Back in 2008, parliament passed a law establishing the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, people with specialist knowledge able to help the government understand the science and its implications and come up with workable ideas.
The council’s useful work on emissions options more than justified its low cost. Yet newly installed environment minister Matthew Groom persuaded Parliament to abolish it in 2014, saying the government didn’t need it.
It did, actually. Abolishing the TCAC eliminated robust outside advice – the only external lever for influencing government to take climate action that made a difference. Without this, successive governments have put effective climate policy into the too-hard basket.
All leaders must by now be aware that managing climate change is no pushover, that they must understand the risks of not acting, and that drawing on good scientific and other expert advice, they must help people and communities move to places they’ve never been before.
Last year, at the end of a long-overdue statutory review of the Climate Change (State Action) Act, climate change minister Roger Jaensch came up with a bill to amend the Act. But responses to his draft showed up many deficiencies.
The bill was criticised for not conveying the need for urgent action, for failing to provide for parliamentary oversight and expert advice, for ignoring the need for social equity in the bumpy path to a carbon-free economy, and for failing to mandate consideration of climate change in strategic decisions.
There’s a sense of complacency about this bill, coming from a government that likes to boast that net emissions have been below zero in every year since 2015, with per capita emissions, in Jaensch’s words, “now the lowest in the country and some of the lowest in the world.”
To the contrary, Tasmania is a laggard in this space. The leadership claim relies on credits from land use and forestry using imprecise, highly contested data. We have done little of substance to reduce existing emissions, mainly from transport, industry and agriculture.
Forest scientist Jen Sanger, who released a multi-year study on Tasmania’s forest carbon last week, has rightly called for forestry emissions data to be broken down so that everyone can get a better handle on what is really happening.
Sanger finds that native forest logging, far from being a carbon sink, is Tasmania’s largest polluter, with emissions from current logging and decaying residue from past operations adding up to over four million tonnes a year – well over double transport emissions.
Jen Sanger is not the first to contest official data and won’t be the last. Methodologies for measuring land and forest emissions are shifting to take account of new research findings, making the data something of a moving feast.
When forest offsets are removed from state emissions figures, our claim to global leadership seems laughable. Without those offsets our per-capita emissions are 14.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, more than three times the global average of 4.5 tonnes a year. It is irresponsible, and foolish, to continue spouting this claim as if it’s gospel.
Premier Jeremy Rockliff would be right to say his government is only following the national example. Like Tasmania, Canberra has routinely claimed that Australia’s emissions have declined by 20 per cent since 2005. But that claim relies heavily on a discredited offset scheme, mainly focused on land clearing, which was described in March by its former long-serving chair as “a rort”.
The bill to amend Tasmania’s climate legislation was introduced to parliament last November. It has yet to be debated in either chamber and now appears unlikely to get a further airing until August. But the delay could be turned into a blessing if the government has the sense to take advantage of it.
In the wake of last week’s National Cabinet meeting, Rockliff’s eyes should be well and truly open to the dire state of federal and state climate and energy policies. The energy emergency in eastern Australia is a direct result of years of neglect and complacency.
Now, with a new premier, a new federal government and a new national emissions target, the Rockliff government has a chance to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future, including incentives to move transport and industry to electric power and establishing wood harvesting regimes that protect the unrivalled ability of natural forest to store carbon.
The sense of urgency now infusing the national scene has to find its way into our state’s new climate laws. If a wholly revised, bold new climate change Act allows room to move to address the great challenges ahead, it will be Jeremy Rockliff’s crowning achievement.