Feb 16, 2005

Governor-General’s Speech: Address-in-Reply – Climate Change


16 February 2005

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10.06 a.m.) —I am pleased to make a contribution to the address-in-reply debate on the Governor-General’s speech. Today it is appropriate that I concentrate on environmental issues. Today is, of course, Kyoto day. It is the day on which 140 nations plus the European Union have joined together in a historic agreement to take international action on climate change. The significance of this should not be underestimated. The Kyoto protocol is certainly not perfect, and Labor does not argue that that is the case. However, we do argue that it is a critical first step in addressing the climate change issue. It began way back in 1990 at the United Nations. The United Nations convened the Rio summit in 1992 and negotiations took place leading up to the Kyoto protocol in 1997. At that time the Prime Minister said:

We end the year having achieved this … absolutely stunning diplomatic success at the Kyoto conference. That was an extraordinary achievement, that Kyoto summit—an absolutely extraordinary achievement—and it was against all the odds.

… what we were able to do at Kyoto was, both, make a massive contribution to the world environmental effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions but also to protect Australian jobs … thanks to the superb negotiating job that Robert Hill did at Kyoto, we achieved a win for the environment and a win for Australian jobs.

That was Prime Minister John Howard on the AM radio program on 19 December 1997. Indeed, the Prime Minister was right then, but he is wrong now, because Australia in 2002 chose to announce that we were withdrawing our support for the Kyoto protocol. I intend to make further comments on that later in this address.

I am very excited to have been given the opportunity by the former leader, Mark Latham, to be the shadow minister for environment and heritage. Firstly, I want to pay tribute to my colleague Kelvin Thomson for the strong and coherent environmental platform he developed and which Labor took to the 2004 general election. It was a policy framework which advanced the national debate in key areas, including climate change, salinity, the Murray-Darling Basin, coastal ecosystems, the Daintree and Tasmania’s old-growth forests. [start page 158]

At the beginning of the 21st century, one cannot help but look back over the past 200 years and marvel at our scientific progress, whose application has provided us with not just a better understanding of own world but has enabled us to explore the far reaches of the galaxy. While this progress has undoubtedly enriched our lives, it has also had profound consequences for the health of our planet.

While revolutionary advances in medical science have significantly cut infant mortality rates, increased life expectancy and controlled the spread of infectious diseases, they have also accelerated population growth. In just the last 200 years, the world’s population has increased sixfold and is expected to reach 8.9 billion by 2050. Industrialisation and technological innovation, while transforming the methods of producing the goods and services that underpin our ever-increasing living standards, also emit significant amounts of pollutants into the soil, the oceans and the atmosphere as well as relying on the exploitation of finite natural resources. The impact of our activities on the natural environment is large and growing.

Today’s progress runs the very real risk of being achieved at tomorrow’s expense. The state of the environment is the most fundamental of intergenerational issues. Left unchecked, environmental degradation has the potential to cripple economies and radically alter human existence on this planet. At the beginning of this century, the global community is at a crossroad. The science is clear and compelling: ecological decline is accelerating and many of the world’s ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds.

Over-exploitation of our natural resources, habitat loss from urbanisation and the clearing of forests for farmland, competition from introduced animals and plants, along with climate change induced by a 30 per cent increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are threatening the world’s biodiversity. The facts are these: an eighth of all birds, a quarter of all mammals, a third of amphibians, 50 per cent of turtles and tortoises, and 8,323 plant species are on the brink of extinction. According to the IUCN, the World Conservation Union—a body representing 10,000 internationally recognised scientists and experts from more than 180 countries—the current extinction rate may be 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate, a rate not seen since the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Since the industrial revolution average global surface temperatures have risen by one degree Celsius—the most dramatic rise for over 1,000 years. The five hottest years on record have occurred in the last seven years, the 10 hottest in the last 14. Snow cover has decreased 10 per cent since the 1960s and glaciers that have not retreated since the last ice age 12,000 years ago are now doing so.

Average temperatures in the arctic are rising two to three times faster than the global average, resulting in the region’s ice caps losing half their thickness in recent decades. These changes not only threaten local animal species but also have implications for sea levels and global biodiversity as local habitats for migratory species disappear. In 1998, most of the corals of the Indian Ocean died and, in 2002, there was mass coral reef mortality across the South Pacific. In total, more than a quarter of the world’s coral reefs, the most productive and diverse ecosystem in the ocean, have been lost.

According to the World Commission on Water, more than half the world’s major rivers are seriously depleted and polluted, degrading and poisoning the surrounding ecosystems. Forests are being cut down at a rate of nine million hectares a year, equivalent to losing 2.4 per cent of the total forested area each year. Deforestation of tropical forests is almost one per cent per year. Alarmingly, at least half of all logging activities in vulnerable regions such as the Amazon basin, Central Africa, South-East Asia and the Russian Federation are thought to be illegal. Three-quarters of fisheries stocks are exploited at or above maximum capacity and several have already collapsed due to over-fishing. Although ozone loss over Antarctica appears to have stabilised, there is no direct evidence of long-term recovery. Natural disasters caused by extreme weather conditions are rising three times faster than those, such as earthquakes, that are not. [start page 159]

Environmental decline is also exacting a human toll. Even after decades of declining poverty in many nations, 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water and hundreds of millions breathe unhealthy air. Environmental degradation is worsening many natural disasters. For example, population growth has led people to settle in flood prone valleys and unstable hillsides where deforestation and climate change have increased their vulnerability to natural disasters such as tropical storms.

World wide, the number of people affected by floods alone has risen from seven million in the 1960s to 150 million today. But while it is easy to become despondent at the damage human activity has already done to the health of our planet, there are emerging signs of progress that provide hope:

Today, of course, the Kyoto protocol comes into force, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emission amongst industrialised nations by 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated his commitment to making climate change a priority during his presidency of the G8 group of industrialised nations. This important economic body represents the world’s largest economies, including the United States, which account for 47 per cent of global emissions.

Earlier this month, seven African leaders signed a joint treaty protecting their continent’s massive rainforests, second only to those found in the Amazon basin, from logging. Described as being one of the world’s two lungs, the African forests have been shrinking at a rate of 8,000 square kilometres per year.

While responsibility for the significant examples of environmental degradation that I have listed earlier must be shared by all the nations of the world, Australia’s stewardship of our natural environment has been inadequate of itself. Pressures on Australia’s diverse and fragile environment continue to grow. The Australia state of the environment 2001 report, compiled by an independent committee for the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage, concluded:

… the state of the Australian natural environment has improved very little since 1996, and in some critical aspects, has worsened.

After 217 years of European settlement, the environmental body count is mounting. Australia’s coral reefs, including the iconic Great Barrier Reef, have been degraded by sediment and nutrient run-off and bleaching events. Three thousand unique natural habitats and 1,500 species have disappeared. In Queensland alone, one million hectares of vegetation was cleared between 2001 and 2003. More than 50 per cent of Australia’s eucalypt forests and three-quarters of its rainforests have been cleared for agricultural, industrial and urban development. More than two million hectares of arable land has been lost to salinity, costing the economy about $1 billion a year in lost agricultural production and environmental damage. [start page 160]

According to a recent National Land and Water Resources Audit report, one-third of Australian rivers are in extremely poor condition. The rivers and associated ecosystems of the economically important Murray-Darling Basin are a high-profile case in point. The Australia state of the environment 2001 report stated:

… Australians still have major challenges in the sustainable use of resources and in the maintenance of our natural and cultural heritage.

The Howard government repeatedly laments the many environmental problems confronting Australia and the planet but lacks the vision and conviction to deliver positive outcomes.

Domestically, the government’s approach to addressing the many environmental challenges confronting Australia has been characterised by the setting of deadlines it has no intention of filling, by an incapability of building strong partnerships with other levels of government and by the allocation of funding it is unable to spend effectively but which is targeted at achieving political rather than environmental outcomes. To find a prime example of this approach, you need look no further than the government’s much vaunted National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. An Australian National Audit Office investigation found three fundamental areas of mismanagement. The first was a failure to meet a set timetable for action. The report stated:

The consensus from consultations during the course of the audit indicates that this will not be possible within the eight-year timeframe originally envisaged for the NAP.

The second area was a failure to deliver positive environmental outcomes. The report stated:

From the survey conducted by the ANAO of regional bodies, only eight per cent of regions agreed with the statement that, `decisions on funding for regional plans and investment strategies are timely and address the needs of the regions’.

The third area was the significant underspend. As at 30 June 2004, the halfway point of the program, only 23.75 per cent of the $700 million committed to the program had been allocated to projects.

Internationally, the government’s attitude is best epitomised by its approach to climate change, and the Kyoto protocol in particular. On the one hand, you have the Prime Minister telling Australians that ratification of the Kyoto protocol would cost jobs and place unfair fetters on parts of the economy; on the other hand, you have his environment minister lecturing the international community about how inadequate and half-hearted the agreement is. Extraordinarily, today the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying:

“Whether or not those emissions are causing climate change, I don’t know …

“If you go back across history, millions of years, carbon-dioxide levels go up and down and global warming comes and goes. I mean, the Earth is a lot warmer than it was when the glaciers formed.”

I have to say that is correct. It is also correct that the world is round. The fact that the minister is a member of the National Party is no excuse for that attitude of climate change scepticism, about which the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, on 4 January, said:

I think we need to engage the climate sceptics, those people who are pulling the doona up over their heads, and get past the debate over whether or not climate change is real.

Climate change is real. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned, climate change could be `a challenge so far reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power that it alters radically human existence’.

From day one, Labor has been committed to ratifying the Kyoto protocol and to greenhouse gas reductions across all sectors. By contrast, the government has refused to sign the protocol and has relied on the states phasing out land clearing to achieve Australia’s target. Labor believes implementation of the protocol is only the start of a truly long-term strategy, one that will be handed to our children and grandchildren. That strategy must be working with other nations to set progressively more stringent time bound emission targets over the next 50 years; assisting developing countries to meet those emission reduction targets; and building regulatory and market based systems that will see Australia meets its commitments, generate economic opportunity and provide model systems for other countries. The government will have none of those. Instead, the government plays the role of the environmental sceptic and uses its transparent, tired old strategies of funding demonstration projects and R&D activities to bury the issue, such as with its proposals in last year’s energy white paper.

Without a doubt, reversing environmental degradation and putting our economy onto a low carbon and sustainable footing will be amongst the most difficult issues confronting Australian governments over coming decades. Labor does not, however, accept the argument that the pursuit of environmental sustainability threatens future economic and employment growth. Eban Goodstein, author of The Trade-off Myth: Fact and Fiction about Jobs and the Environment recently wrote:

For almost thirty years, economists have been gathering data on the employment impacts of environmental regulation, and the facts are in. For the economy as a whole, there simply is no job-environment trade-off.

To the contrary, just as science and technology have given us the tools to measure and understand environmental problems, so too can they help us solve them. The potential for innovation, scientific discovery and hence business investment growth is immense. With the right policy framework, the very act of addressing our environmental challenges has the potential to unleash new commercial forces and unforseen business opportunities. New jobs, new technologies and new markets opened by clean energies bring economic benefits. In Spain, Denmark and Germany alone the expansion of the renewable energy sector has created about a quarter of a million new jobs in the last few years. The Howard government’s refusal to show leadership at home or be part of international efforts such as the Kyoto protocol is not only reckless environmental policy but also bad economic policy.

It is clear that stemming environmental degradation and creating an environmentally sustainable global economy requires, above all, leadership. What remains in doubt, however, is whether today’s political and business leaders are going to rise to the challenge or whether we are simply going to leave the problem to future generations. I believe that, precisely because of the magnitude of the challenge, we do not have the luxury of delaying action any longer. Thankfully, there are people in industry with the foresight to acknowledge that a transition to a sustainable global economy is not a matter of whether it will happen but how and on what timescale.

Lord Oxburgh, the non-executive Chairman of Shell, one of the world’s biggest energy and petrochemical companies, recently wrote:

Coal and oil have successfully fuelled the economic development of the western world for a century and a half, and demand for energy will continue to rise sharply. But by starting to manage our carbon dioxide emissions now, we may be able to limit the effects of climate change to levels to which we can adapt.

To their credit, Shell have taken up the challenge. They have committed themselves to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by at least five per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 and investing in wind power, solar energy, hydrogen, biofuels and cleaner ways of using coal. Approximately 20 per cent of the solar panels now installed around the world have been made by Shell.

Another major energy supplier, British Petroleum, has set and achieved a target of reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent in just three years through the application of new technology, more efficient energy usage and the elimination of flaring and, in so doing, improved its bottom line by some $650 million. In 2000 the Chairman of the Ford Motor Company questioned the long-term future of both the internal combustion engine and the personal car, as his company has stepped up its efforts to develop new transportation technologies.

I wish to conclude my comments by making this point. It appears that everybody today, from governments to corporations, support and endorse environmental sustainability. Many go to great lengths to detail on their web sites, in their annual reports to shareholders and on budget nights the initiatives they have undertaken to protect our natural environment. It is now part of the economic bottom line. While the adoption of the language of sustainability by such a diverse group of organisations is a welcome development, the concern is that it is not being turned into substantive action. Instead, it is simply being used to placate critics.

Dr Richard Denniss, Deputy Director of the Australia Institute, has warned:

Sustainability now seems to have more to do with sustaining the status quo than it does with sustaining the environment.

If we do not start today making radical changes to the way we relate to our natural environment, then the promises of environmental sustainability will not be realised and the world we leave to our children and grandchildren will be in worse shape than the one we inherited. I think it is indeed a tragedy that this morning I moved that we have a debate and a vote on my Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change (Kyoto Protocol Ratification) Bill 2005. What an outrage that the world is celebrating the coming into effect of the Kyoto protocol and yet, here in the Australian parliament, we are not even having a debate. We need to move beyond that and recognise that the environment is not a fringe issue, because, when it comes to our natural environment, there is no second chance.