A pledge to phase out fossil fuels

Passing the supermarket checkout is just one reminder that living carries a cost, and that cost is now rising across many economic sectors. In these circumstances we lean heavily on the ability of authorities to limit the damage until things settle down again.

It’s widely assumed that those authorities can fix things by pulling financial levers like interest rates, taxation and commercial regulation. But the underlying drivers of this instability are not financial at all. 

War is one of these non-financial drivers, but the biggest of all is a destabilised climate caused by the very thing that underpins our economic prosperity, energy from fossil fuels. Tasmania and all other jurisdictions face the daunting challenge of shifting from a fossil-fuelled economy to a wholly new, carbon-free one.

For a decade or so I have been a member of Climate Tasmania. With diverse backgrounds and expertise, the people in this voluntary group have one important thing in common: a deep concern about the climate.

The use of fossil fuels in industry and transport – our state’s biggest source of carbon emissions – also contributes massively to our cost of living. Relying on imported petrol and diesel, transport costs the state’s economy well over $1 billion a year. The question is, faced with a rising urgency to end use of fossil fuels, how can Tasmanians do that without sinking into penury?

Three years ago, when the government finally got around to amending the state’s 2008 Climate Change Act, Climate Tasmania submitted a detailed plan it had developed over years to phase out fossil fuel use by transport and industry.

The plan was the brainchild of Climate Tasmania member David Hamilton, now retired and living near Launceston, whose career in applied physics spanned nuclear, oil and gas and biofuels. He envisaged a two-pronged approach, requiring major users and public authorities to report publicly on how much fossil fuel they used, and creating a temporary Energy Transition Authority to manage the shift to clean energy.

The proposal got no government response at the time, and the Act that passed 18 months ago ignored all our ideas except a watered-down form of climate change risk assessment. Now, when the election showed public opinion moving in the opposite direction, premier Jeremy Rockliff has inexplicably decided that climate change does not warrant a portfolio in its own right. 

Climate Tasmania is proposing to galvanise strong community concern in the form of a realistic framework for phasing out fossil fuel. “What gets measured gets managed” is the premise on which in which business people are being asked to pledge to phase out their use of fossil fuels and to make their progress visible to all.

Under this plan, each participating business will pledge to reduce its fossil fuel usage, while publicly reporting at a suitably frequent interval, say every six months, on the amount of fossil fuels they have bought in the course of their trade. 

Official emissions reporting is complex, covering direct fuel use (called “Scope 1”), emissions from electricity use (Scope 2), and emissions from customer and supply chain use (Scope 3). David Hamilton’s “Fuel Reduce Pledge” has the great virtue of simplicity, focusing on the most critical element, Scope 1.

While government involvement would strengthen the scheme, it can work without it. The University of Tasmania has already agreed to anchor the scheme by publicly announcing its own pledge. Climate Tasmania is working with others on a media launch later this year. 

By making promises without actual, physical outcomes, the world’s governments have kept delaying effective action to cut carbon emissions from fossil fuel emissions, which are still climbing while the world is warming at an alarming rate.

For all its official boasts about climate leadership, Tasmania is actually a laggard. Todd Houstein, engineer and consultant for Sustainable Living Tasmania, has done the sums to show our per capita emissions are consistently and significantly above the globally-agreed safe limit.

A Climate Tasmania submission last November on a Tasmanian government transport plan, prepared by Rachel Hay, pointed out that only 0.4 per cent of cars registered in the state are electric, and showed that Tasmania is falling behind other states in decarbonising the transport sector.

It’s past time we stopped waffling and got down to tin tacks. We need to understand that the real cost of living comes from continuing to use fossil fuels, and the only way to beat inflation is to get them out of our lives. People power can make this happen. If the Liberal-Lambie coalition is to be a real government it will have to get on board.

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A tragic failure of leadership

By definition, the world’s truest, most representative electoral system is also the world’s most accurate opinion poll. That poll has now revealed Tasmanians’ deep sense of unease at the state of the world they live in. And neither of the major parties has a clue what to do about it.

When issues like stadiums grab and hold public attention it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking no-one cares. That was my mindset a couple of weeks ago when I wrote that in this year’s election “the Greens aside, no party or individual candidate across the spectrum took on climate change as a major issue of concern.”

I was too hasty. Last week I got an email from Bob Elliston, who got 169 votes as a candidate for Franklin in the March election. Elliston’s campaign leaflet described government’s “worst crime” as “not doing nearly enough about climate change” and featured a serious-looking headshot captioned, “There’s no smile because there’s not much to smile about.”

It’s hard for independents to do what the Greens keep doing – encompass broad environmental concerns in a convincing campaign package. But in 2022 major-party candidates were beaten by the Teal Independents’ environment platforms. Anti-salmon campaigner Craig Garland has now done the same here in Braddon. 

Premier Jeremy Rockliff called an early poll to eliminate party rebels and win an outright majority. On election night, with the rebels headed for the exit and supporters chanting “four more years”, he boldly declared he’d won. With his party’s primary vote down by 12 per cent that was a brave call. Now it looks plain foolhardy.

With just 14 seats, the Liberals are still four short of an outright majority. And as political scientist Richard Herr said at the weekend, without the Greens – nearly half of Tasmania’s biggest-ever crossbench of 11 – there will be no parliamentary stability. 

Yet both Rockliff and Labor leader Rebecca White were united in their refusal to deal with the Greens, presumably hoping that the party would somehow go away. Of course it didn’t, and both major parties are now stuck with their foolish promises.

Labor won only 10 seats, but as things turned out it could have formed government in alliance with the Greens and other crossbenchers. The politics of the Jacqui Lambie Network is a work in progress, but it’s feasible and even likely that independents Kristie Johnston, David O’Byrne and Craig Garland would have supported a Labor-Green coalition.

That was the intention signalled by White’s defiant election-night speech, but we’ll never know. The next day the party that once never missed a chance to form government was cast adrift by backroom administrators who decided they weren’t even going to try.

This has history. The first Labor-Green deal way back in 1989 ended in angry finger-pointing and a disastrous election loss in 1992. The boot was on the other foot in 1998 when Tony Rundle’s Liberal government made a pact with the Greens and then collapsed in a heap. The major parties colluded to exclude Greens, cutting parliament to 25 seats, but it didn’t work. The Greens kept coming back.

Labor tried one more time to live with the Greens. After the 2010 election Liberal Opposition Leader Will Hodgman refused to deal with them, but Labor leader David Bartlett negotiated with Nick McKim, who with Cassy O’Connor joined the Bartlett-Giddings government. 

In a government that chalked up numerous legislative successes, the deal seemed to work well. Then just before the 2014 election Lara Giddings abruptly terminated it, a stand-off with the Greens that holds to this day. This year both major parties, while admitting they might enter coalitions with people outside their party, kept hammering the message that the Greens were off-limits.

Having demonstrably failed to secure the backing of Tasmanian voters, the major parties continue to show their ignorance – wilful or otherwise – of the underlying reason for their community’s dissatisfaction with them: a deep and abiding anxiety over what the natural world has in store for us. 

This is a pretty pass. No party can currently win power without forming a coalition, and lasting coalitions require agreements between parties. Past difficulties notwithstanding, the Greens are the most stable third-party bloc in the Tasmanian parliament, and have been for decades. As the only party committed to addressing pressing environmental issues, they have retained voter support. 

Contrast that with the positions of Jeremy Rockliff and Labor leader-in-waiting Dean Winter, who continue pointedly to ignore the environment while banging on incessantly about jobs and growth. 

Other important issues need attention, notably in health and education, but all depend on a stable, reliable natural environment. When that is lost everything else is lost too. The electorate understands this important truth. It’s tragic that our leaders have still not caught on.

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Clouds over Australia’s carbon credit scheme

When a highly reputable international science journal publishes a claim that the Australian public is paying huge sums for carbon capture that isn’t happening, the government has a choice: it can address the issue head-on, or double down. 

With potentially billions of dollars of public money and a big chunk of Australia’s emissions reduction target hanging on the viability of human-induced tree regeneration, or HIR, the government has chosen to double down. 

Andrew Macintosh, an ANU law professor with specialist inside knowledge of the nation’s Emissions Reduction Fund, known also as the Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) scheme, is lead author of a peer-reviewed paper published last week by the London-based science journal Nature.

Macintosh resigned in 2020 after four years chairing the former government’s Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee. He has since become a leading critic of misuse by successive governments of tree carbon offsets to support ambitious carbon emission reduction targets. 

In their Nature paper last week, Macintosh and 10 other specialists in ecology, tree biology and carbon accounting described what appear to be fatal flaws in administration of the “Safeguard Mechanism”, by which big fossil fuel polluters can pay for ACCU accreditation to offset their carbon emissions.

Offsetting by means of tree-planting – the vast bulk of ACCU accreditation projects – is supposed to deliver real, additional and permanent abatement. The main regenerative trigger for projects Macintosh’s team investigated was supposed to be ending grazing by farm animals on low-rainfall lands. 

The team found that the very limited amount of regeneration that had occurred over four years in 182 tree regeneration projects in inland Queensland, NSW and Western Australia, compared with adjacent areas, delivered an average increase of just 0.8 per cent, almost all of that a result of identifiable rain events. 

Macintosh launched a public broadside at Australian carbon offsetting in March 2022, sensationally declaring the market “a rort”. He claimed that graziers had been paid millions of dollars “to not chop down forests that were never going to be chopped down, to grow forests that are already there [and] to grow forests in places that will never sustain permanent forests”.

Confronting evidence that carbon farming under previous governments was so suspect that it should be excluded from our national carbon accounts, the incoming Albanese government was in something of a pickle. Its prized target of 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 looked very vulnerable indeed.

In 2022 new climate change minister Chris Bowen named former chief scientist Ian Chubb to investigate the ACCU scheme, including Macintosh’s allegations. Drawing on a 2021 study commissioned by the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee – the same body Macintosh had left in 2020 – Chubb concluded that the scheme was basically sound and critics were letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The debate picked up. In March last year a team of ANU legal and scientific specialists, including Macintosh, responded that Chubb had ignored the clear failings of the 2021 study, misrepresented a critical report by the Australian Academy of Science and skated over awkward questions about the HIR projects.

Coinciding with this month’s publication of the critical Nature paper, the Clean Energy Regulator, which manages the ACCU scheme, publicly declared faith in the HIR method and the integrity of the scheme’s carbon credits.

The CER declared its scheme to be robust, with “a high degree of integrity” and “a raft of compliance tools at its disposal”, adding that ACCUs were underpinned by “rigorous assessment processes” and “a comprehensive set of audit requirements.”

On ABC breakfast radio Chris Bowen added to the pile-on. He referred to a 2023 study by an ANU forest scientist, Cris Brack, as evidence that the HIR projects were delivering regeneration “and proponents are implementing the project activities”.

Bristling at a suggestion that Macintosh’s claims called for a “rethink” of the scheme, the minister said: “Professor Chubb and Associate Professor Brack are the people who have been commissioned, and there is a different result from their work.” In other words, the fact of their being commissioned should end the debate.

Macintosh is being represented as a man with a grudge against the system which he left in 2020. But he served and led that system for years, and the claims he makes are getting independent scientific support. Those simple facts alone should be enough to sound alarms.

Australia has always been a leading global advocate for carbon offsetting schemes and this large land-based scheme has been held up as an example for others. But its ultimate value is in its ability to draw down atmospheric carbon, and that will not be served by its keepers closing ranks and dodging uncomfortable questions.

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