The Victorian Parliament is back for 2021—a year that's shaping up as a turning point for global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
United States President Joe Biden has injected momentum into the push for stronger action.
The newly sworn in President signed a slew of executive orders to recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement, cancel the Keystone KL pipeline (to transport crude oil from highly-polluting tar sands), and procure 645,000 electric vehicles, among other initiatives.
The renewed commitment of the United States has raised hopes about what can be accomplished at the next international climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November. COP26 is the first meeting where countries are expected to lift the level of ambition for cutting emissions.
Here in Victoria, the Andrews government is starting the year with unfinished business on climate. It is yet to set or announce the long-awaited Emissions Reduction Targets for 2025 and '30—a decision that will determine the pace of Victoria's transition to a clean economy and ability to attract new industries and secure jobs.
On Wednesday 3 February, Greens member for Brunswick, Tim Read, put this and more the agenda in a 'grievance speech' about the state's response to the climate crisis:
I grieve for our planet’s climate and the damage that will now inevitably result from global heating in years to come.
Our state can and must move much faster to try to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
In November 2019, a group of climate scientists published in the journal Nature, an alarming report of how close we are to several climate tipping points which will irreversibly accelerate global heating.
Arctic permafrost is beginning to thaw and release carbon dioxide and methane, which in turn will increase global temperatures. Climate change is accelerating climate change.
Some tipping points are probably already be feeding each other. Melting sea ice in the Arctic may be slowing a key Atlantic current, causing drought in the Amazon, turning one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks into a carbon source.
An author of that report, Prof Will Steffen from ANU, is on the Climate Targets Panel which last week announced Australia must cut emissions by at least 74 percent by 2030 and reach zero by 2035, just to stand a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C. Even this is considered optimistic by other scientists who argue that past emissions will get us to 1.5C by 2030.
The Victorian government is almost a year overdue in announcing its own targets, and we now know how ambitious they must be.
Premier Andrews, you spent much of last year arguing for urgent, ambitious and often painful action to counter a threat identified by science. We need the same urgency and ambition from you and your government on climate change.
Right now Victoria is taking climate action slowly, with a target of 50% renewable electricity for 2030, which we’ll likely achieve. And to close the Yallourn coal power station by 2032 and the Loy Yang stations by 2048, reaching zero emissions from all sources by 2050.
Our 2018 Greenhouse Gas emissions report has only just been published, almost two years after the fact. And the latest public information on Victoria’s coal consumption is for the year 2018-19, when we burned 42 million tonnes of coal.
But tipping points like the loss of the Amazon and subarctic forests of Canada and Russia are now considered likely at global temperature increases between 1.5 and 2 degrees.
Given the forest fires we’ve seen around the world, and those yet to come, we need to pick up the pace and act like it’s an emergency, just as we did last year with COVID.
Victoria burns the most polluting coal of call, brown coal, and that’s the single biggest source of our state’s carbon emissions.
So we need to give Latrobe Valley coal workers and communities an urgent planned transition into clean industry by 2030. Germany’s well-funded transition is a good template. We can and must strive for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we need to spend like it’s an emergency, just as we did last year with COVID. We can’t afford not to.
Most Victorians heat their homes with gas. We call it natural gas, but that’s a euphemism for methane. It’s a growing source of emissions world wide and soon, a lot more of our methane will come from fracking interstate. Fracking releases large amounts of this powerful GHG into the atmosphere, where it’s 84 times more potent than CO2.
We have to stop treating methane as clean energy and recognise it as the planetary threat that it is.
We can move homes to 100% renewable electricity, using heat pumps so we absolutely must stop connecting new homes to gas, immediately if not sooner. The best way to deal with the predicted gas shortage is to use less of it. And it’s not too late to reverse last year’s decision to open Victoria up to gas drilling, which was not this government’s most forward-thinking decision.
Victoria we need to talk about transport emissions; they’ve been rising for decades, and now they’re pushing us close to those climate tipping points. We won’t win the climate battle unless we cut emissions from cars, trucks and planes.
How do we do this? Cars contribute just over half of our emissions, and trucks, most of the rest. Moving people onto public transport, walking and bikes, and moving more freight by rail, will cut emissions, clean the air and reduce traffic jams. I congratulate the State Govt for their large public transport projects, but I must point out the urgency of improving bus services, especially in suburbs with no trams or trains. Parkville Gardens in my electorate gets one bus per hour – we must do better.
And getting people onto bikes and walking will replace a lot of short car trips. It’s taken COVID to get this govt to invest in separated bike lanes, and it’s great to see it beginning.
For many Victorians, cars are a necessity, but we can eliminate their emissions too. They will be replaced by electric cars, sooner in Northern Hemisphere countries and perhaps more slowly here, judging by the enthusiasm of the Victorian and federal governments. Some electric cars are charged by home solar panels, but many will charge from the power grid, making it even more urgent to get Victoria off coal. Hydrogen from renewable energy is another option for zero emission transport but electric cars trucks and buses are available now.
The ACT government is offering incentives for people to buy electric cars and has nearly completed switching their entire government car fleet to electric. President Biden has announced his plans to do the same. Victoria has announced a tax on electric cars.
China has half a million electric buses. Melbourne has one.
Electrifying our transport will also clean our air. Cars, trucks and buses are major sources of air pollution, particularly around busy roads, where unfortunately child care centres are often built.
They put thousands of tonnes of irritating nitrogen oxides and fine particle pollution into the air, irritating airways, triggering asthma and increasing the risk of heart and lung disease and cancer.
The biggest source of air pollution in Victoria however is probably our three brown coal burning power stations in the Latrobe Valley. An EPA review of their licences is meant to set new pollution standards for these stations which are currently allowed to emit much higher pollution levels than stations in Europe, North America and China. It seems to have stalled for the past couple of years, with no news from the Andrews Govt about lowering pollution levels.
Between them, Victoria’s three coal power stations put about a tonne of toxic mercury into the atmosphere each year, and there is currently no limit set for that at all in Victoria.
I urge the Minister for Climate, Energy, and Environment [Lily D'Ambrosio] to see that new and lower pollution limits are announced for any stations that are to remain open for longer than 12 months, and to accelerate the replacement of all of them with clean energy before the end of the decade.
About 15 percent of Victoria’s GHG emissions come from farming, a figure that’s barely changed in thirty years - about 2/3 of that is the methane from the digestive systems of cattle and sheep. Nitrous oxide from fertiliser accounts for much of the rest. These emissions are not falling and they should be.
We must eliminate emissions from cattle and sheep with feed additives and ensure that emissions from the remainder are offset by trapping carbon in the soil, regenerative agriculture. Feed additives such as Asparagopsis, are becoming available.
A good first step would be to make consumers aware of the carbon emissions from all foods, particularly from different types of meat, and identify genuine low-emissions beef and lamb.
Alerting consumers to food miles from, say asparagus imported from Mexico, will benefit local producers as well as the climate. Emissions from importing food, may not be counted as Victorian, but we have to cut them if we want to protect farmers from even ever worsening climate-related droughts.
With atmospheric CO2 now well over 400ppm and sea level rises of over a metre, possibly two metres, looking likely by the end of the century, we’ll need to do more to prepare for a more hostile climate. Rainfall has already declined across the state over the past fifty years and Victoria will continue to get dryer. Droughts, fires and heatwaves will be more frequent and severe and we’ll need to prepare for that.
More people will see the need to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere, known as drawdown, or even explore other ways of cooling the planet, known as geoengineering. Most of these strategies are expensive, unproven and many are potentially risky. But our state government needs to start talking about them.
One CO2 drawdown option deserves special mention: protecting our forests. With forests burning and being cleared around the world, our native forests are now so much more valuable as stores of carbon, than as sources of paper. We must end native forest logging within a couple of years, and well ahead of the scheduled 2030.
You only have to think about CO2 drawdown or geoengineering for a few minutes to realise that moving as swiftly as possible to zero emissions is cheap and safe by comparison.
I recommend Tim Flannery’s book, the Climate Cure, for those who want to read more. We can’t afford to keep producing greenhouse gases for another 30 years. We need to get as close to zero emissions as we can within a decade.
We hope Labor government MPs were paying attention to Mr Read's speech.
The Andrews government has built climate momentum with the Victorian Renewable Energy Target, Solar Homes program, Melbourne Metro 1 rail tunnel, and record budget investment in climate and energy initiatives.
It's time for Premier Andrews to cement climate progress by setting science-based Emissions Reduction Targets that are bold and ambitious.