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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2939

Ms OWENS (3:07 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Will the minister outline the impacts of climate change on Australia’s environment? What action is the government taking to reduce this impact and are there any impediments?

Mr BURKE (Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) —I thank the member for Parramatta for her question. While a lot of the focus of the debate has gone on preparing Australia’s economy for the future through a lower emissions economy, we must not turn a blind eye to the environmental damage that is done through climate change itself. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projections of significant loss of biodiversity through to 2020. The impact of climate change is greatest on the most sensitive parts of our environment. Areas identified include the wet tropics, including the Daintree rainforest, our alpine regions and the Great Barrier Reef, which is our greatest environmental asset; a biodiversity asset which makes an extraordinary economic contribution to the tourism industry.

One thing that puts us in a different situation to many nations when we talk about the environmental impact of climate change is the extraordinary number of species that are found on our continent and nowhere else on earth. Around 90 per cent of the species found in Australia, whether they be plants, mammals or reptiles, do not exist anywhere else on the planet. The impact environmentally on Australia is quite a different challenge to what we find in many other countries. While many of the mammals, for example, would be able to survive technically with what climate change itself would bring, their habitat would not. When endangered species lose their habitat, in turn we lose these species.

The Great Barrier Reef and the extent of its biodiversity can easily be lost upon us, but let us start with just how different it is to other reef systems around the world. So often when people talk about the great reefs of the world they talk about the Caribbean. The Caribbean has 60 species of coral and the Great Barrier Reef has 560 species of coral. We have a very different biodiversity challenge to what is found in many other countries of the world.

The climate change challenges faced by the Great Barrier Reef come in a number of ways. We know about the increased occurrence of bleaching events, the increase in major weather events and the impact of the growth in carbonic acid. We often talk about forests as being the only carbon sinks. The ocean itself is an extraordinary carbon sink. In the process of transferring carbon dioxide in the ocean you get a growth of carbonic acid. The growth of carbonic acid has a very precise impact on the rate at which coral grows back. If you put these three events together—the impact of bleaching events, the coral damaged during major weather events that are happening more regularly and coral species, which take 30 to 50 years to regrow, being slower to regrow because of the growth in carbonic acid—we will end up with a situation where the Great Barrier Reef itself exists but its biodiversity, which we are proud of and which we come to expect in the Great Barrier Reef, is under significant pressure.

That is one of the reasons why action is so important not only in taking the opportunity now to set up our economy for the future but also in recognising the biodiversity challenge faced by the environmental assets in Australia. It is critically important to our tourism industry and important to the environment of Australia.