Bill Shorten has rebuffed overtures by the Greens leader Richard Di Natale to work closely with a Labor government to promote a strong policy on climate.
Shorten accused the Greens of “trailing their coat and saying, ‘Look at me’”.
“The fact of the matter is that if we get elected we’ll be making decisions in a Labor cabinet and the decisions will be made by members of parliament of the Labor party,” Shorten said, in anticipation of Di Natale’s Wednesday address to the National Press Club.
“What we will do is we will implement the policies we’ve put forward,” Shorten said.
In fact a Labor government, which would be in a minority in the Senate, would probably have to negotiate with the Greens to get its climate policy through the Senate.
After the backlash against the formal Labor-Greens alliance under the Gillard government – in which the two parties worked in conjunction on the carbon pricing scheme – Shorten is anxious to keep maximum distance between the ALP and the minor party.
For its part the government paints Labor and the Greens as “joined at the hip”. Scott Morrison said on Wednesday: “We know who holds the chain – if it’s not the Greens it’s the militant unions”.
In his Press Club appearance Di Natale ran a double line – attacking Labor policies on climate and the environment as inadequate, while stressing the need for co-operation in government.
The Greens were “deeply concerned that Labor has taken a weaker climate policy in 2019 than what they proposed in 2016, which was weaker still than what they took to the 2013 election”.
Di Natale said he was not seeking a formal alliance between the Greens and Labor as in 2010 – rather “we want to work constructively. We want to negotiate”.
He was “not surprised to hear the response from Bill Shorten today […] we hear that time and time again in the lead-up to an election.
“But we need the Greens in the Senate working with the Labor party and other voices to ensure that the policy that’s delivered meets the science and that is up to the challenge of transitioning our economy”.
A Shorten government “will have two pathways open to them after the election, ” he said.
“They can either pursue a climate and energy policy designed to pass through a divided Coalition party room […] or they can negotiate a comprehensive response, based on science, with the Greens.
“My message to Bill Shorten is that you can’t achieve bipartisanship with the Liberals because they can’t even agree among themselves,” he said.
“The decision for Bill Shorten is whether he follows the take-it-or-leave-it approach of Kevin Rudd in 2009, or negotiates with the Greens, just like Julia Gillard did in 2011, to deliver a climate policy that gives future generations a chance”.
Di Natale would not be drawn on what approach the Greens would take if negotiating climate policy with Labor. “The key part of any negotiation is not to conduct it publicly through the media.”
The Greens leader defended his party against criticism over its refusal to support the Rudd government’s scheme, saying Rudd’s policy “would have locked in failure”.
Meanwhile a number of independent MPs and candidates have signed a statement initiated by the Australian Conservation Foundation committing, if elected, to work with each other and other parliamentarians to promote initiatives on climate.
“We recognise that to be a true servant of our communities and our national parliament, we must demonstrate and deliver strong leadership on climate change,” they say.
Among the objectives they commit to are:
opposing the development of the Adani mine
ensuring Kyoto Protocol carryover credits are not used to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions education target
developing a roadmap to power Australia from 100% renewable energy, aiming to achieve at least 50% by 2030
opposing attempts to commit public money to new or existing coal or other fossil fuel operations, including any government underwriting of coal or gas power plants.
Those signing the statement are Andrew Wilkie, member for Clark; Kerryn Phelps, member for Wentworth; Julia Banks, member for Chisholm who is running as an independent candidate in Flinders; Dr Helen Haines, independent candidate for Indi; Zali Steggall, independent candidate for Warringah; Rob Oakeshott, independent candidate for Cowper, and Oliver Yates, independent candidate for Kooyong.
This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.
It might feel like the past decade of climate policy wars has led us into uncharted political waters. But the truth is, we’ve been sailing around in circles for much longer than that.
The situation in the late 1990s bore an uncanny resemblance to today: a Liberal-led government; a prime minister who clearly favours economic imperatives over environmental ones; emerging internal splits between hardline Liberal MPs and those keen to see stronger climate action; and a Labor party trying to figure out how ambitious it can be without being labelled as loony tree-huggers.
The striking parallels between now and two decades ago tell us something about what to expect in the months ahead.
After a brief flirtation with progressive climate policy in the 1990 federal election, the Liberals had, by the final years of the 20th century, become adamant opponents of climate action.
In March 1996, John Howard had come to power just as international climate negotiations were heating up. In his opinion, even signing the United Nations climate convention in Rio in 1992 had been a mistake. He expended considerable effort trying to secure a favourable deal for Australia at the crunch Kyoto negotiations in 1997.
Australia got a very generous deal indeed (and is still talking about banking the credit to count towards its Paris target), and Howard was able to keep a lid on climate concerns until 2006. But it was too little, too late, and in 2007 his party began a six-year exile from government as Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd took the climate policy helm, with acrimonious results.
Abbott and his environment minister Greg Hunt did preside over some policy offerings – most notably the Direct Action platform, with the A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund at its heart, dishing out public money for carbon-reduction projects. The pair also announced an emissions reduction target of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, which Australia took as its formal pledge to the crucial 2015 Paris climate talks.
But by the time nations convened in Paris, Malcolm Turnbull was in the hot seat, having toppled Abbott a few months earlier. Many observers hoped he would take strong action on climate; in 2010 he had enthused about the prospect of Australia going carbon-neutral. But the hoped-for successor to the carbon price never materialised, as Turnbull came under sustained attack from detractors within both his own party and the Nationals.
Then, in September 2016, a thunderbolt (or rather, a fateful thunderstorm). South Australia’s entire electricity grid was knocked out by freak weather, plunging the state into blackout, and the state government into a vicious tussle with Canberra. The dispute, embodied by SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s infamous altercation with the federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg, spilled over into a wider ideological conflict about renewable energy.
With tempers fraying on all sides, and still no economy-wide emissions policy in place, business began to agitate for increasingly elusive investment certainty (although they had played dead or applauded when Gillard’s carbon price was under attack).
In an era of policy on the run, things accelerated to a sprinter’s pace. Frydenberg suggested an emissions intensity scheme might be looked at. Forty-eight hours later it was dead and buried.
Turnbull commissioned Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to produce a report, which included the recommendation for a Clean Energy Target, prompting it to be vetoed in short order by the government’s backbench.
Within three months Frydenberg hurriedly put together the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), which focused on both reliability and emissions reduction in the electricity sector. The policy gained support from exhausted business and NGOs, but not from the Monash Forum of Tony Abbott and cohorts, who preferred the sound of state-funded coal instead. And then, in August 2018, the NEG was torpedoed, along with Turnbull’s premiership.
The next man to move into the Lodge, Scott Morrison, was previously best known in climate circles for waving a lump of coal (kindly provided, with lacquer to prevent smudging, by the Minerals Council of Australia) in parliament.
Morrison’s problems haven’t eased. His energy minister Angus Taylor and environment minister Melissa Price have each come under attack for their apparent lack of climate policy ambition, and Barnaby Joyce and a select few fellow Nationals recently endangered the fragile truce over not mentioning the coal.
Meanwhile, Labor, with one eye on the Green vote and another on Liberal voters appalled by the lack of action on climate change, are trying to slip between Scylla and Charybdis.
While Labor has decided not to make use of a Kyoto-era loophole (taking credit for reduced land-clearing), its newly released climate policy platform makes no mention of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, dodges the thorny issue of the Adani coalmine, and has almost nothing to say on how to pay the now-inevitable costs of climate adaptation.
What will the minor parties say? Labor’s policy is nowhere near enough to placate the Greens’ leadership, but then the goal for Labor is of course to peel away the Greens support – or at least reduce the haemorrhaging, while perhaps picking up the votes of disillusioned Liberals.
Overall, as Nicky Ison has already pointed out on The Conversation, Labor has missed an “opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action”.
And so the prevailing political winds have blown us more or less back to where we were in 1997: the Liberals fighting among themselves, business despairing, and Labor being cautious.
But in another sense, of course, our situation is far worse. Not only has a culture war broken out, but the four hottest years in the world have happened in the past five, the Great Barrier Reef is suffering, and the Bureau of Meteorology’s purple will be getting more of a workout.
We’ve spent two decades digging a deeper hole for ourselves. It’s still not clear when or how we can climb out.
A Shorten government would add about 100 high polluters to those subject to an emissions cap, and drastically slash the present cap’s level, under the opposition’s climate policy released on Monday.
Labor would aim for a new threshold under a revamp of the existing safeguards mechanism of 25,000 tonnes of direct carbon dioxide pollution annually, which would be phased in after consultation with industry.
This would be a major reduction from the current cap of 100,000 tonnes. About 140 to 160 polluters come under the existing cap.
The safeguards mechanism was established by the Coalition government to cap pollution for the biggest polluters by setting limits or “baselines” for facilities covered. But Labor says it has been ineffective.
On transport, the policy sets an ambitious target of having electric vehicles form 50% of new car sales by 2030. The government fleet would have an electric vehicle target of 50% of new purchases and leases of passenger vehicles by 2025.
The climate change policy covers industry, transport and agriculture, with the proposed measures for the electricity sector, including an in-principle commitment to a national energy guarantee (NEG) and subsidies for batteries, already announced.
The agriculture sector would not be covered by the expanded safeguards policy.
The government’s emissions reduction fund – recently allocated a further A$2 billion over a decade and renamed – would be scrapped if Labor wins the May election.
The climate policy is the third of three key policy announcements the opposition wanted to make before the election is called, likely next weekend. The others were the wages policy and the announcement of the start date – January 1 – for the proposed crackdown on negative gearing.
The opposition has committed itself to a 45% economy-wide reduction in emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the government’s commitment to a reduction of 26-28%.
Labor’s policy confirms that it would not use Australia’s credits from the expiring Kyoto Protocol to help meet its Paris target, saying this course is “fake action on climate change”. Bill Shorten said on Sunday: “It’s only the Australian Liberal Party and the Ukraine proposing to use these carryover credits that I am aware of.”
Labor says it would “work in partnership with business to help bring down pollution.”
“Labor’s approach isn’t about punishing polluters. It’s about partnering with industry to find real, practical solutions to cut pollution, in a way that protects and grows industry and jobs.”
“There will be no carbon tax, carbon pricing mechanism, or government revenue,” Labor says.
“Rather, Labor will reduce pollution from the biggest industrial polluters by extending the existing pollution cap implemented by Malcolm Turnbull.”
“Pollution caps will be reduced over time and Labor will make it easier for businesses to meet these caps by allowing for industrial and international offsets.”
The expanded scheme’s new threshold would capture an estimated 250 of the biggest industrial polluters – 0.01% of all businesses.
Businesses would be able to earn credits for “overachievement” – reducing pollution below their baselines. They could sell these credits or use them to meet their future cap.
“Tailored” treatment would be provided to emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries (EITEs) such as steel, aluminium and cement. There would be a A$300 million Strategic Industries Reserve Fund “to support these industries in finding solutions to cut pollution and remain competitive”.
A Shorten government would consult with industry and experts on baselines for individual entities and the timing of reduction.
It would also put in place “a well-functioning offset market and reinvigorate the land offset market”.
“Currently, a facility that emits more than its baseline must offset excess emissions by purchasing offsets, primarily from the land sector. But currently businesses cannot access international offsets, or offsets from the electricity sector.
“Labor will make it easier for covered businesses to meet any offset obligations, not only by allowing for the creation and sale of offsets if emissions fall below baselines, but also through the purchase of international offsets and potentially offsets from the electricity sector.
“We will also boost offset supply through revitalising the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) – including reforms to strengthen the integrity of the CFI, and increasing land and other sector abatement opportunities.
“This will include exploring the establishment of ‘premium’ land sector credits to provide substantial environmental, biodiversity and other co-benefits, establishing a Carbon Assessment Standard to boost the bankability of offset projects, and re-vitalising offset methodology research and development with an additional A$40 million in funding over four years.
“Labor’s plan will help industry reduce pollution at least cost, and give traditional owners, farmers, the forestry industry and traditional owners new opportunities to earn income.”
On transport – which accounts for nearly 20% of Australia’s emissions – Labor says Australia is now last among western countries for electric vehicle uptake.
“Setting a national target will deliver more affordable electric vehicles into the Australian market and drive the switch to electric vehicles, reducing their cost, creating thousands of jobs and cutting pollution.”
Businesses would get an upfront tax deduction to buy electric vehicles, as part of the ALP’s announced Australian Investment Guarantee.
One aspect of moving quickly to government electric vehicle fleets would be that it would develop a secondhand market, Labor says.
“Labor will also work with industry to introduce vehicle emissions standards, to save Australian motorists hundreds of dollars each year at the bowser while driving down pollution on our roads.
“Australia is now one of the only developed nations without vehicle emissions standards in place. As a result, motorists will pay as much as A$500 each year more at the bowser than they should be, as well as seeing pollution on our roads skyrocket.
“Labor will consult on the timeline and coverage of vehicle emission standards to ensure consumers are made significantly better off, and aim to phase-in standards of 105g CO₂/km for light vehicles, which is consistent with Climate Change Authority advice.”
These standards would be in line with those in the United States but less stringent than those in the European Union.
“These standards will be applied to car retailers to meet average emissions standards, rather than imposing blanket mandatory standards on manufacturers.
“This will allow retailers to meet the standards by offsetting high emissions car sales with low or zero emissions car sales – such as electric vehicles.”
The government has reacted predictably to the Labor climate plan, branding it a “new tax”, ahead of what will be a major Coalition scare campaign in the election.
Scott Morrison said the opposition leader “does not have a plan, he just has another tax.
“What we’ve got here is a ‘re-Rudd’ of a failed policy that costs jobs, that costs businesses, that will cost Australians at least $9,000 a year, with the reckless targets that Bill Shorten will make law.”
On electric cars, Morrison said Shorten needed to explain how in 10 years he would take them from 0.2% of the market to 50% – because if he didn’t achieve his “reckless target […] he has to come back and get that money off you”.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the Shorten policy “would be a wrecking ball in the economy.
“It would raise the price of electricity and the price of gas and the price of food and the price of cars. Labor needs to come clean on the detail – not just the mechanism, which we know is the carbon tax.”
The Business Council of Australia welcomed the further details Labor had provided but said there were unanswered questions including “what mechanism will drive and manage the transition to lower-emissions generation in the electricity sector?”
“It remains unclear how abatement will be delivered in the electricity sector and how the various announcements made today will contribute to an economy-wide emissions reduction target,” the BCA said.
It said it had strongly supported the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) and called on the ALP, if elected, “to commit to working with the states and territories to implement the scheme as a credible, market-based mechanism to drive abatement and investment in the electricity sector.”
The Labor party has supported in principle a NEG – the plan the Coalition dumped because of an internal split over it.
The Australian Conservation Foundation gave Labor’s policy a qualified tick, describing it as “a serious policy response to the existential threat of global warming that recognises pollution must be cut across all industry sectors.”
“Labor’s climate change plan does address many of the important challenges Australia has in transforming into a zero-pollution economy,” the ACF said.
But “unfortunately, sections of Labor’s policy platform contain significant wriggle room that big polluters may seek to exploit.
“If it wins government Labor must quickly harden the detail around its policies and resist attempts of industry lobby groups like the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Automobile Association to weaken climate action.”
With a commitment to cutting climate pollution by 45% on 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the Coalition’s 26-28% target, there was never a doubt that Labor’s policy agenda was going to be more ambitious than the government’s.
But what exactly does it include, how does it stack up against the scientific imperatives, and what’s missing?
By offering a broad platform, Labor has moved away from a single economy-wide policy solution to climate change, such as a carbon price or emissions trading scheme. Instead, it has opted for a sector-by-sector approach.
This is smart politics and policy. By developing a climate plan for each major sector – industry, electricity, transport, and agriculture and land – it is possible to modernise each sector in a bespoke way, thus driving more innovation and job creation while also cutting carbon pollution.
Labor has taken the politically safe option of expanding the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” to lower industrial greenhouse emissions. Under this scheme, big emitters are required to keep their emissions below a prescribed “baseline” level, or to buy offsets if they exceed it.
Labor has lowered the threshold for the scheme, meaning it will now cover all businesses that emit more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (the cutoff is currently 100,000 tonnes). From there, all of these companies will have to lower their emissions by 45% by 2030 on 2005 levels.
Some details are still to be determined, including the precise trajectories of emissions reductions, the use of offsets (which while welcomed by industry, is considered by many people to be highly problematic), and the treatment of emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries such as aluminium and cement. As with all complex policies, the devil will be in the detail.
Labor’s policy also includes a “Strategic Industries Reserve Fund”, which would support non-commercial technical innovations to help energy-intensive industries reduce their pollution. The world has already seen significant technical advances, from electrification of gas furnaces, to new cement blends.
But few have been developed, trialled or adopted by Australian industry, and they are not yet as cheap as deploying renewables or energy-efficiency solutions in the electricity sector. The new fund would therefore potentially help drive down emissions in the longer term by opening up access to technologies that are not yet cost-competitive.
Other commitments include plans for energy efficiency, hydrogen power, support for community energy, and establishment of a Just Transition Authority. These are worthwhile next steps, but much more needs to be done to replace Australia’s ageing coal-fired power stations with clean, renewable energy.
Labor’s transport plans offer a clear chance to deliver economic benefits alongside emissions reductions. It has pledged to introduce vehicle emissions standards equivalent to those in the United States (which are not as strict as those in the European Union).
Australia is the only OECD country that does not have vehicle emissions standards, leaving manufacturers free to dump old, gas-guzzling models on the Australian market. Labor calculates that this costs Australian households an extra A$500 per year in fuel costs, compared with other countries.
Alongside this is also a 50% target for electric vehicles (EVs), requirements for new EV charging infrastructure, and tax breaks for businesses that buy EVs. These are sensible first steps towards driving down transport emissions, which are rising rapidly. Indeed, they are the very least a government should be doing, which makes the fact that after six years in government the Coalition won’t have a plan for electric vehicles until mid-2020 very concerning.
Agriculture is the most difficult of all sectors in which to reduce emissions; it is therefore unsurprising that the lightest-touch policy approach is in this sector. Federal Labor will want to take advantage of all the departmental support it can to properly tackle this tough nut.
What it has done is commit to two main policies: strengthening the Carbon Farming Initiative, and ensuring that Queensland’s land clearing laws are applied across the country. The land clearing laws particularly will help reverse the current widespread land clearing occurring in New South Wales, in response to the state government weakening these laws. And comes in stark contrast to the federal government’s proposal to pay farmers not to chop down trees.
The final prong in Labor’s climate strategy is to rule out any creative accounting tricks. The Coalition government is proposing to use carryover Kyoto credits that are a result of the Howard government negotiating a “good deal” for Australia in 1997. Labor has ruled out using these loopholes as part of meeting Australia’s international commitments and has also promised to do more to help our Pacific neighbours. This support may be little help, however, if Labor doesn’t strengthen its support for holding global warming to 1.5℃.
What’s left out?
This package is a solid, technocratic basis for tackling Australia’s rising greenhouse emissions. Unfortunately, there remain some glaring omissions.
The biggest omission is the lack of a plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Fossil fuels, particularly the mining and export of coal are Australia’s biggest contribution to climate change. Yet the ALP’s policy contains only two mentions of coal, nothing on coal exports, and no mention of gas. Labor is evidently still sitting on the fence on the future of the controversial Adani coalmine, and on the question of fossil fuel subsidies more generally.
While it might be politically convenient to let the Coalition tear itself apart over coal, the scientific reality is that to have a hope of limiting warming to 1.5℃, Australia needs to rapidly move away from coal both domestically and for exports. This is not something Labor will be able to ignore for long.
The policy is also missing the human face of climate change. Labor is choosing to frame climate as an economic and environmental issue. It is both of those things, but it is also a social justice issue. Indeed, those most affected by climate change are some of Australia’s (and the world’s) most disadvantaged people. For instance, the Aboriginal community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory, who are currently fighting fracking on their land, were recently evacuated due to Cyclone Trevor.
Yesterday’s policy announcement was a missed opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action.
The lack of focus on health is doubly puzzling, given that Labor already announced a Climate and Health Strategy in late 2017, and could easily have drawn attention to it here.
While there is no doubt that Labor is far ahead of the Coalition on climate change, this package is far from what the science (and schoolchildren!) are telling us is needed.
As bushfires, floods, droughts and protests are all set to continue, don’t expect this issue to go away after the federal election.
The greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, from burping and urinating livestock, account for about half of New Zealand’s total emissions. These agricultural emissions have been the elephant in the room of New Zealand climate policy for some time.
A report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) this week suggests New Zealand should treat biological emissions differently from carbon dioxide emissions. It also says afforestation is a risky approach to combating climate change if planting trees is used to offset carbon emissions.
The report threatens to turn environmental policy and its principal policy tool, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), on its head.
New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, established by Helen Clark’s Labour administration in 2008, was meant to be a bold first in the world. It was going to cover all greenhouse-gases and all sectors and include forestry as an emissions sink. Critically, it was to include agriculture and the related biological emissions.
But the election of John Key’s National administration in 2009, with their rural electorate, meant agriculture never entered the scheme and was therefore “given a free ride” in the decade or so since. To put this “free ride” into context, the rest of the economy could buy cheap, and in some cases dubious, international carbon units for the bulk of that period.
After international trading was stopped, they could buy relatively cheap domestic forestry units. In truth, it was never much of a free ride for agriculture since no one was working particularly hard to mitigate anyhow.
The PCE report challenges the scheme’s architecture. It makes a number of recommendations. First, it suggests that biological emission should be treated differently to carbon dioxide emissions, with a zero target on carbon dioxide and a much lower but unspecified target for biological emissions.
The second recommendation is to no longer allow forestry sinks to be used to offset carbon dioxide emission, but to continue using them to offset biological emission.
This shifts the burden of mitigation away from biological emissions in agriculture towards carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and transport.
The PCE’s recommendations
The report provides an alternative vision to the “all gasses and all sectors” flexibility envisioned for the original NZ ETS. It differentiates between carbon dioxide and biological emissions since carbon dioxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas, but biological emissions include the long-lived nitrous oxide and the shorter-lived but potent methane.
The recommendation that afforestation sinks should no longer be used to offset carbon dioxide emissions represent a radical departure. It is likely to be opposed by foresters and those not wanting to create too much uncertainty in the NZ ETS. These are fair points that must be balanced against the logic behind the recommendation.
Using afforestation to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions is risky because forests may burn down (especially in a warming world) and release the carbon again. Commercial plantation forests only hold the carbon until the next harvesting cycle, and ultimately the land available for tree planting is limited and may crowd out other land uses.
Using afforestation to tackle carbon dioxide reductions also means we do not work hard enough to decarbonise the economy in more fundamental ways, including switching to electric vehicles, building houses for passive solar heating and making process heat renewable.
The search for cross-party consensus
Overall, the report signals a fundamentally different approach to climate policy from that envisioned for the NZ ETS over a decade ago. Differentiating carbon and biological emissions is sensible both from a science and a political expediency perspective.
The latter is particularly important if we are to have a political consensus behind the proposed Zero Carbon Act. Ultimately, the opposition National party will not back anything that unduly affects its agricultural electorate. Reducing reliance on carbon sinks also seems sensible as it pushes the cost of mitigation into the future, imposing it on future generations.
Does this mean a free ride for agriculture once more? Probably not, but the devil will be in the detail. What the reduction targets for biological emissions should be is not clear. The report cites a range of between 22% to 48% by 2050 as potentially feasible with investment in research and development.
The degree to which afforestation can be used to offset agricultural emissions also needs to be thought about. Unlimited forestry offsets could lead to landscapes that are either planted in trees or relatively intensive dairy farming, with little else in between. This is undesirable as it could lead to changes in biological diversity and water quality and ultimately damage New Zealand’s green and clean brand.
Clearly, there needs to be strong incentives to reduce biological emissions beyond the offset option that push towards more sustainable forms of farming. There is a strong case to limit offsets for agriculture as well, but this might depress the forestry sector.
Finally, to remove the carbon offset option from the market immediately or in the next few years would be unfair to foresters and companies that have been planning to use offsets based on the current architecture. A transition period would be needed to lessen the regulatory shock.
Last week, the Western Australian Government lifted its state-wide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unconventional gas industries were given the green light to develop on existing petroleum leases, especially in WA’s vast Kimberley region.
Following the Northern Territory government’s April decision to lift its temporary fracking ban, this decision paves the way for future growth of the industry across much of northern Australia.
Fracking policies vary widely across Australia’s states and territories, and so do community attitudes. Our review of the literature on unconventional gas development in Australia reveals an inconsistent approach in how governments have responded to the industry. While coal seam gas extraction has proceeded almost unimpeded in Queensland, the industry was halted in its tracks in Victoria, with a permanent ban on fracking legislated in March this year.
Unconventional gas development in New South Wales – despite pressing energy needs – has been protracted owing to growing community opposition towards fracking, with exclusion zones created near residential areas and industries such as wine-making and horse breeding.
The WA government’s decision to leave in place localised bans in the state’s most populated areas, while allowing fracking in existing petroleum tenements elsewhere, echoes the position taken by the South Australian government in September. The latter’s policy imposes a ten-year fracking ban in SA’s agriculturally rich southeast, while allowing the practice to continue in the northeast.
Labelled as a “clean” alternative to coal by industry, unconventional gas is presented as a key “transition” fuel, capable of delivering reliable, lower-emission electricity – a stepping stone along the path to zero-carbon energy. Our research suggests that this clean image is pivotal to public support for the industry.
The unconventional gas industry has been hailed as an economic lifeline for regional Australia. Justification for its growth into new regions is tied closely to the purported domestic “gas crisis”. Others predict that fracking for unconventional gas could have negative economic consequences.
Many affected communities continue to question the capacity of the industry to operate with low risk to health and the environment. In the Kimberley and across Australia, opposition to fracking simmers.
WA and SA exemplify efforts to strike a balance between the unconventional gas industry and concerned community members. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of attempts to secure fracking bans could relate to the political and economic muscle of affected communities. Our ongoing research seeks to analyse this development pattern.
The industry has argued that “fugitive emissions” of methane from Australian unconventional gas wells are relatively low. However, more recent studies warn that we may be underestimating the true climate risks of unconventional gas.
Indeed, Australia’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to the expansion of unconventional gas production and exports. They underpinned a 13.7% increase in national fugitive greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to Australia recording its 15th consecutive quarter of greenhouse gas emission increases this year. These figures call into question Australia’s trajectory to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement.
The impacts of rising greenhouse emissions are becoming increasingly visible and costly, in the form of more frequent violent storms, intense rainfall, drought and bushfires. Last week, the Victorian Labor Government was re-elected on the back of
strong climate policy. With 15,000 children walking out of school on Friday, the youth “climate strike” rallies attest to the strength of community feelings on climate action and the role of fracking in this context.
Future of fracking?
For state and territory leaders, the job of balancing gas industry interests with those of increasingly vocal communities is becoming more of a juggling act than ever before. With climate concerns intensifying, renewable energy supported by battery power appears a promising option for meeting regional development and energy needs. This has potential to gain widespread public support and create “green-collar” jobs while helping to reduce Australia’s emissions.
In contrast, a reliance on unconventional gas as an interim energy solution may “frack” more than just deep rock formations – but potentially communities, politics … and not least the climate.
A circular economy is centred on keeping products, components and materials circulating in use for as long as possible, through long-lasting design, repair, reuse, re-manufacturing and recycling. The ultimate aim is to minimise the amount of resources consumed, and waste generated, by our economic activities.
The proposed principles, targets and strategies are a good start. They will help tackle a range of issues, including:
dealing with China’s recycling imports crackdown by improving local capacity
increasing the currently limited responsibility for products at end of life
focusing on organic waste (such as food and textiles), one of the major obstacles to current recovery rates
reducing litter and marine plastic debris
harmonising the various disparate state policies.
Yet these proposals, while all crucial, represent only a moderate evolution from our current situation, rather than the revolution needed to truly embrace the circular economy.
The policy’s major focus is still on recycling and recovery, and while recycling is certainly a “circular” activity, the circular economy involves so much more than simply improving how we reclaim and reprocess unwanted materials.
A truly circular society aims to transform our whole system of production and consumption, with innovative approaches like “products as services” (through leasing or collaborative consumption) and designing for next life and new life (through repairability, modularity and disassembly).
Global changes, local opportunities
The proposed policy misses the opportunity to focus on innovation and create a step change in not only the resource recovery industry, but our whole economy and broader society.
The public arguably has more awareness of this issue than ever before, thanks to the continuing emergence of sustainability as a concept, combined with China’s shock to our recycling industry and the media focus afforded by campaigns such as the ABC’s War on Waste documentary series.
Public awareness and expectation is one thing, but to deliver on these goals the national waste policy must strengthen the explicit adoption of circular economy principles and significantly increase support to transition towards it.
This includes such things as:
appointment of a Commissioner for Circular Economy
explicit targets for reuse, repair, reassembly and remanufacture