Rinsing the Greenwash out of Australian Politics | Senator Sarah Hanson-Young

When Australians cast their votes, they put their trust in politics. They want to believe that the parliament they elected will act on the issues they care about.

Speech from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to the Climate Integrity Summit.

When people in this place do not act on these issues with integrity, it puts this trust at risk.

That is why at the last federal election, a third of Australians voted for a non-major party candidate like the Greens. They saw that politics as usual had not been delivering for them.

This time around, Australians overwhelmingly voted for action on climate, and action on integrity.

As a result, the makeup of parliament has changed, and it’s no surprise that the big conversations we’re having right now are focused on the integrity of climate policy.

It is important that we remember, more than ever, Australians want to do the right thing by our environment. Watching our country burn and flood as a result of climate change has focused our minds. During the Black Summer bushfires, the environment became the number one issue of importance to voters. The three years of Covid and lockdowns gave people time to reconnect with nature and reevaluate our priorities.

These experiences are reflected in the choices that Australians are making as voters and as consumers. Consumers are voting with their hard-earned dollars.

Businesses are increasingly wanting to do the right thing.

But while Australians call for greater action on climate and environment, greenwashing becomes a bigger risk.

In this place, it is our job to ensure the regulatory systems are robust so that we can transparently and with integrity take real action on the climate crisis.

One of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now in politics is deciding whether or not it is acceptable to use cheap offsets as a way to facilitate the continued expansion of fossil fuels.

What are we safeguarding – the environment, or coal and gas? And what are we telling our voters? Determining how the government’s safeguard mechanism will play a role in regulating some of our biggest polluters is an important question that will inevitably impact everyone.

Australians need to be able to trust that what they’re sold is what they’re getting – both from business and government.

The argument for dodgy offsets in the Government’s safeguard mechanism is a symptom of the bigger greenwashing problem we face, not only across government but industry.

Businesses in Australia use box ticks, logos, and trendy terms to convince Australians that in choosing their product or services they are in some small way making a positive choice for the environment, and that these small steps will add up to significant action.

But when Australians choose a super fund for its green credentials, how do they know what they’re investing in is truly “green”?

When they tick a box to offset their emissions when they book a flight – how do they know these offsets are real?

When they purchase clothing from a brand that says their products are sustainably sourced – how can they trust how it was made, and where it came from? With the fashion industry the second most polluting industry globally, responsible for 10% of annual carbon emissions, there is reason to be skeptical.

And then there’s the more obviously outrageous offers – buy a tee shirt and save a koala or sign up to a gas provider and they’ll plant a tree for you!

An international investigation found that as many as 40 per cent of environmental claims made by companies across a range of industries may be false or misleading.

In Australia, where regulation remains weak and slow to catch up, it is safe to assume the statistics are not much better, if not worse.

Regulation and prosecution of greenwashing is in only its early stages. The ACCC and ASIC are carrying out investigations in response to an uptick in false and misleading environmental claims. In October last year, ASIC issued the first regulator greenwashing fine to Tlou Energy, for their claims of carbon neutral electricity.

The advertising regulator is looking to update its environmental codes in a similar vein, to ensure advertisers provide accurate information to Australians.

But for regulators to be able to do their job properly, they need both the right rules and regulations, and the power of enforcement and penalties to truly hold industry to account. The Government must give guidance by committing to honest action through transparent legislation and policy that can address the environmental crises we face.

This pressure to regulate greenwashing is set to increase, not just in Australia, but globally, with governments and industry on notice.

Upon the release of a report about integrity in net zero commitments, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged for zero tolerance on net zero greenwashing. Specifically, he said: “Using bogus ‘net-zero’ pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”

In December last year in Montreal, the Albanese Government signed onto the UN Global Biodiversity Framework, which translated this pressure into clear actions for governments to take.

Targets 15 and 16 outline commitments to legislative and policy measures to reduce greenwashing on two fronts: ensuring transparent disclosure from businesses on their environmental impact, and providing people with accurate environmental information in order to make sustainable consumption choices.

The Albanese Government has a lot of work to do if they are going to meet these commitments. We need laws that make it illegal to lie about how green or carbon-friendly products and services are. We need government policy that is based on integrity not greenwash and spin.

If we are to tackle greenwashing in this country, our own Government must act twofold; firstly by reforming its existing programs and policies that are complicit in greenwashing, and secondly by introducing policies that will result in real action on climate and environmental protection, and remain transparent in their intent.

To this first point – after years of enduring a government that dodged climate action at all turns, we have undeniably been left with a lot of broken systems.

One of these of course is the carbon market and Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), whose deep systemic issues have come to light thanks to the hard work of many in this room.

Another is the Government’s own Climate Active carbon neutral certification system, which doubles down on the use of ACCUs and dodgy international credits to certify businesses and products as climate friendly.

The fact that big polluters can be certified as “climate champions” under this system is a testament to the massive disconnect between the urgency of our climate and biodiversity crises and the existing policies to address them.

Rather than rewarding real emissions reductions, we have a complex, opaque offsetting system that acts as a sleight of hand for business on carbon pollution. Pay some money to continue emitting, and get a pat on the back for it. As you all know, this system is difficult to regulate, understand, and dismantle.

Yet, the concerns must be addressed, and I want to acknowledge the previous panel for their discussion and work on exposing the system as a sham in the 4 Corners piece earlier this week.

We cannot continue blindly endorsing the integrity of offset schemes like Verra, without doing due diligence on whether the offsets they’re selling to Australian companies are legitimate. We can’t wait for independent investigations to tell us that, like in the case of Verra, up to 90 per cent of the credits issued may be worthless.

How many of the companies certified as carbon neutral by the Government’s Climate Active scheme are not actually carbon neutral at all?

When a member of the public looks and sees a government endorsed climate certification, how can they be sure that company is actually contributing to real, meaningful climate action?

Offsets are undeniably a major problem in an existing system, and it’s no wonder there is concern around Minister Plibersek’s inclusion of offsets in the proposed Nature Repair Market. This parliament should not be copying and pasting a broken offsets policy to try and deal with our biodiversity crisis – we already know it won’t work.

As such the Greens want offsets to be off the table in any proposed biodiversity market – we should not be implementing another offsets scheme until proper review and reform of the existing one is complete.

We have the opportunity to leave these broken market systems behind as a legacy of the last government.

This new parliament is one with an opportunity to right these wrongs and take climate change and environmental protection seriously.

This must start with ensuring the solutions put forward are truly making a difference. If we continue to trade the right to pollute, log and bulldoze the world, our country will continue to burn and flood, and trust in our democracy will fade.

Instead, and quite simply, to protect our environment, the government must deal directly with the biggest cause of the climate crisis: the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas.

To protect our environment, coal, oil and gas companies cannot keep expanding and opening up new mines by buying their way out of decarbonisation with cheap offsets.

The more offsets there are, the less companies need to cut their pollution.

The government’s current proposed reform of the safeguard mechanism lacks integrity and is a threat to our environment. It is more about safeguarding coal and gas than it is about safeguarding the climate and environment.

The coal and gas industry’s fingers are all over the plan.

57% of the emissions under the Safeguard Mechanism are from coal and gas facilities.

The government’s own documents say pollution from gas will rise because new gas mines will open.

And at the government’s own admission, most of the new entrants into the scheme will be new coal and gas projects.

Currently, the Safeguard Mechanism does not stop new coal and gas projects.

It doesn’t even stop the expansion of existing coal and gas projects.

The International Energy Agency said to reach net zero by 2050, which is both the government and opposition’s aspiration, not one new coal, oil or gas project can be built from now on. Any policy that ignores their expert advice is frankly greenwashing.

The safeguard mechanism also doesn’t account for the bulk of the pollution from these projects, which are Scope III emissions. Mother Nature doesn’t care if the pollution happens here or overseas – it still drives the climate crisis.

And even with regard to the Scope 1 emissions, it doesn’t even stop the actual pollution from coal and gas projects going up because they can just use cheap low integrity offsets to balance the books and keep on polluting.

As has been pointed out the current design allows unlimited offsetting, meaning that as long as you pay, you can keep polluting. Sounds like quite the scam.

Most other countries either ban offsetting or limit it to very low percentages so they drive actual pollution down in their economies.

So there are big problems.

But as has been reported today, the Greens have made a clear offer to the Government that if they are willing to halt the opening of new coal, oil and gas projects we are willing to give their scheme a chance. This is an offer, not an ultimatum.

There are a range of ways the government can protect our environment and deal with the question of new coal and gas. I currently have a bill before the Parliament to amend our environment laws to include a climate trigger. This would require the Minister to reject any new fossil fuel project that emits more than a 100,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. They would be treated the same way as nuclear projects are treated under the existing Act.

The government’s response to the Samuel Review and reform of the national environment laws gives us an opportunity to implement such a climate trigger.

We need to do this.

Our climate and biodiversity crises are inextricably linked. New environmental protection laws will fail to do their job unless they consider climate impacts of new projects.

Not only would a climate trigger help to urgently halt new emissions, it would help address the impact of climate change on our wildlife and achieve the targets Australia has committed to, to halt extinction of our native species and protect 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030.

The International Energy Agency, the UN Secretary General and the world’s scientists have all said we can not approve any more fossil fuel projects if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change on our planet.

The government should be going down this path, and the Greens’ open offer on the Safeguard Mechanism is another incentive for them to do so.

Instead of creating complicated systems to make it seem like action is happening, we must focus on the root of the problem, and get cracking on real emission reductions.

The ultimate greenwash is of course to say we have time in this climate crisis. We can talk about offsets, and making companies tell the truth about their environmental impact, but the reality is that we need deep cuts to emissions and policies that force this.

Right now our friends across the ditch are experiencing another devastating climate-fuelled natural disaster. Climate change Minister, member of the Greens Party and my friend, the Honorable James Shaw told the New Zealand parliament yesterday he has never felt as sad or angry about the lost decades spent arguing about climate change and whether or not to take action. He said we are standing in the climate crisis, and “We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding, we must act now”.

We have a new parliament in this country and we have our best chance yet to really do our part to save this planet – to act and to do so urgently and with integrity. Let’s get on with it.

— Senator Sarah Hanson-Young at the Climate Integrity Summit.

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