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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1456

Senator HILL (Minister for the Environment)(4.01 p.m.) —This is an important subject to raise and I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on it. It might also be of some interest to senators if I let them know what the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said last night on the subject when he addressed the minerals industry annual dinner here in Parliament House.

Senator Faulkner —Do you want to table it?

Senator HILL —No, I will not table it. He said that it is the view of the government that climate change remains a critical global challenge—which it clearly does—and that Australia remains committed to fulfilling its obligations under the framework convention. He said that we are contributing to limiting our emissions of greenhouse gases through the national greenhouse response strategy with industries' positive participation. He said that the greenhouse challenge program provides companies with the opportunity to show that they are taking practical steps to limit emissions, but that an effective long-term response to climate change will need to be global, involving all countries. He made mention of the fact that, while developed countries have agreed to take the lead, by the year 2000 developing countries are expected to be emitting more than half of the world's CO2 emissions, and that they too will have to contribute in the longer term. The forthcoming Berlin mandate negotiation should keep the door open for this.

Finally, he said that the government will campaign for an approach that ensures that all countries share equitably the burden of addressing what is a truly global problem. The government will insist that Australia's economic and trade interests are safeguarded and that our specific national circumstances are taken into account when implementing the convention.

Basically that was what I said in answer to a question today from Senator Lees. The issue of global warming and climate change is obviously one of concern to the whole community. The balance of scientific advice is in fact that human intervention is resulting for the first time in climate change and the total consequences of that are not fully understood. Furthermore, I made mention of the difficulty in remedying the situation, the fact that the CO2 emissions caught in the atmosphere are cumulative and therefore the wisdom of caution in this important issue.

It follows logically that all nation states should be seeking to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and doing what can reasonably be done to reduce those emissions. An interesting aspect of this debate is that we are not addressing any detrimental consequence in immediate terms, and perhaps not even in the medium term, but when we look a century down the track the generations of that time may well suffer as a result of us not taking this issue sufficiently seriously at this time.

That is the way that the Australian government is approaching this matter. We accept the Berlin mandate and we will continue to pursue the negotiations from that. We will pursue them at the conference of the parties to be held in Geneva in July, through to the following conference at which protocol is supposed to be concluded some time in the second half of next year. As we address exactly what developed countries should do, we also want to include the issue of developing countries. I know that is criticised by some who say that it is important that the developed world shows the lead. I accept that it is important that the developed world shows the lead, but it is also important to recognise that some of the large developing economies are in fact contributing disproportionately to the growing greenhouse problem. It is important that the developing world accepts that this is not a problem solely of the developed world and is prepared to be part of the solution.

As we address what is the appropriate international regime for this, it is also important—and the only responsible position for an Australian government to take—to recognise that we should not do so in a way that disproportionately and detrimentally affects us. I know there are some who do not take that issue into account, but we, as an incoming government, do regard Australia's international competitiveness as vitally important and we recognise, more so than most, that our economy is dependent upon high carbon reducing products.

We are, as I said in question time today, the largest coal exporter in the world. We might not be the largest producer, but we are the largest coal exporter in the world. We are, at this stage, still very reliant upon high carbon fuels for energy production. In a part of the world that is becoming ever more competitive and with a need to address major economic problems, which have evidenced simply today in terms of the balance of payments figures that have been released, it is vitally important that we do not, in a spirit of international leadership, pull the rug from under our own feet. I would ask those who, in altruistic spirit, feel that Australia should, in fact, show international leadership that they also remember Australians who are dependent upon a growing economy in this country and an internationally competitive growing economy for jobs, for social security and all the other benefits that wealth creation can provide for the community as a whole.

Sadly, I think that that is the point that the Australian Democrats all too often forget; certainly this is an issue, and certainly Australia has a part to play. Nevertheless, as we have a part to play we must also recognise that we have particular economic circumstances that should be protected.

We can do that, in my opinion, while still acting in a responsible way and the reference by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to these cooperative agreements with industry is just one of those initiatives. I am pleased that a number of major Australian companies will be signing on to the challenge program in the very near future; in fact their achievements to date have been very significant and Australian companies are, without compulsion, showing a lead and going out there and setting an example. It seems to be starting principally with the larger companies but no doubt is setting an example for smaller Australian companies. I think that is to be applauded and is something to be recognised in this whole debate. As the community become better educated as to this problem and the solutions, I think you will find a community response that is much more conscious of the need for us to act responsibly.

Lastly, in my very short time, I just want to remind the Australian Democrats that the worst thing that they could do in this debate is vote down the coalition's natural heritage trust that is going to commit a huge sum of money to revegetation—something that can positively contribute to a better outcome—and yet they vote that down and have the hypocrisy to come in here and bring a motion such as this. (Time expired)