How will the environment factor in the Federal Election campaign?

If last week’s Budget was anything to go by, the Turnbull Government still favours the interests of polluters over the community.

Malcolm Turnbull’s first Budget follows the environmental neglect of his predecessor.

Turnbull’s first Budget follows the environmental neglect of his predecessor

In fact, under the Turnbull Government, spending on the environment is forecast to fall by 17 per cent by 2019-2020.

Despite talking up the need to shift to a diversified economy, policy commitment supporting a transition away from coal and stimulating renewables or helping workers transition to a more energy-efficient future was absent from the Budget.

This is a great pity because we know the PM understands the science of climate change, and elsewhere political leaders are connecting the dots.

In the past weeks Labor and Green party leaders have released climate policies that are miles ahead of where we were 12 months ago.

After years of being held to ransom by a small group of climate sceptics in Parliament House, might we finally be witnessing a resurgence of leadership?

Labor’s newly minted climate policy represents an important step to clean up the Australian energy sector. It includes a target for zero net emissions by 2050, commitment to a plan to close dirty coal-fired power stations, plans to build new clean energy infrastructure, clamp down on land clearing and invest in energy efficiency as part of ensuring a transition to a clean energy economy.

Likewise, the Greens’ seven-point plan to tackle climate change, released prior to the budget, mirrors what the environmental movement has been articulating — we need a ban on new coal mines and a proper plan preparing for a just transition for workers for a life beyond dirty energy.

There is a clear and simple connection between burning fossil fuels, global warming and the destruction of our iconic World Heritage places.

We have seen this play out recently in Tasmania where fires have impacted on iconic places like the Walls of Jerusalem National Park and its stands of pencil pine and Nothofagus gunnii, our nation’s only winter-deciduous trees.

The connection could not be more evident than in the coral bleaching that has hit almost 93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest bleaching in recorded history and the third in recent decades.

Approving new coal mines like the massive Adani mine in the Galilee Basin has no place in the 21st century. The Adani mine would create billions of tonnes of pollution, making climate change worse and further damaging the reef.

That is the reason the Australian Conservation Foundation was in court last week in Queensland taking the unusual step of launching a Federal Court challenge to the Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s re-approval of the Carmichael coal mine.

Our case centred on the question of whether it is legal to approve this coal mine knowing that the burning of the mine’s coal will contribute to climate change that is damaging the World Heritage-listed reef.

The crazy aspect of this is Australia has been committing itself in global forums to goals that won’t be achieved unless we take the type of steps Labor and the Greens’ plans are advocating post haste.

Last December, Australia was one of 195 countries that agreed to take action on global warming and transition as quickly as possible to a clean energy future.

Despite signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the Turnbull Government has so far ignored the fossil fuels that sit at the heart of Australia’s pollution problem.

This is a crucial test for the Prime Minister’s leadership.

Sometimes national political circumstances reduce to simple choices, and today that choice is between coal and Australia’s great environmental treasures including the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania’s forests.

How the Turnbull Government proceeds in the next few weeks may make or break its future, as well as having profound implications for the fate of Australia’s most cherished national icons.

This article first appeared in the Hobart Mercury

Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.