Wednesday 4 February 2015

10 (updated) eco-issues you need to know about - now

In February last year, I made a list of the top 10 eco-issues facing Australia thanks to the then newly elected Abbott government. Of course there are many more; these are just the ones caused by the change in leadership.

The people have spoken...
A year on, I thought I'd see how our coral reefs, forest and fish are doing. What's changed, which issues have been resolved, which are ongoing?

The good news: some things are better than they were a year ago. Not because Abbott and his "conservative" government have done anything positive, but because the Senate and the public have stepped in to stop them messing things up.

That's the other good news: we can all be a force for positive change. As Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan once said: "There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."

All aboard...

1. Dredging, dumping and coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef
This is as big and as bad as it gets. Last year, the Queensland and Abbott governments gave the go-ahead to industrial-scale dredging for the world's largest coal export terminal right on the doorstep of Australia's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, to service the $15 billion, Indian-owned Carmichael coal mine in the Gallilee Basin, western Queensland.

The problem: the mine will increase pressures on the already vulnerable reef and the risk of oil spills from the shipping superhighway through this iconic area.

Now: Things are looking up for the Reef. Adani said in December they'd dump dredge spoils on land instead of at sea, and, more importantly, Queensland's Coalition government was dumped in a political landslide last weekend and the new ALP government has pledge to stop dredging, ban dumping on the Reef, and remove state subsidies of the Gallilee coal and associated rail projects. Thanks, Queensland voters, you saved the Reef.

2. Tasmania's World Heritage forests - saved
This time last year, Abbott was planning to de-list 74,000 hectares of World Heritage listed Tasmanian forest that were only listed in June 2013, to allow logging in the Upper Florentine, Styx and Weld Valleys. It would have ended the hard-won peace deal brokered between industry and conservationists in 2013 and opened the way for other World Heritage areas such as Kakadu to have their boundaries changed to suit logging and mining interests.

I speak for the trees, 'cause
the trees have no tongues...
Now: Tasmania's forests, these ones at least, have been saved. At the World Heritage Committee meeting in June 2014, committee members took less than 10 minutes to reject the government's "feeble" proposal. End of story.

3a. The ex-carbon tax
The Abbott government kept one pre-election promise: despite overwhelming evidence that the carbon tax introduced by the Gillard government was efficiently reducing carbon emissions, the government repealed it in July last year. Australia became the first and perhaps only nation in the world to UNDO an existing carbon pricing scheme.

In its place, we got Abbott's Direct Action policy, which pays big polluters to NOT pollute. (The carbon tax forced polluters to pay the government, generating revenue for renewables.) Whether or not it will reduce emissions remains to be seen; it will certainly cost the government and us, the taxpayers.

Next, Abbott plans to scrap the Renewable Energy Target, which might finally kill off Australia's ailing wind and solar industriesReneweconomy has more up-to-the-minute news on this.

People power in NYC, Sept 2014
3b. Action (or lack of it) on climate change
Related to the carbon tax issue is the fact that the Abbott government is stubbornly ignoring the urgency of climate change, despite increasingly alarming evidence that 2014 was the hottest year on record and ocean temperatures are soaring off the charts, and overwhelming public demand for action on climate change - remember September's People's Climate Marches all over the world, including a record 300,000 people in New York City?

A few examples: Abbott tried to keep climate change off the agenda at the G20 summit in Brisbane in November and has repeatedly refused to send high-level ministers to climate talks in Warsaw, Lima and Abu Dhabi. Australia did belatedly pledge $200 million over four years to the UN Green Climate Fund, but even that's not as proactive as it seems (follow the link for more).

The only consolation is that Abbott's climate-denial bullying isn't working where it counts.

At the G20 in Brisbane, Obama pointedly talked up the need for action on climate change, to high acclaim. The Abbott government is now internationally regarded as so destructive to worldwide efforts to act on climate change we won't even be invited to the all-important Paris climate talks later this year. Climate warrior Al Gore has said Tony Abbott needs to "change or get out of the way. Because Australia wants to have the kind of sensible policies that the rest of the world is moving toward."

And voters in Victoria and Queensland have recently tossed out their Coalition governments. Could Abbott himself be next? With rumblings of a leadership crisis, we probably won't have to wait until the next federal election in 2016 to find out...

4. Is the government anti-science? Um, yes
Let's count the ways the current Australian government is anti-science. Abbott still doesn't have a science minister (which is a first since the science portfolio was created in 1939). He shut down the Climate Commission, axed jobs and funding to Australia's leading scientific institution, the CSIRO, and appointed former oil exec Dick Warburton to oversee the Renewable Energy Target review which, surprise, surprise, has recommended trashing the RET.

The good news: Former head of the axed Climate Commission, Professor Tim Flannery, almost immediately set up the community-funded Climate Council. The Senate saved two other organisations Abbott wanted to shut down: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority, which is now undertaking an 18-month review into an emissions trading scheme and what our emissions reduction targets should be after 2020.

And the Baird government in NSW recently became the first conservative Australian government to join The Climate Group (Labor governments in Tasmania and South Australia are also members). The Climate Group is an international not-for-profit that brings together business, government and community to promote renewables and cut emissions. Based in London, it closed its Australian offices in mid-2013 due to "an increasingly challenging political environment for action on climate change".

Save the fish (and other marine life)
5. Marine sanctuaries in danger - still
There are two issues in one here. First, a state issue. A year ago, the O'Farrell government began allowing recreational fishing in NSW marine sanctuaries, despite huge public support for those marine reserves, even from people who fish.

The good news: Premier Baird (who replaced O'Farrell as NSW leader in April last year) restored protection at 20 out of 30 mainland marine park sanctuaries in December.

Then there's the national issue. In 2012, Australia had the largest network of marine reserves in the world. In December 2013, after 10 years of scientific assessment and extensive community and stakeholder consultation, Abbott inexplicably suspended all new federal marine parks and ordered a costly and unnecessary review of them.

Now, many marine reserves are in danger from fishing and mining interests, particularly remote reserves such as our "other" great barrier reef, Ningaloo in north-west WA.

But it ain't over yet. Stay informed and support organisations working on behalf of our marine ecosystems such as Save Our Marine Life.

6. Hunting in NSW national parks - ongoing
A year ago, in February 2014, as part of a deal struck between Premier Barry O'Farrell and the Shooters and Fishers Party to pass electricity privatisation laws, a three-year trial began that allows amateur shooters to kill feral animals in 12 national parks and 200 state forests.

A year on, the trial hasn't been a great success: fewer than 200 feral animals, mostly rabbits, were killed between February and August last year, at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Nevertheless, there are now calls to introduce recreational hunting in WA's national parks. And there's still another two years to run on the NSW trial - unless NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley is elected as Premier in March; he seems more eco-aware and has even promised to create a koala sanctuary in northern NSW.

(Thanks for the pic, Craig Murdoch)
7. Culling sharks in WA - stopped
In January 2014, in response to six fatal shark attacks in the previous three years, federal "environment" minister Greg Hunt gave the Western Australian government an exemption from federal laws that protect great white sharks.

Despite marine scientists saying a cull was unlikely to reduce the number of attacks, and huge public opposition, the WA government began catching and killing great white, tiger and bull sharks longer than three metres found within a kilometre of the WA coast.

During the initial three-month trial last year, 68 sharks were caught or shot off Perth's and south-west WA's beaches, none of them great whites.

Good news, sort of: In September the shark cull was stopped, after advice from the EPA on how it might affect shark populations. But the exemption from the federal government means that WA can still hunt sharks it considers a "serious threat" - which the Greens say could harm more sharks than the cull.

Keep the Kimberley mine-free
8. Mining the Fitzroy River - aborted
Last year, a foreign-owned investment group was proposing a coal mine in and around the largest river system in the Kimberley and King Sound on the coast, which looked like polluting waterways, destroying this iconic natural landscape and paving the way for other oil, coal and gas developments in the Kimberley.

Good news, really: Just as the James Price Point gas hub on the Kimberley coast was found to be uneconomical and canned, plans for the Fitzroy River coal mine were shelved late last year for at least the next 10 years.

9. Coal seam gas in regional NSW - ongoing
A year ago, it was full-steam ahead for CSG mining in regional NSW - specifically around Gloucester, Camden and the Pillaga - despite it causing environmental problems. Just last week, work on AGL's coal seam gas operation in Gloucester, north of Newcastle, was suspended when elevated levels of toxic BTEX chemicals were found in two of its wells.

A year on, there are glimmers of good news, but they may be just that. The Baird government put a year-long freeze on new CSG license applications (expiring in September this year) and cancelled 16 pending applications - but did an about-face last week approved three new mines or extensions, in northern NSW (Maules Creek), Muswellbrook and Mudgee.

A common sight in northern NSW
Baird won't reveal his new Gas Plan until after the NSW state election on 28 March this year. The Greens maintain we need a Gas Ban. Labor sits in the middle, wanting to ban CSG in water catchment areas and the Northern Rivers.

The best news is that Lock the Gate, the fastest-growing grassroots environmental organisation in the country has galvanised support from farmers, conservationists, indigenous communities and urban residents to fight this thing. Check its website for updates and to lend your support.

10. Whaling in the Southern Ocean - ongoing
To be fair, Abbott is only an accessory to the slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean - by doing little to stop it. In December 2013, it broke a pre-election promise by sending a plane instead of a purpose-built Customs vessel to monitor Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. (A Customs vessel can apprehend illegal fishing vessels; planes can only observe.)

Things were looking brighter in March, 2014, when the UN's International Court of Justice upheld Australia's bid to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean (launched by the Rudd government in 2010; opposed by Abbott) and ordered Japan to stop its so-called scientific whaling.

Eye to eye with a minke whale
Japan initially agreed to abide by the ruling as "a responsible member of the global community" and stayed away from the Southern Ocean this summer - until early January, when it returned to conduct non-lethal research.

Japan also intends to return in the 2015-16 season, and said it will take 4000 minke whales over the next 12 years. (It has killed 10,439 minkes and 15 fin whales in the 27 years between the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling and the end of the 2013 season, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.)

The only good news: Sea Shepherd last week received 8.3 million euros ($12 million) from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, which gives 50 per cent of its proceeds to charities, and will use it to built a fast, new "dream ship" to stop whaling and illegal toothfish poaching (an even bigger issue than whaling) in the Southern Ocean.


So, it's Environment: 4, Government: 6, which is an improvement on the situation this time last year and it's not over yet. For more on any of these issues and to get involved, see Sea Shepherd, Lock the Gate, GetUp!, RenewEconomy, Earth Hour and the Australian Conservation Foundation.