Climate of stagnation

The EU seizes the green agenda

AT COP25 IN Madrid – the twenty-­fifth United Nations climate summit, held in December 2019 – I watched as the vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, elaborated on the important role of forests and biodiversity protection in the newly launched European Green Deal. The proposal to make Europe a carbon-­neutral continent by 2050 had been announced by Ursula von der Leyen at the opening of the Madrid conference on 3 December – her first day as president of the European Commission. Now, in week two of the climate talks, the European Parliament was hosting a panel discussion on how forests could help countries meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Timmerman’s presentation emphasised the importance of forests in the European Green Deal, which aimed to improve the quality as well as the quantity of the European forests through a proposed EU Forest Strategy and emphasised that restoration would feature in a new EU Biodiversity Strategy, subsequently launched on 20 May 2020. I had been invited to present research on the same panel, showing that restoring degraded forest ecosystems would be better for the climate than planting new trees.

The proposal for a European Green Deal is a bold step in leadership from Europe in both climate change policy and responses to the biodiversity crisis. The comparison with Australia’s official position could not be more stark. Even by early December, it was apparent that Australia was in the midst of an unprecedented bushfire crisis. Yet at the conference in Madrid, Angus Taylor, the Australian Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, was doing his best to hold the rest of the world to ransom over weak rules that would allow Australia to do next to nothing to meet its already inadequate 2030 climate targets. Australia, unlike many other countries, has no national goal to reduce emissions to zero by 2050. Its 2030 targets are set at half the level recommended by our Climate Change Authority, which provides independent expert advice on climate change policy. The current Australian government also plans to use ‘carry-­over’ credits from previous climate commitments to meet half of that target. University of Melbourne researchers Yann Robiou du Pont and Malte Meinshausen suggest Australia’s level of ambition puts the world on track for four degrees of warming – and other jurisdictions, including the European Union and many developing countries, held firm in Madrid against Australia’s efforts to introduce loopholes that would allow emissions to rise. This resulted in stalemate on key elements of the Madrid negotiations, such as international carbon trading and finance arrangements to compensate poor nations for climate damage. Discussions were delayed until the next UN climate summit, now postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus emergency.


URSULA VON DER Leyen has positioned the Green Deal as putting Europe at the forefront of an integrated approach to drive a new wave of economic development, with nature at the centre – ‘part of a European recovery that gives more back to the planet than it takes away’. Taking the opposite position of Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who has labelled climate policy ‘economy wrecking’, von der Leyen – in her maiden speech to the European Parliament as the Commission’s first female president – said, ‘the European Green Deal…is Europe’s new growth strategy. It will help us cut emissions while also creating jobs.’

The European Green Deal contains two standalone forest initiatives, indicating the importance placed on forests as part of the EU’s response to climate change. The first is the newly launched EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which identifies bold new goals to protect 30 per cent of Europe’s land and seas; binding ‘nature restoration’ targets to restore healthy and resilient ecosystems, including carbon-rich old-­growth and primary forests; and a roadmap to plant three billion new trees by 2030, in full respect of ecological principles. In addition, a Forest Strategy to be launched later in the year builds on a landmark communication from the European Commission in July 2019 on stepping up action to protect and restore the world’s forests. The Forest Strategy aims to tackle the negative impacts that EU commodity imports (palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and similar) have on tropical forests.

The draft regulation to begin the process of enshrining the political commitments of the European Green Deal into law was published by the European Commission on 5 March 2020. This draft is an amendment to the 2018 European Climate Law and sets out plans to achieve an EU wide climate-neutrality objective by 2050 by balancing anthropogenic emissions and removals through ‘natural and technological’ solutions. ‘Natural’ here refers to restoring carbon to forests, soils and other ecosystems, while technological refers to what are known as ‘negative emissions technologies’ – technologies in early research stages that can capture carbon from a smokestack or directly from the air and sequester it underground. Not surprisingly, the technology track has garnered much opposition from environmental lobbyists, while the natural solutions idea has perhaps been over-­embraced, with everyone from Shell to President Trump extolling the virtues of planting trees.

This is not to say that the EU is leading the world in global climate action. In December 2019, the European Environment Agency reported the bloc is only on track for a 30 per cent emission reduction by 2030 (below 1990 levels), falling well short of its 40 per cent Paris commitment – which in itself is not ambitious enough to keep the world well below two degrees of warming. The University of Manchester’s Kevin Anderson and colleagues, writing in the journal Climate Policy in early 2020, suggest the scale of mitigation required of the European Union is an order of magnitude greater than that included in the Commission’s draft Climate Law. The European Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in November 2019 recognises that Europe needs to do more, and the Commission is on track to present by September 2020 a plan to raise the EU’s 2030 ambitions and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50–55 per cent compared with 1990 levels.

What sets the European Green Deal and its draft Climate Law apart from Australia – with its lack of joined-­up thinking on climate and environmental policy – is attention to the risks of both climate change and biodiversity loss, and recognition of the benefits of ecosystem integrity for biodiversity and climate goals. What is needed next in the European Union is an adequate level of climate mitigation ambition, and to enshrine the bold targets of the Biodiversity Strategy in binding legislation. What is needed next in Australia is a national conversation about forests – a conversation that recognises the importance of intact forest ecosystems in mitigating climate change, and in protecting and enabling vulnerable species to adapt to climate change.


PROTECTING PRIMARY AND intact forest ecosystems is a critical part of any climate mitigation strategy to maintain the world’s existing terrestrial carbon stock, its biodiversity hotspots and the climatic regulation that primary forests provide. In his 2014 Significance article ‘Counting Trees, Carbon and Climate Change’, Griffith University’s Brendan Mackey illustrates how the natural patterns of distribution and abundance of biodiversity in primary forests and intact landscapes create the greatest resilience and stability of the natural carbon stock, including resilience to external shocks, and hence the greatest carbon-­carrying capacity in both volume and longevity. All of this tells us that planting trees is no substitute for protecting and restoring natural forest ecosystems.

In the Australian context, our continent is covered by a complex interlocking regime of federal and state laws, regulations and practices that govern land use, vegetation retention, and forest exploitation and preservation. Emissions from land use and forestry in Australia have fluctuated dramatically for decades. Forests are currently a net sink, but federal government projections suggest this capacity will weaken over the next decade as fewer areas are reforested and Queensland and New South Wales remain global land-­clearing hotspots. Relaxing state-­based regulations has significantly increased Australia’s land-­clearing rate, with almost half a million hectares of vegetation cleared in a single year (2015–16) in Queensland alone, contributing 80 per cent of Australia’s land-use change emissions.[i] Effective climate mitigation in Australia would require significantly reducing land clearing and deforestation, which means that overhauling land-clearing regulation and biodiversity protection laws is needed for greater protection of native vegetation. The policy will to do this has been lacking, and legislative frameworks are weak at both state and federal levels.

Much of Australia’s current national regulatory framework relating to biodiversity preservation and forest management emerged in response to international treaties, and to domestic political conflicts and environmental pressures, during the 1980s and early 1990s. This harks back to the days when Australia was seen as an environmental leader. The world’s first green party, the United Tasmanian Group, was established in Tasmania in 1972; a national Greens party was formed in 1992. Resulting from the growing environmental movement, the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 is the primary national legislation for biodiversity protection in Australia. It provides an overarching legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places – defined in the act as matters of national environmental significance, with the states and territories having responsibility for matters of state and local significance.

Yet the Coalition government has reduced national environmental spending by one third since it came to power in 2012, including closing the Biodiversity Fund, which was designed to maintain ecosystem function and increase ecosystem resilience to climate change. The Australian National University’s David Lindenmeyer and colleagues have been calling for an expanded reserve network since 2010 rather than cuts to environmental protection and biodiversity funding, recognising the important contribution native forests make to climate and biodiversity goals.[ii]  Following last summer’s bushfire crisis, the federal government budgeted $50 million for wildlife protection. Environmental groups are now seeking clarity on whether these funds will be increased as planned following the financial stimulus required for businesses and individuals affected by the COVID-­19 shutdown, and have proposed creating 24,000 jobs in land rehabilitation as part of a post-­pandemic stimulus package.[iii]

Reducing bushfire risk in forests has the same aims and impact as climate mitigation – protecting, restoring and conserving natural forests. Under Indigenous management the Australian environment evolved with fire and, under past conditions, could recover from the impacts of bushfire. However, climate change has altered the rules irrevocably: the unprecedented scale of the 2019–20 bushfire season, and the drier and warmer weather conditions that exacerbated it, are beyond normal parameters. We can no longer rest assured that nature will bounce back – and that knowledge should be a wake-­up call for the world.[iv] A fierce debate on hazard-­reduction burning as a panacea has arisen in Australia. But the science on its effectiveness in the face of severe-­intensity fires is contested,[v] the window to carry out controlled burns is getting smaller and smaller due to the changing climate and longer fire season, and the effectiveness of fuel reduction lessens with the severity of the fire.

Another distraction from the real issues facing Australia is the idea of salvage logging – taking out dead trees after a fire. Logging to remove dead trees is happening in fire-­ravaged parts of NSW and Victoria. However, experts such as David Lindenmeyer say the science on the impacts of post-­fire logging is clear: it can significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems, badly affect wildlife and, for some animal species, prevent recovery.[vi] Research shows that post-­fire logging is the most damaging form of logging, removing critical habitat, increasing run-­off and reducing recovery rates in animal, bird and plant diversity. At least a billion animals were lost in the last summer’s bushfires. More than one hundred species are listed as threatened due to habitat loss, and the halt to critical monitoring and recovery work across Australia because of COVID-­19 endangers the recovery of these species. It is therefore vital that false assertions around salvage logging do not become another kind of wildfire, causing further environmental destruction for Australia’s protected areas and the species they hold.


IN THE WAKE of last summer’s bushfire crisis, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has said Australia needs its own Green Deal. He has called for common purpose, leadership and planning, and has focused on decarbonising the entire electricity sector. Yet an overly narrow focus on this sector – low-­hanging fruit in terms of emissions abatement due to the rapidly falling costs of renewables – will not make Australia a climate leader if we do not also address ongoing destruction of natural vegetation and the degradation of our farmlands. Deforestation and land clearing in Australia emit at least fifty million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – approximately 10 per cent of Australia’s total emissions.

Climate change is a leading cause of concern for citizens in both Australia and Europe. A 2019 survey from the European Commission found that 93 per cent of Europeans see climate change as a serious problem. In January 2020, the Australia Institute found that 79 per cent of Australians are now ‘concerned’ about climate change compared with 74 per cent the previous year.

While Australians’ concerns over climate change and its impacts have risen to historic highs, perhaps the still-­stark difference in levels of concern in Europe and Australia explains the difference in political approach. Notwithstanding potential delays due to the COVID-­19 pandemic, Europe remains poised to enact the largest and most far-­reaching package of framework legislation on climate to date, with no major changes to the Green Deal timeline at the time of going to press. In fact, in April 2020, seventeen European climate and environment ministers penned an op-­ed in Climate Home calling for the European Commission to maintain its momentum on the Green Deal and use it as a framework to build the bridge between fighting COVID-­19, biodiversity loss and climate change.[vii]

By comparison, Australia has spent the past decade dismantling its earlier, progressive and forward-­looking legislative package, leaving us with only a weak 2030 target, and no roadmap to reach it. Under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia’s minority Labor federal government enacted framework climate legislation in 2011. This Clean Energy Future Package set up important architecture around climate change governance, including the Climate Change Commission, the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Yet the Coalition federal government under Tony Abbott came to power just two years later on the back of promises to ‘axe the (carbon) tax’, and immediately set about dismantling the Clean Energy Future Package and associated governance structures. This started with abolition of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which the Gillard government had planned to link with Europe’s ETS. In a show of climate leadership rare from Australia in recent decades, Gillard insisted on a more robust ETS scheme than the one currently operating in Europe.

With its new draft Climate Law set for passage through the European Parliament and the Council this northern summer, Europe is well on its way to its own framework legislative package, setting an ambitious target for 2030 and beyond. There is still much to be debated in the European Union, but the outcomes of the legislative process in 2020 will set an agenda for the next twenty years. Australia, meanwhile, remains without any unifying climate policy at the national level. This has left Australia’s states and territories to lead the way, with each now signed up to a net-­zero emissions goal by 2050. National-­level legislation nonetheless remains critical to create a level playing field for industries across Australia and to establish the enabling framework for greater ambition, analogous to the overarching European Union climate legislation enabling member states to increase their ambition levels and share the economic burden. Last summer’s bushfire crisis did not break that bottleneck, as Australia’s federal government rhetorically devolved responsibility to state-­based management of public lands and forestry operations. Compare this to the relative agility of policy brokerage by the European Union, which requires agreement across twenty-­seven member states.

An out-­of-­balance biosphere will keep throwing extraordinary challenges our way as climate change causes more frequent extreme weather events. Effective responses require not only bold action and an ambitious climate policy. They also demand holistic and visionary plans for managing our natural and managed lands – paying particular attention to the crossover and connections between biodiversity protection, restoration of degraded ecosystems, improving long-­term agricultural productivity and climate mitigation. Bold and visionary policy in turn requires a coherent public debate. There is a jarring disconnect in the level of public policy debate on climate and environmental issues between Australia and the European Union. The European Union is moving ahead with a progressive (if still inadequate) policy framework while Australia is increasingly mired in a debate of climate denial, where even the simplest moves to decarbonise the electricity sector are derailed by political ideologues. There exists only a vacuum where there could be exchange. This lack of exchange – of ideas, sentiment and priorities – between Australia and Europe points to a diversion in values as well as action.

Australia, once a world leader in environmental policy, could now look to Europe for policy lessons on how to respond to our changing climate – and reverse the trends of land clearing and degradation that contribute to it.



[i] Steffen, W., and Dean., A (2018). Land clearing & Climate Change. Climate Council, Australia.

[ii] Lindenmayer, D. B. et al. 'Conservation strategies in response to rapid climate change: Australia as a case study'. Biol. Conserv. 143, 1587–1593 (2010).


[iv] Williamson G, Mocatta G, Harris R, Remenyi T. (2020) 'Yes, the Australian bush is recovering from bushfires – but it may never be the same.' The Conversation.

[v] Tolhurst, K. (2020) 'The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested'. The Conversation.

[vi] Lindenmeyer D, Robinson, D. (2020) 'Logging is due to start in fire-ravaged forests this week. It’s the last thing our wildlife needs'. The Conversation.


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