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When’s CO2 going to become a trigger for the EPBC Act?

June 12, 2013

Time for a Co2 trigger for the EPBC

This week Tony Windsor’s private member’s water bill will be voted on in the senate. If it passes it will be the first time that Australian federal legislation recognises water as an Issue of National Significance and finally put in place an incentive for mining projects to consider water usage and impact in their planning.

If the bill passes a project that uses significant water reserves, threatens aquifers in the Great Artesian Basin or the contamination of ground water will now face Federal scrutiny. Federal MPs won’t be able to fob off concerned environmental group by saying “it’s a state issue.” Instead the project will now be able to be catapulted from the state approval process into the office of the federal Minster for the Environment under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

This is all good news and, from the outset, will motivate mining companies to build mitigation measures into plans from the beginning. A Federal water trigger will improve chances that proper scientific appraisal will be completed before mining operational approval is granted, or even before exploration licences are given and financial incentives received.

But what about Co2 emissions, where’s the environmental and social incentive when it comes to mining projects with significant greenhouse emissions. Ninety-seven out of every one hundred climate scientists agree that it is Co2 emissions causing the planet’s temperature to rise and ensuing climate chaos. They agree that the belching of Co2 into the atmosphere, soon to reach 400ppm for the first time in 800,000 years, must be stalled. And they don’t mean from bovine graziers. They mean that coal and gas used for ‘cheap’ energy, the fossil fuels that power our cars, have to stay in the ground and that governments start supporting the off the shelf alternatives that are readily available but hindered by unstable regulation and a powerful fossil fuel lobby.

Climate change is already causing significant economic and social disruption in Australia. Its impact will soon make environmental intervention the major focus for governments and government intervention will be de rigeur. Australia’s Climate Change Authority has officially started its review of targets for reducing Australia’s carbon pollution by 2020, and beyond but this can’t be done in separation from the approval process for new mines. Yet, Australia’s federal Government has never refused approval for a single coal mine or an unconventional onshore gas field.

A recent Greenpeace report shows that if all the coal from proposed coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin are burned the emissions will be another 705 million tonnes of CO2 a year – nearly double that of Australia’s current fossil emissions of 395 million tonnes. In addition there are 33 new coal mines proposed for the NSW Hunter Valley and thousands of CSG mines planned for Queensland.

Australia’s price on carbon is motivating businesses to reduce their energy use and introduce energy efficiency measures. More and more councils are using roof space to install solar PV, they are improving waste management to avoid paying for greenhouse emissions from landfill. The Renewable Energy Target (RET) is motivating energy companies to offer renewable energy options to its customers. The Lismore Worker’s Club installed one of the NSW North Coast’s largest arrays of solar PV on its roof this year, reducing its power bills by $187,000 each year, and saving more than 162,000 tons of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere.

A price on carbon provided a good starting mechanism to deal with emitting industries that Australia may need, but export coal is not one of these. In addition to carbon pricing it’s time for a policy framework focussed on downstream emissions and take responsibility for our contribution to the global effect. A Co2 reduction incentive is the right complement to the climate change adaption programs every government body and most corporations are already undertaking.

It is time for projects resulting in annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of more than 50,000 tonnes per year be treated as an issue of national significance. It is time for state and federal government to take into account all the greenhouse polluting aspects of mines and include this as a consideration in the approval process for projects. The EPBC Act is Australia’s primary legislation that can protect the environment from the impact of mining. A greenhouse emissions trigger in this Act would, at least, require the planning of mega mines to be assessed against its greenhouse emissions.

More than half of the world’s multicellular life forms will be extinct by 2100 at the current rate of “human disruption of the biosphere” more. A study from CSIRO last year said that climate change is likely to start transforming Australia’s natural landscapes by 2030, and by 2070 many will disappear from the continent. The planet is nothing for humans if not a biodiversity assessment, you can’t have economics without an environment in balance. But just like Woodside’s recent decision to pull out of James Price Point, it’s still short term economics that are the final determinant.

Currently there is no requirement for projects such as new coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Hunter estuary, Adjani’s the 60-million ton per year open-cut mega coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, the gigantic new coal-related dam on the Dawson River or the 8,000 new coal seam gas wells in Queensland to be assessed on likely emissions and fugitive emission management and measurement. The real terminal though is the Great Barrier Reef and that terminal is its death. However, if greenhouse emissions at the destination for coal and gas passing through a port were taken into account, it could be a different story for these projects.

If passed this week, Windsor’s bill will force the pendulum back towards water not coal. A Co2 trigger would do the same for the climate, forcing the federal government to assess new coal and gas infrastructure against its Co2.

Mining needs an incentive to minimise greenhouse emissions produced during mining and offset the emissions occurring downstream. It’s too late now for this government to amend the EPBC even though Labor in 2006, when still in opposition, supported a greenhouse trigger. Let’s hope there will still be MPs following the September election who will listen to environmentally-concerned, value driven communities and citizens, it shouldn’t be such a radical thing to do. After all they have kids too.

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