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Morrison’s pledge on ocean waste – a shiny (plastic) distraction from climate policy

Morrison said a bunch of things he would never say on the subject of climate change, such as, “we have a responsibility to leave our children better than what we inherited”. And: “Our Pacific family has not caused this problem, but they have to deal with the impacts of it on their fisheries, on their wildlife and islands.”

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Morrison promised to change Commonwealth procurement rules so agencies were required to consider “environmental sustainability and the use of recycled content” when making procurement decisions. Later, the government talked a big game on providing specific recycled material procurement targets by the end of 2020.

Reader, they never did.

Australia has very little infrastructure to recycle its own plastics, and despite the government making funds available to the private sector to develop this infrastructure, almost no one has accessed them. It is widely acknowledged that much of the plastics waste Australia can no longer dump on other countries will go into landfill here. When we put plastics faithfully into our yellow bins, that’s where they will probably end up.

The government has not introduced targets to require manufacturers to use a certain amount of recycled materials in their products. And why would anyone invest in recycling when there is little demand for the products?

Morrison’s critics say the plastics pledge is a big shiny distraction from the Coalition’s emissions-reduction travails. That it has little substance and little new money put towards it. They also point out it only came into being after China and Indonesia (followed by Malaysia and Vietnam) refused to take any more plastic waste imports.

On another view, the problem was forced on Australia and the government has attempted to make a virtue of it. It is laudable – just like saving orangutans, no one is ever going to object to a policy which clears beaches of milkshake straws and old nappies, and saves seals from being strangled by a six-pack plastic ring.

Politicians will tell you ocean plastic waste is something school kids care a lot about. It is also something of a “safe space” for Liberals, particularly those moderates representing urban electorates where voters have high levels of environmental concern. They can talk about the environment without mentioning the C-word – climate.

Queensland recipients of the Young Australian of the Year award, Daniel and William Clarke, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January this year.

Queensland recipients of the Young Australian of the Year award, Daniel and William Clarke, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January this year. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But the plastics pledge could also be classed as a “look over here!” policy designed to distract from the disaster-zone that is the Coalition’s track record on climate policy.

This week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed carbon emissions reduction is the single most pressing environmental issue, and the situation is even worse than we thought. Climate change represents an existential threat to civilisation.

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The plastics pledge is informative for a few reasons. First, it shows the Australian government will act if forced by other countries to do so. Second, efforts to “build demand” for environmentally positive industries have little heft without mandated targets that provide certainty and reduce the risks of investment. Lastly, it shows that not all environmental policy is created equal.

Addressing plastic waste does not make up for the lack of meaningful action on climate change. Any turtles you save from choking on Coke bottles will only die off in their overheated oceans.

Postscript: Daniel Clarke and his brother William were announced this year as Queensland Young Australians of Year for their work on orangutan conservation. Daniel, now 24, is still in touch with John Howard, who he describes as a mentor. When Daniel was studying political science at Macquarie University, Howard would ring him regularly to chew over the issues raised in his degree.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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