The emergence of the National Cabinet model has been a consequence of the real and present danger presented by the COVID-19 virus. The National Cabinet has abandoned the stifling procedural requirements of COAG and its multitude of ministerial forums. Instead, the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers have come together frequently for expert advice which has informed an evidence-based response and has so far successfully flattened the pandemic curve.
The National Cabinet has also been successful because it has been collaborative in nature. It has recognised that coordination, rather than uniformity of action, is vital in a federation where the states and territories are on the front-line of the operational response.
Based on the COVID-19 experience, there is one key question:
Can the National Cabinet model also be effectively deployed to address the twin challenges of economic recovery and decarbonisation of our economy?
Some immediate differences are apparent. The impetus to respond to COVID-19 has been the urgency of a rapidly developing public health emergency which will decline in magnitude over time. In contrast, the impacts of the climate emergency are cumulative, worsening in severity and impact over time until emissions can be reduced to net zero. Despite this, elements of how Australia has responded to COVID-19 can be applied to the goals of economic recovery and decarbonisation.
First is a focus on coordination, not uniformity, of national and subnational efforts. As with a health pandemic, many elements of the decarbonisation task are vested in the states and territories – such as energy, planning and transport policy, along with emergency management and environmental protection. Governments will choose different paths and policies to achieve decarbonisation, but the outcome should be a common one: net zero emissions no later than 2050.
The greatest challenge will be to resist the pressure to revert to business as usual once the health emergency passes. Talk of a “gas-fired” recovery highlights this risk. Reverting to an exploitative resource extraction paradigm will actually introduce new risks for our society and economy. Gas is a fossil fuel with an emissions intensity which is still not fully measured. So called ‘fugitive’ emissions from gas extraction have carbon emissions impacts which are at present seriously underestimated. Reliance on gas reduces our resilience to future shocks due to price volatility and supply chain interruptions. Further, associated calls for regulatory “green tape” reduction threatens biodiversity restoration following the latest bushfire catastrophe and potentially compromises vital ecosystem services of clean air, water and food production.
National Cabinet’s focus should be on two key principles for action: Resilience and Regeneration. These principles can be applied to both economic and environmental tasks and can be unifying objectives above the partisan nature of climate and energy debates.
Ministers could draw upon an already agreed national framework for preparedness and resilience to natural hazard impacts - the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework published by the Department of Home Affairs in 2018. This framework can be applied to assess priorities for achieving decarbonisation and economic recovery.
By adapting the current Framework for Investment Priorities to the decarbonisation task, economic stimulus investment and regulatory reform decisions can be targeted at high-priority local and nationally significant risks. This would shift the focus of economic stimulus to areas such as trade-exposed, or highly carbon intensive sectors with large workforces. Greater capital investment and regulatory reform will in turn enable industries and regional economies to become more resilient to external shocks by shifting to local supply chains. Other key elements of national economic infrastructure vulnerable to climate risk such as inadequate transmission networks could also be target for stimulus investment.
Preparing for the future, governments should also invest in major infrastructure projects to help limit future damage associated with climate change impacts. Such funding could go towards fire fuel management or storm and coastal inundation risk mitigation projects. This could shift our focus from one of degradation and depletion (a so called “gas-fired” recovery) to one focused on repair, renewal and restoration (sustainable development).
The second key principle for economic recovery with decarbonisation should be regeneration. Investment and regulatory reform should support projects that enables Australia to accelerate our pattern of development from sustainable (reducing harm to natural processes) to regenerative (doing good for the environment and economy).
Examples of these types of projects could be support for carbon capture building technologies, carbon negative plastics, urban aquifer recharge projects and zero carbon, pumped hydro desalination technology, which can tackle water and energy security concerns. Investment and regulation could also support soil restoration in bioregions through circular economy principles from urban and agricultural waste streams. This approach would utilise new decarbonisation technologies to deliver value back into natural systems, ensuring regeneration and greater resilience of our economy and community to future climate, health and geo-political shocks.
This can be the focus of the National Cabinet as it starts to consider the path to economic and societal recovery for Australia from COVID-19. Drawing on the strengths of an evidence-based, collaborative leadership focus through the National Cabinet, let’s shift from our reliance on economic activity which depletes and degrades our natural environment. Let us draw on the bipartisan potential of a focus on the outcomes of resilience and regeneration – where our technology and policy choices decarbonise our economy, creating jobs for our community and restoring our natural environment as we prepare for the challenges of the decades ahead.