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Helen Oakey, Executive Director

Parties agree on urban forest and cycleways, but more ambition needed on climate and biodiversity at ACT election

The Conservation Council ACT Region has released their assessment of environment policies from parties contesting the 2020 ACT Election, marking them against the priorities identified by the ACT’s environment community. 

Our scorecard indicates some good news for the environment, but also some areas of neglect during this campaign.

A few key environmental issues this election have had a shared focus: all major parties have made commitments to reach the ACT’s 30% tree canopy target, commence organic and food waste collection in the next parliamentary term, continue the ACT’s purchase of 100% renewable electricity, and at the very least, support the ACT’s net zero emissions target by 2045. 

To rebuild our urban forest, ACT Labor has committed to planting 450,000 trees, the Canberra Liberals have committed to plant and care for 1 million trees over the next decade with an allocated budget of $5.8m over the next 4 years, and the ACT Greens will plant 450,000 trees starting with a $21m injection of funds over 4 years to get planting started. 

Parties also raced to commit to improvements to Canberra’s cycleways, including off-road paths for cycling commuters to encourage Canberrans to engage in active travel. The Canberra Liberals confirmed a $500,000 feasibility study for their planned 100km of off-road paths, the ACT Greens have committed to seven cycling corridors and a significant investment boost of $80m into active travel infrastructure, and ACT Labor has committed $15m towards active travel infrastructure with $3.7m for maintenance of paths. 

While the scale of commitments differs, there is a shared vision for our urban forest and for safe active travel around our city. Other issues have had less consistent focus and there are significant differences between what the parties are offering. 

On climate change, while the three parliamentary parties support the 2045 net zero emissions target, and the ACT’s 100% renewable electricity, only the ACT Greens have outlined their desire to meet that objective sooner, consistent with climate science. 

Both Labor and the Greens have policies that will help to drive down emissions from energy and transport, such as incentives for households to switch from gas to electric appliances, and a commitment to electrify the ACT bus fleet. The Greens have gone further with incentives to promote the uptake of electric vehicles and bikes, and the ALP has committed to an additional 250MW of battery capacity across the Territory, something that adds flexibility and resilience into our local grid.

While the Canberra Liberals support the 2045 zero net emissions target, it is deeply concerning they have not yet released policies that demonstrate how emissions reductions will be achieved. Indeed, some Liberals’ policies are contrary to action on climate change, such as subsidising private vehicle use through lowering car rego and building new car parks at a time we should be disincentivising private car travel and aiming for a more compact urban form. In addition, their commitment to the continued rollout of light rail is highly conditional, and they have not announced any new plans or funding to cut emissions from the bus fleet beyond current government policy.

Phasing out gas will cut 22% of the ACT’s emissions and lower ongoing energy costs. The Greens are the only party that have put forward a proposal to facilitate a smooth transition off gas, including preventing new households from signing up to gas from 2023. While this is a welcome step forward, it’s a shame that it will take two years to implement a policy that prevents new connections. ACT Labor still support transitioning off gas by 2045, but haven’t outlined a clear transition plan, and the Canberra Liberals have been strong advocates of gas continuing to be available in all new suburbs.

Sadly, despite the high value that Canberrans placed on being outside and in nature this year, policies to protect nature and enhance our waterways have been in short supply from the two bigger parties, aside from welcome funding for Landcare and catchment groups, and support for rehabilitating fire damaged areas of Namadgi. The Greens are the only party that has put forward comprehensive policies to protect areas of high conservation value, and invest in appropriate management for nature parks, urban corridors and waterways.  

The Conservation Council has been particularly disappointed that none of the parties have announced a timeframe for the implementation of Canberra-wide containment of domestic cats – a powerful way that we can reduce negative impacts on native wildlife, including the many thousands of birds, small mammals and reptiles that are killed by domestic cats each year.

In some good news for our waterways and waste management, there is a shared commitment from the ALP and the Greens to phase out single-use plastics, with a clear timeline. These commitments don’t take as far enough on that journey, and there will be more to do to phase out problematic single use plastics in the next term of Government, but they are a good start.

With just over a week to go before the closing of the polls on October 17th, there is still opportunity for Canberrans’ to put their vote to good use for the environment, and let all the parties and candidates know the value that they place on environmental protection and sustainability in the ACT.

Helen Oakey is the Executive Director of the Conservation Council ACT Region. 

Read the Conservation Council’s ACT 2020 Election Priorities, or find out how to take action on climate this election.