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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1018

Senator MILNE (2:31 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong. Can the minister confirm that, on the figures from the white paper, even the government’s most ambitious 2020 emissions reduction target of 15 per cent below 2000 levels would see global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere rise to at least 510 parts per million, a point well beyond what many scientists have identified as the key threshold for runaway climate change?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —I think Senator Milne has asked me some similar questions previously and I would again make the point that the parts per million figure is always going to be a function not only of Australia’s targets over 2020 to 2050, as the senator knows, but of the nature and scale of the global agreement which can be achieved at Copenhagen for the years ahead. That is the reality. I appreciate that Senator Milne has a particular view about the targets, and she is entitled to put that. The government has taken the view that these are responsible targets and we have considered very carefully, not just the immediate issue of the current economic situation, but also what will be required to move this economy to a low-pollution economy of the future.

One of the things which seems to be forgotten in discussion about the targets is what sort of emissions growth is already built into the system as a result of past inaction. Without the CPRS Australia’s emissions will grow to 20 per cent above 2000 levels—that is, we will be at 120 per cent of 2000 levels—so five to 15 represents up to a 30 per cent reduction of business as usual. This is a very significant set of targets that Australia has put on the table and we believe they are responsible targets particularly in light of the various factors that the government has to balance. They are absolutely about driving change in the Australian economy to build the low-pollution jobs of tomorrow.

Senator MILNE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I notice in the minister’s answer that essentially she is saying that the rest of the world should shoulder a bigger burden, and then Australia will go for 510 and let other people work it out. When the minister told ABC’s Four Corners last night that this is a game over a number of decades, was the minister expressing the view that we have a number of decades in which to avoid triggering critical tipping points in the earth’s climate and, if so, what scientific evidence does the minister have for this unorthodox view?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —Thank you, Senator, through you, Mr President. I think I spoke about the need to take a long-term perspective on what was occurring. One of the differences, I would suspect, between Senator Milne and the government is that the government is acutely conscious of the economic challenge which confronting climate change requires. The point that I have made, not just to Four Corners but a number of times, is that what we have to achieve by 2050 is a very substantial reduction in the greenhouse gas contribution, not just for Australia but for all developed economies, as well as a substantial reduction from developing economies. The peak in global emissions must occur well prior to that. The point I was making and will continue to make is that to achieve the sorts of reductions Australia will need to put in place by midcentury requires an enormous economic transformation. An economic transformation that will take— (Time expired)

Senator MILNE —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I note that the minister did not respond to how many decades she does think we have to address this issue. Is the government aware of recent findings by Australian scientists in the CRC for Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems that an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million is a tipping point for ocean acidification that would lead to a collapse in the ocean food chain? If so, why is the government aiming, at best, for a 510 parts per million target that will push us over the tipping point?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —The government is aware of the science, which is why the government is acting on climate change. Can I say that it seems that the proposition being put—because some senators may have a different view about what the scheme should look like—is that somehow no scheme is better than doing something. We want to get on with the job of building the low-pollution economy—

Senator Bob Brown —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. The question was about the disastrous tipping point of ocean acidification, which the minister’s targets will not avoid. She should answer that question.

Senator Chris Evans —On the point of order, Mr President, I am not sure that there was a point of order. Increasingly, points of order are being used to make argument against ministers’ answers. Senator Wong was directly on the subject matter of the question, and I ask you to rule that there is no point of order.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Wong, you have 35 seconds remaining to answer the question.

Senator WONG —I again make the point that climate change requires a global response. Australia is absolutely prepared to play its full part. To do that, we need a scheme that will enable these emissions reductions to occur. The decision that this Senate will have to make in the coming months is whether for the first time in our nation’s history we will begin to reduce Australia’s carbon pollution from next year.