Environment minister Greg Hunt surprised the nation when he announced that urban heat islands are a major issue to tackle – mainly through tree canopies. He wants to plant 20 million trees, he said after a speech at the Sydney Business Chamber on Tuesday. But in a twist that defies expectations, NSW premier Mike Baird has at the same time been accused of launching a wholesale war on trees, and is about launch similar strikes through land clearing.

It was Chatham House rules at the Sydney Business Chamber when federal environment minister Greg Hunt delivered a speech that would have been unthinkable just six months ago.

But no matter, Mr Hunt, who has stepped in as minister for cities and the built environment after the departure of Jamie Briggs, made sure his message went out to anyone who cared to listen.

“This,” he said, “will be a very exciting year for Australia’s cities.”

Music to many ears already.

The minister went on to elaborate – on congestion, the quality and connectivity of housing, the logic of value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and several other urban density topics.

Early in the year, he said, the government would release a position paper on Australia’s cities and there would be a forum to discuss the contents.

“This is an opportunity for the Australian community to engage in a collaborative discussion about what we want our cities to look like in 20, 50 and 100 years’ time,” he said.

But it gets better. Hunt actually says that cities are “at the core of the Turnbull government’s agenda” because of both the opportunities and challenges they pose.

But a really interesting segment of his delivery was on greening our cities, increasing tree canopy – more foliage and green spaces. And it’s the segment that has shown up some unusual and unexpected tension, almost a reversal of roles between Canberra, previously the bad guy of climate politics, and NSW, which had been holding the line on the logic of sensible sustainability and climate policy.

Here’s some of what Hunt said:

“Green cities – cities with high levels of trees, foliage and green spaces – provide enormous benefits to their residents.

“They can improve the quality of air in our cities by absorbing some types of airborne pollutants, reduce soil erosion, minimise water run-off and limiting the amount of particulate matter entering our waterways; and increase urban amenity.

“Increasing urban canopy coverage decreases heat, which improves health and quality of life. People living in large cities can be especially susceptible to the effects of extreme heat.”

So he definitely gets it. Including the impact of extreme heat on the old and the very young – including deaths each year.

It was a message made in heaven for those who have been pushing for action on the urban heat island, including the coalition of industry and professional bodies working behind the 202020 Vision.

“From our point of view it’s gold,” said Ben Peacock, chief architect of the 202020 Vision and founder of sustainable marketing gurus Republic of Everyone.

“We’ve been seeing a movement toward heat as a major issue and that’s been something in our vision. We’ve seen it as a hot topic particularly in local government – that’s where they see it most acutely as a health issue. But it’s also a commercial issue. People don’t go out when it’s too hot.”

Nor do they shop, he added.

At Parramatta, in Sydney’s west, where the temperature can be several degrees higher than in the city’s east, Peacock’s team has been working with the local council and local businesses to create a program called “Cool Parramatta”.

The program centres on what people can do to keep cool when it gets way too hot for comfort.

At Penrith, another 50 kilometres west again, and where it’s typically hotter again, they’ve been taking note.

The local council there is getting involved in an urban forest strategy, with groups working with councillors to understand that the area needs a cooling strategy, starting with trees.

The 202020 team provided the tools for the program that went through in September.

The program is national, Peacock points out. Fremantle, south of Perth, has also put in place a cooling strategy. and he says about half of Australia’s local government authorities have taken an interest in the program.

“We’ve run master classes in Melbourne, NSW, WA and we’ve been planning just today for the next two.”

The urban forest movement is hugely important and it’s not hard to see why when you think about it, he says.

“There is commercial, there is health, there is water savings and quite frankly it’s nice to be in a suburb with trees.

“To have the federal government identify this reasonably early in the movement is music to our ears and it’s really smart.

“Everyone agrees no one goes shopping when it’s too hot, everyone agrees no one should die of heat.

“So often the environment can be seen as the enemy of the economy but this issue proves that urban greening has benefits for the economy and the environment and people.”

Hunt told a radio station after his speech to the Sydney Business Chamber that he wants to plant a million trees in Western Sydney. Around 750,000 of those have already been contracted, he said.

Another 20 million trees would be put into urban or near urban areas.

“It’s pretty simple, that it’s a better environment for people to live in,” the minister said.

“Around the world there’s incredibly strong evidence that the more green coverage in terms of trees and parks, the cooler an area.”

Asked if more trees would not cause interference with power lines, Hunt said, “People manage trees all around the country. Australians are pretty good at that.”

NSW and Queensland head backwards on trees

Not in Sydney it seems.

In a twist that defies expectations and will surprise many, NSW premier Mike Baird and environment minister Rob Stokes are facing a developing storm over what critics say is a war on trees, both in urban areas and through land clearing.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, executive director of the Total Environment Centre Jeff Angel wrote a scathing assessment of NSW actions on trees.

“Over the past year, there’s been a war on trees and there’s no sign that it will stop,” Angel said.

This included the destruction under way of 400 trees along Alison Road to make way for light rail, even though Randwick Council and local residents had provided “practical alternatives and route alignments”.

The now notorious 10/50 rule introduced 18 months ago was another flank in the attack on trees, ostensibly to curtail bushfire risk, but instead open to abuse by developers and property owners seeking better views, Angel said, in comments that back a surge in anecdotal evidence and statements to The Fifth Estate.

Angel also attacked environment offsets, which could not replace some bushland or was sometimes used to fund remediation of coal mines when this cost should be borne by the mine owner.

“Planning Minister Rob Stokes talks a lot about open space when announcing new development precincts, but has done little to protect our existing green assets.”

The NSW government was now moving “to declare wholesale war on the entire state”.

“It is intent on abolishing the Native Vegetation Act, passed by Parliament in 2003 to stop broadscale land clearing.”

Instead the proposal is for a Biodiversity Conservation Act that with an offsets policy that allows a “like for like” trade off for conservation but is easily abused, Angel said, including allowing this to be used to remediate mine sites instead of requiring the mine owner to carry this responsibility.

Queensland Country Life said in NSW the shooting in 2014 of Glen Turner, a NSW Office of Environment and Heritage compliance staffer, highlighted the tension in land clearing that would emerge with the proposed repeal of the Native Vegetation Act.

Mr Hunt’s speech also coincided with leaked figures obtained by the ABC that showed land clearing in Queensland last year was around 278,000 hectares — triple what it was in 2009.

“The scale of the clearing is of a size larger than the ACT with one property alone permitted to clear 600 square kilometres,” the ABC said.

WWF’s Martin Taylor said the increase was “meteoric and extremely alarming”. It comprised:

  • 2009/10 – 77 590 hectares
  • 2010/11 – 91 690 hectares
  • 2011/12 – 153 000 hectares (last official figures)
  • 2012/13 – 230 000 hectares* (leaked figures subject to final analysis)
  • 2013/14 – 278 000 hectares* (leaked figures subject to final analysis)

See the whole story here.

In Queensland, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said she would reform land clearing laws that had contributed to 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or six per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions, the Brisbane Times said.

“Queensland’s land-clearing emissions would have cost the Australian taxpayer about $472 million at the carbon price at the last emissions reduction auction,” Wilderness Society national director Lyndon Schneiders said in the report.

“The Turnbull government’s Direct Action climate plan will fail if Queensland’s land clearing is not stopped.

“Hundreds of thousands of hectares of Queensland bush are being bulldozed and millions of animals are being killed. It’s just like the bad old Bjelke-Peterson days.”

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  1. Hi Fifth Estate, can you please ignore my first comment. This is a shorter version.

    In December 2014 I put forward a submission in regards to the Modification to CBD and South East Light Rail Project. Part of the submission highlighted an announcement that the NSW Government had developed Technical Guidelines for Urban Green Cover in NSW to provide practical advice on best practice.

    These guidelines were supposedly to be released in early 2015 based on a 2011 report.

    “The report offers achievable strategies for mitigating heat impacts by increasing urban green cover and has potential to be implemented by NSW local councils to assist community resilience to climate change.”

    Quoting the NSW Governments own initiatives, with references and independent scientific reports, I didn’t hear a squeak out of them.

    Now the Federal Government is coming out with their master plan, that sounds very similar to the plan that the NSW government was supposed to release in 2015. It’s all very baffling to me.

    Here is the link to the 2011 Green Cover Demonstration Project on the NSW Public Works Website.

    It seems strange that the NSW government is going against its own best practices in regards to Urban Green Cover.

  2. The destruction of trees along Alison Road is galling – I am a local of more than 50 years and am sickened by it. What was once a beautiful green vista when looking west towards Darley Road now looks like a crime scene! It also LOOKS hot – and the poor walkers and cyclists who used to have a refreshing canopy are now out in the broiling sun (and will be a freezing winter). If the light rail is to be so successful, why couldn’t they utilise some car space or send it underground??

  3. we’ve been waiting for these ideas to ‘trickle up’ to those in government for a long time. for the past 10 years at least, laypeople like myself have been reading research reports, listening to urban scientists on the radio and on tv, all putting forward the results of research and detailing the benefits, both psychological and physical, of trees in the environment.

    i’m afraid i am now cynical about the intentions of our government – they seem to be hoping to stem the green tide and sway some disgusted LUB voters back their way with fine words and sensible sentiments. but for a lot of areas, the damage had already been done. a tree takes years to mature, and for the first couple of years at least, they need to be looked after.. especially if they are on public land.

    anyway, sensible sentiments are a positive first step. let’s hope action – and action to stop environmental vandalism in all its guises – proceeds from it.