The Premier’s credibility gap on climate

Peter Gutwein has been refreshingly honest with Tasmanians about the pandemic. It’s a pity he hasn’t treated climate change the same way.

A month or so before the last election, calling for public submissions for a climate plan and a new climate act, premier Peter Gutwein put his credentials on the line.

“I recognise climate change is an important issue,” he said in an introduction to an attractively designed “opportunities paper” seeking stronger climate legislation and a “robust and practical action plan”. 

This was his take on his government’s climate record: “In 2015, we were the first Australian jurisdiction to achieve net zero emissions and we have achieved this commitment four years in a row”, adding that Tasmania “continues to lead Australia’s transition to a low emissions economy [including] a commitment to generate 200 per cent of our energy needs from renewable energy by 2040 and fast-tracking a renewable hydrogen industry”.

This calls for some unpacking, starting with “green” hydrogen produced by renewable hydro. While it sounds good, some big technical questions remain and valuable time will pass before we can be confident it will be viable. Commitments do not equal deeds. 

As for past success, the government bases its claims on its 2017 climate plan, which lists a staged introduction of electric vehicles in the government fleet along with EV charging stations, and energy efficiency support for businesses, homes and aged care facilities. All are worthy programs, but they are not significant budget commitments.

The premier rightly says the 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act needs strengthening. It’s a shame he didn’t think that back in 2014 when the government he was part of weakened the Act by abolishing the state’s climate advisory council, arguing that at $150,000 a year it was too expensive. That repeal bill has been the Liberals’ only climate legislation. 

Gutwein’s claim that Tasmania has achieved net zero status since 2015 implies that the state has actually made significant inroads into its emissions. Considering what that claim is based on, it’s hard to imagine how he can do this while keeping a straight face.

Official government data on emissions sources – transport and stationary energy, industrial processes, waste and agriculture – show no downward trend as the premier suggests, just small rises and falls from year to year. Recent improvements in times of growing population may be partly due to government policies – a small plus for the premier.

But one sector has a dramatically different emissions profile. A rapid drop in native forest harvesting from about 2005 saw the sector move from being the state’s main emitter of carbon to the point where Tasmania’s native forests since 2015 have taken up more carbon than we emit from all our human activities. 

So the decline of our forest industry is the sole reason the government can claim a net zero emissions profile for Tasmania. And irony of ironies, while trumpeting that achievement the same government has been doing all it can to revive native forest logging.

It might be possible to forgive the premier his sleight of hand if this anomaly had never been raised. But I’ve written about it in these pages before, as has climate scientist John Hunter, and I know of two written submissions about it to government inquiries or directly to MPs.

As far as I can ascertain the premier has never acknowledged the existence of this argument, but he cannot be unaware of it. Yet he and ministers in governments led by both him and Will Hodgman have repeated the net-zero, global leadership claim year on year, as if nothing more needs to be said. To me, that’s deliberate deception.

To believe the government, having already reached the magic net-zero mark half a decade ago we can expect to cruise to 2050. But Peter Gutwein should be warning Tasmanians that far from cruising, they must get ready for paradigm shifts that climate change is already forcing on the world, from which this island will not be immune.

Wildfires and personal transport are two of these shifts highly relevant to Tasmania. The City of Hobart’s bushfire strategy is one response to the growing risk that our most treasured possessions, our homes, may become uninsurable if we do nothing, and the growing global pressure to electrify transport will have an economic impact on all Tasmanians. 

Peter Gutwein has done well to protect us from the virus. But protecting households’ economic viability in the transition to a post-carbon world calls for long-term, broad-scale public planning, starting now. As we have learned from the pandemic, the first step on that road is to cut the spin.

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