This means every five years Australia is expected to submit progressively stronger targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and report on progress. And by 2020, Australia is expected to submit a long-term emissions reduction strategy showing how to get to net zero emissions.
Regardless of what policy mix is chosen to achieve this, the process of hitting the Paris targets is now a permanent feature of economy-wide decision-making, one that will need credible ongoing support from government and businesses. Policy uncertainty, and a lack of national framework, has reduced investment confidence.
The UK has shown how national climate change legislation can guide institutional action, and not only dramatically cut emissions, but also promote economic growth.
Victoria rolled out similar legislation in 2017, one of the first pieces of legislation in the world to be modelled on the Paris Agreement.
But Australia lacks a national version of Victoria’s or UK’s legislation.
We have national targets, but not yet ongoing systems embedded in departments. These systems would include measures to ensure continuous target-setting every five years (as used in other jurisdictions) with guidelines and progress reporting obligations. A lack of national legislation means the community and businesses lack transparency about Australia’s long-term direction, pace and progress.
How national climate change legislation would work
A national Climate Change Act would reduce recognise climate change was not taken into account when many current laws were developed, and reduce policy instability around Australian meeting our Paris obligations by:
providing a role for governments and courts to flesh out and stabilise the low carbon transition
guiding an emissions reductions path that looks ten years ahead, across all sectors of the economy, and that can be ratcheted up if policies fail to meet their targets
ensuring transparent reporting of emissions and progress towards meeting interim Paris Agreement targets
allocating responsibilities across government for reporting and climate-conscious planning
signalling to business, communities and government agencies about emerging opportunities in a low carbon economy.
How Victoria did it
In 2017, the Victorian Labor government rolled out state-wide climate legislation, the Victorian Climate Change Act.
This legislation recognises how addressing climate change needs a whole-of-government approach, extending obligations to each state government portfolio.
And it has already catalysed climate change reporting and planning activity across government. An independent committee
has been tasked with advising on the first ten years of emissions budgets.
Government departments are preparing adaptation plans for each sector, reviewing operational guidelines and establishing regular reporting of emissions in sectors and their future plans.
The UK’s success story
The UK passed its Climate Change Act in 2008 with a near unanimous vote. It has guided government decisions on national energy and industrial policy ever since.
The Act contains a process for setting economy-wide, multi-year targets, generating a clear, but flexible path towards its long-term objective – an 80% reduction in national greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It’s not explicit about how targets are to be met and successive governments have been free to choose their own mitigation policies.
What has resulted is a clear shift away from the politics of the past where climate change action was traded off against other government goals.
Ever since the Act passed, subsequent UK parliaments have created management and efficiency initiatives, a minimum price on carbon (called carbon price floors), renewable energy targets, competitive reverse auction schemes and capacity markets.
Combined, these policies promote a competitive, sustainable, low carbon energy supply, along with economic growth and increased national energy security.
National transparency would improve the market
With a clear legislative process with interim targets every five years, a Climate Change Act for Australia would provide businesses and the public with a certainty around the pace of climate change action that reaches beyond the political cycles.
Governments would still have the freedom to choose interim targets and how to deliver them, but the legislation would create transparency around our obligations.
It would also ensure that a transition to a low-carbon future does not risk financial stability.
Regulatory bodies, such as the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Bank of England, and the Financial Stability Board, recognise the necessity for climate change legislation to create confidence in markets. They are already applying pressure to local and international financial markets to improve disclosure of climate risk.
Finally, national legislation would ensure the market and the public are kept up-to-date about progress and future pathways, and how they can be involved in the process along the way. This includes investing in Australia’s potential as a new lower-carbon powerhouse.
Let’s agree what is agreed, and move on
Australian politicians don’t often agree on climate change action, but the major parties do agree on Australia staying in the Paris Agreement.
A national Climate Change Act for Australia would embody this commitment, aligning us with the international process in a policy-flexible framework. Agreement on such an Act would show the Australian public that each party is serious about tackling climate change, providing a stable platform for the next parliament.
Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University; Anna Malos, Project Manager, climate and energy policy, ClimateWorks Australia; Cameron Hepburn, Professor of Environmental Economics, University of Oxford, and Matthew Carl Ives, Senior Researcher in Economics, University of Oxford
The Great Australian Bight is home to a unique array of marine life. More than 85% of species in this remote stretch of rocky coastline are not found anywhere else in the world. It’s also potentially one of “Australia’s largest untapped oil reserves”, according to Norwegian energy company Equinor.
Equinor has proposed to drill a deepwater oil well 370km offshore to a depth of more than two kilometres in search of oil.
But a recent poll showed seven out of ten South Australian voters are against drilling in the Bight. And hundreds of people recently gathered on an Adelaide beach in protest.
Their main concerns include the lack of economic benefits for local communities, more fossil fuel investment, weak regulation and the potential for an oil spill, devastating our “Great Southern Reef”.
Drilling in the Great Australian Bight has occurred since the 1960s, but never as deep as what Equinor has proposed.
The Coalition government argues the project will improve energy security and bring money and jobs to the region. Labor announced recently that, if elected, it would commission a study on the consequences of a spill in the region.
So what’s the worst that could happen?
As discussed in a Sydney Environment Institute workshop in April, drilling in the Bight would have disastrous environment and economic implications.
A spill could leak between 4.3 million barrels and 7.9 million barrels – the largest oil spill in history, according to estimates from the 2016 Worst Credible Discharge report, authored by Equinor and its former joint-venture partner, BP.
The Bight is a wild place, with violent storms and strong winds and waves. The geography is remote, unmonitored, largely unpopulated and lacks physical infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill.
In such an event, Equinor has said it would take 17 days to respond in a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is 39 days, and the goal scenario is 26 days.
In modelling for the worst-case scenario, the company predicts the oil from a spill could even reach from Albany in Western Australia to Port Macquarie in New South Wales.
How likely is an oil spill?
Reports from Norwegian regulators, compiled by Greenpeace, reveal Equinor had more than 50 safety and control breaches, including ten oil leaks, in the last three-and-a-half years. Each incident occurred in regulatory environments with stricter conditions than in Australia.
Our independent regulator, NOPSEMA, does not require inspections of wells during construction to ensure they meet safety standards.
This can be disastrous. For instance, the failure to properly construct the Montara Well in the North West Shelf caused the worst oil spill in Australian history.
NOPSEMA does not have a set standard for well control. This is a risky proposition because in recent years three of the four major international oil spills from well blowouts occurred in exploration wells, the kind planned for the Bight.
And Greenpeace has questioned the independence of NOPSEMA after it was revealed the regulator will speak at an event promoting oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight.
Adding billions to the GDP, but there’s a catch
Equinor’s proposed project risks local fishing and tourism industries that rely on a pristine natural environment and contribute $10 billion a year to our economy, twice as much as the Great Barrier Reef.
A 2018 ACIL Allen report on the economic impact of drilling in the Great Australian Bight suggested Australia’s GDP could gain A$5.9 billion a year if the region turns out to be a major oil field.
But the catch is that this would require 101 oil wells to be successfully drilled, and many of the expected benefits wouldn’t be realised until between 2040 and 2060. What’s more, this windfall wouldn’t reach the pockets of locals, but would largely land in federal government coffers via the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax.
These predictions are based on optimistic estimates of oil prices, and the report assumes our oil demand will remain on an upwards trajectory, which would mean we breach the Paris targets by a significant margin.
Worryingly, Equinor’s former partner in this venture, energy giant BP, even tried to claim an oil spill would benefit the local economy, and said:
In most instances, the increased activity associated with cleanup operations will be a welcome boost to local economies.
There is little evidence to support the argument that this drilling will lead to better energy security.
Given Australia doesn’t have the capacity to refine oil domestically, it’s likely most, if not all, of the oil extracted would be processed overseas.
From a security point of view, far more impact would come from reducing our reliance on oil through better vehicle emission standards and promoting a system-wide shift to electric vehicles.
No real benefit to the community
By comparison, Equinor claim that the construction phase of the project would create 1,361 jobs, most of which require experience that would not be found in local communities. For instance, fly-in fly-out workers from Adelaide would take ongoing jobs on the rigs.
Equinor has already completed seismic testing, which involves firing soundwaves into the ocean floor to detect the presence of oil and gas. The testing alone has pushed schools of tuna further out to sea, increasing costs and risks for local fisherman.
You decide, is it worth it?
Decisions over resource projects with significant environmental impacts need to be based on a thorough cost-benefit analysis and include the precautionary principle.
The economic advantage to either local communities or the Australian public from this proposal is in doubt. And Australians are entitled to ask their politicians why so little is demanded of these organisations.
In the lead-up to a critical federal election, we are left to ask why our political leaders are doubling down on a fossil fuel bet with no clear advantages and a significant downside risk.
As the global climate crisis accelerates, early childhood teachers and researchers are considering whether and how to approach the issue with children. Should we talk openly about the crisis and encourage children to change their daily practices? Or is there a risk that in doing so, we are inflicting anxiety on young minds, still in critical and early stages of development?
The UN sustainable development goals note that children are
critical agents of change and will find in the new goals a platform to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.
Australia’s quality standards on early childhood education and care call for childcare services to support children to become environmentally responsible. But how can this policy be turned into a living practice?
Contact with nature is a crucial part of sustainability education in early childhood education and care. This helps children develop an appreciation for the Earth and all its inhabitants. Educators in childcare settings can provide a learning culture where children develop skills to take care of nature through play and creativity, without inflicting mass anxiety on them.
Programs to helps kids learn
There are many ways play can help children love the world around them. For instance, the nursery rhyme about Dingle Dangle Scarecrow could help engage children in vegetable gardening. Children can pretend the scarecrow will keep the garden safe.
They could build a scarecrow themselves, which would inspire creativity and educate them about the living environment at the same time.
Our recent research (not yet published) explored an educational program with 200 children between the ages of three and five. The children learnt how to sort, reduce and recycle waste into different colour-coded bins. As they sorted food waste, the children also fed chickens and compost worms.
Educators expanded on these activities by telling the children how living things are connected, which the children had themselves witnessed when feeding the chickens and worms. This new knowledge carried over into the children’s home environments, where we found children reminded families about sorting household waste. This then impacted on parents’ recycling practices.
In New South Wales a program helped children learn about water. Children in three pre-schools (aged three to five) were asked to report dripping taps, taught about half-flush toilets and told to advise families to take shorter showers. An evaluation of this program found children had developed courage and agency when it came to water awareness, because their feelings, thoughts, and questions were taken seriously and met with empathy and interest by adults.
From despair to hope
Adults are strong role models for the way children understand the importance of the world around them. If adults act in a respectful way towards animals, and even creatures such as spiders, children will receive the message these creatures are entitled to care and protection.
If you’re quick to swipe a spider in front of a child, this may create biophobia, where creatures are considered as fearsome pests.
Studies have found including sustainability practices into early childhood education may make educators uncomfortable. Studies show educators may have a limited understanding of sustainability issues, and little confidence in teaching such a values-laden topic.
But teachers don’t need to know the ins and outs of climate change to teach children how to respect the planet. They could simply encourage children to play in nature and role model behaviours that show appreciation for the environment.
Finland’s approach to early childhood education and care offers a good case study for how to incorporate sustainability practice into preschool education. The Finnish curriculum is based on a playful learning approach where respectful dialogue between children and adults supports learning.
The curriculum gives teachers tools to meet children´s worries with approaches that encourage actions, which create hope. Young children see themselves as more a natural part of the environment than older children. Teachers can support young children’s actions from this position.
For example, an adult could relocate a spider to a position where it won’t be trod on. Children could then watch to ensure it is safe, which gives them a sense of agency in their environment. In this way, children can feel they have control over the smaller elements of nature and that they can have an effect on it. This gives them a sense of empowerment rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, which leads to despair and anxiety.
Sustainability education for children can best be approached by helping them understand their place in the web of life, which supports their existence in terms of clean air and water, food and clothes, and other necessities for a decent life.
It’s about fostering a sense of belonging, respect and care for all living creatures, and an understanding of how to handle material resources in a limited world. Sustainability education is about fostering the world-view that we are in this together. Only through our common actions can despair be turned into hope.
Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University
Addressing this crisis requires transformative change, including more effective environmental law and implementation.
Improved legislation is one of five main levers for realising change identified in the recent United Nation’s global biodiversity report and the key lesson arising from the Senate’s interim report into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis.
The Senate’s interim report, based on 420 submissions and five hearings, shows Australia is a world leader in causing species extinctions, in part because Australia’s systems for conserving our natural heritage are grossly inadequate.
To allow the continued erosion of this continent’s spectacular and remarkable array of globally unique plants and animals is a travesty of the highest order.
One of the problems is species may decline from common to extinct quite rapidly – faster than the time it takes species to be listed as threatened under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
The Christmas Island forest skink was formally listed as a threatened species only four months before the last individual died in captivity, but 15 years after the decline was first reported.
Extinction of the forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and Christmas Island pipistrelle between 2009 and 2014 may have been averted if the risk was formally recognised in a more timely manner and effective conservation actions, such as captive breeding programs, were implemented.
Currently, if a species is not listed, it is not a “matter of national environmental significance” and federal agency staff generally have no legal basis for acting to protect it.
The black-throated finch has been listed as threatened on the EPBC Act for 14 years and during this time 600,000 ha of potential finch habitat has been destroyed. Worse still, five large coal mines, including the Carmichael Coal Mine, have been given approval (pending environmental conditions being met in Queensland) to clear more than 29,000 ha of black-throated finch habitat in one of its final strongholds, the Galilee Basin.
The controversial Toondah Harbour development in Brisbane is another example of how ministerial discretion can allow disastrous environmental outcomes. The project plans to build 3,600 apartments on wetlands that provide habitat for migratory waterbirds, including the critically endangered eastern curlew.
Despite being described as “clearly unacceptable” by the federal environment department and knocking it back twice, the minister allowed a third submission to proceed for further assessment.
It was reported this decision was made in the context of legal threats and donations from the developer in question. If true, this context would make it very difficult to make impartial decisions that protect biodiversity, as environmental law intends.
Increasing ministerial discretion was a key result of 2007 amendments to the EPBC act, which meant recovery plans were no longer required for threatened species.
The amendment allowed the minister to develop “conservation advices” instead of recovery plans. This amendment downgraded protections for threatened species because a minister can legally make decisions that are inconsistent with conservation advice, but not a recovery plan.
New environmental legislation
Based on these examples and many others that demonstrate the failings of current laws, the interim report concludes that we should rip up the EPBC act and develop stronger and more effective environmental legislation.
This includes establishing an independent Environmental Protection Agency to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, and, in a forward-looking addition by the Greens senators, an independent National Environmental Commission to monitor effectiveness of environmental legislation and propose improvements.
Australia needs a well-resourced, independent umpire for the environment, with powers to investigate environmental concerns and scrutinise government policy, akin to New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. While Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner is an excellent champion for the environment, this role provides no ability to question government actions regarding environmental protection and nature conservation.
Although replacing the EPBC act with new legislation may seem like a radical step to some (but not all), the interim Senate report, and the global UN report, have independently concluded major reform is essential. We are not in a moment of time when tweaking the current system will do the trick.
Changing Australia’s environmental legislation is a relatively minor update compared with the fundamental social and economic changes recommended by the UN report.
Such changes are already recommended by scientific societies like the Ecological Society of Australia, non-government organisations like Birdlife Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation, and are demanded by a growing section of society. New, fit-for-purpose legislation must be enforceable, apolitical and responsive.
Opinion polls show that the level of environmental concern is higher in Australia than in other countries , while 29% of ABC Vote Compass respondents ranked the environment as the most important issue, up from 9% in 2016.
This groundswell of environmental concern has spawned mass protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. Young Australians also have shown their concern. In March 2019, thousands of school students took part in 50 rallies across the country to protest against “the destruction of our future”.
Decisions about what and how much we buy, what we eat, how much we travel and by what means, and family size, all contribute to our environmental footprints, and are the fundamental instigators of the biodiversity crisis.
However, we must also look to our political leaders to support effective change. The simplest and most powerful action you can take to reverse the extinction crisis is to vote for a party with policies best aligned with credible scientific advice on how we can get out of this mess.
Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Lecturer in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Associate Professor, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Associate Professor, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Alfred Deakin Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Deakin University