On the water frontAustralian budget tackles environment concerns

Published 16 May 2008

New government budget show government’s intent to tackle Australia’s growing water problems; critics charge that the government has not gone far enough to save the Murray-Darling Basin; the huge river system is drying up under the pressure of Australia’s epic drought and excessive water extraction for irrigation

We wrote that other day about the new budget presented by the Labor Party government Kevin Rudd in Australia. The budget earmarked significant funds for upgrading Australia’s land transportation and IT infrastructure. An examination of the budget shows that Australia’s new labor government has also made good on last November’s election promise to tackle climate change and the ongoing water crisis. Although it honored its commitments to the letter, there were no additional allocations, and, according to critics, the government has not gone far enough to save the huge Murray-Darling Basin. New Scientist’s Rachel Nowak writes that the huge river system is drying up under the pressure of Australia’s epic drought and excessive water extraction for irrigation. The budget was delivered 13 May by Treasurer Wayne Swan. Of the roughly A$300 billion earmarked for spending in this year, $2.3 billion over five years goes to measures to reduce carbon emissions. These include A$37 million over four years for an emissions trading scheme due to be introduced by 2010, $500 million over eight years to develop clean coal technology, and A$500 million over six years for renewable energy research.

A “green loan program” providing households with low-interest loans worth up to $10,000 to pay for water tanks, insulation, and solar hot water, was funded to the tune of A$300 million over five years. A 10-year program designed to improve water management — a major issue in drought-stricken Australia — received A$12.9 billion. The plan includes ramping up government efforts to buy back water from farmers. “Money has been invested in the environment before, but it hasn’t been properly targeted, and so it has been frittered away. This is top-down, strategic, coordinated funding,” says Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide. According to Brook, a key strength of the budget is its emphasis on efficient use of energy, including A$240 million over four years to help businesses become more energy efficient, and $14 million over four years to improve energy efficiency of electrical appliances. “This is a real no-brainer. Energy efficiency initiatives make the most immediate difference, and yet remarkably it has never been addressed in previous budgets,” he says.

Others say that the government had missed an opportunity. “The budget honors the government’s election commitments, but it has not gone nearly far enough to restore the Murray-Darling Basin,” says Ian Lowe of Griffith University in Brisbane, and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Plans to save the basin’s dwindling rivers include returning 500 gigalitres of water each year to the system, but experts argue that at least three times that amount is needed. Lowe also took issue with the government’s attempts to tackle climate change. “It has done nothing to phase out subsidies on fossil fuels,” he says. “For instance, Australia is one of the few countries that use coal-fired electricity to smelt aluminum — that is only cost effective because of subsidies.” Promises to tackle climate change aggressively and other environmental issues during last year’s election campaign by then opposition leader Kevin Rudd played a key role in winning the election for the Australian Labor Party.