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Thursday, 30 October 2003
Page: 17368

Senator WONG (4:51 PM) —I rise to speak in this matter which concerns the Kyoto Protocol Ratification Bill 2003 [No. 2] moved by Senator Lundy on behalf of the Labor Party and Senator Brown on behalf of the Australian Greens. I understand that it is likely the government will not wish to go to a vote on this issue but will seek to talk the matter out. I indicate that that is a concern and is consistent with their failure to deal with the issue of global warming and the ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

This bill represents a renewed and combined effort by the Australian Labor Party and the Greens to have this government ratify Kyoto. The proposed bill deals with a number of other issues. These include the preparation of a national climate change action plan, the establishment of an inventory and report, a commitment to meeting the Kyoto target and, importantly, the establishment of a framework for involvement in international trading schemes. Given some of the comments made earlier by senators regarding the failure of Kyoto to properly deal with transfer in emission reduction units and trading in these units, this bill in fact does seek to spur the minister to address that issue. The bill requires that the Kyoto protocol be ratified within 60 days of passing this parliament. If passed, it would be a pretty belated action by this government to ratify the protocol. I think we signed the Kyoto protocol, which is distinct from ratification, over five years ago. So we are five years down the track and this government has still failed to ratify it.

This government has a long history of reluctance to ratify or comply with international treaties and obligations. Many of us remember this government's refusal for a significant period to sign the optional protocol for the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. One would have thought that in these times that would not have been a particularly radical suggestion. It took this government four years to initiate the required steps to ratify the convention against the worst forms of child labour, and five years down the track they have still not ratified the Kyoto protocol. Perhaps there is no single decision of the Howard government in relation to international obligations that has been more stubborn or more short-sighted than its persistent refusal to ratify this protocol. It has been utterly intransigent on this issue.

As many previous speakers have said, global warming is a global issue and one that requires a global response. No-one in this chamber or in our community is so naive as to say that ratification alone will end global warming. What the Kyoto protocol does represent is the only agreed international mechanism thus far by which the nations of this world can jointly address the challenge of global warming. Australia's refusal to ratify means we have stepped away from the table. We have disengaged from the international process for addressing climate change. I say that is irresponsible and short-sighted. It is irresponsible and short-sighted for this government to have walked away from the agreed international process for dealing with the urgent global problem of global warming.

This government on occasion has sought to trivialise this issue. One of its arguments for not ratifying the Kyoto protocol is that ratification will not do anything. At the end of the day the issue is whether we want to be active players in the international community in seeking a solution or whether we only want to be part of the problem. Global warming is an issue that requires international efforts to address it. Ratification of this protocol is about us taking part in collective responsibility. Australia is being left behind in global efforts to combat climate change and, as a result, we are losing influence in future and current climate change negotiations.

As I understand the government's position—and it is a little hard to discern it—the government says that Australia must meet or ought to meet its Kyoto target but says it will not ratify the protocol. It is a rather bizarre position for the government to take. Apart from making us appear a poor international environmental citizen, this position of the government also locks Australian industry out from the developing global trading mechanisms. Australian companies are missing out on opportunities to participate in this new global order which seeks to trade in carbon emissions and carbon credits.

There is also significant support in the community for ratification of the protocol. Some 70 per cent of Australians in a survey conducted some years ago by Greenpeace indicated that they wanted the protocol ratified. Even sectors of Australian industry, which are not generally perceived as being the greenest or most environmentally conscious sector of Australia, have indicated support for the ratification of the protocol. An example is BP, British Petroleum, whose Australasian chief, Greg Bourne, has indicated fears that companies will be left in the lurch by the government's failure to ratify Kyoto. Even the Business Council of Australia, which previously were opposed to ratification, have now switched their position to being neutral, and in fact a number of members of the council have publicly supported ratification.

But despite public support from a range of sectors, this government refuses to ratify. Instead of being part of the solution, as I said, we continue to be part of the problem—and we are a bad part of the problem. Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases of any country in the world. We face a challenge to move to a less carbon dependent future, but it is a challenge we must face now and in the future.

I want to talk briefly about some of the consequences of global warming, which one would have thought by now would have been well and truly non-controversial. The scientific evidence of the impact of human induced global warming on our climate is enormous. Earlier this year I attended a presentation given to the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee by Professor David Karoly, who is a meteorologist. He had participated in a joint study with Dr James Risbey and Anna Reynolds looking at drought in Australia and the impact of global warming on the drought. The paper which was produced stated:

New research has found that human-induced global warming is a key reason why the Australian drought of 2002 has been so severe.

During 2002, Australia experienced its worst drought since reliable records began in 1910. The average Australian rainfall for the 9 months March-November 2002 was the lowest ever during this period. The drought was concentrated in eastern Australia with the Murray-Darling Basin, the nation's agricultural heartland, receiving its lowest ever March-November rainfall in 2002. This is the first drought in Australia where the impact of human-induced global warming can be clearly observed.

These words are pretty sobering and in fact quite chilling: we are witnessing in our own lifetime some severe impacts of global warming on our climate.

I recall being in the chamber earlier this year when one of the government senators in another debate laughingly said that Labor had stated that its response to drought would be to sign the Kyoto protocol and this would end the drought. The comment was made that the senator might even vote Labor if that were the case. What this study shows us is that global warming has impacted on the severity of the drought in our country. No amount of trivialising this issue by government senators will avoid that fact. In a country such as Australia, much of which is so dependent on agriculture and which is so vulnerable to drought, global warming is an urgent national priority—but it is not treated as such by this government.

I want to make some brief comments about the Murray-Darling Basin because obviously, as a senator for South Australia, that is an area that is of deep concern to me. The same study to which I was referring earlier made a number of key points in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. First, it said:

The basin received its lowest ever March-November rainfall in 2002, only 45% of normal rainfall.

It also makes the point that the basin experienced average maximum temperatures more than 1.2 per cent higher than in any previous drought since 1950. If you look at the table that summarises this study's findings, you will see that in 2002 the average temperature was 2.14 degrees higher than any other drought average, which means this drought was hotter than any other in history. Again, these are sobering findings: the evidence demonstrates global warming has contributed to the severity of the Australian drought.

In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded:

... “most of the observed (global) warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations” ...

The study by Professor Karoly and his colleagues goes on to say:

The warming trend over the last 50 years in Australia also cannot be explained by natural climate variability and most of this warming is likely due to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere ... This figure shows that the actual trend in Australian temperatures since 1950 is now matching the climate models of how temperatures respond to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas increases occurring today are due to human activity; burning fossil fuels for electricity and transport, and land clearing.

In other words, what the study demonstrates is that natural climate variability itself cannot explain either the high temperatures, particularly those experienced in the Murray-Darling Basin, or the severity of the drought this country has just been through. What we can conclude from this is that we, humankind, are contributing to global warming through our production of greenhouse gases, and this has been a key influence on the high temperatures experienced and the severity of drought suffered in Australia over the last year.

Global warming is not only an issue about our natural environment—our forests, our reefs and our rivers. At the end of the day it is also about our lives, our industries, our farmers and our future. In the face of all of this scientific evidence, what are the Howard government doing? As was demonstrated today, they are fudging it. They try and speak fine words about global warming and the need to address it, but they engage in little action. Senator Eggleston today was critical of the Kyoto protocol, stating words to the effect that it went nowhere near achieving the required reductions of greenhouse gases. There is a simple answer to that, Senator Eggleston: Kyoto is the first step. It is disingenuous in the extreme for this government to be pretending that they are not ratifying Kyoto because they are somehow taking a stronger environmental position than is represented by the protocol.

The government states, somewhat disingenuously, that we need to reduce greenhouse gases by more than Kyoto requires. On this side of the chamber we say, `If that is your position then get back to the negotiating table. Ratify the Kyoto protocol, meet Australia's targets and push internationally for improvements to the targets that are set out in Kyoto and the mechanisms for carbon trading.' Do something rather than sitting there and saying, `We don't want to ratify this protocol because it's not good enough.'

The reality, though, is that this is not actually the government's position. They might say, `We don't want to ratify Kyoto because the targets are not sufficient to do anything about global warming.' As the chamber has been reminded by previous speakers from the government side, the government state that they are concerned about the effects on Australian industry and the Australian economy if we ratify the Kyoto protocol. Their position is that it is not in our economic interests to do so. This is the heart of the government's opposition to ratifying the protocol. They do not want to ratify a treaty that may potentially have a detrimental effect on some aspects—and I emphasise `some aspects'—of Australian industry. So let us not have any lecturing by the government that Kyoto ought not be signed because it is not good enough, when at the end of the day the height of their position is that they do not want to sign it because they are worried about the potential effect they say Kyoto might have on some aspects of Australian industry.

I will deal briefly with that issue of whether or not ratifying the Kyoto protocol would be bad for Australian industry. Yes, there are challenges for our country, particularly given we have such a high per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions, in moving to a less carbon dependent future. There are undoubted challenges. There are also opportunities. There are opportunities for green industry, for clean development technology and for smart industries, and what the government should be doing is providing strategic assistance and leadership to Australian industry to take those opportunities and to move forward. We must have strategies and resources implemented by government to facilitate and encourage a less carbon dependent future.

In closing can I say this: it seems astonishing to me that, with the sort of evidence we have of the direct impact on our climate of human induced global warming, Australia continues to lag behind so much of the world in efforts to halt global warming. It seems extraordinary—particularly given that we are a country that suffers droughts on occasion—that we should ignore the evidence that global warming has contributed to the severity of droughts and not do our part to address this urgent international issue.