The Great Barrier Reef

You’d think the bluntness of images of pools washed onto beaches, whole backyards disappearing and homes destroyed in recent extreme weather could have spurred the NSW Government to at least consider the effects that climate change poses to the NSW economy.

But no, the government’s head seems more firmly stuck in the sand than ever.

The NSW Intergenerational Report was an insult, and most brilliantly taken to task by Sydney Environment Institute’s Christine Winter.

The subsequent budget has given climate change even shorter shrift, though. NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian didn’t even mention it once during her budget speech. In the many hundreds of pages of budgetary documents it comes up just a handful of times, never discussed, usually just in a passing, token reference.

Victoria, South Australia and the ACT have committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Even the federal government by signing the Paris Agreement will need to get to net zero by around the same time.

Next week one of NSW’s biggest economic powerhouses, the City of Sydney, is expected to approve a plan for the entire local government area to be net zero by 2050.

The NSW Government, in comparison, has no target, and last year said a Greens plan to get to net zero by 2040 would “shut the state down”.

What will shut the state down is inaction, pretending there is no problem and ignoring action being taken in other states and countries to transition the economy.

The tides are turning and the economy will change, like it or not. Coal royalties are already taking a hit in NSW, with the budget showing they were lower than last year and expected to be $1.7 billion less over the four years to 2018-19 than was forecast in the last budget. Though these revised estimates are probably overstating it too, as the government is expecting increases in royalties, while in reality royalties have been trending downwards since 2011-12. Indeed, the last six budgets have drastically overestimated future royalties – by billions.

The Greens say the government is ignoring the structural decline of the industry.

“Treasury’s courageous forecasts for coal royalties have again been proved wrong as the coal industry continues to decline in the face of global action on climate change and challenges from gas and renewable energy,” NSW Greens energy spokesman Jeremy Buckingham said.

Let’s not be mistaken: it’s great the government has a $3.4 billion surplus on the back of the property boom, and is funding much needed infrastructure, which has rightly been celebrated by industry. But perhaps some of that surplus could have gone into ensuring that the NSW economy is resilient enough to see surpluses into the future, not spent up on bandaid solutions to increasingly uncertain weather events or playing catch-up with surrounding economies rapidly transitioning to a low-carbon world.

A significant point is that it’s not an either/or situation between the climate and the economy. As we show day-in, day-out, there’s money to be made out of tackling climate change, from integrating cheap renewables to investing in advanced manufacturing to improving the energy efficiency of buildings, which the latest ASBEC report showed could save $20 billion nationally.

So what will it take for the government to listen? It doesn’t seem to be increasing environmental tragedies. It seems the fact we can’t pin climate change on any one event is providing a convenient “get out of jail free” card. Sure, extreme weather events have happened before. Coral bleaching has happened before. But how many times has it affected huge swathes of the Great Barrier Reef? How many times has it then gone on to affect the Northern Hemisphere in places like Hawaii, Micronesia, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico? It’s the biggest coral bleaching event in history.

Flooding has happened before too. But how many times have we seen floods hit simultaneously from Queensland to Tasmania, and concurrently all across Europe, where it was deemed the worst flood in decades, killing 82?

These events – happening now – occur in the context of ever increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. At Amsterdam Island in the Southern Indian Ocean – one of the most remote measuring stations on Earth – the 400 parts per million milestone was reached for the first time last month, meaning it has most likely been reached everywhere on Earth now.

Why is the government ignoring this? Why is it not important enough to mention in its budget, which posted a surplus of $3.4 billion, and is forecasting another surplus of $3.7 billion next year?

The longer we wait around, the more climate change will cost. The prudent thing to do would be to direct some of that surplus to transitioning the economy and tackling climate change, as well as boosting our resilience to the climate change we can’t alleviate. The sooner we start acting, the less it will cost us, and our kids, in the future. Now that would truly be a budget for everyone.