Election 2019: Australia Drinks the Poisoned Chalice – Environment

This is part two of my series on the aftermath of the 2019 Australian election. In this article I explain why the re-election of a Liberal government likely means further deterioration for the environment. There is often an argument put forward that Australia doesn’t matter in the global climate change fight; I will also explain why this is wrong and how Australian environment policy affects the world at large.

While Labor’s environmental proposals for the election did not go so far as to completely address the dual issues of mass extinction or climate change, they still went further than the Liberal Party ‘attempts’ at environment policy. The Liberals have essentially promised a business-as-usual approach to environmental policy, continuing and expanding their failing Direct Action plan and expanding $130 million for environmental restoration.

Under the Coalitions current approach to emissions reduction, Australian emissions have resumed their upward climb. Their claim that we are ‘on-track’ to be meeting our Paris targets is therefore disingenuous at best. I’ve also explained before that being ‘on-track’ to meet our meagre Paris targets does not constitute good environmental policy, given that these targets are likely to still produce more than 2 degrees of warming and could even go as far as to produce 3 degrees warming.

Emissions graph sourced here.

The government “Direct Action” plan currently operates under the Climate Solutions Fund and is basically a process of handing out money to polluting companies that undertake (or attempt to undertake) emission reduction schemes within their company. Under this program, that even polluters say does not motivate them to lower carbon emissions like the carbon tax, Australia’s carbon emissions have been on the rise.

This is because the program has been green-lighting polluters to increase their emissions which then offsets the emissions reductions that have been paid for with taxpayer funds.

There is also the cases where the federal government has supported emissions reductions programs where the programs are not made operational. A particularly startling example of this is Western Australia’s Gorgon project, operated by Chevron. Gorgon is an LNG project that was supposed to be accompanied by a carbon capture initiative. As at the end of last year, the project had been operating for 2 years and had not commenced carbon capture. It was built with the support of $60 million of federal taxpayer money.

Approximately half of the increase in Australia’s carbon emissions have been linked to this plant.

The Ocean

The list of Liberal achievements for the environment that are touted on their website includes an expansion of Australia’s Marine Parks. The reality is that the Coalition has repeatedly slashed marine protections in favour of allowing commercial fishing operations since Labour introduced their 2012 Marine Park Network.

The original marine park had been described by scientists and conservationists as “a big step forward”, and gave Australia some of the most extensively protected waters in the world. The marine parks are important for the preservation of remaining biodiversity, replenishing fish stocks in vulnerable areas and, importantly, regulating sustainable fishing.

In addition to by-catch (where unwanted sea-life is caught and killed in the process of catching desirable fish), commercial fishing has led to 1/3rd of the worlds fisheries being overfished. This is in addition to the fishing that is undertaken illegally, unreported and unregulated which accounts for up to 10-30% of global fish takes.

This understandably puts extreme stress on the ecosystems that are being overexploited, with marine life having diminished by almost 50% over the last generation. In addition to the economies that rely on the species of fish and fisheries that are depleted.

Globally, the fish trade is worth over $360 billion and over half of the worlds protein is sourced from fish. However, there are some societies such as those in the Pacific (where Australia sources most of its tuna) that rely upon fishing for 50-90% of their protein needs. In addition to this, fishing forms the only income that millions of Pacific islanders earn. This makes Australian fishing policy a humanitarian issue.

CSIRO & Environmental Research

Since the Coalition came to government in 2013 it has shown contempt for science and research, particularly the CSIRO. Since the Coalition have come to power, they have so far slashed environmental funding from the 2012-2013 levels by 39.7%. This is amid an overall growth in GDP by 17% over the same period and a worsening global environmental situation.

The Coalition also cut major funding from the CSIRO, causing the organisation to lose huge numbers of staff. In the first two years of the Abbott government the CSIRO was made 20% smaller (with the largest losses in research staff). Under the Turnbull years there were further cuts to CSIRO, which downsized the number of climate scientists to around 80.

The Turnbull cuts were met with international condemnation from the scientific community, which cited Article 7.7.c of the Paris Climate Accords. This article directly calls for the strengthening of scientific knowledge on climate change.

But what was most egregious about all of these cuts was the importance of the CSIRO to the international climate research community. The CSIRO has been called Australia’s ‘national treasure’ by the international research community due to the volume and quality of research output. Australia has been responsible for much of the climate modelling for the Southern Hemisphere and understanding of the global climate model will obviously require accurate data on the Southern Hemisphere.

Further understanding of how the global climate system will change can only help Australia and the international community in responding to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Extinction

Australia has become a global leader in species extinction. Since Europeans colonised the continent there have been 29 mammal extinctions (a third of the global total and highest in the world for the same period).

We are being warned that there are upwards of 1800 Australian species at risk of extinction (1000 within only NSW). This is a number that is increasing, and is almost certainly an underestimate, given that there is no way of knowing that all species have been catalogued in given areas.

We have lost one species (the Bramble Cay melomys) to habitat loss as a result of climate change, though it could have been saved with enough political will.

The Coalition government has pledged $100 million for direct habitat restoration in facing this extinction crisis, though this is only a drop in the ocean. The scale of the problem calls for a much larger commitment. The Australian Conservation Foundation has estimated the required annual federal budget for habitat restoration to be closer to the $1 billion mark.

This means we are likely going to fall short of our goals in saving these species, unless independent organisations step in.

Australia’s Emissions Don’t Matter

To finish, I would like to quickly dispel the myth that Australia’s carbon emissions don’t matter and that we shouldn’t worry about even trying to reduce our carbon.

This idea springs forward from the fact that Australia only contributes 1.6% of world carbon emissions, which sounds like a small number so therefore we don’t really count.

This is wrong.

This first fallacy with this idea is that Australia is contextually a small emitter of carbon. We are actually in the top 20 emitters in the world, meaning that we are one of the 20 nations with most responsibility to turn around our carbon pathway.

Secondly, countries do not act in isolation on this issue. They are learning from the experiences of each other in order to best respond to the crisis and meet their own obligations under the Paris Accords.

A good example of this was how China learned from Australia’s Carbon Tax scheme in its own implementation of an Emissions Trading Scheme. Australia’s carbon tax was overseeing a decline in overall carbon emissions during the years it was active, meaning that this policy could have a positive effect over the largest carbon emitter in the world.

By Nathan Booth

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