We need to be careful that a carbon-neutral future doesn't impact more than our climate

24 February 2020

Australia is at a point in its history where it needs to take decisive action on climate change and reduce its emissions. Disappointingly, the federal government is so far reluctant to do any heavy lifting in this area, so it's up to the rest of us to make some noise on this issue. The bill we are debating today, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act Amendment (Climate Trigger) Bill 2020, was introduced only in the last sitting week and hasn't been sent for inquiry, so we have not had a chance to consider it in any great depth. However, there is certainly the kernel of a good idea here. At a high level, parts of what it proposes have merit and should very much be considered. It makes sense to require emissions to be factored into the environmental assessments of major activities such as mining, drilling, exploration or land clearing. We do need to consider the climate impact of major projects if we are to move Australia to a carbon-neutral future. As the saying goes, you can't manage what you don't measure.

However, this bill does take a heavy-handed approach. It is also a bit short on detail. It seeks to prohibit emissions-intensive actions as if they have, will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the environment, but the bill does not define what that threshold would be for emissions. More importantly, I'm concerned that simply banning these activities because they are high emitting is short-sighted, as it risks throwing out the good with the bad. There are other remedies. One approach might be instead to ensure there are plans in place to mitigate emissions before environmental approval is granted.

As I say, this bill would benefit from an inquiry, but my concern with imposing a blanket ban is that it will impact in unintended ways. For instance, you can't build mobile phones, rechargeable batteries or solar panels without mining for rare earth minerals such as cobalt and palladium. And what about geothermal energy? That is a potential source of renewable energy which is still in its infancy in Australia and requires exploratory drilling. But, at first glance, this bill may rule that out. And what about mining for everyday metals such as copper, aluminium, silver, iron, zinc or nickel? This is the stuff on which we have built our physical environment and which is contained in everything from household water pipes to electric guitar strings.

We absolutely need to bring down emissions, but we also need to be realistic and practical. We don't need to take an all-or-nothing approach, as this bill does. The more sensible approach for a major project which otherwise stacks up economically and environmentally is to look at what will be done to mitigate the emissions. We need to act on climate change, and what we need is a national plan that commits to a carbon-neutral future and provides a framework for ongoing mitigation and investment certainty. We need to work towards net zero emissions. We need to plan for how we transition Australia to a renewable and clean energy future. We need more than a piecemeal approach. The business community is largely on board, so you have to wonder why this government isn't.

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