Environment ministers, photo from a post on Twitter by Josh Frydenberg

It looks like we, the sustainability/climate activist/voting public, are not the only ones making (or not making) new years resolutions ahead of the political stoush we have to have (over and over).

In preparation for fending off the inevitable and growing pressure points, enviro pollies around the country got in early with their new year’s resolutions for 2017, at a meeting in late November.

Their Agreed Statement, 25 November 2016, Meeting of Environment Ministers, is not a bad set of agenda items, if they’re taken seriously. (Right now with the feds failing us in Australia, the US and many other places, the states and territories are rising fast in importance.)

Among the most laudable inclusions on the agenda items is to develop an accounting framework that can value our natural resources and recognise their contribution to our quality of life.

A surprise item is how to dispose of photovoltaic waste – surprise, because with the boom in this industry well under way, it’s clearly been the sleeper issue we need to deal with sooner or later.

Another item that was not so surprising is that of climate change, neither in its mention nor where it appeared – at the very end of the list. That’s probably because our own federal enviro minister Josh Frydenberg is just a tad embarrassed at how he’s been made to conduct his portfolio – with the gusto of a wet lettuce.

Tony Abbott is back to the termite nest. Does that man ever shut up?

In fact Frydenberg used the November meeting to try to wind back the renewable energy explosion around the nation under the guise of needing a more “coordinated” approach – as instructed by his political bosses. Not long after he was made to rescind his proposal for an energy intensity trading scheme almost as soon as the idea took its first gulp of air. (By Monday this week former PM Tony Abbott, emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump in the US, called for the complete axing of the Renewable Energy Target… Does this man ever shut up?)

Why the states and territories are more important and why it’s good those activists who wanted to eliminate them didn’t win

There was a time when the states and territories came in for a dreadful pounding. They were clunky, weak, had to grovel for federal funds every year, and ran the danger of a country divided with disparate outcomes in health and education standards, not to mention in urban planning and other inconvenient rules and regs around property and planning that still drives the big developers nuts.

But now that the feds in Australia, the US and so many places have proved they are increasingly the playthings of the oligarchs and fossil fuelers in particular, we need to revise that view. The states and territories and even smaller local governments turn out to be the most useful allies we can have to fight climate change and foster the sustainability revolution.

Together these lower level of governments have a big influence on our built environment – buildings, building and development standards, housing, urban planning and transport – and we know that’s where the biggest impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability can be made. They also have jurisdictions over mining, land clearing and biodiversity (and yes, we’re looking at you now Ms Berejiklian).

What’s good is that the states and territories are more responsive to their population that votes on regional issues, rather than the more ideological/economic issues that dominate the feds. City and local governments are even more responsive to their constituents, partly because they run the risk of running into them in the street, and prefer to not be yelled at. So if they are emboldened with our support they can be quite brave and radical – and it doesn’t take many voices to sound like a big crowd, they just have to be loud and consistent, and bigger and bolder than the other side.

The feds, by contrast, are in the grip of the most sophisticated lobbyists and pressure groups. In the US the first thing that happened as Trump’s presidency took the reins was to remove any mention of climate change and global warning from its official website. But what he’s also facing is that 15 states have vowed to take on Trump on climate and sustainability. California stands as a beacon of sustainability.

  • Read this article in a six part series on how California plans to transition to a low emissions future.

In NSW, as now former premier Mike Baird departs the political circuit, it’s sobering to remember that despite some serious mistakes – land clearing, biodiversity and the dumb waste of money that is WestConnex – Baird also had the guts to take on the feds on renewable energy and set an agenda for net zero emissions by 2050. NSW planning minister Rob Stokes also flagged the politically controversial suggestion that we could change our negative gearing structure.

Coming from a Liberal government that’s powerful stuff and can keep the feds in check, reminding them that this country is not a free-for-all for just one posse of lobbyists.

In Victoria Labor premier Daniel Andrews, though slower off the mark than many would like, also brought a sigh of relief against the Abbott government, clearly demonstrating that a positive setting on sustainability and climate issues at state level can make all the difference in business and community sentiment.

Viewed in the current light of personality politics trafficking a return to an illusory past you have to say the founding fathers in both the US and Australia knew what they were doing by making our constitutions so firmly rooted in a federation. You also have to thank our lucky stars that the agitators among us, who for years wanted to get rid of the states, didn’t win the argument.

So with those thoughts in mind, let’s take a close look at the issues that our environment ministers have flagged for action in 2017. A very close look. Let’s keep the list front and centre in our minds and support and encourage our most important ministers to action it. Let’s also politely ignore Josh Frydenberg’s weak little contribution right at the end. Actually, no, let’s fight the hell out of him on it and make him bring it to the top of the agenda.

Here’s a lightly edited version of the Agreed Statement, 25 November 2016, Meeting of Environment Ministers.

  1. Environmental accounting – Ministers agreed to work together to develop a common national approach to environmental accounts in 2017. (See this excellent article on this topic, by Carl Obst, University of Melbourne.) This important work will … improve the ability to track outcomes in specific locations and across state and territory boundaries, and demonstrate the value of the environment to our standard of living. As a first step, the Australian Government will collaborate with a number of states in bringing together relevant stakeholders, Natural Resource Management organisations and academia to progress environmental accounts. This will take place in early 2017 and will build on action already under way in all jurisdictions to move towards a common national approach.
  2. Biodiversity – Australia’s unique species are an international treasure and a national asset. Ministers considered and agreed to release the review of Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010-2030. (Not sure if the NSW enviro minister was able to contribute to this item).
  3. Environment and human health – in particular fire retardant chemicals, such as per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs, including PFOS and PFOA). Ministers welcomed the release of the Commonwealth Environmental Management Guidance on PFOS and PFOA by the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. Ministers noted that the Commonwealth would be releasing a Regulatory Impact Statement on the ratification of the listing of PFOS under the Stockholm Convention in early 2017.
  4. Food Waste – Ministers agreed that jurisdictions, led by the Australian Government, will work cooperatively to support initiatives that lead to a 50 per cent reduction in food waste by 2030. Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy in the order of $20 billion annually. As a first step, jurisdictions will support the Australian Government in the development of a National Food Waste Strategy and contribute to a National Food Waste Summit in 2017.
  5. Packaging Waste – Ministers discussed the importance of reducing packaging waste and welcomed the significant update of the Australian Packaging Covenant.
  6. Plastic Microbeads – Ministers discussed the need to work with businesses to achieve a voluntary phase out of microbeads. Microbeads are typically found in personal care products, cosmetics and some cleaning products and are having significant impacts on our marine environment. Ministers agreed dumping products containing microbeads on the Australian market was unacceptable and that the industry must meet targets for the ban quickly and comprehensively.
  7. Plastic Bags – Ministers noted that Australians consume billions of plastic bags each year and that this contributes to the toll that plastic litter takes on marine life around Australia. Ministers acknowledged the bans on plastic bags already implemented by SA, Tasmania, ACT and the NT and noted Queensland’s announcement today to have a ban in place by 2018. Ministers supported the work Victoria and NSW are doing, including the work NSW is doing to investigate the behaviour of biodegradable plastic bags in the environment . Ministers asked officials to report back at the next meeting on progress being made in other jurisdictions to ban plastic bags
  8. Photovoltaic Systems – Ministers discussed the impending rapid growth in the contribution of photovoltaic systems, including PV panels, inverter equipment and system accessories such as energy storage batteries, for domestic, commercial and industrial applications. Victorian analysis has estimated that the waste stream from PV panels will grow from around 580 tonnes in 2015 to around 31,000 tonnes by 2035. Ministers acknowledged the importance of ensuring that programs are in place to deal with this cost. The Victorian government is leading innovative programs working throughout the life cycle of photovoltaic systems to reduce environmental impacts. Ministers agreed to Victoria leading work to develop an industry led voluntary product stewardship arrangement to address the emerging risks posed by end-of-life photovoltaic systems entering the waste stream. Photovoltaic systems have been listed under the national Product Stewardship Act to signal an intent to consider a scheme to deal with these wastes.
  9. National Pollutant Inventory – Ministers noted the importance of robust information to support the management of pollution in Australia, and noted the role of the National Pollutant Inventory in providing this to governments, industry and the community. Ministers acknowledged that the list of 93 substances reported under the scheme had been almost unchanged since its inception. Ministers agreed to review the NPI focussing on identifying whether the right substances were being reported, the most valuable information was being collected and whether its collection was cost effective. Ministers agreed to terms of reference for a review of the National Pollutant Inventory to be completed in 2017.
  10. Clean Air – Ministers endorsed release of the National Clean Air Agreement Mid-term Review Report. Ministers were pleased to note that good progress has been made over the first 12 months of the Agreement. Air pollution reporting standards have been significantly strengthened and work is well underway on key emission reduction strategies for example, significant progress toward implementing emission standards for non-road spark ignition engines and equipment such as garden tools and outboard motors that contribute to about 10 per cent of smog in our cities.
  11. Tyre Stewardship – Officials will report back to the next meeting on the progress of the ACCC review into Tyre Stewardship with a view to improving outcomes in relation to tyre recycling.
  12. Climate Change – Minister Frydenberg relayed the outcomes of the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Marrakech. He noted the strong continued international momentum for action on climate change including recent agreements around phasing out HFCs and reducing emissions in the international aviation sector. Australia’s ratification of the Paris Agreement was warmly welcomed in this context and sends a clear signal of Australia’s commitment to the Agreement. Minister Frydenberg provided an update on the work of the COAG Energy Council to better integrate climate and energy policies across jurisdictions. Minister Frydenberg noted the Commonwealth’s 2017 climate change review. State and territory Ministers noted their activities in mitigation, adaptation, policy, targets and programs to address climate change.