The latest turn in the twisty history of Labor's climate policies

Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Developing and effectively implementing a response to the “great moral challenge of our time” has so far beaten two Labor Prime Ministers and looks challenging for the current alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Whatever the status of this week’s leaked policy document, a reflection on the Labor Party’s gyrations on climate change policy over the past decade may provide some insight into what we might see next. The political drama will be heightened next month, when the government announces its post-2020 emissions reduction target and then its own policy to meet that target.

In the latter days of the Howard government, there was mounting pressure from Labor state governments to move on climate change, with the real prospect of a national scheme built from a patchwork of state-based emissions trading schemes (ETSs). It was about this time that the concept of a firm emissions cap, combined with trading of entitlements or emissions permits, emerged as the climate change policy preferred by economists and modelled on the scheme adopted in Europe.

To that end, Ross Garnaut was enlisted by the states as the economic guru to put meat on the bones. Meanwhile, the Coalition government developed its own commitment to emissions trading courtesy of a review led by Peter Shergold, the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He chaired the task force that designed the ETS the government took to the 2007 election.

As victorious Labor leader, Kevin Rudd embraced the Garnaut Climate Change Review process and adopted an ETS approach. He also extended the renewable energy target designed by the Howard Government to deliver 20% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2020.

After extensive policy design work and economic analysis, Rudd’s government developed the legislation for an ETS, naming it the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). Although the intention was to introduce the scheme in July 2010, it was twice rejected by the Senate when the then opposition leader Malcom Turnbull lost his position to Tony Abbott, mainly over Turnbull’s support for the CPRS, and the Greens failed to support the legislation.

Rather than take up the trigger of a double dissolution election, the Rudd government instead opted, in April 2010, to defer the CPRS.

Julia Gillard deposed Rudd as prime minister in June 2010, and went to the 2010 election having infamously declared “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Once elected, Gillard worked diligently with a Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change comprising the government and its parliamentary supporters, including independents and the Greens. The result was the Clean Energy Future package, consisting of a successor to the CPRS (inevitably branded the carbon tax), as well as other complementary mechanisms and new agencies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. This was passed into law in 2011 with the support of the Greens.

The central element of the new ETS was that it would begin with a fixed permit price of A$23 per tonne of CO2 from July 1, 2012, and would move to a market-based pricing scheme three years later. This fixed price was a compromise between extreme views, but broadly consistent with existing projections for the European carbon price. It came badly unstuck.

First, the European carbon price collapsed, leaving Australia’s price open to being labelled as unreasonably high and likely to deliver more economic damage than environmental benefit.

Second, it opened the door for Tony Abbott to label the scheme as nothing more than a “great big tax”.

Worse followed for Labor as a result of Gillard’s decision not to play semantics and to allow the “carbon tax” label to stick. She subsequently acknowledged the terrible political price she paid for not arguing against a fixed carbon price being labelled a tax.

Not only was the government unable to sell the benefit of its policy, it failed to overcome the accusation that Gillard had misled the electorate in the election campaign. Abbott was then elected in 2013, with the axing of the tax as a key commitment. He executed that task in July 2014.

The Abbott government has, to date, relied on an auction process using a A$2.5 billion budget allocation to buy emissions reductions, and may get close to achieving the 2020 objective of reducing emissions by 5% below 2000 levels. This policy will need substantial re-engineering or replacement to achieve more substantial post-2020 targets. On the surface, this would seem to open an opportunity for the ALP.

Yet the ALP has so far failed to produce a compelling alternative. Having been reasonably non-specific since the last election, Shorten and the shadow environment minister Mark Butler have been steadily indicating a commitment to a firm cap on emissions and to an ETS. It is clear that Shorten’s first task will be to secure his party’s commitment to key policy planks, without getting locked into too much detail. How that will be achieved, and whether any form of ETS can be sold to Australian voters at the next election, is a task to test the boldest and bravest of leaders.

The Conversation

Tony Wood is Program Director, Energy at Grattan Institute.

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How healthy is your river? Ask a waterbug

Angus Webb, University of Melbourne

Changing wildlife: this article is part of a series looking at how key species such as bees, insects and fish respond to environmental change, and what this means for the rest of the planet.

In 2003, something seemed to be going wrong with the streams around Melbourne. After seven years of below-average rainfall, the aquatic macroinvertebrates – waterbugs – were telling us that something was changing.

In a small number of streams that had been sampled every year, the community of waterbugs seemed to be moving towards dominance by species normally associated with severe environmental impacts.

That was when I became involved. Using an expanded data set and statistical analyses, I demonstrated a widespread decline in ecological condition of Melbourne streams as the Millennium drought really began to bite.

This is an example of using waterbugs for biomonitoring – assessing environmental condition, its changes, and the causes of those changes, by sampling organisms directly. And around the world, waterbugs are the most widely used bioindicator of environmental health and pollution of rivers, lakes and wetlands.

A small diving beetle from a common family Dytiscidae.
John Gooderham and Eddie Tsyrlin in The Waterbug Book

What makes waterbugs so popular?

First, they are very easy to sample. With a pair of waders, a dip net, a sorting tray and a magnifying glass, anybody can observe these weird, wonderful, and often beautiful creatures.

They are everywhere in aquatic systems. Every river, lake and wetland is teeming with waterbugs of all different kinds. Different species are typical of different types of environments and different levels of human impacts.

Most Mayflies, for instance, are found in rivers with clear waters and little pollution – they are indicative of good environmental health.

In contrast, Chironomids (a type of midge), are highly tolerant of pollution and other disturbances, and so come to dominate environments that have been heavily-affected by humans.

Chironomids are a type of midge that can indicate pollution.
John Gooderham and Eddie Tsyrlin in The Waterbug Book

Waterbugs are a direct indicator of environmental impact. If they change, then some difference in the environment has caused it. In contrast, a water quality sample is an indirect indicator of impact. It may detect pollutants in a river, but we do not know if the concentrations are environmentally important.

They also integrate the effects of environmental conditions over time. Waterbug lifespans are relatively short – usually only a few months before aquatic larvae metamorphose into adults and leave the river. They also don’t move too much. Therefore, changes in the bugs found at a site are indicative of impacts over recent times, and this gives a much more complete picture compared to spot samples of environmental conditions, such as water quality readings.

For these reasons, waterbugs have been successfully used to detect environmental impacts of many kinds.

As well as the example above, I have detected impacts of trout farms on waterbugs in the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, and have developed new ways of assessing whether the waterbugs at a site differ from those that would be expected in the absence of human impacts. Currently, we are using waterbugs to assess benefits of environmental water being delivered by the Commonwealth and Victorian environmental water holders as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

A mayfly nymph (Atalophlebia sp) from family Leptophlebiidae. This genus is probably the most tolerant of this sensitive family.
John Gooderham and Eddie Tsyrlin in The Waterbug Book

But there also are difficulties

While the diversity of waterbug species makes them very useful as indicators of environmental health, there are so many species that many have never even been properly described.

Only experts can identify waterbugs to species, but fewer and fewer people are interested in studying invertebrate taxonomy and so the pool of expertise is shrinking.

Waterbug abundance is also incredibly variable over very small spatial scales (less than a square metre). There can easily be as much variation within a site as there is between sites or even between rivers.

For these reasons, bugs often only are identified to coarse taxonomic levels (usually Family). Many assessment methods also ignore abundances altogether, instead concentrating on waterbug taxonomic diversity. This means that we’re missing out on a lot of potentially useful information contained within the samples.

Change is in the wind

The basic techniques used in waterbug-based research and monitoring have changed very little for decades.

However, the relatively new field of environmental genomics may change all this. Environmental genomics is the study of DNA and RNA in environmental samples to understand biological structure, function, and responses.

It uses genetic approaches to identify the species in a sample. The cost of the genetic techniques has decreased rapidly, just as their speed has increased. This means large numbers of samples can be processed rapidly.

A snail (Austropeplea tomentosa) typically found in slow flowing and still waters, grazing on algae from hard surfaces. It can indicate pollution.
John Gooderham and Eddie Tsyrlin in The Waterbug Book

The analyses identify all the different genetic types in a sample, effectively identifying everything to species. This eliminates the need for taxonomic expertise to identify species.

Genetic analyses are even challenging our traditional notion of what constitutes a species, with many physically identical animals now being identified as separate genetic lineages, effectively multiple species.

Like any new technique, there are issues to deal with before genomic techniques can be used in place of the well-established waterbug biomonitoring approaches.

For example, when we process a sample, we do not only get DNA from the waterbugs in it, but also from what they have eaten, and what is living on their surfaces. Are all of these separate “species” to be considered in biodiversity indices?

Nevertheless, environmental genomic techniques have the potential to greatly increase the amount of waterbug data that can be collected, providing much better coverage of aquatic systems.

Together with large-scale, remotely sensed environmental data that are now becoming the norm, this has the potential to move bioassessment into the era of big data.

And together, these things could fundamentally change the way we use waterbugs to monitor stream health and pollution.

The Conversation

Angus Webb is Senior Research Fellow and quantitative ecologist at University of Melbourne.

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