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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 588

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (1:33 PM) —I would like to acknowledge and congratulate the member for Higgins on her first speech. I note that the Liberal Party’s poll ratings have improved since she replaced the previous member for Higgins and I wish her well in her important task of representing the voters of that electorate. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of the speaker before her in this debate on the second reading of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2010, the member for Wentworth. It was one of the most outstanding speeches that we have heard in this parliament in recent years, both for its courage and for its logic. That the truth on climate change is inconvenient has been famously said, but the fact that the member for Wentworth has shown this willingness to follow the truth wherever it might lead adds immeasurably to his stature as a parliamentarian.

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires—a moving outpouring of emotion and grief at unimaginable horror and loss: 173 lives lost, thousands of homes and properties destroyed, the work and the memories of a lifetime vanished, reduced to rubble. It was also a great testimony to the power of the human spirit to endure and continue. Black Saturday was the hottest day that many parts of Victoria have ever experienced—46.4 degrees Celsius in Melbourne. It happened following a decade of drought. It happened at end of the hottest decade Australia has ever witnessed—and each successive decade in Australia in recent times has been warmer than the last. In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song: ‘There’s something happening here.’

Climate change is not some vague scientific theory about what might happen in 100 years time; it is a reality happening right here, right now, in Australia. Bob Dylan sang, ‘The times they are a-changin’,’ and they are. He also sang, ‘You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.’ That is true too. The impacts of global warming are serious and they are worldwide. In Canada, the Winter Olympics have run into problems because a very warm winter has meant little or no snow cover on mountains where events are scheduled to be held. Training sessions for competitors have been cut back so as not to damage the snow that is there. It is not just the melting snow of the North Pole and Mount Kilimanjaro and the snowfields; glaciers are melting too. This will cause floods in places like Tibet, Bangladesh and China, displacing millions of people, causing boat people and refugees. It will also cause food shortages once the water has gone. We will also see food shortages arising from drought. We can already see it here in the Murray-Darling Basin. We now hand out billions of dollars in taxpayer assistance to farmers every year on account of these so-called exceptional circumstances, which just keep happening.

If we do not do act now, we will leave to our children and to their children a bleak future with sea level rises and food and water shortages—a future regularly punctuated by extreme weather events such as cyclones, droughts and firestorms like the Black Saturday inferno. So this clutching at straws that we have seen in recent times, in the face of the considered opinion of such moderate, cautious and well-informed agencies as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology—to say nothing of the thousands of scientists around the world who have studied the ice cores, studied the changing composition of the atmosphere and studied the planet’s temperature, rainfall and climate records—is utterly irresponsible. It is recklessness. It is indifference towards the future. To say that all the work we have seen does not mean anything is just wilful blindness. It is a terrible sell-out of our obligation to future generations. The only explanation I can offer for it is the saying that ‘it is pretty hard to get a man to see something when his pay packet depends on his not seeing it’.

As an example of the kind of thinking I am concerned about, I want to bring to the attention of the parliament a letter, dated 23 November last year, which I and, I assume, every federal MP received from True Energy Australia Pty Ltd, opposing the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme—that is to say, opposing the bills we are now debating. In the letter, True Energy says it is a subsidiary of CLP, which is listed in Hong Kong, and it is a global investor with significant investments throughout the Asia-Pacific and a market capitalisation of $18 billion. The letter states that True Energy’s parent company, CLP, owns the 1,480 megawatt coal fired Yallourn power station. Disturbingly, the letter claims that the federal government is in danger of breaking an agreement with China, exposing it to a claim for many hundreds of millions of dollars. The letter claims that the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty obligates the federal government to ensure that investments made in good faith by Hong Kong companies are properly treated. The letter goes on to say that, consequently, if the CPRS results in a major devaluation of a Hong Kong investment—such as the 1,480 megawatt coal-fired Yallourn power station owned by True Energy’s parent, CLP—the investor would have rights to take legal action against the Australian government to recoup losses, which would be significant.

I do not believe this is legally correct; but, if it is, it is an outrageous fetter on Australian sovereignty. We should not be entering into agreements which stop us taking action to protect our environment or limit us taking action to pass on to our kids an Australia that is in as good shape as the Australia that our parents gave to us. This kind of bullying by foreign companies displays a complete lack of concern for Australia’s national interest and it shows the downside of allowing Australia’s energy companies to be foreign owned. Energy companies have no business complaining that action on climate change might impact on their bottom line. In the first place, in the design of this legislation—both in its initial version and, even more so, following negotiations with the opposition last year—the government has gone out of its way to cushion energy companies from the impact of the change and provide a transitional path to a carbon constrained economy. Secondly, these companies have been on notice for years that the world needs to and wants to move away from fossil fuels. The previous Labor government announced a policy to cut carbon emissions. The Kyoto protocol was adopted way back in 1997. Energy companies have been on notice for years that this was coming. Warren Buffett said: ‘When the tide goes out you can see who’s been swimming naked’—and that applies here. Energy companies have indeed been swimming naked—failing to move to renewable energy sources—and it is high time they put on some clothes.

The opposition has reneged on its pre 2007 election position that it would bring in a carbon trading scheme, and now says it will not support any type of carbon trading scheme. All those opposite, except the member for Wentworth, have forgotten about this commitment. The new Leader of the Opposition has produced an alternative plan, but this plan will not cut carbon emissions. It has no cap. It has no enforcement arrangements. It is a recipe for increasing carbon emissions, when we need to reduce them. The Leader of the Opposition is fiddling while Australia and the planet burns. His policy is all about delivering to those in the Liberal Party room—that climate sceptic tank—who voted for him. The Leader of the Opposition will never seriously tackle global warming. His heart is just not in it.

There has been some polling released today which has been reported as reflecting support for the Leader of the Opposition’s position. Let me make two observations about this polling. Firstly, it shows that the emissions trading scheme is supported by 56 per cent of those polled. So there is a clear majority who continue to support the bills that we are debating now. Furthermore, when people were asked to choose between the approach of the Prime Minister and the approach of the Leader of the Opposition to climate change, 43 per cent preferred the Prime Minister’s approach and 30 per cent preferred the Leader of the Opposition’s approach. So those who would like us to become a nation of climate sceptics need not break out the champagne just yet.

Secondly, it is perhaps true that the climate change cause has taken a bit of a hit in the wake of the Copenhagen talks—and I will have a bit more to say about those talks presently. It is foreseeable that some people will ask the question: ‘Why should we take action if other countries aren’t taking action themselves?’ It is a reasonable question, but ultimately it is a counsel of despair. If we take the view that we are not going to do anything until everybody else does, then the planet will go to hell in a hand basket. This would be a monumental failure of leadership; it would be a monumental abdication of our responsibility as members of this parliament. I think the time has come for people of goodwill around the world to think about penalties for those nations which refuse to pull their weight over global warming. I will leave that discussion for another occasion. But, in the first place, we have to pull our weight; we have to come to this discussion with clean hands. And this means starting to reduce our greenhouse emissions, as many nations in Europe and around the world are doing.

I acknowledge that Copenhagen was a failure. There is no purpose served by trying to pretend otherwise. As Mark Lynas said in the Guardian, after all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back and drained away. Mark Lynas was attached to one of the delegations and present during the behind closed doors negotiations at Copenhagen. He has reported on what happened as follows, and I think it is something that the House ought to be cognisant of. He said:

China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. …

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the West had failed the world’s poor once again.

Mr Lynas said Sudan behaved at the talks as a puppet of China:

…one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

Mr Lynas said that at late-night meetings as the heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors Barack Obama was present for hours with Gordon Brown and other prime ministers, including the Danish Prime Minister, who chaired the talks, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Only about 50 or 60 people were in the room. The Chinese Premier, Wen Jinbao, did not attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier Foreign Ministry official to sit opposite Obama. Mr Lynas said the diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as were the practical consequences. Several times during the session the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around while the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his superiors. Mr Lynas said:

It was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets previously agreed as an 80 per cent cut by 2050, very serious targets, be taken out of the deal. ‘Why can’t we even mention our own targets,’ asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Brazil’s representative also pointed out that this position was illogical. Why should rich countries not announce this unilateral cut? But the Chinese delegate blocked it. Mark Lynas said this is because China did not want the talks to succeed and wanted the rich countries to get the blame for Copenhagen’s lack of ambition. He said:

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to two degrees Celsius, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak ‘as soon as possible’. The long-term target, of global 50 per cent cuts by 2050, was also excised.

Mark Lynas said no-one else, perhaps with the exception of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. The Chinese delegate also moved to remove the 1.5 degrees Celsius target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. He said:

President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. ‘How can you ask my country to go extinct?’ demanded President Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence—and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless.

It is clear to me that the talks failed to achieve anything like the action that is needed to stop the earth’s temperature from rising to dangerous levels with unpredictable consequences and that the dynamics at work which are preventing global agreement need to be shifted or else the crippling impasse at Copenhagen will continue indefinitely.

That is no excuse for Australia to sit on its hands now. Previously when the Howard government was sitting on its hands and refusing to act on climate change the states stepped up to fill the vacuum and started to put in place their own arrangements and mechanisms. I think this will happen again if the Senate insists on blocking action to reduce carbon emissions. A vacuum will be created and the states will move to fill it, as they did before. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum; politicians do too. The states can either move in a regulatory direction such as requiring new buildings to install solar panels and things like that—and the opposition could hardly complain about this given that they have said that they prefer direct government action to the market—or the states may act as before to introduce their own emissions trading regimes, which they have suspended and put on hold since the election of the federal Labor government. The opposition would only have itself to blame should this occur.

People complain that this creates costs for business, but no-one has ever claimed that action to tackle global heating would be cost free. What we have said is that Nicholas Stern is right: the cost of inaction will exceed the cost of action. At present the costs of inaction are being borne randomly and unfairly. They fall on the victims of bushfires and the victims of drought. They fall on the tourism industry of the Great Barrier Reef and the snowfields. In particular they fall on the next generation and the one after that. These costs need to be shared fairly, and that is what carbon trading is all about. I do not think anyone sees carbon trading as a silver bullet to solve all the problems but rather as part of a suite of measures necessary to tackle a complicated, deep-rooted global problem. These measures include the increased renewable energy target and funding for research to reduce emissions from cars and from coal and from agriculture. I want to put in a plug here for energy efficiency. It does not get as much attention as some of the other initiatives but there is a lot of potential to reduce carbon emissions through the more efficient use of energy in housing and in transport. One of the reasons I will be voting for these bills is because I believe putting a price on carbon will help us drive energy efficiency. I urge policymakers in both government and business to drive energy efficiency and tackle the culture of energy waste and profligacy which has sprung up in recent decades.

I believe that future generations are going to judge us on our performance over this issue. If we fail to make the difficult decisions and succumb to political opportunism and fear campaigns, I fear that we will not be given very high marks. I believe we have it in our capacity to do better, and I urge the House to support this legislation.