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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7627

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (20:42): I am very proud to be part of a government that is making history through the package of clean energy bills now before us in the Senate. We are making history as a nation alive to the immediate danger that is the global energy challenge. At such times we are called upon to be bold, to do what needs to be done, to recognise that we have to shake off a national complacency and play our part in the changes that are occurring all over the world.

Our focus in this package is an achievable, affordable and transformative agenda. It represents a challenge to all Australians in every walk of life. We know that. But it is we who have to bring the political leadership to the table, and part of this challenge is to bring the nation with us. At a time when the global economic situation is shaky and energy costs are rising, institutions everywhere are under pressure, and that is the pressure we are all feeling. It is reflected in the many small decisions we make about the issues that we feel we can control. But as politicians this is the time when we also have to be of strong heart and steady resolve.

Many speakers today have already spoken about the evidence of climate change—its devastating impact on Australian landscapes, whether that be the loss of native species, bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, unprecedented bushfires, higher temperatures, frightening lightning strikes, the distinctive rainfall pattern changes in Western Australia or melting polar icecaps and melting glaciers. Globally the evidence is of desertification across the African continent, floods, storms and rising sea levels in the Pacific region. These issues were discussed at CHOGM, as they continue to be discussed at other forums and conferences around the world.

The environmental pressures and impacts are one perspective of this important debate. There are other perspectives as well: the economic impact of climate change, the peak oil challenge, the global energy crisis, the implications of the Fukushima disaster and the decision by several countries to move away from nuclear energy to renewables. We have evidence of the national security implications of the climate crisis too, including the possibility of millions of climate refugees needing to be accommodated around the world. The international debate includes concerns about the 'energy tsunami' that would be triggered by a loss of access to foreign oil. And it is beyond challenge that the pathway to sustainable development for growing economies is through the development of a green economy and the eradication of poverty.

I have recently returned from the international Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Switzerland where I was able to articulate Australia's efforts and commitment to dealing with climate change and a clean energy future. And nations are observing our efforts and following our example, taking from Australia's lead to seek to put a price on carbon and end our reliance on carbon based fuels. Across the globe investment in renewables is bringing down the cost of those technologies and, with that, growing the green economy. In Germany, the decision to decommission that country's nuclear power plants by 2023 has seen a determination to invest in wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass technologies, and the challenge for the German government is to meet the commitment for its baseload power within our generation.

In the fast-growing Indian economy, the investment of research and development in thorium based technology as a viable alternative to any nuclear option is exciting and something that we, here in Australia, should also be considering, as are Norway, America and several European Union members. I am very pleased to see that there will be a thorium symposium held at the end of the month in Canberra to stimulate that conversation. I encourage every member and senator to respond to the invitation from Thorium Australia to be involved.

Next year, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, there is another summit scheduled for Rio in a world very different and very changed in two decades. We are an increasingly educated population, alive to the need to conserve our consumption, to improve our energy efficiency, to reduce waste and to improve our energy usage, and as the demand for renewable energy grows we know the costs will continue to fall. The energy economy focuses on the costs of oil and coal and on the perspective of depleting global energy sources needed to feed a rapidly growing demand all around the world as we sustain a seven billion population on this planet. It focuses on the green economy—green industries and innovation, green jobs and green investment. We all know that many in the opposition recognise and acknowledge those challenges—including a former Prime Minister, Mr Howard—privately acknowledging that Mr Abbott's 'direct action' plan lacks ambition. There are others, the nay-sayers—including Mr Abbott—who are the voices defending the status quo, the ones with a vested interest in perpetuating the current system no matter how high a price the rest of Australia will have to pay.

Of those who say the government is being too ambitious in its targets, I ask that they consider the evidence: what the world's scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we do not act. Another response from the IPU delegates was a sense of disbelief that there are still people in Australia denying that climate change is real. The leading experts predict that we have less than a decade to make dramatic changes in our global warming pollution or we may lose our ability to ever recover from this environmental crisis. When the use of oil and coal goes up, pollution goes up. When the use of solar, wind and geothermal increases, pollution comes down. It is very straightforward. Around the world, as witnessed at the IPU, there is a strong appetite for change. It is a case of enlightened self-interest for some but it is now a mainstream debate in every forum—a shift from environmental economics to the main debates of the assembly as well as incidental conversations and bilateral discussions. There was a clearly articulated argument about the important need to deliver material wealth without the expense of growing environmental risks, ecological scarcities and social disparities.

So we, as a government, recognise the importance of transitioning to a green economy. There are sound economic and social justifications. But there is also a strong case for a redoubling of efforts by both governments and the private sector to engage in such economic transformation. That is what this package of legislation is seeking to deliver through the development of a carbon price mechanism and through outlining the entities and emissions that are covered by the mechanism, how emission units will be issued, how carbon units will be defined and allocated, how costs will be contained through price floors and ceilings and the fixed charge period, and how the mechanism will link to other emission trading schemes. We have recognised that there are emissions-intensive trade-exposed activities and coal-fired electricity generators that need support and assistance. We have framed the establishment of the Clean Energy Regulator to administer the mechanism and enforce the law as well as administer the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting system, the renewable energy target and the Carbon Farming Initiative, as well as the independent body, the Climate Change Authority, to advise government on key aspects of the mechanism, and the Land Sector Carbon and Biodiversity Board, which will advise on key initiatives in the land sector.

But we need to do more than that. We need to increase the value, integrity and efficiency of our national grid. So the Tamberlin report, released today by the O'Farrell government in New South Wales, has important implications for the integrity of our national energy supply. As a nation, we need to improve our commitment to efficiency and conservation, so public education is also a critical factor in this clean energy package. Of course, we could and should speed up this transition by insisting that the price of carbon based energy include the costs of the environmental damage it causes. That is why we should tax what we burn, not what we earn, and the package includes a reduction in personal taxation limits and a price on the carbon emissions of heavy industry. This is the single most important policy change we are making: those who pollute our environment need to be encouraged to recognise that there is a cost.

We know that Australia has to join the global community and lead efforts to secure an international treaty that includes a cap on CO2 emissions and a global partnership that recognises the necessity of addressing the threats of extreme poverty and disease as part of the world's agenda for solving the climate crisis. We cannot do this alone, nor can we put up a barrier around our borders and pretend that we are not part of the global problem through our mining efforts and therefore do not need to be part of the global solution.

New ideas are by their very nature disruptive but far less disruptive than a world running low on drinking water and productive land, set against the backdrop of climate change, extreme weather events and rising natural resource scarcities. What is important for all Australians to understand is that a green economy does not favour one political perspective over another. It is relevant to all economies. It is a way of realising development at the national, regional and global levels and in ways that resonate with and amplify the implementation of Agenda 21. We are already making this transition in Australia to the green economy. We need to maintain the momentum, to foster the innovation that is characteristic of a transformative policy agenda. So we acknowledge that as a nation we have been subsidising fossil fuels for decades. We have to enable an environment for change, we have to foster new market based instruments, we have to target public investment to green key sectors and we need to focus on greening public procurement and improving environmental rules and regulations and their enforcement mechanisms. And we need to add to market infrastructure in our international trade and our aid flows and foster greater international cooperation. This is the strength and these are the features of the package before us today. I commend them to the Senate.