Many Australians are despairing at the state of energy politics in our country today. The federal government’s continued failure to acknowledge the reality of the need to act on climate change leaves a dangerous legacy and shows that when it comes to climate action, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Twenty-one years ago, as the Greens Member for Molonglo I moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly calling for the introduction of greenhouse gas reduction targets in the ACT. With this motion the Greens hoped to secure commitment to taking real action at territory level, to reflect the Australian government’s 1992 ratification of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Convention, which came into force in 1994, marked a key turning point. It included non-binding targets for stabilising greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. It also formally acknowledged that poorer, lesser developed countries would be more likely to experience the devastating impacts of our collective inaction in future – and that developed countries would need to lead the way.
Despite ratifying the Convention, the federal government, under then-Prime Minister Paul Keating, was a reluctant player in these negotiations. Australia committed only to voluntary, toothless measures that would not get us anywhere near the required 1990 levels. Cabinet papers, now publicly available, tell us that federal ministers at the time were told that states and territories were similarly reluctant to develop any real plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In the ACT at least, this was clearly untrue.
In 1996, the ACT Greens stopped waiting for the federal government to take action and took matters into their own hands by calling on the ACT government to develop a greenhouse gas reduction target specifically for the territory. In bringing the motion to the Assembly, I explained that despite being a relatively small jurisdiction, the ACT’s impact could be great. Canberra could set a new benchmark for action on climate change both at home and abroad. Our target, unlike other general hand-waving in the direction of climate action, would be specific and measurable.
The disconnect between a non-committal federal government, and progressive state and territory administrations willing to set ambitious targets, rings true today—when the impacts of climate change are being felt more than ever. Trend data now indicates that we should expect to see more extreme weather events, such as the recent devastating hurricanes in the Americas and monsoons in South Asia. According to the Climate Council, here at home Australia has just had its warmest winter on record for average maximum temperatures, reaching nearly 2°C above average.
The Greens motion 21 years ago saw the ACT set its first emission reduction targets. When we won the balance of power in 2008, we used our influence to ensure that the Greens-Labor Parliamentary Agreement included a renewed requirement to legislate for a greenhouse gas reduction target, which was delivered in 2010 with our world-leading climate targets to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. Canberra is now leading the nation with progressive targets of 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2020, and achieving net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
There is a critical need to act on climate change both locally and globally, by transitioning to renewable energy and increasing the sustainability of our homes, businesses and wider community. Across the planet, we are seeing sub-national governments and cities taking the lead on responding. This is particularly evident in countries where federal governments have been the most recalcitrant – Australia, Canada and the United States.
Amongst many other steps, the ACT is now one of 35 cities and regional councils across Australia which have signed up to be part of a national movement for climate action. This Cities Power Partnership, facilitated by the Climate Council, is a positive way to sidestep political roadblocks and red tape at a national level.
Through the current Parliamentary Agreement, and with ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury as Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, the ACT Greens are delivering on two decades of advocacy and activism calling for climate action. As well as being an energy policy role model to other cities and states, Canberra is now a leading hub for innovative businesses working in the clean energy sector. This goes to show the positive impact that one small territory can have with political will and smart policy design.
Many people over the years have told us that there is little point in making such great progress in the ACT, as it is a drop in the ocean in terms of global climate emissions. However the Greens achievements in urging climate change action from the ACT are a lesson in what can be done through perseverance and commitment to addressing the issues that matter.
Kerrie Tucker is a former ACT Greens Member for Molonglo (1995-2004)
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 October 2017