Cabinet papers from 1992 and 1993 released today by the National Archives of Australia confirm that Australia was a reluctant player in international discussions about climate change and environmental issues under Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Internationally, it was an exciting time for the environment. In June 1992, the UN Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. Here the world negotiated the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which last year gave us the Paris Agreement) and opened the Convention on Biological Diversity for signing.
So what was Australia doing?
Australia stumbles towards climate policy
Domestically, the focus was on Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD), a policy process begun by Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Working groups made up of corporate representatives, environmentalists and bureaucrats had beavered away and produced hundreds of recommendations.
By the final report in December 1991, the most radical recommendations (gasp – a price on carbon!) had been weeded out. Democrats Senator John Coulter warned of bureaucratic hostility to the final recommendations. Keating replaced Hawke in the same month.
The August 1992 meeting, where the ESD policies were meant to be agreed upon, was so disastrous that the environmentalists walked out and even the corporates felt aggrieved.
Two interim reports on the ESD process from the cabinet papers fill in some of the detail.
The first interim report, in March 1992, said that government departments had not been able to identify which recommendations to take on board. Cabinet moved the process on, but the only policies on the table were those that involved:
…little or no additional cost, cause minimal disruption to industry or the community, and which also offer benefits other than greenhouse related.
By May, federal ministers were told that the states and territories weren’t committed to either ESD or greenhouse gas policies.
The policy process rumbled on after the walkout, finally producing a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and a National Greenhouse Response Strategy. The greenhouse strategy contained only – surprise! – toothless voluntary measures, which proved ineffective in keeping emissions down to 1990 levels.
The November 1992 minutes mildly note that:
Most major interest groups have voiced concerns about their lack of involvement in the drafting of the NGRS [greenhouse strategy] document. Officials made provision for community input through the public comment process and a public consultative forum held in August [the one the environmentalists walked out of]. Reaction from conservation groups is likely to be negative, given the limited changes made to many of the responses in the revised strategy. They are likely to want to see more concerted efforts in areas such as fuel efficiency and renewable energy sources.
With equal prescience, the document warns:
Coal producers and resource-intensive industries (eg. aluminium) may express concern about their prospects in the medium to long term.
There are not many surprises here. The dithering over climate and environmental policies has been well covered by Clive Hamilton, David Cox, Joan Staples and numerous academic papers (see here, here, here, and here).
And while we won’t know officially who said what for another 30 years, there are tantalising hints in Neal Blewett’s A Cabinet Diary. Published in 1999, it reveals the antagonism between the environment minister and others in the Keating cabinet.
The international stage
International climate policy was dominated by the US threat, under President George Bush senior, not to attend the Earth Summit if the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) included specific emission-reduction targets. The US attended, and the UNFCCC didn’t include targets.
In Australia, the cabinet papers point out, not for the first or last time, that:
Australia is the only developed megadiverse country; it is a major user and exporter of greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels and energy intensive products; it could be significantly affected by global environmental change.
In May 1992 cabinet endorsed in principle support for the UNFCCC. There are three ironies here.
First, it was a major concern that the media statement to accompany Environment Minister Ros Kelly’s signing should be amended to include the fact that:
The Convention does not bind any signatory to meet any greenhouse gas target by a specified date.
Second, the minutes note that:
A decision by Australia not to sign the Convention would be criticised by domestic environment interests and could also attract international criticism, particularly in the Pacific region.
In later years, Prime Minister John Howard would not worry about this when repeatedly nixing ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.
Third, an emphasis on assisting developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region with climate adaptation looks odd given there had been zero mention of greenhouse gases in a March 1992 discussion document of aid to Cambodia (that country is feeling the effects already).
Keating’s willingness to let Kelly sign the convention may have been related to the following:
The Convention contains several safeguards which protect Australia’s interests … [A]llowance is made for “the differences in Parties’ starting points and approaches, economic structures and resource bases, and the need to maintain strong and sustainable economic growth, available technologies and other individual circumstances”. Additionally, Parties are obliged to take into consideration the situation of Parties with economies that are highly dependent on the production, processing, export and use of fossil fuels. These two provisions will give relevant countries, including Australia, flexibility in fulfilling their obligations under the Convention.
And they probably thought they had more time than they actually did. The May 1992 note argues:
[The UNFCCC] is likely to take some years to obtain the necessary ratifications to bring it into force.
It took two. Australia ratified the treaty in December 1992, but not before noting that the UNFCCC would worry industry for being too strong, and environmental groups for being too weak. So no changes there.
What happened next
At least when it comes to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have always known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already hedged promise to take action, and told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal.
While Australia’s international credibility has flatlined (with a brief bump from 2007 to 2009), two other things have soared over the last 25 years: Australia’s coal exports, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Both look set to continue their upward trend.
Reading the documents, it is striking how concerned the cabinet was to minimise its financial commitments (unsurprising, perhaps, given the overall state of the economy at the time), and just how unimportant the climate issue was to leaders who ask us to trust them on the long-term future of the country. It seems it was a distant abstraction that many didn’t really think was real. How times have changed.
As urban populations around the globe skyrocket and the demand for housing grows, space is increasingly at a premium in cities. Unfortunately, despite some notable efforts to include green space in cities, native wildlife is not often a priority for urban planners, despite research showing the benefits it brings to both people and ecosystems.
It may seem that bringing biodiversity back into cities would require large areas of land set aside for habitat restoration. But it is possible to use relatively small spaces such as transport corridors, verges and the edges of sporting grounds. Think of it as “land sharing” rather than “land sparing”“.
The idea of transforming public areas in cities into green space is not a new one. Allotment vegetable gardens, which have long been a staple of British suburban life, are enjoying a revival, as are community gardens in Australia.
These gardens are obviously great for sustainable food production and community engagement. But we think similar efforts should be directed towards creating green spaces filled with native vegetation, so that local wildlife might thrive too.
Benefits for biodiversity
Cities can be hostile environments for wildlife, and although some rare species are still present in some cities, the destruction of habitats and growth of built-up areas has led to many localised extinctions. Often, species are left clinging on in particular reserves or habitat remnants. “Green corridors” through the built environment can link these habitat fragments together and help stop urban species from being marooned in small patches – and this is where native gardens can help.
Cities are often built in fertile areas on coasts, and because of their fertility are often home to large numbers of species, which means that planting native vegetation in public spaces can potentially help a wide range of different species.
A study in Melbourne found that native vegetation in urban green space is essential for conservation of native pollinators, as introduced plants only benefit introduced bees. But with the right habitat, even small mammals such as bandicoots can survive in urban areas.
Benefits for people
Native green space in cities can also be used to educate communities about their wildlife. Community gardens can be a very effective way to bring people together and create a sense of identity and cohesion within a community.
Many people in cities have little or no contact with nature, and this “extinction of experience” can make them feel apathetic about conservation. Green space lets city dwellers connect with nature, and if these spaces contain native rather than introduced plants, they have the added benefit of familiarising people with their native flora, creating a stronger sense of cultural identity.
Where to share
There are many places in urban areas that can be tinkered with to encourage native species, with little or no disruption to their intended use. Picture the typical Australian park, for example: large expanses of grass and some isolated gum trees. Biodiverse systems are more complex, featuring tall trees, smaller ones, shrubs, herbs and grasses, which together create diverse habitat for a range of species. So by building native garden beds around single trees, at the park’s edges, or within designated areas (even among playgrounds!), we can gain complex layers of habitats for our native animals without losing too much picnic space.
We think of verges as places to park our cars or wheelie bins, but these grass borders are another underused area where we could plant native gardens. This not only improves the aesthetics of the streetscape but also reduces water use and the need to mow.
Australia is a sporting nation and our sports grounds are cherished features of the urban landscape, yet there are plenty of opportunities here for native vegetation. The average golf course, for instance, only uses two-thirds of its area for actual golf (unless you’re a very bad shot). The out-of-bounds areas nestled between the fairways offer plenty of space for native biodiversity. Likewise, the boundaries of sporting ovals are ideal locations for native vegetation borders.
Even infrastructure corridors such as train lines, electricity corridors, and the edges of highways have the potential to contribute to the functioning of local ecosystems.
Making it happen
As the existence of community gardens and Landcare groups shows, there is already a drive within local communities to make these ideas a reality. In fact, some groups of “guerrilla gardeners” are so passionate about urban greening that they dedicate their own time and resources towards creating green public space, often without permission.
But urban gardening doesn’t need to be illegal. Many councils in Australia have policies that encourage the planting of native plants in private gardens, with some even offering rebates for native landscaping projects.
Ultimately we need to both share and spare urban landscapes. By conserving habitat fragments and planting native gardens to connect these patches, we can bring native plants and animals back into our cities.