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Thursday, 27 November 2003
Page: 18278

Senator ALLISON (7:15 PM) —I rise to speak on 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. The Vienna convention and the Montreal protocol have proven to be amongst the most successful international environmental agreements in history. They were made in the mid- to late 1980s in response to a mountain of scientific evidence that demonstrated that certain chemicals were depleting the ozone layer.

As most people now know, the ozone layer absorbs harmful ultraviolet B radiation from the sun and also screens out lethal UVC radiation. Without the ozone layer, life as we know it would not exist. Consequently, when scientists first realised in the early 1970s that chlorofluorocarbons—CFCs—destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere alarm bells began to ring. Since then, as the scientists predicted, we have witnessed the deterioration of the ozone layer above the Antarctic to the point where the so-called ozone hole now covers an area of around 30 million square kilometres. The chemicals responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer are primarily from the halocarbon family and are used in such things as airconditioning units, aerosol cans, refrigeration equipment and pest control products. These chemicals are now widely known as ozone-depleting substances.

The Vienna convention and the Montreal protocol established a framework and a process for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting substances. The cornerstone of this system is the phase-out schedules which put in place arrangements to prevent the production and distribution of these harmful gases. These schedules were designed to be periodically updated in response to scientific evidence and need. The phase-out schedules have been updated through a series of international agreements, including those in London in 1990, Copenhagen in 1992, Vienna in 1995, Montreal in 1997 and Beijing in 1999. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the schedules has been undermined by the failure of certain countries to ratify the new agreements. However, on the whole the framework has been very successful in reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances.

The United Nations has estimated that, without the convention and the protocol, global consumption of CFCs would have reached about three million tonnes by 2010 and eight million tonnes by 2060, resulting in a 50 per cent depletion of the ozone layer by 2035. The consequences of this for humans could have been catastrophic, including sharp increases in the incidence of skin cancer and cataracts. There would also have been significant consequences for the environment.

Due to the operation of the Montreal protocol, between 1986 and 2001 the total consumption of CFCs worldwide fell by almost a million tonnes. In developed nations the consumption levels fell from around 900,000 tonnes to under 7,000 tonnes. The results in developing nations were less dramatic, with only a 15 per cent decrease in usage. However, these countries were responsible for less than 20 per cent of usage overall in 1986. Further, in 2001 three of the 130 developing countries—Brazil, China and the Republic of Korea—accounted for almost 50 per cent of total consumption amongst developing nations. Since then a number of countries have made considerable progress in reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances. Indeed, only recently the United Nations presented China with an award for its efforts to reduce the consumption of ozone-depleting substances.

In all, the Vienna convention and the Montreal protocol have provided tangible evidence of the benefits of international cooperation in addressing global environmental issues. It is a shame that our government has not learnt from this process and sought to encourage a similar approach to addressing climate change. Instead, it has participated in the United States led conspiracy to derail the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The tragic irony of this situation is that global warming is likely to result in further damage to the ozone layer and will undermine the success of the Vienna convention and the Montreal protocol. We can only hope that the government will review its policy towards the FCCC and the Kyoto protocol in the near future.

Despite the success of the Vienna convention and the Montreal protocol, a considerable amount remains to be done at both international and national levels to address ozone issues. A key reason why ozone-depleting substances remain a significant problem is that many industries have sought to adapt to the phase-out of CFCs by developing replacement substances that are either ozone-depleting or highly potent greenhouse gases. This process started with HCFCs, which were introduced soon after CFCs began to be phased out. While they are an improvement on CFCs, HCFCs still degrade the ozone layer and are now in the process of being phased out. That process is likely to take at least half a century.

Many other new ozone-depleting substances have also emerged, some as replacements and some as new products. The latest wave of replacement gases bring with them a collection of new challenges. Most relevant to the current debate are the so-called synthetic greenhouse gases, or SGGs. These include such things as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, and perfluorocarbons, PFCs. These are highly potent greenhouse gases. As a result, whilst we are solving one problem we are in effect contributing to another.

The Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 is intended to partially address these problems by ensuring that the manufacture, export, import and use of SGGs and new ozone-depleting substances are appropriately regulated and controlled. It will introduce a licensing system for the import, export and manufacture of SGGs. This will ensure that ozone-depleting substances and their replacements, SGGs, are subject to similar controls, although I understand that the SGG controls will target use and emissions while the ozone controls target imports.

If administered appropriately and coupled with incentives to reduce SGG use, this regulatory system could make a valuable contribution to reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions. The Democrats would like to see a time line for the phase-out of SGGs and their replacement with natural refrigerants. However, we recognise that it may be too early at this stage to entrench this time line in legislation. Further time needs to be available to develop and commercialise environmentally benign replacement substances and to ensure that refrigerant and airconditioning industries are appropriately educated and accepting of the changes. Consequently, while sympathising with Senator Brown's attempts to introduce a statutory time frame for the phase-out, we understand that the information that would allow us to do that is not yet available, and we would be relying to some extent on guesswork.

The bill will also introduce a licensing system for refrigeration and airconditioning equipment imported into Australia containing HCFCs, which are ozone-depleting substances, or HFCs, which are SGGs. This is intended to ensure that the regulatory system cannot be undermined by simply acquiring manufactured products containing these gases from overseas. The bill will also extend the licensing system so that it applies to a new ozone depleting substance, bromochloromethane or BCM, and will enable the Commonwealth to establish a nationally consistent framework for the regulation of the end uses of ozone-depleting substances and SGGs.

Previously, the regulation of end uses of ozone-depleting substances was left to the states and territories. This has led to different regulatory regimes applying in the relevant jurisdictions. That has resulted in confusion and unsatisfactory regulatory outcomes. This bill will enable the issue to be resolved. However, disappointingly, the framework for the end use regulatory regime was not placed in the bill but rather will be outlined in the regulations. That, of course, reduces the scope for parliamentary scrutiny of this regime. We will be looking at the regulations when they are released to ensure that they are appropriate.

This bill makes changes to the Ozone Protection Reserve. The reserve will now be called the Ozone Protection and SGG Account, and it will be able to be used for a far broader range of purposes. At present, the Ozone Protection Reserve can only be used for reimbursing the Commonwealth for costs associated with furthering the HCFC and methyl bromide phase-out programs, providing information about those programs and administering the licensing and quota systems. This bill will enable the new Ozone Protection and SGG Account to be used for additional purposes, including furthering the ODS phase-out program, emission minimisation programs for ozone-depleting substances and SGGs and paying for the Commonwealth's costs of managing the National Halon Bank. The government has also assured us that, as a result of these amendments, the moneys in the account can be used to support research into replacement substances. I think that is a commendable initiative.

An issue the Democrats are concerned about is the continued use of methyl bromide as a quarantine treatment for agricultural commodities. Under the terms of the Montreal protocol, methyl bromide must be phased out in developed countries by 2005. However, this phase-out requirement does not apply to quarantine and pre-shipment uses. As a result, approximately 7,000 ODP tonnes of methyl bromide are used annually for these purposes. The justification provided for this exemption is that there are insufficient alternatives to methyl bromide for quarantine and pre-shipment uses. Whilst that may have been partially correct in 1992 when the agreement to phase out the use of methyl bromide was made, this argument is no longer as convincing. There are alternative methods of controlling pests and diseases that could be applied for quarantine and pre-shipment uses, and we think these should be pursued.

Obviously, in order for this to be achieved, the government will have to seek agreement with importers of Australian products on the effectiveness of these alternatives. Unless this occurs, Australian exports could suffer considerable losses as importing countries may reject Australian products. However, we call on the government to devote more resources to developing environmentally benign replacements for methyl bromide and to engage importing countries to convince them of the effectiveness of those alternatives.

While the Ozone Protection Act 1989 and these bills are not perfect, they have the capacity to achieve important environmental outcomes. The Democrats would like to see more done to phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances and to commence the process of phasing out the use of SGGs. However, the changes in the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 are a necessary step in the right direction. Accordingly, we will be supporting these bills.

Before finishing, I want to briefly address Senator Brown's request to refer this issue to a committee. The difficulty we have with this request is that it would leave SGGs, pre-charged equipment and other ODSs, unregulated. At the end of the day it comes down to a choice: either we allow a bill to pass that, while not perfect, establishes a regulatory system, or we defer the bill to a committee in the hope of achieving outcomes that are probably unachievable at the present moment. The Democrats would like to see a public inquiry into the phase-out of SGGs. However, we are not prepared to allow the positives associated with the bill to pass us by or be delayed any longer in order for this to be achieved.