Climate plan is key to Tasmania’s economic future

Matthew Groom’s “climate action plan” is also an economic blueprint. [8 December 2015 | Peter Boyer]

One of the key lessons emerging from the Paris climate conference is to avoid unbridled optimism or hopeless cynicism. As always, answers and solutions lie in the vast middle ground.

Matthew Groom (left) at the launch of the Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan released by federal environment minister Greg Hunt (centre) and Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz last year. PHOTO AAP/Andrew Drummond

Matthew Groom (left) at last year’s launch of the Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan released by federal environment minister Greg Hunt (centre), with Senator Eric Abetz (right). PHOTO AAP/Andrew Drummond

Another is that to avoid being overwhelmed by the rising impact and cost of climate change, we’re going to need weight of numbers – government at every level, corporations and academies, communities, groups and individuals – all pulling in the right direction.

Until now, Australian state governments have had a free rein on climate policy, their choice depending on party platforms, leaders’ beliefs and the state of play in Canberra. Some have shown interest while others have all but ignored it. But ignoring it isn’t an option any more.

In broad terms, Labor (or in Tasmania’s case, Labor-Green) state governments have emphasised measures to reduce greenhouse emissions, while conservative governments have tended to focus on how we adapt to a changing climate.

Cutting emissions was the focus of Bob Carr’s government in NSW in 2003 in starting the world’s first mandatory carbon price scheme, and Mike Rann’s in 2007 when South Australia was the first state to legislate a target, and for Paul Lennon’s when Tasmania did the same in in 2008.

While not favouring ambitious targets, most conservative state governments have kept established abatement measures, such as when Barry O’Farrell’s government supported the NSW state carbon trading system until it was subsumed in 2012 by the now-defunct federal scheme.

In Tasmania, the Hodgman government said it supported both adaptation and abatement, but early actions raised doubts about its commitment to the latter. The state’s independent, effective Climate Action Council was deemed redundant and axed, saving just $152,000 a year. The Labor-Green government’s informative and practical carbon abatement guide for government, business and individuals disappeared from the government website last year. This was to be expected: incoming governments don’t like past strategies muddying the waters.

But in the government’s favour, it did allow the Climate Change Office, the motivated and cost-effective bureaucratic arm of Labor-Green climate policy, to continue to function.

Environment minister Matthew Groom is due to release his government’s “climate action plan” this month. This will no doubt take account of Paris outcomes, but Groom would also do well to take a good look at South Australia’s 2050 strategy, which came out last week.

Like Tasmania, South Australia has turned to unconventional energy sources, but its remarkable rise as a renewable energy powerhouse happened without hydro power. The state leads the country in wind and solar energy, generating 41 per cent of its electricity from those sources in 2014-15.

South Australia’s plan includes having 50 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and making Adelaide the world’s first carbon-neutral city.

Within a mere five years it plans to make government buildings 30 per cent more energy efficient and, adding to its exceptional recycling laws, to cut municipal landfill by 70 per cent, commercial and industrial waste by 80 per cent, and construction waste by 90 per cent.

A key part of the South Australian strategy is to achieve $10 billion in low-carbon investment by 2025, building on its current “innovation precinct” for sustainable building design and construction at Tonsley Park – the recycled former Mitsubishi car plant.

Hydro power has given Tasmania a head start in renewable energy, but current low dam levels and high imports of coal-fired power are a warning that our hydro past does not guarantee a clean, green future. That’s why we need what the South Australian plan calls “leadership by example”.

In her Mercury Talking Point article yesterday (7 December 2015),  climate scientist Melanie Fitzpatrick described the ecological and ethical dimensions of this leadership. There are also economic imperatives. Rising global focus on low-carbon energy, in business as well as government, is making strong abatement measures an essential component of all long-term planning, everywhere.

Our climate action plan must be conceived and understood as a strategy for economic survival. If cabinet colleagues don’t appreciate this, or if the current draft needs to make it clearer, Groom should take the time he needs to sort things out – even if the draft plan doesn’t come out till next year.

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