Should we include a climate-change trigger in national environmental law?

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By Peter Burnett

In Australia this week, all eyes (well most of them) are on Canberra for the first sitting of Parliament since Labor came to power in May. The first order of business is the promised Climate Change Bill, to enshrine the government’s promised 43% target.

While public debate on the bill has focused on the target itself and the nature of a possible ‘ratcheting mechanism’ to raise the target over time, there’s also been quite a bit of attention given to something that definitely won’t be included: a ‘climate trigger’ for environmental approval of large projects such as mines and dams.

Let me explain.

Triggering the EPBC Act

For constitutional reasons, our main national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), is based on a set of ‘triggers’. These are formally known as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. The triggers cover various things you’d expect to be of national significance, such as impacts to World Heritage places and threatened species, but not the most obvious candidate of all, climate change.

The EPBC Act was drafted by the conservative Howard Coalition government in the late 1990s as part of an overhaul of national environmental law. This bold reform was an unlikely project for a conservative government, but came about for two reasons.

First, Howard had courted the environment movement quite successfully in the 1996 election campaign, largely by promising a large pot of money (the National Heritage Trust) in exchange for privatising the national phone company, Telstra. There was a sentiment at the time that perhaps conservatives could care for the environment as well as progressives, by investing in it.

Second, Howard’s environment minister, Senator Robert Hill, was not just a skilled political operator, but a genuine environmental reformer (though perhaps a flawed one — see below).

In particular, Hill demonstrated an ability to navigate obstacles in government where others would have foundered on the political rocks.

Kyoto and the climate trigger

Despite Hill’s commitment to reforming environmental law he also led the Howard Government’s negotiating team at Kyoto, securing the notorious ‘Australia clause’, under which Australia was allowed to increase its emissions to 108% of 1990 levels, despite other rich countries being locked-into cuts.

Beyond this, also notoriously, Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, despite Australia’s easy ride through with the Australia clause.

Howard had a real thing about action on climate change. Despite Australia’s easy ride, early on his major concern seemed to be that Australia might be taken for a ride, by being required to do more than its fair share of the ‘heavy lifting’. Later on, he seemed determined to hold out on ratification as a way of supporting the USA under George W Bush.

You can see why, despite being the most obvious candidate, climate was never going to be a trigger in the EPBC Act. Unfortunately for the government though, it had to do a deal with a minor party, the Australian Democrats, to get the EPBC Bill through the Senate.

Howard agreed to more than 400 Democrat amendments to secure passage, but wouldn’t include a climate trigger.

A climate trigger discussion paper

The government did however agree to consult about including a climate trigger by later amendment, and released a discussion paper on the topic at the end of 1999.

An obvious issue was the emissions threshold for the trigger. The lowest number discussed was 500,000 tonnes CO2-equivalent. This was said to capture 92% of emissions from new major facilities, such as power stations and aluminium smelters, then under construction.

Interestingly, today’s ‘safeguard mechanism’, enacted by the Abbott Government to support its Emissions Reduction Fund and requiring large emitters (currently 215 of them) to meet an individually-tailored emissions cap, has a threshold of 100,000 tonnes.

Even more interestingly, while the discussion paper canvassed some of the more technical issues associated with defining the trigger in some detail, such as whether emission estimates would be based on average or peak capacity, it completely avoided the significant issue of what kinds of requirements might be imposed on a new facility once the trigger was, well, triggered.

The discussion paper said this was because approval decisions had to be consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and should take account of issues such as jobs and international competitiveness. (Had they addressed the issue, I think the most likely approach at the time would have been to require that the proponent use ‘best available low-emission technology at reasonable cost’.)

Then there was the issue of carbon emissions from land clearing. The discussion paper simply excluded this topic; the implication was that land clearing was not a ‘project’.

I think this explanation and exclusion are tendentious. I suspect that the government never intended to introduce a trigger, but simply to go through the motions. In that context, any content beyond the barest minimum could expose the government to enemy political fire, for no gain (to them).

Back to the future

So, there we have it. No climate trigger. But should we have one now?

Labor is promising to re-orient the safeguard mechanism, under which emissions from the major facilities are capped.

The previous government kept resetting the caps, giving emitters an easy ride in meeting them. Now, the government will lower the caps progressively, as the theory says such a scheme should, forcing facilities to lower emissions or buy emissions credits.

Under that scenario, it doesn’t make much sense to apply a climate trigger to major facilities — anyone building such a facility already knows that its emissions will be subject to a reducing cap.

Even if a climate trigger applied, what conditions could the environment minister impose that would achieve more than keeping emissions under a reducing cap? (In theory, a trigger would allow the minister to block a project entirely, this seems unlikely).

What about land-clearing?

Then there’s land clearing. Although the significance of land clearing is usually seen in terms of habitat loss, it is also significant for carbon emissions where the vegetation concerned is of high quality (low quality regrowth areas are marginal in terms of carbon emissions).

At present there is no land clearing trigger in the EPBC Act, even for biodiversity-related reasons. And, unlike industrial facilities, there are no climate-related laws applying to land clearing.

Thus, above a certain extent and quality, there is a case for a climate trigger relating to land clearing.

However, states and territories all regulate land clearing for other reasons. Due to the complexities of doubling-up on land regulation, it might be more effective to combine a trigger with a national standard for land clearing and to switch off the trigger in states where clearing laws meet the standard.

And in the end?

At the end of the day, given Labor’s plans for the safeguard mechanism, the case for a ‘climate trigger’ is particular rather than general. It would make sense for the clearing of significant areas of land containing old-growth and other high quality vegetation, but that’s about all.

In any event, a climate trigger is off the agenda as an amendment to the Climate Change Bill, given climate minister Chris Bowen’s statement that the government would rather pursue its climate target on a non-statutory basis, than have policy change forced on it by legislative amendment.

But there will be a second opportunity, when environment minister Tanya Plibersek delivers on her commitment to introduce major reforms to the EPBC Act in 2023.

Then, unlike now, the government won’t have the clean option of simply walking away, because so much of the non-climate environmental reform agenda hangs off that reform.

Banner image by Yazril Tri Mulyana from Pixabay

We need a BIG win for the environment

Something to make us proud again

By David Salt

When was the last time our government did something really big, something landmark in scale, for the Australian environment?

Putting a price on carbon in 2011 was pretty big. Unfortunately, thanks to the ideological malfeasance of the Abbott Coalition Government, this was aborted in 2014 just as it was starting to make a difference to our country’s carbon emissions, so this was more of a big loss than a win. (Also, that was more about our nation’s contribution to global sustainability than to Australia’s environment per se.)

BIG wins in our Nation’s history

No, for something ‘big’ I think you need to look further back. Maybe it was 2004 when the Howard Coalition Government established one of the world’s best marine national parks on the Great Barrier Reef by increasing no-take areas from 5% to 33% (using some of the world’s cutting edge conservation science – which happened to be Australian led!).

And, on the topic of the Great Barrier Reef, maybe you’d cite the disallowance of oil drilling on the Reef in 1975, or the Reef’s successful selection as a World Heritage site for its outstanding natural values in 1981.

These were all world-leading big wins for the Australian environment; actions that made us feel proud of our environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, though each action was internationally noteworthy, none of them are saving the Great Barrier Reef (or coral reefs anywhere) from climate change.

But big wins weren’t merely reserved for our beautiful and much loved coral reef (with the earning potential of billions of dollars each year). The nation also felt proud when conservationists (represented by the Australian Conservation Foundation) shook hands with farmers (represented by the National Farmers Federation) to launch the movement known as Landcare in 1989. The Hawke Labor Government threw in $360 million and proclaimed a Decade of Landcare.

So popular was Landcare that it paved the way for even bigger packages of funding in the form of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) in 1997. The Howard Coalition Government forked up over $1 billion dollars (generated by the sale of Telstra) to drive the NHT. Some claim it was a bribe to get the public to accept the sale of our public telecommunications company (a claim I’ve made myself on occasion) but the significance here is that the success of Landcare and our desire to heal the land was strong enough for us to take the money.

The fact that Landcare hasn’t reversed the pattern of environmental degradation being witnessed across Australia or that the Australian National Audit Office found the NHT was ineffectual because the money was spread too thinly and without any real strategy reflected the enormity of the challenges we were facing. However, their establishment signalled the government was serious about the environment and the effort gave the electorate at least some reason to hope.

Standing together on ‘No Dams’

For my money, one of the biggest environmental wins in Australia was back in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government blocked the Tasmanian Government from building the Franklin Dam in south west Tasmania. The ‘No Dams’ campaign saw the will of the Australian people triumph over the vested interests of the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. As a nation we stood up, through the national government, and defended the values of a World Heritage river that was destined to be drowned. Saving it made the nation proud.

I think it’s true that we have had big environmental wins in the past; symbolic and real. But the examples I cite (from 1983, 1989 and 2004) are now many years old. And, if ever there was a time we needed something to make us feel good and try harder, now is that time.

Now more than ever

Now, as we see climate-fuelled disasters rise and rise we need a signal that we still have a capacity for wise environmental stewardship.

Now, as we see our children throw up their hands in despair, we need to provide them something to believe in.

Now, as we see tribalalised politics and polarising partisanship tear asunder community trust, we need to provide examples of partnerships and alliances between traditional adversaries (farmers and conservationists for example) to demonstrate good faith and common purpose.

Now, as we see fake news, conspiracy and hate speak fill our media feeds, we need to see good governance, accountability and transparency in taking on the environmental challenges that beset us.

So, as we launch into a new decade, I call on environmentalists and nature lovers everywhere (individuals, NGOs, public servants, business people, farmers, researchers and decision makers): keep up your good fight for sustainability, call out injustice where you see it, but put some of your mental reserves into coming up with ideas for something BIG for the environment that has the potential to build hope, common purpose and pride.

Image by alicia3690 from Pixabay