Anthony Albanese will commit a Labor government to adopting a target of zero net emissions by 2050, in a speech titled “Leadership in a New Climate” to be delivered on Friday.
The opposition leader’s embrace of this target, which the ALP also took to the last election, is in line with the policies of state and territory governments, many companies and the Business Council of Australia. It is also the public stand of some Liberal moderates but is totally rejected by the Nationals and hard-line Liberals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to adopt it.
“Currently no one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs, won’t put up your electricity prices, and won’t impact negatively on jobs in the economies of rural and regional Australia, ” he said this week.
In his speech, released ahead of time, Albanese also says a Labor government would never use Kyoto credits to meet Australia’s Paris targets, as the government will do if that is necessary.
And Albanese again condemns the government for putting $4 million into a feasibility study for a coal-fired power station in Collinsville, Queensland.
But Albanese is leaving until closer to the election the shorter-term emissions reduction target Labor will adopt.
At the last election it committed to a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030. Labor first took that target to the 2016 election and Albanese has previously said it was a mistake not to review it before the 2019 poll.
He says in his speech the 2050 carbon-neutral target should be “as non-controversial in Australia as it is in most nations”.
“This will be a real target, with none of the absurd nonsense of so-called ‘carryover credits’ that the prime minister has cooked up to give the impression he’s doing something when he isn’t.
“That’s not acting. It’s cheating. And Australian’s aren’t cheaters.”
On the Collinsville project, he says: “Let’s be clear. There is nothing to stop a private company investing its money in such a proposal. The reason it hasn’t is it doesn’t stack up.”
The $4 million is “just hush money for the climate sceptics who are stopping any real reform and who stopped the National Energy Guarantee supported by Turnbull, Morrison and Frydenberg.
“It’s pathetic. If it made sense the market would provide funding.
“The climate sceptics are market sceptics as well,” Albanese says.
“Investors will not contribute because the economic risks are simply too great. The costs are higher and rising. And the cost of alternatives like renewables is lower and falling.
“Everyone in the electricity sector knows that the only way a new coal power plant will be built in Australia is through significant taxpayer subsidies, including a carbon risk indemnity that the Australian Industry Group estimates would cost up to $17 billion for a single plant.
“That’s why one hasn’t been opened since 2007, construction hasn’t begun on one since 2004 and tenders haven’t been called this century,” Albanese says.
Meanwhile the terms of reference for the bushfire royal commission, released by Morrison on Thursday steer away from the issue of emissions reduction.
They acknowledge “the changing global climate carries risks for the Australian environment and Australia’s ability to prevent, mitigate and respond to bushfires”. But the inquiry is to report on
improving coordination across all levels of government in managing natural disasters
improving preparedness, resilience, and response in dealing with natural disasters
whether changes are needed to Australia’s legal framework for the involvement of the Commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.
The recent federal government response to the bushfire crisis and the “sports rorts” affair are symptomatic of a deeper political malaise – role confusion.
Since the roles and responsibilities of the federal government have become untethered from Australia’s Constitution through a range of High Court decisions, there are no principles to guide what is a meaningful role for the Commonwealth. This means it dips into areas that are the responsibility of the states.
Funding local sports clubs, for example, replicates existing state and local government programs. But it has become a key campaign tool for the federal Coalition government to be “seen” to be relevant to issues affecting local communities.
The Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements have given Australia a framework for a world-class response to natural disasters. With four categories of assistance, the federal government provides funding for relief and recovery. This summer, after being accused of being to slow to respond, the Commonwealth is forging a new role for itself by deploying the Australian Defence Force. Again, it wants to be “seen” to be responsive.
This role instability means the federal government campaigns on issues under the jurisdictional control of the states and territories. When the prime minister changes, so do the areas of the federal government’s interest. The Commonwealth’s approach to managing the relationship with the states and territories is unstable and can veer from the cooperative to the coercive, from benign neglect to micro-managing program outcomes.
The culture of the federal government stands for the political culture in Australia. This is underpinned through most political commentary being generated by journalists based in Parliament House in Canberra. They promote a world view forged by constant interaction with federal ministers and senior bureaucrats.
Yet the political culture in Canberra is not the same as the political culture within state governments. While the federal government can cherry-pick when and what issues to become involved in, the states keep all the big service-delivery systems in Australia ticking over. They keep building hospitals, managing law and order, educating children, building and operating infrastructure and managing population and natural resources.
There are a number of reasons why state governments have created a more effective platform to deliver on their responsibilities.
The past couple of decades has seen the rise of managerialist, non-ideological and pragmatic premiers. These leaders have become more sophisticated in how they approach issues. They are genuinely responsive to the community through mechanisms like community cabinets held regularly in regional towns and ministerial consultative and advisory committees.
State leaders are comfortable with and have initiated accountability regimes (still lacking federally) and have become experienced crisis managers who are willing to lead in such a situation. Because service delivery requires them to be less ideological and more pragmatic, they are not riven by the kind of ideological fervour that prevents the federal government from acting on issues such as climate change.
Finally, with Queensland adopting fixed four-year parliamentary terms, the federal government is now the only jurisdiction with an erratic election timetable called by the prime minister for political advantage. Four-year terms allow for the business of government to progress in an orderly manner and through the parliament. It brings a steadiness and certainty missing from the more febrile arrangements in place federally.
The states bring stability and ballast to our federation. Since commissioning the original Garnaut report in 2007 they have acted to address the challenge of climate change. They have implemented mitigation and adaptation policies. They do this because they are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as extended droughts, coastal erosion, inundation and natural disasters. All have the target of zero emissions by 2050.
While the federal government struggles to find a meaningful role for itself in the 21st century, there is greater scope to harness the stability the states provide. A collective agreement between the states on emission targets is a good starting point. If all states and territories agreed on an approach, Australia would have a national plan without the need for federal government involvement.
As we enter another week of parliamentary theatrics, perhaps the time has come to turn to the workhorse of the federation for action on climate change – the states.
This summer’s bushfire apocalypse has caused many Australians to express their fury at a federal government they feel is either in denial about the impact of climate change or failing to address it sufficiently.
When you consider the full impact of the bushfires, it is no wonder there are now calls for a class action lawsuit to hold our government accountable for these failures and its inaction on climate change.
I’ve brought several class action suits against the government on issues such as asylum seekers and breaches of privacy. Though climate change class actions might be possible elsewhere in the world, here in Australia, there are many obstacles to success.
Legal precedent for climate change suit
Many environmental activists have been emboldened by a significant legal victory by the Dutch environmental group, Urgenda Foundation. For seven years, the Urgenda Foundation has been fighting the Dutch government to force it to reduce Holland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020.
In December, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the finding of the Hague Court of Appeals that the government is obligated by the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights to take
suitable measures if a real and immediate risk to people’s lives or welfare exists and the state is aware of that risk.
The ruling further stated
the obligation to take suitable measures also applies when it comes to environmental hazards that threaten large groups or the population as a whole, even if the hazards will only materialise over the long term.
The case marked the first time a government has been required by the courts to take action against climate change.
Urgenda’s success has led to similar legal strategies in a host of countries, including Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, the UK and the US. Australia, however, is missing from the list.
The reason is that a climate change class action is unlikely to succeed here because we do not have the equivalent of the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into our legal system.
Without a bill of rights or other laws that mandate precautionary measures to mitigate climate change, it is unimaginable that an Australian judge would make a ruling requiring our government to take measures to reduce carbon emissions.
Class action suits against companies
Nevertheless, our courts still have a role to play in cases related to natural disasters, particularly when the cause of damages is clearly identifiable.
There have been successful class action suits against businesses that were found to be responsible for igniting bushfires.
For instance, survivors of the devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria received a payout of A$500 million from the power company SP AusNet after the courts ruled the fires were caused by poorly maintained powerlines. It was the largest settlement in Australian legal history.
In the current bushfire crisis, however, there is no faulty powerline to point to as the cause of the destruction. And when it comes to suing the government for failing to take steps to prevent a bushfire, things get much trickier.
What is required to sue the state
For starters, it is doubtful the federal government would ever be held responsible for the current crisis because the states and territories are responsible under Australian law for bushfire fighting and land management.
Our courts are also reluctant to impose a duty or liability on any government regarding its policy-making functions – including how to prepare for a fire season. The courts have likewise been reluctant to mandate how a government allocates resources and how they make day-to-day fire management decisions.
As a result, claimants in bushfire cases have had to argue the government owed them a common law duty of care. And this can only be determined through a complex evaluation of the relationship between the person who is harmed and the state.
When our courts have considered claims arising from bushfires in the past, they have tended to put limits on the ability of individuals to take action against the state.
For example, when the Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, one of the affected parties, Electro Optic Systems Pty Ltd, sued the state of NSW.
The case alleged the state’s Rural Fire Service and National Parks and Wildlife Service owed a duty of care to the plaintiffs and that its fire-fighting strategy was flawed. As a result, the state should be held responsible for any losses.
Because the direct cause of the fire was a lightning strike, the ACT Court of Appeal found the state did not owe a duty of care to property owners to prevent harm caused by the spread of the bushfire.
Why legal action is important, even if it fails
One final question remains: are our courts really the best place to address political inaction on climate change?
Court proceedings are slow and expensive. They will take years to reach finality, as the Urgenda case shows. And the climate crisis requires urgent action both locally and internationally.
But despite the fact a successful class action along the lines of Urgenda is doubtful in Australia, there are some who may go forward with a case.
Many advocates believe that arguing for a reduction of CO₂ emissions in court would provide a compelling, fact-based case they could use to demand change from the government. And this process might give those who are concerned about our planet some hope in dark times.
The disruption of supply chains in food, medicines and even recycling from climate-related events poses innumerable problems for nations. But one way of dealing with various facets of climate change is levering change through central government procurement.
Policies that govern supply and how goods, construction and services are procured are increasingly important as the capacity to mitigate through government purchasing choices faces greater pressure.
The rules include broader outcomes, connecting wider social and environmental priorities to procurement processes. This is the first time New Zealand lays out specific rules about how the government plans to use its own purchases to help fulfil its wider promises.
A cabinet paper on effective government procurement policy, released in late 2018, laid out four outcomes, one of which focused on supporting the transition to a net zero emissions economy and meeting the government’s goal of significantly reducing waste by 2020.
The policy’s priorities include reducing the emissions profile of the government vehicle fleet and reducing emissions from fossil fuels used in electricity generation and in direct production of industrial heat. Describing the government’s intention, Economic Development Minister David Parker said:
We are looking beyond just the price of what we purchase, to ensure procurement is contributing to the transition to a low-carbon economy, inclusive growth and prosperity.
The government’s commitment is to make its own vehicle fleet emissions-free by 2025-26. When replacing vehicles, chief executives of government agencies must purchase vehicles with emission profiles substantially below their current fleet average.
The government fleet – at 14,995 vehicles (with only 0.24% electric) – has a job on its hands. But already it is reporting that emissions have dropped between April and July 2019. The reduction is partly due to 400 fewer vehicles and minor shifts in driving patterns.
This is a gutsy move, especially given cost implications and market challenges. But jurisdictions such as Germany and Sweden have promoted renewable sources for some time through legislation and multiple instruments including procurement that supports innovation. Others, such as Transport London, have been shifting to electric public transport fleets.
New Zealand has been conservative in its approach to linking procurement with objectives beyond “best value”, which is nearly always interpreted as least cost. But times are changing. A growing number of people in most agencies are trying to raise the profile of procurement beyond a purchasing exercise.
Procurement as opportunity and responsibility
Leaving the market to decide how taxpayer funds are spent through a clunky contracting process is missing an opportunity to procure the best services and infrastructure, as well as increasing workforce skills. Research on sustainable procurement has grown and the topic now features at the OECD.
There are different targeted approaches. One is an “emissions dashboard”, which shows the average emissions profile of each agency’s fleet and tracks emission reductions. But dashboards are only indicative, given the inevitable variation in reporting across organisations and the underlying reasons why an agency might have a high emissions rating.
Australia’s Indigenous procurement policy has used a very targeted approach requiring 3% of government contracts go to Indigenous business by 2027. Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been looking at the potential for something similar in New Zealand. A report on the benefits of indigenous procurement policies is expected.
Planning to replace vehicle fleets is a tangible use of the procurement lever to move towards lower emissions. But to support a fairly rapid change, supply chains need to be taken into consideration to ensure enough electric vehicles are available.
While there are many technical issues to resolve, New Zealand’s approach to procurement is a step in the right direction. Procurement can’t do everything at once, but it is an important instrument that needs to be directed at policy problems, underpinned by research and evidence.
The health of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest and most complex river system, is in rapid decline, and faces major challenges over the next 30 years as the climate changes.
In our view, there are still major problems with the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. These must be addressed to make sure the system is resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of bouncing back from future shocks to the river’s ecosystems, particularly due to climate change.
Here are five ways the government can clean up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so the river system has a chance of surviving in the long term.
1. Allow the rivers to spill into the floodplain
There are restrictions in all states on deliberately using environmental water (water set aside to keep the rivers healthy) to go over the river bank and inundate the floodplain. When this happens, it’s known as “overbank flow”, and is restricted to areas and times of year when it’s permitted.
Overbank flow is the connection between rivers and their floodplain, and is essential for two reasons.
The first is to ensure floodplain wetlands and forests are resilient. For example, without additional water, the current red gum forests along the River Murray are likely to die and be replaced with black box trees, which need less water.
The second is for the exchange of nutrients and organic matter between rivers and floodplains. Without these inputs from the floodplain, the river system would only be able to support a much smaller number of fish.
Governments have been reluctant to work towards increased overbank flows, largely because of a potential backlash from landholders who don’t want their floodplain land to be flooded.
But in several regions, such as the Edward-Wakool system in New South Wales, landowners and government officials are working through the issues that infrequent flooding has on riverside agricultural land, such as stock being unable to graze flooded areas, crops being innundated by floodwaters, and loss of access to parts of their property through road flooding.
We hope their discussions will lead to a balance, where overbank flows can still occur with minimum impact on landholders.
Still, without changes to state policies on overbank flows, parts of the Basin’s floodplain systems are unlikely to have sufficient resilience to absorb future stresses.
This is called “held” environmental water. Currently, there is around 3 trillion litres of held environmental water, and 13.7 trillion litres of water allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Management of this environmental water is relatively new, compared with the management of water for irrigators, which has been occurring for the better part of 80 years in rivers such as the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee.
There is a major difference in when environmental and irrigation water is needed through the year. Farmers have their highest water demand for irrigation in late spring and summer, while the major environmental water demand is often highest in late winter and early spring. This is when high natural inflows would have filled river channels and spilled into floodplain forests and wetlands.
The use of the river channels to deliver irrigation water has lead to large flows in the summer when naturally the river flows would have been low. This has resulted in environmental problems, such as bank erosion and the wrong triggers for fish breeding.
3. A greater focus on river refuges
During periods of low or no flow, many of the Basin’s rivers exist as networks of waterholes. In such dry periods, these waterholes are vital habitats, or “refuges”, for fish, frogs, waterbugs, and other species that need permanent water.
Changes in land use, flow regimes and the condition of riverbank vegetation all threaten the ability for these waterholes to act as refuges for these species. These waterhole refuges also need a full set of structural habitats, such as snags and riverbank vegetation.
Disturbingly, the current policy in the Basin Plan safeguards the entitlements to irrigation water and held environmental water, but not the rest of the flow – which is largely also “environmental” water. Currently, this makes up around half of the total flow (32.5 trillion litres per year) in the Murray-Darling Basin a very large volume.
The effect varies over the basin, but by 2030, overall losses are predicted to be two to three times greater for water that is outside of these entitlements, compared with irrigation water and held environmental water.
Unless this policy is changed, climate change will have an excessive impact on the river’s health. Entitlement-holders will continue to take the same amount of water while the overall river flow drops dramatically. This deficiency must be addressed when the Basin Plan is reviewed by 2026.
5. Linking water and other natural resource management
The Basin’s water resources do not exist in isolation from other “natural capital”, such as riverbank habitats, floodplain land, and the surrounding catchments.
River scientists know “the catchment rules the river”. But the water and catchments are now managed separately, despite many calls over the years for better integration.
Poor agricultural practices result in sediment, nutrients and salt entering the rivers in runoff. This reduces water quality and harms the Basin’s ability to provide essential “ecosystem services”, such as water quality improvement and the effective functioning of the ecosystem.
We believe a more coordinated management of all natural resources in the Basin, and attention to other complementary measures, should be addressed when the current Basin Plan is reviewed in 2026.
We submit that continuing with the existing Basin Plan, it’s unlikely the Murray-Darling Basin will be resilient enough to withstand future climate impacts, and we will see major detrimental changes to the basin’s ecosystems.
At the very least, we must properly implement the current Basin Plan by addressing the first three issues above, and also make the necessary policy change to ensure the other two issues – protection of planned environmental water and better links with other natural resources – are addressed in the next Basin Plan in 2026.
The federal government has announced a raft of new measures ostensibly designed to secure energy pricing, boost investment in new “reliable” energy generation, and improve competitiveness in the retail energy market.
One of the main reasons new coal projects do not proceed is because of the “unquantifiable” financial risk of carbon. Former Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive Oliver Yates has argued that coal-fired power generation would not be financially backable without the government providing indemnity against future carbon taxes.
He may have meant it as a reason not to proceed with coal at all, but federal energy minister Angus Taylor has signalled that he is seriously considering such a move.
The federal government says its new proposals are based on recommendations made in a July report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), aimed at ensuring affordable electricity. But there are some key differences between the report’s recommendations and the government’s plans.
The crucial one, at least as far as coal’s fortunes are concerned, is the proposal for the government to enter into contracts called “energy offtake agreements”. Under this approach, the government would agree to buy future electricity at a set price, from new generation projects that could include coal-fired electricity from either new coal plants or refitted coal plants. This, the government argues, would keep power prices in line while also providing greater investment certainty and make energy projects easier to finance.
The ACCC report did indeed recommend underwriting new power generation investments, but not with the obvious goal of propping up coal. Rather, it recommended that this support be directed to “appropriate new generation projects which meet certain criteria”, so as to reduce prices by boosting market competition.
It is hard to see how the government’s desire to artificially sustain the life of coal-fired electricity – in the face of ever-worsening economic prospects – is consistent with either the ACCC’s rationale of supporting sustainable, new generation energy projects in order to improve competition in the energy market.
Federal shadow climate change minister Mark Butler has indicated he would not support the inclusion of coal in any such agreements, and that the plan could cost taxpayers billions.
Is coal ‘new generation’ or not?
Taylor has argued that the backing and guarantees for new electricity generation could well include coal, because “it may well be that the best options we have available to us are expansions of existing coal facilities”.
But the reality, given our climate targets, is that coal can only be an option where it is supported by clean technology. And even the cleanest of “clean coal” is not on a par with renewable energy.
The latest generation of high-efficiency “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired plants are very expensive to build and run, particularly if they include carbon capture and storage – which they would certainly need to. If all of Australia’s existing coal plants were replaced with ultra-supercritical ones that did not include expensive carbon capture and storage technology, emissions would fall by between 26 million and 40 million tonnes by 2030. But Australia’s climate target calls for a reduction of 160 million tonnes by that deadline.
On the other hand, with carbon capture and storage, the emissions reductions would be much greater, but the electricity could cost up to three times the current wholesale price. This would mean the government would be effectively subsidising the production of electricity that is more expensive and more environmentally damaging than renewables.
This raises the ultimate question of why – given Australia’s emissions targets and its responsibilities under the Paris Agreement – the government is prepared to subsidise coal-fired electricity at all.
There is no doubt that climate change is an important public concern. The attempt to characterise Taylor as “minister for getting power prices down” belies the fact that energy policy is not just about price and reliability, but about broader social and environmental welfare too. Electricity absolutely must be sustainable as well as affordable.
This is what energy security means today. Carbon-intensive energy production is neither environmentally sustainable nor financially viable. It is that simple. That is precisely why the financial risks of carbon are so high.