Blog | 2nd Feb, 2011

faces a challenging environment

Thursday, 3 February 2010

When the Victorian Coalition took power in November’s state election, it did so without releasing a formal policy on the environment or climate change.

We all know what some of the Coalition’s more damaging environmental policies are, such as allowing cattle to graze in our national parks. But, in the absence of a clear plan, it’s impossible for Victorians to know exactly what the Coalition will do to protect our environment. In opposition, it could stand back and criticise, but as our government, it has the legal and moral responsibility to lead.

There’s no shortage of environmental challenges the Coalition must navigate in its four-year term — unsustainable consumption and urban growth, protection of our parks and natural areas, public transport, waste and pollution, and the devastation of rivers and warming of our climate. The government must also deal with rebuilding communities after the Victorian floods.
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All of these are important and all will require smart and bold solutions. While the Coalition’s immediate focus will be on the floods, the health of the Murray River system and action on greenhouse pollution will be a priority for action in 2011.

Regarding climate change, the Coalition supports a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020. This is a smart move as it positions Victoria as the leader in clean energy jobs and low carbon industries. But new Climate Minister Ryan Smith told The Age recently that the Coalition did not yet have a clear plan for how it would reduce emissions; the feds would have to take the lead.

Victorians expect their government to lead on climate change, after all it is the state government that approves coal plants and other infrastructure that pump so much greenhouse pollution into our skies. A clear plan to reach the 20 percent target will need to be one of the Coalition’s first actions for 2011.

Clearly the plan needs to include replacing coal with clean energy, starting with Hazelwood, Australia’s dirtiest power station. Many Victorians understand that a shift away from coal is unavoidable and are looking to the new government to lead the way. In opposition it was easy to oppose proposals such as replacing Hazelwood but in government, the Coalition needs to grab hold of the reins and steer us towards a clean, secure energy supply to make large steps towards its 20 per cent target.

At the same time, it has committed to reducing the burden of household energy bills. An easy way to achieve this is to make energy efficiency a key part of its climate policy. While the Coalition has rightly focused on immediately increasing energy concession payments to vulnerable households, a smart medium-term action would be to assist Victorians to improve the energy efficiency of their homes to permanently save energy, money and greenhouse pollution.

The new government will need to get a wriggle on and develop its climate plan early in the year. The impending carbon price, something the Coalition has supported despite the opposition from its federal counterpart, will transform our energy supply and will affect energy bills. The Coalition can either actively manage that change for the benefit of all Victorians, or stand by and watch it happen.

Reforming management of the Murray River system is the year’s second major environmental challenge. The state government has stated that it does not support the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s initial recommendations to return 3000 to 4000 billion litres of much-needed water to save our most important river. It can oppose the plan but, despite the current wet conditions, it can’t promise regular, reliable rainfall. So what is it going to do to save our rivers and help rural communities prepare for a drier future?

The experts tell us that our climate will continue to get hotter and drier. It’s safe to say that water shortages, particularly in northern Victoria, will most certainly be a problem area for the Coalition government. When the rains dry and the floods recede, there simply won’t be enough reliable water to go around. Without a healthy river, communities will suffer. A credible plan to help communities adjust to a drier future and to return water to our rivers is essential.

The Coalition showed strong leadership on urban water issues, with promises to drastically reduce Melbourne’s consumption through boosting efficiency and using stormwater and recycled water. This will take the pressure off our urban rivers.

This year, it must expand this innovative thinking to northern Victoria. The Coalition should focus its efforts on helping rural communities shift to agricultural markets that can handle drier conditions, such as dryland cropping and carbon farming.

A savvy Coalition would embrace the inevitable drier future as an opportunity to re-focus agriculture in Victoria and renew rural communities. But it will need a plan — business as usual is not going to cut it.

The bottom line is that change is inevitable. The Coalition can remain an environmental bystander and let communities fend for themselves, or help Victorians in the transition to a sustainable future. From polluting coal to clean energy. From dying rivers to healthy ones. From urban sprawl to sustainable cities. From rising energy bills to affordable ones. And from jobs with a use-by date to the clean, green jobs of the future.

But it will need to show environmental leadership and develop a credible plan if it is to live up to the expectations of Victorians for a safe, clean environment. After all, with droughts and flooding rains expected to get worse under climate change, there has never been a more important time for political leadership on our environment.

This opinion piece featured in The Age on Thursday, 3 February 2011.