeting specific economic sectors (ie, the fossil fuel industry). Indeed, this far away from 2050, they aren’t being pegged down by too many specifics on how it will be achieved. The generic solution, implicitly and explicitly rolled out everytime, is that technology will save the day.

The magic in the pudding

So where is the magic that drives this ‘zero-net’ proposition? It’s in the ‘net’ bit. This framing means you don’t have to be ‘zero’ in your emissions in any specific activity, like burning coal if that’s what tickles your fancy.

But you do have to be zero in your cumulative effort. If you produce carbon emissions in one area then you need to do something somewhere else that removes that carbon so the cumulative impact (the net effect) is zero.

How do you remove carbon from the atmosphere? The traditional way has been to plant trees or do existing activities in ways that emit less carbon, a good example being using renewable energy instead of fossil fuel energy.

It works as a political solution because it means you don’t have to explicitly say who is going to bear the burden of reducing their emissions. At some point, however, someone, somewhere is going to have to change their behaviour – after all, sustainability bites!

Experience so far with zero sum policy games suggests they are tricky to establish and easy to work around (ie, cheat).

Offset this

What, you weren’t aware of other zero-sum games? They’re actually quite popular and one place where it’s really taking off is in the arena of biodiversity conservation. The name of this specific game is called biodiversity offsetting.

When it comes to any economic activity with impacts on biodiversity there are many rules and regulations to prevent the loss of species and ecosystems.

To begin with, the proposer of a new economic development must demonstrate their proposal isn’t adversely impacting any native species or ecosystems. If it does, the developer is required to state what they will do about it to remove that impact.

Indeed, developers are expected to apply a mitigation hierarchy to their proposal (see the South Australian Government for an example) in which they need to show how they will first:
1. avoid the negative impacts of their development but doing it in a different way. But if there is still impact, they need to then demonstrate how they will
2. minimise the size of the impact of the development; and then
3. restore the area to make up for the impact.

However, if the developer can’t avoid, minimise or restore the impact they create, they can now offset the damage of the development by doing something good for the environment somewhere else. If you clear a stand of native trees over here for a shopping centre, you might offset this impact by planting the same species of tree somewhere nearby.

The aim is to achieve ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ over time. See, it’s a zero-sum policy game.

The trouble is, in many places it’s been seen by developers as a green light for development and has resulted in many perverse outcomes.

A green light for decline?

For starters, many developers don’t even bother with the mitigation hierarchy (because avoiding, minimising and restoring all cost considerable resources and regulators often don’t check to see whether the impact can be mitigated) and jump straight to some form of offset proposal. But proposing offsets for developments are usually quite complex and there’s a lot of research around to show they often don’t actually offset the impacts of the development (in space or time).

In some cases, the development impact is on something that is irreplaceable like the potential loss of threatened species. In these situations it’s impossible to offset the potential loss and the development should be blocked. Instead, the developer is sometimes asked to do something that might be ‘equivalent’ to a direct offset, like contributing money to an education awareness program that may help save the species. Such indirect offsets are not actually offsets at all but they do give cover for economic development to proceed.

The overall outcome is that while there is a goal of no net loss of biodiversity, biodiversity is lost anyway. Around the world we are seeing a mass extinction event taking place and biodiversity offsetting does not seem to be making any difference.

The devil is in the detail

The lesson here is that great care needs to be applied to the establishment of any zero sum policy game. It needs to be transparent, accountable and enforceable. And it cannot be applied merely as cover for business as usual to proceed without any checks and balances.

Economic activity that generates positive carbon emissions (ie, above zero) needs to be accountable for matching these emissions with activities elsewhere that generate negative carbon emissions (ie, activities that remove carbon).

Governments oversee this process and need to establish robust and transparent frameworks that keep track of these activities and their emissions, and report this tracking in a clear and simple way so everyone has faith in the system. To sustain this faith, the monitoring and measurement will need to be independent of government; something along the lines of what Zali Stegall recommended in her climate bill.

A lot of thought will need to go into how you trade emissions across time (eg, savings emissions today to pay for extra emissions in the future) and space (eg, buying emissions savings from another country for an emission heavy activity in our own backyard).

While the law surrounding such net zero policies will be enacted at the national level, it’s likely this game will involve the trading of positive and negative emissions between countries so the net zero frameworks will need to operate with agreed international norms.

The System of Environmental-Economic Accounts is one existing framework that might help with all of these issues.

Maybe net zero emissions is a policy pathway that might engage opposing political forces, something that efforts to date have failed to do. However, to transform the call for zero net emissions by 2050 into workable and effective policy, much effort will need to go into creating intuitions that will hold governments to account and prevent them from fudging the figures.

Image: the cover of the UN Emissions Gap Report for 2019

*According to the UN Emissions Gap Report for 2019, most emissions — 78%— come from the top 20 economies, the G20. Of these, only five had pledged to long-term zero net targets (and this did not include the three big emitters: China, the US and India). Around 70 countries worldwide have made pledges of being carbon neutral by 2050.

Insensible on coal

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Why climate change policy is such a challenge for Australian politics

By Peter Burnett

As I write this, our national Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is mocking his Opposition counterpart as some sort of guru-seeking hippy for daring to suggest that Australia might adopt New Zealand’s idea of a ‘well-being budget’.

This is just the latest example of our very low level of Australian policy debate: the ‘well-being budget’ is a serious attempt to address the well-known limitations of GDP (basically national income) as a measure of ‘progress’. It is particularly relevant to environmental issues and deserves a considered debate. Perhaps I’ll write about it in another blog.

It’s easy to despair over the shallow debate involving the environment, particularly when the state of our environment has started biting us in ways that are, to deploy once again this summer’s most overused word, unprecedented.

Is political agreement on a rational and proportionate environmental policy even possible? I thought I would look at this question by focusing on the troublesome issue of coal and climate change.

A tough challenge even in an ideal policy world

Our quality of life has been built on fossil fuels. In Australia, one fossil fuel in particular, coal, has supported our lifestyle not only by providing most of the energy needed for electricity production, but also by serving as a ‘top three’ export-earner.

So, phasing out coal presents a double policy challenge.

It is common to reflect on the fact that climate change requires concerted global action. Yet it is uncommon to reflect on the system behind the international approach to orchestrating such action.

The underlying problem is one of too many people consuming too much stuff, most of which generates greenhouse gases, one way or another. This is a problem tailor-made for economics, a discipline often defined as the study of efficient allocation of scarce resources.

If we had asked economists rather than diplomats to come up with a solution, they would have told us that getting consumption down to sustainable levels is all a matter of ‘getting the prices right’ and that if ‘stuff’ produces too much greenhouse gas, the answer is to put up the price of ‘stuff’, in proportion to the amount of gas it generates.

In an ideal world, then, we would have ended up with a uniform global carbon tax, with the rate set at just the right level to disincentivise the production of excessive greenhouse gases. Problem solved.

The realpolitik of the Climate Change Convention

However, the real world is not built around economic theory. It’s based on nation states and their absolute sovereignty. International diplomacy is a parliament of equals, but with no overarching government to enforce the rules.

As a result, when countries agree on international action, they tend to do so by agreeing to regulate only what goes on inside their own borders, relying on other countries to implement their own corresponding regulation but usually without any means of making them do so.

With climate change, this system of each nation focusing on their own back yard leads to a system where by countries regulate domestic emissions not just from consumption, but also from production. Mixed models such as this tend to produce anomalies.

For example, resource-rich countries such as Australia are advantaged in comparison to manufacturing countries such as China. Emissions from manufactured goods such as tools and furniture will be counted mostly in the country in which they are produced, increasing export prices if carbon is priced, while emissions from natural resources such as coal are (mostly) accounted for in the country in which they are consumed, with little effect on export prices under a carbon price.

What’s more, if we did reduce coal exports by restricting new mines, any emission reductions would not count towards our international targets. This leaves us with an unbalanced incentive to promote coal mining, but only for export.

Just make the best of it?

Okay, so the model is less than ideal but it is not likely to change. So, despite its flaws, can we extract policy success (ie climate change mitigation) from the existing system?

If we stay focused on the outcomes rather than the inputs, as any good policy should, the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. Under this approach we’d be targeting greenhouse gas reductions and not coal specifically, even though coal is a major source of greenhouse gases.

In the case of coal we would still need to phase-out domestic use, although we could be technology agnostic and pursue emissions reduction generally rather than reduced coal consumption specifically. We would also want to reduce emissions reductions from coal mining, but again the measures could be industry-blind and not directed at mining specifically.

On the other hand, we would not target emissions reduction from coal exports, because these emissions would count towards the targets of our customers rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, because it is essential for the planet that we get out of coal on a global basis, we would need to work towards the adoption of increasingly ambitious targets and regimes internationally.

Success here would have the incidental effect of reducing demand for coal, including our own exports.

Is this feasible?

Even though we wouldn’t be targeting coal or exports, this approach would remain a hard sell domestically. Despite the double policy virtues of good prospects of climate mitigation success and compliance with the letter and spirit of international agreements, the politics would still be tough.

Domestic environment groups have managed to demonise not just the consumption of coal, but its production. They have done this for their own reasons, in part because domestic place-based campaigns are what they do best: the environment movement was built on them.

On the other hand, coal-producing regions would not be appeased just because we weren’t targeting coal directly. We’d still be taking action internationally that would harm the coal industry. Jobs would still be under threat and transition programs would still be needed.

So action on coal, or more accurately, action on emissions including those from coal, is politically feasible, but hardly attractive. The best policy path available barely dents the political risk and pain.

The conundrum with coal is the same as that posed by climate change more generally: would you like a moderate dose of pain now or a much bigger and tougher dose of pain delivered to your children? At this point in time it seems we are happy to pass the burden to our children.

Image: Then Treasurer (now PM) Scott Morrison holds up a chunk of coal in Parliament in 2017. “This is coal,” he said mockingly to the Opposition. “Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.”

Dawn of the new normal(?)

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Is this a wakeup call we will heed? Or is it just more false light?

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

Was it when the rising seas swept away the last little native rat (a creature known as a melomys) from a tiny coral cay off the northern tip of Australia around ten years ago? This was reported as the first species extinction directly attributed to climate change.

Or was it Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when devastating bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people causing everyone to acknowledge that more intense wildfires could no longer be resisted.

Or was it in 2007 when our Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, declared climate change to be ‘the greatest moral challenge’ of our time (noting he was then displaced by a Prime Minister who claims climate change is ‘absolute crap’).

Or was it this Australian summer, dubbed by our current coal-loving Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to be our ‘Black Summer’? He then declared that we need to prepare for a ‘new normal’.

Of course, climate change has been impacting Australia for decades*, but it’s only been biting us with real venom in recent years. Unfortunately, rather than stimulate a significant, systematic and meaningful response, climate-change impact so far seems to have only galvanised the culture wars, entrenched the status quo and perpetuated inaction.

Scorched coral

To my mind, the inescapable consequences of ignoring climate change surfaced in the summer of 2016 with the mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. It destroyed around a third of the reef’s hard corals. It was then followed but another mass bleaching in 2017 destroying another third. The bleaching was caused by high water temperatures associate with global warming.

Of course, I say ‘inescapable’ because a larger more graphic example of the impacts of climate change would be harder to find; and it was an impact entirely predicted and widely communicated by a broad range of scientists. What’s more, those impacts came with severe economic, social and policy implications (in terms of World Heritage obligations) all of which had me believing this event would actually make a difference. (2016 also saw the massive loss of mangroves and kelp forests but these collapses didn’t carry the same direct human connection. They weren’t as visible, either.)

In the past we’ve discussed the importance of shocks and crises in breaking policy deadlocks. And I really thought the coral bleaching episodes might be a tipping point that might overturn our climate-change inaction. But I was sorely disappointed. Far-right, populist pollies like Pauline Hanson said the reef was in fine form, while holding up a piece of healthy coral from a portion of the reef unaffected by the bleaching; the Government said their policy settings were fine, while government agencies were putting out status reports describing the reef’s outlook as very poor; and fear campaigns on the possibility of losing regional mining jobs in Queensland outweighed concerns for the reef and led to the re-election of a conservative government with no effective policy for climate change.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of my incredulity, the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, a guy named Col McKenzie, urged the Federal Government to stop funding marine biologists because their reports on coral bleaching were “harming the tourism industry”.

The summer of 2016 (and 2017) left me somewhat desolate. If the ongoing death of Australia’s most beloved and precious ecosystem wasn’t a sufficiently powerful wake up call, what was?

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

I was sad about the ecological implications of the mass bleaching (and what it portends for the economically important eco-tourism industry of Queensland); but, truth to tell, it didn’t directly affect my quality of life.

The Black Summer of 2019/20, on the other hand, has shaken me to the core. In addition to scorching forests and beaches dear to my heart, it’s trashed the economies of regional towns where I know people; it’s battered the life out of the city in which I reside; indeed it’s poisoned the very air that I breathe. I’m also bracing myself for a set of dramatically increased insurance premiums on policies I’m already struggling to sustain.

All that has happened this past summer has been predicted by our climate scientists and climate workers (such as emergency service agencies). All of this has largely been discounted by our national government for most of the past decade.

But never before have so many Australian’s been hurt by so many climate extremes over such a large area and over such an extended period; nearly 80% of Australians according to a new survey. First it was drought, then wildfire (and smoke), flood, storms and hail.

Summer is almost over (according to the calendar) and it can’t come soon enough. ‘What else could go wrong,’ I asked myself. And, then, last night as I was closing down I spied an emerging story on the news wire – another wave of coral bleaching is hitting the Great Barrier Reef as temperature levels surge above average. Indeed, it could be even more extensive than the 2016/17 episodes.

In the next month we’ll see the extent of this bleaching event but it’s not looking good.

The new normal

In environmental terms, the ‘new normal’ has been with us for over half a century. Earth systems scientists have long been warning that the impact of humans on this planet has pushed our ‘spaceship Earth’ into a new way of behaving. Our activities are now distorting our planet’s very capacity to provide us with the stable habitat we need. Many refer to this as the Anthropocene.

This Black Summer is but a foretaste of the conditions we will need to endure in the summers ahead; summers that will likely be far blacker than this one past.

Our Prime Minister presents this new normal as merely a management issue, a need to organise our response agencies a bit better; so they can act with greater co-ordination if, god forbid, we should ever again see fires as bad as this seasons. He’s called a royal commission and seems to be looking among other things for a recommendation for new laws so that the Federal Government can declare states of emergency, call out the army and so forth without needed a request from the States,

But he’s not questioning our nation’s inadequate carbon emission targets or making any effort to show leadership to address the unsustainable trajectory our species is on. His ‘new normal’, then, is really just a minor iteration on the ‘old normal’. It simply isn’t going to do the job.

A new light of day?

A growing segment of the community is coming to this same conclusion. The student protests of last year, prior to the Black Summer, were suggesting the status quo may be breaking down. And the impact of these recent months may, finally, be the catalyst for genuine action.

And though I was upset over the lack of action following the bleaching events of 2016/17, the ‘truth’ they spoke about what is unfolding around us was heard by many, even those recalcitrant lobbyists for the reef tourism. Col McKenzie was much derided for suggesting marine biologists were the problem (rather than climate change). But he changed his tune. Following that episode he said it is time “to take a more public stance” on climate change.

“It was the bleaching events in 2016-17 that drove the message home,” he said. He added that it was reluctance within his 11-member board – particularly from tour operators who refused to accept ‘man-made’ climate change – that had restricted his own ability to speak out in the past. But those climate-change deniers have largely gone quiet, he said. “They realise it’s bullshit and we can’t be continuing it.”

So if the bleaching events of 2016/17 belatedly convinced this cohort of deniers, maybe there is reason to believe our Black Summer may belatedly raise the nation to action.

*Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Climate deniers will often suggest we don’t know enough or the jury is still out or it’s only an emerging science but the truth is the science has been around for over a century and the evidence confirming it has been conclusive since the 1970s – that’s 50 years ago! For an excellent guide to this history see the very readable ‘Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change’ in the New York Times.

Image: Bushfire smoke filters the sun in late January 2020. Image by David Salt

A tale of two climate bills

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One is about meaningful reform, the other more about politics

By Peter Burnett

Last month, Zali Stegall released her long-anticipated climate change bill. This month, the Australian Greens released a climate bill of their own. They are quite different pieces of legislation. One is quite solid, I think, while the other is more about politics than meaningful outcomes.

Zali Stegall, of course, is the Independent MP for Warringah. She stood against Tony Abbott, one of Australia’s leading climate change deniers (and former PM), on a platform of introducing meaningful climate change policy; and she won. Her bill has been under development since her election in May 2019. Against the backdrop of Australia’s horror summer, and the resulting rocketing of the environment to the top of the political agenda, it could not have been better timed.

The Greens’ climate bill, on the other hand, looks to me like it might have been drafted in a hurry, for reasons I will explain below.

Given the contrasting approaches of the two bills and the possibility that a Parliamentary committee might end up looking at both, it’s instructive to consider what they contain.

The Stegall Bill

The full title of Stegall’s bill is Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020. As the title suggests, the bill establishes a framework for climate policy leaving it up to the government to develop climate mitigation programs that meet the targets set by the framework.

The bill would legislate a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and establish an independent Climate Change Commission, tasked with preparing a national National Climate Risk Assessment every five years. In response, the Government must prepare a national adaptation plan, together with five-year national emissions budgets and emissions reduction plans to meet those budgets.

Space doesn’t allow a more detailed examination, but you get the drift: the Bill sets the overarching target, while the independent Commission looks after the framework and keeps an eye on the Government. The Government’s job is to develop and implement detailed plans to meet the targets. If both parties do their job properly, national emissions follow a trajectory down to net zero 2050 while inflicting the least possible pain.

The Greens’ Bill

By contrast, the Greens’ bill has a much narrower focus. It’s full title is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Climate Trigger) Bill 2020, and it seeks to amend parts of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to introduce a climate ‘trigger’ for ‘emissions-intensive actions’; specifically land clearing, drilling exploration and mining (with the capacity to add others later by regulation).

The EPBC Act has nine triggers, for example one for threatened species and one for large coal and gas projects affecting water resources. The basic idea is that if a trigger is, well, triggered, by a development proposal, the development can’t go ahead unless it has been the subject of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a decision by the environment minister as to whether the project can go ahead, and if so, on what conditions.

In short, the Greens’ bill extends existing environmental regulation to land clearing and mining projects in order to reduce their climate impacts.

Two bills compared

Stegall’s bill is impressive. Although she was able to draw heavily on overseas precedents, the bill is well drafted and specific to Australian law and circumstances. It is complete to every last detail, including administrative matters like pay-and-leave entitlements for the Commission’s CEO.

I know Stegall is a lawyer and probably had lots of free expert advice. Nevertheless, she’s a first term Independent MP, with no party colleagues or resources to draw on. Yet she has produced a bill that is just as good as one that might have been produced by the Government with the full resources of the public service.

The Greens bill on the other hand is disappointing. The Greens have been around for a long time and have a much greater depth of resources available to them. Yet the bill is narrow, doing little more than bringing two major categories of development into an existing regulatory net, one which leaves it almost entirely to the environment minister to decide what, if any, emissions-reducing conditions to impose.

Even within this narrow scope, the bill doesn’t seem to have been well thought through.

A mining or land clearing project will only trigger an EIA if its emissions would likely have a ‘significant impact’ on the environment. Under the EPBC act, the environment is defined in wide terms. And ‘significant impact’ is not defined. Greenhouse gas emissions do not have a direct impact on living things; they have an indirect impact in that they change the climate and it is the changed climate which has an adverse impact on the animals and plants.

Finally, the Act doesn’t regulate cumulative emissions, which means that a decision about whether a project triggers the Act only considers the project in isolation.

When you take these factors together, it means that the emissions from a single project, such as a proposed mine, may not be ‘significant’ under the act unless they are so great as to change the climate, by themselves, something that would only occur with an enormous project.

As a result, I think there is a good argument that the Greens’ climate trigger would never operate.

The politics and the process from here

It’s important to emphasise that Stegall’s bill has not been introduced in parliament. Rather, Ms Stegall has simply released it by public announcement. A key reason for doing this is that the government controls the numbers in the House of Representatives, where Ms Stegall is a member. It is very unlikely that the Government will ever allow her to introduce the bill formally, because this would cause the government to lose control of the climate change debate (more than it already has).

Significantly, the bill is supported by Rebecca Sharkey of the Centre Alliance Party, which also has members in the Senate. One scenario is that, once it becomes clear that the Government will not allow the Stegall bill to be introduced in the House of Representatives, Centre Alliance may introduce it in the Senate, which the Government does not control.

Once introduced, a bill can be referred to committee, which provides a good platform for public hearings and a committee report to keep public debate on the boil.

This may be where the Greens bill comes in. Rather than have a first-time Independent MP steal their thunder, perhaps the Greens foresaw this scenario and want to have their own bill that can be referred to committee as well. This way they would not be left dancing to someone else’s tune.

Outside Parliament, the temperatures will be dropping as we head towards winter. Inside, it’s likely that the Stegall bill will warm up the Winter Sittings one way or another, whether under my scenario or another. If that’s the case, let’s hope the deliberations produce some light as well as heat.

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay