By Tina Perinotto
South Australia’s Sustainability and Climate Change Division has a unique problem – not how to spread its message, but how to field the daily flood of web hits and red hot telephone traffic.
This small state is leading Australia on an impressive number of environmental fronts – on wind energy, geothermal exploration, tree planting, solar energy on a huge number of schools and other public buildings, the banning of plastic bags, feed-in laws which pay the owners of solar power for excess energy and even a sustainable burial ground.
This is not to mention the widespread educational programs in both community and schools water, energy and general sustainability issues.
Nor the state’s strategic target to outperform every other state and territory in renewable energy – by far.
For Premier Mike Rann this is as it should be.
“Climate change is something I’m passionate about,” he told The Fifth Estate in an interview last Friday.
“I was the first climate change minister in Australia and people overseas are telling me I was the first in the world,” he says.
Last year he was appointed chair to a global group of regional, state and local governors that includes people such as Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
State and local government play a crucial role in leadership and change, he says.
“I came to South Australia over 30 years ago to work with Don Dunstan and what that showed me was that a small state like South Australia could be a leader – not just nationally but internationally,” Rann says.
“At the time it was social policy issues such as equal opportunity, land rights, gay rights, a whole range of things.
“What we decided to do on that score was to be a policy leader an exemplar for other places.
“Today,” he says, “it’s about economic development and social inclusion and also climate change. [His official titles are Minister for Economic Development, Minister for Social Inclusion Minister for the Arts, and is still Minister for Sustainability and Climate Change.]
Rann’s commitment on climate change is no recent epiphany
In New Zealand where he family moved from the UK Rann became an activist for the Labour Party and in 1972 he was a member of the Greenpeace executive when it sent Greenpeace III to Muroroa Atoll to block French nuclear testing.
Today he is proud to claim an enduring commitment to the same issues.
One of his first actions as premier, he says, was to create an environment strategy, advised by leading environmentalists such as Australian Tim Flannery who “played a crucial role” and Canadian David Suzuki.
“We decided to start first with education and began but putting solar panels on roofs of museums, galleries, Parliament house, the state library, Adelaide Airport and hundreds of schools.
“We integrated renewable energy and climate change into the curriculum.”
“So then we got into some harder policies such as planting three million trees in a series of forests in Adelaide and also along the River Murray – we are now up to close to two million – and this involved the community knowing that all the trees are not just native but that the seeds are collected locally.
When he came to power there was “not one single wind turnbine, says Rann. ”Now we have about 56 power cent of the nation’s wind energy.”
Currently the state is also installing a massive 10,000 square metre solar on the roof of the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds, “eight times bigger than the biggest in Australia.”
These projects are about “engaging people,” Rann says.
“It’s about encouraging people who walk into the museum and they can see how much energy it’s producing from the roof – about how much power their school is producing.”
“What we’re doing is that by 2014, 50 per cent of the power that the South Australian government uses – such as in hospitals, schools and offices – will come from renewables and then we will move to 100 per cent.
“We’ve also set ourselves a target that while there’s an Australian target to reach 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020, we decided to make that 20 per cent by 2014 and we will reach that by 2013, seven years ahead of the national target.
“Last week [early June] we announced it’s not 20 per cent but 33 per cent [renewable energy target].”
The state is also retrofitting commercial buildings to improve their energy efficiency and is committing the state government to only lease space in buildings that have an accredited energy rating of five or six green stars.
Rann would like to see this adopted as the national standard.
He believes he has every reason to be successful.
States and regions have the power
“Eighty per cent of the decisions affecting the environment are made by the states, the regions or local government,” Rann says.
“It’s not just the sole responsibility of national governments.”
Rann points out it was the eight states and territories that commissioned Ross Garnaut’s report, Climate Change Review and that it was former NSW premier Morris Iemma and former Victorian deputy premier John Thwaites who initiated the emissions trading scheme.
“What we did had a powerful impact on the run up to the Rudd election.”
But states don’t always get it right.
In a speech in Ponzan in Poland last year, Rann lamented lost time in tackling damage to the Murray-Darling River system, which was “an unprecedented crisis.”
He said in the speech: “Tragically, the intransigence of the State of Victoria added unnecessary delays to delivering a rescue plan for the River system, demonstrating that regional governments are not always leaders, and can put parochialism ahead of environmentalism. “
Nor can the states do everything.
So how does Rann consider that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is performing on climate change issues, given that he was elected on a strong climate action agenda but has since disappointed many followers?
Just fine, says Rann. Especially if you consider the strides made since Howard’s almost total disregard for the issue, “especially since Howard was a climate change denier until the polls convinced him otherwise.
“When I was premier under Howard you were not allowed [in Council of Australian Governments meetings] to raise climate change or emissions trading or even use the word Kyoto.”
“What’s happening on the national scene is so much more encouraging now. Rudd’s first act was to sign Kyoto.
“Obviously all of us have to deal with the GFC [global financial crisis] and you can’t just say oh the climate change threat is the greatest threat and then, oh no, suddenly it’s the economy.
“We’ve got to fight a war on two fronts.”
And it has to be a global battle.
“It’s the same atmosphere [globally], it’s not something we can quarantine.”
“Even if we’re leading the world in mitigation we won’t stop climate change.”
But you can be first with a lot of things.