A Year On From The Bushfires, Have We Actually Achieved Anything On Climate Policy?

"If you didn’t like the pandemic and COVID, you’re going to hate the climate crisis."

Antarctica Climate Change Protest Australia

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One year ago today, thousands of Australians joined a climate change rally to protest the government’s inaction on climate change.

Hazardous smoke shrouded our cities after months of bushfires. Queensland and New South Wales had already declared a state of emergency, with Victoria soon to follow. Somewhere, Scott Morrison was probably packing his boardies for Hawaii.

Our Black Summer destroyed more than 17-million hectares across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the ACT — an amount of land close to the size of Cambodia. Around three-billion animals were impacted, more than 3000 homes were destroyed, and 33 people died. A year on, we’re watching as world-heritage listed Fraser Island burns for its eighth straight week.

Now, the data from this year is in — 2020 included the hottest November on record, meaning that it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than one pandemic-driven year of drastic social change to turn this ship around.

Twelve months ago the focus was on the desperate changes that needed to be made to prevent us falling off one cliff. A year on, we’ve just about clawed our way back up the precipice of another.

But just because a global pandemic managed to pull focus away from the climate emergency doesn’t mean that emergency has gone anywhere. So, a year on from the bushfires, what has Australia actually done to try and make sure they don’t happen again?

Federal Government Continues To Be Obsessed With Fossil Fuels

As we know, our federal government gets off on fossil fuels.

Exhibit A.

To find out more about the progress we’ve made this year Junkee spoke to Greens leader Adam Bandt, who is also the spokesperson for Climate Emergency and Energy. In summary: There’s not much to celebrate, really.

“Unlike other countries, we still don’t have national climate legislation,” Bandt said.

“We’ve just got these crappy targets that the government has said we’ll meet by 2030, which are based on Australia warming by over four-degrees during the lifetime of today’s primary school students. The government’s targets have us on track, even if we meet them, for climate collapse and there is no legislation stopping them from polluting even more.”

So… that’s great.

The federal government is also refusing to commit to a net zero target by 2050 — something that more than 100 countries, as well as every Australian state and territory, have committed to.

Last week, the Senate also defeated a motion from the Greens to declare a climate emergency, which is something that New Zealand did last Wednesday.

What little environmental protections we do have, the government has spent the last few months trying to water down — the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act is key to this. This act is supposed to protect our environment and biodiversity, but in September the government rammed amendments through the lower house that would weaken those protections. They wanted to see approvals for developments handed back to the states and argued this deregulation would help dig us out of our economic black hole caused by the pandemic.

Bandt says that’s bad news because the states have stronger ties to big property developers. If you need an example, simply cast your mind back to October’s corruption inquiry, during which we found out the NSW premier’s secret boyfriend used to facilitate meetings between her and his property developer mates. Nothing shady to see there.

They haven’t gotten the numbers to get it through the Senate, so for now, our environmental laws stay as they are.

The States Are Carrying The Weight

But it’s not all terrible news. If you look past the absolute disappointment of our federal government, a lot of the slack is being picked up by the states.

In fact, the president-designate of the next major UN climate change summit recently shaded our government by explicitly giving a shout out to Australia’s states and territories, thanking them for backing the 2050 target (and pointedly ignoring our federal government, who have refused to).

New South Wales and Victoria have this year taken the lead on climate policy, following their hellish 2019 fire season. The plan from NSW’s Liberal government is actually ambitious enough that our federal government has started to attack them — because it wouldn’t be Australian politics if one party wasn’t in the midst of cannibalising itself over climate change.

Last month NSW passed a bill that Energy Minister Matt Kean hopes will put them on the path to becoming “a clean energy superpower” — he also took a swipe at the government by saying he was on the side of consumers and not “vested interests“.

You may also remember Kean as the minister who was attacked by ScoMo for daring to mention the words ‘climate change’ when discussing the bushfires.

Four of NSW’s five largest coal-fired generators are due to close within 15 years, and rather than flog a dead horse the NSW government’s plan is to transition to renewable energy. They’re planning to attract $32 billion of private investment for new renewable energy zones, which will deliver 12 gigawatts of clean energy and another two gigawatts of storage capacity.

To put it into perspective, that’s roughly the same as our entire country’s existing large-scale renewable capacity.

Meanwhile, Victoria allocated $1.6 billion in their recent budget to accelerate their transition to clean energy, which includes $540 million to create six renewable energy zones for new investments; $108 million for renewable technologies, including Australia’s first offshore wind generator; and $191 million to expand their Solar Homes program.

Last month, Tasmania also announced it is now 100 percent powered by renewable energy, thanks to an almost-completed wind farm in Granville Harbour.

Coal Is Out, Gas Is In

Federally though, it’s a very different story.

While the government hasn’t terminated its love affair with coal (we see you, Matt Canavan) the focus this year has very much pivoted to gas.

ScoMo is very keen on a “gas-led recovery” to dig us out of our economic hole, and in September he claimed there’s “no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia that does not involve the greater use of gas”.

No matter which way the government tries to spin it, opening up new gas basins is very bad news for the environment.

Our federal Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor argues that gas produces lower emissions than coal, but it’s an argument the UN has already shut down.

They say without huge advances in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, expanding gas supplies puts us on track for a two-degree temperature increase.

Once Again, We’re Embarrassing Ourselves On The World Stage

Overseas, the government is keen to put a different foot forward. Take Matthias Cormann, for example, who last month flew across Europe talking up Australia’s climate credentials as part of his campaign to lead the OECD.

Despite his history of blocking climate action, Cormann unveiled a vision statement that said “effective global action on climate change is a must and we must get to zero net emissions as soon as possible”.

Very convincing, from the guy who once said committing to the 2050 net-zero emissions target was “extremist and irresponsible“.

“They’re utterly shameless hypocrites, but they’re increasingly being called our for it because there’s this thing called the internet,” Bandt told Junkee.

“People are able to see what Matthias Cormann did when he had power, and what the Australian government has done. This claim to all of a sudden have a newfound conversion to a green recovery, I don’t think will wash amongst many countries in the world. They’ve seen Australian is action, and they’ve seen what Australia has done over the last six or seven years.”

But Adam is optimistic that Trump getting turfed out in the US will force Australia’s hand.

“Previously Australia — or Scott Morrison — would hide behind Donald Trump at international climate negotiations, now there’s nowhere left to hide,” he said.

Biden has committed to convening a climate world summit in the first few months of his presidency.

How Has COVID Impacted Our Climate?

The bushfires could have been a transformative moment for the climate crisis, if another crisis had not immediately eclipsed it.

But while the pandemic unsurprisingly caused a drop in emissions, it’s a temporary fix that’s not likely to be maintained once things bounce back.

“COVID’s not really an acceptable climate policy. We can’t lock everyone in their house to deal with climate change,” Bandt said.

“I don’t think there are many silver linings to the pandemic — it’s been a pretty terrible experience for everyone … (but) one thing it does show is that when we’ve got a disaster looming we’re able to take steps to stop it. Victoria managed to get the outbreak under control again, and no one enjoyed doing that, but we managed to do it because we listened to the science.

“If you didn’t like the pandemic and COVID, you’re going to hate the climate crisis. The climate crisis will be coronavirus on steroids.”

Feature Image: Jonathan Kemper/ Unsplash