Tasmania’s rocky road to net-zero emissions

How is the battle against climate change going? The best measure is the amount of carbon dioxide in the air around us, and the Bureau of Meteorology’s baseline air pollution station in Tasmania’s far north-west delivers all the data we need.

Since air sampling began at Kennaook-Cape Grim in 1975, the average annual rise in CO2 concentrations has been 1.9 parts per million. Since 2000 this figure stands at 2.2 ppm a year, and since 2015 it’s been 2.5 ppm a year. So how is the battle going? Not well.

In Tasmania there are flashes of light in the gloom. Local government here has often been ahead of its higher-level counterparts, and this month’s progress report on energy and waste emissions for the 12 jurisdictions forming the Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority was one of these brighter moments.

The Authority’s “road map to zero emissions in Southern Tasmania” spelled out the emission reduction actions required by communities across those councils, representing half of Tasmania’s population, to get to net zero by 2050. 

The analysis found the region has been emitting 2.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas a year, with transport (37 per cent) and industry (31 per cent) the biggest sources. Councils are using the community footprints to raise awareness of the technologies needed to make the zero-emission transition. 

STCA chair and Hobart’s deputy lord mayor, Helen Burnet, said that with electric vehicle takeup at just 296 out of 250,000 registered vehicles in the region, the Authority was promoting the EV market and developing charger infrastructure while installing LED streetlights and rooftop solar on public buildings and carparks.

Meanwhile, in a welcome development Tasmania’s first full climate change risk assessment is underway, courtesy of consultants Deloitte Risk Advisory, now analysing issues raised in recent workshops in Hobart, Launceston and Burnie. 

Based on accepted international guidelines, Deloitte’s introductory text for workshop participants listed four “value domains” (natural, social, economic and built) as a frame for assessing Tasmania’s climate-related risks and opportunities.

For each of these it listed three different types of complex risks – compound, cascading and aggregate. While it identifies opportunities from the big changes ahead, Deloitte makes no attempt to sugar-coat the difficulties. Each category involves multiple events leading to major short or long term stresses and damage.

Deloitte assumes long-term average warming exceeding 1.5C above pre-industrial levels in around 20 years. But the signs since June are that this year, 2023, is likely to be the first to top that “safe” limit. If repeated once or twice within, say, the next five years, that 20-year window will start to shrink.

This scenario has all sorts of implications for the Tasmanian government’s climate plans – if such a word is applicable when risks are still being assessed. For instance, if the current warming in the Southern Ocean were to lead to a higher rate of Antarctic ice sheet flow and discharge, a waterfront stadium might not look like a great idea.

Aside from physical changes, economic and social challenges in coming years will test both government and society as never before. As councils are saying, the main concern is transport, the biggest source of Tasmanian carbon emissions.

For the past few years the advisory group Climate Tasmania has put a lot of energy into investigating and informing about the challenges of shifting from petrol or diesel transportation to electric vehicles (EVs), a transition expected to unfold over the next few years.

What has come out of that work is a conviction among members of this group, which includes me, that in the absence of government counter-measures the shift to EVs will greatly worsen an already large wealth gap. 

When that happens, Tasmanians who cannot afford EVs – even second-hand ones if available – or the solar panels needed to maximise their value will lose out badly. That disadvantage is exacerbated by our island’s sub-standard public and active transport infrastructure.

This is only the start of the government’s problems around EV transition. For instance, there are multiple issues around what to do about contaminated former service stations and fuel depots when distributors go bust and oil companies are otherwise occupied fighting climate litigation. To be a useful contributor to a very uncertain future, the Deloitte analysis will need to take such scenarios on board.

Then there’s offsetting, providing governments, corporations (including airlines) and the rest of us with false cover – plausible deniability – for claiming “net zero” emissions. Cape Grim air samples don’t lie. We need to stop kidding ourselves that growing trees can save us from our fossil fuel excesses. But that’s a whole other story.

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