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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 3925


Senator MILNE (7:50 PM) —I rise this evening to speak on the government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, introduced in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related bills. As members in the chamber would be aware, the Greens have been campaigning on climate change for more than 20 years. In fact, I was appointed to Australia’s first greenhouse council in Victoria in 1990, when I was in the Tasmanian parliament. I have been working on that issue ever since in the state parliament, in the federal parliament and globally through the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Greens around the world have taken a very strong position on this.

I could not disagree more with the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Joyce, in his summation of the current situation in relation to climate change. He said things are changing constantly, and they are. But that has no truck with the sceptics. Things are changing very quickly and the science is showing that we are tracking at the worst-case-scenario end of what was predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Three months ago in Copenhagen, some of the leading scientists came to assess how we were tracking against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which assessed the science from a few years previously. This report came out last Thursday and said:

Many key climate indicators are already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which contemporary society and economy have developed and thrived. These indicators include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, global ocean temperature, Arctic sea ice extent, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. With unabated emissions, many trends in climate will likely accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.

We are now in a global emergency and you would not know it, living in Australia. You would if you had a look at what was happening to the natural environment in Australia, if you went out into the Murray-Darling and saw the collapse that is occurring in the Murray-Darling because of extreme weather events and if you had a look at what happened in Victoria last summer with the bushfires, where we had more extreme fires as a result of high temperatures, higher levels of evaporation over a long period of time and reduced rainfall leading to that extreme event.

Eight hundred people died in Australia last summer as a result of climate related incidents. They were the extreme heatwaves in South Australia and Victoria and the fires. That will be compounded as time goes on as more and more vulnerable people are actually subject to these extreme weather events. That will include many people living in our coastal areas. Last summer we were lucky to avoid a hurricane off the Queensland coast. We have known for some time that, essentially, the weather has moved. Climate conditions have moved 100 kilometres south, and there are areas now in Queensland extremely vulnerable to extreme hurricane events which you would not expect and which they are not prepared for.

In fact, we had the former Premier of Queensland, the Hon. Peter Beattie, saying that he wanted on the one hand to expand coal exports and on the other to build a series of bunkers down the coast so that Queenslanders could go into those bunkers in the face of extreme cyclones, hurricanes and those storm surges. This showed exactly what the problem is in Australia. He actually demonstrated what the problem is—and that is weak leadership. As Kofi Annan said recently:

The world is at a crossroads. [The Copenhagen] negotiators [must] come to the most ambitious agreement ever negotiated or continue to accept mass starvation, mass sickness and mass migration on an ever growing scale. Weak leadership—

he said—

… is failing humanity.

That is precisely where we are in this debate in Australia. There is weak leadership from the business community and there is weak leadership from the political establishment, and that has just been demonstrated by the contribution from Senator Joyce.

I say that because no party ought to be stronger on addressing climate change than the people who purport to represent rural and regional Australia, because rural and regional Australia is suffering right now. Talk about the threats of job losses—the job losses in rural and regional Australia are real. Right now there has been a collapse of productivity and a loss of jobs in rural and regional communities as a result of the collapse of the Murray-Darling river system itself. And we still see that the dominant economic and social view in Australia—and therefore the Labor and coalition view—is that resource extraction underpins wealth, power and influence and that it always has and it always will. That is why you get this absolute passion that the mining of coal must go on, regardless; exports of coal must go on, regardless; we must build new coal railway lines; we must build new coal ports and we must maintain coal-fired power stations, even though the British government has given a very strong signal to its coal-fired generation sector that if they have not got carbon capture and storage attached by 2020 then they cannot continue to operate.

That is the reality and that is what ought to be coming here. But instead of that the problem is that we still have a parliament dominated by people who think that, regardless of whether or not the earth can sustain the current level of resource extraction and the current level of waste being dumped into our atmosphere, it must go on because they cannot envisage a system of governance and a system of societal wellbeing in Australia that is not dependent on a resource based economy. That is the tragedy. It is why we do not have a green new deal in Australia, linking climate policies with economic stimulus; it is why we engage in special pleading in climate negotiations; and it is why we have this utterly ridiculous system where there is a pretence that there is a whole-of-government approach on climate change when there is nothing of the sort.

We have the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, with one minister saying that we must do this to reduce emissions and, at the same time, we have the conversion to LPG vehicles subsidy taken away. Why? Because of the reduced excise from selling petrol in Australia. The government is losing money from petrol excise and therefore we stop the LPG conversion. We have the money poured into subsidies for new oil and gas exploration. Just last week we had, again, the legislation guaranteeing the subsidies as a result of the fuel tax. So we were making sure that the mining industry, which received $1.5 billion last year in subsidies—30 per cent of the total for 2007-08—was guaranteed that that would continue.

Under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme we have, on the one hand, transport put in on the basis that a price signal is required to drive people to change their behaviour to reduce the amount of driving they do, then at exactly the same time the government puts in a subsidy to neutralise the price signal so that people do not feel any price pressure and the result is they keep on driving just as much as they did before. We cannot even get mandatory vehicle fuel efficiency standards in Australia, and yet we have the government saying on the other hand, ‘Oh, we’ve got this $500 million green car fund.’ On one hand they say, ‘Here we go with the renewable energy target,’ and on the other hand, ‘Let’s put $2 billion into clean coal to subsidise the coal industry and let’s take that money out of the Education Infrastructure Fund.’ It was meant to build infrastructure in our universities to cater for the increased number of students we were hoping to get in those universities.

The Greens have made a considered decision that, because this is a climate emergency, because we are seeing about 300,000 people around the world dying each year because of extreme weather events, because we are seeing the glaciers melt, because we are seeing our Asia-Pacific neighbours struggling with sea level rises and because we already see methane chimneys bubbling up in the Arctic, we recognise that we are very near a runaway heating cycle. If we do go over these tipping points—and we are dangerously close to those tipping points—it will be irreversible. It will be too late then for people to say, ‘We have to do something about climate change now,’ because once you have started that methane coming out of the melting in the Arctic and once you have the thermohaline circulation slowing down you cannot reverse them. You cannot refreeze the Arctic ice. You cannot change those global systems once they tip over.

We have a situation where the Greens are saying that rather than even 450 parts per million—the government seems to think that is a sufficient target, but its own legislation is consistent with 550 parts per million or even higher—new science is now saying we should be aiming for 350 parts per million. As CSIRO scientist James Risby said recently, a safer target would be something closer to 350 parts per million, because that would reduce the risk of exceeding two degrees Celsius to more moderate levels. So when we look at the actual Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the issue for the Greens, first and foremost, is the science. We have been advocating real solutions to climate change, but the government has actually been standing in the way. Whether it is the forests, which we have argued should be protected immediately because they are carbon stores, whether it is the gross feed-in tariff or whether it is the energy efficiency measures, we have been told to simply sign up to the government’s plan, which sets its sights so low as to actively lock out the option of success. It is an agreement to fail, and that is because by 2013 the government would have the same greenhouse gas emissions as it has today, making deep cuts by 2020 more difficult. A failure to agree this year is a better outcome than, as I said, an agreement to fail.

Incrementalism is worse than useless when it comes to climate change. Just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot stop climate change by doing five per cent or even 25 per cent of what is necessary. The 25 per cent is not real. The government keeps talking about 25 per cent conditional, but the conditions it has put on the 25 per cent are such that it will never be agreed in international fora, and the government knows it. So we have a situation where we are on the point of triggering those tipping points, and we most certainly do not want to be going there. We need to be going with deep cuts early. In fact, although it sounds counterintuitive, a $40 carbon price is cheaper than a $10 price because of the signals that it sends into our economy. The reason that we do not support this scheme is that it is too weak, its sights are too low, its targets are not strong enough and it sends the wrong signals. It is basically failing to recognise what we need to do. Even the UN climate secretariat on 6 June this year said that the pledges made by rich countries for reductions of between 16 and 24 per cent below 1990 levels fall well short of what is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

What we have to make sure is that when Australia goes to Copenhagen we have legislated for the 25 per cent minimum that the world requires from rich countries. That is within the 25 to 40 per cent road map that was set out in Bali, and we should put 40 per cent on the table. Our failure to do so—our five to 25 per cent conditional target—has already provided Japan with the cover it needed to announce its eight per cent target in Bonn, and the Chinese negotiators have already slammed Australia’s target and conditions as obnoxious. Follow the CPRS scenario to its logical conclusion and we will not see an agreement in Copenhagen.

Furthermore, we cannot accept a scheme which is geared toward protecting the status quo and sandbagging the old, resource based economy when we need transformation. Business needs long-term investment horizons in order to make multimillion dollar investments, and the CPRS will provide such an investment horizon—but it will be the wrong one. Evidence from the London Carbon Exchange provided to the Senate committee, which I was deputy chair of, as well as the recent report of the Productivity Commission and comments from Sir Nicholas Stern all conclude that if the CPRS is passed in its current form Australian industries and investors will be sent a very strong signal that will drive inappropriate and misguided investments. This signal will give business the confidence to invest in low-pollution infrastructure such as gas power stations and slightly-less-dirty coal rather than in renewables.

The Eraring coal-fired power station in New South Wales is a case in point. If ever there were an example of where the government’s targets have sent the wrong signal to investors, it is in showing that it is worthwhile for investors to invest in coal fire at Eraring because they can see that they are going to be able to get away with coal fire for much longer than anywhere else in the world. That demonstrates why that is such a bad idea, but it is also sending a very bad signal to the Australian community. It is saying that, no matter how much the Australian community does, the government has effectively put a floor under pollution levels, so the community is prevented from being able to actively reduce emissions on any kind of reasonable scale. It is certainly disempowering, and with the revenue from the scheme going half to the big polluters and half to the community—not through energy efficiency but in cash handouts—you are not going to get the transformation.

This massive $16 billion in corporate polluter welfare is a grossly unacceptable transfer of wealth from the community to the polluters. That was recognised as such by Professor Garnaut. Everybody who has looked at it says it is ridiculous to be giving out this money to the rent seekers. It is just as well that they have been referred to the authorities as a case in point. Many of these companies, including BlueScope Steel, which Senator Joyce mentioned, are the ones who have been saying that jobs will be lost. On the other hand, they are not telling their shareholders that at any point in the cycle. They say one thing to the parliament and one thing to their shareholders.

I have circulated a second reading amendment to this legislation, which I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

         provided that the Government first commits to entering the climate treaty negotiations at the end of 2009 with an unconditional commitment to reduce emissions by at least 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and a willingness to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 in the context of a global treaty.

This amendment basically says that, from the point of view of the Greens, the key issue is the target. Unless we deal with the science, unless we get rid of incrementalism, unless we go for deep cuts, there is no point in doing what the government is doing. It is shielding the big polluters, disempowering the community and sending the wrong signal to Copenhagen. Unless we shift our targets, there is no point in going into the committee stage of these bills. The Greens amendment says that the bills should only be read a second time:

… provided that the Government first commits to entering the climate treaty negotiations at the end of 2009 with an unconditional commitment to reduce emissions by at least 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and a willingness to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 in the context of a global treaty.

That is what the rest of the world expects of us. That is what would position our economy to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are out there in the new green economy, which the rest of the world recognises with the green new deal.

It is tragic that we did not get that kind of recognition in Australia with the stimulus package. Everywhere else there is a recognition that, to get to the low carbon/zero carbon economy, you have to make a massive investment in renewables. You have to make a massive investment in energy efficiency in public transport, but you have to have a major shift in thinking. The resource that is lacking in Australia is imagination and it is the resource of the future. Because we have so many resources in the ground, all we think about is digging up, cutting down and shipping away rather than investing in imagination, which is the resource of the future in a post-carbon economy.

Contrary to what the naysayers like Senator Joyce have to say, the labour market has an extraordinary capacity to handle structural change. In the decade to November 2007, employment in rural industries dropped by almost 100,000 jobs, employment in manufacturing dropped by almost 50,000 jobs and employment in wholesale trade dropped by 35,000 jobs. Yet, over this period, the unemployment rate fell from 8.5 per cent to four per cent. Similarly, over one million workers employed in February 2005 were no longer with the same employer a year later, and half of them had changed industry. We see that there is huge potential if we get this shift in target. We are not going to accept legislation that is piecemeal, that does not give us a whole-of-government approach, that does not look at the potential to reduce emissions across the board—particularly in land use, land use change and forestry, which go hand in hand—that does not go full on with renewables and efficiency and that does not get rid of all the subsidies to the fossil fuel sector, which undermine the effort. (Time expired)