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When Chief Minister Andrew Barr delivered Tuesday’s ACT Budget, he seemed upbeat about what the ACT Government was delivering for the Territory – jobs, economic growth, and expansive planning to ensure our city meets the needs of an increasing population.

However, the Budget looks too much like business as usual rather than responding to a climate emergency.

On 16 May 2019, just days before the Federal election, the ACT Legislative Assembly passed a motion to acknowledge the climate emergency, which “requires urgent actions across all levels of Government”.

Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, Shane Rattenbury, said “From now on, every time the government makes a decision we will ask ourselves: what does this decision mean for climate change, for emissions, and for the climate crisis we need to avert? If it is not consistent with reducing emissions, then we need to think again.”

This is in addition to the recent United Nations report on Biodiversity, which shows that we are also in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Such unprecedented biodiversity loss is attributable to climate change and the unrelenting spread of human development.

Looking at the ACT Budget, it seems that more needs to be done to show that the ACT is serious about its declaration of a climate emergency. So what wasn’t so good?

Despite the Chief Minister mentioning the importance of our environment several times in his speech, environment spending remained static. Funding was allocated for Gooroman grasslands (the offset for development at Lawson) and Kenny grasslands, but there is no new funding for reserve management or programs to manage weeds and pests. Ongoing protection and maintenance is crucial if we want to protect conservation values, especially during a biodiversity crisis.

If the Government was really serious about encouraging people out of their cars and onto public transport, we wouldn’t be investing in major road duplications and upgrades. While it’s important that roads are safe, “cutting travel times” by duplicating roads sends entirely the wrong message. Imagine what we could achieve if we redirected the spending from one road duplication to rolling out active transport upgrades across the city, or even just maintaining and extending our cycle network?

The nearly $6m to speed up development applications and plan for further urban development for housing raises the question about what is the optimal size for our city and what’s the plan to deliver that? While it’s important to plan for new urban areas and developments – infill or greenfield – this investment seems driven by a need to fast track land release for urban development. Our high population growth underpins the entire budget.

There were some good initiatives, including:

  • New funding to start rebuilding and expanding the city’s tree canopy, with the announcement of nearly $8m for the planting of 17,000 trees across the city. Expanding our tree canopy across the city will be important for keeping us cooler over hotter periods, and ensure suburbs remain liveable. But this must only be the start of the investment – given we are losing 3000 trees a year from our urban forest, over four years, this will barely meet number required for replacement.
  • 84 new buses – Canberrans are going to need better public transport options, and continuing to build the bus fleet will be important. But each and every one of these buses should be zero emissions– we can’t afford to keep diesel buses to the fleet, and as a city that can afford to purchase best-practice technology early, we must do our bit to drive the technology transition.
  • Light Rail Stage 2 is live with the Government committing $4m in the next year to plan. Lack of Federal funding was never a good reason to stop progress on Stage 2, and it’s good that the Government will continue to progress the project
  • $12m over 4 years towards the plan to reach net zero emissions by 2045, including the release of the Living Infrastructure Plan. While the Zero Emissions Strategy has been delayed again (to later this year) it’s positive that funding will support the implementation of the strategy. It’s likely however that more funding will be required across Government as the strategies roll out.
  • Nearly $13 in a major upgrade to Canberra’s Material Recovery Facility in Hume, and the Government will also start to plan for managing the ACT’s food and garden organics waste after current green waste contracts expire in 2023. That’s good news for those who’ve been campaigning for a solution to organic waste, although concerning it couldn’t happen sooner.

Perhaps it was too soon to expect that this Budget would be delivered in the context of the climate emergency. However, the Government’s promised “wellbeing indicators” for next year’s Budget should be accompanied by a “climate emergency” test that is applied across all new spending and investment. We can’t call it an ’emergency’ and not make the tough decisions that put the climate and our environment first.