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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 7638


Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (21:29): The Clean Energy Bill 2011 and associated bills will establish a carbon price in Australia. This has been a long and often bitter process, but this is a significant reform—vital for the health of our environment and essential for the future of our economy. The fact is our climate is warming. Globally, last decade was the warmest on record. Last year's global temperature was as high as records set in 1998 and 2005. In Australia, 2010 was one of the warmest years in our history. The fact that our climate is warming should not be a point of contention or debate. In the words of the IPCC, evidence for the warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

Despite the scepticism of some, the reason temperatures are rising is not an issue of serious debate either. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that human activity is the principal reason for climate change. This is a position supported by all of the world's leading scientific academies. The Australian Academy of Science, along with the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO, consider human activity as the most likely explanation for rising temperatures. A report by the CSIRO describes the scientific evidence that human activities are contributing to climate change as compelling. The evidence that humans are responsible for climate change is compelling, unequivocal and growing. Those wishing to argue otherwise are entitled to their view, but they should not expect to be taken seriously.

Whilst it is correct that the earth's climate has changed in the past, the current rate of temperature rise is unprecedented in human history. Global warming in the 50 years between 1956 and 2005 occurred at nearly twice the rate for the century beginning in 1906. Since 1910, Australia's average annual temperature has increased by 0.9 degrees centigrade. The principal reason for this rise is greenhouse gases. The most significant of these is carbon dioxide, a by-product of industrialisation and our dependence on fossil fuels. There is now more carbon dioxide in the air than at any point in the last 800,000 years. The consequences of a warming planet are already observable. At present, our sea levels are rising, the Arctic icesheet is receding, glaciers are melting and established patterns in our ecosystems are changing. If this continues, it poses significant challenges for this and future generations.

The impacts of climate change in Australia are particularly acute. The impacts of rising sea temperatures and sea levels are profound in a country where 85 per cent of us live on or near the coast. Rising sea levels threaten our coastal communities, placing them at an increased risk of flooding during cyclones and storms. Global sea levels are currently rising at around 3.2 millimetres a year, which is near the upper end of the IPCC's projections. This has already significantly increased the frequency of coastal flooding. Should the status quo continue, it is predicted to get worse. A mid-range sea level rise of 0.5 of a metre means that flooding events that now happen every 10 years will, by the year 2100, occur about every 10 days.

Rising sea temperatures threaten one of our great national icons, the Great Barrier Reef. Mass bleaching events, previously unheard of, have occurred on eight separate occasions since 1979. Research suggests that a one-degree centigrade rise in sea temperature could leave 65 per cent of the reef open to bleaching, threatening a tourism industry worth $5 billion to this nation annually.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. The impacts on water availability pose significant risks to food security and thus to our future prosperity. Because of climate change, water availability in southern and eastern Australia is likely to decrease, with significant reductions in the already troubled Murray-Darling Basin. Water availability, under a projected median temperature rise, would see a nine per cent reduction in the basin's north and a 13 per cent decline in its south by 2030, endangering the nation's food bowl. More broadly, Australia's agricultural sector is, in the words of a recent CSIRO report, particularly vulnerable to climate change, with potential negative impacts on the amount of produce, the quality of produce and the reliability of production. In a land of drought and flooding rains, climate change will exacerbate our existing weather extremes. New research detected a shift towards extremes of heat and rainfall consistent with higher concentrations of greenhouse gases. Climate change is also related to a drop in the frequency of cyclones but a rise in their intensity.

The impacts of climate change in Australia are acute, but the reasons for acting are economic as well as environmental. Successive reviews, by Professor Stern in the United Kingdom and by Professor Garnaut, show that climate change poses significant risks not only to our environment but also to our economy. Without action, Sir Nicholas Stern estimates that the costs of climate change will eventually be at least five per cent of global GDP per year. Both Stern and Garnaut argue that those economies that act quickly will be those best positioned for the future. In the words of Professor Stern, 'The benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs.' The environmental and economic benefits of timely and decisive action are clear.

We must reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. The question of course is: how? Recent work by the Productivity Commission suggests that a broad based market response like a carbon price is the most efficient and effective mechanism for reducing carbon emissions. This is not news to me. I first proposed a modest carbon levy when I was Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories in the Keating government. A lot has happened since then, but this legislation, for the first time in our history, puts a broad based market response in place.

The Clean Energy Bill will create an emissions trading scheme designed to cut our carbon emissions by at least 159 million tonnes by 2020, with a five per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and an 80 per cent reduction of 2000 levels by the year 2050. This will encourage investment in low-carbon technologies where possible and abatement measures where necessary. Initially the plan is for this to be achieved by making the country's 500 biggest polluters pay for their carbon emissions and by using this revenue to compensate nine out of 10 Australians for the price impacts. After 1 July 2015, the market will determine the carbon price under a cap-and-trade ETS. For most Australians, the price impacts will be negligible. Many people in fact will be better off, as a result of the compensation which is offered in this package.

I think it is also important for us in this debate to acknowledge that our country is by no means alone in taking action on climate change. We often hear the deniers suggest that Australia is going it alone. That is not true. I recall a recent speech by the former Leader of the Opposition Mr Malcolm Turnbull, who many argue might well have lost his position as a result of the stand he took on the issue of dealing with global warming. In this speech—I think it was to the London School of Economics—Mr Turnbull reminded us that in China, the world's largest emitter, billions are being invested in wind, in solar and in electric vehicles. The European Union, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand, I believe, have all introduced cap-and-trade ETSs, and three of our major trading partners—Japan, South Korea and China—plan to introduce similar initiatives. While we are at it, let's not forget what is happening in North America. In North America, seven US states and four Canadian provinces are set to put in place an ETS by 2015 as part of the Western Climate Initiative.

But do not think for one moment that it is only certain members of the Australian Senate who happen to believe that taking action on climate change is critical to our nation's future and in fact the future of the globe, because it was Mr Rupert Murdoch who said—

Senator Milne: Who?

Senator FAULKNER: Senator Milne laughs. Senator Milne, I do not always quote Mr Rupert Murdoch in the Senate.

Senator Milne: That is why I was amused.

Senator FAULKNER: Oh, so that is why. You would appreciate that I do not often quote Mr Rupert Murdoch in the Senate, but—and it is important to remember this—he said that 'climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats' to our society. That is what Mr Murdoch said. And guess what? He was dead right about that.

I also know that this is an issue that brings into question, and has for a long time in this debate—certainly since I was Australia's environment minister many years ago—the relationship between expert advice and good governance and the relationship, if you like, between science and government policy. Sometimes politicians are criticised for depending on the views of experts and of scientists. Well, there are not a great number of climatologists, as far as I am aware, in the Australian Senate—in fact, I do not think that any of us in this chamber are climatologists. I for one listen carefully to the views of experts in the field, respect the views of experts in the field and am not ashamed to say so in a debate like this. I say that, faced with the overwhelming evidence for climate change, we must act.

Climate change is a generational challenge that requires a once in a generation response. It requires us to look beyond the near horizon of our immediate interests to the next generation and their future and to the future of generations after them. In politics, I have often argued that our goal should always be—using the words of Ben Chifley—to bring something better to the people. And that is what this legislation does. This legislation ensures that our environmental health and economic prosperity will be better for the people of Australia now and better for future generations. That is why I so strongly support this package of legislation before the Senate tonight.

Debate interrupted.