Want a single word to sum up environmental affairs in 2014? Let’s go with “heated”. The year began with the realisation that 2013 was Australia’s hottest ever (and yes, it’s because of us), and ended with the knowledge that the world has probably just lived through the hottest ever measured globally.
But the heat wasn’t just in the atmosphere; environmental policy provided enough acrimony to keep everyone simmering about something. As the certainty over climate science stacked up ever higher, the uncertainty over Australia’s response has grown too.
In July we said goodbye to the carbon price, as the Abbott government delivered one of its central pledges to voters. True, the policy was cutting emissions, but it was also politically poisonous throughout its two-year life.
Its replacement, the A$2.5 billion Direct Action plan, was finally waved through in October, despite analysts’ reservations about whether the idea of paying polluters to cut greenhouse emissions will actually work. (The government’s other flagship environment policy, the “Green Army”, has been so low-profile as to be almost AWOL.)
Whisper it, but economic forces might yet morph Direct Action into a reborn form of emissions trading. Bizarrely, that could leave mining billionaire Clive Palmer, whose press conference alongside Al Gore must rate as the year’s most unexpected environmental policy moment, looking like an unlikely climate guru after calling for emissions trading to continue, albeit at a price of zero.
Yet this was all tinkering around the edges in comparison with the blockbuster US-China climate deal unveiled in November, which will see China’s emissions peak in 2030 (and no, that doesn’t mean they get to do nothing until then). Coming ahead of the Brisbane G20 summit at which Australia had sought to keep climate off the agenda, this was more a blindside than a shirtfront for Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The move upped the pressure on Australia (and others) to step up at this month’s Lima climate summit. The government pledged A$200 million to the Green Climate Fund, yet progress on the real task at hand, forging a proper climate treaty at the Paris 2015 summit, remains frustratingly slow.
Some organisations decided to take green finance matters into their own hands, with the Australian National University’s decision to divest from seven resources firms prompting a vicious backlash.
Coal and coral
While the current public policy settings have helped the coal industry enjoy huge wins such as the game-changing Carmichael mine development, other events showed that the costs of cheap energy aren’t just financial. The Hazelwood mine fire burned for weeks in February and March, severely polluting the town of Morwell and raising serious questions about Victoria’s coal industry.
The Great Barrier Reef faces an uncertain future too, as the World Heritage Committee mulls the question of whether to list it as officially in danger in the wake of January’s decision to allow millions of tonnes of dredge spoil to be dumped on the reef. The decision was reversed in September, but few issues have prompted more rancour this year.
Elsewhere on the high seas there was a win for Australia on whaling, with The Hague ruling that Japan’s scientific whaling program was against international law. But the long-running battle isn’t quite over – Japan could be back next year with a revised whaling plan.
Jaws of doom
Great white sharks also earned a reprieve after Western Australia’s government was forced to abandon its controversial shark cull. Not a single great white was killed during the three-month trial cull from January to April, but dozens of other sharks were.
Some eastern-staters wondered what all the fuss was about, given that Queensland has targeted sharks for decades – but our analysis showed that this policy doesn’t necessarily work.
But in happier news, the New Guinea big-eared bat made a miraculous return from presumed extinction after 120 years in the scientific wilderness.
Perhaps the biggest challenge when summing up a year of environmental news is to avoid being gloomy. Many Australians would describe themselves as concerned about the environment (whether they actually do anything about it is another question), and it’s easy to see why.
With our oceans full of rubbish, cyclists copping abuse on talk radio, a Treasurer who’s offended by wind farms, and not even surfing safe from climate change, it can be hard for the anxious environmentalist to know where to turn.
But there is some good news, at least for those who aren’t offended by stereotypes: this year was the year science finally proved that tree-hugging really does make you feel better.