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Environment and Communications References Committee
Great Barrier Reef 2050 Partnership Program

RICE, Dr Martin, Acting Chief Executive Officer and Head of Research, Climate Council of Australia

Committee met at 08:32

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications Reference Committee inquiry into the Great Barrier Reef 2050 Partnership Program. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of proceedings is being made. Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to the committee, and such evidence will be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate's resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. In addition, if the committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person, the committee may also direct that evidence be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claim. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, the witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may of course be made at any other time. On behalf of the committee, I thank all those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today for their cooperation in this inquiry.

I now welcome by teleconference Dr Martin Rice, from the Climate Council of Australia. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then senators will ask you questions.

Dr Rice : The Climate Council's evidence focuses on the first term of reference—that is, the ability of the Great Barrier Reef 2050 Partnership Program to support the delivery of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan and its recent interim revision. The key objective of the Reef 2050 Plan is to preserve the outstanding universal values of the Great Barrier Reef. However, this will not be possible, irrespective of what local actions are taken through the Great Barrier Reef Partnership Program, if climate change is not effectively tackled. It is well-established that the effects of climate change are the most serious and increasing threat to the reef. This is also acknowledged in the revised Reef 2050 Plan.

The back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 were unprecedented. The 2016 event was the most severe single adverse event to impact the reef and was made 175 times more likely due to climate change. Respected marine and climate scientists have documented in peer reviewed journals that most of the world's coral reefs will not survive unless the global temperature increase is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. For perspective: if all countries were to adopt emissions reduction targets with similarly low ambition as Australia, the world would be on track for a global average temperature rise of around three degrees Celsius. This would essentially mean a death warrant for the reef as we know it.

The Reef 2050 Plan and its revision both fail to acknowledge the lack of scientific rigour in Australia's emission reduction targets. The focus of the Reef 2050 Plan and the activities of the Great Barrier Reef Partnership Program also failed to recognise the limits to adaptation and the thresholds beyond which local action will do nothing to increase the reef's chances of survival. To have any prospect of limiting the global average temperature rise to around 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Australian government must commit to the upper end of the range of emission reductions recommended by the Climate Change Authority in 2015—that is, a target of at least 65 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050 at the very latest.

Australia should also play a leadership role in climate negotiations and there is also absolutely no place for any new fossil fuel projects if we are to effectively tackle climate change. Without effective mitigation the focus of the $500 million Great Barrier Reef Partnership Program will do nothing to enhance or protect the Great Barrier Reef. Effectively, it will be nothing more than a golden bandaid solution and possibly a monumental waste of money. To give you an analogy: there is no point in treating lung cancer if you haven't stopped smoking. Finally, do we want to be remembered as the generation that had the opportunity to protect the reef but failed? Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Rice. I will start with a fairly broad question. What is the Climate Council's view on the government's partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation? Do you have an official view on the detail of what has been announced so far?

Dr Rice : We can't really comment on the allocation of the money and so on and the effectiveness of the foundation. But what we can say is that putting, I guess, measures on local stressors without really tackling climate change is not going to do anything. So what the partnership program should really be doing is recommending much stronger federal government greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. If we don't do that, non-climate mitigation activities such as culling the crown of thorns start fish and improving water quality will be nothing more than a bandaid solution.

CHAIR: Can I ask you about the word 'mitigation'. I suppose there is some conjecture—and it has been reflected in some of our submissions—about what mitigation means versus, for example, adaption. Do you see mitigation in relation to climate change as primarily being about reducing emissions and reducing land clearing, those big-scale problems?

Dr Rice : Yes, that's right. It has been recognised that climate change is the biggest threat to the reef. And it is not just the Great Barrier Reef; we are talking about the world's reefs here. Therefore, what do we do? Basically the situation is caused by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas. That is driving up global temperatures, and that is increasing the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves. Since the 1980s we have already seen a quadrupling in the occurrence of marine heatwaves, driving up the chances of coral bleaching because the corals become stressed by temperatures that are one to 1.5 degrees above the average summer maximum. Ultimately the only way we can stop the stress on the reef is to cut the emissions at source. That means transitioning—and the exciting thing is that Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest countries on the planet—and we are seeing many of the states and territories leading the way. We can and must transition to renewables and storage, improved energy efficiency and so forth. There is simply no place for new fossil fuels, and certainly there should be no new coal plants.

CHAIR: Do you know much about the structure of the foundation and their relationship with the chairman's panel? Do you have concerns that some of the executives on that chairman's panel cover companies like AGL, Boral, BHP and Rio Tinto, some of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in this country?

Dr Rice : The Climate Council is evidence based and we basically stick to the science. So I wouldn't be able to comment on that other than to say that we do have some questions on the allocation of the $500 million. For example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is the government's own body charged with looking after the reef. So why didn't they receive the money? Looking ahead, GBRMPA is going to get a new chair and a CEO. Surely this is a good opportunity to really up the capacity of this organisation. So I guess that would be the main point. Again, the Climate Council focuses squarely on the science.

Senator KENEALLY: Dr Rice, I appreciate that you are not in a position to comment on the foundation, or the decision to award them the funding. Have you had any engagement with the foundation to date?

Dr Rice : We've had no engagement with the foundation. The Climate Council works with the world's leading climate scientists and marine biologists. All our reports are peer reviewed. We have had colleagues from AIMS and GBRMPA look at them, as well as the University of Queensland and so forth. We haven't really had any work with the foundation but we have actually referenced their work. The foundation commissioned an economic study with Deloitte Access Economics. I think this is fundamental. I was up on the reef recently. Even now, after the bleaching, seeing the effects on not just the coral but also the marine life is devastating. We have to put it in perspective. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation commissioned this economic study. It really brought home that we are talking about the generation of $6.4 billion per annum in income from the reef for the Australian economy, and 64,000 jobs are dependent on the reef. We have big impacts on the tourism industry and so forth. There are big impacts here. Ultimately, as I said to the chair, it is all about mitigation; and we have to understand the thresholds to adaptation as well.

Senator KENEALLY: I will come back to that study. Firstly, do you have any views on how the government could measure the foundation's performance in delivering outcomes under the partnership?

Dr Rice : I would probably have to take that one on notice, Senator, to be honest.

Senator KENEALLY: Okay. I come back to the point about the economic study you just mentioned. You mentioned they did that in collaboration with Deloitte. I'm just double-checking. I'm fairly certain that Deloitte is a member of their Chairman's Panel.

Dr Rice : Yes. That would make sense, then.

Senator KENEALLY: One of the questions I'm sure we'll be putting to the foundation is the way in which the Chairman's Panel contributes to the projects that they undertake and determines the work that they do. I will put that to the foundation this afternoon. I understand that Deloitte is also their auditor. Perhaps you could more broadly reflect on whether you have any concerns about corporations, for example, that might have an interest in coal fired power plants or other work that might raise the level of emissions or impact on global warming, having a role in contributing or determining the work that the foundation undertakes.

Dr Rice : That's a good question. Again, I could only stick to the science. That's basically the mandate of the Climate Council. Just to put it in perspective: obviously the electricity sector is the largest polluting sector here in Australia, accounting for 33 per cent of the emissions, and, as I say, it's from coal fired power stations. Over the seven months leading to June 2018, we had almost 100 breakdowns in Australia's coal and gas fleet. Also, there's talk of new coal. That's the most expensive form of new power generation. There's no such thing as clean coal, so, when you use black coal with new coal, no matter how efficient it is, it's still going to be 75 per cent polluting compared to the existing plants. We also need to look at the health implications. There's a $2.6 billion health tag annually because of coal. If you can read between the lines, what I'm saying from science, health and economic perspectives, it doesn't make any sense for new fossil fuels in Australia. There's no future for coal here in Australia. It's the end of the line.

Senator KENEALLY: You're an independent, non-profit organisation funded by donations from the public. How does the Climate Council manage conflicts of interests in terms of its donors or does the Climate Council have a policy on whether it takes donations from certain types of entities or corporations?

Dr Rice : You're right: we are an independent authority, and we're very careful in the donations that we receive. Largely, we get money from public individuals who donate to us. There are philanthropic donations and we are very careful with whom we receive the money from. Also, whenever scientists write articles—for example, when we write for The Conversation, we always make it clear that there's no conflict of interest or, in fact, that we have had links to particular funding for the research.

Senator KENEALLY: Referencing another submission, Environmental Justice Australia argued that the partnership funding should be revoked on the basis that it does not adequately deal with climate change. Does the Climate Council agree or disagree with that view?

Dr Rice : I guess the main point for us is that, ultimately, $500 million towards local measures, improving water quality and so forth, is a golden bandaid and it's effectively squandering public money, unless we drastically and rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. I guess that comes down to the main point that the chair asked earlier about the balance between mitigation and adaptation. Of course, we are locked in, to a degree, to warming and we do need to adapt.

But ultimately there are thresholds, and the only way to protect the Great Barrier Reef and the global reefs and also the livelihoods—we're talking a $1 trillion asset, the world's coral reefs, and supporting 500 million people globally. I've already given the Australian figures. So it's a no-brainer that we need to be focusing on mitigation. That's your answer there.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Rice. I've got a few more a few more questions for you. I'm not sure if you've had a chance to read The Great Barrier Reef Foundation's submission to this committee, but, in case you haven't, in their introductory letter to the committee, they said:

Established nearly 20 years ago, the Foundation operates through three strategic pillars to achieve our vision of a resilient Reef for future generations.

1. Raising funds for research and on ground conservation that addresses threats to the Great Barrier Reef

2. Designing and delivering projects in partnership with the private and public sector that protect and restore the Reef.

3. Bringing hope to the future of the Great Barrier Reef through our communications and our projects.

Dr Rice, have you seen any advocacy or communications around the need to reduce emissions or tackle wholesale land clearing or other key mitigation measures necessary to protect the Barrier Reef?

Dr Rice : I haven't seen that, to be honest, but I wouldn't say it would be an informed answer. But, when you look at the plan itself, although it does acknowledge that climate change is the biggest threat to the reef, there's clearly no in-depth recommendation or call for the emission reductions required in the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energies and other climate solution measures. Also, on the communications front, how can you communicate hope when ultimately we're providing bandaid solutions to protect the reef? So, as I said, we have a choice here. We're at a crossroads. Do we want to be the generation remembered for having the opportunity to protect the reef but having failed? That's ultimately what it comes down to. So you can have these three strategic objectives, and they're fine and dandy, but ultimately you have to cut emissions at source.

CHAIR: Dr Rice, just to be clear, you suggested a bit earlier that the foundation and the partnership needed to communicate the need for emissions reductions. Would you be suggesting to the foundation that they allocate some of their funding in line with these three strategic goals to focus on raising education and awareness on the need to reduce emissions? Would you also include land clearing and, for example, new coal projects in that communications strategy?

Dr Rice : They all come hand in hand; it's all linked to emissions, ultimately. So anything that can get the message out that we do really need to rapidly and deeply reduce emissions is all for the good. Of course, up in Queensland, and New South Wales for that matter, the land clearing has been a huge source of emissions as well, and that gets missed in the Kyoto Protocol and how Australia's pretty much had a buy-out through their emissions targets. But ultimately it's cutting at source as well. It's not just temperatures; the reef's under threat from ocean acidification, and that has huge implications for the reefs and other marine life as well. So, yes, communication, but ultimately strong recommendations and lobbying for the federal government of the day to really ramp up its ambition, and just now it's woefully inadequate.

CHAIR: So, in your suggestion, added to the word 'communications' would be the words 'advocacy' and 'lobbying' for mitigation? Would that be a good way to frame what you're suggesting to the committee?

Dr Rice : Yes, but it has to be grounded in the science. For example, the current federal government emission reduction target of 26 to 28 per cent by 2030 is not grounded in the science, and it doesn't relate to the 2015 Climate Change Authority target of 65 per cent reductions. That's when we had climate science in the panel. So I think this is pretty indicative of the way things are going, sadly, here in Australia. We really need to get real with the challenges that are ahead of us and that we're experiencing on the reef just now, and the livelihoods and the marine life that it supports.

CHAIR: From reading the foundation's submission, they, I suppose, recognise the importance of the Paris Agreement and Australia signing the Paris Agreement. So it's your contention to the committee that that's not enough, that they should be recommending stronger action and stronger targets?

Dr Rice : Absolutely. It's a contention based on the science. To put this in context, if every country in the world were to adopt Australia's emission reduction target, we would be on a three-degree pathway. Ultimately that does sign the death warrant for the Great Barrier Reef and the world's reefs. As I said, look at the economic impacts—$1 trillion assets; look at the livelihood impacts; look at the marine life. It's huge.

Senator KENEALLY: Mr Grant King, who is the head of the Business Council of Australia, is a member of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation board. He's also one of the individuals that the Department of the Environment and Energy cited as a board member who gave the government confidence that the foundation was capable of receiving this funding and undertaking environmental protections to the reef. On 24 July he published an opinion piece in the Whitsunday Times that spoke in support of coalmining and the need to further develop the Gladstone port to increase coal exports. I take it from your evidence today you don't believe that view aligns with the steps that Australia should be undertaking in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Rice : Absolutely. That's an abject failure to the reef and the people of the Whitsundays and the communities that rely on the reef. We have a carbon budget perspective—it's a bit like a piggy bank, I guess, for the future—and it tells us how much carbon we can spend or burn. The way Australia's going, we'll run out for a carbon budget, and that's the two-degree target; that's not even the 1.5-degree target, and that's a 66 per cent probability. We're going to blow that carbon budget within 10 years. So there's absolutely no room. And there's no need for new coal. It's polluting, it's bad for health and it's bad economically. The most cost-effective solution for new power plants is renewables and storage, and it's readily available. We just need to get on with it.

CHAIR: Perhaps I will follow up with a very similar question to what Senator Keneally just asked you, but I'll ask you more broadly. One of the key points you put to the committee this morning is that the foundation should be doing more lobbying and advocacy and more communications about the need to reduce emissions. Do you have any concerns around broader conflicts of interest that the Chairman's Panel includes companies like ConocoPhillips, Peabody Energy, Shell, AGL and BHP, and that it's going to be difficult for the foundation to advocate for reduced emissions when some of their key donors are also key emitters in this country?

Dr Rice : I'm sorry to say this again, but we can't really comment on the composition of the board or the affiliation, but—

CHAIR: I don't want you to comment on the composition of the board. I want you to comment on whether you feel it will be difficult for the foundation to advocate for reduced emissions and no new coal when it has so many of its Chairman's Panel that actually are coalminers and big emitters.

Dr Rice : That would be speculation, so I couldn't give an informed answer to that, but common sense would indicate that that would make it quite difficult. For example, when you look at the national energy debate just now with the National Energy Guarantee, the target for the electricity sector has been set at 26 to 28 per cent, and we have had groups like the Business Council of Australia come out and support that. Of course, that's not aligned with the science, and as I said earlier the implications on the reef and so forth. So you can read into that, but ultimately that's not what the science is saying is required.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Rice. I apologise we're in such a hurry. We would like to have had you for longer, but we have a busy schedule to get through, and senators will need to leave here by just after three o'clock this afternoon. So thank you very much for your time and your submission today. It's been most appreciated.

Dr Rice : Apologies for not being there in person, but the Climate Council appreciates the opportunity, and good luck with your endeavours today and in the future.