With the carbon tax debate running hot, it’s tempting to think that a federal carbon price is the be all and end all for climate change policy. It’s easy to forget that there are eight other governments in Australia, each of which has a duty to protect its economy and its citizens from climate change too.
In Victoria, the Baillieu Government is about to face a key test of its climate change credentials. On Friday, the Climate Change Act 2010 (Vic) comes into effect, and the Government will have some decisions to make.
In what is in many ways an Australian first, the Victorian Act sets out a legislative framework for responding to climate change, with some practical measures for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change thrown in.
The Act was introduced by the previous Labor Government shortly before they lost government in November last year. The Coalition did not oppose it through Parliament when it was in opposition.
Its centrepiece is the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020. Although the Act requires in no uncertain terms that the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change — currently Ryan Smith — achieve the target, the Government has declared it "aspirational" since coming to power. Hardly an auspicious start.
An even more important part of the Act is the provision that allows the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to directly regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Following the lead set by Barack Obama and the US EPA, the Labor government intended that this power would be used to regulate emissions from Victorian power stations.
This provision sets the Victorian Act apart from its interstate counterparts. It gives the Government the power to clean up Victoria’s dirtiest polluters — the likes of Hazelwood and Yallourn — in a very direct and practical way. It’s an opportunity to reclaim a strong hand for government in cleaning up carbon pollution.
But this power won’t be used unless the Government decides to act. They need to prepare regulations and statutory policies under the Environment Protection Act, consult with stakeholders on their implementation, and work with the EPA to make it happen. So far, they have taken no such action.
The Act does not stop there. It requires the Government to publish an Adaptation Plan to prepare Victoria for the impacts of climate change. It also requires various decision-makers to take climate change into account when making certain decisions.
Whether the Baillieu Government is serious about actually doing these things will soon become clear. This Friday, the Act will come into force, and the Government will be legally bound to comply with it.
Whether the Victorian Government meets its own climate test is part of a broader question about the role of the states in Australian climate change policy. Should they sit back and let the Commonwealth do the heavy lifting — and cop the heavy criticism? Or do they have a responsibility to act on climate change?
Clearly they do. In Victoria, there are plenty of things that the State must do to tackle climate change, many of which are not resolved by the Climate Change Act or a carbon price.
The planning system, for one, is not climate change ready. The Planning and Environment Act remains silent on the issue of climate change, allowing new freeways, urban sprawl, inefficient buildings and private motor vehicle dependency to expand unabated. The carbon price is unlikely to fix these things due to the market failures involved.
Neither the Act nor a carbon price will ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation is factored into the environmental impact assessment of projects generally. Victoria’s environmental impact assessment law (which is already grossly inadequate to protect the environment) is silent on the issue.
The Act says nothing about coal mining, and a carbon price looks unlikely to stop the coal industry in Victoria. Coal exploration and mining continues apace, as the Government continues to approve new coal mining licences, and continues to support new coal-fired power stations like HRL.
In short, there are a range of State government activities that ignore climate change, which cannot be adequately resolved by a carbon price alone. A sophisticated and comprehensive approach to climate change policy requires action from all Australian Government, not just the feds.
That’s why the Environmental Defenders Office proposed a Climate Change Charter for Victoria, which would require the Victorian Government to make all decisions consistently with the requirements of climate change mitigation and adaptation. It’s why the Climate Change Act should be expanded so that planning, development and resources decisions take climate change into account.
Laws like these are so much more valuable than transient policy announcements made and forgotten in the months before and after elections. By enshrining climate action in the enforceable edict of our elected representatives, they ensure that such promises are not so easily forgotten.
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