Government emissions audit a start – but only a start

The Tasmanian government’s program to deal with carbon emissions has started well with an audit of its operations, but its omission of forestry activities throws some doubt on the accuracy of its findings. [2 December 2008 | Peter Boyer]

A little over a year ago the Tasmanian government pledged to show the way to the rest of Tasmania by calculating and then reducing its carbon emissions. Last week, the first significant results from that process – an audit of government activities – was released.

Assessing the audit of Tasmanian government emissions by the US-based consulting company Parsons Brinckerhoff is no simple task. Underlying the audit’s methodology and findings are many unknowns, some acknowledged by the authors, others not.

Let’s start on reasonably firm ground. The findings on government emissions by the audit – noted by Premier David Bartlett to be the first of its kind in Australia – are well worth having, especially with regard to central government departments.

Of these agencies, Health and Human Services and Education were found to be the two worst emitters. Motor vehicle use and electricity use in buildings (tempered by Tasmania’s extensive hydro system) were the main pollution drivers.

These and other such findings are a good starting point. Mr Bartlett said departments would incorporate the report’s recommendations into emission reduction plans, due at the end of this year – a commendable timetable for physical actions that can’t come soon enough.

But while the report provides some useful answers and guides for the future, it also gives rise to some unsettling questions.

Some data was missing, and the auditors filled some of these gaps by applying patterns observed elsewhere. Some of this data was unobtainable, but there’s a niggling sense that some agencies didn’t take the audit as seriously as they should have.

Questions can also be asked about some of the audit’s calculation formulas, derived from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and adopted by the federal Department of Climate Change. This would be reasonable but for subsequent discrediting of certain Kyoto positions.

It’s impossible from the report to identify specific emissions from Tasmanian government air travel, though the text suggests it was a minor contributor. But Kyoto and DCC formulas don’t account for aviation’s non-carbon dioxide impacts in the upper atmosphere, now estimated to be much higher than previously thought.

Another finding will take a lot more explaining. The audit reports that the government’s emissions in “land use, land-use change and forestry” came solely from prescribed burning in parks and reserves, and that activities by Forestry Tasmania contributed nothing.

This conclusion used a Kyoto formula that equates a mature forest with replacement seedlings on the basis that the seedlings will eventually capture all the carbon previously held by the forest, effectively neutralising any prior pollution from slash-and-burn clearfelling.

We might skim over this if it weren’t for the strong scientific evidence, including figures from Forestry Tasmania’s own research, that puts clearfell burning ahead of all other Tasmanian activities, government or otherwise, in releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

We mustn’t lose sight of the good things about this valuable exercise. Equally, we can ill-afford to hide behind international instruments and official formulas if they conceal problems. If we don’t put everything on the table, who are we kidding?

Other state government climate initiatives

The Tasmanian government’s climate change program extends well beyond the departmental audit, including the following initiatives:

•    The Climate Change (State Action) Act 2008 establishes an emissions target of 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and provides for setting interim and sector-based targets in 2009, as well as establishing the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, to provide independent advice to the Premier and review progress towards targets.

•    A “wedges” analysis of the Tasmanian economy, due to be finished late next year, will identify emissions reduction opportunities across the Tasmanian economy. The Princeton University-devised approach will involve modelling future carbon emission profiles to identify the most effective reduction measures for various sectors of the economy.

•    Climate Futures for Tasmania is a Tasmanian government-supported research project seeking to interpret climate projections at a local scale, so that communities, industries and individuals can use information in their local planning and adaptation actions. The project is developing tools to help assess the impact climate change will have on infrastructure.

•    Climate change impact statements are to be included in all relevant cabinet papers, budget review papers and budget submissions from the start of 2009.

•    Minimum feed-in tariffs, a system in which householders are paid for renewable energy generated at their home and fed into the State electricity grid, are the subject of a discussion paper released for public comment.

•    Regional climate change impacts will be incorporated into planning initiatives for the north-west, north, south and east coast regions, to be completed by mid-2009.

•    Development of a Passenger Transport Strategy, to start early in 2009, will include a review and forecast of passenger travel demand, taking account of carbon trading and land use change.

•    A study of low-income housing energy efficiency by the University of Tasmania, to be completed by the end of this yea, will help shape Housing Tasmania’s energy efficiency training and insulation program next year.

•    A Climate Change Community Grants Program, providing a total of $500,000 to support community climate change initiatives, will begin soon.

•    A partnership agreement on climate change between the Tasmanian Government and the Local Government Association of Tasmania is to be completed by the end of this year.

This entry was posted in bureaucracy, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, Crowley, energy, energy conservation, inquiries and reports, Tasmanian politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.