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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21798

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (6:55 PM) —The opposition support the measures contained in the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Imports) Amendment Bill 2003 and the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Manufacture) Amendment Bill 2003. Australia have a proud record in the area of the control of ozone depleting substances. We have managed to meet the targets and deadlines proposed in the Montreal protocol and the subsequent upgrades and amendments to these protocols. In most instances, we have been able to meet targets ahead of time and to exceed the requirements. A continuing bipartisan approach and generally good cooperation from the private sector have been major contributing factors to our success.

It is only appropriate that Australia should be a leading nation in this area. Ozone depletion issues affected the Southern Hemisphere earlier and much more significantly than they did the Northern Hemisphere. High rates of skin cancer are already a public health issue in Australia and, indeed, continue as a major concern. Thinning of the ozone barrier increases the potential exposure to damaging UV-B light—the main causative factor. There are other effects as well. The cost-benefit ratio of one to seven in the review of the existing legislation speaks for itself.

Ozone depletion is an important problem, where the widespread adoption of international protocols has helped to limit the damage. Hopefully, the problem will be largely remedied over the next several decades. Most of the current indications are positive, although there are a few worrying signs. Records from the CSIRO station at Cape Grim in Tasmania are showing that most of the levels of the controlled ozone depleting substances are decreasing in the atmosphere. The unfortunate exception is CFC-22, which was the most used CFC and is the most abundant ozone depleting substance in the atmosphere. Although the rate of increase has slowed greatly, it is still increasing.

Continuing vigilance and adherence to strict standards will be required. It is unfortunate that, in this context, some wealthy nations are working towards a relaxation of some aspects of the protocols. Methyl bromide, for example, has a high ozone depletion potential. It is an important fumigant. We must try to avoid simply relaxing the controls to allow its continuing use, and I hope the government does not take a dodgy approach to the so-called critical use exemptions. There is an urgent need to research and find alternative fumigants.

There is a second area of concern associated with the release of human generated additions of gases to the atmosphere. The effects on climate change are now seen as significant and problematic by the consensus of scientists world wide. Weather patterns are starting to show significant change all around the world. The Beijing amendments, which we are dealing with here, extend the range of considerations from ozone depleting gases to others that do not cause ozone depletion but, equally, have the potential to contribute to atmospheric warming and climate change. The measures we are considering are largely concerned with the national implementation of these international protocols.

Concerns about global climate change affect all nations, perhaps some even more than Australia. We should not imagine that this is an issue that we can be slow in addressing. It is important that Australia show leadership and be at the forefront of measures designed to minimise the impact of our activity on the climate. The last seven or eight years have seen a significant change in weather patterns over, for example, South Australia. Although there have been previous severe droughts lasting a season or two, the current prolonged drought has been unprecedented in our records. Indeed, it would appear that the rain-bearing westerly airstream has moved southwards from our continent into the Southern Ocean. This is something that the member for Cowan might be familiar with in his part of the world—that is, the drying of the Perth climate when compared with what it experienced 20 and 30 years ago and before that.

Computer modelling of the weather, at the Bureau of Meteorology and elsewhere, has shown just such a pattern associated with an increasing influx of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Interestingly and perhaps disturbingly, the models show a similar effect when a cooler Antarctic stratosphere is factored in. Temperatures in the Antarctic stratosphere have fallen significantly with the local loss of ozone and it appears that these two factors have worked together to produce the recent changes. In southern Australia, only a small area in south-western Tasmania has received above-average rainfall over the last several years. The whole of the rest of the southern part of the continent—we are talking about south-western and Western Australia and around Adelaide and the vast majority of Victoria, so all of those areas and few areas further north—has had a succession of dry years; the driest on record for a large part of the region.

The atmosphere is a very thin and delicate region. Human release of substances to the atmosphere has produced measurable and observable changes in composition over a period of decades. Ozone depletion and greenhouse warming are two quite different problems but to some extent they feed one another and in many cases they are now being seen to combine to produce significant climate change. Human inputs to the atmosphere and their contribution to climate change are an urgent issue for Australia, an issue of enormous economic and social importance. It is vital that we take steps to reverse and, certainly in the short term, limit undesirable activities. This legislation is a very small contribution towards this goal. None of the substances included currently contributes significantly to atmospheric warming. They all have the potential to contribute if released in larger quantities. The substitute refrigerants that we have developed to replace the ozone depleting substances are, in some cases, capable of making a similar contribution to atmospheric warming. Careful monitoring of their use is an important and desirable part of limiting the harm, and that is largely what this legislation addresses.

The legislation itself should certainly not be seen as a solution to our climate change problems. We should always remember that the major greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Steady increases in the level of these two gases in the atmosphere over the last century or so are responsible for over 90 per cent of the human generated change. The substances that are the subject of this legislation are potential contributors. At present their effects are insignificant but if not controlled they might build up to a contribution of a few per cent and that could well be an important additional burden. But carbon dioxide principally and methane, as a second factor, are the substances whose emissions must be controlled. It is disappointing that, in spite of successful negotiations to obtain concessions for a number of special issues that affect Australia, this government has decided not to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change. That is worse than disappointing; it is shameful.

The amendments before the House have two main thrusts. The first is to extend the types of measures adopted for control of ozone depleting substances to other substances that have global warming potential. They cover most of the more direct and obvious replacements for the ozone depleting refrigerants and bring them under a similar regulatory regime. The second impact is to centralise the regulation into a single consistent set of rules for the nation. There are obvious advantages in terms of certainty and efficiency, particularly for enterprises that operate in several states or territories. The opposition support this thrust of the amendments in principle. We do have some misgivings about putting this kind of responsibility into the hands of a government that has shown in other areas that it is quite prepared to modify regulations and procedures and walk away from international protocols when they do not suit its prejudices. But if we do not take appropriate action to deal with human influences on global climate, effects that are already becoming apparent—and I will return to this issue—will amplify and we will have more drastic problems to deal with in years to come.

The original legislation was introduced by the Labor Party in 1989. The first bill which we are debating here, the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, continues the generally bipartisan approach which has been taken on this subject. The purpose of this bill, in amending the Ozone Protection Act 1989, is to establish a national regulatory scheme for the management of both ozone depleting substances and the synthetic greenhouse gases used as their replacements. It also implements the most recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The existing legislation has reduced Australia's consumption of ozone depleting substances by over 80 per cent since its enactment back in 1989. To achieve this reduction, Australian industry has adopted a variety of ozone benign substances and technologies, including the synthetic greenhouse gases: hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. These gases present no direct risk to the ozone layer but are potent greenhouse gases, with their emissions having an impact on the climate hundreds to thousands of times greater than emissions of carbon dioxide on a tonne for tonne basis. Although these gases currently comprise only a very small part of Australia's overall greenhouse gas emissions, their use and emissions are on the rise as substitutes for ozone depleting substances. The explanatory memorandum asserts that amendments introduced by this bill will deliver on commitments to manage synthetic greenhouse gas emissions, as detailed in measure 7.2 of the National Greenhouse Strategy. The second reading speech asserts the amendments also implement the key recommendations of the government's review of the Commonwealth's ozone protection legislation under the national competition policy.

The two additional bills which are we are debating here, the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Manufacture) Amendment Bill 2003 and the Ozone Protection (Licence Fees—Imports) Amendment Bill 2003, extend the current payments applying to the manufacture and import of prescribed ozone depleting substances to certain synthetic greenhouse gases and allow for an increase in payments. So what these bills are doing is extending the system in the existing legislation for licensing the import, export and manufacture of ozone depleting substances to also include the synthetic greenhouse gas replacements. They are designed to simplify the current regulatory arrangements—for end-use control of ozone depleting substances and their synthetic greenhouse gas alternatives—by replacing existing state and territory legislation with a single national framework. That framework will allow the government to enact regulations to target preventable emissions and adapt these controls over time to reflect changes in technologies and practices.

In implementing these controls, the government will draw upon industry expertise and experience, including through the use of industry boards. The second reading speech says:

The states and territories agree that replacing existing controls with the proposed nationally uniform approach should deliver environmental gains more efficiently, and realise benefits to industry in terms of increased certainty and consistency.

The bill reforms the current financial arrangements for the ozone protection program to establish the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Account. The reforms will accommodate the additional regulatory responsibilities assumed by the government under this bill and increase transparency by consolidating all financial arrangements into one account. The new arrangements will, on a cost recovery basis, fund administration of the amended act and programs to reduce the environmental impact of ozone depleting substances and their synthetic greenhouse gas replacements.

The bills also implement the Beijing amendment to the Montreal protocol. The Beijing amendment requires a ban on the trade in, and manufacture of, bromochloromethane and a ban on trade in hydrochlorofluorocarbons with countries not committed to their phase-out. The explanatory memorandum outlines industry support for the bills on the basis that they provide `necessary certainty and consistency with regard to its obligations to effectively manage ozone depleting substances'.

There was support for the legislation from the Australian Fluorocarbon Council, which said that supporting the bills is a sensible and comprehensive approach to the matter. They said that the bills recognise that a least cost approach is the best way forward and that in this case reducing emissions will position our economy for the future. The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating also said that the bills will provide Australia with a world-leading program for the control and management of ozone depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases. There was also support for the bills from Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

There was, however, some support for greater effort to move in the direction of increased use of natural refrigerants. Indeed, the Greenchill Technology Association indicated very strongly their belief that the bills ought to go further. They described the government's approach as a necessary but not sufficient response to the problems caused by HFCs. They said that whilst trying to manage and control emissions is a laudable objective, emissions will continue to increase as they continue to be used. As it is far more effective to reduce emissions by using naturals instead, this needs to be the central thrust of the legislation. So there were some concerns about the legislation on the basis that we should be looking to move in the direction of natural refrigerants.

I believe that the concerns raised by Greenchill and by others are best addressed through the development of policy on natural refrigerants rather than through seeking to amend the bills before the House, because the bills before the House otherwise improve existing arrangements for the management of ozone depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases. I will come back to this question of proposed amendments in a moment, but I will make a couple of other points before I do that.

The first point is that this legislation is the product of a policy commitment made by the Commonwealth government back in 1995. I think that when the government stands up and says that introducing these bills will contain greenhouse gas emissions and provide greenhouse gas dividends it ought to be noted that this commitment was made back in 1995 and, had this legislation been introduced in a quicker and more timely way, we would have been saving much more in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. So there has been delay. That has resulted in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere over the last decade, which could have and should have been prevented.

The second point I want to make comes back to methyl bromide. This is a powerful ozone depleting substance. All uses of methyl bromide other than for quarantine and pre-shipment purposes are to be phased out in Australia by 1 January 2005, consistent with our obligations under the Montreal protocol. However, parties to the protocol recognised that transitional access to methyl bromide after that time may be justified. In 1997 they adopted a formal decision to allow limited critical use exemptions in some rare cases. That decision made it clear that such exemptions would be granted only when several strict criteria are met. It appears that the government may seek to allow or support dubious exemptions which compromise the intent of the phase-out. That is something that the opposition will continue to monitor. In general, the bills represent an improvement on the current arrangements for management of both ozone depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases used as their replacements. I understand that it will not have a financial impact in that proposed increases in licence application fees will satisfy the legislative requirement for revenue neutrality in administering the act.

I think there has been a certain amount of mischief on both the government side—the Liberal side—and the Green side of this debate. I received correspondence from the executive director of the Australian Fluorocarbon Council and from representatives of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Equipment Manufacturers Association. In those emails they said they were very worried that there was difficulty in having the bills scheduled for debate. They wrote to request my assistance in expediting this matter and to ask if I could assist in moving these bills forward. Mr Deputy Speaker Price, as you will be well aware, I have no influence over the management of the business of the House. That is entirely in the hands of the government. The delays in bringing these bills forward have been entirely a matter for the government. It is their choice as to which bills should be brought on for debate and which bills should not be brought forward for debate. If the government were endeavouring to suggest to the industry that Labor was somehow holding up this legislation, that would be completely untrue and a piece of mischief on their part.

On the other side of the coin, the Greens have foreshadowed amendments to this legislation, which they have foreshadowed by way of press release, not by way of discussion with us. There has been some lobbying in the last couple of weeks endeavouring to suggest that we should be supporting amendments which take us in the direction of natural refrigerants. One of the difficulties in relation to these proposed amendments, which have been bowled up late in the day, with people sending us emails the day before this legislation was originally scheduled to come on for debate, is that this approach does not show a great understanding of how a large democratic party works. We certainly do not spin around on a 20c piece in relation to these matters.

More importantly, the issue is that this legislation should take us forward. The government is clearly setting out the case that this legislation does take us forward—for example, by telling us that it will deliver a greenhouse gas abatement equivalent of up to six million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum by 2010, which is about one per cent of Australia's 1990 emissions. If we accept the figures provided by the government and understand that this legislation is benign, then putting us in the situation of holding the bill to ransom and saying, `We will not support it unless it does other things,' can make life very difficult. If the legislation is amended in the Senate but not supported by the government as a result of the Senate amendments then, of course, people will be open to accusations that they are holding up what is good and worthy legislation. The Labor Party are prepared to consider the proposals to advance the cause of natural refrigerants and to give them due policy consideration, but that is something we will consider as part of our policy development work, not in terms of support for amendments to these particular bills.

In the remaining time open to me, I want to return to the question of climate change. I said in my remarks that the bills are useful in relation to greenhouse gas abatement, but they are far from a major or even significant step forward in relation to greenhouse gas abatement. Climate change is, in my book, the most serious environmental question facing the planet. Every day there is evidence of climate change. We saw it with the Californian bushfires. We saw it with the hailstorms in south-east Queensland recently. Storm events with hailstones the size of golf balls and cricket balls lashed south-east Queensland and caused at least $8 million damage—and it may be much more than that by the time the claims have been properly lodged. In the ACT, we saw storm events with hailstones contributing to the blacking out of more than 20,000 homes in the ACT and something like 40,000 homes in New South Wales. Back in April 1999, we saw a billion dollar Sydney hailstorm.

Interestingly, the Insurance Australia Group—it is their business to know whether climate change is happening and what impact it is likely to have on insurance claims—have done modelling and their preliminary findings show that even small adjustments to the key parameters would combine to form a superstorm and create a hailstone event that has the potential to far outstrip the horrendous April 1999 storms in both intensity and scale. There have been bushfires, there have been hailstorms and there is the evidence we have seen in relation to the Queensland wet tropics. Recently, I drew public attention to the findings of researchers that show that, in the area of the wet tropics, climate change will have severe effects on the long-term survival of many species. Most upland species will disappear if average temperatures increase by anything over one degree Celsius. We also have the prospect that carbon dioxide concentrations will reduce the nutritional value and increase the toughness of most foliage, which has implications for leaf-eating species and for litter-feeding insect eaters, and that the cloud base will rise higher above the ground than it is at present. A lot of those endemic rainforest species are distributed over areas with a very narrow range in temperature and rainfall, so relatively small changes in temperature and rainfall will have a major impact on the capacity of species in the wet tropics to survive.

It is of concern whether we are looking at those things or at the phenomenon I mentioned earlier which was referred to in a recent Catalyst program as the Antarctic vortex. That is where the rain-bearing winds over southern Australia during the winter period which give southern Australia much of its rainfall are now apparently being sucked further south as a result of the interaction between the hole in the ozone layer and increasing temperatures on the continent. As that effect becomes more dramatic, the rainfall will be sucked south into the ocean and we will not get it. Southern Australia will enter a period of reduced rainfall and extended drought conditions. That sort of change is potentially dramatic for this continent. Australia is already the world's driest inhabited continent, and the prospect of reduced rainfall in southern Australia ought to be a matter of major concern.

Unfortunately, this government does not get it in relation to its attitude towards climate change. It claims that we are on track for meeting our Kyoto target. The point is that we contribute less than two per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but it has nothing to say about the other 98 per cent. The one vehicle that is there to try to tackle global climate change and global greenhouse gas emissions is the Kyoto protocol on climate change, and this government has done everything it possibly can to scuttle and undermine the Kyoto protocol. It has not played a part as a good international, environmental citizen. Indeed it is very much in Australia's best interests to get action at an international level to contain our greenhouse gas emissions. The rest of the world is responsible for over 98 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and this government has absolutely nothing to say about how we deal with those greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —This government ought to be ratifying the Kyoto protocol. The government's position is a matter of international embarrassment. The parliamentary secretary at the table, Dr Stone, might not be aware of it but around the world our environmental reputation is mud as a result of the stance we have taken on this. Try talking to some of those South Pacific nations—Tuvalu, Kiribati and the rest of them—and see how they feel about the prospect that they will be flooded as a result of us undermining the Kyoto protocol.

We should be ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change and urging the United States and Russia to do likewise. It is of course necessary for either the United States or Russia to ratify the protocol for it to come into effect. If we do not get that collective international action then the problems we are talking about—droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones and increased susceptibility to tropical diseases—will only become more serious. So I urge the government to do the right thing on climate change. Collective international action can work in relation to the Montreal protocol and the ozone problem. It can also work in relation to the Kyoto protocol and the climate change problem. We need to take the same constructive approach to climate change as we have been taking to ozone so that we can get the effects that are necessary to protect the planet's climate, and particularly Australia's climate, in the years ahead.