The Berejiklian Government’s failing environmental record

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In the face of increasing environmental catastrophe, the Berejiklian Government has been a destructive force against it, writes Kate Smolski.

REVELATIONS THAT PREMIER Gladys Berejiklian blocked an action plan for NSW to play its part in tackling climate change demonstrate a reprehensible dereliction of duty to the environment and the people of NSW, but it comes as no surprise to those who of us who keep a close eye on environmental policy in NSW.

Such environmental recklessness has, sadly, been a feature of the Coalition’s eight years in office and characteristic of the past two years in particular.

Since becoming premier, Gladys Berejiklian has shown no interest in responding urgently and proportionately to the challenge of climate change, or in defending our threatened species against the relentless pressures of deforestation and development, even though during her term the state has been gripped by drought, scorched by bushfires and sweltered through record heat waves.

While other states – notably Victoria, South Australia and the A.C.T. – have taken control of their energy futures and asserted an admirable degree of vision and initiative, the Berejiklian Government has largely abdicated responsibility for climate and energy to their federal Coalition colleagues.

And look where that has led us.

Carbon dioxide emissions from NSW’s coal-fired power stations last year hit 50.3 million tonnes – the highest in six years – and the proportion of electricity we source from wind and solar languishes around 9%.

Compare that with 50% in South Australia and 13% in Victoria.

Ms Berejiklian has not merely taken her eye off the ball, she has actively stymied positive steps to move us closer to the clean energy future polls which consistently show support from the vast majority of people.

Aside from blocking the climate change plan developed by her own Environment Minister and NSW Climate Change Council, she was also responsible for the biggest clean energy divestment decision in Australia’s history.

While countries, super funds and other institutions are daily withdrawing billions from fossil fuel investments, her government this year took a giant leap backwards by not reinvesting a single dollar from the sale of the NSW’s share of Snowy Hydro – the state’s largest renewable energy asset – back into clean energy or storage projects.

Instead, she put all $4.2 billion from the Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund into roads, rail and filling mobile phone black spots.

The money is mostly being spent in rural and regional areas and was distributed by Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW John Barilaro, the National Party leader who reportedly prides himself on his new moniker “Pork Barrel-aro” and who has possibly adopted more positions on climate and energy policy than Tony Abbott.

While Ms Berejiklian as Premier must take responsibility for her government’s decisions, the National Party’s fingerprints are all over the Coalition’s other signature acts of environmental vandalism.

Primary among these is a wave of deforestation triggered by new laws that give agricultural, urban and industrial developers expanded freedoms to trash forests and bushland.

Since the introduction of the Coalition’s Biodiversity Conservation Act in 2017 and despite our best efforts to challenge the laws in court, deforestation rates in some parts of the state have tripled, with more than 61 football fields of koala forest wiped off the map every week in just four regions we examined.

Koalas are a flagship species and our treatment of these beautiful, gentle creatures says a lot about how we care for the many thousands of other animal and plant species we have a responsibility to protect.

Koala numbers across the state have plummeted up to 50% since the 1990s and there are now possibly as few as 15,000 left in the wild.

On current trends and without urgent action, koalas are on track to become extinct by mid-century.

That’s why we urgently need to protect their habitat in new national parks and stop logging and bulldozing the forests and woodlands where they live.

But rather than lessening the threats to this iconic species, the Coalition has intensified them.

The Government’s own advisors warned the environment minister in 2017 before she signed off on the new laws that they would cause a new wave of deforestation and permit the bulldozing of 99% of identified koala habitat on private land.

Despite that, she signed them off with Premier Berejiklian’s consent and let the bulldozers and chainsaws rip.

Meanwhile, expansion of the NSW national parks network, the most effective way of protecting threatened species, has virtually stopped under the Coalition since 2011 and under Premier Berejiklian in particular.

New analysis shows Ms Berejiklian has added less to the national parks system and at a slower rate than any other premier since the National Parks and Wildlife Service was created in 1967.

In the two years she has been in office, her government has added just 4,200 hectares to the conservation reserve system at an annual average rate of 2,100 hectares.

Compare that with the 120,000 hectares a year added by Liberal Premier Bob Askin, the 203,000 hectares a year by Labor’s Bob Carr and the staggering 255,765 hectares a year added by Labor’s Kristina Keneally.

Even existing parks aren’t safe. We’ve seen proposals to degazette the Murray Valley National Park, put a freeway through Royal National Park, flood the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and prioritise the protection of horses over native species in Kosciuszko National Park.

Only about 9% of the state is protected in reserves, which might sound like a lot but is actually just half the 17% Aichi Target agreed by Australia under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and incorporated into the NSW Government’s own National Parks Establishment Plan 2008. Since the Coalition came to power, that plan has been put on ice, like the climate change plan.

To get us back on track to meet the target, we need to be adding an average 140,000ha a year for the next 50 years. 2,100 hectares doesn’t come close.

And that’s not to mention the disaster that continues to unfold in the Darling River.

Admittedly, that debacle has been due to mismanagement by multiple governments, but NSW Nationals MPs have played a leading role, resisting at every turn any effort to take water from irrigators and return it to the rivers and wetlands that need it so desperately.

The environment and the people of NSW deserve better. Whoever forms government after 23 March must give our land, rivers and climate the attention they desperately deserve.

Kate Smolski is an environmental advocate with over 15 years of experience in grassroots organising, campaign strategy, media relations, policy and lobbying. You can follow Kate on Twitter @KateSmolski.

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