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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 7719

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (12:01): It is an honour to have the opportunity to speak to the Clean Energy Future package in this chamber after so much debate on the pressing issue of climate change in Australia not just over the life of this government but for more than two decades now. We need only look at how long ago it was that state and federal governments created climate change departments and ministries—a portfolio I once proudly held in my time as part of the Tasmanian state government.

The recent debate on this issue has been especially fierce, and I acknowledge at the outset the contribution of organisations which have continued to advocate for action on climate change such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Action Network Australia, the Climate Institute, the Say Yes campaign, Micah Challenge, Al Gore's Australian Climate Change Ambassa­dors, Oxfam, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and, of course, the ACTU. This package is testament to their community action, and it is an honour indeed to be part of a parliament which, because of the leadership of the Prime Minister, will be responsible for beginning the essential and urgent process of bringing on the next great stage of Australia's economic development.

There is no doubt in my mind that both the current and the emerging challenges of energy generation represent among the most substantial considerations for businesses and communities all around Australia. Since the Industrial Revolution our economy has shifted to being energy intensive. For too long, however, it has not adequately taken into account the effects of industrial activity on the environment. Industry has emitted greenhouse gases, those carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions, at a rate far beyond that which our planet would naturally release and far beyond what it can cope with without something having to give. The kinds of climate change we are experiencing and which the best science tells us we are going to experience—the transformation of local climates and extreme weather events—is something that we, across the world, have caused in significant part. It puts at risks agricultural production, coastal properties and iconic parts of our natural environment such as the Great Barrier Reef. It threatens small islands around the world such as Kiribati and Tuvalu and therefore is likely to mean new waves of people seeking the sanctuary of dry lands as their homes are swamped by rising sea levels and, in the process, their cultures and histories lost. It changes the habitats of our native creatures and threatens biodiversity.

But human economic and social develop­ment is a story of monumental achievement. While we have risked, we overwhelmingly have gained—in improved living standards, in greater connectivity between cultures and community and in our scientific and technological mastery of our surrounds. We have created this problem, there is no doubt; but we have also created the means and measures by which to respond to it if only we are willing and have sufficient drive to apply the spirit of human creativity to the challenge of climate change.

This package is about translating that motivation we have in science into a motivation in economics. This package puts a price on carbon pollution and creates an incentive for all businesses to cut their pollution by investing in clean technology or finding more efficient ways of operating and thereby cutting costs. It provides an opportunity for clean producers of energy and goods—those who have taken into account their impact on their environment—to have a competitive advantage commen­surate with their social contribution to the effort to reduce the world's carbon emissions. It encourages businesses across all industries to find the cheapest and most effective way of reducing carbon pollution rather than relying on more costly approaches such as government regulation and direct action. It is a package that provides the spark for Australian ingenuity in responding to climate change.

The scientific evidence of climate change and the case for action to both mitigate anthropogenic climate change and adapt to its effects have been mounting for decades, and for some time now the need for action on climate change has been beyond reasonable doubt. This is attested to by the Intergovern­mental Panel on Climate Change, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Academy of Science. I want to explore briefly some of the ideas about the intersection between science and public policy by reflecting on approaches taken by international organisations of which Australia is a member, including the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, whose secretariat is based only a stone's throw from my office in Hobart. This organisation, which is charged with managing environmental resources, is based on the precautionary principle. This principle holds that:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible—


damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing … measures to prevent environmental degradation.

What this means is that measures which would mitigate threats of irreversible environmental damage cannot be put off by a minority view, nor by the idea that a measure of change might be inconvenient. What it means is that we have to take threats of severe environmental degradation seriously and that we have to be mindful of the effect that we are having and the effect that we are able to have in redressing environmental damage. It says that we should use the tools we have at our disposal before it is too late.

There is another important component when we are talking about science and public policy, and that is the ecosystem approach. I think it is worth mentioning a few words from the Food and Agriculture Organisa­tion's definition with regard to fisheries:

The ecosystem approach … strives to balance diverse societal objectives, by taking into account the knowledge and uncertainties about biotic, abiotic and human components of ecosystems …

The ecosystem approach means a number of things. It means that we need to take into account the full effects of our actions on the environment. It acknowledges that humans unquestionably have an impact on the world around them, often in unpredictable or unanticipated ways. It explains that an ecosystem is an interdependent thing and that human communities are firmly part of it. But it also recognises the significance of serious environmental degradation, now and into the future, and the effects that reckless­ness towards our environment have on human prosperity. It says that, when we risk our environment, we risk our own prosperity.

I mention this because it is essential that the decisions which a good government takes be based on an understanding of the way that science and public policy responsibly interact. The bar for preventative measures should be set at that level of precaution. For the longest time, when it came to climate change, the wilful ignorance and scepticism that continues to typify the coalition meant that these principles were ignored. Humans are divorced from the world around them, they argued, and nothing in our actions constitutes responsibility for the environ­ment. The coalition would rather mischar­acterise not just the Australian and global scientific community but also the very properties of elements such as carbon itself. They would rather play disingenuous semantic games with words like 'pollution' and 'natural' than face up to the issues that a responsible public policymaker would take account of.

The fact is that climate change is threatening enough to require serious reform to the way we all think about the effect our activity has on the environment. But the changes which will come from the transition of Australia's economy into an economy which puts a price on pollution also have the potential to unleash amazing economic opportunities. In the early twentieth century, in 1914, the Tasmanian government set up the Hydro-Electric Department, later the Hydro-Electric Commission, to create the first state-owned hydroelectricity generator in Tasmania. Renewable energy has a long and proud history in Tasmania, though it is not without controversy and not without its caveats. But this history has at its heart a recognition of forward-thinking investment in the infrastructure of the future and what that can create: the opportunities of sustain­able development. In Tasmania, the early adoption of hydroelectricity paved the way for industry to come to the state and access our cheap energy. In these days of the national energy market, hydroelectricity continues to provide Tasmania with the opportunity to sell premium clean energy and gives further credence to our reputation as a state of pristine beauty.

Of course, Tasmania was one of the first. Now these adopters, which represent a diverse range of political persuasions across the globe—a huge body of global wealth and capital—continue in that vein through an understanding of the challenges of climate change. New Zealand, the European Union and California have all adopted an emissions trading scheme. Other states, such as Japan and China, are planning either provincial or national trading schemes. China commenced its scheme in some of the most populous cities in the world, such as Beijing and Shanghai and those in Guangdong. We know other states and nations are taking other measures, whether it is the Indian coal tax or energy efficiency obligations across Brazil. All of these nations realise that a new wave of economic development is coming and that they need to be a part of these opportunities.

The kinds of jobs that we will create from this, of course, are many and varied. They are new jobs that look and feel like the kind which we have been familiar with for a long time. The difference with the clean energy jobs of the future is that they do not have a use-by date—they will not be rendered obsolete when commercial, environmental and technological pressures mean that only the innovative will be able to survive. What I want to say is that only Labor has ever had the courage to introduce the kinds of broad economic reforms that are necessary to ensure that jobs in Australia stay competi­tive, that conditions stay decent and that the opportunity to find and keep work remains open to this generation of workers, their children and their children's children.

Putting a price on pollution is about sustainability. It is about rewarding forward-focused businesses and giving traditional industry an incentive to think ahead. It is about making sure that Australia is prepared for the new types of industries and jobs which will allow us to maintain our economic prosperity. But most importantly it is about a sustainable environment: making sure we pass on a world with clean air and clean water where future generations can breathe, grow and live, where the quality of our surroundings contributes positively to a quality of life and where, in generations from now, our descendants might still take in the sublime majesty of our natural world.