When It Comes To The Environment, ScoMo Could Learn A Lesson From China

The United States is known for audacious ideas. Some make little sense but are pursued relentlessly, like a border wall that will cost billions.

Others are eminently sensible, like the Green New Deal, but they are given only lip service by the political class.

The Green New Deal is an economic stimulus proposal that aims to combat climate change and create jobs.

The idea draws on President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which delivered social and economic reforms and public works projects following the Great Depression. Switch public works for renewable energy and resource efficiency and you have the basis of the Green New Deal.

Protesters in Brooklyn, New York demand US lawmakers adopt Green New Deal policies. (Getty Images)

Ultimately it’s a plan to simultaneously grapple with inequality and climate change so the solutions to the latter work for all people -- not just elites -- and prevent the type of political discord seen in the Parisian ‘yellow vests’ riots.

And it’s an idea based on the premise that when you are in a hole, you don’t keep digging, you try something different.

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There is no argument, environmentally speaking, that we are in a sizable hole. Australia is experiencing environmental disasters of unparalleled degree and frequency. More than a million fish are dead in the Darling River. Half the shallow corals of the Great Barrier Reef have died from mass bleaching. Fires are burning in Tasmanian forests that are usually too wet to burn. And prolonged heat waves have shattered temperature records across the country. January 2019 has just been declared Australia’s hottest month on record.

Australia smashed heat records in January, including recording Adelaide's hottest-ever day. (Image: BOM)
Mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 have decimated  the Great Barrier Reef. (Image: AAP)
The Darling River filled with rotting fish. (Image AAP)
Water bombing helicopters worked to contain a large fire in Miena, Tasmania on January 21. (Image: Getty)

These disasters are not normal or bad luck. They are the direct consequence of short-term thinking by Australia’s governments and industry. They are what happens when our environment is degraded, traded off, pushed beyond its limits and ignored. For years, scientists have warned of these disasters. Sadly, they are now part of our reality.

READ MORE: Tonnes Of Dead Fish Removed From The Darling River

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While the Green New Deal is a nascent concept in the US, it’s a full-blown government investment program in China -- if not named as such. 

In the 1990s China experienced a series of natural disasters -- droughts, floods and dust storms -- caused by centuries of unsustainable land management and exploitation of nature.

These environmental emergencies plunged China’s rural people into deep poverty and triggered a massive investment in rural sustainability. US$350 billion was committed to reduce soil erosion, protect rivers and forests, increase agricultural productivity, reverse desertification, reduce poverty and provide economic development for China’s rural communities.

Two decades on and a team of Chinese, Australian and American scientists have found forest cover has increased, grasslands have expanded and desertification has been reversed in many areas. Soil erosion has waned and water quality has improved dramatically. Rural households are generally better off and hunger has largely disappeared.

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China still has serious problems, and is by no means the model of environmentalism, but its investment is unmatched. As Australia faces down numerous environmental emergencies,  similar long-term, large-scale public investment in sustainability is needed, matching our investment in education, defence and infrastructure.

Last year, China launched a reforestation project aiming to cover 16 million acres -- a landmass the size of Ireland. (Image: Getty)
Nearly 22 percent of China is now covered in forests, after a huge government initiative.  (Image: Getty)

That’s a job for Scott Morrison’s federal budget in April, which is currently calling for ideas for investment of public funds.

In the past five years the Federal Government has instead slashed investment in our environment by about 40 percent and continues to facilitate destructive activities such as land clearing and fossil fuel mining and burning.

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What would our future look like if the budget invested in people and nature? If we invested in repowering Australia with clean energy instead of providing subsidies to coal companies. If we had national environment laws that protect nature and fund a national Environment Protection Authority to enforce them. If we purchased more water for the Murray-Darling. If we stopped deforestation and soil erosion.

What would our future look like if the government invested heavily in the environment and renewable energy? (Image: Getty)

If we do these things, we will protect our beloved wildlife and beautiful places, and Australian workers and businesses will thrive.

We can create more than a million jobs in clean energy and clean transport. Banks and energy companies will have the certainty to invest in clean energy. Exports like renewable hydrogen will make Australia a clean energy superpower and reinvigorate communities struggling as coal mines close.

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Farmers will be able to plan using their fair share of water and avoiding devastating climate conditions. Small businesses relying on the reef and national parks will know those places will keep attracting tourists for decades. 

The Liberal government has slashed the environmental budget -- perhaps it should look to China. (Image: Getty)

What we need from the budget is a new Green Compact -- an investment in the future of all Australians. It is one of the most responsible things our government can do for its citizens and all living things.

But there can be no more delay, and no more digging us deeper into the hole.

Budgets are about choices. With this one the Morrison Government must choose to deliver a scale of investment and reform that rises to meet the environmental challenges we face.