We aren’t happy tree friends with the environment
During the lead-up to last week’s federal budget and the reporting that followed, the overwhelming focus was on whether Labor could deliver on the surplus promise it had pledged.
The focus Australia has on keeping its books balanced is commendable, but there is another deficit we face. One that gets worse every year, and one that could create havoc in the economic budget if not attended to.
The environmental deficit. Last year’s State of the Environment report made the same point that it has made since its initial publication in 1996 - things are OK, but getting progressively worse.
At some point, Australian governments are going to need to act on major environmental issues, and the longer they wait, the more damage the national hip-pocket will take.
Well may we have a budget surplus, but each year, Australia is delivering an environmental deficit, and our environmental net debt continues to grow. This environmental deficit tends to be ignored, scattered across the budget statements. It tends to be, in fact, the Missing Budget Paper.
So what would the headline figures be within this mythical document?
First on the agenda is transport. Australia should aim to reduce pollution and congestion, making life more pleasant for the 80 per cent of Australians dwelling in our ever-expanding cities who deal with dirtier air and longer drives to and from work every day.
This should not be hard. Simply, money should be spent on public transport rather than endlessly building new roads that just get clogged up with new cars. No one WANTS to be stuck in traffic; taxpayers’ money should go to buses, trams and trains, creating a transport system that people would flock to. The government could create a world where we breathe cleaner air while getting to work faster and without the trauma of gridlock on the M1.
But no, this year’s missing environmental budget paper shows the opposite. In fact, for every new dollar spent on rail, $14 is spent on roads. Fail.
What about pollution? Well, here’s an area the missing budget paper is looking in surplus this year. With the budget’s full funding of the Clean Energy Future package of commitments, including the Biodiversity Fund, and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the pollution forward estimates look promising. Pass.
How about programs that protect our wildlife and the stunning Australian landscape that we are so rightly proud of? Well, the pillar that protects our natural environment, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act, gained some funding to implement much-needed reforms.
But given that it appears that all powers around this act will soon be handballed to the states (who appear all-too eager to scrap any and all environmental protections), it raises the question why they’re bothering at all.
With the State of the Environment report showing us we are not doing enough to stem the decline of our environment, biodiversity and ecosystems, it’s admirable that programs such as Caring For Our Country have retained funding despite the tight budget.
Unfortunately, though, no steps have been taken to stem our slide to an environmental deficit in the forward estimates. A narrow pass.
The overwhelming majority of our environmental deficit comes in the form of the deeply entrenched incentives big polluters receive to continue consuming fossil fuels like cheap oil is still a reality. The missing budget paper shows how starkly our budget supports this old economy at the cost of a clean future.
These handouts to big miners to use tax-free fuel will continue to grow over the forward estimates to a staggering $9.4 billion – a whopping $4,480 per minute that taxpayers are handing over to mining companies so they can drive trucks cheaper.
This is in stark contrast to the savage cuts to one of the only programs giving a similar incentive to green up our economy. The tax breaks for green buildings were axed before they even got out of the starting blocks – going back on a $400 million commitment that was a pale shadow of the miner’s own tax loophole. Epic fail.
A strong economy needs a healthy environment. As long as our financial surplus is built atop an environmental deficit, the long term economic outlook for Australia looks decidedly shaky.
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