One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Release the black balloons!

Credit where credit’s due. At the dawn of 2009, John Brumby, and his Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Gavin Jennings, announced the formation of four new national parks in Victoria. These national parks aim to protect sections of Victoria’s stressed River Red Gum ecosystems, and two of the parks will be jointly managed by the Yorta Yorta people. This brings to an end a decade-long campaign by the traditional owners of the area, and YCAN congratulates them and their supporters, particularly Friends of the Earth, for their great win.

The announcement includes an adjustment package for those who will lose their jobs as a result of the formation of the parks and the State Government claims that more jobs will be created once the decision is implemented. The parks are an important step towards boosting the resilience of vital ecosystems in the area, especially as the impacts of climate change on the Murray Darling Basin continue to worsen.

Unfortunately that is where the credit ends. The Brumby State Government has so far been a great disappointment on environmental issues and on climate change. While they have implemented some tokenistic market-based policies such as the Victorian Renewable Energy Target, the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target and a second-rate solar feed-in tariff, the fact remains that climate change is ignored in almost every policy decision and Victoria’s emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate.

A recent report by The Climate Group shows that Victoria’s emissions were 2.1 per cent higher in 2008 than the previous year (a 6 per cent increase based on 2000 levels) and our electricity use rose. Victoria’s emissions from petrol also increased.

This is a damning indictment of John Brumby’s policies. At a time when scientists all over the world are calling loudly for rapid and deep cuts in emissions, Victoria continues to belch out more emissions than ever before and continues to be amongst the worst per capita greenhouse gas emitters on earth. Instead of admitting to its shameful record and promising to change its ways, the State Government has tried to spin itself out of trouble by claiming per capita emissions have fallen. Not only does this not recognise that we also come out looking bad if emissions are measured per capita, it is completely irrelevant to halting the effects of climate change – the atmosphere doesn’t care about per capita emissions if absolute emissions keep rising.

On top of this, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability’s State of the Environment Report, released in late 2008, makes for alarming reading. Most of Victoria’s ecology is increasingly degraded, and the degradation is worsening.

John Brumby and Gavin Jennings, it’s time you listened to the world-class climate scientists you have appointed to your Climate Change Reference Group, such as David Karoly and Amanda Lynch, and get serious on climate change. We suggest you start by changing the following policies:

Transport

Despite the fanfare and the great wads of taxpayers’ money spent in its promotion, the Victorian Transport Plan is more of the same short-sightedness that has got us into this huge transport mess in the first place. According to the Public Transport Users Association, the plan commits the State Government to building 122km of new roads. Almost half of the $38 billion plan will go to increasing or building new major road capacity. Building new roads in metropolitan Melbourne is profoundly stupid. New roads only encourage private vehicle use, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, traffic congestion and they drive us further into oil dependence, at a time that peak oil is estimated to be less than a decade away. Investing in new roads serves no benefit other than to enrich big business and wastes money that should be invested in public transport and other sustainable transport modes.

Energy

The rhetoric is that the State Government supports renewable energy. In reality however, John Brumby has approved a new coal-fired power station and a gas-fired power station for construction in Victoria. They have even put taxpayers’ money towards the new coal plant. You can’t have it both ways Mr Brumby, you either think climate change is a serious issue and work to reduce Victoria’s emissions, or you build new fossil fuel power stations.

Forests

The Brumby Government continues to support the logging of old growth forests. This insanity means that we are irreversibly destroying some of our best carbon sinks, the ecosystems that provide us with clean air and water and provide habitat for our biodiversity. Logging is currently occurring at Brown Mountain in East Gippsland, an area of high value forest with trees over 300 years old.

Water

The water outlook for Victoria is nothing short of frightening. Climate change exacerbates the situation with rainfall predicted to reduce further and the current eleven year drought most likely a more permanent dryness. It is wise that the Brumby Government is taking this challenge seriously, but their construction of a large industrial desalination plant and piping water out of the Murray Darling Basin to Melbourne should be solutions of last resort, once all other avenues such as stormwater and rainwater harvesting, stricter conservation initiatives and recycling have been tried.

In addition, the State Government continues to water down the environmental criteria for the desalination plant. It has gone back on its promise to build renewable energy generation to power the plant, and is now going to purchase renewable energy certificates to cover its electricity use (but not the energy used in its construction). Just one week ago, the State Government watered down the energy efficiency requirements of the plant, removing all limits on energy consumption.

The Brumby Government needs to understand that the crises we are now facing, brought about through a combination of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity loss (among others) have the capacity to destroy the very foundations of human economic activity and human wellbeing. We need a change in paradigm, leading to a change in policy, and we need it fast.