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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 10232


Mr MURPHY (12:23 PM) —For some time, representatives of Australia's renewable energy industry have been calling for this government to recognise the rapid growth and increasing importance of the industry. Although the government is, with this bill, the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2002, giving lip-service to the renewable energy industry, the facts are plain. The government has failed to introduce any effective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to support the renewable energy industry. Australia's output of carbon dioxide continues to grow rapidly as a direct result of this government's destructive policies. I remind the Prime Minister of the advice that he received not long ago from his own Science, Engineering and Innovation Council:

In earlier industrial and social movements attitudes changed from defence and denial to recognition of opportunities ... and ultimately to the realisation that what is right for the community in the long-term can be good for the growth and profits of industry ... Increasingly the world's major corporations accept this transition ... If we wait for ratification while other countries act, Australia runs the risk of missing out on global opportunities, and may be left behind in terms of greenhouse compliance.

The advice is plain and rather conservative, yet all we see from the government is obfuscation and the most minimal movement towards a position that recognises the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2002 is a tentative initiative that will be quite ineffectual and even counterproductive and must be followed up by other measures if we are to be serious in significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Unless the growth of emissions is stopped, it will rapidly swamp the benefit that the two per cent replacement may have.

The Minister for the Environment and Heritage admitted on the ABC science show Catalyst that we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent to be able to stabilise the climate. I say to the minister: we have a very long way to go. The government hopes that the new bill will lead to a two per cent increase in the generation of electricity from renewable resources by 2010. In contrast, the Californian government has passed into law an act that requires an extra one per cent of energy to be produced from renewable sources every year until 20 per cent of the total comes from renewables.

The Howard government's position does not bear comparison. At the Electricity Supply Association conference on renewable energy in Alice Springs in August there was general agreement that the mandatory renewable energy target, MRET, is far too conservative and can be easily met by wind energy and solar water heating alone, yet there are exciting new technologies in the wings waiting for more aggressive targets. Instead, the government's response is to take one of the success stories of MRET—solar water heating—and remove it from the list of technologies. Is the government really serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Of course not. If it were then why doesn't it increase Australia's renewable energy target to the same level as California's?

I believe that the recently released Council of Australian Governments report Towards a truly national and efficient energy market more accurately reflects the government's renewable energy policy than the bill we are debating here today does. The report makes a number of disturbing recommendations. Among them is the scrapping of the mandatory renewable energy target of two per cent renewables. Are we here engaged in a parliamentary propaganda stunt in which the government seeks to represent itself as environmentally friendly while at the same time its agents are preparing to block initiatives that are being represented as great advances?

The COAG report states that MRET should be scrapped on the grounds that it would be more economically efficient to allow other greenhouse gas abatement technologies to compete with renewables. Unbelievably, the ones named are coal seam methane and so-called clean coal technology. These energy sources will not do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As fossil fuels, they can only increase emissions.

Clean coal technology is a transparent fraud that has been perpetrated by the environment minister and the more unscrupulous members of the coal industry. Put simply, clean coal is ordinary coal ground up and washed with caustic soda to remove sulfur-containing minerals. Burning the resulting clean coal in no way reduces emissions of carbon dioxide. It does release less sulfur dioxide but, since Australian coal is generally regarded as being low in sulfur, the advantage of using clean coal is marginal at best. It certainly does not release less carbon dioxide, and that is a matter of concern in this debate today.

Coal seam methane is a by-product of coalmining. As coal exports increase, more coal seam methane gas becomes available to be used to meet an attractive low-cost emissions reduction target under carbon trading rules. But the net result is still an increase, not a decrease, in emissions. This is not sustainable for the future. Renewable energy reduces the need for both coal and coal seam gas emissions and can be the basis of a sustainable future.

I note that the COAG committee was chaired by former senator Warwick Parer, well known for his historical family interest in the coal industry. Former Senator Parer, who publicly questioned the greenhouse effect when he was minister, has now been put in charge of the emissions reduction process. I ask: is this yet another case of the fox being in charge of the henhouse? Wouldn't the public interest be best served by a chairman who was widely accepted as being unbiased?

The draft COAG report recommends immediate abolition of MRET, even though it does not anticipate greenhouse trading for three years. Why the haste? Much investment has already been put in place by young industries that are relying on MRET. One exciting young industry has stated that it would have to move offshore without MRET. The government's determination to suppress opposition to its policies is made clear by the arrangement for the receipt of comments on the COAG report. The 168-page report was released on 15 November and the closing date for comments was 6 December—deliberately, in my view, insufficient time for most interested parties to prepare any kind of detailed reply. One group was able to release a statement of opposition. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a lobby group representing the renewable energy industry, stated that scrapping the MRET would cost thousands of Australian jobs and billions of dollars of investment, much of it in regional Australia.

In 1999-2000 the renewable energy industry directly employed 22,800 people and the number was rising. In comparison, in 1999 the entire Australian electricity industry employed 33,000 people and the number was in decline. The renewable energies industry annual rate of growth exceeds 12 per cent and it is doing this despite billion dollar subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and in the absence of government measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This industry is primed for an extraordinary burst of growth. Currently frustrated by this government's policies, the renewable energy industry is waiting for a Labor government to bring in the necessary policy changes such as signing the Kyoto protocol.

The earth receives a tremendous flux of free energy that only requires an efficient collector for it to be put to use. Australia's scientists are world leaders in the field despite suffering from the Howard government's assault on universities and higher learning. Researchers in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and engineers at SHP Ltd are shortly to install a small commercial solar plant at a major coal-fired power station which is competitive with conventional coal-fired electricity generation under current MRET rules. Existing coal-fired power stations using this development could reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and increase the fuel efficiency of their steam plant at a viable cost. A new industry will grow up around this technology and a considerable export market could also be established. Larger stand-alone solar plants using similar technology with thermal storage are being planned for inland New South Wales which would replace new coal-fired generation with reliable, 100 per cent clean, 24-hour solar power. These can be sold around the world. The estimated cost is close to the current cost of wind power, but the power would be reliable and the technology Australian owned.

Will this promising export market be damaged by this government's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol? Having seen these developments for myself during a visit to the University of Sydney with my friend and colleague Mr Kelvin Thomson, the shadow minister for the environment and heritage, I say that it would be a disaster for Australian industry if other countries discriminated against our exports because the Prime Minister refuses to sign the Kyoto protocol.

In conclusion, the decisions of this government, in my view, are driven by a triumph of stubborn ideology and self-interest over rational analysis. This is nowhere better illustrated than by its statements and policies regarding greenhouse gas emissions, against which I have been campaigning ever since I was elected to this House in 1998 as the member for Lowe.