Premier’s best chance for climate reform

The current review of the Climate Change (State Action) Act is Peter Gutwein’s best chance to get Tasmania on the road to a carbon-free economy.

Getting involved with the four-yearly review of Tasmania’s ageing climate legislation has its rewards, not least being part of an informed conversation about our collective future.

That said, a 90-minute online public consultation last week reading and listening to a host of ideas that people thought the government should consider felt depressingly familiar. We’ve been here before, again and again and again, with precious little to show for our effort.

It is nearly 13 years since the Climate Change (State Action) Act was passed with much fanfare, sold by Paul Lennon’s government as the only Australian legislation to bind government to an emissions reduction target. By 2050 we were to be 60 per cent below 1990 levels.

That 2008 target now seems ridiculously low. With pledges of net zero emissions by 2050 now all the rage among jurisdictions everywhere, it’s certain that new state legislation will lift our aim to that level, which seems like a big commitment. But it isn’t.

2050 is a popular target date because it’s still far enough away for today’s politicians to be safely superannuated and out of the firing line. They have always avoided nearer targets of, say, five or 10 years, which would have forced them to confront the most neglected source of emissions – and the one most crucial to success – fossil fuels.

The federal Emissions Reduction Fund is a classic government displacement activity, spending public revenue on selected projects, mainly private, mainly land carbon. Last week, Canberra deployed $50 million to develop carbon capture and storage projects, which for decades have absorbed billions of public dollars globally to no lasting effect.

A net zero target has a decisive ring to it, but turns out to be another way of dodging responsibility to address the main cause of today’s full-blown climate emergency – continuing, unabated emissions from burning coal, oil and gas.

The crucial word is “net”. The theory is that we can neutralise fossil fuel emissions by focusing on methods like planting trees, holding on to centuries of stored carbon in old forests and improving agricultural practices through better stock feeds and better-managed soils.

These are good things to do, and have a long-term value. But they don’t begin to address the problem of stopping fossil carbon emissions at their source – starting now. As all governments know, it’s really hard to get rid of coal and gas power generation, oil-burning transport vehicles and the like, but we cannot stop global warming unless we do.

Time is running out. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated in 2018 that the atmosphere can take up no more than 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide if we are to stay below 1.5C of warming. At the present rate of 42 Gt a year, that threshold will be crossed in 2027 – well under a decade. By any reckoning, we are in an emergency.

Being small on a global scale does not mean that our actions are of no consequence. Our island’s gross carbon emissions are high by global standards. They are even higher when calculated per person; if we were a country only six others would beat us, with Australia at the head of the list.

The capacity of any jurisdiction to influence others depends on many things besides its size. Tasmania’s passage of voluntary assisted dying legislation, which has been watched closely around Australia, is a case in point. What we do – or don’t do – does matter.

Most Tasmanian local jurisdictions are now acknowledging the urgency of action to curb climate change with tentative measures around fossil fuel use, renewable energy and land use. But their actions would benefit from a thoroughly committed state government, just as the state would benefit from better federal leadership.

Last year in a public health emergency, a newly-installed premier’s decisive leadership won support from the public for his leadership. Notably, Gutwein’s decisive response was acknowledged by his parliamentary opponents.

The experience of Australia and the world over the past decade has persuaded most Tasmanians that the state of the climate is a high priority. We can assume that in this larger, longer emergency that is climate change, Gutwein can be reasonably sure of solid both in parliament and from the public for a dramatically increased commitment to act.

The government’s climate policy challenges are huge because for so long the can has been kicked down the road. But past failure should not dictate future actions. The current climate Act review is Peter Gutwein’s best, and perhaps last, chance to begin building a genuinely carbon-free economy.

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