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A top Canberra bureaucrat has issued a scathing assessment of the nation’s climate policies to date in a valedictory speech that warns institutional failures and carve-outs for polluters mean Australia’s contribution to global warming will amplify risks to food, water, energy, health and national security.
The departing chief of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Professor Andrew Campbell, said weak climate policies by successive governments had put the nation on track to miss the goal of the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees.
Departing bureaucrat Andrew Campbell quipped that he well understood why so many people in Canberra were triggered by the ABC’s satire Utopia.Credit: AAP
“Collectively, we are doing too little, too slowly, too partially and too timidly to tackle the obvious challenges that have been well understood by scientists for decades,” Campbell told the National Rural Press Club in Canberra on Thursday.
Campbell said the heatwave gripping the northern hemisphere and recent flash floods in Pakistan were indicators of the compounding catastrophes to come, arguing Australia must do its part to meet global targets.
“It’s always a dilemma as to how to present the depressing statistics about what I call the converging insecurities – food security, water security, energy security, biosecurity, and health security … these intersect and interact with each other in complex and often unhelpful ways and all of them are amplified by climate change,” he said.
“The science is very clear and the evidence is in our faces. We know what we need to do – electrify everything, shift to renewable energy, use land water and nutrients far more efficiently, radically reduce waste and protect and restore nature.”
Australia signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, committing to make cuts to greenhouse emissions consistent with the global action needed to limit warming to under 2 degrees and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible – the level calculated by scientists to avoid the worst damage from climate change.
Modelling last year by international think tank Climate Analytics found the Albanese government’s target of cutting emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 was consistent with more than 2 degrees of warming.
Campbell recalled advice he received from the late John Kerin, a former Labor treasurer and primary industries minister, that there were only two types of speeches worth listening to in Canberra – maiden and valedictory speeches.
He ensured his valedictory speech lived up to Kerin’s dictum, quipping that he well-understood why so many people in Canberra were triggered by the ABC’s satire Utopia, which skewers the bureaucratic malaise in government.
“A change of government, a change of minister, a razor gang in a tight budget has led to worthy initiatives being discontinued, useful organisations being abolished, or unproductive churn as initiatives are rebadged, reorganised and relaunched with significant transaction and opportunity costs,” he said.
“Patchy, brilliant innovation has been accompanied by institutional amnesia, ad-hockery and inability to stay the course too often.”
Campbell lamented the loss of independent institutions such as the Energy Research and Development Corporation and National Water Commission, singling out the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, “which did fantastic world-leading work” but was closed down in 2017.
“Had it continued, I think we would have been much better prepared [for natural disasters] in places like Lismore, Mallacoota and Kinglake.”
Campbell is leaving the institute, which is housed in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to take up a board position at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global research partnership. He was the first national Landcare facilitator, a chief executive of Land and Water Australia and is currently patron of Landcare in Victoria.
One of his most cutting parting shots was directed at Australia’s emissions reduction policy, warning a lack of proper regulation was risking a “subprime carbon” market.
“The credibility of [Australia’s carbon] markets is brittle,” Campbell said.
“We can’t offset our way to 2 degrees.”
A government spokesperson said the Morrison government had overseen a “decade of neglect, climate denial and successive cuts” to climate policy development and agencies.
“The Albanese government has implemented strong policies to reduce our emissions to meet our ambitious 2030 target,” they said, noting its reforms to the safeguard mechanism to force big polluters to cut emissions, $10 billion in funding for electricity lines to boost renewable energy, statutory roles for institutions such as the Climate Change Authority, and legislating Australia’s climate targets.
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