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Haese's shifting vision of carbon neutral weakens Adelaide's green ambitions

Opinion

Lord Mayor Martin Haese's mixed messages have all-but emptied his council's carbon neutral Adelaide target of meaning, argues InDaily's city reporter Bension Siebert.

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Lord Mayor Martin Haese reacted angrily last week after InDaily published my story – City Council quietly dumps “world’s first” carbon neutral goal – accusing this publication of using “scurrilous semantics” to “confuse readers and drive a wedge” between the council and the State Government.

Haese’s claim about our motives was wrong and offensive: we did nothing of the sort.

Indeed, if anyone’s using scurrilous semantics to confuse people about the carbon neutral goal it’s Haese and his council.

The story said that despite the council and the State Government signing up to a joint target in 2015 for Adelaide to become “the world’s first carbon neutral city”, the council’s new draft budget contained a significantly less lofty goal – for Adelaide to be “one of the world’s first carbon neutral cities” (emphasis added).

I later discovered there were two references to the almost meaningless “one of the world’s first” in last year’s budget. Tellingly, though, the “world’s first” ambition has been completely expunged from this year’s budget, unlike the previous one.

And although in his public statements Haese has regularly, repeatedly re-committed the council to the relatively muscular target it signed up for in 2015 – and though he waxed lyrical last year about the “first-mover advantage” for Adelaide’s international reputation, and its industries, if it became the world’s first carbon neutral city – he has also sometimes been quoted on the public record asserting the weaker one.

However, the statement Haese provided to InDaily last week strongly suggested he and his council had shifted firmly into the weak-target camp.

Haese told us that it was “more important to be authentically carbon neutral” (by reducing emissions enough to minimise the purchase of carbon offsets) than to be “world’s first”, and that Adelaide could easily be pipped at the post because “there is nothing stopping any other city in the world from being carbon neutral tomorrow through the purchase of carbon offsets”.

But by that afternoon, Haese was telling his followers on social media that the council and the Government “are galvanised in our ambition to become the world’s first carbon neutral city”.

In the same internally contradictory Facebook post, Haese said: “there is nothing stopping any other city in the world from being carbon neutral tomorrow through the wholesale purchase of carbon offsets”.

The Lord Mayor told ABC Radio Adelaide the following day that he had been using both phrases – “the world’s first carbon neutral city” and “one of the world’s first carbon neutral cities” – “interchangeably” since he signed on the dotted line in 2015.

But there is nothing interchangeable about them.

To state the obvious, a city can only be “the world’s first” anything if it is actually beats every other city on the planet to a particular goal.

But if the ambition is merely to be “one of the world’s first carbon neutral cities” then several, plausibly dozens, of cities could beat Adelaide to the zero net carbon emissions mark, and the council could still hope to meet its target.

It is the sort of target you have when you have no real target at all.

To suggest both targets are of equal value is “scurrilous semantics” to a tee.

Haese also told his Facebook followers that any city that buys its way to carbon neutrality through offsets without significantly reducing local emissions “would be disingenuous and judged accordingly by the international community”.

It’s unclear what ratio of emissions reductions to carbon offsets would be necessary to meet Haese’s test – if some other city does become carbon neutral before Adelaide he has the handy option of claiming it’s not really carbon neutral anyway.

While he’s right about the need to reduce emissions locally as well as to offset them, this is another rhetorical get-out-jail-free card for the council, which last year bizarrely shelved any purchase of carbon offsets until “after all cost-effective and reasonable measures to reduce city emissions have been exhausted”.

It’s bizarre because taking what the council describes as “all cost-effective and reasonable measures” to reduce Adelaide’s emissions would take several decades – not even close to the 2025 deadline the council has set for itself. (The Government has no such deadline – it just says it wants Adelaide to be world’s first.)

Haese knows very well that no city can become carbon neutral without purchasing offsets, as no city can yet function without producing some carbon emissions within its borders.

So he’s relying on a slight qualification in the semantics of last year’s council motion – that it contains the word “reasonable” – to maintain the possibility of buying offsets, and thus, maintaining the council’s carbon neutral dream for Adelaide.

Now compare his and the council’s linguistic acrobatics to the State Government’s straight messaging on this subject.

Responding to an inquiry from InDaily last week, a Government spokesperson told us, simply: “The State Government and the City of Adelaide have a joint ambition to make Adelaide the world’s first carbon neutral city.”

“This was reaffirmed through the Carbon Neutral Adelaide action plan and work continues between the Government and council to make this ambition a reality.”

If the Lord Mayor and his council were serious about a carbon neutral Adelaide they would be just as direct and consistent.

They would abandon tricky semantics, designed to protect the council in case of failure, and instead commit to a policy that means something, against which they can actually be held accountable.

Bension Siebert is a journalist with InDaily.

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