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Thursday, 22 March 2007
Page: 81


Senator MILNE (3:36 PM) —It is very important that we acknowledge that the Climate Change Action Bill 2006 is the first bill of its kind in the Australian parliament. It is a bill to seriously tackle climate change. The last time Australia dealt with a target for greenhouse gas emissions was upon ratification of the Kyoto protocol, when Australia demeaned itself in the eyes of the world by negotiating into the early hours of the morning to secure 108 per cent of 1990 levels as the target that Australia would meet in the first Kyoto commitment period, 2008-12. We now know that Australia is struggling to meet what is the world’s most generous target. We will only meet it—in spite of a struggle if we do—because we have had a windfall gain as a result of changes to land use, forestry and land clearance regulations.

At the rate we are going, we are on track to secure 127 per cent of our target of 1990 levels. We have to act now. It is clear that history judges political leaders on whether they respond to the great issues of their time. In my view, history will judge Australia’s political leaders very harshly. Not only have they failed to respond appropriately to the great issues of our time; they have failed knowingly and deliberately. This is not about ignorance, it is not about a situation where some years have gone past where people did not know what the situation was. The situation has been made very clear to us on many occasions. Since I introduced this legislation last year we have had the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivering its report. On 2 February this year, the debate effectively ended about whether global warming has been impacted by human activities, when the world’s leading scientists made it very clear that there is more than a 90 per cent probability that human-induced climate change is responsible for the levels of global warming we are currently seeing.

In their predictions the scientists also said that we can expect sea level rise as a result of thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of icecaps and glaciers. They warned what might happen if the West Antarctic or the Arctic icesheets melt. We have already seen from the science a slowing down of the great ocean conveyor. If that were to stop, as it did in previous ages, then Europe would be plunged into an ice age. Until now, we have had from Australian political leaders and business leaders a complete unwillingness to act and the honesty, at least in their responses, is that they do not act because ‘Australia’s competitive advantage is in coal, it is a fossil fuel, it is something we export and we have no intention of changing business as usual or taking leadership’, when other parts of the world have been quite prepared to demonstrate political leadership. The Europeans take this matter extremely seriously, unlike in Australian politics. And I note that the government benches are empty bar two people. History will also record that—that the government does not take the setting of greenhouse gas emission limits seriously.

We will see later in the contributions to the debate that the government is likely to send in its climate sceptics to dispute the evidence, to come up with all sorts of extraneous arguments as to why Australia should not act. But we know from the IPCC report that we face a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations that could occur as early as 2035, according to Stern, under a business as usual scenario, and that that would lead to global temperature increases of between two degrees and 4.5 degrees. However, the Prime Minister only recently said that a global average temperature rise between four and six degrees would make life ‘less comfortable for some,’ demonstrating his complete and utter ignorance of this matter.

At the same time, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, talks about the possibility of a sea level rise up to one metre on the east coast of Australia—again, demonstrating no knowledge whatsoever of what the impact would be in terms of long-shore coastal erosion, estuaries, wetlands, Kakadu et cetera. The ignorance we hear from government ministers and the Prime Minister, who are charged with acting in Australia’s best interests, is extraordinary.

The next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will come out in April this year. The last one was on the science, warning us about increased carbon dioxide concentrations and about increased sea level rises and telling us of the links between climate change and drought, more extreme weather events, floods, fires—and we had those in Australia this summer. But the Prime Minister and his ministers continue to disassociate extreme drought with climate change, because they do not want to be judged by history. It is too late for them. History will judge 11 years of inaction on climate change, because it is 11 years that we could not afford to waste.

In fact, the choice of whether to act will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come. We have a decade to stabilise and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the point where we can contain global temperature rise to below two degrees, if we are lucky. We already know the impacts of less than one degree of global temperature rise. Imagine that on a much larger scale. Imagine our river systems, imagine what will happen to our coastal areas—the extremes that we are already suffering, with another degree of temperature rise and then another degree on top of that.

So this is a moral and an ethical question. A leaked report of what we can expect—and, once again, we will have ‘Shock, horror’ from politicians who already know the answers to these questions—says that in April they will bring out another report and it will say: ‘Tens of millions of others will be flooded out of their homes each year as the earth reels from rising temperatures and sea levels. Things are happening and happening faster than we expected.’ And so on. Tens of millions will be flooded out of their homes each year. We are talking about our Pacific neighbours here. We are talking about Bangladesh. We are talking about global insecurity on a scale that we can hardly imagine. Already we have had Kiribati telling us that at least 40 of their islands are being marked for evacuation—30,000 people with nowhere to go—and Australia still refuses to accept a definition of environmental refugee in the UN convention on refugees.

To get to the specifics of the bill before the House today: it would require the government to ratify the Kyoto protocol as a first step. I do not have to go into that; everybody understands. We have a moral obligation to uphold our responsibilities under international law. If we do not want to abide by international law then we endorse a lawless world. They are our only choices. The Greens certainly believe in Australia’s obligations under international law. We are also committed to a post-2012 global treaty of binding targets.

The second thing the bill does is set national greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020 at 20 per cent below 1990 levels and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. I welcome the fact that in the media this week the shadow minister for the environment congratulated the Europeans for setting a target of 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. I hope the Labor Party today will stand up and support this bill, because that is the nature of the deep cuts we need to make. Eighty per cent by 2050 will probably be seen as extremely conservative in the not too far distant future.

We are also introducing a greenhouse gas trigger into the EPBC Act to ensure that information about the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from major developments is adequately considered during the approval process. That trigger will be any action likely to result in greenhouse gas emissions of more than 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in any 12-month period. If we are serious about greenhouse gases, we have to make sure that major projects that are large greenhouse gas emitters are forced into the assessment process at a national level.

This bill also introduces a national energy savings target, an energy efficiency target, to halt the growth in energy consumption by 2008. In effect, the trigger is equivalent to business-as-usual growth in energy consumption. So we are saying that that is the target we need to set to make sure that increases in energy are offset by the energy efficiency target. We want to require large energy users to implement the findings of their energy efficiency audits. We had that debate in here yesterday, and I seek yet another debate on that because we are talking about 250 companies in Australia using 40 per cent of Australia’s energy. If they were required to implement the findings of their energy efficiency audits, we could meet significant targets in terms of energy efficiency.

We also want to increase the mandatory renewable energy targets so that renewable energy contributes at least 15 per cent to national demand by 2012 and 25 per cent by 2020. There is huge excitement around renewable energy. Every day you see in the papers reports from Europe and from the US, where targets have been set at state and national levels, showing enormous expansion and competitive advantage in those new industries. For example, in Spain, wind power generation has now risen to contribute 27 per cent of the country’s total daily power demand. It is the second highest in the world, and we are going to see them increase installed wind capacity to 20,000 megawatts by 2010. That is extraordinary, and Spain is now aspiring to source 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2010—30 per cent by 2010, and Australia’s mandatory renewable energy target is two per cent. At the same time, from California, we have had news about the expansion in concentrated solar thermal, talking about the huge investment going on there.

In Europe, we have had a new directive with regard to fuel efficiency, such that European vehicles and Chinese vehicles will be the most popular vehicles this century because they will be the most fuel efficient. They will be the small vehicles. Australia most certainly ought not continue its perverse incentives for building large vehicles that the public do not want, and the government should immediately change its purchasing policies to abandon support for six-cylinder vehicles and to move across to buying fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrids for the government car fleets.

The Greens bill today also requires the establishment of a system of renewable energy feed-in tariffs to provide a minimum price per unit of produced renewable electricity for a set period to provide investors security on income. This is a fantastic idea. This is what has driven the solar revolution in Germany, whereby energy utilities are required to buy renewable energy at a fixed price for a fixed period of time. That means that, as a consumer, you can go and borrow the capital that you need to install the renewable energy because you know you can sell it. You have a guaranteed market at a guaranteed price for a guaranteed period of time. As a result, farmers, huge shopping complexes and local government have been rolling out renewable energy all over Germany because, once they have paid it off, they will have an additional income, plus they are making considerable impacts in generating renewable energy. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a feed-in tariff in Australia? This is part of this bill, and I hope it will get the support of both the government and the opposition today.

The final aspect of this bill is to immediately end the harvesting of old growth forests, to maintain existing significant carbon stores. We had the embarrassing spectacle yesterday of the minister for forests making a fool of himself yet again in relation to his understanding of climate change and forests. He needs to go down to the Australian National University, where he will get some instruction from the academics about the fact that the soil carbon in an old growth forest, plus the carbon in the trees, is a huge amount of carbon—way beyond anything that the minister talks about with his plantation establishment.

Sir Nicholas Stern has said that deforestation around the world—and we know that it is a major driver of climate change—is putting into the atmosphere more carbon dioxide than the whole transport effort from around the world. We could make a significant difference tomorrow by ending the logging of old growth forests, by protecting those carbon sinks and by stimulating the jobs that would come from the raft of measures that I am putting forward here today.

We have a challenge on our hands. We congratulate the unions, who have come out today saying that there should be some movement here and putting pressure on the Labor Party, which has a mandatory renewable energy target of only five per cent. Greg Combet was today advocating at least a 10 per cent target. His leadership of the union movement with regard to putting forward a framework for dealing with climate change is extremely welcome.

What is obvious to me is that the community is way ahead of its parliament in wanting to address climate change in Australia. Progressive businesses are crying out for government to take leadership. They cannot make investment decisions into the future unless they have some certainty about a price on carbon and some certainty in relation to developing an emissions trading scheme in this country or the imposition of a carbon tax or the combination of both. What we have is politicians on both sides committing vast amounts of money to unproven technologies which, we have already seen from the science, are years off—if ever they will be achieved—whereas, around the world, other countries are actually implementing the technology that can reduce greenhouse gases now.

I return to where I began, and that is that history judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time. History is going to judge this parliament. I say ‘this parliament’ because, given the time frames, it is senators sitting on that side of the chamber, in this term and the next term, who will make the decisions for the rest of time for life on earth—for generations to come. It is all of us in this parliament now who are going to determine the impacts on threatened species.

We have heard the World Conservation Union telling us that at least 30 per cent of species will be extinct by 2050 because of climate change. One only has to see the photos of polar bears on melting ice floes to see the impacts. Those impacts are affecting our very own alpine species; they are affecting the cider gum, in Tasmania, as we speak. We are seeing invasive species coming down the east coast of Tasmania as ocean currents change. All across the country we are seeing species going to extinction already because of climate change.

I urge both the government and the Labor opposition to support this bill because the measures in it would create such excitement across Australia. Contrary to the view that it would shut down the economy, it would be the greatest boost to re-energising Australia that this parliament could deliver to the current generation of Australians and to future generations of Australians. I urge you to think beyond where you are now. Think outside the square and support this bill.