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Tuesday, 4 November 2003
Page: 21958

Mr KING (6:00 PM) —The protection of the environment is a matter on which, in principle, no legislator should admit any compromise. That is because, in my belief, we are the stewards for the next generation of the places of the earth which provide our amenity and quality of life. Perhaps there may be a higher national interest which will impinge on that principle in any particular debate, but the general principle, I believe, is clear. In that context, I support the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Imports) Amendment Bill 2003 and the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Manufacture) Amendment Bill 2003 because, firstly, they make improvements to the current ozone depleting regime measures and, secondly, they comprise a significant step in the development of an Australian climate protection regime. The opposition has failed to come up with any alternative to the government's approach on environmental law, because it is locked into the position of enacting the Kyoto protocol as the answer to the world's environmental challenges, whilst the Greens have no sensible policy because they are confused by the bogey of an international capitalist conspiracy behind these reforms. These bills give an opportunity to comment more generally on an Australian program for a totally clean environment.

Turning, firstly, to the substance of the bills, one may well ask: `What is the ozone layer and what protection does it offer?' There has been some discussion of this in the debate, but I was particularly impressed by the contribution of the member for Moore. He pointed out, as is the case from scientific research, that the earth's ozone layer protects all life from the sun's harmful radiation, but human activities releasing ozone depleting substances have since then damaged the shield. It is a fact that the ozone layer absorbs a portion of the radiation from the sun, preventing it from reaching the planet's surface. Most importantly, it absorbs the portion of the ultraviolet light called UV-B, a band of ultraviolet radiation with wavelengths from 280 to 320 nanometres—a nanometre being one billionth of a metre.

The ozone depleting substances that have been used over the past 50 years or so, greeted as important scientific inventions at the time, were initially thought of as miraculous. They were stable, nonflammable, low in toxicity and inexpensive to produce, but over time CFCs were found used in refrigerants, propellants, solvents, foam blowing agents and other small applications. As pointed out in the debate, CFCs are stable, although on exposure to strong ultraviolet radiation they break down and release chlorine and bromide, which in turn attack and destroy ozone. One chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules, and the net effect is to destroy ozone faster than it is naturally created.

As was referred to by the member for Lowe, one example of ozone depletion has been the annual ozone hole over Antarctica, which has grown since the spring of the early 1980s. Data collected in the upper atmosphere has shown that there has been a general thinning of the ozone layer over most of the globe. This includes a five per cent to nine per cent depletion over Australia since the 1960s alone. In addition to this, more dramatic damage occurs over Antarctica each spring when the ozone hole forms. The 2000 ozone hole was the largest on record, measuring 32.9 million square kilometres—more than three times the size of Australia—and, for the first time, extending over populated areas. However, the prospects for the long-term recovery of ozone are good. Non-essential consumption of the major ozone depleting substances in the developed world has slowed during the early 1990s and, indeed, ceased in 1996. Stratospheric chlorine levels should return to pre ozone levels by about 2050.

The purpose of the bills in the context of that scientific consideration is important. The first and principal bill, which amends the Ozone Protection Act 1989, is to establish a national regulatory scheme for the management of both ozone depleting substances and the synthetic greenhouse gases used as their replacements. It also implements the most recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The existing legislation has reduced Australia's consumption of ozone depleting substances by about 80 per cent in the manner that I previously described. To achieve that reduction, Australian industry has generally adopted a variety of ozone benign substances and technologies, including synthetic greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. These gases, however, give rise to problems of their own because they are in fact greenhouse gases.

Let me continue my summary of the proposed legislation. The bills also extend the system in the existing legislation for licensing the import, export and manufacture of ozone depleting substances to include the synthetic greenhouse gas replacements. They simplify the current regulatory arrangements for end use control of ozone depleting substances and their synthetic greenhouse gas alternatives by replacing existing state and territory legislation with a single national framework. That framework will allow the government to enact regulations to target preventable emissions.

It is also appropriate to refer briefly to the second reading speech, in which the minister referred to agreements between the states and the territories to replace existing controls with a national uniform approach. The bills also reform the current financial arrangements for the ozone protection program to establish the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Account. In this context, it is appropriate to refer briefly to the criticisms from the opposition. The first of those, which we heard expounded upon in some detail by the member for Wills, referred to the issue of delay. It was his complaint that billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and CFCs have been emitted because of the government's delay in bringing forward this legislation following upon the conclusion of the conference in Montreal and the subsequent conference.

At the same time, the member for Wills's criticism suggested that the Greens had held up the legislation. But the response from the Greens is really the government's answer. This legislation addresses not only the recommendations from Montreal but also the broader implications in legislation that intends to impose restrictions on the spread of CFCs. It does that by addressing the problem of the replacement of CFCs with synthetic greenhouse gases. So the criticism of delay is really a non-criticism. The truth is that the legislation before the House is comprehensive. It addresses issues that others—environmentalists with greater vision, perhaps, than those opposite—have sought to address. The government has addressed both sides of the debate in that way.

Perhaps a more fundamental criticism from the opposition is that the legislation fails to address climate change generally. But that is not the purpose of these bills. There is a difference between greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances, which, I concede, was acknowledged by the member for Wills. In making that criticism, what he has sought to do is broaden the scope of the legislation to such an extent that it really becomes a general debate on policy in relation to environmental issues across the country. With the greatest respect, that is not a proper criticism at all.

Of more substance was the criticism by the member for Cunningham, representing the Greens in this place. As he put it, his concern about this legislation was:

... the government's approach encourages the overseas fluorocarbon industry while ignoring or hampering the domestic natural refrigeration industry.

He seemed to suggest there was some conspiracy motivating the government's enactment of this legislation, notwithstanding that it is based on an international protocol and recommendations from both the department and the opposition. It has been suggested by the Greens that they will move in the Senate to ban the import of synthetic greenhouse gases in small split-system airconditioners and, furthermore, that they will move amendments to the legislation to phase out synthetic greenhouse gases altogether and promote the move to natural refrigerants which harm neither the ozone layer nor the climate. It is true that the member for Wills referred to the possibility of an amendment that would deal with natural, rather than synthetic, refrigerants. But the short answer to the Greens' concerns about this is the position articulated by the member for Wills and commonsense. This legislation is comprehensive. It addresses a major issue concerning environmental damage to the atmosphere and it ought to be adopted because it is a major step forward.

But the criticisms I have referred to give rise to a consideration of more general questions which, to some extent, were raised by the member for Wills. They relate to the issue of climate change generally. As this is the first opportunity I have had to comment on those issues, let me say something about them. Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides:

The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

That convention, which has been universally acclaimed, came into effect in 1994. It is based upon a belief by scientists that a new kind of climate change is now under way around the globe. Its impacts on people and ecosystems are thought to be drastic. Levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen steeply since the Industrial Revolution. The six gases that are the focus of the principal debate are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, perfluorocarbons or PFCs, and sulphur hexafluoride.

Of course, the most important of these gases from Australia's point of view is carbon dioxide, which is principally produced by electricity generation. However, the greenhouse gases produced by transport—in the order of 14 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions—are also significant. Concentrations have increased over time, mainly because of the use of fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activities spurred on by economic and population growth. It is said that, like a blanket around the planet, greenhouse gases stop energy escaping from the surface of the earth and the atmosphere. If the levels rise too high, excessive warming distorts the natural patterns of climate.

The so-called Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed, in 2001, in its third assessment report—and this was the controversial report—that there was new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Although uncertainties in the process of projecting future trends create wide margins for error in the estimates, the international panel predicted a rise of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius in global mean surface temperature over the next 100 years. The impact of warming, even at the lower end of this range, is likely to be dramatic, and the impact on humans will be unavoidable and in some places extreme.

It is said that the higher maximum temperatures to which I have referred, with more hot days and heatwaves over nearly all land areas, will give rise to the following projected impacts: incidence of death and serious illness in older people and the urban poor, heat stress in livestock and wildlife, risk of damage to a number of crops, electric cooling demand, and problems with energy supply reliability. There may be increased variability in Asian summer monsoon precipitation, with a possible impact being significant increases in flood and drought magnitude and damage in temperate and tropical Asia. I mention that to indicate that there may be room for regional as well as national or international solutions.

It cannot be said, however, that our government has been slack about dealing with this problem. The Howard government has, since 1996, committed some $1 billion to combating global warming. It has established the world's first national greenhouse agency, the Australian Greenhouse Office. It is committed to meeting Australia's Kyoto target of 108 per cent of 1990 levels. There have been significant achievements since 1996 as a result of the commitments that the government has made. There has been a cut of 11.2 per cent in greenhouse emissions from Commonwealth government operations, and there is a projected cut in emissions equivalent to 31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide during the Kyoto commitment period, through the $400 million Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program. The Photovoltaic Rebate Program involves an abatement of some 7,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas over that period. The Renewable Energy Commercialisation Program, with some 49 projects, involves innovative renewable energy equipment, technology, systems and processes. There is also the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target program, with an abatement of 6.7 million tonnes per annum by 2010, through large purchasers of electricity being required to surrender renewable energy certificates.

I will not go through the details of the government programs, because at the end of the day the real question is: what are the results? Indeed, it is important that the 2001 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory released recently reported total greenhouse emissions for Australia of 543 million tonnes in 2001, which is the same level as in 1990. The Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr Kemp, indicated that, on that projection, Australia will reach around 110 per cent of 1990 greenhouse emissions by the end of the decade, just over two per cent above the 108 per cent target agreed to at Kyoto. So there is significant progress.

On the other hand, it is appropriate to recognise that there are doubts about the issue of global warming. Two days ago, an article in the Financial Review by Professor Bob Carter referred extensively to a paper by McIntyre and McKitrick, which challenged the underlying assumptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its report of 2001, and the so-called hockey-stick curve effect, which looked at the impact of climate change over that period of time. It is fair to say that the results of McIntyre and McKitrick's research indicate that the late Medieval Warm Period, going back some 600 years, and the Little Ice Age, were in fact worse in terms of climate change than the current changes. Professor Carter asked the question of whether or not we need a proper science audit unit to verify the soundness of advice on these issues, and he even proposed closing the Australian Greenhouse Office. I think that is completely the wrong approach, for the reasons that I have already outlined, but it must be recognised—as those opposite do not recognise—that there are challenges on these issues.

Let me turn finally to some thoughts of my own on this. It seems to me that Australia does need a new policy—a step-by-step approach dealing with greenhouse gas emissions affecting air, energy, land and water—and that it must look at both the city and the country to come up with a comprehensive program. I suggest that in five years we need emission trading for electricity-produced carbon. In 10 years we need to ensure that we achieve the Kyoto levels. In 15 years Australia should be a world leader in the whole program. In 20 years a new world policy can be developed. In this way, we can add to Kyoto and we can achieve the objectives of a clean total environment. (Time expired)