Australian have always had a close connection to the environment, because we all live so close to nature and are so proud of our amazing country. From the Great Barrier Reef, to our magnificent rainforests, to our beautiful beaches, to our unique flora and fauna, we have always known we were living somewhere special. Unfortunately, tracing back to the division over an Emissions Trading Scheme (wrongly labelled a Carbon Tax) that led both to the eventual ousting of both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of a rabidly, anti-environment Tony Abbott, the environment and climate change policy have become ideological battlegrounds, with policy not based on political instincts not science.
The focus of this page is to bring you up-to-speed on some of the key issues this 46th Australia Parliament will have to grapple with in relation to the environment and climate change.
Taking action to address climate change
This site is not intended to convince you that climate change is real, but to help you understand how Australia should be responding to address this issue. The science around the existence of climate change is relatively settled. Yes, there are still climate scientists out there that disagree, but many of them are actually funded by industries that produce a lot of the emissions causing global warming (read here, here and here).
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the peak body dealing with climate change globally - it is "extremely likely" that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951 and 2010. A 2013 study of nearly 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science published since 1990 found that just over 4,000 papers expressed an opinion on the cause of recent global warming and of these, 97% of scientists agreed that global warming is happening and is human-caused.
The biggest contributor to climate change is greenhouse gas emissions. As such, reducing such emissions has been identified as a key policy response. In Australia, climate change is of grave importance because climate change will hit Australia harder than the rest of the world (read also here and here). We must also take action because Australia is a major contributor to global greenhouse emissions. Australia is responsible for 1.4% of global emissions, which sounds small but actually makes us the 13th highest overall pollution contributor in the world and the highest contributor per head in the OECD.
Unfortunately, climate change policy has become a victim of political ideology, rather than being based on scientific evidence. The Liberal National Party have become strident climate deniers, while begrudgingly taking small steps to meet the globally-enshrined targets enshrined in the 2016 “Paris Agreement on Climate Change” (agreed under an LNP Government!). In line with the Paris Agreement, we agreed that by 2030, Australia’s emissions would be 26-28% below the levels we emitted in 2005 (referred to as our “national emissions reduction target”). We chose this target despite the fact that the Government’s own Climate Change Authority recommended in 2015 that a 45-65% emissions reduction target for 2030 (below 2005 levels) based on scientific evidence.
The Morrison Government continues to endorse a low national emissions reduction target but claims that Australia will still meet its global obligations. However, analysts have indicated that the data makes clear that Australia is not on track to meet the Paris targets (see here and here and here).
Alas at this point, there are no simple policy answers to how best Australia should tackle climate change. Currently, the LNP continues to pour billions into the Climate Solutions Fund, but the Fund has been criticised as being ineffective and wasteful (see also here and here).
It appears relatively clear that there is no one response that will address climate change in its entirety, but rather action needs to be taken on a number of fronts. For example, we need to reduce our reliance on coal, because coal extraction and coal electricity generation produce huge emissions. We also need to invest more in renewable energy, as renewables are clearly the energy source of the future. Renewables are now the cheapest energy option, even without subsidies. Australia has a huge advantage already as our geography supports wind and solar energy sources. We also need a better transport, including investments in transport solutions to climate change, as well as electric/hybrid car technology
Although the Federal Government has been reluctant to support renewables, the Australian States and territories have been very active in supporting the development of renewable technologies. We need to push for action at all levels of Government, Federal, State and local, as each level has a critical contribution to make.
Managing the Murray-Darling Basin
So, I must confess that water rights are NOT my area of expertise, but I have tried to digest a range of sources, so I can simplify the issue for readers. The Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) covers one-seventh of the Australian continent, accounts for one-third of its agricultural production and is home to two million people. It includes 77,000km of rivers and more than 25,000 wetlands.
The MDB covers four states, Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia, plus the ACT. Because the rivers flow across multiple jurisdictions, some form of multi-state oversight mechanism was necessary to ensure that one state’s management of its part of the river/s didn’t improperly affect any other state’s access to or fair use of the river/s. In November 2012, the Gillard Government agreed the historic Murray Darling Basin Plan with the four states and the ACT about how to use the water in the MDB. The MDBP was (and still is) highly controversial; environmentalists argue that it allowed too much water to be taken from the rivers and used by pastoralists; pastoralists were concerned that not enough water was available to irrigation-dependent communities and agricultural production.
By 2019, pretty much everyone now agrees we are managing the MDB poorly. Firstly, it does seem fairly well agreed that management of the waterways has allowed heavily water dependent industries – most notably cotton farmers – to extract too much water from the MDB, to the detriment of small-hold farms and the environment. Arguably this also led to the horrifying Darling River fish kills of 2019 which saw millions of fish wash up dead on the banks of the Darling River on three separate occasions.
Secondly, problems of land and water management are also being exacerbated by alleged corruption and dodgy dealings. In 2017, ABC's Four Corners revealed allegations that upstream irrigators in NSW were taking billions of litres of water designated for the environment. In 2019, allegations were also made about the then-Environment Minister, Angus Taylor, and former Water Minster Barnaby Joyce, doing dodgy deals to buy back water from certain farms, even though no water was actually accessible.
In an attempt to get a handle on the issues, in January 2018 the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission was set up. The SA MDB Royal Commission Report was handed down in January 2019. It found gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions related to the MDB Plan, but the Federal Government rejected its recommendations. Alas, each Government has reverted back to defending its own position, but the issue is so complex that it is hard to design a proper response.
In July 2019, there was a new call for a Federal Royal Commission into the MDB. OAKS supports this proposal, as a way of injecting an independent perspective into this highly politicised and highly complicated policy area. We need to design an evidence-based policy approach which balances basic environmental benchmarks with the needs of ordinary farmers (as opposed to the big businesses that have illegally diverted water and/or profiteered from poorly managed water buy-back schemes).
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef
Page under development
Additional resources / reading
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) website, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.
Adam Morton (2019) "The climate change election: where do the parties stand on the environment?", The Guardian, 12 May;
Australian Conservation Foundation (2019) Climate Change Scorecard: Ranking Australian political parties, May;
CSIRO (2018) State of the Climate: 2018 Report;
Jonathan Watts & Adam Vaughn (2018) "We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN", The Guardian, 9 Oc(2019) tober;
Jonathan Watts & Adam Vaughn (2018) "Overwhelmed by climate change? Here's what you can do", The Guardian, 9 October;
"The single biggest threat to our planet is the destruction of habitat and
along the way loss of precious wildlife. We need to reach a balance where
people, habitat, and wildlife can co-exist – if we don’t everyone loses … one day.”
— Steve Irwin, Australian wildlife explorer