Climate-energy policy: time for a reboot

With a climate emergency on our hands, it’s past time the parties got their acts together.

Matthew Groom and Will Hodgman: Business as usual is no longer an option for the Hodgman government. PHOTO ABC

Matthew Groom and Will Hodgman: Business as usual is no longer an option for the Hodgman government. PHOTO ABC

Rebecca White’s rise to Labor leadership opens up the prospect of a much-needed policy makeover for Tasmania. There’s no better place to start than climate change and energy.

When Matthew Groom took charge of energy, transport and environment portfolios three years ago, there was reason to expect that climate issues spreading across more than one of these related policy fields would be managed as a single entity.

But this hasn’t happened. Groom’s 2015 energy strategy failed to address some key considerations, including the vexed issues of unchecked emissions from transport and proper reward for rooftop solar’s contribution to the state grid.

There have been moments of illumination including Groom’s support for pumping water back into hydro storage. He rightly asserts Tasmania’s big advantage over states like South Australia, whose clean-energy options don’t include hydro.

But if he believes so strongly in this, why has his government not taken every opportunity to speak up for that essential support for pumped hydro – greatly enhanced wind and solar generation?

The most spectacular climate-energy misalignment was during last year’s big dry, when with dam storages at record lows our clean hydro energy was supplemented by multiple diesel generators – an irony explored in depth in Michael Meyer’s online documentary Diesel Coffee.

The question to ask about the government’s climate change strategy is… what strategy? A draft appeared in 2015 prior to a scheduled launch last September, but since then all we’ve had is silence.

There’s some indication that Tasmania will get its “final” climate strategy as soon as this month, but again this is rich with irony. In late 2013, just before it lost office, the Labor-Green government released another “final” Tasmanian climate strategy.

That strategy was shelved when the government changed so that Matthew Groom could consider a new one. But that was three long years ago.

Precious lost time triggered a plea last week from Climate Tasmania, a voluntary group of experienced specialists offering independent advice on climate change to Tasmanian government, private and community interests. [Disclosure: I am a member of this group.]

An open letter from Climate Tasmania convener and climate scientist Melanie Fitzpatrick, published in Saturday’s Mercury, called for parties to cooperate on climate policy. The letter, to premier Will Hodgman, then-opposition leader Bryan Green and Greens Leader Cassy O’Connor, was copied to all members of the Tasmanian parliament.

It drew attention to the wide spectrum of national interests groups calling for a united front on energy and climate policy, and to the recent warning from Australia’s financial regulator (APRA) that climate change poses a material risk to the nation’s financial system.

It pointed out that since Paul Lennon’s pioneering 2008 climate legislation, each change of government had seen previous climate strategies and their proposed measures shelved.

“Adversarial political processes” were failing to deal with the landmark issue of climate change, the letter said. It urged leaders to come together “for the sake of our communities, our businesses, our future prosperity, the protection of our natural assets and our progeny”.

Last week the Hodgman government laughed off the challenge presented by Labor’s leadership change, but it knows that if it’s to win a second term it will have to ditch whatever election strategy it had envisaged in favour of a whole new approach.

I have previously argued for competition between parties as the best path to strong emissions and energy measures, but instead we’ve had what seems to be a conspiracy never to mention climate.

Time is our enemy. We don’t have the luxury of abandoning established measures and plans whenever there’s an election. All parties must acknowledge that they must secure an underlying agreement across parliament on the need to act on transport emissions and renewable energy.

Party leaders all say they favour robust climate and energy policies, so what’s to stop them agreeing on sensible baseline positions? With that in place we might begin to see some genuine progress.

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