Lurching forwards on climate action in 2022
In a year of more record floods and mild temperatures driven by an unusual concurrence in Australia’s three major climate systems (a strong negative Indian Ocean Dipole, a positive Southern Annular Mode and a triple La Niña event1), climate change and its impacts on Australians is becoming increasingly evident, unavoidable and devastating. CSIRO’s seventh biennial State of the Climate report released on 23 November has found “changes to weather and climate extremes are happening at an increased pace across Australia”, including extreme heat events, intense heavy rainfall, longer fire seasons, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and sea level rise, driven by the highest atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in at least two million years.2
Representing the Conservation Council in Evoenergy’s final Energy Consumer Reference Council meeting for 2022, the statement that most stood out to me in the context of energy network planning was “the future is no longer like the past”. There are many factors to consider – electrification, population growth, technological changes and so on – but climate change and the need to build future climate resilience are prominent drivers that mean we can no longer simply extrapolate historical trends to predict future needs. And the timeframes for acting are short. Evoenergy’s network planning occurs in 5-year cycles: to meet the Territory’s target of net-zero emissions by 2045, that’s just four more 5-year plans at a time when the pace of change is already outstripping the pace of the regulatory cycle while the gap between the current policy track and what’s needed to reach net-zero is already wide.
There have been positive steps forward at many levels, although at times it has felt like taking two steps forward then one step back.
In May’s Federal election, we saw the rise and success of so-called “teal” candidates campaigning on climate action platforms. The new Labor Government created the Climate Change Act 2022 that finally ”set out Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, to provide for annual climate change statements, to confer advisory functions on the Climate Change Authority”3, with a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.4
How are we tracking towards that target? Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen reported in Parliament on 1 December that Australia’s “emissions are projected to drop by 40% by 2030”, an improvement from the 30% drop predicted by the previous Government.5 However, there is inconsistency in the Government’s approach, with Minister Bowen promising no new funding for gas projects while Resources Minister Madeleine King and Infrastructure Minister Catherine King backed former Minister Barnaby Joyce’s $2 billion pledge to the polluting Middle Arm petrochemical precinct in Darwin Harbour. The Government also has yet to rule out new fossil fuel projects, let alone phase out existing ones.
A particular low point for sustainability was the “pause” of soft plastic recycling by REDcycle in the middle of National Recycling Week.6 This highlighted the vulnerability of recycling services and the lack of market demand for recycled materials due to policy failures, lack of regulatory targets, and inadequacy of voluntary action by industry, despite clear demand by the public to solve plastic pollution.
But, hearteningly, the states, activist groups, courts and other organisations are taking up the challenge around the country. Here are a few highlights.
The Government of Western Australia in May announced a $60 million package to accelerate uptake of electric vehicles.7 The Queensland Government rewrote its manufacturing roadmap to take into account the state’s renewable energy targets.8 An alliance of more than 100 property, community, health and environment organisations succeeded in pushing an upgrade of the National Construction Code to require new homes to meet 7-star energy efficiency standards.9
November was a busy month! Environment Victoria summarises the recently re-elected Labor Government’s commitments, including phasing out all of Victoria’s coal-fired power stations by 2035 and substituting gas in homes.10 The Environment Council of Central Queensland and their Environmental Justice Australia legal team did a sterling job of gathering evidence and securing the agreement of the federal Environment Minister to reconsider 19 coal and gas projects on climate grounds under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 199911, which could set a critical precent for including climate in future development applications. The Queensland Land Court ruled against Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal mine proposal on the grounds that “the human rights of First Nations People would be unjustifiably limited”.12 Land Court president Fleur Kingham said “the costs of climate change to people in Queensland have not been fully accounted for, nor have the environmental costs of the act of mining”, in the case brought by First Nations group Youth Verdict.
The international community is also lurching mostly forwards despite efforts to the contrary by fossil fuel interests.
Russia’s war against the Ukraine initially triggered a “dash for gas” but the crisis also prompted Europe and the United States to implement substantial renewable energy plans.13 China and India both released plans for electrification of buildings and transport powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
While the CoP27 conference on climate change in Egypt failed to agree on phasing out all fossil fuels (amidst other disappointments), the parties did finally agree to establish a fund for loss and damage for developing countries and include reference to “tipping points” in climate systems and “the right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment”, drawing a clear link between global warming and health.14 On the sidelines of CoP27, the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance founded in 2021 by Costa Rica and Denmark welcomed new members and funding15; Japan, Canada, the US and several European nations formed a partnership to help Indonesia phase out fossil fuels16; and Australia became a founding member, with the UK, US, Canada, Korea and others, of the Forests and Climate Leaders Partnership, “a new international group to accelerate the contribution of forests to global climate action.17
Here in our beautiful bush capital, there were also achievements worth celebrating.
The ACT Government’s announcement on 4 August that it was committing to phase-out the fossil gas network was an amazing, landmark achievement, and, I believe, a world first. The origin of the Conservation Council’s campaign to get off gas well and truly pre-dates my joining the team but has been a major component of my work over the past three years. There is, of course, much more to do to achieve a gas-free ACT and the transition will be complex and challenging. But my observation at the most recent forum held by the Government was of unanimous commitment to electrification and solving the problems along the way.
Also after years of campaigning, the ACT Government introduced minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties, requiring landlords to upgrade ceiling insulation. Again, we would like to see the ambition increase, but it’s a win for tenants in Canberra’s coldest houses.
The ACT Government has been gradually stepping up sustainability initiatives including rolling out food and organic waste collection and bulky waste collection, and banning problematic single-use plastics. It has also released a draft circular economy strategy to lift ambition beyond “waste management” to address the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials in use, and regenerating nature. True circularity has the potential to reduce direct and scope 3 emissions as well as resource extraction, dumping of waste, and excess consumption. Bring it on!
The Conservation Council has been working hard to advance climate action.
In collaboration with Conservation Council Member Groups and experts from our network, we have written many submissions this year, including:
To the Australian Government:
- to reconsider 18 coal and gas projects for climate impact under the EPBC Act, and
- to exclude native forest biomass from the renewable energy target
To the NSW Government:
- regarding expansion of the Container Deposit Scheme, and
- rejecting Veolia’s proposed “advanced energy recovery” incinerator at Tarago
To the ACT Government:
- calling for more strategic investment in active travel
- regarding electric vehicle adoption and infrastructure
- supporting the amendment of the Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Bill to allow for regulatory changes for the gas transition
- regarding the Draft Planning Bill and the Urban Forest Bill
- regarding waste management of absorbent hygiene products
- regarding the draft Circular Economy Strategy, and
- calling for more ambitious phase-out of single-use plastics
Launched by the inspiring Professor Veena Sahajwala at the World Environment Day Dinner in June, in September we hosted the first ever CBR360 Circular Economy Symposium to kick off Canberra’s conversation and networking for a more sustainable city. Attracting 19 partners, 22 speakers, 15 stall holders and 175 participants, this event was a great success in raising issues and solutions and showcasing some of the brilliant and innovative work being done by passionate individuals, businesses and non-profit groups around our region, including the wonderful volunteers who turned up to help us run the event. It coincided well with the ACT Greens’ discussion paper18, the Zero Waste Festival and the ACT Government’s development of its draft Circular Economy Strategy.
Through the year, we collaborated with Canberra’s climate and sustainability community on a variety of activities:
- Joined the national climate network and local climate groups in painting the town yellow for Climate Action for the Federal election, plus held a stall at the National Folk Festival;
- With the Peoples Climate Assembly, rallied and delivered letters to Finance Minister Katy Gallagher calling for no federal funding for the Middle Arm petrochemical precinct in Darwin Harbour;
- With Zero Waste Revolution, petitioned for a Race to Zero Waste;
- Hosted an Environment Exchange webinar on a Wellbeing Economy for Canberra;
- With the Canberra Environment Centre ReCyclery, delivered the Make the Move active travel program at Early Childhood Australia and Icon Water, plus with SEE-Change, held an active travel stall at the Sustainable Business Expo and contributed to the Dynamo Mobile Projector Festival;
- Won new grant funding to extend engagement on the Make the Switch project with a focus on induction cooking (look out for it in 2023!).
We participated in regular consultation on Evoenergy’s EN24 electricity network plan, the ACT Government’s Pathway to Electrification forum and Energy Consumer Policy Consortium, advocating for the phase-out of the gas network and a rapid and just transition to electrification.
I loved giving presentations and participating in panel discussions for groups as diverse as ANU Burgman College residents, the Country Women’s Association, VIEW Clubs of Canberra and Engineers Australia, on topics from plastics to climate to sustainable design of sports stadiums.
On a social equity note, we continue to support the positions advocated by the ACT Council of Social Services, Better Renting, Council of the Aging, and other social advocacy organisations in calling for a “just transition” with more equitable outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens, particularly in the transition to electrification and sustainable households. According to the 2021 Census, 28% of Canberrans were born overseas, and around 50% of Canberrans have one or both parents born overseas.19 The ACT Government boasts that “Canberra is home to people from over 200 cultural backgrounds”.20 However, my observation is that this multicultural diversity is not visibly represented in many external forums in which the Conservation Council participates. It is critical that we enable all Canberrans to take action for a safe climate and a sustainable future, and systemically bring along all those who lack the capacity to do so for themselves. This requires a variety of targetted communication and support activities, and is, for example, one of the key factors in the design of our extended Make the Switch engagement for 2023. As an Evoenergy forum participant pointed out, “when the system works for vulnerable people, it works better for everyone”.
The rundown above is just the Council’s climate and sustainability work. Read about the fabulous work on nature, waterways and biodiversity being done by my wonderful colleague Peta Bulling. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible without our talented Communications Manager Jahnavi Samprathi, Office and Events Manager Brooke Farr, and new Executive Director Elle Lawless, plus a special shout out to Warwick Cathro for his deft and efficient management of the Transport Working Group.
Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank former Executive Director Helen Oakey for the three years that she mentored me in this role as Climate and Sustainability Campaigner. Her expertise, passion, political nouse and dedication to the Conservation Council were exemplary and inspiring. The staff, board, volunteers, Member Groups, partners and associates that I have had the pleasure of working with through 2022 make the job of advocacy enjoyable even on the most challenging or disappointing days, and a lot of fun on the best days!
Climate and Sustainability Campaigner
1 Deacon, B, 2022, ‘Australia remains at La Niña alert amid near-record Indian Ocean Dipole event’, ABC News, 30 August, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-30/bureau-of-meteorology-holds-off-declaring-third-la-nina/101192238
2 Howarth, C, 2022, ‘State of the Climate 2022 – Australia continues to warm; heavy rainfall becomes more intense’, CSIRO, 23 November, https://www.csiro.au/en/news/News-releases/2022/State-of-the-Climate-Report-2022
3 Federal Register of Legislation, Climate Change Act 2022, No. 37, 2022, https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2022A00037
4 Maclean, H & Prest, J, 2022, ‘Climate Change Bill 2022’, Parliament of Australia, 28 July, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2022/July/Climate_Change_Bill_2022
5 Brown, A & Osborne, P, 2022, ‘Climate targets back on course: Bowen’, MSN, 1 December, https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/australia/climate-targets-back-on-course-bowen/ar-AA14Ksxx
6 Conservation Council ACT Region, 2022, ‘REDcycle “pause” indicative of lack of circularity in plastics’, 9 November, https://conservationcouncil.org.au/blog/2022/11/09/redcycle-pause-indicative-of-lack-of-circularity-in-plastics/
7 Government of Western Australia, 2022, ‘WA’s climate action efforts accelerate with $60 million EV package’, Media Statements, 10 May, https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/McGowan/2022/05/WAs-climate-action-efforts-accelerate-with-60-million-dollar-EV-package.aspx
8 Riley, J, 2022, ‘Qld rewrites manufacturing roadmap to cater for renewables’, InnovationAus.com, https://www.innovationaus.com/qld-rewrites-manufacturing-roadmap-to-cater-for-renewables/
10 La Nauze, J, 2022, ‘Labor just won a third term in Victoria: here’s what it means for our climate’, Environment Victoria, 29 November, https://environmentvictoria.org.au/2022/11/29/labor-just-won-a-third-term-in-victoria-heres-what-it-means-for-our-climate/
12 Toomey, J, 2022, ‘Queensland Land Court rules against Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal mine in landmark ruling’, ABC News, 25 November, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-25/qld-court-waratah-coal-mine-youth-climate-activists-clive-palmer/101698906
13 Lake, K, 2022, ‘COP27 was disappointing, but 2022 remains an historic year for international climate policy’, The Conversation, 29 November, https://theconversation.com/cop27-was-disappointing-but-2022-remains-an-historic-year-for-international-climate-policy-195288
14 Harvey, F, 2022, ‘What are the key outcomes of CoP27 climate summit?”, The Guardian, 20 November, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/20/cop27-climate-summit-egypt-key-outcomes
15 Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, 2022, ‘BOGA announces support fund for fossil phase out’, 16 November, https://beyondoilandgasalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/BOGA_COP27_Press_Release.pdf
16 European Commission, 2022, ‘Joint Statement by the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and International Partners Group members on the Indonesia Just Energy Transition Plan’, 15 November, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_22_6892
17 Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, 2022, ‘Australia joins forests partnership to drive climate action’, 10 November, https://www.dcceew.gov.au/about/news/australia-joins-forests-partnership-to-drive-climate-action
18 ACT Greens, 2022, ‘ACT Greens invite community to share a vision for Canberra’s circular economy’, 10 August, https://greens.org.au/act/news/act-greens-invite-community-share-vision-canberras-circular-economy
19 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021, ‘Unincorporated ACT: 2021 Census All persons QuickStats’, https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/snapshot-act-2021#country-of-birth
20 ACT Government, 2021, ‘Celebrating multiculturalism in CBR’, Our CBR, 27 April, https://www.act.gov.au/our-canberra/latest-news/2021/april2/celebrating-multiculturalism-in-cbr