Queensland commits to fixing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef


Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, The University of Queensland

Current measures are not enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, according to experts in a government report released today.

After a year of careful analysis, the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce has delivered its final report to the Queensland environment minister, Steven Miles. This is part of efforts to resource the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which was designed to meet the challenges facing the reef.

The report is part of the response to the United Nations’ concerns that the reef is in danger of irreparable damage – with declining water quality from farming and land-use change being a major driver. The reef narrowly missed being listed as “in danger” in 2015.

The Queensland government has committed A$90 million over the next four years specifically for water quality. The federal government has also committed funding, but it remains to be seen how much will be directed specifically to water quality concerns.

The report recommends the money should be directed at understanding and beginning to reverse the impact of sediment and nutrient from rivers flowing into the Great Barrier Reef.

By any degree, the taskforce has done well in terms of bringing together a wide range of opinions and perspectives on a potentially contentious issue — views that are unified around the report’s conclusions.

While the report is not about climate change, climate change is critically important to whether the plan will ultimately succeed or fail. Stronger storms, floods, droughts and underwater heatwaves will all make the task of solving the water quality issue even harder.

So there is an assumption that we will beat the climate change challenge through mechanisms such as the international commitments that Australia agreed to under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

Starting to reverse the damage

The Great Barrier Reef and its river catchment are bigger than Italy. With problems going back over 100 years, A$90 million is not going to fix all of the problems, but it can start to significantly reverse the damage.

The Queensland government has committed to ambitious water quality targets adopted in the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan — for instance, reducing nitrogen runoff by 80% and sediment by 50% across the key catchments of the Wet Tropics and the Burdekin by 2025. As many have noted, these targets will not be achieved under current practice — even if farmers fully adopt best management practices — and the taskforce report agrees.

Angry voices on soapboxes won’t solve this monumental challenge. That will only come about through inclusive and considered processes — it needs a long-term, sustained and coordinated reef-wide strategy.

We must redefine how we manage — and therefore resource — the Great Barrier Reef system, from the ecosystems that thrive in it to the industries and communities that depend on it for the long term. That strategy should coordinate all existing but separate approaches.

We’ve been here before

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — Australia has been here before with a complex environmental problem that crosses multiple borders. Particularly in the past 15 years, state and federal governments have attempted to undo a century of mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Although water quantity is the issue in the basin, as opposed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef, there are similarities.

The two systems are a similar size — the Murray-Darling Basin covers a million square kilometres, and the Great Barrier Reef half-a-million sq km. In both cases, productive industries such as farming cotton or cane closely interact with valuable ecological systems. Overall, they produce billions of dollars of annual revenue from food production, tourism and other industries.

In each case, international pressure (the RAMSAR convention on wetlands in the Murray-Darling, UNESCO for the reef) have played very significant roles in encouraging responsible actions from Australia.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the Murray-Darling — and similar investment is probably required for the Great Barrier Reef catchments. While action within the Murray-Darling system hasn’t been (and still isn’t) perfect, we can learn much from the experience.

Where to from here?

In our opinion, and drawing on the experiences in the Murray-Darling, the following principles should be core to any strategy for the reef.

First, recognise that a significant shift is required in how we manage and develop land next to the Great Barrier Reef. While this is politically, economically and socially difficult, the fallout will be greater if we don’t get this right.

Farmers must be enabled and supported to care for the land to deliver both economic outcomes and ecosystem services. They are the stewards of our natural capital as well as key contributors to our economy.

We’ll also need to take a small proportion of land out of production to form riparian strips, and incentives will need to be established to ensure the careful use of fertiliser, better use of cover crops, and the like. Again, these initiatives are occurring now, but we need to adopt a whole-of-system approach that corrals these actions into a coherent strategy.

The efficiencies introduced through the National Water Initiative and later the Murray-Darling Basin Plan did achieve such a shift there.

Second, acknowledge that nothing we do to address water quality issues makes sense if we don’t also address climate change as a major source of the problem. Any strategy to protect the reef has to include meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa. Solving the climate issue only to let the reef down on the water quality issue doesn’t make any sense either.

Third, full and enduring cooperation and coordination between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments are essential. Anything else risks duplication, redundancy, confusion and, more than likely, a monumental waste of money.

The political heat in the lead-up to the National Water Initiative, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the 2007 Water Act served only to diminish the opportunities for a lasting and meaningful solution to excessive water allocation in the basin.

Fourth, in support of the cooperative federalist approach, a statutory authority that oversees the implementation of the strategy — with appropriate financial incentives and regulatory powers — will be necessary. This authority would operate across Queensland river catchment and estuarine regions. We would argue that this should be a separate entity to GBRMPA, which already has its hands full managing the reef.

One of the successes from efforts in water reform was the National Water Commission, which played a crucial role in the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Its subsequent demise was regrettable.

Fifth, well-designed, market-based mechanisms work. Just as some efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cheaper than others, we need to know which measures that reduce water quality are most cost-effective. If designed correctly, these mechanisms have the potential to drive innovation and game-changing ideas.

A water quality “trading scheme” should be explored. If done properly, such a market could prove to be enormously beneficial to farmers as well as the reef.

Finally, make sure the strategy has the resources to get the job done. While throwing money at the problem won’t solve it on its own (the billions spent in the Murray-Darling Basin proved that), the challenge will demand significant resources over the coming decade.

Such finance need not come from governments alone. If the principles above are implemented in a way that provides transparency and certainty to the market, then the private sector may be able to contribute.

These are the first steps of a journey that is critical for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. As the taskforce stresses, this is a journey that will require clever policy that adapts to a dynamic world.

The reforms to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin were triggered by the Millennium Drought. The recent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef should inspire the same urgency.

And, if so, let’s hope that we are now truly on a pathway to a future for the Great Barrier Reef where its people, industries and ecosystems thrive into the future.

The Conversation

Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland; Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, and Robin Smale, Visiting fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Without extra money, the Coalition’s low-emissions roadmap is a trip to nowhere


Craig Froome, The University of Queensland

On Friday, the Coalition made a low-key announcement of its new Low Emissions Technology Roadmap. To be developed by the CSIRO, it will aim to “highlight areas of growth in Australia’s clean technology sector”.

Unveiled jointly by the industry and science minister, Christopher Pyne, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, the plan asks the CSIRO to identify the most promising ways to reduce emissions and to come up with plans to accelerate the development and commercialisation of Australian technologies such as solar panel components.

With the election campaign in full swing and announcements coming thick and fast, some will obviously get more airtime than others. Still, it was surprising to see this one quietly released on a Friday afternoon, given the seniority of the ministers involved, not to mention the importance of both renewable energy and greenhouse emission reductions as issues in this election.

It’s also not immediately clear what is actually involved in developing a “technology roadmap” like this. It might conceivably follow a model previously developed at the US Sandia National Laboratories, which identified three key elements:

  • preliminary activity, which involves defining the project’s precise scope

  • developing the roadmap, by deciding which technologies to include and defining specific targets for their development

  • follow-up, by working out how the plan is actually going to be implemented.

The announcement in itself has kick-started the first of these three stages. CSIRO has been given the lead for the second element. But it is the third stage – the actual implementation – where roadmaps typically lose their way. Many governments have set roadmaps in the past, only for successive ones to choose different objectives and therefore move down a different path.

The key for any roadmap to deliver its intended outcome is the successful implementation of its proposals. The policy and, crucially, the funding committed to the project will determine whether the ultimate objectives are met.

Pay to play

In the announcement’s press release, Pyne said the roadmap would “achieve a large-scale technology transformation”. But looking at the steps above, this will require policy and investment in those technologies that are to drive the transformation process.

While this announcement supports previous policy pledges, notably the A$1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund uneviled two months ago, will this be enough to drive the crucial third stage of the roadmap: developing commercial-scale clean energy generation to the level required to make serious inroads into emissions reduction?

In the past Australia has tended to adopt the cheapest available energy technologies, particularly given that much of the electricity sector is moving from public to private-sector ownership.

Will this change now? Frydenberg’s statement that “the Coalition is committed to a technology-neutral approach to energy policy” would suggest that it may not.

Josh Frydenberg wants to grasp the commercial potential of new energy technologies.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

With the minimal growth in electricity demand over recent years, new generation on a large scale will need to be more economical than existing assets, or else policy measures should be put in place to make the new technologies competitive.

Part of the Coalition’s plan, as also stated by Frydenberg, is to ”help identify opportunities for Australian businesses to be involved in the global energy supply chain, with the potential of creating new industries that create new jobs and growth in Australia”. History has shown that while Australia has been a very innovative nation, much of the technology developed here tends to move offshore.

Pyne added that “by 2018 Australian solar technology will be embedded in over 60% of the world’s [photovoltaic] panels”. But how much of this global supply chain has created jobs and growth in Australia?

Hunt also stated that the roadmap will help Australia meet its greenhouse emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. But 2030 is not that far away, and the process of drawing up roadmaps, developing technologies and then commercially deploying them takes time. Support for existing mature technologies, such as solar and wind energy, must be continued in the meantime.

While existing agencies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation support these technologies, ongoing funding is a constant subject of debate within the government. These bodies will jointly administer the new Clean Energy Innovation Fund, but if this new roadmap is to be a success, ARENA’s funding must continue beyond its currently planned expiry date of 2022, and the CEFC needs a longer business plan than the current one which runs to 2019.

In the meantime, it pays to think carefully about the initial phase for the roadmap: defining its precise scope. According to the announcement, the areas to be considered include “renewable energy, smart grids, carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency” – all areas in which CSIRO has existing research programs. As such, it is well placed to understand the challenges, the investment needed, and realistic time frames for implementation. All of these need to be identified and quantified precisely, given that the plan only spans a few years.

Introducing innovative technology into an existing sector, which is already working, will always draw resistance, particularly from the operators (as well as equipment manufacturers, maintenance companies and fuel suppliers) of existing generation assets. But, of course, decisions about electricity generation have much wider effects than just the provision of energy.

The need to reduce emissions affects every aspect of how we will live our lives in the future. No major political party disputes the need to move from existing technology to a clean energy future. But policy, with sufficient financial backing, needs to be put in place now and supported by successive governments to have any chance of hitting the deadlines we face.

The Conversation

Craig Froome, Global Change Institute – Clean Energy Program Manager, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A guide to using drones to study wildlife: first, do no harm


Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh

Technological advances have provided many benefits for environmental research. Sensors on southern elephant seals have been used to map the Southern Ocean, while tracking devices have given us a new view of mass animal migrations, from birds to zebras.

Miniaturisation of electronics and improvements in reliability and affordability mean that consumer drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now improving scientific research in a host of areas. And they are growing more popular for wildlife management, as well as research.

Wildlife drones can be used in many different ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. UAVs have also been shown to provide more precise data than traditional ground-based techniques when it comes to monitoring seabird colonies.

Other industries, from mining to window-cleaning, are looking at using drone technology. Some forecasts predict that the global market for commercial applications of UAVs will be valued at more than US$127 billion. Given their usefulness in the biologist’s toolkit, the uptake of UAVs for environmental monitoring is likely to continue.

But this proliferation of drones raises questions about how best to regulate the use of these aircraft, and how to ensure that wildlife do not come to harm.

A UAV-mounted camera provides an aerial view of a Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) in North Sumatra.
L. P. Koh

Wildlife disturbance

Biologists carrying out field studies are typically interested in animals’ natural state, or how their behaviour changes when conditions are altered. So it is important to know whether the UAVs disturb the animals and, if so, exactly how.

Of course, different species in different environments are likely to have very different responses to the presence of a UAV. This will also depend on the type of UAV and how it is used. Our current understanding of wildlife responses is limited.

A team of French and South African biologists observed the reaction of semi-captive and wild birds to UAVs. They found that the approach angle had a significant impact on the birds’ reaction, but approach speed, UAV colour and flight repetition did not.

In polar regions, where UAVs may be particularly useful for sampling inaccessible areas, researchers found that Adélie penguins were more alert when a UAV was in range, particularly at low altitudes.

These studies, and similar observational studies on other animals besides birds, provide an initial understanding of wildlife behaviour. But the animals’ behaviour is only one aspect of their response – we still need to know what happens to their physiology.

Cardiac bio-loggers fitted to a small number of free-roaming American black bears in northwestern Minnesota have shown that UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Even an individual in its winter hibernation den showed stress responses to a UAV flying above.

Interestingly, the bears rarely showed any behavioural response to the drones. This shows that just because animals do not appear visually disturbed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stressed.

A code of practice

We have developed a code of best practice, published today in the journal Current Biology, which seeks to mitigate or alleviate potential UAV disturbance to wildlife. It advocates the precautionary principle in lieu of sufficient evidence, encouraging researchers to recognise that wildlife responses are varied, can be hard to detect, and could have severe consequences.

Jarrod Hodgson launches a fixed-wing UAV on Macquarie Island.
J. Hodgson

It also provides practical recommendations. The code encourages the use of equipment that minimises the stimulus to wildlife. Using minimum-disturbance flight practices (such as avoiding threatening approach trajectories or sporadic flight movements) is advised. The code also recognises the importance of following civil aviation rules and effective maintenance and training schedules, and using animal ethics processes to provide oversight to UAV experiments.

The code isn’t just food for thought for biologists. It is relevant to all UAV users and regulators, from commercial aerial videographers to hobbyists. Unintentionally or otherwise, such users may find themselves piloting drones close to wildlife.

Our code urges the UAV community to be responsible operators. It encourages awareness of the results of flying in different environments and the use of flight practices that result in minimum wildlife disturbance.

Low-impact conservation

As researchers continue to develop and refine UAV wildlife monitoring techniques, research that quantifies disturbance should be prioritised. This research will need to be multi-faceted, because responses could vary between species or individuals, as well as over time and in different environments. Greater knowledge could help us to draw up species-specific guidelines for drone use, to minimise disturbance on a case-by-case basis.

UAVs are a useful wildlife monitoring tool. We need to proactively develop and implement low-impact monitoring techniques. Doing so will expand our technological arsenal in the battle to manage Earth’s precious and increasingly threatened wildlife.

The Conversation

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate and Lian Pin Koh, Associate Professor

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Eat locals: swapping sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels could help our environment


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Adam Munn, UNSW Australia

We may be what we eat, but our dietary choices also affect the health of the environment, and farmers’ back pockets.

Energy and water use, native habitat cut down for crops and grazing, and emissions that exacerbate climate change, are just some of the profound effects agriculture has on Earth. And, there are more and more mouths to feed.

Perversely, both starvation and obesity are severe health issues across the world. With agriculture confronted by economic and environmental uncertainties, society faces enormous challenges.

But challenges also offer great opportunities. Drastically rethinking what we eat, and where and how food is produced, could help our health, the planet, and our farming businesses.

That means eating fewer sheep and cows, and more kangaroos, feral animals, and insects.

Unsustainable farming

Australia’s rangelands – the drier regions of the country predominantly used for livestock and grazing – cover about 80% of the country. They are often in poor condition and economically unviable. In part, this is due to the fact we still farm many animals, mostly in ways that are unsuited to the Australian climate and environment.

Hard-hoofed animals contribute to soil compaction and erosion, and have even been linked to the spread of the invasive cane toad. But the environmental impact of intensive stock farming extends much further.

Continuing to farm using a European-derived, intensive system is a recipe for land degradation and environmental collapse, especially with the compounding impacts of climate change (severe weather events, more frequent and intense droughts, and fires).

Starving stock in Julia Creek, Qld (1952).
Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 4413

Past and current agricultural practices have also profoundly altered our environment. It may be impossible to restore these lands to their original condition, so we must learn to operate in the new environment we’ve created.

More broadly, many experts have identified our meat consumption and intensive farming as a significant driver of global problems.

Treading lightly

To address these issues, we need a cultural shift away from intensive agriculture. The days of riding and relying on the sheep’s back, cattle’s hoof, or the more recent, and increasingly popular, chicken’s wing, may need to pass.

Native wildlife and some feral animals tread more lightly on the environment than intensively produced livestock do, and thus provide more sustainable options for food production on Australia’s arid lands. Kangaroos and goats place one-third of the pressure on grazing lands compared with sheep.

We already eat some of these animals, but could arguably eat more of them, including feral goats, camels, deer, rabbits, pigs, and buffalo, as well as native emus and kangaroos.

Camels are already on the menu.
Camel image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Yet more extreme proposals could include feral donkeys, cats, horses; and even cane toads. Horses are already consumed in Europe and cats in central Australia.

Eating more feral and native animals, and relying less on chicken, sheep, domestic pigs, and cattle would help meet ethical concerns too. Wild animals such as kangaroos are killed quickly, without the extended stress associated with industrialised farming, containment, and transportation to abattoirs.

And by harvesting sometimes overabundant wild native animals (such as kangaroos) and feral species, we may be able to reduce their impacts on ecosystems, which include overgrazing and damage to waterways.

An even greater leap would be to eat fewer four-limbed animals and more six-legged creatures. Insects are often high in protein and low in fat, and can be produced in large numbers, efficiently and quickly. They are already consumed in large numbers in some regions, including Asia.

Evidence that a market for such a food revolution exists is that shops are already popping up selling mealworm flour, ant seasoning salt, and cricket protein powder, among other delicacies.

A six-legged diet is even better.
Insect image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Boom and bust

Thanks to Australia’s variable climate, swinging between drought and flood, many farms are also tied to a boom-and-bust cycle of debt and credit.

As the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable, this economic strategy must be detrimental to the farmers, and is shown by many farm buy-backs or sell-offs.

It makes sense to use species that are naturally more resilient and able to respond to boom-and-bust cycles. Kangaroos and other species can forage on our ancient and typically nutrient-poor soils without the need for nutritional supplements (such as salt licks), and are physiologically more efficient at conserving water. This could lead to a more sustainable supply of food and income for farmers, without the dizzying economic highs but also without the inevitable prolonged and despairing lows.

Future-proofing

To be clear, we are not suggesting completely replacing livestock, but diversifying and tailoring enterprises to better suit Australia’s environment.

To support more diverse agricultural enterprises we will need to overcome many obstacles, such as licences to hunt, what we’re comfortable consuming, and land use regulation. But we shouldn’t shy away from these challenges. There are tremendous opportunities for rural, regional and Indigenous communities, and indeed cities too.

We need a more diverse mix of meat to adapt to the pressures of a growing population and climate change. Supermarket aisles that display beef, chicken, pork and lamb, alongside kangaroo, camel, deer, goat, and insects, could be just what the environmental, health and economic doctors ordered.

The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Adam Munn, Adjunct lecturer, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why has climate change disappeared from the Australian election radar?


David Holmes, Monash University

Two weeks into a protracted election campaign, it is looking ever-more likely that climate change is to be placed way down the order of business – at least for the major parties.

The contest over climate change that characterised the previous three elections seems to have disappeared off the political radar despite the issue being more urgent than ever. Since the Paris climate summit, global average temperatures continue to break month-on-month records.

Just a few weeks after the summit, the North Pole was briefly not even able to reach freezing point – in the middle of winter. And just this month, Cape Grim surpassed a 400 ppm baseline minimum.

Then there is the truly frightening climate spiral developed by Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading. It shows what an El Niño amplified global temperature has climbed to. The spiral assumes a tight-knit but ever-expanding ball until April 2015, when the spiral line starts to separate dramatically from the ball. This year it careers dangerously close to the 1.5℃ threshold.

Climate spiral.
Ed Hawkins

The diminishing political and media spiral on climate

While global temperatures may be spiralling out of control, the opposite appears to be happening with the climate issue attention cycle in Australia.

Apparently, climate is less important than jobs and growth – or, in Labor’s case, health and schools.

A big part of this change in political climates is undoubtedly the Paris summit itself. The political triumphalism of the summit belies the scientific pessimism of so many climate scientists and activists.

Kevin Anderson from Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research even declared the summit to be “worse that Copenhagen”, in that it is based on out-of-date science, does not include aviation and shipping, and includes negative emissions in its scenarios for achieving abatement.

On the other hand, after the collapse of talks at Copenhagen, some activists see no choice but to climb aboard with the Paris agreement, insofar as it at least signifies a mainstream seachange in action – even if the actual measures are inadequate. The INDCs that came out of the conference still put the world on a path to 3.5℃.

Yet so many politicians from around the globe have sought to convince their constituents that the climate problem is all but solved. The Coalition is banking on such a sell to the Australian electorate as it gambles with a climate attention minimisation strategy. Much of this sell has been left to the “best minister in the world” Greg Hunt, both before and after the Paris summit.

Hunt has already claimed success on meeting the 2020 target, and with strategies to meet the 2030 target.

Little of the Government’s progress in meeting the 2020 target is due to reducing emissions. Rather it has been the reduction in land-clearing, consumer-driven domestic solar, and the decline in manufacturing that have been decisive in meeting the 2020 targets.

The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor has pointed out that while the Coalition is bringing back the “carbon tax” scare campaign of 2013, its own scheme would have to draw on the “safeguard mechanism” component of Direct Action – which is itself a disguised ETS – to have any chance of meeting the targets.

Short of leaning on this mechanism, the only other option the Coalition has is to increase the taxpayer-funded emissions reduction fund to a level that would make a mockery of any claims to budget responsibility.

Add to this the fact that recent academic research on Direct Action has reaffirmed its status as a form of corporate welfare that is allocated to projects that would have happened anyway. And all this is in an Australia that has increased its already high emissions 3% since 2000.

Shifting voter attitudes on climate

But have Hunt’s strategies worked on the Australian electorate? Not according to a recent ReachTEL poll of 2,400 respondents on May 9, which revealed that 56% believed the government needed to do more to tackle global warming.

64% said they would be more likely to vote for a party that has a plan to source 100% of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro in the next 20 years.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to have switched off his personal barometer on climate as an issue that is too politically fraught. In 2010, he said:

We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic … We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.

But since then, Turnbull appears to have sacrificed his convictions to the climate-illiterate backbench of his party.

Labor has not done much better. While it has more ambitious 2030 abatement targets than the Coalition, it has been particularly silent in reminding voters of its climate policy alternative.

Labor and the Greens

Both major parties have opted to entrench their duopoly by not going after big targets on any of the issues that are usually recycled at election time.

Instead, much airtime has been spent in the opening weeks of the campaign attacking the Greens. Liberal ministers take every opportunity to pillory any alliance between the Greens and Labor. Last week, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Fairfax Media:

We see them very much on a unity ticket. In our judgement, Labor and the Greens are now on an anti-business, anti-jobs, and anti-growth unity ticket.

In the same week, Turnbull labelled Labor’s proposal to double the intake of refugees as a “gesture to the Greens” on the back of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attack on the Greens’ asylum-seeker policy.

But, curiously, Labor and the Greens are at war themselves, or at least they are desperately giving the appearance they are. According to Michael Cooney from the Labor thinktank the Chifley Research Centre and Ben Oquist from the Australia Institute, Labor and the Greens have attacked each other because nearly every inner-city seat the Greens have a chance of winning for the first time are Labor-held.

The Greens are also distancing themselves from Labor because they want to capture the anti-politics vote. This is best achieved by showing yourself to be radically different from the major parties.

Labor, on the other hand, is almost forced into attacking the Greens because of the long-run stigma that News Corp papers have attached to any such alliance. During the first days of the election campaign, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian were jumping in with stories that no major party would ever form government with the Greens.

In contrast to the 2013 election campaign, the Tele even had a pro-Labor story “Save Our Albo” over the Greens’ challenge to Anthony Albanese’s inner-city seat of Grayndler.

But nothing much has changed. Back in the 2010 federal election, the
The Australian declared the pride with which it had smashed any alliance between the Greens and Labor, and that the Greens:

… should be destroyed at the ballot box.

In October the same year Rupert Murdoch referred to the “bloody Greens” as a party that would ruin Australia’s economic prosperity.

What is clear to the Coalition, Murdoch, and big business in Australia is that Labor and the Greens must be permanently isolated from each other in a sustained ideological crusade. Failing to achieve this would spell nothing short of game over for the Coalition.

The entire crusade, which is based on castigating the Greens as a loony left party that would bring down the Labor Party, requires so much journalistic theatre, compared to what could more easily be done with the Liberal-National Party marriage of convenience. One is a party of agrarian socialists, and the other a party serving mining capital and finance capital. But News Corp has been particularly disciplined at ignoring any of the tensions that these parties have had over the years.

Were Labor to form an alliance with the Greens it could take great leadership on climate. But there are a great many forces arraigned against them achieving a left-progressive coalition.

Whether the Labor Party has the courage to come out and challenge the Coalition to a contest over climate remains to be seen.

The Greens, for their part, are making many more inroads into this election than the last. They certainly have the strongest climate policy, with a renewable energy target of 90% by 2030. The ReachTEL poll referred to earlier shows the Greens have four times the primary vote than the National Party.

The Greens know that for under 30 voters they are already matching the primary vote of the major parties, and that a core platform of strong action against global warming is a big part of this support. Whether the major parties can ignore this support that springs from climate will be one of the biggest gambles of this election.

The Conversation

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Election 2016: do we need to re-establish a department of climate change?


Christian Downie, UNSW Australia and Howard Bamsey, Australian National University

With a federal election looming, Australia’s top mandarins will once again be turning their minds to the incoming government briefs, the so-called blue book if the Coalition is returned and the red book if Labor is elected.

High on the agenda will be the organisation of the bureaucracy and it won’t get any trickier than climate change.

A question for an incoming government will be whether to re-establish a Department of Climate Change?

And if not, what should be done?

Pass the parcel

To state the obvious, the past decade of Australian climate politics has been anything but stable. Climate agencies have been established, abolished and merged at a rate reflecting the volatility of policy settings.

As prime minister, John Howard established Australia’s first standalone climate agency in 1998, the Australian Greenhouse Office. Six years later, it had been merged into the then Department of the Environment and Heritage.

As a statutory agency it was the first in the world dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it didn’t have a secretary to represent it at the highest levels of government.

This changed in 2007 with the election of the Labor government, which had campaigned on climate change. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, created the Department of Climate Change.

This was the first time that climate change was given its own secretary and its own minister in cabinet. Both were within the prime minister’s portfolio to underline the importance of climate change to the government.

Martin Parkinson, now the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, had the task of establishing the new department as its first secretary. It was to have a broad scope, with a remit not just for domestic climate policy, but also responsibility for international climate change negotiations. This had until that point resided in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). It was to be responsible for policy but not implementation.

The new department lasted only six years. In 2013, it was merged into the Department of Industry under then prime minister Julia Gillard, perhaps in the hope that it would be saved from the wrath of the Liberal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, whose likely victory had been based on abolishing Labor’s climate policies.

Abbott’s ascension to the prime minister’s office later that year coincided with another shift. History was repeated as climate change was sent to the Department of Environment, with the international negotiations returning to DFAT.

Do we need a climate department?

Little has changed since under Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and, with this history, only a fool would predict what’s next. But with an election in the offing, there is every reason to believe more change is on its way.

There are three things to consider.

First, representation. Climate change is arguably the greatest economic and security threat that Australia faces. As a result, it demands proper representation within government.

That means that climate change needs to be represented by its own departmental secretary in the bureaucracy and its own minister in the cabinet. In practice this could mean either a separate department, or the explicit inclusion of climate change in the title of a department with additional responsibilities.

Second is the scope of the portfolio. At the domestic level, the causes of climate change – fuel combustion for energy, and land-use change – are associated with almost every domestic economic activity. This means that the climate portfolio must have a wide remit.

But a climate change department cannot be a department of everything. Where to draw the line?

Other countries (such as Denmark and the United Kingdom) have combined climate change and energy, but that implies that the land sector is of secondary importance. In Australia that would be a mistake because agriculture, for example, produces roughly 13% of our emissions and land use is hugely important in adapting to the changing climate.

At the international level, the fact that climate change is a global problem means there will always be a diplomatic dimension to the portfolio. DFAT’s prioritising of fossil fuel trade lost it the leadership of international climate change processes under Labor, but under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop DFAT has been more strategic.

The Paris climate summit last December represented a major shift towards integrating climate and development policies. Aid policies will play a critical role, so the case for continued DFAT leadership internationally is strong.

The third thing to consider is transparency. If Australia is to meet its emissions targets, which are likely to become more stringent over time, business is going to have to shoulder the burden of change. To be sure, an emissions trading scheme, or something like it such as a baseline and credit scheme, will require fundamental changes to the Australian economy.

Any climate change agency will need to be open and transparent in the way it consults and manages not only environment groups but business too. These will have to be brought on board if change is to proceed smoothly.

Doing what’s possible

On this basis, there are good reasons for the incoming government briefs to recommend the re-establishment of a department of climate change. This would satisfy the question of representation, especially if a well-respected senior public servant were appointed to the helm.

If it develops a transparent culture that is open to all stakeholders, Australia might just be able to establish a climate department for the long term.

What recommendations end up in the red or blue book we may never know. The choices of a new government may express simple political preference. Labor may be more inclined to bring climate change policy under one bureaucratic roof and the Coalition to maintain the status quo.

Regardless, history suggests we need top-down co-ordination to build coherent policy. If a department of climate change is too difficult, a standing committee of cabinet will be essential to avoid reliving past failures.

The Conversation

Christian Downie, Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UNSW Australia and Howard Bamsey, Honorary Professor, School of regulation and Global Governance – RegNet, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.