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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 73


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (7:16 PM) —Today, Australia’s Climate Action Summit launched its national campaign at Parliament House, forming a human chain around the House. Australia’s Climate Action Summit is a national grassroots network of climate action groups across Australia, including the CERES Climate Action Group from my own electorate of Wills. Several of my constituents, including Ellen Roberts and Daniel McIntyre, have come to Canberra to participate in a summit over the weekend and to speak with members of parliament today. The summit involved 500 members of 160 climate action groups, representing people of all ages and from all walks of life. It met to establish a united plan to, in its own words: ‘get real action on climate change before it’s too late’.

The summit found that climate change is happening faster and at lower levels of CO2 than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been predicting. It says that Arctic ice is predicted to disappear five years ahead of IPCC forecasts. It also expresses concern for millions of people dependent on the Himalayan icesheet, which is now melting, and the implications for the six rivers which provide the lion’s share of water for the people of India, China and South-East Asia. The summit argues that in the climate change talks which will be held in Copenhagen in December—talks which are unquestionably critical for the future of this planet—Australia needs to take a leadership position.

It is deeply appropriate that this civic-minded group should be in Canberra today. As a resident of Melbourne, I can report to the House that, in January, we experienced a very uncomfortable foretaste of things to come under climate change. We had the second driest January ever, with negligible rainfall—0.8 millimetres for the entire month—further extending our already stretched water supplies. To make matters worse, in the last week of January we had day after day of 40-degree-plus temperatures. We got the hottest day we have ever had, of over 45 degrees Celsius, and we had three days in a row of temperatures exceeding 110 degrees in the old Fahrenheit scale.

I am aware that it is not only Melbourne which experienced extraordinarily hot and dry weather. Adelaide and much of South Australia, Victoria and the ACT were similarly afflicted. People died in the heat. Power systems failed. Public transport systems failed. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the shape of things to come in south-eastern Australia, and it underscores the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis. Al Gore said in December in Poznan:

We, the human species, have arrived at a moment of fateful decision. … our home, Earth, is in danger. What is at risk of being destroyed is of course not the planet itself but the conditions that have made it hospitable for human beings.

He talked about the melting glaciers, the Alps, the Andes, the Rockies, the Himalayas. The Tibetan plateau feeds the great rivers of Asia: the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow. One-point-four billion people depend for more than half of their drinking water on the rivers and spring systems that flow from the ice of the Tibetan plateau, which is now melting at an alarming rate. Sadly, melting glaciers are only one facet of this many faceted, Hydra-headed monster. Drying lakes, acidification of the oceans through the dumping of 25 million tonnes of CO2 into our oceans every day; stronger typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes; massive flooding; heatwaves and more bushfires—all of this we have in store.

America’s new President, Barack Obama, is onto the magnitude of the change. To watch President Obama being sworn in was a spine-tingling moment for me. To be reminded of Martin Luther King’s speech comparing life on the mountain top with life in the valley underscored what a monumental, inspirational achievement Barack Obama has accomplished. To see a black man storming the citadel, the ultimate citadel of world power, was incredibly emotional, and to describe this as a historic moment a massive understatement. To see a moment when the American people said, ‘We are ready to have a black man lead us,’ was a mighty thing and it is impossible to overestimate its significance.

I have written a letter to Barack Obama congratulating him on his election. I do not expect he will get to read it, but I expect someone will, and I regard the letter as part of my obligations as a global citizen and as the representative of the people of Wills. In that letter, I urged President Obama to turn his attention to climate change, to global warming. I said:

The United States is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Regrettably, your predecessor, President Bush, did not set targets to cut carbon emissions, and constantly frustrated and undermined attempts by others to take international action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

I further said in my letter:

You can show real leadership, and change the course of world history, away from one of more droughts, more bushfires, more floods and more storms, by taking strong action, both in the United States and at the world climate change talks at the end of this year in Copenhagen, to stabilise the amount of carbon in the atmosphere as soon as possible. Reputable scientific opinion is that it would be dangerous to allow the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to exceed 450 parts per million. You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to lead the world away from that precipice.

Having written that letter, and because I regard climate change as the issue of our time, the issue which will define our success or otherwise as policymakers, I was therefore delighted to hear President Obama say:

Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

That is exactly right. He further said that there has been a collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. He said:

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

He also said that they would roll back the spectre of a warming planet. He is right in that action is needed. I know there are people who are saying that the global financial crisis means that now is not the time to tackle global warming. I suspect that many of these claims are not made in good faith. They are made by and large by the same people who have never supported action to tackle global warming. More importantly, we need to remember the words of World Bank economist Nicholas Stern when he said that the costs of inaction on global warming will exceed the costs of action.

The point is that, whatever the state of the economy at any given moment, it is in our economic interests—to say nothing of the interests of the planet—to act now and not have more delay. The problems we are experiencing as a result of unregulated credit will not be ameliorated by continuing unregulated carbon. They will be made worse. At the same time as we move to tackle the global financial crisis we must also move to tackle the climate crisis. We must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Other countries have moved to introduce green economic stimulus packages, and I congratulate the government on the bold initiatives it has announced today to introduce free insulation to over two million Australian homes and to increase the solar hot water rebate from $1,000 to $1,600.

As well as some people saying that the government is going too far in tackling climate change, there are people saying that it is not going far enough. Complaints principally relate to two issues: the 2020 targets the government has foreshadowed and the detail of the emissions trading regime, known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. In relation to the issue of targets, I absolutely agree that we need the strongest possible carbon production outcomes from Copenhagen. I think, however, that we need to have some bargaining capacity when we go there, something to bargain with. That is simply the reality of international negotiations. Furthermore, the five to 15 per cent target by 2020, announced by the government, is significantly more onerous than it sounds. Some may not understand what a significant turnaround it would represent from the legacy Labor inherited from the Howard government. It might illustrate the point if I were to propose that Australia now reduce its emissions by 80 per cent over the next 40 years. If we were to endeavour to stabilise our carbon emissions by the end of 2010 and try to cut our emissions by two per cent every year after that, by 2050 we would be 80 per cent below where we are now. I think that is a bold and challenging target, and I think that most people in the community and most environmental groups would instantly recognise it as such. And yet such a target is not markedly more onerous than the very targets the government has announced both for 2020 and for 2050.

Let me say in response to the criticisms of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme that it needs to be recalled that this is only one of a large suite of measures the government has developed to tackle global warming. I am a particularly strong supporter of the national renewable energy target, the plan to increase renewable energy’s share of the market to 20 per cent by the year 2020. Like Barack Obama, we will harness the sun, we will harness the wind, and we will harness geothermal energy and other renewable sources to power our nation. I do want to respond to those who seek to undermine the renewable energy target. As an example, let me comment on the Business Council of Australia, which has issued a critique of renewable energy targets based on work by Port Jackson Partners.

Firstly, let me observe that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme provides very substantial transitional assistance to incumbent power generators and certain industries. I never hear the Business Council complain that such assistance represents a market distortion, yet it complains that the renewable energy target is a market distortion. Both the assistance for the electricity generators and the renewable energy target are industry-specific initiatives that distort the market and seek a specific outcome: the reduction of greenhouse gases. Why does the Business Council attack one but not the other? Does the Business Council believe that market distortions are acceptable for incumbent, well-established industries but not acceptable for new and emerging industries like renewable energy?

Secondly, the renewable energy target is an essential part of Australia meeting its carbon reduction targets. The federal Department of Climate Change has reported that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 will be substantially lower—that is, 120 per cent above 1990 levels, as opposed to 127 per cent above 1990 levels—because of the introduction of the renewable energy target. This is a very significant benefit but it is one which will only grow over time. Building a solar PV industry, building a wind industry and building geothermal projects are an essential part of Australia tackling climate change. The Business Council report says that post 2020 there should be more technologies available to reach more aggressive reduction targets in the electricity and other sectors. Indeed. But how on earth can we expect that those technologies will be available, will be commercially viable, if we do not put in place the policies that will develop them? It is simply not good enough to leave it to the market and hope. We need to act to ensure that we have those industries, and we need to act to ensure that we have those technologies. The technologies that will be vital to achieving reduction targets post 2020 need to be nurtured over the coming decade.

One of the technologies that I believe has a big future is solar photovoltaic, solar PV, and I think that we need to encourage individual homes, factories and building sites to become mini power plants, meeting their own power needs through the production of renewable energy which does not emit carbon. We need a vision of communities where energy production is distributed rather than centralised and is therefore genuinely sustainable indefinitely. I support what is called a feed-in tariff, which will encourage localised distributed energy systems. That involves paying a premium to electricity consumers who generate their own electricity through, for example, a solar photovoltaic system on their roof.

Feed-in tariffs can reflect the real cost of carbon. They also build community awareness. They answer the question that so many families ask, which is: what can I do? They drive the cost of solar PV down. Solar photovoltaic generates power when it is most needed. It evens out the power load. It reduces the extreme peaks of the hot summers, and output over summer peak load weeks has been shown to correspond well to system load at regional nodes in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. Solar PV also avoids transmission losses and avoids the need for poles-and-wires infrastructure.

There is information from the Electricity Supply Association that $24 billion of electricity network and generation infrastructure is required to meet Australia’s growing power needs over the next five years. Anything that we can do to reduce the need for infrastructure being driven by the need to meet demand peaks is worth doing. And, given that, I think a lot of the talk about need for baseload electricity is misleading. We need to provide economically rational signals to customers, and sometimes that does not happen. For example, I saw Queensland government estimates that for every air conditioner installed the electricity industry has to spend an additional $13,000 on more poles and wires to manage the load. Clearly, we can and need to do better than that.

Feed-in tariffs also generate jobs. Ten years ago Germany had a solar PV industry of a similar scale to Australia’s. Now Germany has an industry of 110,000 jobs generating 15,000 megawatts of solar PV power. Australia has fallen behind. It is estimated that the solar PV industry here is responsible for just 1,300 jobs. If we move to a national gross feed-in tariff, we could have a solar PV industry as big as or even bigger than that of Germany. We have more sun than they have for starters. If I return to the situation in Melbourne last week, we could have coped far better if we had had solar PV installed on our roofs, and people who say that solar and wind power do not provide baseload power are missing the point. By meeting the peak demand we experienced last week, solar PV has the potential to play an incredibly important role in meeting our energy needs. It also has great potential to give us energy security.

I return to some of the comments made by Al Gore in December of last year. He said:

In the midst of this synchronised global recession, there is an emerging consensus…that…the only way to effectively combat the recession is with a synchronised global stimulus and in nation after nation, leaders have concluded that they must design a green stimulus and build the infrastructure for renewable sources of energy and put people to work retro-fitting homes and buildings with CO2 reducing insulation and windows and lighting and more efficient technologies.

He noted:

China…has announced a green stimulus of $600 billion over the next two years. Chinese leaders are mobilising a national effort to introduce CO2 reduction initiatives and have already begun the largest tree planting program the world has ever seen.

He also made reference to some of President Barack Obama’s public statements since the election, and I quote Barack Obama:

…the time for delay is over. The time for denial is over. We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and national security and it has to be dealt with in a serious way. That’s what I intend my administration to do.

And in another statement, President Obama said:

The science is beyond dispute. The facts are clear…Washington has failed to show leadership. That will change when I take office…That will start with a Federal cap and trade system…It will not only help us bring about a clean energy future saving our planet, it will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis…

Finally, Al Gore said:

Very simply put, it is wrong for this generation to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every future generation.

…            …            …

They deserve better than politicians who sit on their hands and do nothing to confront the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced. This crisis does offer us the chance to experience what few generations have had the privilege of experiencing, a generational mission, a compelling moral purpose, a shared cause and the opportunity to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and narrower concerns to embrace a genuine moral generational mission.