It is a law of political science that any organisation that must name itself after a virtue tends not to reflect that virtue. So, the German Democratic Republic (otherwise known as East Germany) was not democratic and the Australian Labor Party no longer represents labourers. Now we have the Business Council of Australia spending more time on the obsessions of the Greens than the interests of business by giving loud support for Australia to adopt a net-zero emissions target.
Respected, apparently proud, business leaders have been openly arguing that if we don’t adopt net-zero emissions other countries (mostly European ones) will be very, very angry with us.
The first reason to reject this argument is because it is craven. The argument is not much better than the schoolyard vice of taking up smoking because everyone else is doing it. I suppose it adds one layer of sophistication by implying that if we don’t do as the Europeans want they might impose tariffs on us. Effectively, it’s the peer pressure argument with the added incentive that the schoolyard bullies will beat us up if we don’t do as others do.
The second reason to reject the argument is because it ignores the facts. There is a country that has not heeded the siren call of climate action.
The United States has pulled out of the Paris agreement and there have not been the dire economic consequences for it that have been predicted for us. Investment into the US has not dried up. Quite the opposite. The US economy has never been stronger.
The third reason to reject the argument is that appeasement never works. A self-interested argument put by some on the non-Labor side of politics is that we should just sign up to net-zero emissions because it doesn’t mean that much and it will take the issue off the table. This ignores the fact that those calling for net-zero emissions will not stop there. If we sign up to it, they will then use it as a battering ram to stop all sorts of other things. Coal-fired power stations, new mines, new farming areas and new airports will all be stopped because of the need to stay true to what we were told was a just an ‘aspirational goal’.
Look what has happened in countries that have signed up to this aspiration. British courts have just stopped the third-runway upgrade to the Heathrow airport because its potential impact on climate change was not properly assessed. It won’t be too long before the environmental activists petition the courts to shut down working airports rather than just prevent new ones being built.
The early stages of the same strategy are evident here. Woodside, along with other oil and gas companies, is planning a $36 billion oil and gas project off the coast of Broome in Western Australia. It is known as the Browse project, a massive investment that could kickstart the WA economy, which has not fully recovered from the mining downturn. Because it involves the extraction of fossil fuels, however, it is in the gun of those who hate economic development.
In Senate estimates this week, it was revealed that the Federal Department of the Environment has asked Woodside to evaluate the environmental impacts that could occur from the carbon emissions of the Browse project.
The overall project is expected to generate around 38 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, or about 0.1 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. Those emissions are almost all due to the burning of the project’s oil and gas in countries like Korea, China and Japan.
Now those emissions will occur anyway. No serious suggestion has been made that North Asian countries will not be able to source oil and gas from somewhere else if we stop the Browse project going ahead.
That has not stopped the Department of the Environment from trying. They are concerned that the carbon emissions from the Browse project will cause global warming which will reduce snowmelt in alpine regions of Australia thus harming native vegetation in the Snowy Mountains. So a $36 billion resources project far off the coast of the north-west of our country, now has to concern itself with environmental protection of an area literally a continent away.
This is all despite the fact that the very same department had approved an earlier version of the Browse project. The earlier project envisaged a floating LNG platform but its carbon emissions were the same. The earlier approval did not even mention carbon emissions as a concern. When questioned about this previous approval, which was just 5 years old, the responsible officer in the Department of the Environment was not even aware of it even though the relevant law has not changed in that time!
How does the Department of the Environment get away with this green-tape creep?
In short they take an inch and run a mile. The department is attempting to stretch a little known provision of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to its limit. Section 527E of the Act requires the government to consider both the direct and indirect environmental impacts of a major project. Indirect consequences are those that the project itself ‘facilitates to a major extent’.
The department could not explain how this project, which would account for 0.1 per cent of global emissions, could facilitate global warming to a ‘major extent’.
At the time the EPBC Act was passed in 1999, I don’t think anyone envisaged that it would be used to try to stop a project in WA because of the environmental impact it may have near the ACT.
This is why we should be wary of glib commitments like net-zero emissions. It can be made to sound like rainbows and sunshine until before you know it we can’t build airports let alone mines or dams.
The real indirect consequences of the Department of Environment’s stance will be just to send oil and gas production to other countries with poorer environmental records.
The Department of the Environment will be complicit in worsening the global environment, once again proving the political adage that there is nothing in a name.
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