International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

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By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

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

Nothing to see here

Displacement is the game when you have nothing really to say (on the environment)

By David Salt

‘How good is the environment?’

Well, by any objective measure it’s in serious trouble and getting worse. But what do you say if your policies aren’t prepared to acknowledge this?

As our national government, you’re in charge of protecting the environment. You’re faced with collapsing ecosystems, declining biodiversity and a rising toll from climate extremes. In spite of this, you’ve made cut after cut to your Environment Department, told everyone Australia is going to make our carbon emission targets ‘at a canter’ (despite all the hard evidence that emissions are actually going up) and repeatedly stated when it comes to the environment everything is sweet. It’s getting harder to sustain this line but you have to say (and do) something. So, what will it be?

Based on what our Environment Minister is saying in Parliament in answer to questions from her own side, the game appears to be to focus on the little picture and displace everyone’s attention.

A tiny agenda

‘Questions without notice’ are supposed to be an opportunity for members to raise important issues relating to their electorates. Unfortunately, they have largely become political theatre in which the major parties just try to embarrass each other.

Under Question-Time rules, government members are allowed to ask questions of their own side. These are called ‘Dorothy Dixers’, after a famous syndicated column in womens’ magazines, ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which ‘Dorothy’ played agony aunt to her readers and provided homespun advice on marriage and the other challenges of home life.

When the government gets a Dorothy Dixer (or ‘Dixers’ as the insiders call them) it’s an opportunity for the government to use a rehearsed question from a friendly questioner to spell out its strategy and agenda, often in the context of announcing (or re-announcing) the spending of money. So when the Minister for the Environment is asked by her own side what’s on the environmental agenda we get a good idea on what the Government is setting out to achieve, what its grand vision is, including how it intends to spend our money.

In recent weeks, that vision seems to consist of small community projects – “it’s supporting grassroots organisations working on small projects that make a big difference”; a bit of environmental restoration, a bit more on soil conservation (God bless our farmers) and a big focus on increasing recycling and reducing waste. (Note: the links in this paragraph take you to the Hansard record of Parliament for the day in question – 23, 30 & 31 July in these cases – but not to the specific answers in the Questions-Without-Notice sessions that I’m referring to. Why Hansard can’t provide specific links to specific answers I don’t know. Maybe to make it harder to pin Ministers down to their answers.)

Indeed, recycling and waste reduction seem to be this government’s big ticket item when it comes to the Environment: “We can’t opt out of modern living or the modern world,” says Sussan Ley, our new Environment Minister, “but we can get smarter about the way we live and the pressure we place on our environment, and about doing everything we can to mitigate that—reducing waste, increasing recycling.”

We don’t need to save the reef (?)

They’ve even appointed an ‘envoy for the reef’ in the form of Warren Entsch (Member for Leichhardt in far north Queensland) who has refused to acknowledge the imminent threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef instead citing plastics as being the big problem and increased recycling as the solution.

“We don’t need to save the reef,” Entsch said recently in The Guardian. “It’s still going – we need to manage it and manage it well and we’re the best reef managers in the world.”

So what is his (and this Government’s) solution to saving the Reef? Get rid of single-use plastics. Though, when it comes down to it, our political leaders don’t even believe Australia is the cause of this problem: “the bulk of it [plastic] on our seas comes down from our northern neighbours,” says Entsch. “If we can create world’s best practice and get them to clean up their own backyard then we will reduce the volumes that come down to us.”

What about cleaning up our own backyard, Mr Reef Envoy? Have you read any of the voluminous science coming out over recent years telling us our reef is dying (from declining water quality, increased storm activity, increased outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish and, multiplying every threat, climate change)?

“Australians care about our environment,” says Environment Minister Ley. “They want to be involved in protecting it now and into the future. The Morrison government will work internationally and with communities, with local organisations and with our scientific experts to address all of the issues that confront us, large and small, including Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery, blue carbon and sequestering carbon in our coastal and marine ecosystems, and we will continue to invest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef.”

Nice words, but it’s such shallow rhetoric. When it comes to our environment, the government only pays lip service to the big issues, and only engages in doing things that are too small to make much difference overall. All the while it ignores and marginalises the scientific expertise it claims to respect.

High opportunity cost

This is displacement activity of the worse type because the opportunity cost of ignoring the bigger picture – trashing the evidence and degrading our environmental capacity – is the horrible cost of environmental failure our society (and children) will bear down the line.

And, even as I write this, the Government is doing more displacement on the environmentally linked sector of energy – let’s set up an enquiry on nuclear energy to show we mean business.

Nothing to see here.

Image: Tane Sinclair-Taylor, Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies