On Monday, the ACT government released its Climate Change Strategy 2019-2025, just a few months after declaring a climate emergency in May, the first Australian state or territory to do so. The document contains several more Australian "firsts," reflecting the government's desire to lead climate action. Is this new strategy needed, and what does it mean for Canberrans?
Previous ACT climate strategy documents are out-of-date for three reasons: science, economics, and new legislated emissions targets.
Science indicates that increased global warming carries considerably more risk than was known just 10 years ago. It is therefore more urgent than ever before to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and create a more resilient city in the face of the climate changes that are coming and already upon us.
Second, the rapid advance in new technologies such as battery storage and electric vehicles means that a wider variety of solutions is now economically viable, presenting new opportunities for local investment and job growth. Furthermore, because the monetary and human costs of inaction are so enormous, substantial near-term climate action is responsible both economically and socially.
Finally, the ACT government has recently brought forward its commitment to zero net emissions from 2050 to 2045, and put in place science-based interim emission targets for 2025, 2030, and 2040 to guide the way. These legislated targets, based on advice from the ACT Climate Change Council and in line with global carbon budget responsibilities to hold warming below 2 degrees celsius, are not only an Australian first for states and territories, but world-leading. A new plan is needed to realise the 2025 target of reducing ACT emissions by at least 50 per cent compared to 1990 levels, whilst collecting data that will be vital in meeting the next target in 2030.
So what does the plan hold in store for Canberra and Canberrans?
The starting point of the new strategy is the assumption that the ACT will effectively be powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity in 2020 - an expectation that will likely be met due to the territory's previous investment in large scale solar and wind generation. Achieving that goal will result in a 40 per cent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels. The additional reduction required to meet the 2025 target will need to come primarily from the transport and gas sectors. After 2020, ACT transport emissions (which overwhelmingly come from private vehicles) will account for 60 per cent of Canberra's emissions, with gas for heating and cooking making up another 20 per cent or so.
Substantial reduction in emissions from transport and gas use can only be achieved through a change in the choices made by Canberrans, at our work and businesses, and in our homes. Those low-emissions choices must be enabled and supported by government policies and regulations.
The new ACT climate strategy contains several realistic, forward-looking actions that begin to provide the magnitude of support and vision required in these sectors, and many are "firsts" among Australian states and territories. Among these are: ensuring that all new schools and government buildings are all-electric and appropriate for the changing climate; a commitment to maintain 100 per cent renewable electricity supply into the future; and a fossil-fuel-free bus fleet by 2040.
Canberrans interested in buying or building new homes will be provided information tailored to best practices for zero emissions buildings. Canberrans who rent will be supported by legislation to set minimum energy performance standards for rental properties and require mandatory disclosure. In order to achieve full effectiveness, these will need to go hand in hand with enforcement of improved planning and building standards.
Together with Canberra's Living Infrastructure Plan, also released yesterday, the new climate strategy recognises the interplay between emissions reductions, comfort in a changing climate, biodiversity, and human health. New goals of 30 per cent canopy cover (up from the current 20 per cent) and 30 per cent surface permeability in urban areas will assist in keeping the city cool in summer, with increased water retention to support trees, gardens and parks.
Whilst the proof will be in the pudding, sincere engagement and consequential delivery of these pledges will give our city the opportunity to provide a shining example of what might be achieved elsewhere in Australia.
The government has set itself the task of leading (and learning) by example in its operations, not only through electrification of its own transport fleet and new all-electric building practices, but also by - in an Australian first - applying a "no offsets" policy to meet Canberra's emissions targets. Rather than paying another jurisdiction to lower its emissions, the new strategy commits to long-term investment in the region that genuinely reduces ACT's own emissions.
In another Australian first, the ACT government will ensure that the social cost of carbon and climate change adaptation outcomes are considered in all future policies, budget decisions, capital works projects and procurements. The social cost of carbon can be thought of as the 'true' cost of emitting a tonne of carbon, including the social, environmental and economic costs of climate change that those emissions generate. From 2020-21, an interim price of $20 will be applied to every tonne of emissions from government operations. These funds will be reinvested to speed delivery of a carbon neutral government in the Territory.
It must be said that numerous studies indicate that the actual social cost of carbon is considerably higher than $20 per tonne, and is rising with time as the frequency and severity of climate-induced losses and disasters increases. A more realistic assessment is required in order to ensure that future generations are not saddled with enormous costs that could be avoided through action now. The government's commitment to establish an independent body to develop an appropriate social cost of carbon for application from 2025 forward is thus necessary and welcome.
Notably, the new climate strategy specifically pledges support for low-income residents and a just transition for industries and workers affected by the move to zero net emissions. Whilst the proof will be in the pudding, sincere engagement and consequential delivery of these pledges will give our city the opportunity to provide a shining example of what might be achieved elsewhere in Australia.
As Canberra continues to walk the talk of a zero net emissions city that is responding positively to the climate emergency, these next steps require the best of all of us. By engaging in active citizenship we can achieve a cleaner, more resilient, liveable and sustainable community. A city of firsts for us all.
- Professor Penny D Sackett is chair of the ACT Climate Change Council, an honorary professor at the ANU Climate Change Institute, and former chief scientist for Australia. She would like to give special thanks to all the recently retired members of the ACT Climate Change Council, Will Steffen, Frank Jotzo, Barbara Norman, and Toby Roxburgh, for their years of work in providing sound climate advice, much of which is reflected in the ACT's new Climate Strategy.