Just in time for the state election campaign, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has released its first Climate Change Policy and Action Plan 2023-26, which has been welcomed by the Environmental Defender and bushfire survivors.
The plan was described as outlining a bold set of actions to help NSW reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
NSW EPA Chief Executive Officer Tony Chappel said the plan provided a roadmap for how the state’s environmental regulator would address the causes and consequences of climate change.
“This plan means for the first time in Australia, there will be a comprehensive approach around emissions reduction pathways,” Mr Chappel said. “Using our robust framework, we will treat greenhouse gas emissions like any other pollutant that we regulate and by doing so, support the decarbonisation, transformation and growth of the NSW economy.
“In every corner of the state, we are already feeling the very real, costly and devastating impacts of climate change. From unprecedented fires through to recent extensive flood events across regional NSW, each of these disasters is a sobering reminder of the escalating consequences of rising greenhouse emissions.
“We must improve our resilience to the impacts of climate change and this plan will see significant work led by the EPA to achieve this.”
Chair of the EPA’s board, Rayne de Gruchy, said she believed the release of the plan and strategt “may be the most significant milestone” of the EPA’s 30-year history.
It remains to be seen whether or not the EPA will have the enforcement clout to bring major contributors to the states carbon emissions into line, given it will embark on a “collaborative, staged and systematic approach” to implementing its plan “to ensure actions are evidence-based and government programs are joined-up”.
It has also intimated that industry will be given “sufficient time” to adjust to any sector-based emission reduction targets and enforceable licence limits.
The biggest emitters in NSW are fossil fuel burning power stations, referred to in the plan as “stationary energy (electricity generation), producing 52 Metric tonnes or 38% of the state’s total emissions. The EPA explains that it is responsible for regulating larger electricity generation activities that generate almost all of these emissions (e.g. coal-fired power stations). Local councils are generally responsible for regulating smaller activities, which typically have much lower emissions.
The next biggest producer of emissions in NSW is transport at 28 Mt or 20% and the plan indicates that the EPA has very little direct regulatory control over this source of carbon pollution.
The 16 Mt from agriculture or emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from livestock, crops, and agricultural and forest soils also fall outside the legislative remit of the EPA.
The EPA is responsible for regulating larger industrial activities that generate most of these emissions from on-site fossil fuel combustion (for example, to run boilers and furnaces) used in manufacturing and other activities.
In NSW the 13 Mt of emissions from coal and gas extraction activities (ie mining) are almost all regulated by the EPA.
The EPA will establish advisory groups for various industry sectors to help inform and co-design actions and subsequent targets.
Chappel said the organisation would not take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to setting targets because no two industries were the same, nor were the climate challenges they face.
“Our focus is on enabling and supporting best practice and building collaborative processes which ensure any actions taken by the EPA are meaningful, feasible and cost-effective,” Mr Chappel said.
“To seriously combat climate change, we cannot do it alone and these groups will provide valuable information on gaps, risks and the opportunities that need to be solved or considered.
“They’ll also help NSW capture the immense opportunities that come with a net-zero economy, such as growth in hydrogen, green steel and metals, green ammonia, clean energy, the circular economy and regenerative agriculture.
“The EPA is committed to supporting industry, business, our regulatory partners and the community in transitioning to a more sustainable and prosperous future.”
Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action (BSCA) welcomed the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s announcement that its Climate Change Policy and Plan had been finalised.
Fiona Lee of BSCA, who lost her home to the Black Summer fires in 2019, said: “It’s been a long journey since we won our landmark case in the Land and Environment Court almost 18 months ago.
“As a result of that case, the NSW EPA is now an environmental regulator with teeth. It has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from industry and in doing so protect our communities and environment from ongoing extreme weather events driven by climate change.”
Ms Lee added that while the EPA plan was a good first step, more work needed to be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade.
“We will work constructively with the EPA to see the plan strengthened at the next annual review,” she said. “For example the rollout of legally enforceable emissions reduction targets should occur faster than is required under the current plan.
“This is the most important decade to reduce emissions if we want to minimise the impact of climate change and the extreme weather events we’re already experiencing.”
Environmental Defenders Office Legal Strategy Director Elaine Johnson said: “This is an important first step by the NSW EPA and other states and territories should now follow suit.
“Our environment protection agencies are there to protect us from harm caused by pollution, and one of the most dangerous forms of pollution today is greenhouse gases.
“It is absolutely the responsibility and duty of all EPAs to ensure protection from climate change for all Australians.
“That means dramatically cutting emissions and ensuring a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.”
The plan is based on the premise that it will be good enough to reach net zero emissions by 2050 with industries contributing, through EPA regulation to get the whole NSW economy achieving a 50% and 70% reduction in emissions by 2030 and 2035 respectively (compared to 2005 levels).
According to the EPA’s new plan, the mean temperature in NSW is about 1.4°C higher than in 1910, with 2018 and 2019 being the warmest years on record. Other observed changes include increased seasonal variability in rainfall and increases in some extreme weather events such as heatwaves. The changes to climate are expected to become more severe over time. They include more extreme weather events, increasing coastal erosion and inundation, and greater impacts on infrastructure, human health and wellbeing.
The document explains that the EPA is responsible for regulating a broad range of activities and the environmental or human health risks associated with: air emissions; noise; waste; water discharges; native forestry; contaminated land; dangerous goods; hazardous materials; chemicals; radiation; pesticides; and coal seam gas.
“These responsibilities extend to regulating the causes and consequences of climate change, within our regulatory remit,” the plan says.