Going where governments fear to tread

Party politics is making it impossible to get traction on climate policy at higher levels of government, but others are stepping up.

Tasmanian energy policy and sustainability go hand-in-hand. IMAGE Tasmania_From_Space/Sustainable Living Tasmania

Tasmanian energy policy and sustainability go hand-in-hand. IMAGE Tasmania_From_Space/Sustainable Living Tasmania

The modest attendance at a Hobart Town Hall event last week belied the significance of the occasion: the launch of a major new community bulk-buying program for energy-efficient products and services.

Residents in all southern Tasmanian municipalities – Derwent Valley to Glamorgan-Spring Bay, Central Highlands to Huon Valley – are now eligible to join a bulk-buy of heat pumps, insulation, low-wattage lighting, rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient hot water systems.

With bulk buying’s economies of scale combined with the state government’s $10 million Tasmanian Energy Efficiency Loan Scheme (TEELS), announced earlier this year, this is an unprecedented offer to households and businesses to join the battle for a more sustainable future.

Ahead of last week’s launch the authority’s chair, Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey, said it aimed to make emission reduction cheaper and easier. “We wanted to help home-owners reduce their energy use and we knew if enough homes did this there would be a big sustainability benefit,” she said.

Bulk buying was behind an earlier arrangement between Sustainable Living Tasmania (SLT) and Tasmania’s venerable No-Interest Loans Scheme, or NILS, adding bulk-buying advantages to NILS subsidies enabling households to buy and install energy-saving hot water and space heating.

Now the idea has returned bigger and better than ever. Home Energy Bulk Buy is a partnership between SLT and the Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority, representing local government across all of southern Tasmania.

SLT executive officer Todd Houstein is enthusiastic about its prospects given the large range of products and services on offer and the many organisations behind it.

We shouldn’t overstate the impact of such initiatives on fossil-fuel emissions. Most Tasmanian home energy is generated by renewable hydro power, so home energy efficiency has little direct effect on emissions here compared to states where energy comes mainly from coal.

But councils are right to highlight the need to cut emissions. Being energy-conscious is an essential step on the way to becoming more sustainable, and efficient use of energy, no matter how it is generated, strengthens this mindset.

When energy minister Matthew Groom announced the TEELS initiative in May he could have mentioned climate change in these terms, or just the important underlying issue of developing community resilience. Instead he focused solely on enabling Tasmanians to save money.

Both Groom and his leader, Will Hodgman, have reason to be proud of the scheme, and previously declared a firm position that we need to act on climate change. But they keep playing it down because at higher levels of government partisanship has made climate change hard to talk about.

But with party politics largely absent from the local scene in Tasmania it’s possible to set ideology aside and just get on with smaller-scale, practical steps to improve both energy use and emissions.

Some cities have gone for ambitious targets, but Katrina Graham, Hobart’s environment and climate change officer, highlights the city’s incremental approach, steadily ticking off on practical steps like improving buildings’ energy performance and generating energy from landfill.

That said, there’s no substitute for the heavy-lifting capacity of higher levels of government. Building codes are mostly determined at state and national levels. Tasmanian local authorities don’t run major energy infrastructure and can do little about transport, the state’s main carbon polluter.

Federal government cuts to grants for voluntary environmental organisations two decades ago had a devastating impact on groups such as Sustainable Living Tasmania, which suddenly had to put a huge effort into funding its basic running costs.

With further federal and state funding cuts since then, a dedicated supporter base and a lot of hard work by staff and volunteers have kept SLT afloat, enabling it to continue its basic advocacy and information work while also winning support for programs like home energy audits.

These grass-roots organisations exist because of basic needs in local communities. Their work in the public interest would otherwise fall to government, at much greater public cost.

So we have to ask why they have found it so tough, over so many years, to have their contribution recognised and supported by government. The answer is to be found in party politics.

Sustainable Living Tasmania, the Environmental Defender’s Office and some other similar bodies that have suffered funding losses want their community to be conscious of natural values and to make an effort to minimise their environmental impact.

In the case of SLT and its municipal partners in the bulk-buying deal, that plays out in making it easier for people to board the sustainability train by subsidising the cost of home and business improvements that in the long run will enhance the bottom line.

There’s nothing inherently political in this. It’s what any good citizen would want to see happen.

But politics is about taking sides. The Greens set themselves up as the party for the environment, so their political opponents have chosen to align environmental organisations with the Greens – even when there is no connection between the two. The inevitable victim is good public policy.

FOR INFORMATION on the home energy bulk buy scheme, see here. On the Tasmanian Energy Efficiency Loans Scheme, here.

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