tanya plibersek interview

Tanya Plibersek On Slowing Climate Change: It’s Complicated

Federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, tells us what she thinks about climate strikes, the Government’s plans to reach net zero emissions, and fast fashion. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 31/5/2024

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At the end of last month, we asked how you were feeling about Australian politics right now. The responses were grim: 89 percent of you didn’t feel inspired by politics; 83 percent had no confidence that the Labor Government would address your issues; 93 percent felt unrepresented. That didn’t sound good, so we decided to take your concerns to the seat of power. That’s right, Junkee went down to Parliament House. During Budget Week, no less. We spoke to Senators and Members of Parliament from the Labor Government, The Australian Greens, and the Independents about the stuff you told us you care about. (We reached out to Liberals too, but no one wanted to talk. Honestly, we tried.) 

Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Environment and Water and Federal Member for Sydney, is the longest-serving female in the House of Representatives. Since becoming the Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya’s office has been plagued by accusations of putting the gas industry above the environment and has been the target of the recent School Strike 4 Climate protests. She’s also come under fire for rejecting a heritage application in Lee Point in Darwin. Here’s our chat.

Ky Stewart, Junkee: The Future Gas Strategy appears to be the [Government’s] way forward. We spoke to Chris Bowen yesterday and he was very keen on it. However, some say the expansion of gas projects will contribute to the rise in global warming, climate change, and habitat loss across the country. To a lot of people — especially those in our audience — the goals of the strategy seem to contradict your advocacy for strong environmental protections. Can you talk about what goes into these gas project approvals?

So I think the first and most important thing to say is we’ve approved 47 new renewable energy projects, which is enough to power three million homes. That’s because we need to get to net zero in Australia. That’s why we’ve got a target of 82 percent renewable energy in our energy grid. It’s why we are investing more than $22 billion to help make Australia a renewable energy superpower in this most recent Budget. Every project has to fit within that trajectory to net zero. So every project is assessed for its emissions and all of them have to help us get to that target of net zero emissions in Australia. 

I think it’s probably worth pointing out that I’ve approved 47 renewable energy projects and one gas one, so that gives you sort of some scale of the difference between where investment is heading in Australia.

What do you make of the recent School Strike 4 Climate that marched towards your office in Sydney?

I love that they care. I think it’s really important that young people stand up for the environment and get involved in politics. I don’t always agree with the characterisation of what the Government’s doing. We’ve got a target to get to 82 percent renewable energy. That means there’s still 18 percent of our energy grid that’s going to have to be provided in some other way. We’ve got 24 coal fired power stations that will close over the coming years. If we could get green hydrogen or renewables to replace all of that energy tomorrow, that would be lovely, but that’s not technically feasible. So we’re working on a transition. That’s why we’ve got a 2030 target of 43 percent emissions reduction. That’s why we’ve got a 2050 target of net zero and we have to shape all of these forces in our economy to help us get there.

I think sometimes people don’t realise what an incredibly ambitious target 82 percent renewable energy is. We are building solar farms and wind farms and transmission lines at an incredible rate in this country. It’s happening so quickly by global standards, but it can’t happen overnight. There’s no off switch that changes the economy in one go, that changes our energy needs in one go. We have to have the policies in place to do that as quickly as we reasonably can while still providing cheaper energy for Australian homes and businesses. We’re in a cost of living crisis. People are struggling to pay the bills. We can’t say that none of that matters.

What a lot of students felt angry about was that there wasn’t much of a response from you to those strikes. I feel like had you said what you just said to me then, it might’ve eased some of their minds. It is difficult, I suppose, when you are in that mindset and you’re young and you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on — but was there any particular reason why you didn’t respond to those students or—

Well, which students are you talking about?

The School Strike 4 Climate last year… we actually went down—

But I say this stuff all the time. I’m constantly in the media. I meet with students in my own electorate all the time, so I don’t really know what you mean by ‘didn’t say this to students’. I feel like I say this pretty much every day, same message every day.

I suppose it was just that the students outside your office were hoping to speak to you or someone from the team. I think they were a bit miffed that there wasn’t much of a response.

Well, look, I’m not always in my electorate office. I’m a Federal Minister. I travel around the country and I can’t be there just at the drop of a hat because they’re striking.

Switching gears… the Great Barrier Reef is very important to Australia, but also your portfolio. How are you planning to better protect the Great Barrier Reef from severe coral bleaching, which covers almost the same area as the Black Summer fires?

Yeah, the reef’s in a really bad way at the moment. There’s bleaching across quite a lot of it. I went out from Yeppoon a couple of weeks ago to have a look at some of the coral bleaching in that area and it is devastating to see. It does show why it’s so important that Australia does its share to get the world to net zero. It’s why it’s important that we continue to invest in renewable energy and reduce our carbon emissions. It’s also important that we take action on the ground along the coast of the reef and in the waters. 

That’s why we’ve got a $1.2 billion package that’s doing things like improving water quality running off from the land. We know that high dissolved nitrogen, for example, is really bad for the reef. We’re working with the farmers to reduce pollutants going onto the reef. It’s why I rejected Clive Palmer’s coal mine that was just within kilometres of the reef that could have released sediment or pollution onto the reef. It’s why we’ve doubled funding for the Australian Institute of Marine Science that’s doing all the work on reef adaptation. It’s why we’ve substantially increased funding for Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers who are doing incredible work. For example: dealing with crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, taking marine plastics out of the reef waters. It’s why we’re working with the Queensland Government to reduce commercial fishing in the area because we know that bycatch is a real problem for some species, in particular turtles and others, but particularly turtles. 

So there’s $1.2 billion of work going into measures to protect the Reef. But it’s quite right that both Australia and the world have to do the hard work to get to net zero because it’s not just the Great Barrier Reef. It’s every single reef, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere that is under pressure from climate change. It’s also cold water habitats. We see the real impact in waters around Tasmania on kelp forests, for example. Our oceans are probably the frontline of climate change and without that transition to net zero, they’ll continue to be in trouble.

You mentioned the Indigenous Rangers. Obviously the environment is incredibly important to a lot of us First Nations Peoples. How do you manage the balance between environmental projects and the interests of First Nations communities?

Oh, that’s such a terrific question because one of the things that we have really needed to improve — in environmental approvals, cultural heritage protections, and water policy — is properly working with First Nations communities to ensure free, prior, and informed consent and to really better reflect 65,000 years of management of our land and waters in Australia. So, for example, where we’ve put about a quarter of a billion dollars into expanding Indigenous protected areas, we’re doubling the number of Indigenous Rangers. That’s about a $1.3 billion investment in paying people to care for their Country. 

We are working, in our environmental law reform and our cultural heritage law reform, very closely with First Nations representatives to make sure our environment and our cultural heritage protection laws better reflect the knowledge and interests of First Nations Australians. I’ll give you one example, a practical example, in the Restoring Our Rivers Bill that we did at the end of last year to get the Murray-Darling Basin plan back on track. We have set aside a hundred million dollars for First Nations water entitlements purchases. We set up the vehicle that will hold and control that water, whether it’s used for economic purposes or cultural purposes. That’ll be up to First Nations communities. It’s an incredible step forward and a real acknowledgement that we’ve taken steps on acknowledging traditional owners’ connection with land. We’re behind the eight ball when it comes to water.

Oh, did you want to ask the fast fashion question as well while you’re here? I just think that’s probably particularly of interest to you all.

Yeah, sure. So you announced that the fast fashion industry is on notice to do better when it comes to production and waste. What concerns you most about that?

Well, what concerns me most is that the fashion industry at the moment is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. More than international shipping and flights put together. We have to get that down. This is not an argument against being able to buy a cheap item of clothing. It is an argument against a system we’ve got at the moment, which is super cheap items of clothing being pushed out, worn once or twice and ending up in landfill. We send about 224,000 tonnes of fashion to landfill in Australia every year. And every T-shirt that you buy or wear is six kilograms of embedded carbon and thousands of litres of water to produce. So we need to use less virgin material in fashion in the first place. People need to wear and dispose of it thoughtfully. The really terrible example is your exercise gear takes about 500 years to break down in landfill and all of that time is leaching chemicals into the environment. So I’ve put the fashion industry on notice. I’ve said to them, unless they get better at product stewardship — that means designing things more carefully in the first place and reducing this reliance on a market that is “use once, chuck away” — I’m going to regulate.

How do you think Australia can become a leader in the slow, sustainable fashion effort?

Well, I think the first steps should be up to the fashion industry and they need to improve their design and their product stewardship. I spoke to one the other day who said that they’re now no longer using any new polyester in their clothes. It’s all recycled. That’s terrific. It means that the item itself has less impact on the environment, but it also creates a market for recycling polyester. We are speaking to fashion designers who only use remnant fabrics. We are speaking to fashion designers who are using new fabrics that are made from recycled waste materials, cotton and wool. 

We also need to get better at collecting and sorting. At the moment, charities spend about $18 million a year disposing of stuff that people are “wishcycling”, they’re dumping it at the Vinnies or whatever hoping that it’ll be recycled when it’s just not suitable to be worn again. There are a couple of companies that are setting up big mechanical recycling plants that will take the sort of fabrics that would otherwise end up in landfill and recycle them to give them another life. We need to attack it on every front. And also the best thing that your audience can do is buy secondhand and swap and wear things to death whenever possible, make sure they don’t end up in landfill.

Yeah, our audience already love recycling, thrifting and everything like that. 

Yeah, well it’s good. It’s a really fun and creative way to engage with fashion as well.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. The full version is here:

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

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