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Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Page: 5530

Mr DANBY (7:45 PM) —It is nice to see you in the chair, Madam Deputy Speaker Vale. It is a great pleasure to rise in support of this historic piece of legislation, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009, and the cognate legislation. I am mindful of the request of the Leader of the House that we keep our remarks on this debate as brief as possible, so I will try to comply. In the time available, I want to make a few basic points about the science, economics and politics of climate change as I see them, but first a few words of history. I am not a newcomer to this subject. More than five years ago, in March 2004, I made one of the many speeches I have made on the environment in this place and urged the then government to snap out of its apathy and make a serious commitment to take action against the threat that climate change poses to our society and economy. I am pleased people have stopped using the word ‘denial’ in relation to climate change. I think that was an unfair characterisation of people who disagree with my views on climate change.

I pointed out that, in my view, there was a threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and alpine regions and tourist industries that depend on those great natural assets. I notice the member for O’Connor is here. A number of years ago when there were big floods all over eastern Europe I was making a speech and we had a dispute in the chamber over whether this was due to climate change. In my speech of March 2004, I asked why supporters of the then government seemed to care so little about the 60,000 people whose jobs depend on the health of the Barrier Reef. I pointed out the damage that would also be done to agricultural industries, particularly wheat growers, by the projected increase in temperatures over the next 20 years. I remind members of the National Party, who are so bitterly opposed not only to this bill but to any bill aimed at reducing carbon pollution—which will, it seems, give the coalition a great deal of difficulty in formulating policy in the future—that an increase of one degree Celsius in average temperatures and the associated decline in rainfall would reduce wheat yields by 10 per cent. I would be interested to know whether the member for O’Connor regards that as a fact.

Sadly, the previous government paid no attention to my words—of course, I did not expect they would—but I hoped they might pay attention to the warnings of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, both in Australia and overseas, who told them with increasing urgency that time was running out for action against climate change. It was only at the end of the term of the previous government, when the honourable member for Wentworth became Minister for the Environment and Water Resources—as the member for Bradfield, who was in the chamber a few moments ago, would remember—that the former government began to take it seriously. That, of course, is why it is very disappointing to see that the minister, now the Leader of the Opposition, is unable to get the coalition to support this very moderate effort by the Rudd government to deal with the issue.

As I said, climate change is a scientific issue, an economic issue and a political issue. Let me comment on each of these three elements. In my view, the basic facts about climate change are no longer a matter of controversy. The evidence is overwhelming that the earth is warming and that human activity—namely, the generation of greenhouse gases—is contributing to that warming. Let me quote Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett, a highly respected physicist as well as our full-time scientific adviser. Last month she spoke at a seminar in this building and said:

… some elements of the global climate are now changing at a rate considerably faster than previously thought. When world political leaders … meet in Copenhagen in December … they will … hammer out a global protocol to meaningfully reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change. If they do not act … and act quickly and decisively, the effects will be devastating. The newest science, based on more, better and a larger spectrum of data, illustrates clearly that the earth is reacting more quickly to greenhouse gases, tracking along the worst case scenario of the IPCC report.

Those who oppose Australia acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions like to argue that as Australia is only responsible for 1.2 per cent of the world’s emissions it does not matter much whether we reduce our emissions or not. There are several points to this argument that I would like to tackle. First, there are more than 190 countries in the world and we rank 18th in the table of greenhouse gas emitters. So we are in the top 10 per cent of emitters in absolute terms. There are only three countries which are individually responsible for more than five per cent of emissions: the United States with 22 per cent, China with 18 per cent and Russia with six per cent. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions requires urgent action by all countries, not just by the two or three biggest emitters.

The second point is that Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent, has more at stake in this than most other countries. Some of our most vital industries, such as agriculture and tourism, will be ruined if climate change continues unabated. I wonder if National Party members really understand that, if we continue the way we are going, agriculture in the whole of inland Australia south of the tropics will probably become unviable over the next 50 years. If the Murray-Darling system dies, the Barrier Reef dies and tropical diseases and pests expand their range, huge sections of our economy will be destroyed. That is what is at stake for Australia and what we face in our campaign to fight climate change.

The third point flows from this. We have too much at stake in this to join in the game of waiting to see who will go first. Since we have more at stake, we must act first and act decisively so that others follow our example. Last week, the Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Her Excellency Sujatha Singh, said quite bluntly that India would not act on emissions until Australia did. She said:

You cannot have an agreement whereby countries that reach a certain standard of … development, turn around and tell the rest of the world that what we have … you can’t even aspire to.

we need to grow if we are going to give our 600 million people who live under $2 US a day a decent standard of living. Our per capita emissions will increase, there’s no doubt about it. But I am assuring you that they will never increase to what you yourselves are emitting.

So you have an incentive to bring it down. Bring it down, we’ll match it, we won’t exceed it.

I do not blame India at all for taking this attitude. The global climate crisis, like the global economic crisis, was created by developed countries and we must accept the primary responsibility for fixing it. We must of course help China, India and Indonesia to curb the growth in their emissions, particularly with technological advice, but we cannot expect them to listen to our lectures if we are not prepared to do something about it.

This brings me to the bill before the House today. The bill takes the first essential step along the road to an effective response to climate change: it puts a price on carbon. We are one of the most carbon dependent economies in the world. Our economy is built on cheap carbon. This must change, and the start of that change is to put a steadily increasing price on carbon so that industry and consumers have an economic incentive to move towards sources of energy which do not involve burning carbon.

This legislation is an essential first step. Domestically, by placing a price on carbon, it sends an essential signal to industry and consumers that we are serious about reducing our emissions. Internationally, it sends a signal that we are willing to take the lead so that at Copenhagen we can argue with some credibility for more ambitious targets. The defeat of this legislation would be a disaster for Australia, economically and politically. It would send a signal, domestically and internationally, that we are not serious about climate change, that we are not prepared to do any of the hard work needed for an effective global response and that we value our short-term comfort over our long-term livelihood and indeed the very survival, if the scientists are right, not only of this country but of the world.

Opponents of this legislation harp on its possible effects on employment and investment in carbon intensive industries such as coalmining, aluminium smelting, electricity generation and cement manufacturing, particularly those which are trade exposed. At a time of rising unemployment, I agree that this is a powerful consideration. Of course, employment is something that people in the Labor government take seriously. The people who work in those industries elected a Labor government to safeguard their employment, not to be put at increased risk.

There are several things to say about this. The first is that the government has been at pains to design legislation which provides as much assistance as possible to enable these industries to adjust to a world where carbon has a price and to remain viable and competitive. The government’s modelling shows that the economy will continue to grow. The second is that the transition to a carbon-neutral economy will generate many new, green jobs. We are investing massively in renewable energy, in carbon storage technology for coalmines and power stations—and many people have mentioned the role of the member for Batman in geosequestration and other forward-looking technologies like this—in building energy-efficient homes and in designing and building green cars. This week we heard the chairman of Holden, Mark Reuss, talk about the exciting new wave of energy-efficient cars his company is developing. All of these areas are generating jobs now and will generate more in the future.

The third point, however, is that there is no painless way to decarbonise the Australian economy. Those who tell us that they can reduce our greenhouse emissions without any cost to anyone, through some magical solution like clean coal or biochar, are simply trying to avoid the responsibility for making tough choices in the hope that someone else will do the work and bear the political cost. It is clear that if we fail to take even that essential first step we will pay a heavy price and future generations will play an even heavier one.

I believe that the Leader of the Opposition and his environment spokesperson, the honourable member for Flinders, genuinely understand the urgency of this issue. The time has come for them to face down the climate sceptics in their own party, as well as the Nationals, and join with us, here and in the Senate, in passing this vital legislation.