Are the long years of shadow-boxing coming to an end?

Climate change may now be starting to get the prominence it deserves in political circles, but given the big paradigm shifts we need to make, our leaders still have much to get their heads around. [22 July 2008 | Peter Boyer]

For well over a decade, governments in Australia have been fiddling around the edges of climate change. Years of window-dressing here, a small reform there, and an awful lot of talk. But last week, something changed.

In the Green Paper released last Wednesday, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong outlined a scheme to make major emission source industries like coal power companies and oil refineries pay for each tonne of carbon released into the atmosphere, either directly or by users of their products.

The next day was the turn of David Bartlett, who released Tasmania’s “Framework for Action on Climate Change”, which whatever else may be said about it is a serious improvement on the passive, complacent package that it supersedes, the 2006 state draft climate strategy.

With these two events we can be in no doubt that climate change is at the forefront of government agendas, both national and state. This has to be an advance.

For those of us who’ve travelled the climate rollercoaster for a while, the Rudd government’s scheme is flawed. For instance, against Ross Garnaut’s warnings that free permits for big polluters or broad-scale relief for motorist would threaten the integrity of emissions trading, the government opted for free initial permits for trade-exposed industries and reduced fuel excise to fully compensate motorists for the first three years of the scheme.

Whether these and other flaws will be fatal is as yet unknowable. But at least climate change is now irrevocably inserted into national policy. Money talks, so the “carbon pollution reduction scheme” is a talking point everywhere – even (wonder of wonders) on commercial radio and television.

Given that the Opposition continues to miss the point on climate, the Green Paper is as strong a start as we could have expected. We can take comfort from the fact that it’s a discussion paper, to be tweaked over coming months. Above all, it’s politics at work.

David Bartlett was one of those who questioned the value of free permits for polluters – hopefully a sign that he understands the seriousness of this issue, though his Tasmanian strategy is, like the Green Paper, a political document. What else should we expect?

This isn’t intended as a criticism, but acknowledgment of growing political awareness of the reality of climate change. Paul Lennon, an unlikely champion of the cause, gave the present process a kick-start last year with his Crowley report, aiming for a root-and-branch reform of climate-unfriendly public service practices. Now Mr Bartlett has joined the battle.

The Tasmanian strategy, like the Green Paper, has its weaknesses. Like his predecessor, Mr Bartlett gives seems to think that dams and pipelines are going to sort out water shortages, and he makes too much of “benefits” to Tasmania from climate change, like better growing conditions for wine grapes. But hey, we expect our premiers to be optimistic.

Dealing with climate change is above all a matter of doing things; at least the Framework acknowledges this. The list of “priority areas for action” is a good start to a process that’s long overdue and for which time is very short. Let’s hope – let’s ensure – that the action starts sooner rather than later.

Those elusive forestry emissions

Getting a handle on what forestry contributes, or sequesters, in the way of carbon is like, well, trying to catch the wind. Depending where you go, official assessments have it as either a net benefit to Tasmania or the State’s biggest emitter of carbon.

The uncertainty stems from the Kyoto Protocol, which encompassed only forests established after 1990, effectively quarantining mature forest logging from scrutiny. But there are signs that this picture may become clearer over the next 12 months.

What seems to be missing from nearly all current official thinking are scientific assessments of carbon storage in mature forests at well over 1000 tonnes per hectare. At this level of storage, the loss of a large part of this carbon store, such as in clearfell operations, is very serious indeed – no matter how vigorous the young growth that replaces it.

Ross Garnaut’s interim report of a fortnight ago pointed to an international regime with logging of mature tropical forests that, reason would suggest, will mean an increased scrutiny of what we ourselves do in our own forests.

There’s no sign in the Green Paper that the Federal Government thinks there’s a problem, but David Bartlett’s Tasmanian Framework indicated a shift in thinking, noting the “vast stores of carbon in the soils and vegetation in our world class reserve system and public and private forests.”

This isn’t in itself a sign that we’re headed to a comprehensive control on Tasmanian forestry emissions – for instance, the Framework goes on to talk about the need to protect reserved forests from wildfire but doesn’t mention logging itself as a factor.

But the Framework does acknowledge the importance of getting it right, noting the Tasmanian government’s request to Ross Garnaut “to include an independent and transparent assessment of the role of the forest sector in addressing climate change, drawing on the best available science.”

Judging by what they’re now saying, it’s possible that Penny Wong and David Bartlett will be surprised if it’s found that mature forest logging is a big carbon emitter. But if that happens, they must respond with firm policies. The option of burying the evidence isn’t available.

The Tasmanian Framework: getting down and dirty

All climate strategies are no more than thoughts and words, of no value till they’re put into action – as quickly as possible. Actions proposed in Tasmania’s Framework have good prospect for success and many of them have a short time frame attached. Here’s a sample:

Bureaucracy: Climate change impact statements to be included in all relevant departmental submissions including cabinet and budget papers; emission-reduction plans to be complete within 2008.

Renewables: Government to investigate feed-in tariffs for privately-generated renewable power in the context of an August 2008 paper on a possible national scheme.

Energy efficiency: Government to fund a $3.1 million scheme to install efficient LED traffic lights (already started); research undertaken with University of Tasmania to improve energy efficiency in low-income housing; energy audit and insulation program for householders.

Future planning: Buildings and other infrastructure to be included in the Climate Futures Project investigating the impact of climate change on the State; climate to be incorporated into regional planning considerations.

Transport: The government to provide funding for a community trails network for foot and bike traffic; to move to increase public transport usage and pursue alternative-fuelled buses.

Agriculture: In addition to current water outlook analysis, government to foster innovation in changing practices in response to climate change, with a report due early next year.

Resilient communities: The government to partner local government in collaborative action to educate Tasmanians on climate change and share knowledge and information.

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