The Climate Change Act Review, conducted for the Victorian government by respected Treasury official Dr Lynne Williams, has predictably recommended the repeal of Victoria's target to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent, but also recommended many other parts of the Act should be left unchanged.
Despite their past acceptance of the 20 per cent carbon reduction target, the Baillieu Government has gone further than the review in several areas for essentially political and presentational reasons. It is effectively endorsing the federal carbon price arrangements by arguing they are all that is needed to address the climate change problem and separate state action is not required.
This turns a blind eye to the many major areas of activity that fall under state jurisdiction – including forestry, mining, transport and planning, local government and the major state government activities in health, education and other portfolios.
The $104 million set aside in the Climate Communities fund for climate action in areas of state responsibility has been scrapped and redirected to waste management companies through the unsubtle device of renaming the fund and changing the funding criteria.
The review is actually quite sanguine about the impact of the carbon price, reporting that it is "expected to have a relatively modest impact on gross domestic product, but some sectors of the economy will face adjustment pressures."
The biggest energy and economic challenge is how to phase out the ageing and inefficient brown coal power stations like Hazelwood. The federal government is still tendering for a planned phase out package but Victoria has washed its hands of the issue, not mentioning it at all in its response – despite the review highlighting that the closure of Hazelwood by 2020 is inevitable.
Parts of the Act that survive the axe include: its "guiding principles", the carbon sequestration provisions, the obligations on decision makers to consider climate impacts and the requirements to report on the science of climate change and the actions being taken to adapt to its impact. All have sensibly been saved by the review.
Not so fortunate is the requirement to report on progress in reducing emissions or the power of the EPA to set emissions caps for new power stations (although the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse emissions as waste is to be retained and clarified).
The move to scrap reporting progress on emissions reduction has little to do with abolishing the 20 per cent target. The motive is to get out of the spotlight and shift the issue to Canberra.
However the Victorian government is effectively endorsing the national carbon price and what it calls the "bipartisan 5 per cent national target", perhaps without understanding what it is signing up for.
The national target actually has three parts to it. Australia has committed at the United Nations that it will reduce its emissions:
- Unconditionally by 5 per cent compared with 2000 levels by 2020;
- By 25 per cent by 2020 if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal capable of stabilising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million or lower;
- By up to 15 per cent by 2020 if there is a weaker global agreement under which advanced economies take on commitments comparable to Australia's.
At the recent UN treaty discussions in Durban the major nations committed to arriving at a fixed set of commitments by 2015. Depending on this outcome, Australia could end up adopting a target as high as 25 per cent – more than the Victorian target that is to be scrapped.
In that event Victoria will be left scrambling to catch up because the current emissions reduction programs are to be scrapped as a result of this week's decision.
A telltale sign of the Coalition's underlying climate scepticism is the government refusal to accept the review's recommendation that the Preamble and Purpose of the Act should remain. They are "considering the need" for the Preamble and will doctor the Purpose clause.
The reason is simple. The Preamble states that Parliament recognises "the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change" and calls for urgent action. It records for posterity a broken promise and that makes the Coalition very uncomfortable.
On the same day, the progress report required by the Climate Change Act was quietly slipped onto a government website. It records some progress in that growth in emissions since 2000 has been held to just 1 per cent. However, the rest of the document has some grim warnings for Victoria reporting the latest estimates for increased temperatures, sea level rises, number of days above 35 degrees, reduced snow cover, increased drought and the frequency of extreme weather events.
The government is still counting the cost of the latest round of flooding and storm damage, the impact of unseasonal weather on farm production, the difficulty of meeting burn off targets before the coming summer and anger over coastal planning disputes.
With a tough budget approaching, ministers might like to contemplate that you can get rid of a climate target but you can't easily get rid of the problem of climate change.
Andrew Herington is a former Labor Ministerial Adviser who was involved in the development of the Climate Change Act, and is now a Melbourne freelance writer.