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Greenhouse and Australian agriculture: address to the National Farmers' Federation, Australian Greenhouse Office and AFFA, Agricultural Workshop, Boathouse Restaurant, Canberra, 23 March 2000

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The Hon Warren Truss Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Address to the National Farmers' Federation, Australian Greenhouse Office and AFFA Agricultural Workshop

Greenhouse and Australian Agriculture

Boathouse Restaurant, Canberra, 23 March 2000

Thank you, Ian for that warm welcome. And thank you also for the chance to address such a strong gathering of Australian agriculture.

Greenhouse is an issue that won't go away. It's also an issue that, while clearly presenting us with a number of challenges, also provides us with some significant opportunities. But only if we are ready and able to grasp them with both hands.

I would firstly like to commend the NFF for making this workshop possible. It sends a clear message that the agriculture sector is serious about greenhouse issues and is ready to boost its contribution to Australia’s overall effort to reduce emissions.

I know the agriculture sector, and many of the communities it supports, are facing some serious challenges at the moment. And, to be frank, many of our primary producers are doing it tough.

It would therefore be understandable if greenhouse was placed lower down the list of a farmer's immediate priorities — something best dealt with when the need is more tangible.

There is also a belief that greenhouse is not a ‘real’ issue and if we wait long enough it may go away. Your presence here today is confirmation that Australia's agriculture industries believe complacency and inaction are not an option.

So why should the agriculture sector care about greenhouse? And why should it take a more active role in the current debate?

It is now internationally accepted, including by Australia, that global warming is taking place as a result of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. Many scientists believe this will result in a major, long-term change to the World's climate. In Australia, this could significantly impact on where and how we produce our food and fibre products.

The Government takes this threat to our sustainability very seriously and has signed the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention requires countries to take specific action to reduce their greenhouse emissions.

In 1997, the Government announced a series of initiatives under the Prime Minister’s Safeguarding the Future: Australia’s Response to Climate Change strategy. This preceded our involvement in the Kyoto negotiations and the subsequent development of the Kyoto Protocol.

Where the Framework Convention called for voluntary action, the Kyoto Protocol sets targets for developed countries to reduce their emissions based on 1990 levels. Australia, for example, is required to limit its emissions to 108 per cent of its 1990 levels. When you consider the tremendous growth in our economy since 1990, that represents a significant challenge.

The Coalition Government believes; however, that there is still much to be done in finalising the detail of the Kyoto Protocol, and Australia will not consider ratifying it until some key, outstanding issues are resolved to our satisfaction.

This includes agreement on flexibility mechanisms, including emissions trading, and also on the inclusion of carbon sinks. These are important issues for agriculture and could keep the overall costs of reducing emissions to a minimum.

As the Prime Minister said in his 1997 statement, and I quote:

"this Government is not prepared to see Australian jobs sacrificed and efficient Australian industries, particularly in the resources sector, robbed of their hard earned competitive advantage".

But regardless of the outcome of these, and other international negotiations, the message is clear — Australian agriculture needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and find new ways of doing some of its business.

And how we minimise the cost to industry of this change, or even how we can turn it to our advantage, is a key consideration which you will no doubt be discussing at this workshop and over the coming years.

Agriculture is a significant contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Land clearing aside, the estimates are that it could represent as much as 22 per cent.

But while agriculture is considered part of the problem, it is also very much part of the solution. For example, the sector can help reduce or offset emissions by providing biomass for renewable energy and also by creating carbon sinks through revegetation or improved land management practices.

I said at ABARE's Outlook conference recently that it's the success we have had at confronting change and meeting new challenges that has determined how successful Australian industry agriculture has become.

The same philosophy must be applied to the challenges now facing us with regard to greenhouse.

As I said earlier, in an environment marked by growing international pressure for tougher greenhouse measures, it's vital Australian industry stays ahead of the game and minimises the threats to our competitiveness.

The question that needs to be asked then is:

can we afford to wait until the rules have been set and the first commitment period — 2008-2012 — is upon us, or do we take an active role and help manage the change?

The energy industry is clearly not willing to wait and has taken a very active role in the debate. We should do the same. And it has not escaped the notice of the high emission sectors that many of the cheaper options for abatement lie in the agriculture sector.

We therefore need to be more involved in the process to ensure that the decisions to reduce our emissions do not also reduce our competitiveness.

As Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, I am struck by the close links there are between what we are doing to arrest the degradation of our natural resource base and effective, long-term greenhouse measures.

For example, revegetation can help with natural resource management problems such as salinity, soil erosion and soil structure decline. It can also produce carbon ‘sinks’ that can help offset emissions and be a valuable asset in any future emissions trading system.

Similarly, more sustainable agricultural practices, such as the better use of fertilisers and the possible application of an anti-methanogen vaccine, can not only reduce greenhouse emissions, but also boost productivity and improve that all-important financial ‘bottom line’.

This is perhaps one of the most important messages Australian farmers need to receive: dealing with greenhouse does not need to be an add-on to the many other issues they are already facing.

It fits in well with what's being achieved with the landcare movement and other natural resource management programs under the Government's Natural Heritage Trust.

Overall, the Federal Government has allocated almost $1 billion to a wide range of initiatives designed to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. The funding will provide many opportunities for the agriculture and forestry sectors.

As a Chair of the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand — or ARMCANZ as it is better known — I recently agreed to a national greenhouse strategy for the agriculture sector.

The strategy includes a $1 million work program with the States and industry, and is designed to ensure the sector is better placed to help Australia meet its greenhouse commitments.

I also had the pleasure recently to announce a grant of $1 million under the Renewable Energy Commercialisation Program to the Mackay Sugar Cooperative so it could improve the efficiency of the way it converts sugar cane waste into renewable energy.

This is a very real example of how doing something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

can also be good for business.

What was previously a waste product is now an additional source of income for farmers. And I believe the innovative use of technology in renewable energies will provide even greater opportunities in the future.

The Government's Greenhouse Council, of which I am a member, has also helped develop the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program. The Program involves $400 million funding over four years for projects to reduce our net greenhouse emissions through abatement activities. It provides a number of opportunities for the rural sector.

And I can assure you that my Department — AFFA — will continue to work with other departments and the Australian Greenhouse Office on areas that could affect the agriculture sector.

It will also continue to participate in international negotiations to help ensure issues of interest and concern to Australian agriculture are fully taken into account.

It is in your best interests therefore, to ensure that those making the decisions are aware of your concerns. As a member of the Ministerial Council on Greenhouse I can assure you I want to hear what you have to say about the issues important to you. I believe this workshop represents a significant step in developing this important, two-way communication process.

Today, you will hear from a wide range of speakers who will update you on what's being achieved, both at the government as well as the industry level. The goal you should be setting for yourself is to identify the priority issues industry needs to address and some possible ways of dealing with them.

In closing, I would like to say again that good greenhouse measures usually also mean good business. Industry needs to get more involved and take full advantage of the government initiatives I have outlined today and ensure its voice is heard.

Unfortunately, as I have a prior commitment, I cannot stay for the rest of the workshop. I look forward; however, to receiving the report of today's outcomes, and Mark Grimsom from my office will be with you for the remainder of the day and is keen to hear from you.

Thank you, and have a productive and rewarding workshop.