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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 661

Mr DREYFUS (6:31 PM) —Climate change is a diabolical problem, because it requires both national and international action to avoid catastrophic consequences. The Economist in December last year described it as ‘the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with’. The bills we are debating which establish the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme are an important part of our national response to the problem. The scheme is a part of our national response, not the whole of it, and will add to the armoury of measures already adopted by the Rudd government. The CPRS established by these bills is also a scheme which until December of last year was supported by both sides of Australian politics, as was so well explained by the former leader of the opposition, the member for Wentworth, in the courageous speech he gave earlier in the day.

I want to start by addressing some remarks to the climate science, because there has been a great deal of comment and criticism of the climate science which supports the need for action. None of this criticism or comment, however, has affected the central conclusion of that science, which is that our planet is in danger if mankind does not reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. The criticisms amount to minor nitpicking but are elevated to major status by climate change deniers and supporters of inaction. Standing back from the nitpicking, it can be seen that climate change deniers and supporters of inaction do not tackle the central proposition of the science, which is that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lead to global warming and dangerous climate change. Mankind is pumping billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has resulted in the last decade being the warmest on record. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report concluded that, if left unabated, greenhouse gas increases would make the planet a further three degrees hotter by 2100—and possibly 4.5 to 5 degrees hotter. If the higher temperatures eventuate, the consequences could be catastrophic. These central conclusions are completely unaffected by the appearance in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report of references to non-peer-reviewed articles or by a lack of clear support in the report for some predictions of a few particular consequences of global warming. It needs to be understood that the consequences—and the created or manufactured controversy that we have had in recent weeks about the melting of Himalayan glaciers is an example—are simply a part of a very long list of dire consequences that will be caused by global warming.

The environment of our planet and the atmosphere and oceans of our planet are complex, interconnected systems. Whether Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2050 or 2080 or 2100 is beside the point. This is but one of the possible consequences of hotter global temperatures. There are many other dangerous consequences and the vast majority of those consequences are simply not in doubt as being very probable consequences of the warming of the planet. Deniers like Ian Plimer or the former Thatcher adviser Lord Monckton, who has been spreading confusion on a recent speaking tour of Australia, never produce any serious challenge to the central thesis of the climate science, which is that increased greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere caused by human activity are leading to global warming and dangerous climate change.

The action which the climate science points to is to reduce the emission of global greenhouse gases. You might think that it is not necessary to go through these arguments, because both sides of Australian politics are now committed to at least a five per cent reduction from 2000 levels by 2020. I say ‘at least’ because, while the government is committed to the five per cent reduction from 2000 levels by 2020 as a minimum and has left open the possibility of increasing the reductions target to 15 and 25 per cent depending on international action, the opposition has, it seems, drawn a line at five per cent. It is of course the case that the plan produced by the opposition last week is woefully inadequate and so it is unlikely to get anywhere near even the five per cent target.

It is also clear from the plan produced by the opposition last week that the new Leader of the Opposition is prepared to pander to the deniers. For those reasons—the inadequacy of the opposition’s plan and the apparent wish of the new opposition leader not to seriously commit but rather to pander to the deniers—we need to restate the need for action and continue to restate it. Scientists say that, if we continue on the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, there is a strong risk of temperatures rising by up to five degrees by the end of this century. That will mean that Australia, which is already the hottest and driest continent in the world, will become even hotter and drier. Coastal areas will be flooded, coastal infrastructure will be destroyed, water will become scarcer and agriculture will become more marginal and more difficult, particularly for irrigated agriculture, which has thousands of jobs associated with it. The Great Barrier Reef will die, and the thousands of jobs in North Queensland that depend on the tourist industry will vanish with it. Across the world, deserts will increase, icecaps will melt, coastal regions will suffer massive flooding and hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people will be homeless. There will be extraordinary levels of suffering and misery.

These are shocking possibilities, which we all hope will never come to pass. But the climate change deniers and those who argue for inaction or for less action cannot guarantee that these dreadful consequences will not occur. Because they do not guarantee our safety or that the science they are so keen to tear down is wrong, we must act. The only responsible course to take is the course which the science suggests—that is, to act now to reduce emissions. If the science turns out to be wrong, then the results of actions to reduce emissions will still benefit humanity and the planet. Our earth will be a cleaner and better place. We will have reduced energy consumption and our dependence on fossil fuels. We will have increased the sustainability of the world’s industries. But if, as I believe, the science is right and we have not acted as quickly and as extensively as we can, we will have condemned the planet to lasting environmental damage and humanity to immense misery.

We need to keep squarely in mind Lord Stern’s warning from 2006 that there is a cost now in reducing emissions to prevent climate change but that this cost is far, far less now than if we delay and allow emissions of greenhouse gases to continue. The cost of reducing emissions will be greater the longer we fail to act, because steeper cuts are harder to achieve. We will need to make steeper cuts in emissions the longer we wait. As well, the cost of adaptation to climate change will be greater in the future because the climate changes that we must adapt to will by that stage have become more severe.

A number of speakers in this debate have commented on the result of the Copenhagen conference in December, which was of course a disappointment to the world, because the high expectations that had been raised for a binding global agreement were not met. But the failure of international negotiators to reach a proper deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions does not alter the science. The failure is a failure of politics. It is a failure of international relations. It is not a failure of the science. The poor outcome of Copenhagen will not affect the processes which are now occurring. The fragile and thin atmosphere of our planet will continue to be damaged by greenhouse gas emissions until levels are reduced. We are all very well aware that there are already in the atmosphere, and will be for some hundreds of years, elevated levels of greenhouse gases, which already ensures that there will be a rise in the order of two degrees in global temperatures. It is for that reason that some level of dangerous climate change and global warming is already locked in. Our task as legislators, and the task of governments around the world, is to make sure that climate change and global warming are kept in check to the maximum extent possible. That is the task to which this legislation is directed.

Many of those opposite who have spoken so far in this debate seem to be happy that Copenhagen did not produce better outcomes. They should be dismayed, as I am dismayed, and work to a better outcome in Cancun in Mexico this year, because one thing that is clear is that concerted global action is necessary. Copenhagen did not meet expectations but it should not be seen as a justification for inaction. It should be seen as a spur to renew effort for a global deal. Instead of playing the political charade that effective action to reduce emissions can be achieved without cost and without substantial change in some industries, we need to ask: what is the most effective action we can take nationally and globally to reduce emissions? It is not enough to commit to emissions cuts. It is not enough to promise future government spending, which is what the opposition relies on. It is not enough to rely on good intentions, particularly when what is needed is a change in corporate investment decisions. What is needed is a mechanism which creates incentives to cut emissions.

There is a broad consensus that emissions trading schemes are the most effective and lowest cost mechanism to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The report prepared for the former government by the former head of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, reached that conclusion. The Garnaut review prepared for the current government reached that conclusion. The report prepared by Lord Stern for the government of the United Kingdom reached that conclusion, and the current Leader of the Opposition reached that conclusion until he perceived that some temporary political advantage was to be gained by pretending otherwise.

The international community has reached that conclusion. More than 30 countries around the world already have an emissions trading scheme, including the European Community, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Other countries are developing these schemes, including the United States, Japan and Korea. The international direction is towards agreement and consensus for emissions trading schemes, and Australia needs to be moving in the same direction.

The CPRS is the best means of doing this because it will provide a price signal to industry, to companies making long-term investment decisions. The market will set that price. One of the ironies about the current debate is that the Liberal Party and the National Party are opting for heavy government regulation, for the command and control approach, and are, it seems, against a market based solution. The carbon price will provide the incentive to move to lower emissions and at the lowest cost. This was Peter Shergold’s direct conclusion in advising the former government. The opposition’s solution will simply channel billions in subsidies to businesses selected by them. Very possibly, the subsidies will support an investment the businesses would have made anyway. It is a solution which means higher taxes for fewer cuts in emissions, and the Liberal and National parties should not be pretending otherwise.

Much of the commentary since the release of the opposition’s inadequate plan last week has wrongly suggested that direct government spending, which the opposition relies on, is somehow an alternative to an emissions trading scheme. It is not, because we need to do both. We need a range of government spending, a range of government programs and government action, supported by an emissions trading scheme—and one could add to that a renewable energy target. The Rudd government has already acted in a range of ways. The government has acted by signing the Kyoto protocol, acted by taking part in the world efforts at Bali and Copenhagen and is now working hard on a better outcome in Mexico later this year.

The government has acted by embarking already on what the opposition choose to call direct action—by committing more than $15 billion in the last budget to a range of measures which are directed at lowering emissions. Those measures include action to improve energy efficiency in homes, shops, offices and workplaces; measures to deploy existing clean energy and low-emissions technologies; support for the creation of new clean energy and low-emissions technologies and products and opportunities for individual action by households. Direct climate change related measures in the 2009-10 budget included the Clean Energy Initiative, which incorporates programs for low-emissions coal, solar and other renewable energy technologies, the Australian Carbon Trust and the National Strategy on Energy Efficiency.

A simple example of what the opposition would like to call direct action on climate change is the Home Insulation Program, an important part of the economic stimulus measures introduced by the government last year, which the opposition voted against. There is over $2 billion to be spent on insulating hundreds of thousands of Australian homes. Not only will this cut power bills and improve home comfort for Australian working families; it will also reduce emissions by cutting energy use. The emissions cuts produced by the Home Insulation Program have been estimated as the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road. That is the kind of direct action, to use the opposition’s term, that the Rudd government has well and truly embarked on and has been acting on since coming to office.

I will finish by saying that there are great national benefits to be gained by adopting the CPRS. It will, together with other government programs, move Australia to a low-carbon economy, an economy with far lower emissions, which is the direction the rest of the world is turning towards. I will give just a couple of examples. China has become a very large emitter of greenhouse gases, although not, of course, on a per capita basis—Australia takes the prize for very, very high emissions on a per capita basis. But China has also reached the largest installed renewable energy capacity in the world and aims to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy in China to 15 per cent by 2020. The United Kingdom has adopted the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, which is focusing on increasing energy efficiency, developing a smart grid, decarbonising transport and a range of other measures.

There are global opportunities for low-carbon technologies. Adopting a low-carbon policy in Australia, which the CPRS is part of, will create demand for low-carbon technologies, which will create jobs, create business opportunities and stimulate investment. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will create growth opportunities for businesses. We are all aware of the advantage that comes from being an early leader with new technology. I want to see Australia be an early leader in developing low-carbon futures, not just for this country but for the rest of the world. The renewable energy target and the CPRS are part of the solution which will move Australia to a low-carbon future. They are measures which will prompt emissions reductions. I am confident that very substantial reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases in Australia can be achieved. They can be achieved without producing substantial changes in Australian lifestyles. Many of the reduction opportunities that are presented are in fact profitable for business. (Time expired)