There are lessons from COVID relevant to Victoria’s climate targets

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Opinion

There are lessons from COVID relevant to Victoria’s climate targets

By Jono La Nauze

This time last year, as bushfire smoke had just started to clear from our suffocating skies, the Victorian government was on the cusp of setting emissions reduction targets for the critical decade to 2030.

Then the pandemic hit, and we were all wearing face masks for a different reason. Faced with the worst public health crisis in living memory, the Andrews government put the climate targets decision on the backburner and focused on stopping the spread of this deadly virus instead.

The environment dropped as a priority when the pandemic broke out.

The environment dropped as a priority when the pandemic broke out.Credit:Getty

Fair enough – it was a necessary delay, and most people could agree with the shift in focus while case numbers soared. Public safety must come first. Even now, on the cusp of rolling out the vaccine, governments are dealing with a volatile situation as the virus mutates and various states - including Victoria - have needed to call short, sharp emergency lockdowns.

But as we learn to live alongside COVID-19, governments will need to balance this urgent pandemic response with long-term planning and address the backlog of outstanding decisions. Businesses need this certainty to invest. That’s why once this latest outbreak is under control, Victoria should announce climate targets to help guide Victoria’s economic recovery.

While the federal Coalition is debating the distant timeframe of 2050 and beyond, the Victorian government is focused on the here and now – emissions targets for 2025 and 2030. When it comes to climate change it is what we do now that matters, not vague promises that others might fulfil decades into the future.

So how should the Premier approach this important decision? I think he could take the following lessons from his own response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has redefined the role of government in a crisis.

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Number one is to listen to the science. For the pandemic that meant trusting in the expert modelling to set targets for when restrictions could ease. Decisions were based on evidence and data, not focus groups or guestimates of what was politically palatable. And it worked – Victoria was one of the few jurisdictions in the world that successfully contained a sizeable outbreak. As the Premier said on Friday, we can be proud of that achievement, and with the same strategy we can win that war against the virus again.

We can apply the same thinking to this decision about climate targets, heeding the scientific advice to guide policy. Recently a new report from some of Australia’s most senior climate scientists and policymakers showed that to be on track to meet the 1.5 degree objective of the Paris Agreement, Australia should cut emissions by 74 per cent by 2030. Victoria must play our part and aim for emissions cuts of 75 per cent or more by 2030.

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Premier Daniel Andrews can take some lessons from his response to COVID-19 when setting emissions targets.

Premier Daniel Andrews can take some lessons from his response to COVID-19 when setting emissions targets.Credit:Getty

Another theme that’s emerged from COVID-19 is the compounding costs of delay. “Go hard, go early” has become the mantra for both stopping the spread and stimulating the economy. Victoria’s five-day ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown is just the latest example of this theory.

Climate change is a very different crisis and we’ve already squandered decades so we can hardly say acting now is ‘early’.

But the principle remains. Wilfully ignoring the issue or tinkering about with half-measures only leaves a much bigger problem to deal with later. The danger with climate change is we are fast approaching tipping points where global warming becomes an unstoppable chain reaction. So what’s required is the political conviction to act decisively during the next decade, and that means forward-loading the emissions cuts with strong targets for 2025 and 2030.

One final lesson for Premier Andrews on climate is the role state governments can play within a federation. While haphazard and uncoordinated at times, particularly around border closures, the pandemic response showed that Premiers can drive the national agenda. State policy can become de facto federal policy, whether the current federal government likes it or not.

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Herein lies a solution to the climate impasse in Canberra. While a credible national mechanism to cut pollution is the logical choice, a small but influential rump of the federal Coalition’s right wing has thwarted progress for too long, and even the Prime Minister’s much-hyped climate pivot looks more like a delaying tactic. Meanwhile, at the state level, governments of all stripes are getting on with investing in renewable energy and cutting pollution.

So perhaps it’s time to accept that a suite of state policies might be the best path forward, and could in fact shift federal politics from the bottom up. Within this framework, Victoria can lead the way by showing that acting on climate change can drive an economic recovery and set us on the path to a more prosperous and sustainable society.

The pandemic has handed the Andrews government a political opportunity to show the courage of its conviction on climate change. All the lesson are there for the Premier to draw on, once this latest outbreak is under control and it’s time to make the decision.

Jono La Nauze is CEO of Environment Victoria

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