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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1487

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (11:42 AM) —We have certainly had a wild couple of months in Australia and right around the world, from the climate disasters—the floods, the cyclones and the bushfires—to the natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and the riots and protests in Africa and the Middle East. I want to extend the sympathy of the electorate of Wills to all of the victims of these events and to their families: to the victims of the floods in Queensland, Victoria and Brazil; to the victims of Cyclone Yasi; to the victims of the Western Australian bushfires; to the victims of the terrible Christchurch earthquake; and to the killed and injured in the political protests in Egypt, Libya, Iran, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Our hearts go out to so many innocent people—men, women and children whose lives have been cruelly cut short or changed and blighted forever by events over which they had no or little control.

As well as responding with compassion and generosity to those who have suffered and who are still suffering, as we must, we also need to think hard about the causes of these events. Surely we do not want them to become commonplace, part of the everyday experience of our children and our grandchildren. This would be a terrible legacy for which our children and grandchildren would rightly hold us in contempt. There are some disasters—and the earthquake in Christchurch is a classic example—which we simply cannot prevent. I accept that. But much of our pain and suffering is avoidable. First, if we think about the riots, protests and revolts in the Middle East and Africa, of course they are motivated by a hunger for democracy and it is our obligation to help ordinary people achieve that, not to support undemocratic regimes simply because they support us. They are also motivated by hunger pure and simple, by the failure of governments in these countries to provide the basics of adequate, affordable food and clean drinking water. This failure breeds desperation and this desperation leads to revolt.

Why is there not enough food or clean water? With food, on the demand side we see population growth, rising affluence and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side we see soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of crop land to non-farm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries and, due to climate change, crop-withering heatwaves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets.

The impact of population growth on food resources is clear and dramatic. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970. We are adding 80 million people each year. Tonight there will be another 200,000 mouths to feed at the world’s dinner table, and many of those mouths will have empty plates. This growth is taxing the limits of the earth’s land and water resources. Lester Brown’s article ‘The great food crisis of 2011’ points out that, as well as this global population growth, there are now some three billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. This rise in meat, milk and egg consumption has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that of the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In 2009 the United States sent 119 million tonnes of grain to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That is enough to feed 350 million people for a year. European diesel cars are causing a growing demand for plant based diesel oil such as palm oil. This is not only reducing land available to produce food crops in Europe; it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

Then there is the problem of water. The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. The irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East—in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, Lester Brown says production is now in ‘freefall’. Between 2007 and 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two-thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.

But the food and water problems are not confined to the Middle East. The large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water is depleting aquifers, fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world. Today, half of the world’s people live in countries where watertables are falling as a result of overpumping depleted aquifers. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which together account for one-eighth of the world’s wheat harvest, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of crop land to non-farm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction and the paving of land for roads, highways and parking lots are all claiming crop land in California, in the Nile River basin in Egypt, in China, in India and, of course, here in Australia. Diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. Lester Brown says:

California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Another emerging threat to food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is a particular issue in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, where ice melt from glaciers helps sustain the major rivers of Asia such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers during the dry season and, of course, sustains the food produced in these mighty river valleys.

There are a number of things the world needs to do to alter this stark, grim picture, but chief among them—principal among them—is to halt our rapid population growth. In this task every country has a responsibility to halt its own population growth and to get its own house in order. If we do not—if we fail in this task—we will see a future of food and water shortages, rising prices, declining availability and affordability and the grim consequences of this: violent disputes over access to scarce resources. We will see more war, more terrorism, more refugees and more boat people. To pull our weight—to stabilise Australia’s population—is, frankly, not that hard. All it requires is for us to return our net overseas migration to around 70,000, the kind of level we regularly had during the 1970s and 1980s.

It is claimed, particularly by big business and property developers, that we should not do this and that we should maintain our current net overseas migration rate, which is over 200,000. But I urge anyone who believes that there is substance in the argument that it is a good idea to keep on going down the high-migration road to look at a report prepared by the National Institute of Labour Studies for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This 335-page report, Long-term physical implications of net overseas migration: Australia in 2050, was put on the department’s website before Christmas. It did not receive much publicity or public attention, which is regrettable. The institute found that the magnitude of the impacts, at all net overall migration levels, suggests that—unless substantial and timely actions are taken to address these impacts—some impacts have the potential to disrupt Australia’s economy and society. It found that if we were to maintain the level of net overseas migration we have had for the last couple of years, Sydney and Melbourne would require more than 430,000 hectares of new land for housing. Farms and public land would be consumed, as bulging cities expanded. Sydney would lose about half its land used for fresh fruit and vegetable production, as Sydney and Melbourne rose to seven million people. The loss of productive land would slash agricultural output under the higher immigration scenarios, forcing the import of key staples, including fruit, nuts, oil and pig meat. Even for the dairy, lamb and vegetable categories, net imports would be required by 2050 for the 260,000 net overseas migration level.

The advocates of population growth ignore this dreadful, terrible legacy that we are leaving for future generations: a world with not enough food or clean water; a world in which more people, not fewer, will starve. They claim continuing population growth is necessary for ongoing economic prosperity. But is it? There was another report released in December 2010, this one in America, carried out by Fodor & Associates, titled Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity in 100 Largest US Metropolitan Areas. As the title suggests, this study examines the relationship between population growth and economic prosperity in the 100 largest US metropolitan areas, looking at economic wellbeing using well-known indicators such as per capita income, unemployment rates and poverty rates.

The study found that faster population growth rates are associated with lower incomes, greater income declines and higher poverty rates. Unemployment rates tend to be higher in the areas with faster population growth. The 25 slowest-growing metropolitan areas outperformed the 25 fastest-growing in every category. In 2009, they averaged US$8,455 more in per capita personal income. The findings show that the common refrain from local officials and others that, ‘We have to grow to provide jobs,’ or even, ‘We have to grow or die,’ are just mindless slogans—there is no scientific or economic evidence to substantiate them.

This is not only true within America; it is also true around the world. Charles Berger from the Australian Conservation Foundation reports that between 1997 and 2007 no fewer than 11 OECD nations achieved faster per capita economic growth than Australia, despite slower population growth—or even, in some cases, no population growth or even a slight decline. Norway has a thriving economy, notwithstanding much lower population growth than Australia. Slovakia has a stable and ageing population and a booming economy. The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Finland all have stable or low-growth populations and yet they have vibrant economies.

We need to understand that our population growth rate is not giving us economies of scale; it is giving us diseconomies of scale, such as traffic congestion. The cost of electricity, gas and water infrastructure is rising, fuelled by these diseconomies of scale, leading to rising prices and real hardship for pensioners and ordinary families. The rapid migration rate also makes it harder for our unemployed and people on disability support pensions to find a job. Leaving these people behind is bad for them and bad for the economy. The Norwegians, the Dutch and the Swiss do not do it, and they prosper as a result.

I want to turn, in the time remaining to me, to the role of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in the weather instability we have been experiencing, both in Australia and around the world. This century, we have had the worst droughts ever in the country’s history. The sceptics said that was not climate change. Two years ago we had the worst bushfires ever in the country’s history. The sceptics said that was not climate change. This year we have seen the worst floods in the country’s history, and the biggest cyclone in the country’s history. And the sceptics are still out there, clutching at straws, saying: ‘Prove it. Prove it. Prove it.’

Climate scientists have been telling us for years that increasing carbon emissions would increase the earth’s temperature and give us bigger and more frequent droughts, bushfires, floods and cyclones. This is exactly what is happening. We need to cut our carbon emissions. Our children will not thank us if we leave them a world of CycloneYasis, Lockyer Valley floods and Black Saturdays.

Every year shows that the climate is less stable than the year before. We saw droughts from 2002 to 2009 devastating the Murray-Darling Basin and Australian agriculture. The Black Saturday Victorian bushfires of 2009 cost 173 lives and $4.4 billion dollars. The 2011 Queensland and Victorian floods cost 36 lives and the federal government is now finding $5.6 billion for reconstruction. We ignore the lessons of this weather instability, this weather of mass destruction, at our peril. The cost of the droughts, bushfires, floods and cyclones is massive. It is clear that the costs of inaction on weather instability will exceed the costs of action and we need to stop the rise in carbon emissions in Australia and globally and reduce Australia’s emissions and global emissions as fast as we possibly can.