Australia, along with Indonesia, is the world’s largest exporter of coal. The coal lobby claims that Australia is only responsible for a small amount of the world’s emissions. The truth is, when you account for all the coal and gas we dig up and send overseas, Australia is responsible for 5% of global emissions.
In fact, export coal is Australia’s single biggest contribution to the global climate crisis. The greenhouse gas emissions from coal that is mined in Australia and burned overseas are nearly double Australia’s domestic emissions from other sources, including transport, electricity generation, and agriculture.
I’m having an ongoing conversation with a friend about the merits and drawbacks of degrowth as a climate action strategy. She is easily the most astute climate thinker I know, with insights available only to those deeply immersed in the nuances of climate finance and decarbonization.
She’s wary of the degrowth movement, as are many prominent players in the climate transition. She views it as an unhelpful distraction from humanity’s efforts to grapple with the climate crisis.
My friend’s problem lies more with degrowth as an action plan on climate than it does with degrowth’s theoretical underpinnings. Degrowth runs perpendicular to the current, hard-won momentum of the global climate response. It critiques the only consensus solution available today: the decarbonization of the global economy through a “green growth” renewable energy revolution. For green growthers, degrowth is an impractical diversion. It’s like an annoying heckler best relegated to the sidelines of climate strategy.
Degrowth’s foundational opposition to continued economic expansion presents a clear challenge to coalition-building on climate. But degrowth is grounded in the ecological reality that resources are finite, a key truth that mainstream climate advocates seem to ignore. Integration of this and other ecological insights into climate dialogue and action is crucial for shifting the needle toward a more holistic, structural response to emerging environmental collapse. Here I make the case for degrowth and green growth as crisis response strategies, then explore the potential for a productive interlocution between the two.
The snail, symbol of the degrowth movement (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)
A Case for Degrowth
The degrowth movement embraces the inconvenient truth that climate change is only one of several macro-scale challenges unfolding on the planet today. The most striking examples are today’s rapidly advancing ecological overshoot, whereby renewable resources are used faster than they are regenerated by nature, along with the sixth mass extinction. Existential crises like these are the direct result of human economic activity.
Today’s global polycrises are fundamentally intertwined, which means that we would be unwise to prioritize decarbonization over the restoration of ecological integrity, or vice versa. A whole-systems approach like degrowth recognizes the need to overhaul simultaneously our carbon-intensive energy infrastructure and the materials-intensive consumer economy it supports. Degrowth calls for structural reforms that decarbonize the economy and decrease its material intensity, while bolstering human wellbeing and democracy.
Green Growth: A Temporary Assist?
In contrast to the comprehensive ecological vision of degrowth, green growth’s scope of action is environmentally narrow. Green growth is an economic strategy as well as a political slogan whose very name demonstrates an obliviousness to the causal relationship between economic growth and environmental destruction. It heralds a sort of promised land in which humanity overcomes climate change through aggressive adoption of low-carbon energy technologies, creating enormous wealth along the way.
The greenest thing about “green growth” is its signage. (CC0 1.0 Public Domain)
It is a rhetorical narrative that connotes profitable, market-based decarbonization and minimal institutional disruption. Crucially, green growth punts on issues of ecological overshoot and global resource inequity, with decarbonization as the only approach to protecting the environment. Green growth advocates treat any ecological side effects of green-growth policies, whether positive or negative, as secondary or incidental.
To give them their due, economic and political actors have used the widespread appeal of green growth to mobilize markets and governments worldwide toward the IPCC’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Despite their flaws, capitalism and democracy are powerful tools for collective action, and green growth engages these institutions at the level of their key interests: profit and popularity. It’s hard to imagine where climate action would be without the use of these important levers.
An Argument for Green Growth
Another strength of green growth is its presumed ease of implementation. Whatever view we hold of the value of capital-backed tech solutions, most people view them as more feasible in the short term than large-scale behavior change or structural reform. Bill McKibben, once an outspoken proponent of a growth-critical climate response, recently made a tactical shift on this question on The Ezra Klein Show:
“The physics of climate change enforces a certain brute reality in one’s set of solutions. And the timing question is the single biggest enforcer of that reality. We have to make very, very rapid change. And so changes in basic human desires or even changes in the physical setup of our world around us come, if they come at all, more slowly.
I think in 100 years, it’s unlikely human beings will be amusing themselves by consuming immense amounts of stuff. I think we’re likely to have moved beyond that. But in seven years, I doubt it. I think for the moment, we’re stuck with things like the suburb, where I grew up, and the physical limits that it enforces on us, which means lots of people driving cars. So we better figure out how to make electric cars work, at least for now. And we better do it very quickly…”
This conversation helped me, begrudgingly, to view green growth as a vehicle that can help us outpace the disaster nipping at our heels. But several factors prevent me from a wholesale embrace of green growth.
The Limits to (Green) Growth
First, it is very unclear whether green growth can actually deliver all the climate progress it promises, given the rising energy demands built into growth. In 2018, the IPCC released a report modeling pathways to net-zero “under a range of assumptions about economic growth, technology development and lifestyles.” Pathways to net-zero that assumed business-as-usual economic growth rely heavily on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), of which the IPCC had this to say:
“CDR deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. CDR is needed less in pathways with particularly strong emphasis on energy efficiency and low demand.”
In other words, a key tool in the green growth toolbox is yet to be verified as effective.
Beyond the unknown effectiveness of CDR schemes are its side effects. One type of CDR, known as BECCS, for “bio-energy with carbon capture and storage,” could involve converting massive amounts of land to monoculture tree plantations. It is projected to result in a 10% loss in global forest cover and 7% loss in biodiversity. Just what we need!
In a green-growth world, we trade forests for plantations. (CC BY-SA-NC 3.0 by Herzi Pinki)
Furthermore, in relying so heavily on the market, green growth situates opaque financial entities like BlackRock and other asset-management firms at the vanguard of the climate response. These companies are patently more concerned with short-term profits than with climate-change mitigation. Aside from a naive faith that the invisible hand of the market will lead to an optimal allocation of resources, what makes us think these titans of capitalist finance are willing to play by the rules? Finally, the zeitgeist of green growth undermines and ignores the potential for structural reforms to advance decarbonization. It is too mired in ideology to act in our best interests and attack climate change from all available angles.
With a generous vision, one can see how green growth might allow us to innovate our way out of the climate crisis, if kept on a tight leash. Green growthers argue that, once we’ve decarbonized, we can turn our attention to other ecological and social crises. But even in a best-case scenario, the resource demands of green growth will undoubtedly exacerbate environmental destruction and social inequality. Even if green growth could proceed without sacrificing ever more ecological integrity, the emerging collapse of planetary systems requires our intervention now, not in thirty years.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Herman Daly, the father of steady state economics, emphasized that steady-state policies should be politically salient within “historically-given initial conditions.” Our initial conditions are clear: The international community has essentially agreed to pursue, as its primary climate strategy, market-based decarbonization through investment in “green” technologies. This strategy would use as little structural reform as possible. In other words, we plan to curb emissions without curbing economic activity.
Given this tricky starting point, how might degrowth toward a steady state economy proceed? First, we need to recognize that degrowthers and green growthers are invested in the same outcome: a viable future for life on earth. We have different timelines and priorities, but we are all on the same team—and we can’t afford to proceed without dialogue and coordination. We need each other.
Moreover, we can look for the considerable areas of mutualism that exist between the two strategies. For example, 40% of all shipping traffic consists of transporting fossil fuels. A global switch to renewable energy across all economic sectors, from power generation to transportation, would eliminate almost all of that 40%, effectively de-growing the shipping sector. There are also, obviously, many decarbonization gains built into degrowth reforms.
It is therefore not unthinkable that a brief period of “green-growth decarbonization” could still serve as the beginning of a larger degrowth transformation toward a freer, more relational future. In this speculative article, Patrick Loftus envisions a degrowth transition that begins slowly, with market-based, green-growth strategies building out a foundation of low-carbon technologies. We would utilize these to support increasingly regenerative, no-growth communities as the crisis deepens and the limits to growth become more visibly and violently clear.
I suggest that degrowth thought leaders shift at least in part from evangelizing a birds-eye, long-term view of degrowth and the steady-state future to identifying degrowth opportunities available within the given institutional framework. This approach would bring about incremental but substantial degrowth, providing proof of concept and laying the foundation for a larger transformation away from consumerism and growth dependence.
We should pick the low-hanging fruits first, those with high decarbonization potential and relatively low implementation barriers. One example has to do with the rollout of electric vehicles. As Bill McKibben argues, we need to invest aggressively in electric vehicle technology and make fossil-fuel transportation a thing of the past.
Low-hanging degrowth fruits are ripe for the picking. (CC BY-SA 2.0 by Karunakar Rayker)
At the same time, replacing the global vehicle fleet with electric vehicles on a 1:1 basis is unrealistic, unnecessary, and even imperialist. Consider, for example, the amount of lithium that would have to be mined throughout the global south to enable this “renewables-based re-boot” of western hyper-consumerism. A recent report from the Climate and Community Project offered this vital insight:
“As societies undertake the urgent and transformative task of building new, zero-emissions energy systems, some level of mining is necessary. But the volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed.”
The authors outline several policies for achieving net-zero transportation emissions while minimizing environmental harm and fostering collective wellbeing, all while effectively de-growing the personal transportation sector. They advocate for an expansion of public transportation infrastructure—trains, buses, subways—to greatly reduce car dependency and, therefore, the amount of mining required to decarbonize. For example, expanding the American passenger train network to rival that of Europe would greatly reduce the emissions and material intensity associated with car and airplane travel. Such an intervention could result in degrowth at large and set a precedent for integrating structural reform into the mainstream climate response.
Incremental change can be tough to accept when you’re trying to prevent mass suffering and extinction, but as Herman Daly and Joshua Farley remind us, we must start “from where we are, even if the basic idea is not to remain there.”
Yasmine Sherif initially launched Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, from a tiny office in New York in 2017, when the Fund became operational. Just a few years later, ECW, which is hosted by UNICEF, has already mobilized almost $2 billion and created a global movement to ensure children impacted by emergencies and protracted crises worldwide enjoy their right to an education. Learn more about this breakthrough global fund that is transforming education in emergencies and protracted crises.
By Kent Page, ECW Chief Advocacy/Communications
In 2017, Yasmine Sherif was appointed by the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown and the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Steering Committee, to lead Education Cannot Wait, the UN global fund for emergencies and protracted crises. With a small staff, and an even smaller starter budget, Sherif has now mobilized close to US$2 billion, including an unprecedented US$826 million at last month’s High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva.
Through these contributions from donors worldwide — and aligned funding through ECW’s innovative Multi-Year Resilience Programs — ECW and its strategic partners have already reached more than 7 million crisis-impacted children with the safety, hope and opportunity of a quality education.
“Education is an inherent human right of every girl and boy, no matter who or where they are. Education, represented as Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4): ‘equitable, inclusive quality education for all’, is foundational to achieving all the other SDGs, whether to end hunger, address climate change or achieve gender equality. Without it, we will never achieve peace and stability in our times,” says Sherif, ECW’s Executive Director.
“UNICEF is proud to be a strategic partner of ECW, which helps deliver quality education to vulnerable girls and boys,” says UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Every child has a right to learn. UNICEF is urging public and private sector donors to step up support to Education Cannot Wait.” In partnership with UNICEF and other UN agencies, donors, civil society organizations and the private sector, ECW aims to reach 20 million children with holistic education support over the next four years, with a focus on gender-equality, inclusivity, quality of learning outcomes and other holistic education supports.
“I’ve worked for the United Nations for 30 years now, much of that in humanitarian contexts. During my posting and visits to places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Lebanon and beyond, I’ve come to realize that we must put human beings first in everything we do. I will not rest until these girls and boys are ensured their right to learn, develop and achieve their full potential,” says Sherif.
“As a human rights lawyer, a humanitarian, and international civil servant, I believe that education is one of the most powerful tools we have in fulfilling the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter and the commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
Today, unprecedented levels of displacement in Africa, South America and the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, COVID-19 and other humanitarian crises are derailing development gains worldwide. Progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for an inclusive quality education for all, needs to be put upfront as international efforts seek to end wars, famine, displacement and mitigate climate-related disasters.
“ECW was founded at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. At the time, it was estimated that globally 75 million children caught in crisis and emergencies needed educational support. Today, that number has tripled to 222 million. That’s 222 million futures denied, 222 million dreams dashed, 222 million promises broken. We can do better. We must do better,” says Sherif.
“For years, leaders have promised quality education for all. For years, we’ve promised sustainable development and an end to perpetual traps of conflicts and extreme poverty. For years, we’ve said that girls and women will enjoy equal rights. Yet, here we are in 2023, and girls in Afghanistan are denied their inherent right to education, boys in the Sahel are being recruited as child soldiers, Rohingya girls are being sold into slavery, schools in Ukraine are being targeted in vicious and illegal attacks. We must rethink the way we address these interconnected crises. We need to rethink the future of sustainable development. We need to put human beings at the centre.”
“Transformation is the way forward,” says Sherif. “We need to transform the way we work, which requires bringing humanitarian and development actors together, governments and private sector together, and place the young generation at the forefront. Education is the foundation to addressing climate change, gender and disability inclusion, aid localization, early childhood development, ending conflicts and forced displacement.”
Education is not limited to numerical and literacy skills. It also entails mental health, school feeding and nutrition, water and sanitation, and other elements of a holistic education, which in turn requires sustainability through comprehensive multi-year packages.
ECW and its partners deliver impactful and holistic quality education across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus for girls and boys living on the front lines of crises in place like Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Chad, Lebanon, Syria, Uganda and other crisis-impacted countries worldwide.
“At ECW, we are breaking down silos and bringing partners together across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to inspire change and build a movement to leave no child behind. This means changing the way we do things. It means embracing our instincts for change and innovation, while still making sure that we fulfill our duties to UN Member States, our donors and, indeed, the global community to make good on our commitments to universal human rights. It means delivering further, faster and deeper. It means putting the needs of the girls and boys impacted by crisis first and foremost in everything we do.”
As a hosted fund, ECW is administered under UNICEF’s financial, human resources and administrative rules and regulations, and operations are run by the Fund’s own independent governance structure – led by the ECW High-Level Steering Group. Chaired by The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, the Steering Group includes key representatives from government, donors, civil society and the private sector – a veritable Who’s Who in the education space. This has allowed Sherif and her lean team of just over 30 staff to scale up operations rapidly and rethink the way the UN delivers quality learning outcomes for children and adolescents in crisis contexts. The results say it all. Since becoming operational in 2017, ECW has already reached 7 million children and adolescents through comprehensive, holistic education approaches that include upgrading learning spaces, training teachers, embracing innovative models like conditional cash transfers, providing mental health and psychosocial services, school feeding and learning materials, and ensuring continuity of education from early childhood through to secondary school.
“I believe that working for the United Nations is a sacred duty. It’s a duty to humanity. More importantly, it’s a duty to girls like Angel* in the Democratic Republic of Congo to overcome the stigma and horrific scars of sexual violence and find safety and solace in education. It’s a duty to Lucas*, a refugee from the Central African Republic who saw his mother killed in front of his eyes and finally gets to go to school. It’s a duty to Nafisa* in Afghanistan, who dreams one day of becoming a doctor,” says Sherif.
“I will not rest until these girls and boys are able to go to school. I will not rest until they are able to fulfill their potentials. I will not rest until the atrocities of war, violence, hatred and ignorance are a thing of the past. It is possible to make a difference.”
It is demoralising watching Labor reject the findings of the global scientific community.
It has been a typically exasperating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report day, after the UN body put out another dire warning for the world to act now or suffer irrevocable damage. A Greens motion to acknowledge the IPCC report, which calls for coal to be phased out by 2030, was deferred, with Climate Minister Chris Bowen arguing that MPs could vote for the safeguard reforms if they want to see action. (Never mind that those reforms in no way match what the UN is calling for.) Former Labor leader Bill Shorten told Sky News that the party would not be changing its policy, despite calls to fast-track net zero. “[The IPCC report] says that it is possible to keep global temperatures within an increase of 1.5C,” he said, as he advocated for Labor’s policy, ignoring the fact that the report says we must act much faster to have any hope of achieving that goal. Carbon Market Institute chair Kerry Schott used today’sappearances to call for the Greens to fall into line, misrepresenting their demands, as did independent senator Jacqui Lambie. All this, despite the fact that, as climate consultant Ketan Joshi writes, the IPCC report shows Labor’s approach to be “deadly and reckless”. It prompts the question: does Labor think scientists are only to be listened to when it’s convenient?
After nine years of Coalition government, we are used to watching our leaders respondpathetically to these UN reports. But there is something especially disheartening about watching a Labor government reject the findings of the world’s top climate scientists, in the first of these reports to be released under its watch. The Albanese government is not quite mocking the IPCC, as the Coalition did when it was in office. (Senator Matt Canavan labelled a previous report “fear porn”, while former minister Paul Fletcher referred to the UN secretary-general’s criticism as the “chattering classes of the UN”.) But it’s interesting to recall that when it was in Opposition, Labor was the party moving motions to acknowledge IPCC reports and their findings. The Morrison government knocked them back. How the tables have turned.
It would have been naive to expect the Albanese government to change tack on the safeguard mechanism following this report, especially considering, as Shorten noted today, that it’s not exactly new information. We already knew Labor’s reforms didn’t align with the science, as did Labor. Report after report has shown that the safeguard mechanism won’t do what’s needed, with a new report today showing that the 116 new fossil fuel projects in the pipeline would emit 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions by 2030 – 24 times the total 204 million tonne reduction set out by the safeguard mechanism. Scientists have repeatedly called for an end to new fossil-fuel projects if we are to have any chance at success, while our Pacific island neighbours continually beg us to stop, as they did again yesterday, with Vanuatu’s climate change minister suggesting the nation won’t back Australia’s 2026 COP bid while we continue to open new fossil-fuel projects. But it’s nonetheless galling to watch Labor, a party that supposedly believes in climate science, disregard a dire IPCC report and refuse to let those warnings alter its policy – “giving the United Nations the middle finger,” as Greens leader Adam Bandt put it today.
It’s not as if stronger action doesn’t have the public onside. GetUp polling on the safeguard mechanism found that 80 per cent of Labor voters want it to require corporations to actually cut emissions (rather just “offset” them), while 60 per cent of Australians want the Greens and independents to make sure this happens. New Australia Institute polling has found the majority of voters in metropolitan seats support stopping new coal and gas projects, as the Greens are advocating for. And analysis shows we have enough coal mines to meet demand through to 2040 (although the UN would rather we stopped 10 years sooner than that), so there is no good reason for the government not to at least rule out new coal. The only thing lacking is the political will from Labor, which remains wedded to a policy that business loves, but climate scientists abhor.
It’s not all bad news, however. As UN secretary-general António Guterres tweeted today, alongside his references to Oscars darling Everything Everywhere All at Once, “We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge”. And as Nine’s damning analysis notes, “We have everything we need to fix the climate crisis. But we need to do it now.” Indeed, we do have everything required to avert catastrophic warming – everything except, as cartoonist for TheSaturday Paper Jon Kudelka observed, “a government with a spine”.
There is nothing equivocal about the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is the earth’s last chance to avoid climate disaster.
The world will likely exceed 1.5 degrees of warming within a decade and is on track to a catastrophic 3.2 degrees by the end of the century, the report says, unless there are “immediate and deep” cuts in fossil fuel extraction and use.
“Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.
“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”
This week’s IPCC “synthesis report” collates the work of six previous reports, involving 700 scientists over six years, drawing on tens of thousands of scientific studies. It was signed off by 195 countries, including Australia.
It makes for disturbing reading but also offers a sliver of hope. “The 1.5-degree limit is achievable,” says the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action.”
The report, Guterres says, provides a “survival guide for humanity”, a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb”.
Specifically, he says, it requires that all countries stop all funding for coal and phase out its use by 2030 in developed countries and 2040 in other countries. Electricity generation must be net zero by 2035 for developed countries and by 2040 for the rest of the world. He says governments should redirect existing subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy and the world must immediately stop all new oil and gas projects and any expansion of existing oil and gas.
Yet the Australian government, along with many others, is not doing what the IPCC says must be done. While the Albanese government plans to meet 82 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2030, there will still be some coal generation in the system beyond that date. Fossil fuel subsidies, both state and federal, continue. They totalled $11.6 billion in 2021-22.
Most importantly, both the Labor federal government and Coalition opposition remain intractably opposed to halting new fossil fuel extraction. Australia is already the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second-largest coal exporter. The bipartisan position is that we should mine more.
At the most recent count there were 116 new fossil fuel projects on the federal government’s Resource & Energy Major Project list, which, according to analysis by The Australia Institute this week, would add 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere by 2030. Put another way, these new projects would produce 24 times more emissions than the reduction promised by the government’s proposed safeguard mechanism.
The government excuses its encouragement of new and expanded coal and gas developments on the basis that the overwhelming bulk of emissions from burning those fuels would be released outside Australia, and therefore would not count against our emissions reduction target. That ignores the fact greenhouse gases do not observe national boundaries, and that the IPCC, along with the International Energy Agency and other multilateral bodies, says all new developments must stop, now. The only Australian political party that holds this position is the Greens.
The politics of the issue are becoming very willing as the government presses for the passage of legislation for its safeguard mechanism, which would force 215 of Australia’s biggest climate polluters to progressively reduce their emissions.
No doubt the mechanism represents a significant advance on the climate policy of the previous Coalition government, but it would cut Australia’s total emissions by only about 215 million tonnes, or 8 per cent, by 2030, at best.
The Greens are under internal pressure, including from former party leader Bob Brown, to vote against the safeguard mechanism unless the government also acts against new fossil fuel developments. Given that the Coalition parties are resolved to vote against the proposed legislation, the 12 Greens votes, plus one crossbench vote, would be sufficient to defeat it.
As Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen observed this week, it would be “pretty ironic” if those senators who support greater climate action were to vote the same way as the Liberal and National parties, which want less.“Every tonne of emissions matters and every fraction of a degree of warming matters … The challenge will always be to cut our emissions as quickly as possible.”
There also is countervailing pressure from more moderate elements of the Greens party, major conservation organisations and other climate activists to pass the safeguard mechanism legislation, on the basis that it is at least a small step in the right direction.
Greens parliamentarians, along with most crossbenchers in both houses, are also harshly critical of the fact that the government’s proposal would allow companies subject to the safeguard mechanism to avoid cleaning up their facilities and instead buy carbon offsets to cover up to 100 per cent of their emissions. According to credible critics, a substantial proportion of those offsets do not represent real, additional abatement. A variety of amendments have been proposed to try to address the major flaws in the government’s proposal.
“Right now the safeguard mechanism does more to safeguard the fossil fuel industry than it does to safeguard our climate and our future,” said one of those crossbenchers, Sophie Scamps, this week.
Under the terms of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, informed by the IPCC’s 2014 synthesis report, most of the world’s nations promised to “substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees”.
Since then, though, says the new report, “observed impacts, improved process understanding, and new knowledge on exposure and vulnerability of human and natural systems, including limits to adaptation,” has shown that the consequences of even small increases in temperature are far more serious than previously thought.
Indeed, you don’t have to be a scientist to see it. It’s in the news every day: melting glaciers and ice shelves, more intense storms, accelerating sea-level rise, dying coral reefs, unprecedented fires, floods, droughts, famine, record heat – the list goes on.
Some 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in parts of the world – mostly poor nations – identified by the IPCC as “highly vulnerable” to climate change. Between 2010 and 2020, says the report, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in those places than in regions with very low vulnerability.
This is happening now, with an average global temperature increase, to date, of 1.1 degrees. In that sense, the 1.5 number is arbitrary, just one point on a continuum of ever more severe consequences as temperatures rise.
In reality, says Zebedee Nicholls, a research fellow at Melbourne Climate Futures at the University of Melbourne, who worked on the IPCC report, “every tonne of emissions matters and every fraction of a degree of warming matters … The challenge will always be to cut our emissions as quickly as possible”.
That said, the IPCC report does present 1.5 degrees as the threshold between the dire and the catastrophic.
“Above 1.5°C of global warming, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard adaptation limits for small islands and for 17 regions dependent on glacier and snow melt,” it says. “Above that level, ecosystems such as some warm-water coral reefs, coastal wetlands, rainforests, and polar and mountain ecosystems will have reached or surpassed hard adaptation limits.”
As of the end of 2020, the report notes, the emissions reduction policy promises made by the world’s governments are consistent with two degrees of warming.
The difference between what governments have committed to and what the science says is necessary, says Nicholls, is called the “ambition gap”. While that half-degree gap does not look large on paper, the real-world consequences are, as the above quotes from the IPPC show, dramatic.
There is another gap, too, says Nicholls: “the implementation gap, which is the gap between countries’ ambitions and what they’re actually doing on the ground”.
The collective failure of world governments to keep even their inadequate promises, says the IPCC, has the world heading towards a 3.2 degree rise by 2100.
To get some idea of what this could mean, not just in the near future but for millennia to come, consider sea-level rise. Over the first 70 years of last century, the oceans rose by an average 1.3 millimetres a year. Since 2006, the rate has almost trebled to 3.7 millimetres.
That might not seem much, but the rate continues to increase and the seas will keep rising whatever we do. It is, says the IPCC report, “unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt and sea levels will remain elevated for thousands of years”.
It is beyond human power to stop it, but we can limit it. If warming were restricted to 1.5 degrees, says the report, sea levels might go up less than two metres over the next 2000 years and less than six metres if limited to 2 degrees. An increase of between two and three degrees would see much greater rise as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets “almost completely and irreversibly” melted.
A worst-case scenario could see as much as a two-metre rise by the end of this century and 15 metres by 2300.
That is unlikely but, says the report, “current 1-in-100 year extreme sea level events are projected to occur at least annually in more than half of all tide gauge locations by 2100 under all considered scenarios”.
Not only will the seas continue to rise but, because they are rising and creating hotter seas, they will also fuel stronger storms. The oceans are becoming more acidic and deoxygenated, too, which has already adversely affected fisheries and aquaculture.
The tragedies resulting from climate change go on and on.
Extreme heat is killing people and will kill more. Climate-related food shortages and water-borne diseases are increasing.
Already, says the report, “roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least part of the year due to a combination of climatic and non-climatic drivers”. This will get worse.
“Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation, and very wet and very dry weather and climate events and seasons”, affecting food and water security.
Extreme weather is increasingly driving human displacement across Africa, Asia, North America and Central and South America. The consequences of rising temperature are myriad and addressing them will be complex, but the root cause is simple: the burning of fossil fuels, which Australia has in abundance.
We are also among the world’s most profligate users of them: 18.9 tonnes per capita in 2022, according to government figures. If we were held responsible for the emissions from our exports, that figure would be several times higher.
Which brings us back to domestic politics and the government’s excuses for its refusal to stop new fossil fuel projects.
One, as already noted, is that the emissions from our exports are not counted as Australian emissions.
Another excuse offered by government is that Australia needs to mine more gas to generate electricity, to see us through the transition to renewable energy. In noting this, it is important to remember the position of the IPCC and the Greens is not that we should shut down existing production, only new production.
The government’s argument is specious. Australia produces plenty of gas, it’s just that we export more than 70 per cent of it.
Even so, says Bruce Robertson, gas industry analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the country has “over eight years of fully developed reserves” available for domestic supply, without diverting any from the export stream.
Those figures are based on the assumption we keep burning gas at historical rates. In reality, the Australian Energy Market Operator is forecasting that gas usage in power generation will decline by 34 per cent by 2030.
As Robertson says: “We don’t need more gas for the transition.”
Australia would need a whole lot less gas still if the government got serious about moving households to electric heating, cooling and cooking.
Replacing gas with electricity, says Bruce Mountain, an energy economist and head of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre at Victoria University, would be expensive and “quite a big, technically complex implementation task”.
“But it’s eminently financable through government and private sector.”
It comes down to a question of priorities, he says. The government is not willing to spend the hundreds of billions needed for that energy transition but is prepared to spend hundreds of billions on nuclear submarines – which we are unlikely ever to use.
“The AUKUS deal is a nice number,” Mountain says. “And I think it’ll get used as a benchmark for all sorts of things, and quite reasonably so.”
On Tuesday, Chris Bowen put out a media release responding to the IPCC’s new report, saying it “confirms what we already know” – that the window for action was closing, that global warming has increased at an unprecedented rate over the past decade, and that by the 2030s “every region in the world is expected to face increasing risks from climate change”.
The release went on to boast that the government had “legislated Australia’s 43% emissions reduction target by 2030, along with net zero by 2050, supercharging a new offshore wind industry and delivering the $20 billion Rewiring the Nation investment to decarbonise our grid…”
A 43 per cent emissions target is big, especially compared to the 28 per cent target of the previous government, but it is well below what the IPCC and other experts say is needed. This week at the National Press Club the former head of the government’s Energy Security Board, Dr Kerry Schott, argued for an emissions reduction target of 70 per cent by 2035.
Bowen’s media release continued: “If passed, our Safeguard reforms will come into effect in just 101 days from now. And with only 82 months left before 2030 – it is critical that we seize every possible day of the remaining decade to drive down emissions.”
There can be no questioning that he is right, and that every day is critical. The IPPC makes that plain. What is in doubt is his plan for getting there. Even if the government passes the safeguard mechanism, and it achieves what he claims it will, that will not be enough. The world needs much more, much sooner. As the IPCC outlines: this is our last chance.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as “IPCC: This is the last chance to avoid catastrophe”.
During World War II, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, wiping out 90% of the city. Last year, researchers say, the ocean heated up an amount equal to the energy of five of those bombs detonating underwater “every second for 24 hours a day for the entire year.”
John Abraham, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, is among more than a dozen scientists who revealed this week the ocean in 2022 was “the hottest ever recorded by humans.” It increased by 10.9 Zetta Joules, an amount of energy equivalent to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and an amount of heat about 100 times more than the electricity generated worldwide in 2021.
Four basins of the seven world ocean regions – the North Pacific, North Atlantic, Mediterranean and southern oceans – had the highest heat records since the 1950s.
This marks the fourth time in a row that ocean heat content has surpassed records broken the year prior. And while it may seem like a “broken record” at this point, Abraham said this is anything but “normal.”
“This is a continuing, ongoing trend,” he said. “It’s getting worse every year.”
Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science as well as a senior scientist at Breakthrough Energy, told CBS News that the ocean “is the pacemaker of the climate systems response to our CO2 emissions.”
“The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing year by year. And these greenhouse gases, trap energy in Earth’s system prevent it from going to space, and most of that energy goes into the ocean, which causes the ocean to warm,” he said.
From there, some of the ocean heat is transferred back to the atmosphere, Abraham said, as is moisture and humidity, creating a surge of more energy that “makes storms more powerful.”
“So when oceans warm and when the Earth warms, it makes our weather wilder,” Abraham said. “We go from one extreme to the other, more rapidly.”
The most recent example of this can be seen in California, which has undergone weeks of heavy flooding and record-breaking rain as a series of atmospheric rivers barrage the West Coast. Climate change didn’t cause those atmospheric rivers and storms, but a warmer atmosphere has been linked to making storms more intense.
Oceans are facing another problem. When it rains, the fresh water from the clouds helps decrease salinity in the ocean as new water comes down. But data shows that rain isn’t providing equal coverage across the seas, with areas that typically get a lot of rain experiencing even more in the past year, reducing their salinity. Meanwhile those in usually dry environments become even drier, increasing those levels as more water evaporates than comes down.
Because of this, the salinity-contrast index – essentially the difference between the highest and lowest salinity levels in the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean – also reached its highest level on record last year.
A high salinity-contrast index and high ocean temperatures can individually make weather events more severe.
“And they are now conspiring together,” Abraham told CBS News. “Their effects are additive.”
Ocean regulation has become “problematic”
The increasing measures of temperature and salinity have also led to another issue within the ocean – it’s ability to self-regulate. Water usually experiences vertical mixing, in which water from the top carries valuable gases and heat to the bottom of the ocean while water from the bottom moves up, carrying with it vital nutrients.
The latest study explains that this process is “a central element of Earth’s climate system.” But since 1960, researchers estimate that stratifcation, or the separation of water layers that makes this process more difficult, has increased by 5.3% in the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean and up to about four times that amount in the upper 150 meters.
“What we’ve discovered is mixing is happening less,” Abraham said. “…Because of climate change and because we’ve heated the surface waters so much, they aren’t able to fall downwards … And that is problematic.”
That’s because if heat from the surface can’t mix with the cooler water below, that surface will only get warmer and reduce how much carbon the water can store – an ability that is vital to extending the global warming process. The ocean is like a sponge for carbon emissions, taking in about 90% of the heat from the worldwide total, but if its ability to do so is diminishing as emissions are only increasing, experts say the planet will only warm faster, making the worst impacts of climate change happen sooner.
Investing in climate solutions a “no brainer”
All of this data gathered leads Abraham to believe that “we will never hit the Paris Accord goals” of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Even the United Nations has said that the world is more on track to hit nearly 3 degrees Celsius by the time today’s children are grandparents.
We can’t undo the damage that has already been done, Caldeira said, but we can prevent it from getting worse.
“Right now, our carbon dioxide emissions from our energy system are around 100 times bigger than all of the carbon dioxide emissions from every volcano and mid-ocean ridge and geothermal vents and everything that exists in nature,” he said. “…The most important thing we can do is transition to an energy system that doesn’t use the atmosphere and the oceans as a waste dump.”
“We can solve this problem today with today’s technology, we just need to get off your asses and start doing it,” Abraham added, saying that doing so “is a no brainer” when you consider the the exorbitant costs of climate disasters, which topped $165 billion in the U.S. alone last year.
“We’ve reached an economic tipping point where it’s starting to make economic sense to use clean energy,” Abraham said. “…Earth’s climate is a heavy locomotive. And if you want to stop a heavy locomotive, you’ve got to put the brakes on and it’ll take you like a mile to stop. … You’ve got to start taking actions early and give it time give time for those actions to have measurable outcomes.”
The burning of fossil fuels and destruction of ecosystems through the extraction of resources has led to the precipice of a catastrophe. How do we step away from the precipice? Catherine Knight examines what ‘degrowth’ would look like in a New Zealand context.
By Dr Catherine Knight an award-winning writer and policy practitioner who has published several books on the environment, including “Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand”
Many of us are aware by now that we are facing multiple crises: climate change being just one – warming and acidifying oceans, depleted soils, global habitat and biodiversity loss are among the others in this ‘polycrisis’. The Auckland floods have made us acutely aware of how vulnerable our cities are to the ravages of extreme weather, events predicted to become more extreme and frequent as the effects of climate change bed in.
We know that this is not going to get better any time soon. There will be more floods, droughts and other weather events that will cause destruction, economic loss and human distress on a scale that we cannot yet imagine. Even the issues that affect us day to day, such as the cost of living, have at their root the unsustainability of our current economic system.
The realisation is dawning among many of us that we cannot solve this problem following the same path that led us here – that is, an extractive growth-oriented economy dislocated from the realities of a finite planet.
But the rejection of a growth-oriented economy is a huge paradigm shift. For many of us a growth-based economy sounds normal and healthy. Surely growth is a good thing – it is what children and plants do. But in fact the economy that we have now – one based on the exponential extraction of resources and of capital accumulation among a concentrated few – is a mere blip in human economic history. We have long had market economies based on the exchange of goods and services and yes, there have always been the wealthy, land-owning classes, but the year-on-year exponential growth of both national and global economies has only been enabled by the one-off windfall discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels – oil and natural gas. This has been the life-blood of our economy for the last century.
But the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of ecosystems and ‘natural commons’ – our oceans, air, land and freshwaters – through the extraction of resources has led us here, to the precipice of a catastrophe, or ‘Great unravelling’ as it has come to be known. How do we step away from the precipice? Even if we agree that it cannot be through more growth – more extraction of resources, further degradation of the biosphere, the life-supporting system for human civilisation (whether or not in the guise of ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ ) – what other way is there?
And in Europe and beyond, many countries, regions and cities are implementing policies aligned with degrowth. For instance, late last year, France announced it was banning domestic flights for routes that can be travelled by rail, while nearly 100 cities worldwide offer free public transport, and several countries have trialed or implemented a form of universal basic income, including Finland. And arguably, New Zealand is well along the spectrum already in respect to post-growth economy policies, with our publicly funded healthcare and education systems.
So what is degrowth exactly? Despite the name, degrowth advocates do not suggest the carte blanche reduction of economic activity. They propose the downscaling of parts of the economy that do little to contribute to human wellbeing while causing enormous harm to the environment. Examples of such sectors are industrialised meat and dairy production, fast fashion, advertising, cars and SUVs, and aviation. They argue for the need to lengthen the lifespan of products by phasing out single-use products and the regulation of designed-in obsolescence of electronic and household appliances.
On the other hand, advocates of degrowth propose the expansion of sectors of the economy that will support our transition to an economy that operates within planetary boundaries. Such sectors include renewable energy generation, public transport, social housing, the health and care sectors, education, environmental restoration, and sustainable food production, among others.
Degrowth advocates argue that whether we like it or not, we will get to a point (and it may be sooner than we realise) when current growth rates are no longer viable, and our existing economic system will collapse. Rather than a chaotic collapse leading to unimaginable human suffering and social disruption, they advocate a planned transition to a post-growth economy, in which the economic system is redesigned to put human and planetary wellbeing at the centre, rather than (unevenly distributed) wealth creation. This would be a more rational and efficient economy because it would be centred on producing goods and services that we actually need, not ones that we have been convinced that we need through increasingly sophisticated marketing.
Degrowth advocates propose a suite of policies including the scaling down of ecologically destructive industries, the decommodification of public goods such as public transport, healthcare, education and electricity, and a shift from an ownership-oriented economy to one oriented around usership, where appropriate. Degrowth proponents acknowledge that these sort of down-shifts of substantial parts of the economy will mean less paid work for those working in ‘sunset’ industries, and propose policies such as a universal basic income, publicly-funded retraining schemes and a four-day week to address this. These and other policies would enable more people to contribute to society in ways that are not rewarded by direct income, including in care-giving, environmental restoration, or work that contributes in other ways to social or community wellbeing.
Clearly such a fundamental redesign of the economy would have major financial implications. There would be less revenue produced by energy-intensive, ecologically damaging sectors. But it needs to be remembered that – despite the myth of trickle-down economics – the bulk of this wealth currently goes back into the pockets of a wealthy few, with very little made available to be invested in public goods or services.
Moreover, under our current economic system, the ‘externalities’ of harmful industries fall on the taxpayer to deal with – examples include the Tui Mine clean-up and the remediation of countless other contaminated sites (and we have the billion-dollar Tiwai Point clean-up to look forward to); recovery from floods and landslides exacerbated by poor forestry practices; restoration of degraded waterbodies (such as Lake Taupo) as a result of historical and current land-use practices; and of course the escalating cost of recovery from weather events made more frequent and extreme by climate change (an externality of the ‘obscenely’ profitable fossil fuel industry).
There is no doubt that any attempt to redesign the economy to put human and environmental wellbeing at the centre will be challenging – it will be disruptive and require fundamental changes in the way we organise public finances, the broader finance system, and how we value work and public goods. However, not planning for such a transition, and simply reacting haphazardly to the seismic social and economic disruption that is tracking towards us as a result of climate change, ecological collapse and energy descent will be many times more destructive and harmful to people and society.
There are still many more questions around how we might design and achieve a truly wellbeing-centred economy – and the degrowth scholarship is alert to these unknowns – but isn’t now the time to be asking and exploring these questions? There are numerous bright minds in government, industry and in academia who are thinking deeply about these issues. Why not bring these people together to undertake an honest and robust examination of the pathways offered by degrowth and other postgrowth economic scholarshipand how policies might be designed to guide us away from the precipice and towards a future where our economic system is in balance with the natural world?
Blending hydrogen into the gas supply has been promoted as a quick and easy way to support the development of a local green hydrogen industry, by creating guaranteed demand.
However, recent network planning in Victoria shows major works would be needed before blends could be safely added in most parts of the state, with separate issues affecting both distribution and transmission systems.
Total costs are still unknown – but it’s clear blending in most places won’t be possible until 2030 or later.
Prospective blending projects often propose adding hydrogen directly into distribution rather than transmission lines, to avoid the high operating pressures that cause hydrogen embrittlement.
However, Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) has confirmed that in Victoria, introducing blends to the distribution lines could also potentially risk the safety of the transmission system (the VTS).
This is partly due to the lower-pressure sections of the VTS, where it traverses metro areas. These breach the pressure differential that usually isolates transmission from distribution gases.
The VTS is an interconnected network rather than straight pipeline, made up of different types of pipe of different ages. Introducing hydrogen blends might mean parts need to be replaced, or operating pressures wound back.
APA, who owns the VTS, has been unable to make an estimate around the scope, cost or timeline for what would be required to support hydrogen blends in their assets – or confirm whether it might be possible at all.
Last year, they requested $19 million of additional funds through regulated revenue to answer these questions – given the difficulty of this assessment for the VTS.
Funding has so far been declined by the regulator, given that hydrogen blending is not currently a requirement in Victoria – but the question of the effects of hydrogen in transmission assets remains.
Evidence from other projects suggest these costs could be high. An Environmental Impact Statement released last year for the proposed new gas generator at Kurri Kurri found that building the high-pressure storage to be compatible with hydrogen (a 30% blend in this case), would be uneconomic, even as a new-build.
Transmission issues aside, the recent Victorian gas access arrangements also discovered major works need to be completed on distribution lines before blends can be added. Network businesses themselves don’t expect blending to be possible until 2030. They don’t expect to be ready to transport pure hydrogen until 2050, or 2040 ‘as a stretch target.’
Programs already underway to replace legacy low-pressure mains – especially cast-iron lines – would need to be finished before hydrogen blends could safely be injected: with the largest works remaining in the urban Multinet network.
These older generations of pipes are particularly leaky, and proactive replacement programs have been targeting these for upgrade, anyway, over recent periods.
A recent feasibility study completed with ARENA, for Ballarat, confirms the need to replace these older low-pressure mains before adding hydrogen.
It also finds that hydrogen’s lower energy density reduces the carrying capacity of the network slightly, sometimes requiring the system to be upsized. (Hydrogen’s fast flow rate only partly offsets its lower energy density by volume.) A similar study completed for Wodonga found capacity to be reduced by 2.5%.
In addition to mains replacement and possible augmentation, incompatible parts across the network would also need to be upgraded.
Proponents of hydrogen might argue that most of the upgrades needed to accommodate blends would likely be needed soon anyway – i.e. replacing old pipes and upsizing assets that are close to capacity.
However, current planning is not being undertaken in normal conditions; the proposal for blending has come at a time of great uncertainty for gas networks, where residential gas use is forecast to decline.
Recent regulatory decisions for Victoria’s gas networks acknowledge that the increased competition from efficient electric alternatives now presents a stranding risk to their assets.
These circumstances warrant increased caution around new investment in gas networks. Safe and reliable operation remain essential, but as far as possible, unnecessary spending on infrastructure expected to become stranded should be avoided.
Others have questioned the benefits and practicalities of hydrogen blending, especially given its limited climate impact – but what the Victorian access arrangements show is that adding blends can’t be assumed to be quick or cheap.
Given the early stage of our experience working with hydrogen in Australia, it’s important that lessons from the ground are fed back effectively into our planning for developing a hydrogen industry and for the broader energy transition – including projects like the Integrated System Plan.
Blending is not cost free, so its promises should be tested. If we can’t reticulate blends until after 2030, we should consider carefully whether the demand boost it might offer will still be useful by then – or whether it would compete with real demand from priority applications.
It’s also important to understand how blending might impact remaining gas users as the household movement to electrify continues to pick up pace.
The full costs of hydrogen blending should be understood, and a strong case for its benefits proven, before consumers should be asked to fund it.
Emma Chessell is an energy policy advocate at the Brotherhood of St Laurence
As we get closer to the New South Wales state election, the differences between Labor and the Coalition appear more miniscule than ever.
A recent leadership debate broadcast on Channel Seven featured Coalition Premier Dominic Perrottet and New South Wales Labor leader Chris Minns in continual agreement. In a “rapid fire” question segment they agreed on every single point! 7News reported they were “largely in consensus”.
Labor has better policies overall, but both major parties are intent on continuing the fossil fuel-driven race to climate disaster. Neither have serious solutions to tackle the cost-of-living crises or the immense pressure on the state’s health and education systems.
Both parties have shown they want to continue to act on behalf of the ruling class, funnelling our taxes to their corporate backers and the rich.
Voters understand this and it looks likely that the trend of voters moving away from the major parties will continue.
Polls show 34% will put a minor party or independent candidate first. Election analysts suggest there is a strong likelihood of a hung parliament after March 25.
Young people, in particular, are moving away from the major parties for lots of good reasons; growing up in a climate emergency, reckoning with the prospect of never being able to own our own homes and soaring rents are some. Meanwhile, we are paying more for education and health care and trying to make ends meet amid increasingly insecure and casualised work with low pay.
Stewart Jackson, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Sydney, believes the major parties are ignoring the youth vote. Young people tend to vote for progressive parties, with Labor and the Greens attracting 65–70% of the youth vote.
Youth Action NSW asked young people in a recent survey which issues would most influence their vote. It found that cost-of-living was the most important, followed by work and employment, climate change and healthcare.
There is a persistent idea that young people are disengaged and disinterested in politics, but this is far from true.
Yes, young people are turned off by the bipartisan support for neoliberalism and climate destruction, but they have also shown an appetite for real political change.
Research shows young people are further to the left than any generation before them — more educated, more secular and more diverse racially, ethnically and in sexual orientation — and, importantly, they are not becoming more conservative as they age.
The challenge for those campaigning for change is to work out how to convert opinion and anger into activism — which is the only real challenge to political parties that tell you to vote for them to make the changes.
Green Left, the not-for-profit ecosocialist media project supporting movements here and around the world, knows that lasting change can only come from powerful and sustained grassroots movements.
The School Strike for Climate movement is a great example of this; young people organising to fight governments committed to acting for fossil fuel corporations rather than put plans in place to stop climate catastrophe.
No matter the results of the NSW election on March 25, we know we will have to continue to build the climate and anti-war movements because the major parties have committed to dangerous policies in our name.
Green Left has been building the movement for a real alternative to the destructive capitalist system for more than 30 years. We need your help to continue pushing for real change. Become a supporter today or make a donation to our 2023 Fighting Fund.
Labor and Liberal parties doubled down on their support for harsh anti-protest laws after a District Court judge overturned a 15 month prison sentence given to activist Deane Violet Coco last year. Wendy Bacon has the story.
The Perrottet government’s response to a NSW District Court Judge Mark Williams decision to overturn harsh sentences given to Violet Coco and her co-accused firefighter Alan Glover was to commit monitoring the laws and consider making them even stronger if it wins the NSW election on Saturday.
Labor opposition leader Chris Minns also reiterated his support for the laws saying that he would maintain the harsh penalty regime. The laws, which were passed after peaceful climate change protesters disrupted roads and bridges, allow for prison sentences of up to two years and $20,000 fines. Although repression of protest is increasing around Australia, NSW has the toughest laws.
(Editor’s Note: the double standard when it comes to Hollywood’s disruption of NSW infrastructure is telling):
In stark contrast, the NSW Greens have vowed to continuing pushing for the repeal of the laws, including in any balance of power negotiations while climate activists occupied Perrottet’s office and the City of Sydney repeated its call for the repeal of the laws and an end to police harassment of protesters.
Greens MP and environmental lawyer, Sue Higginson, last week committed the NSW Greens to repealing anti-protest laws . She accused the Labor opposition of being “in lockstep with the government” and said “civic participation through protest is an accountability mechanism and a key driver of social and environmental change.
The impacts of sustained protest are cumulative – maybe this government won’t listen, but the next may: protest has a vital role to play in our democracy. In a mature democracy, protest is recognised as an important and legitimate way of engaging in the democratic process. A person’s right to engage in democracy does not end at the ballot box. People should be able to seek to influence political outcomes through all manner of peaceful activity, including civil disobedience.” she said.
Peas in a pod
Perrottet and Minns’ responses came after Judge Williams overturned the sentences of Coco and Glover who blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour bridge for about 25 minutes. The judge accepted that the protest was motivated by their sincere concern about the impacts of climate change. Despite the Crown prosecutor arguing for a prison sentence, Coco was given a 12-month conditional release order. Her co-accused Alan Glover was also given a conditional release order with no conviction recorded.
When asked to respond to news of the successful repeal, NSW Labor opposition leader Chris Minns went even further than supporting harsh penalties. He attacked the protesters by repeating a false police allegation that in March and April protests “emergency vehicles” had been “unable to get to emergencies”.
Police lies repeated
This lie was included in the original NSW Police statement of facts. It played a part in the magistrate’s decision to send Coco to prison but was withdrawn by police weeks ago. This was widely reported at the time.
Minns claimed that during some protests, “250,000 cars weren’t able to get to work, home or around Sydney … they were knocking out half of Sydney,” he said. He accused protesters of being “willing to cause as much chaos and disruption as often as possible”.
In fact firefighter Alan Glover had explained to the media that the Fireproof Australia protesters had an explicit policy of getting off the road if any emergency vehicle was nearby. The protesters said that they only block one lane for 25 minutes. The judge rejected statements from the Crown Prosecutor that more lanes were blocked.
Minns’ allegations lapped up by media
It’s not clear where Minns’ wild allegations came from because the Crown Prosecutor in Coco’s appeal told the judge that the police did not know how many people were disrupted. Minns said that he was concerned that protests would undermine community confidence in climate change when in fact, his own wild exaggerations are deliberately designed to undermine support for protests.
While NSW Roads Minister Natalie Ward’s threats to make the laws even tougher would not surprise anybody, some might expect Minns to show more compassion. Instead his false accusations were widely reported in regional NSW media. This suggests that Minns is more interested in convincing voters that he is tough on law and order than he is responding to concerns of civil liberties lawyers or the many human rights and environmental organisationsthat have called for a repeal of the laws.
City of Sydney protects the right to protest
Meanwhile the City of Sydney continues to call for the repeal of the laws and to draw attention to police attempts to stop protests both through warning activists that protests may be unlawful when they are not, and using tough bail conditions to intimidate activists.
In December 2022, the Lord Mayor Clover Moore wrote to the NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman and the Minister for Police Paul Toole calling on the government to respect the right to peaceful protest, expressing support for the repeal of the laws and calling on the NSW Police to cease heavy-handed policing of climate protests. Recent reports indicate that rather than heeding her call, the police became even more heavy-handed.
Last week, City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor and Greens Councillor Sylvie Ellsmore successfully moved two fresh motions which restated the call for repeal and highlighted concerns about police misusing their powers.The motions where passed by all Councillors except Liberal Councillor Shauna Jarrett who abstained. (You can read the full motions here.)
Ellsmore drew attention to more reports of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protesters. These reports included the midnight arrest of UNSW student Cherish Kuehlmann after a small rally outside the Reserve Bank protesting against the cost of housing and bank profits. Kuehlmann was held for four hours and released on strict bail conditions not to travel within two kilometres of Sydney Town Hall, which meant she could not attend a protest later that week.
On March 1, Magistrate Clare Farnan removed the restrictive bail condition saying she “didn’t understand” why NSW police had imposed bail given Kuehlmann had no prior convictions and that she had a “democratic right” to attend the protest.
Ellsmore’s motion also drew attention to reports that activist Stephen Langford had been arrested for having stuck several pieces of A4 paper on the statue of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. He too was released on condition that he not go within two kilometres of Sydney Townhall but the magistrate removed the bail condition. According to Ellsmore, the police use of bail conditions “raises serious concerns that the police are seeking to undermine the right to peaceful protest”.
Ellsmore moved a second motion in response to information that police are actively trying to stop peaceful protests in front of Sydney Town Hall which has been a traditional place of protest for decades.
Police and politicians just don’t like protest
NSW Police reportedly told organisers of the weekend’s Sydney International Women’s Day March, the School Strike for Climate last week and the organisers of the 2023 May Day Rally that they could not hold these community-based actions in front of the Town Hall if the number of people exceed 2,000, an arbitrary number that has no legislative or policy basis.
The motion means that the Lord Mayor Clover Moore will now write to the NSW Police Minister asking for reassurance that the right to organise protests in the CBD will be respected. The Chief Executive Monica Barone will write to the NSW Police Commissioner asking him to explain the NSW Police’s approach to peaceful protest and the lawful basis of their recent actions. The City will also consider including links to material on the right to protest, such as that provided by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and Amnesty International.
Activism changes history
Rachel Jacobs and Sylvie Ellsmore protesting in Sydney’s CBD.
Josh Pallas, President, New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties issued a media release thanking the City of Sydney. “Activism changes history and the right to stand together and peacefully protest must be protected and defended for every citizen not pared back. The implications of criminalising protest at iconic sites like Town Hall and Oxford Street is unimaginable to ordinary Australians who have watched and actively participated in protests across countless human rights issues.
“These new regulations restrict peaceful protest rights that have always been the lawful right of trade unions, climate campaigners and other activists to convey their message.”
The strong stance of the City of Sydney contrasts with the Inner West Council where Labor councillors watered down a motion calling for the repeal of the laws. All Greens and Independent Councillors supported repeal of the laws.
Activists occupy Perrottet’s office
The anti-protest laws are designed to crush climate and other activism. But with the IPCC today issuing a “final warning” about the catastrophic impacts of global warming already being experienced by many millions, this is not likely to happen.
While Perrottet was out campaigning last Friday, Rising Tide protesters occupied his office. School-aged protesters even presented a lesson on climate change. Socialist Alliance supported the protest.
Rising Tide protesters giving a lesson about climate change inside Premier Dominic Perrottet’s office. Photo by Rigmor Berg
Rachel Evans who has organised many protests herself and is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Heffron told City Hub that the occupation was organised in the context of the NSW state election. The purpose was to protest against the NSW government giving the green light for 850 gas wells in the Pilliga and the Federal Minister for Environment and Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek approving Santos’s 116 new gas well projects in Queensland.
Climate change activists are concerned that 117 new coal and gas projects are still in the approval pipeline. “These moves are the exact opposite of what we need to do – immediately phase out fossil fuels and move to renewables. That’s why the ten activists occupied the Premier’s office,” Evans said.
Four people were arrested for trespass inside the office. Another six were released but may be charged.
Wendy Bacon is a veteran investigative journalist who publishes at wendybacon.com as well as a range of mainstream media outlets such as The Conversation, Crikey, Guardian Australia, SMH and New Matilda.