David Bartlett’s brave new world

Climate change action remains elusive despite some positive signs in Premier’s 2009 canvas. [17 March 2009 | Peter Boyer]

The annual “State of the State” address is the Tasmanian Premier’s big picture opportunity: a large canvas for some broad brushstrokes that, hopefully, produce a coherent vision of the year ahead on this island. This year’s event was the first opportunity for David Bartlett to strut his stuff.

I looked at his address from the perspective of a sustainable Tasmania – a noble idea which like many such aspirations has tended to be cheapened by politicians who use it as a convenient way of demonstrating commitment to action on climate and the environment without all the complex policies and actions that this necessarily entails.

The result is mixed. I’d like to be more enthusiastic, because there’s much to like in the open, direct manner of our youthful Premier, but it’s hard to find any political leader who really understands the magnitude of the changes ahead and the major shifts in thinking needed to deal with them.

At least the Premier acknowledged that climate remains important by dedicating a section to this massive subject, but it was near the end of the speech and was a fraction of the length of the big opening section on – you guessed it – the financial crisis.

A climate change community grants program, a partnership with local government to audit councils’ carbon emissions, and a trial of bus-only lanes on key commuter routes are all worthy intentions with potential – but still only potential – to cut carbon emissions.

The Premier released some plans for new cycleways, more flexible, lower-emission bus services, and a fund allowing communities to set up their own public transport services – all brought together under the umbrella of “low emissions intelligent transport”. I’ll revisit these interesting ideas in a future column.

Mr Bartlett’s focus on transport reflects official statistics showing this to be Tasmania’s major carbon pollution source, as per the guidelines of the Kyoto Protocol. But Kyoto failed to recognise the impact of agriculture and forestry, which evidence suggests are our biggest polluters. The Premier is doing no-one any favours by continuing to ignore this.

David Bartlett did give some attention to agriculture, but it came in the form of irrigation schemes aiming to make Tasmania “a foodbowl for Australia” by transforming “dry plains of slowly degrading soils… into acre after acre of Australia’s most innovative and productive farm lands”.

This will be music to the ears of many Tasmanians, aware of recent record low rainfalls in this island with a reputation for dripping rainforest and lush pastures. The proposals are the work of the year-old Tasmanian Irrigation Development Board, set up by Paul Lennon to provide “the high level drive and governance needed to deliver a major suite of water infrastructure projects”.

Farmers in the state’s parched places will welcome the promise of flowing water, but the board, strongly focused on engineering outcomes, seems to have ignored expert warnings that Tasmania’s water supply – especially in its eastern half – is not an eternal spring but a seriously limited and currently depleted resource.

Water management schemes both here and in mainland river systems have taught us over the decades that over-estimating the quantity of water available leads to over-allocating to thirsty farms. We have also found that removing water from one place to another carries costs, including environmental degradation at the source but also potential degradation where the irrigation occurs.

There are some welcome signs that Mr Bartlett is aware that these times demand some paradigm shifts. But he still has much to learn about the many blind alleys, false hopes and hidden costs encountered in the difficult journey to sustainability.

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