Clearing the air: What Australia’s climate policies really need

By Gordon Davis, Chair of Greening Australia

They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. But while party leaders have been placing a stronger emphasis than ever before on climate change ahead of the 2019 Federal election, time travel unfortunately isn’t on the agenda.

Fear not though – the second-best time to plant trees is now. We’ve seen the UN reports. We’ve seen both major parties put forward climate policies. But the details are still unclear on both sides (as reported in a recent AFR opinion column), and what we’re missing is an assurance of urgent, practical action.

Australia is crying out for ‘real’ action from our leaders, and while humble tree planting may sound like an overly simplistic, unlikely solution to this complex problem, it may actually provide the clarity we need in the context of the jargon-heavy rhetoric of the ‘Climate Change Election’.

It needs to be done at scale of course, and the best way to do this is to engage those that preside over the greatest landmass, and at the same time produce a quarter of total carbon emissions – the land sector.

If our farmers and primary industries can work together to scale-up carbon abatement on-land, this sector has the potential to deliver as much as a third of the abatement required by 2030 to keep global warming below two degrees – and do so cost-effectively. Bring in the conservation sector, and this abatement will also provide economic outcomes, repair widespread land degradation, and support native flora and fauna.

Such an integrated approach would tackle three of Australia’s biggest environmental challenges at once: climate change, habitat loss, and agricultural sustainability.

Partnerships such as the Climate Proofing Australia Alliance, which brings together committed representatives of the farming, forestry and conservation sectors, have proven that there is a will for this new way forward. What we need now in the run up to the 2019 federal election is support and commitment from our elected representatives to resolve these urgent actions.

Enhance carbon policies to maximise biodiversity and food production

Governmental climate policy has traditionally focused on reducing emissions. While this must continue, removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, maximising biodiversity and improving agricultural co-benefits are also urgent tasks. Luckily, millions of years of evolution have perfected the design of the ultimate biodiverse, food-enhancing carbon storage device: the tree.

“There are many environmental and soil conservation benefits of adding new trees to Australia’s landscape,” noted the Climate Change Authority’s 2018 report. “By careful planning, new trees can assist with: reducing salinity; improving water quality; enhancing habitat restoration/revegetation (e.g. mine sites); continual improvement of soil management; and waste water management.” Biodiverse native plantings on farms are also a practical way to protect and restore populations of threatened species in productive landscapes.

Research has shown we need to restore around 10% of the heavily-cleared landscapes in southern Australia to stop the decline in biodiversity and conserve our native plants and animals. We should take advantage of the space we have available in Australia to undertake large-scale native tree planting across the landscape to tackle climate change and habitat loss in one fell swoop.

Bring together institutional, private and public capital for improved climate investment

 A lack of investment and progress in land-based abatement has narrowed the window of time available to solve increasingly urgent issues. Over the past decade, government funding levels for conservation and habitat restoration have been in decline, and the funds available have tended to be spread thinly, reducing their impact and effectiveness. As a result, major investment across our landscape is now urgently needed.

Governments can’t deliver all the solutions alone, but they can be a cornerstone investor and must develop an innovative environment investment framework that enables the transition into different leveraged funding models and private partnerships for the land conservation and carbon sectors.

A financial program of the scale needed (and we are talking billions of dollars) will require multiple funding sources, including direct government investment, carbon and other environmental finance structures such as green bonds.

Time is running out

The nation’s farmers, foresters, and conservationists are already facing the impacts of a warmer and drier environment, and it takes years to repair and recreate natural habitat.

With the benefit of hindsight, we ought to have tackled both climate change and biodiversity loss years ago by investing in a major land-based abatement program involving native biodiverse habitat restoration. We haven’t done that.

But with a concerted focus on these actions, and the right leadership from our government, it is not too late for Australia to make a real difference on the biggest environmental issues of our time.

Further reading - Tackling Australia’s habitat loss in the wake of UN-backed nature report