Politics Down Under
The Australian federal election in May 2019 was dubbed the Climate Change Election. According to a Lowy poll in March of this year two thirds of Australians believe climate change is the most serious threat to Australian national interests, ahead of terrorism or any economic concerns.
Perhaps these results are unsurprising considering Australia suffered the worst summer floods in over 50 years in February, just before the survey. But climate change has received more and more prominence in Australian politics in the 21st century, particularly since Labour won the federal election in 2007.
The divide in Australian politics is familiar to most western voters - the left wing and more environmentally conscious Labour on one side, and the more right wing Coalition, who prioritise Australian jobs and industry, on the other side. After their victory in 2007 Labour started to introduce a flagship cap and trade emissions scheme. However before it could be fully realised the Coalition beat Labour in the 2013 federal election, and threw out the proposal.
Climate Change Election 2019
Scientific advisors to the Australian government say the country needs to cut emissions by 45% (compared to 2005) or more to meet the Paris targets. Labour’s manifesto promised to meet the 45% target, but the Coalition, who won the election, instead committed to a target of 26%.
The Coalition’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison attacked Labour’s “reckless target of 45%...forcing people to choose between the economy and the environment.”
Instead the Coalition favoured the existing direct action emission reduction fund – effectively a system of paying polluters not to pollute. The system has had successes, but is ultimately ineffective without a complimentary plan to reduce emissions. Otherwise, increased pollution just replaces the pollution the government pays to reduce.
The existing safety mechanism, to ensure the emission reduction fund functions correctly, is seen as toothless, allowing polluters to pollute more with no penalty. Labour proposed a more robust system, which would allow industry to rely on carbon offsetting to achieve the scheme’s aims. However this suggestion was pounced on by the Coalition during the election. They claimed carbon offsetting on such a scale would lead to billions leaving the economy as offsets are purchased from overseas.
Carbon Offsetting in Australia.
One of the signs that Australia has an increased interest in climate change is that the government has its own National Carbon Offset Standard, no matter which party is in power.
The government seeks to use the standard to achieve carbon neutrality across a number of sectors: Organisations, products and services, events, precincts, buildings.
The system has had many successes. In 2011, the City of Sydney achieved carbon neutrality certification through emissions reduction and offsetting. Though it must be noted this was a certification as an organisation, not a certification for all of Sydney.
And the airline Virgin Australia achieved carbon neutrality in part from a carbon offsetting partnership with the Tasmanian New Leaf carbon project. This conservation project converts commercial forest on the island state to protected forest, and 7% of its funding is from voluntary carbon offsets from Virgin customers.
The path through the woods
The Tasmanian New Leaf project is part of a wider interest in Australia in using forests to offset carbon. In February this year the Coalition Prime Minister announced a plan to plant 1 billion trees in Australia over 11 years. The proposed forests would occupy 400,000 hectares.
It is a plan which utilises one of Australia’s most plentiful resources, its space. And beyond the carbon benefits the new trees should also lead to more soil stability and limited flooding, and an expansion of forest dwelling wildlife.
The 1 billion trees will remove 18 million tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. This sounds like a phenomenal figure, and is certainly a positive development. But Australians leave one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, 18 tonnes of carbon per person per year.
This means that the 1 billion trees will offset the carbon of 1 million Australians. A statistic that shows how much can be achieved, and in a country of 24 million people, it also shows how far there is to go.
The Carbon Offsetting Solution
As noted, during the election in 2019, the Coalition attacked Labour’s plans to use carbon offsetting to achieve emission goals, based on the claim it would lead to billions of dollars leaving the Australian economy to purchase offsets.
It is interesting then that Coalition Prime Minster not only identified this potential problem but also possibly resolved it. A system of forests like he proposes, and like the Tasmanian New Leaf project is achieving, would result in a strong internal Australian market in carbon offsetting. Carbon credits could be sold by the forests to agriculture and industry, and the profits reinvested in more forests and other carbon offsetting projects.
Australian national interest in climate change will not abate. It is a country that has prospered despite a harsh and punishing climate. So they are keenly aware that they are at the sharp end of climate change, and will suffer even more extreme weather unless drastic action is taken.
Both Australian national parties agree something needs to be done. And as the Australian solutions continue to evolve, carbon offsetting is a key component to both approaches. Whether that be through an internal or international carbon market might still be up for debate, but the usefulness of carbon offsets is now agreed.
It is essential to see what is happening elsewhere and stay inspired by alternatives and new ideas about how we can get involved to fight climate change and shape our future.