Will the Jacobs review shake the government into action?

When it passed Tasmania’s parliament in 2008, the Climate Change (State Action) Act earned a measure of respect because it gave the state Australia’s first legislated emissions reduction target, a very modest 60 per cent by 2050.

That respect has faded. The original Act provided for outside advice in the form of the Tasmanian Climate Action Council (TCAC), representing business, science, environmental and community concerns. But the loss of that independent deliberative process when the Hodgman government abolished the council in 2014 rendered the Act ineffectual. 

There was, however, one saving provision that stopped ministers ignoring it altogether. Section 18 says that every four years the Act must be reviewed to check that it is effective and determine new laws to achieve its objectives, and reviewers must consult with “relevant business, scientific, environment and community bodies”.

Measures recommended in the first review in 2012, including a more ambitious emissions target and better integration of climate change in planning and decision-making, were supported by then-minister Cassy O’Connor, but that was ditched when Will Hodgman’s Liberals won office in 2014.

For the 2016 review, Matthew Groom as climate minister contracted Jacobs, a US-based consultancy firm. It recommended a new 2050 target of zero net emissions, making climate action plans a statutory requirement, and mandating that government decisions include assessment of emissions and other climate risks.

The government did set a net-zero target for 2050, but has not given statutory authority to climate action plans and has not mandated climate risk assessment in government decision-making. A striking outcome of that has been government  promotion of forest harvesting despite the state’s heavy reliance on a low harvesting level to maintain net-zero emissions.

For the next review, due in 2020, the government again contracted Jacobs. It received the consultants’ report early in June, and last week released it to the public.

The report would not have been easy reading for the government. It found that while momentum is growing abroad for ambitious climate action, in Tasmania emissions from transport, industrial energy, waste and agriculture have grown by 1.2 per cent since 1990.

It found that changing markets and forest conditions would put in doubt the state’s net-zero emissions target, which relies on sustained carbon take-up by growing forests, and that emissions would need to be cut in other sectors to meet a net-zero 2050 target.

With that in mind, the review recommended that the state should bring its net zero emissions target forward to 2030 and focus on how that target might continue to be met beyond then. This would require “considerable climate action”.

It recommended that to avoid compromising the emissions target, potential climate risk and impact on carbon emissions needed to be scrutinised in formulating policies, strategies and plans for government actions.

The review called for assessment of climate risks for communities, the economy and natural ecosystems, and decarbonisation and resilience plans for communities and sectors. And it repeated the call made in 2016 to give statutory authority to the state’s climate action plan.

This will be hard for premier Peter Gutwein and his new climate change minister Roger Jaensch to swallow. Adopting key recommendations will demand a strong resolve to move decisively on climate change. There’s no evidence that this is forthcoming any time soon.

If the government responds as it did in 2016 it will agree to measures amenable to being reinterpreted or postponed, or ones that can be passed on to cooperative businesses or communities. It might go halfway with the target; 2040 may seem far enough away not to be a problem. 

The government will do all it can to avoid getting stuck with more prescriptive legislation, but this time around it won’t be so easy. Global concern about the climate has moved up several notches since the previous review. Pressure on governments to take it seriously and adopt substantive measures has grown accordingly.

Last month, absenting himself from a parliamentary debate on a climate emergency, Peter Gutwein said the Greens were frightening children by raising it. 

But what really scares people of all ages is authority’s failure to acknowledge the gravity of the climate crisis, evidenced by the continuing absence of legislated muscle to support Tasmania’s climate response. That inaction is unforgivable, but it is also an indication that the government has its own fears around climate change. 

A positive response to the Jacobs recommendations would be a sign that the government accepts responsibility for the enormous task ahead and will now act. Perhaps Jaensch’s weekend appointment as minister will be the switch of focus we need.

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