Earlier this year, the Conservation Council made a Budget submission to the ACT Government this year that focussed on 4 key priorities:
  1. Respond to the climate emergency by expediting action to cut the ACT’s direct emissions from gas (stationary energy) and transport;

  2. Reduce the ACT’s ecological footprint, including Scope 3 (indirect) emissions, waste, consumption and embodied energy;

  3. Address climate adaptation, preparedness and resilience from a whole-of-government perspective; and

  4. Invest in nature and climate resilience.

While there has been strong focus on the COVID emergency over the past two years, in the Budget and in the media, we know there is a longer, more insidious climate and environment emergency that follows, and the more we can do to ameliorate that, the better off we will be. Indeed, strong climate and nature policy should be a key part of a covid recovery policy due to the flow on outcomes for public health and a resilient community.

One recurring theme we noted in this Budget was that there is a need to apply a climate and biodiversity lens to all spending right across the full range of portfolios to ensure that every dollar serves multiple integrated objectives. For example, there are opportunities for Covid recovery support for business development and knowledge capital to include criteria about sustainability and the circular economy. Flexible work hubs should integrate community engagement and communications on active & public travel. Housing initiatives must consider communications on energy efficiency and electrification; any new car parks should incorporate best practice for water sensitive urban design, permeable surfaces, bio-diverse & climate resilience plantings. Road duplications & upgrades should always include active travel corridors and people-first connections to services. School upgrades should include facilities and education about active travel. Construction trades annual licence renewal should require compulsory training about electrification to support the transition away from fossil gas. Investment into green spaces, for example dog parks, should be completed with consideration of environmental services such as pollination, native habitats and connectivity.

While we know that sustainability is considered in some of these initiatives, there are always examples of how areas of government activity appear to be pulling in a different direction to the Government’s own sustainability policies. The Budget was also light on in some places on funding for community engagement to accompany major infrastructure works. For example, the funding for the traffic network to alleviate disruption during stage 2 of light rail construction includes $4m for traffic lights on Parkes Way but only $150,000 for planning, and no apparent funding for community engagement.

The second key theme was that, given the constant reminders that changes to community behaviour will sit at the heart of ongoing emissions reductions, and that we know the community contributes millions of dollars of unpaid care and protection for the environment, that funding for community groups to deliver outreach and projects didn’t see a substantial increase in investment. 

While the four year recurrent funding for Landcare groups provides certainty, it is worth noting that the OCSE Environmental Economic Accounts Proof of Concept 2017/18 estimated the value of volunteer activity to be in excess of 22% of total ACT Government expenditure on the environment. The replacement cost in wages in 2015–2016 was estimated to be $50.5m. But the scale of funding for the scale of work delivered is small – each group will run on around $125k per year, leveraging the outputs of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of volunteer hours.

The Community Zero Emissions grants will continue, with just $150k allocated for the entire program each year over 4 years. The funding level for this program has effectively stayed static, despite the deep community engagement required to meet emissions reduction targets over the next decade, and shift us onto a genuine “emergency footing” on climate change.

This kind of funding is split between a number of projects, in chunks of $25k or so, and short term projects are delivered with huge volunteer and pro bono capacity built in. Projects aren’t necessarily funded to be ongoing or continuous, rather as short and experimental, or for one-off changes around the city. Funding limits limit the scope and depth of activity.

Given the Government gets such great value out of volunteer contributions, and volunteers, and that most community organisations run on such low cost, it would be worthwhile to rethink the scale on which we are going to fund community engagement so as to leverage more effective engagement, but also to ensure that the sector is supported and sustainable, not depleted.

Specific initiatives of note in this Budget are identified below:

Climate change:
  • $5 million –  Vulnerable Household Energy Support Scheme, noting that this is just the first $5 of a $50m commitment outlined in the PAGA.

  • $2.6 million over four years to support the delivery of the government’s climate change adaptation and resilience commitments under Canberra’s Living Infrastructure Plan: Cooling the City.

  • $3.1 million over four years – continue the Solar for Low Income Scheme, now to be managed through the Sustainable Household Scheme. Need to ensure that this is targeted and that the right people can easily access these benefits.

  • $5 million over four years for the Community Clubs Building Energy Efficiency Fund.

We note also the big ticket items in the climate budget that are positive, but unlikely to deliver the scale of emissions reductions on par with the money invested:

  • $15.3 million – Callam Offices energy efficiency refit.

  • $12.8 million over four years for the ESA’s Vehicle Replacement Program, nine zero-emissions vehicles to the emergency services fleet – while it’s welcome that vehicle upgrades are electric, it was dubious to communicate this to the community as climate spending.

  • $2.5m over 4 years to establish flexible work hubs – a welcome initiative that will facilitate Canberrans to be able to work closer to their home. We look forward to seeing how this is integrated with end of trip facilities and programs to encourage walking and cycling.

  • $8.56 for 4 years of free registration for 2 years for ZEV – a helpful kick start.

  • $10.8m over 4 years for active travel: cycle path along Sulwood Dr, design for Garden City Cycle Route through eastern inner north, design for cycle connectivity in Gungahlin, and maintenance and footpaths

  • Note the duplication of William Hovell Dr includes 7km off-road shared path.

  • $2.9m over 4 years for transport modelling to inform transport policy. Slow and piecemeal expenditure to respond to upcoming traffic disruption opportunities associated with teh Commonwealth Ave bridge  / Light Rail stage 2. Big opportunity to take advantage of disruption opportunities, and motivate families moving into new suburbs to use active travel from the outset. The benefits for individuals, families, communities, the city and the planet of shifting people out of cars, but that transition requires significant funding and deep engagement. Compare this to $136m for Monaro Highway upgrades, or $4m for traffic lights at Coranderrk St & Parkes Way!

  • $3.1 million to deliver environmental biodiversity offset commitments at Franklin – the Government is obliged to deliver this offset under the EPBC as a result of development in other parts of the city – indeed it’s odd that EPSDD have to “bid” for this funding.

  • $2.5 million over four years to enhance ecosystem resilience and balance, ensuring biodiversity is improved and protected for the future (ongoing Kangaroo management.)

  • Additional $2.9 over 4 years for management of invasive species. We calculate this lifts annual spending to $2.725 per year – we took a policy to the election that recurrent annual spending should be at least $3m, with an additional amount for recovery funding for Namadgi ($0.4m). In addition, rainfall in the past 12-24 months means that there will be increased pressure on removal of weeds and kangaroo population management. It’s questionable whether or not it is sufficient considering recent good weather conditions and a predicted La Nina year.

  • $3.6 million over four years for environmental offset planning, implementation, monitoring, and research as part of the government’s land release program. We understand this is in part to be funding to pursue development on the western edge of the ACT – something that the Conservation Council doesn’t support. It’s questionable whether it’s an appropriate place for development, give the landscapes and habitats, the need for ecosystem resilience, the landscape and potential fire risk. What we do support is undertaking an assessment of environmental values on the western edge and putting in place management to protect conservation values.

  • $5 million to expand the Healthy Waterways program (Note PAGA commitmentis $30m.) This announcement includes around $1.5m capital expenditure – be useful to know what the balance of the $3.5 m will be spent on. Community engagement is important here also.

  • $2.85m over 4 years for FOGO pilot program – this must include data to inform city-wide rollout and education to minimise waste creation and minimise contamination of organic material

  • $700,000 for FOGO recovery facility – the scale of this facility must support hierarchy of waste avoidance, not feed-the-beast demand

  • $4m over 2 years to increase gate fees for the Materials Recovery Facility plus $1.1m to replace weighbridges at resource management centres. It will be of interest to see what increased processing capacities will this fund.