How can NSW better tackle greenhouse gas emissions?

In Paris last year, Australia pledged a target to reduce emissions by 2030. All levels of government in Australia need to pitch in if we are to meet our commitments. Several Australian states and territories have laws in place to make a start. NSW doesn’t. Now more than ever, NSW needs to plan for a responsible carbon future, and our planning system is key.

27 July 2016

The NSW Government is proposing changes to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (Planning Act) in the upcoming session of Parliament. This is a timely reminder of important issues that are not addressed effectively in the NSW planning system.

One of the biggest issues is climate change and greenhouse gas pollution. Our new report, Planning for climate change: how the NSW planning system can better tackle greenhouse gas emissions, makes 14 recommendations for how our planning system can be improved to help mitigate the future impacts and costs of climate change.

We put some questions to the report’s lead author, Nari Sahukar, EDO NSW Senior Policy & Law Reform Solicitor, to find out more. 

Q: What’s the link between the planning system and climate change?

There are two main ways to limit the impact of climate change – reducing emissions (mitigation) and adjusting to the effects of climate change (adaptation). Mitigating emissions now reduces the damage of climate change and the costs of adapting later.

The Planning Act is the place to address mitigation because most of NSW greenhouse gas emissions are authorised through planning and development approvals under the Act.

Report cover with image of a wind farm

When we talk about the planning system, we’re referring to two ends of the Planning Act. At one end – land-use planning – the system should set out a vision for liveable places, a healthy environment and sustainable development, and put high-level plans in place to achieve this.

At the other end – development approval – decision-makers at local, regional or state level determine what projects get approved (or refused) and how they’re allowed to operate. Conditions of consent can avoid environmental degradation and limit the amount of pollution that a development is allowed to produce. This part of the system applies from code-compliant housing development to major industrial and infrastructure projects.

By setting high-level plans, development rules and project conditions, the planning system can play a critical part in our collective effort to reduce emissions and limit climate change.

Q: What are the current barriers in the planning system that hold NSW back from mitigating emissions?

There are two major barriers to NSW taking effective action to reduce emissions. First, we don’t have a climate change law that sets long-term targets to reduce greenhouse pollution. Second, there’s little integration between the recognised need to reduce emissions and the planning system.

For major projects, such as mines, roads and power stations, there aren't consistent standards for impact assessment or decision-making. Predicting a project’s emissions may be required under the current system, but there’s not much guidance for decision-makers on what to do with those predictions. Project conditions may require a coal mine to ‘minimise’ greenhouse emissions, but what does that mean in practice? The planning system doesn’t answer this important question.

The result is that NSW laws – for strategic planning, environmental impact assessment, development approval and other licensing – fail to deal with strategic climate risk, link to a limited carbon budget, or aim for an emissions reduction target.

Other states and nations are doing this better. The absence of integrated laws and policies on greenhouse pollution is a critical gap that needs to be filled in NSW.

Q: How can the planning system be improved to reduce greenhouse gases?

Our report details 14 recommendations to improve the planning system and help NSW plan for a responsible carbon future.

In summary, best practice, forward-looking planning laws would ensure that:

  • emissions targets are established and linked to the planning system;
  • planning laws include aims and duties to reduce emissions;
  • strategic land-use plans adopt and implement emission reduction goals;
  • decision-makers have access to the best best available science and information;
  • decision-makers have the tools to make decisions that enable emission reductions;
  • energy efficiency standards are updated and expanded;
  • resource extraction laws operate within this system; and
  • compliance, monitoring and enforcement are in place, strategic and transparent.

Q: How important is it to reform how the NSW planning system deals with emissions reductions?

Decisions we make now – on regional and city planning, transport, resource extraction, building standards and vegetation management – will have long-lasting effects on future generations. For example, existing coal and gas projects could be operating up to and beyond 2050 – the year from which the world is aiming for zero net emissions.

To achieve the necessary emissions reductions and to avoid massive adaptation costs, it makes sense to integrate climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction into our planning and environmental laws now.

We need to act soon. The longer we hold off, the more we magnify the risks and costs for future generations.

Read the report: Planning for climate change: how the NSW planning system can better tackle greenhouse gas emissions

View slides from the publication launch on 27 July 2016.

The global effort to reduce emissions
There was a collective cheer when over 190 nations shook hands on the Paris Agreement in late 2015. But, with 1 degree warming to date, we need widespread and systemic changes if we are to limit the earth’s average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees ‘if possible’, and ‘well below’ 2 degrees, as agreed in Paris. All countries are to peak and then reduce emissions ‘as soon as possible’.

The Paris agreement was a key moment, but it was just the start of the hard work needed to meet our global challenge. NSW needs to work together with all governments in Australia if we are to meet the commitments made in Paris.