Just days after the federal Coalition reversed Tony Abbott’s ban on government investment in wind farms and small-scale solar technology, the Turnbull government has nearly halved the budget of one the former PM’s pet environmental programs, the “green army”, by capping the number of projects it can undertake to 500 a year.
The measure – announced in Tuesday’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (myefo) – will save tax-payers just under $317.5 million, that will be redirected into other environmental programs.
But perhaps more importantly, it signifies another small but determined shift by the current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, away from the much-derided – and largely ineffectual – climate and environment policies of his predecessor.
The Green Army program – described by the Coalition as “largest standing environmental workforce in Australia’s history”, and elsewhere as a giant, expensive working bee – was a favourite of Abbott’s, and often touted as a key plank to the Coalition’s Direct Action policy and its carbon-reduction goals.
How it was going to fulfill those expectations was never made entirely clear (although a few ideas for how else the green army could be occupied can be found here), beyond picking up litter, planting “real trees”, and building boardwalks over mangrove swamps.
But as the Guardian reports, academics had questioned whether the scheme would do enough to offset carbon emissions.
“To achieve pledged return of an annual 85m tonnes of CO2 captured would require equivalent to a plantation within a minimum size more than twice the size of Melbourne and to increase wood production by more than an additional 300%,” Monash University research officer, Tim Lubcke, said.
“As this analysis relied upon the most optimistic assumptions, real-world limits to tree plantation ignored and optimal yield was used.”
But of course the scheme has not been dumped altogether, and is still being defended by the Coalition’s environment department, although not by Greg Hunt himself.
A spokesman for Hunt told the Guardian on Wednesday that the green army generated significant environmental benefits and provided valuable practical training and experience for participants.
“Almost 5,000 people have already been involved in the green army, with a further 15,000 expected over the next three years,” the spokesman said.
Hunt did, however, recently defend the policy himself, telling an ABC Triple J radio program that it had delivered, both as a youth training scheme and an environmental protection scheme.
But not the Australian Greens. They have been keen to note that the $317 million clawed back by the cuts to the green army won’t cover the $484 million that was cut from the Landcare program to fund it in the first place.
According to the Myefo update, Landcare is set to lose another $2.8 million from its budget, while the Abbott-initiated establishment of a wind commissioner – still going ahead – will cost $2.5 million over four years.