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Net zero, saving koalas and forest wars: the crucial environment battles looming in Australia

Adam Morton and Lisa Cox
·10-min read
<span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

The trainwreck of 2020 was not limited to a global community hit by the worst pandemic in a century. The Australian environment fared no better.

The year started amid the continent’s most widespread bushfires on record. As the Guardian revealed, an estimated 3bn animals were killed or affected. Subsequent major government reports outlined the extent to which the country’s unique environment was in decline long before the fires hit.

The damage from the fires could not be divorced from the climate crisis, which also triggered a third mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in five years. But political debate on these pressing environmental issues – specifically, the need to transform conservation laws or introduce a climate plan to live up to the Paris climate agreement – remained stuck as the Morrison government resisted meaningful action on both fronts.

Will 2021 bring a change? Adam Morton and Lisa Cox look at some of the major climate and environmental questions the country will face this year.

Rising pressure to act on climate

Scott Morrison ended 2020 notably isolated on climate change, having been embarrassed when the British and French governments rejected his push to be given a speaking slot at a global leaders’ climate ambition summit.

The prime minister appeared surprised by the snub, which left him in climate pariah territory with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia. If he was surprised, he shouldn’t have been: the invitation to the summit made clear only leaders offering substantial new commitments would be given a slot, and Morrison had merely flagged that Australia may not follow through on a widely condemned plan to use a carbon accounting sleight of hand to meet national emissions targets.

Related: Spinning emissions: Australia's climate projections are not what they seem

A major political and diplomatic question will be how the government responds to what is certain to be escalating pressure. The US will be key. The Biden administration has no shortage of problems needing its attention, but has made clear climate is near the top of its priorities. The new president has pledged to use “every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world” to do more. His climate envoy, John Kerry, set out the scale of the challenge for business leaders at a G20 forum, including that coal needed to be phased out five times faster than it is now.

More than 120 countries, including the major powers of America, Asia and Europe, have mid-century net zero emissions or carbon neutrality goals, but Morrison – despite calls and rising action from business leaders, investors and state governments – continues to resist, and deny that Australia is out of step.

The expectation is this can only last so long, but the message from the incoming US leadership and the climate ambition summit is that moving on the 2050 target alone will not be enough.

The focus ahead of the November climate conference in Glasgow will increasingly be on what Australia – with no meaningful policies to reduce emissions from transport or major industry and which is still promising a “gas-led recovery” and approving new coal projects – will do before 2030 to live up to the commitment it made in Paris five years ago.

Relying on the states to increase support for renewable energy, as many did last year, will not be enough.

Fixing failing environmental protection

In the wake of the fires, last year’s official assessment of the state of Australia’s natural environment by Graeme Samuel, the former competition watchdog chief, could hardly have been more dire.

An interim report in July found Australia’s environment was in an unsustainable state of decline, and that the national conservation laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – were ineffective and needed substantial change.

Meanwhile, the auditor general’s office found the government and federal environment department were failing in their duty to protect nature.

Conservation groups were not surprised on either front. Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction due to what is widely agreed to be the failure of successive governments to protect the wildlife for which the country is renowned. Funding for environment programs was cut by more than a third after the Coalition was elected in 2013. Some was restored last year, much of it directed to “congestion busting” – increasing the pace at which industry and business development proposals were assessed.

Related: Morrison government should be 'doing more' with states driving 33% cut in emissions by 2030

The government’s response was to try and fail to ram through legislation to transfer responsibility for approving major developments that affect the environment to the states and territories, barely giving lip service to the need to strengthen environmental protection.

It is still yet to release Samuel’s final report, which it has been sitting on since October. That will have to change when parliament returns next month if the government lives up to its legislative requirements. It is also expected to release the national environmental standards that Samuel said were needed to accompany the devolution in assessment powers to the states.

Several questions will follow. Will the standards be designed to not just maintain but improve the state of the Australian environment? Will they be specific enough that they can be meaningfully and legally tested?

And, given the government has rejected the push for an independent environment regulator, can the public be confident the new standards will be enforced?

Attention will also turn to whether the Senate crossbenchers will continue to oppose the government’s legislation if there are not steps to improve the monitoring and health of the country’s growing list of threatened species – at least 170 of which still have no plan for their recovery.

Will the Great Barrier Reef bleach again?

Australia’s most globally recognisable natural landmark suffered through its third major coral bleaching event since 2016 last year. Most of the damage was near the southern end around Mackay – an area that was mostly left untouched in 2016 and 2017. It means reefs along the full length of the 2,300km wonder have been severely affected over the past five years.

There are still healthy and vibrant areas and some damaged coral will recover, but a significant amount of shallow water coral died.

As recently as a few weeks ago, there were concerns this summer might be a fourth year of severe bleaching out of six. But Prof Terry Hughes, from James Cook University, says the risk has reduced since Christmas thanks to cooler, cloudier and wetter weather, in part due to the cooling La Nina over the Pacific.

An assessment by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests the risk of bleaching is greatest north of Cairns, and a warmer than expected February could still change projections, but Hughes says the chance of a non-bleaching year is “pretty good”.

It is a less positive story in the west. The CSIRO has forecast a marine heatwave for the Western Australian coastline early this year, with temperatures expected to hit the highest level in a decade.

The Ningaloo Coast and Shark Bay, both world heritage listed areas, are threatened by warming ocean temperatures that could affect ecosystems and fisheries that have not recovered since a marine heatwave in 2011.

A koala affected by 2019-20 bushfires is released back into native bushland following treatment at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park
A koala affected by 2019-20 bushfires is released back into native bushland following treatment at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Saving the koala

The capriciousness of New South Wales politics was on full display last year when the deputy premier, John Barilaro, threatened, but failed to resign ostensibly over a policy designed to protect koalas, just months after the iconic species was devastated by the summer bushfires.

A compromise deal between the governing Liberal and National parties over the koala state environmental planning policy failed. Instead, NSW reverted to an old koala policy, from 1995, with a promise to develop a new one this year.

It meant that, despite a state inquiry finding the species was on track for extinction in NSW by 2050, nothing new has been done to improve its protection.

Whether that can be addressed will be a test for both state and federal governments. It is linked to the broader issue of ongoing habitat destruction, one of the main threats to not just the koala, but Australian wildlife generally.

Sussan Ley, the federal environment minister, has set an October deadline for the threatened species scientific committee to assess whether east coast koala populations have been affected enough to warrant a national endangered listing – a step that should trigger greater protection.

Meanwhile, the government continues to sanction clearing of the forests that koalas rely on. Late last year Ley approved a quarry proposal that would clear 50 hectares of koala habitat near Port Stephens in NSW.

It is a similar story at state level. The NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, has set a target to double the state’s koala population by 2050, but forestry operations and mining proposals in koala and other threatened species’ habitat continue, and the state government has continued to weaken land-clearing laws.

Stalling on electric vehicles

Analysts say the shift to EVs is inevitable, with new models forecast to match fossil fuel vehicles on price by as early as 2025, but Australia trails other countries in their uptake, with fewer affordable models available.

Related: 'We'll be left behind': Australia's electric car inertia is getting it nowhere

A long-delayed Morrison government electric vehicle policy – now rebadged as a broader “future fuels” strategy – was due late last year, but has yet to be released. A leaked draft suggests it will not include direct incentives for consumers to switch to battery-powered cars.

Other countries have seen a climate and economic advantage in moving now. Britain and Japan – major countries that, like Australia, use right-hand-side drive cars – announced late last year they would ban the sale of new petrol cars by 2030 and 2035 respectively and introduce incentives to drive the change.

Australia appears headed in the other direction with no significant incentives, and with some states planning to introduce road-user charges on EVs and hybrids. Victoria and South Australia are heading down this path, and NSW is considering it.

Academic analysis has suggested this would further deter uptake of the technology unless offset by other support. Meanwhile, national transport emissions continue to rise.

The forest wars (redux)

Court decisions loom large over native forest logging in two Australian states this year, and an industry that spent much of last year under siege.

A judgment is due next month in a case brought by the Bob Brown Foundation against Tasmania’s state-owned forestry agency, arguing its native forest logging is inconsistent with federal laws. Conservationists argue the forest agreement in the state is not valid as it lacks a legally enforceable requirement that the state protect threatened species.

Related: Native forests: why logging in Victoria and Tasmania is under pressure

It follows a similar case in Victoria last year, when a federal court judgment banned logging in 67 coupes in Victoria’s central highlands on the basis that the state’s agency, VicForests, had breached a regional forestry agreement between the state government and Canberra.

In basic terms, the ruling challenged a controversial effective exemption from environmental laws granted to logging under the agreement. The agency is appealing.

Major retailers are increasingly refusing to sell paper logged by agencies without forest stewardship council, or FSC, certification - and both the Tasmanian and the Victorian agencies have failed to get it.

It means the court decisions could have significant ramifications for plans to continue native forest logging at current levels until 2030, in Victoria’s case, or indefinitely in Tasmania. And they could have major ramifications for threatened species protection.