Opinion

Environmentalist and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council Tim Flannery explains the need to overcome the vested interests against climate change action and how to best use an innovation fund. By Karen Middleton.

Tim Flannery names his three priority areas in addressing environmental concerns.

Tim Flannery
Credit: DAMIEN PLEMING

Karen Middleton Kevin Rudd called climate change “the greatest moral challenge of our time”. How do you quantify it? And how do you assess the way successive governments have tackled it?

Tim Flannery We face a lot of challenges… but we’d have to say that climate change is one of the most important, moral or not. We can quantify the scale of it. It’s been 200 years building since early industrialisation, the cost has been estimated to be between 1 and 2 per cent of global GDP per year to address it, and that means that 1 to 2 per cent of jobs have to change every year and infrastructure has to change.

The biggest problem I think we’ve got is the huge vested interest in the present. No one likes change, and when you’re looking at change at that scale all sorts of special interests get in the way. And those vested interests have a very loud voice.

KM Is it time for us to stop looking at emissions trading as the best way to address that? Should we look elsewhere?

TF I think, like a hell of a lot of things, emissions trading schemes look really good on paper. It’s when you get down to implementing them and getting everyone on board that they start to fall apart. Economists are brilliant at designing things that look wonderful on paper, but when we actually try and do it in the real world, it’s messy and really hard. Yes, it would be nice to pursue it and there are probably some arguments for sectoral emissions trading schemes. The cement and concrete sector is a very good example where you could imagine an emissions trading scheme, restricted to that sector, producing a swift change to carbon-negative concretes.

At the broader level of the economy, though, it’s proved difficult to create schemes that work and then get them to stick. In Australia we had a scheme that worked. We saw emissions drop rapidly over the period of the carbon tax. But within nine months of the abolition of the carbon tax those gains had been erased and now we’re back at historic high levels of emissions.

To me, the most effective systems I’ve seen are straight-out taxes, like in British Columbia [Canada], which has worked. Targeted taxes or regulation – that seems to me to be the great no-brainer. We’ve got some of the oldest and most polluting coal-fired power plants still running on the planet. Why can’t we just introduce a regulation that says: “If you’re over 50 and you’re a coal-fired power plant, it’s time to go”? Euthanasia for coal-fired power plants.

We need to be able to convince Australians that we can do this together and that people won’t be left behind.

KM Do you feel like Australians still see environmental advancement as undermining the economy? Or have attitudes changed?

TF Well, that is set up as a false dichotomy by those with an ideological vested interest or a financial interest in outcomes. Our current political system tends to divide us ever more deeply, unnecessarily and stupidly, and in a way that disadvantages all of us. We need to find a better way of doing it. Why don’t we have a jury to decide on expenditure? Why don’t we pick 40 citizens at random and say, “Here’s the overall expenditure of the budget we’re looking at. You vary it by 5 per cent. Do you want 5 per cent more or less in Defence?” So people who are paying taxes are actually making the financial decisions.

We all pay tax. We need a say in the money. And if we divorce money from power we’ll get rid of this stupid ideological divide that exists and the common sense that people have has a chance to come to the fore.

KM We’ve heard conflicting assessments of the level of crisis in the Great Barrier Reef. How do you quantify it?

TF Listen to the experts. What they’re telling us is up to 2012, in the century when monitoring was going on, half of the Great Barrier Reef had died. So we’ve got 50 per cent of it left. Earlier this year, 22 per cent of that was killed by coral bleaching in the northern reef – the most untouched part of the reef. The conditions that caused that die-off will be occurring every second year by the 2030s, and that’s if we put no more CO2 into the atmosphere. Even if we stop polluting now, we’ll see substantial ongoing damage – the burden is already so great that warming will be driven out to 2050 no matter what we do. We’ve already left things very, very late.

KM We do have some action from the current government – “Direct Action” – subsidising different kinds of fuels and encouraging renewable energy. What’s your assessment of the progress of that?

TF My biggest issue with Direct Action is that it tends to concentrate on what I call biological carbon – on-farm practices and that sort of thing. They’re important, there’s no doubt about it, but they’re not the core problem in Australia. The core problem is the burning of fossil fuels. So federal action or state action needs to be focused on that outcome.

We need to reform the national electricity market to make sure we can get reliable supply from renewable sources into the future. There are a number of community groups around Australia that have done things like set up their own wind farms, set up distributive networks or retailers for electricity.

There are no immediate fixes. But we can start on a pathway that will see us having a fix in a couple of decades’ time.

KM Beyond climate change, what would be your three priority areas in addressing environmental concerns at the moment?

TF One of the most important things to me is the conservation of biodiversity, particularly avoiding extinction, because extinction is forever. We just saw the loss of yet another mammal species earlier this year, the Bramble Cay melomys, the first mammal in the world to become extinct as a result of climate change. Now we have an endangered species commissioner and he’s supposed to have some money. But the way the system is set up, the poor man can barely do his job.

What the environment minister needs to do is take a risk and say: “Here you go, here’s some money to fix this problem, we don’t want to see another extinction. You don’t have to come back to me for expenditure on everything. Take some risks – get the bloody job done.”

That’s what we lack at the moment – the ability to act quickly. The last time I was deeply involved with this was the extinction of the Christmas Island pipistrelle. I was a member of the Australian Mammal Society. I wrote to the minister Peter Garrett asking for urgent action, because we could see the thing would be extinct in two years’ time if nothing was done. And nothing was done. Despite all the warnings, and everything else, the thing went extinct.

KM So that’s the first priority after climate change: endangered species. What would be the second one?

TF The second one would be to pay for ecosystems services. On farmland and managed land all around Australia, we’ve got landowners and farmers who want to do the right thing, but are economically incentivised to do the wrong thing. We all want to preserve biodiversity. We all want to protect trees and riverine habitat and have clean waters and everything, but the market at the moment is incentivised to have people degrade those things. You’re not going to get them doing it for free. Farmers, like anyone else, have to make a living.

KM What about priority three?

TF For me the next big priority is around the innovation agenda. It is very clear that we don’t have all of the tools that we require at a sufficiently developed stage yet to deal with the climate crisis or deal with a lot of the other sustainability issues in our society. This government set up a $1 billion innovation fund. It should be focused around achieving sustainability and it needs to be more like $10 billion, looking at everything from carbon-negative technologies, like kelp farming, right through to recycling, new materials and minimising the materials and the stuff we throw away.

We’ll see 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050 no matter what we do now, and that will be enough to destroy the Great Barrier Reef. And yet we know, because of a great study done in 2012, that if we cover 9 per cent of the world’s oceans with seaweed farms, we’d offset all of the emissions we currently put into the atmosphere in any one year. Now 9 per cent of the world’s oceans is four-and-a-half times the size of Australia. It’s a big, big ask and we’re not anywhere near that in terms of doing it. But if we start applying ourselves now, there’s no doubt we could have achieved a lot in 30 years’ time. We could offset all current emissions, and we could also be growing 200 kilograms of high-quality marine protein per head of population for a population of nine billion, doing that.

This is an edited transcript from A Month of Saturdays, hosted by Karen Middleton at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. The conversations run every Saturday in September at 3pm.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Sustained energy". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.