Integrating policy and climate action

| August 15, 2023

It’s been a busy 12 months in the climate change policy landscape in Australia. The election of the Albanese Labor government in 2022 (together with a healthy contingent of “teal” and independent candidates for whom climate change action was a signature election issue) signalled a significant shift in federal climate change policy.

A target of net zero emissions by 2050 and a substantially more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target were written into law within the first six months of the new government. The reforms to the safeguard mechanism introduced in 2023 will create binding emissions reduction requirements for Australia’s biggest emitters for the first time since 2014.

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In Victoria, the Andrews Labor government recently committed to a 75-80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Increasingly, though, governments are beginning to recognise that responding to climate change can’t be just about “climate change policy”, per se – such as targets, emission reduction, and adaptation plans and strategies, and even direct regulation of emissions.

Climate change will affect everything we do, so it needs to be considered in all the decisions we’re making, now and for the future.

This includes decisions about health, about forests, about buildings, transport and much more. So many decisions that governments make have implications for meeting emissions reduction targets, and for responding to climate change impacts.

Ensuring consideration of climate change

In addition to its world-leading emissions reduction targets, Victoria is also pioneering legislatively mandated climate change “mainstreaming”.

Mainstreaming is generally understood as the integration of climate change considerations into policies, processes, decisions, and other governmental activities.

It complements substantive climate policy initiatives by ensuring that government decisions and actions contribute to reducing emissions and responding to climate change impacts, and don’t undermine the government’s objectives in this respect by increasing emissions or increasing the state’s vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Victoria’s Climate Change Act 2017 includes two specific obligations for climate change mainstreaming in government.

Section 17 is a targeted duty upon specific decision-makers to “have regard” to climate change considerations when making a decision scheduled under the Act.

Section 20 creates a broader duty upon the government to “endeavour to ensure that any decision made by the government and any policy, program or process developed or implemented by the government, appropriately takes account of climate change”.

Although a few other climate change laws (for example, in Scotland and Fiji) include mainstreaming obligations, legal duties such as these are still quite a new idea in climate change law and policy.

Although it’s still early days, with Victoria’s law having been in place for more than five years now, we thought it was a good time to investigate how these statutory mainstreaming duties have been implemented, and what effect they’re likely to have in practice.

Putting obligations into practice

Through interviews, focus groups, a survey and a workshop, with Victorian public servants who have been involved in mainstreaming activities, we gathered evidence of what kind of “mainstreaming” has occurred since the Climate Change Act 2017 was introduced.

We found evidence of a broad range of activities that can be categorised as regulatory, institutional, or capacity-building initiatives.

For example, in the regulatory domain, we found that several pieces of legislation and subordinate legislation now contain guiding principles related to the consideration of climate change.

The government has also produced guidance for decision-makers to support the consideration of these issues in policy-making.

From an institutional perspective, top-down measures such as governance of climate change risk and mainstreaming initiatives by high-level government committees, and the involvement of central agencies (Department of Premier and Cabinet, and Department of Treasury and Finance), and bottom-up measures such as developing a network of climate change risk practitioners across government, complement each other.

The government has also developed a range of informational and decision-support tools and resources to build capacity and capability to integrate climate change into its decision-making.

The good, the bad, and the possible

Our research also identified a range of factors that influence the implementation of the statutory mainstreaming duties.

We found that mainstreaming can be enabled by articulating clearly defined obligations to take account of climate change in authoritative legal and policy instruments, by creating obligations for responsible parties to report on their mainstreaming efforts.

However, these efforts can be hindered by a lack of guidance to assist decision-makers to discharge their obligations.

We also identified that senior leaders play a vital role in enabling climate change mainstreaming practices – and without their interest and engagement, it can be hard to ensure climate change considerations are taken into account in decisions.

As climate change mainstreaming is a new and evolving practice, many participants in the study emphasised the importance of professional networks and a “community of practice” to support peer learning and information-sharing about what mainstreaming entails.

Having both the right tools and the staff capability is vital to effective mainstreaming of climate change. We found that this capacity is highly varied across government, and there’s a real need for context-relevant, user-friendly decision support tools, as well as efforts to build and sustain a climate-literate workforce.

As illustrated by these examples, there was clear evidence of progress along regulatory, institutional and capability pathways towards ambitious, mature climate mainstreaming in Victoria.

There’s still much more that can be done, and we made a range of suggestions about how the Victorian government could deepen and expand its mainstreaming efforts. From detailed statutory guidance on the mainstreaming duties, to dedicated climate change roles and teams, to climate change training rolled out across the public service – the possibilities are manifold.

Working with end-users

Our project was developed in partnership with the Climate Change Policy Branch in the Victorian government – the area of government leading the implementation of the Climate Change Act 2017.

This partnership not only created the connections to our project participants, but enabled us to design a project that met the government where it was – in the early stages of implementing exciting, but also challenging, new duties.

We developed a suite of recommendations for the government to build on its efforts to date. Throughout the course of our project, we were able to use our research findings to inform its immediate work priorities as they unfolded.

Climate change mainstreaming may not grab the headlines in the same way as targets, emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes, but it could prove to be just as important in ensuring that governments, and all those they influence, are taking climate change seriously, and contributing to the solutions rather than the problem.

As our research shows, Victoria’s experience to date suggests legislative obligations to mainstream climate change in government decision-making have an important role to play in achieving these objectives.

A more detailed summary of findings and recommendations is available in the report Climate Mainstreaming in Practice: Using law to embed climate change in government policy and decision-making. This article was published by Lens.