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Federal budget again fails the environment

Australia's refusal to let go of fossil fuels is leaving the country behind on the world stage. Photo: Wikimedia & Pexels

Opinion by MERRILL WITT

The Morrison government’s lack of interest in making the environment and climate change a priority in this year’s federal budget is at the same time depressingly familiar and difficult to fathom.

Depressingly familiar because according to analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation the proportion of the federal budget spent on the environment and climate change has fallen by nearly a third since the Coalition was elected eight years ago. 

Its research highlights that for every $100 spent in last year’s budget just 37 cents was spent protecting the environment and 16 cents on addressing the climate crisis, down from 50 cents and 25 cents respectively from when the Coalition was first elected in 2013-14.

Difficult to fathom because Australia’s environment is in a shockingly poor state and because most of the world is moving in the opposite direction in response to what is now widely recognised as a climate emergency.

World Heritage sites and ecosystems at near collapse

When Professor Graeme Samuel recently released his final review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), he warned that Australia would lose world-heritage icons like the Great Barrier Reef if fundamental changes weren’t made to how the environment is managed.

Professor Samuel had ample evidence on which to draw his conclusions even before the publication in April of a landmark paper in Global Change Biology that documented how 19 important Australian and Antarctic ecosystems, ranging from the waterways of the Murray-Darling to the Shark Bay seagrass beds in Western Australia, are in a state of near collapse. 

Prepared by 38 scientists from 29 universities and government agencies, the study details potentially irreversible environmental changes, including the loss of species and functions like pollination.

Whilst acute climate change induced “pulses” like heat waves, fires, floods and storms are contributing factors to the declining health of these ecosystems, the paper explains that their impact has been exacerbated by long-term chronic pressures from mining, agriculture, urban expansion, over extraction of fresh water, invasive species and over-fishing,

Lendlease’s proposed redevelopment of Mt Gilead near Campbelltown threatens endangered koalas. Photo: Merrill Witt

The study’s lead author, Dr Begrstrom from the Australian Antarctic Division, believes that the costs of ignoring this unfolding environmental crisis couldn’t be higher. 

“Protecting these iconic ecosystems is not just for the animals and plants that live there”, Dr Begrstrom told the media, “our economic livelihoods, and ultimately our survival, are intimately connected to the natural world.”

Not surprisingly, leading disease ecologist Peter Daszak argues that pandemics like COVID-19 are caused by environmental degradation, telling The New York Times back in 2012 that “any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography.” 

Australia is in fact the source country for one of six new bat-borne human viruses that have been identified in the last 30 years and now include the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Scientists have determined that the emergence of Hendra in 1994, a deadly virus that jumped to humans via bat-infected horses, was caused by the clearing of flying fox forest habitat for pastureland and urban development in south eastern Queensland.

 Australia refuses to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050

To date, Australia has resisted calls to join more than 100 nations that have adopted a target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Three of these countries – China, Japan and South Korea – are Australia’s most important trading partners, and their commitment to a more ambitious timeline could have huge ramifications for Australia’s fossil fuel exports. As the Guardian recently reported, together they buy 75% of Australia’s thermal coal for power generation, 50% for coking coal used in steel production and 87% of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

Australia’s most important strategic partner, the United States, is also moving quickly to address climate change, with the new Biden administration viewing the climate emergency as an historic opportunity to unleash massive job and economic opportunities whilst improving the health of its citizens and the planet.

The US has already pledged to halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and funding for an ambitious green infrastructure bill, currently before Congress, will partly come from eliminating tax credits and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. 

Fossil fuel industry receives billions in subsidies

In Australia, one of the biggest beneficiaries of a complex web of government subsidies is the fossil fuel industry, with the Productivity Commission estimating that it received approximately $12 billion in federal government assistance in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, the 2020-21 federal budget makes no effort to reign in this largesse. In fact, $58.6 of new money is being allocated for infrastructure to support what the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to as the “gas-led recovery.”

Climate strikers gathered in a COVID-safe group at Martin Place. Photo: Allison Hore

Government is relying on technology to bring down carbon emissions

The Morrison government is almost exclusively pinning its hopes on technological innovations to drive down greenhouse emissions, with the federal budget allocating $1.2 billion over ten years to create a co-investment facility that supports the development of regional hydrogen hubs, carbon capture, and use and storage technologies. 

A new “below baseline crediting mechanism” will be supported by a $280 million budget allocation to help big emitters adopt “transformative technologies”, with tradable carbon credits being offered for the first time to incentivise companies to meet below baseline carbon emission targets.

But this quasi carbon trading scheme is no substitute for a carbon tax, which the Morrison government still shows no interest in introducing, possibly because if priced correctly it would make generating electricity from fossil fuels “uncompetitive compared to new solar and wind with storage,” according to University of Queensland University Professor of Economics John Quiggin. 

Government is resisting recommendations to strengthen environmental regulations 

The lack of significant new spending on the environment and climate change would perhaps be less worrying if the Morrison government wasn’t so intent on devolving responsibility to the states for the approval of projects that impact matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act.

 To facilitate the transition to a speedier “single touch” state approval process $29.3 million has been allocated in the federal budget. But whether this measure will improve the health of the environment is in doubt, because to date the Morrison government has refused to commit to the implementation of the new National Environmental Standards developed by the Samuel’s review or give the new Environment Assurance Commissioner robust regulatory powers to enforce compliance with the proposed standards.

Fortunately the new Australian Climate Service will receive $209.7 million to “bring together our best scientists to help us better anticipate, manage and adapt to climate impacts now and for the generations to come,” according to Environment Minister Sussan Ley. 

Anticipating, managing and adapting to the impacts of climate change is likely to become increasingly more important given the small steps Australia is taking to reduce greenhouse emissions and protect the environment.