Groom embraces the climate challenge

Frustrations remain, but at least the Tasmanian government has acknowledged the seriousness of the climate threat. [Peter Boyer]

The new Tasmanian climate plan, with its predecessor

The new Tasmanian climate plan, with its predecessor

At long last the Hodgman government entered the climate debate last week when it released its draft “action plan” for 2016 to 2021, Embracing the climate challenge.

“Tasmania is already a genuine global leader in the response to climate change” says environment minister Matthew Groom in his foreword to the plan, which reports official data showing 2013 Tasmanian emissions 90 per cent below 1990 levels. That bears more scrutiny.

The draft plan rightly points out that “carbon sequestered in Tasmania’s abundant forests offsets emissions in other parts of our economy”. It attributes the big drop in emissions to “changes in our forestry management practices”, but doesn’t reveal what these changes were.

Climate scientist John Hunter (Mercury, September 1) has found that Tasmania’s lower emissions are due almost entirely to declining logging activity. He calculated that every cubic metre of wood harvested for paper generates three tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Our emissions didn’t drop because we managed to burn less fossil fuel, but because declining demand forced us to harvest less forest. Far from a strategic success, it was pure chance.

It sets up a problem for the government. If we’re to continue lowering carbon emissions in this way, resources minister Paul Harriss is going to have to curtail clear-fell logging and residue burning, and perhaps ban those practices altogether. Has anyone told him that?

Greens leader Cassy O’Connor introduced Tasmania’s first fully-fledged strategy, Climate Smart Tasmania, when climate change minister in 2013 – a primer for a government feeling its way along this difficult path. She pronounced the new plan a “dud”.

I can appreciate her state of mind – Groom opposed her own well-formulated plan and rejected it when coming to government – but her words don’t do justice to his own effort.

Liberals under Tony Abbott knew that publicly advocating strong climate action would hinder their careers. Although Groom and premier Will Hodgman were in a separate jurisdiction and could have spoken up, they didn’t. I’m sure they felt constrained by the party’s right wing.

But we now have a new prime minister and a climate scene that’s evolving rapidly – physically, politically and economically – and have no time to dwell on past intrigues. We need to put partisan politics aside in the interest of getting effective measures in place.

I’ve been frustrated at the Hodgman government’s apparent complacency. Now, however, I find myself welcoming the draft plan, which seeks to open up public discussion ahead of the mandatory review of the state’s climate legislation next year.

It aims for stronger emissions goals, with multiple targets for different economic sectors, while taking advantage of our large scientific community and our strong renewable energy profile, offering opportunities for rapid take-up of new technology such as electric cars.

Groom told me on the day the plan was released that he wanted to “take this to another level”. Climate change, he said, is “a very serious issue and we need to do more to respond to it”.

“Many people want to have a go at Liberal governments over climate action but I want to break that mould. We have a good story to tell, and I want to leverage off the momentum of Paris to get strong targets and measures to set us up for the future.”

Welcome words, but that’s all they are without strategic measures, applied rigorously and as soon as possible. Most of the plan is concerned with adapting to future change, but the focus of the Paris meeting was mitigation, to avoid reaching the point where adaptation is a desperate last measure.

The Hodgman government should have moved more swiftly to build on the work of its predecessors, rather than spend what will be more than two years starting again. I know that’s politics, but we do not need this stop-start situation every time a new party comes to office.

For all that, I commend Matthew Groom, Will Hodgman and the rest of Tasmania’s Liberal cabinet for having enough nous to get moving again, when it could have put the climate issue aside. For what it’s worth, here’s my end-of-year advice to them:

DON’T use a forestry decline to disguise Tasmania’s high transport emissions, which will take a lot of effort to turn around. And synchronise your climate and forestry policies.

DO have faith in Tasmanians to understand that strong climate action is hard, and to reward bold thinking. Get all of parliament involved – a climate war cabinet, maybe. Move quickly and go well.

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