Queensland: going going, gone: for $5 to the man with the rampage

9 October 2012 – Queensland is at the environmental cross roads. Campbell Newman’s government has cut a raft of green programs and policies, ignoring longer term economic impacts. The question is, does the Newman government have the capacity to manage those impacts?

On the plus side,  Queensland has enormous potential to lead Australia in areas such as  solar energy and liveability. Two years ago, the Australian Conservation Foundation found  that Queensland has five of Australia’s 10 most environmentally sustainable cities.

  • Photo: Campbell Newman asked Queenslanders to donate $5 to his campaign to become premier. They did. Source: Courier Mail

But the political environment has changed. We have entered a new era. The Environment Protection Act the state has been altered  to allow more development. Also, Newman has pulled financial backing for the solar industry. He has also pulled out of tougher 6-star national energy ratings for new residential units in order to save  an average $1200 from the cost of building an apartment.

Queensland could well become less sustainable, and that will have consequences for industry and developers.

For a start, Newman’s Environment Minister Andrew Powell has told ABC Radio he is not convinced climate change is man-made.  “Look, I believe the climate is changing; I am still to be convinced of the degree to which we are influencing that,’’ he said.  That position puts him at odds with every national scientific academy in the world, not to mention the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the United Nations and Queensland scientists.

Powell’s position is hardly surprising.

According to University of Queensland research, one in three Liberal-National Party MPs were uncertain that human activity produced greenhouse gases and 44 per cent were uncertain that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided reliable and comprehensive assessments of climate change.

Already former Greens leader Bob Brown has come out saying that Newman is pushing through development in industry and mining that will ravage the environment. “This is an age of mega-developments with huge firepower behind them, so that Campbell Newman has become an even greater threat to Queensland’s environment than (former premier) Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Campbell Newman is seeing the environment as a cost on coal, not coal as a cost on the environment.”

The environmental risks for Queensland are high. The Climate Commission found that

the Gold Coast has more houses than any other region in Queensland within 110 metres of erodible coastline.

According to that report, more than 4000 residential buildings are at risk. Moreton Bay and the Sunshine Coast each have around 2000 residential buildings at risk.

In addition, long stretches of sandy beaches in southeast Queensland – the Gold Coast, Moreton Bay, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast – are threatened by the increased coastal erosion resulting from rising sea levels. You can bet that will reduce property values there, unless urgent action is taken.

The commission also warns that Queensland’s tourism industry is at stake, and that will hit the development industry hard.

“In the last three months of 2011, visitors to tropical North Queensland spent $735 million. Higher temperatures and changing rainfall will place the rainforests in a highly stressed situation towards the end of the century.

The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by higher sea surface temperatures and more acidic oceans.

Queensland’s natural environment supports 70 per cent

of Australia’s native birds, 85 per cent of its mammals

and more than 50 per cent of the nation’s reptiles

and native frogs.

Many of Queensland’s species and ecosystems are already threatened and climate change poses a serious additional threat to Queensland’s unique biodiversity.”

At the same time however, the Climate Commission says, there are enormous opportunities in Queensland to make buildings sustainable by using more energy-efficient lighting, heating, cooling and refrigeration. And being the Sunshine state, Queensland is probably best placed for the solar industry.

“Queensland is leading Australia in solar photovoltaic system installation, and has doubled its use of solar energy in less than two years. By July 2012, more than 200,000 Queensland households and businesses had installed solar panels. While use of solar energy has grown rapidly, Queensland can take more advantage of its solar resources. Solar photovoltaic systems currently provide around 4 per cent of the state’s total electricity generation capacity … In remote areas of Australia the cost of solar electricity is estimated to already be cheaper than retail electricity.”

But it’s not going to happen.

Newman has already squibbed it. He has withdrawn the state government’s share of funding of Australia’s largest solar project, the $1.2 billion Solar Dawn solar thermal facility planned for south-west Queensland.

The state government had threatened to can the $75 million funding soon after its election win earlier this year, but could not find a legal way to do it.  The government swung into action after Solar Dawn failed to obtain a power purchase agreement, either with the government-owned utility Ergon Energy, or with other parties.

According to Queensland Greens spokesman Adam Stone, it all comes down to the politicisation of energy policy.

And then there is the problem of rising seas and property.

A report put out two years ago by the Office of Climate Change,which the Campbell Government has since wound up, warned that rising seas and climate change will devastate properties.

“Future sea level rise will have dramatic consequences for many coastal communities. Relatively moderate levels of sea level are projected to cause large increases in the frequency of extreme sea level events. For example, an event that currently occurs once every 100 years could occur two or three times per year with a 0.5 metre sea level rise.

“This multiplying effect of sea level rise is likely to impact on major population centres and have the greatest effect on eastern Australia … Climate change may increase the risk of structural damage to buildings, especially damage resulting from strong winds associated with more intense  tropical cyclones or damage resulting from more  intense storms and associated flooding. Cracking may also occur as soils dry out from higher temperatures and reduced rainfall. Residential buildings are likely to be more vulnerable to such damage than commercial buildings, with older buildings more vulnerable than newer ones.”

Newman has also demanded the Feds cut “green tape” and has called for complete control over environmental assessments. To achieve this, the Queensland government has released a new planning policy that makes it clear planning will not get in the way of mining, agriculture, tourism and industry.

“The purpose of this Policy is to ensure that economic growth is facilitated by local and state plans, and is not adversely impacted by planning processes.” These include environmental assessment processes for land development.

His government has also released Environmental Protection (Greentape Reduction) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012which, among other things, amends the Environment Protection Act.

While lawyers say this will streamline the processes, the Environmental Defenders Office  says the legislation needs safeguards to ensure the environment isn’t destroyed.

The EDO wants measures like more public input into proposed mining and coal seam gas activities. It also wants the words “environmental harm” to be put into the definition of standard criteria.

Certainly, as the Climate Commission points out, there are enormous opportunities for Queensland. The question is whether these will be sacrificed for the politics. The likelihood of Abbott winning the next election just adds to the mix.