There are no green shoots for sustainability in this Budget

More mines, more roads, as the government puts its drive towards economic development ahead of all else. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Budget: The Longer View. The dust has begun to settle on Tuesday’s federal budget – and some key issues and themes are emerging. What are they? This long-read essay is part of a special package intended to answer that question.

The 2015-16 Budget is very disappointing in the broad area of environmental protection. Last year’s cuts to important bodies like Environmental Defenders Offices have not been reversed. Even the funding of a core Coalition initiative, the Green Army, has been cut by A$73 million over four years.

While it is not in the Budget, government members are running a parliamentary inquiry which seems to be aimed at removing charitable status from environmental groups, sparked by claims from the Minerals Council of Australia that environmental objections are adding to the cost of new projects.

The argument being run by some Coalition politicians is that it is quite acceptable for community groups to plant trees or rehabilitate degraded landscapes, but unreasonable for them to campaign against logging old-growth forests or degrading the land with new open-cut mines. Presumably they hope that removing charitable status would make it less likely that the public would donate to environmental groups, reducing their capacity to embarrass the government or slow down new proposals with destructive impacts.

Like the withdrawal of funds from EDOs, it suggests that the government really believes its rhetoric about “green tape”, the claim that we have been over-zealous about protecting the environment and consequently have held back desirable investments. On the contrary, successive reports on the state of the environment and ABS reports on measures of progress all show that the most significant environmental indicators are all getting worse while the economy continues to grow.

While there is an extra A$100 million over four years for measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the cuts to Landcare and the continued promotion of the export coal industry put the reef under increased pressure. There is no new money for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which has been making a real difference.

Bill Shorten’s Budget in Reply was no better on environmental issues. While there was a welcome commitment to funding science and science education, which contrasts with the apparent government hostility to the science which keeps providing inconvenient evidence about the environmental costs of current approaches, I did not hear any concrete plans to apply science to protect the integrity of our ecosystems.

Still not serious about climate

Critically, the government’s budget still shows no sign that it is taking seriously our responsibility to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The allocation for the Emissions Reduction Fund will not meet even the present inadequate target, let alone the sort of goal Australia will be expected to take to the Paris talks later this year.

There is no funding for urban public transport, but the government will spend billions on roads. This is possibly not surprising, given that the ministers who drew up and approved the Budget have probably not been on a train, bus or tram for decades, but it is gross negligence in the context of urban development. Not only is public transport critical for millions of city-dwellers today; it is the only credible way of coping with the increasing numbers in our cities that the government is proposing.

Transport also links directly to questions of energy use, urban air quality and our contribution to climate change. Unless there is a dramatic shift to electric cars or hydrogen vehicles, road traffic will continue to burn petroleum fuels, polluting the city atmosphere and driving climate change.

A political fight on transport policy is looming in Victoria, where the budget retains A$3 billion for the cancelled East-West Link road project. The Commonwealth government is reportedly demanding that Victoria return the A$1.5 billion that was allocated before the state election. With Prime Minister Tony Abbott having said before that election that it would be a referendum on the road project, the new Victorian government feels it has a mandate to use the funds for other transport projects. The Coalition’s polling in Victoria is looking dire, so it will be interesting to see if they try to take transport money from the state government.

Public transport not only uses energy much more efficiently, it can also be driven by cleaner forms of energy from the sun and wind. While ordinary Australians are still voting with their roofs in unprecedented numbers, installing more solar panels in the first quarter of this year than in the corresponding period last year, the government’s attack on the Renewable Energy Target has predictably all but halted investment in large-scale wind and solar projects.

The Opposition has made very significant, arguably borderline irresponsible, concessions to try to end the impasse, but the Coalition’s proposed conditions of allowing forestry residues to count as renewable energy and requiring further reviews every two years has proved a bridge too far.

While the government is openly attacking investment in clean energy technologies, the budget made no attempt to wind back the massive subsidies of fossil fuel supply and use. In fact, a question in the Senate revealed a possible further subsidy that was not noticed in the initial discussions of the Budget. The promised multibillion-dollar fund for infrastructure in northern Australia could be used to pump public funds into the struggling proposals for massive new coal mines in Queensland.

With financial institutions increasingly unwilling to support projects that look dubious investments in strictly financial terms, finance minister Mathias Cormann refused to rule out the possibility that the infrastructure fund could be used to help kickstart coal mines. He repeated Abbott’s famous assertion that “coal is good”, not just pointing to the export revenue the mines provide but also claiming that new coal mines will “lift millions out of poverty”.

Still under the influence of denial

Underlying the deafening silence about climate change in the budget and the continuing promotion of coal exports is the lingering suspicion that the government isn’t serious about the most urgent global environmental problem. The latest intervention by Abbott’s chief business adviser Maurice Newman bordered on farce, not just denying the science but claiming that the world’s scientists are part of a gigantic conspiracy organised by the United Nations. That assertion makes ideas that the Moon landings were faked on a back lot in Hollywood, or the CIA organised the 2011 attacks on the World Trade Centre, seem comparatively rational.

More worrying than Newman’s bizarre public statement was a subsequent letter to the editor from a Coalition politician, Senator Cory Bernadi, praising Newman for his contribution to the debate. That reveals openly that sections of the Coalition party room are still in denial about the scientific evidence which has now been clear for decades.

In 1992, the Council of Australian Governments adopted the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD. It committed the Commonwealth and all state and territory governments to a pattern of development that would not reduce opportunities for future generations. The current emphasis on minerals exports sits uncomfortably with this goal, as it is systematically reducing the capital stock available to future generations to provide money for this generation.

More fundamentally, the NSESD says explicitly that economic development should recognise the need to protect our unique Australian biodiversity and maintain the integrity of our ecological systems. We are still losing biodiversity, mainly because of the destruction of habitat, compounded by the impacts of introduced species and now increasingly by the changes to the climate.

The Budget and the Opposition’s response suggests that neither side recognises the imperatives of the NSESD. The government clearly thinks that the economy is supremely important and that the integrity of our environment is an optional extra. What is portrayed as a path back to surplus makes several heroic assumptions, most fundamentally ignoring the inevitable limits to growth and the impacts of proposed economic developments on our ecological systems. People often find economic forecasting a bit depressing. But what is most depressing is the diminishing prospect of a sustainable future.

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