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Thursday, 30 October 2003
Page: 17364

Senator ALLISON (4:36 PM) —If it is passed, the Kyoto Protocol Ratification Bill 2003 [No. 2] will force the Howard government to ratify the Kyoto protocol and take a number of other measures that are consistent with meeting Australia's obligations under the protocol, including preparing a national climate change action plan, establishing a system for estimating emissions of greenhouse gases not covered in the Montreal protocol, and developing a mechanism to facilitate international carbon credits trading. The Australian Democrats have been calling on this government to ratify the Kyoto protocol for many years—certainly as long as I have been here and probably earlier than that too. We have also consistently called on the government to implement effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. As a consequence, there is no doubt at all that we will be supporting this bill.

It is widely acknowledged that the Kyoto protocol will not result in significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and will not have a significant effect on climate change. I think that was acknowledged in the speeches by Senator Brown and Senator Lundy in this second reading debate. Meeting Australia's Kyoto target of 108 per cent of 1990 emission levels will be relatively easy and will not have a major impact on our economy. That is easy to show using the most recent figures released by the Australian Greenhouse Office. These show that if current measures are maintained Australia's emissions should, on average, reach around 110 per cent of 1990 levels by 2008-12. That is, without doing much else we will only miss the Kyoto target by about two per cent.

The latest AGO figures also indicate that according to the Kyoto accounting rules there was a slight decrease in emissions between 1990 and 2001, despite the fact that there was a 33 per cent increase in emissions from the stationary energy sector and a 25 per cent increase in emissions from the transport sector between 1990 and 2001. These are the largest and the third largest emitters respectively and, if this is the case, there should be no problem in meeting our target. The Howard government knows that the two per cent gap can be bridged with little effort and, as a result, it has consistently stated that it intends to meet the Kyoto target. Minister Kemp made this perfectly clear when these AGO figures were released. He said:

... the Howard Government is currently developing a climate change forward strategy to help bridge the gap to the Kyoto target and position Australia for the longer term.

Senator Eggleston has outlined what those measures will be, and I will come to them a little later.

Why, if the government will commit to meeting the Kyoto target, will it not ratify the Kyoto protocol? The only explanation from the government—again in the words of Minister Kemp—is that the Kyoto protocol is `a flawed international treaty that will, at best, deliver less than a one per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions'. The question that arises from this statement is: if the government will not ratify Kyoto because it will not bring about a substantial reduction in emissions, why won't the government implement measures to ensure that we achieve large cuts in emissions?

The government is merely aiming to meet Australia's overly generous Kyoto target. If it was really committed to addressing climate change issues it would at least aim to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, but we know that it will not. It is devoted to non-renewable fossil fuels, a fact that is reflected in its policy towards alternative fuels and renewable energy, and it has no intention of implementing the policy measures that are necessary to bring about emission reductions in the key emitting industries—stationary energy, transport and agriculture. So while the government claims that it is `delivering real progress on greenhouse gas reduction' it continues to shell out massive amounts to the main greenhouse emitting industries—petroleum and gas corporations, farmers and the automotive industry. These subsidies total at least $10 billion annually.

While it gives handouts to the main greenhouse gas emitting industries, this government refuses to provide the necessary levels of support to enable the renewable energy sector to get on its feet. Indeed, it appears to be doing everything possible to ensure that this remains a niche industry until such time as we have exhausted our fossil fuel reserves. For example, last year the government announced that it would cut funding from the CRC for Renewable Energy, yet at the same time it announced that it would fund a new CRC to conduct research into ways to bury greenhouse gas emissions. It has also recently announced that it will introduce excise on alternative fuels from 2008, thereby ensuring that alternative fuels, including renewable fuels, will struggle to make inroads into the traditional fossil fuel transport markets.

As I said earlier, the government's claim that the protocol will not result in a substantial reduction in emissions is quite correct. However, it is a critical step in generating the multilateral support and cooperation that is essential for dealing with climate change. Climate change cannot be dealt with by unilateral measures or by bilateral arrangements between like-minded pro-fossil-fuel governments. Without a unified response that applies to all nations, developed and developing, we will continue to see a business-as-usual approach that will condemn future generations to having to deal with the consequences of the selfishness of this generation.

The Kyoto protocol is the first step in developing this comprehensive framework. Admittedly it only applies to developed nations. However, from here measures can be implemented that apply to all nations and include provisions to ensure that the outcomes are equitable and have regard to the distribution of wealth and the history of greenhouse gas emissions. The development of this framework will take time; therefore there is an urgent need to get the process started. The longer we wait, the more we delay and the more we talk about alternatives which do not emerge as anything much, the greater the adverse effects of human induced climate change will be. The first step in reversing the current trends in emissions and climate change is the implementation of the protocol, which is currently being stymied by the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases—the United States, Russia and, if we look at it on a per capita basis, Australia.

Many conservatives, like the Institute of Public Affairs, try to claim that human induced climate change is a furphy and/or that radical environmentalists are blowing the consequences of climate change out of all proportion. That type of argument is propagated by those with a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry or by those like this government who do not want to have to make the hard decisions that are necessary to deal with this issue. However, the scientific evidence supporting climate change and the need for action is very clear. Greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to rapid climate change, and this climate change is likely to have a significant impact on the way we live and on our environment. This conclusion is supported by some of the world's most reputable scientific institutions, including the World Meteorological Organisation, the Royal Society, the US National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and of course the United Nations. The predictions that are being made are a reason for concern and support the Democrats' call for decisive action to be taken.

The global average surface temperature of the earth has increased by approximately 0.6 degrees Centigrade since 1990. In Australia the temperatures appear to be getting warmer faster. Since 1910 Australia's continental average temperature has increased by approximately 0.8 degrees Centigrade. The majority of the increase in the average temperature has been experienced in the last 50 years, with 1998 being the warmest year on record and the 1990s being the warmest decade on record. The predicted increases in temperature are far more worrying than the trend that we have experienced to date. The CSIRO has predicted that by 2030 average annual temperatures will be 0.4 to two degrees higher over most of Australia and that by 2070 the increases may be as high as six degrees. The increases in temperatures have already had a noticeable impact on rainfall patterns. Some areas have experienced increases in average rainfall over the last 100 years, including New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory, and others have seen a marked decrease.

The worst affected area is in south-west Western Australia, where there have been significant drops in average winter rainfall. There is considerable uncertainty about the predicted changes in rainfall over the coming century. Most modelling indicates that there is likely to be a decrease in average rainfall during winter and spring. The results of modelling of summer rainfall are variable—some are saying more rain, some are saying less. However, it is clear that, as the continental average temperatures increase, there will be significant increases in evapotranspiration. CSIRO modelling predicts that there could be up to an eight per cent increase in evaporation for every one degree Centigrade increase in temperature across Australia. In some areas, including Tasmania and the Eastern Highlands, the increase in evaporation could be as high as 12 per cent.

What does that mean for our economy? The most obvious risk is to our water resources. The increases in evaporation and transpiration will place an additional strain on our already degraded and overexploited rivers and aquifers. The CSIRO predict that there will be a decrease in flows in the rivers and streams of southern Australia and the eastern central MDB could face decreases of up to 45 per cent. The decreases in water availability would adversely affect our most productive agricultural regions and would result in water storages in many locations being down. While the overall impacts on agriculture are uncertain, it is clear that climate change poses a significant risk to this $30 billion industry.

Climate change is also likely to increase the risks of natural disasters. The increase in evapotranspiration and increases in plant growth due to greater levels of CO2 are likely to increase the risk of catastrophic fires, the likes of which Canberra experienced this year. Climate change may also increase the number and intensity of floods and severe storms. Natural disasters already cost Australia more than $1 billion a year. With climate change, we can expect that to rise. Climate change could also have a grave impact on our tourism industry. The Great Barrier Reef and the Ningaloo Reef are two icon sites that are likely to be severely affected. Already, increases in sea surface temperatures have resulted in large coral bleaching events in these two areas. The IPCC has suggested that the thermal tolerance limits of coral will be exceeded every year by 2030, which would mean large bleaching events could become everyday occurrences. With the IPCC predicting that sea surface temperatures will increase by two to five degrees Centigrade in the Great Barrier Reef region by the end of this century, the outlook is indeed bleak.

Global warming is likely to have a range of other economic impacts, from affecting our health to increasing the prevalence of certain agricultural weeds and pests, such as cattle ticks. So, for those who have no interest whatsoever in the conservation of natural heritage, there is ample evidence that global warming will have a significant and adverse impact on the economy.

The impacts of global warming on the environment could be catastrophic. As I have already noted, it could decimate our reefs. The changes will also have a wide impact on our flora and fauna. Australia has many plant species that have sharply defined geographic and climatic ranges that would be exceeded if the predicted changes were realised. For example, research carried out in 2000 found that 28 per cent of Western Australia's dryandra species would be extinct with an increase of 0.5 degrees Centigrade. Native highland grasslands communities are particularly vulnerable to temperature increases as they would enable shrub and tree species to grow at high levels that were previously the exclusive domain of grasses. The changes will also affect our native fauna. Alpine species are obviously very vulnerable to temperature increases. Research has indicated that the habitat of beautiful species like the mountain pygmy possum may disappear completely with a one degree Centigrade temperature change. The list of other species likely to be adversely affected is extensive.

In short, biodiversity is likely to decrease considerably, and we will continue to witness one of the most pronounced extinction events in the Earth's history unless dramatic measures are taken to protect and conserve our natural heritage. If the evidence of global warming is clear—and it is—and the economic and environmental risks associated with warming are very real, why won't this government take action to reverse the trend in emissions? Furthermore, if the Kyoto protocol will not cause any undue hardship to our economy, and if the targets are eminently reachable, why won't this government ratify the protocol to get the multilateral framework for dealing with climate change up and running? The only answer can be the Howard government's sycophantic relationship with the Bush administration, which appears willing to put the short-term economic interests of the United States above everything else—including the future of this planet. Great Australians like former Labor leader Dr Herbert Evatt, who fought for Australia to have an independent foreign policy and to play a lead role in developing and implementing multilateral solutions to solve global issues, must be turning in their graves. I think history will condemn the Howard government for its approach on this issue.