Why we need to lock a proper climate plan into law: AFR Opinion Piece

17 October, 2019

Financial Review Opinion Piece

Zali Steggall

My predecessor in Warringah likes to tell the United Kingdom how it should deal with Brexit. I am more interested in learning from the UK on how it reached bipartisan consensus on climate change and set up an effective national framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt all sectors of the UK economy to the impacts of climate change.

Lack of climate change policy is casting a long shadow.  Getty

The starting point for consensus is to accept the science and, as a nation, look to the future and prepare for the risks ahead. In Britain, 412 out of 646 members of Parliament called for a climate change bill in 2005. Australia needs the same momentum in Parliament. And it needs to start now. The Morrison government has accepted the science and the need to decrease emissions. Accordingly, the same science must be respected when it calls for more reduction of emissions than what current policies are delivering to have a hope of keeping global warming below 2 degrees.

We need to set out the roadmap for Australia to become a low carbon economy without all the fear-mongering and misinformation. The big question all sensible Australians are asking is how? I see three key actions that are needed for Australia to finally be on the right course.

Firstly, we need a climate change act modelled on Britain’s Climate Change Act, passed in 2008. I plan to introduce a climate change bill early next year.

Such legislation will set up the framework for Australia to achieve the long-term goal of reducing emissions across all sectors. Like the British legislation, it will set emissions reduction targets and carbon budgets to establish economically credible reduction pathways to 2050 and beyond.

To ensure increased accountability to the Australian people, the act must include annual reporting by the government on the nation’s emissions and the creation of an independent advisory body, like Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, to advise on how to most effectively and economically reduce emissions over time in all sectors of the economy. Such a body can advise on the optimum trajectory to 2050, the level of carbon budgets and how each sector can achieve its goals. This is not a new concept. The Reserve Bank of Australia does this for our economy and the Parliamentary Budget Office does this for government costings.

The act will require the government to set out a plan to adapt all sectors to a warming climate, from health, transport, agriculture and energy, to national security. All ministers will have to report on how their sector is delivering budgeted emission reductions. Secondly and concurrently to developing a climate change act, we need an Australian equivalent to the 2006 Stern Review. The Stern Review resulted in a ground-breaking report that attempted to quantify the costs of climate change, mitigation and adapting to a warming climate for the British economy. This review was a pivotal moment in Britain’s climate change debate.

Importantly, it concluded that the cost of inaction would be far higher than the cost of tackling climate change and made it clear that the costs were lowest in the context of multilateral action, as climate change would affect health, industry, water resources, food production and the environment. The overall costs of climate change were anticipated to be the equivalent to losing at least 5 per cent of global gross domestic product each year and every year thereafter, and this cost could go as high as 20 per cent of GDP if temperatures increased by 5 to 6 degrees.

We need to understand what a hotter climate means for Australia. We already know from Deloitte Access Economics that the economic cost of natural disasters alone is projected to grow to 3.4 per cent of GDP per year to reach $39 billion by 2050, from an average of $18.2 billion in 2016. We need to know the economic implications of climate change to all sectors of the economy. In circumstances where some argue that we should not, or cannot, act to prevent climate change, then let’s be very clear about the cost of doing nothing or not enough. Business as usual is not a zero sum game. Maybe then we can act meaningfully.

Think of the likes of Alan Finkel and Ross Garnaut coming together to review all the economic, security, social and environmental costs of climate change to Australia, the international market shifts and risks and opportunities for our export sector, and the costs of adapting measures to various warming scenarios, from 1.5, to 2 or 3-plus degrees warming.

The Garnaut review in 2008 formed a good foundation for Australia’s understanding of the implications of global warming to some sectors of our economy but this must be updated in light of new science and technological development and the accelerated warming that is occurring.

We need to get real on where we are starting from and where we are heading. There has been too much misinformation and political opportunism at the expense of the truth. The government prides itself on a strong economy, so it should be committed to future-proofing it. On our current course, it will be responsible for the greatest intergenerational debt ever: an economy ill-equipped to face the increasing costs of adaption and an emission overdraft that can never be repaid.

Lastly, I am calling on a conscience vote in Parliament to recognise the climate emergency that we face. Action on climate change is the issue of our time. It goes beyond partisan politics. The climate emergency motion is not passing judgement on any party. It is simply establishing as the starting point a consensus to act. Words are not enough: it is time for action. Each member of the house needs to step up and be accountable on this issue and to represent the concerns and views of their electorates, not a party.

Zali Steggall is the independent federal member for Warringhah