May 9, 2007

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 – Second Reading

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007

Second Reading

9 May 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (6.50 p.m.)—I rise to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007. Members of the House would know that I have a long-held interest in the protection and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef—a true Australian treasure and icon. It is this interest that drives me to make one critical point: no number of amendments to legislation that impacts on the Great Barrier Reef will save this national treasure without immediate action by the federal government on climate change. While we have inaction, there will be no saving the Great Barrier Reef. There is ample evidence to show that rising global water temperatures are increasing the incidence of bleaching events and coral diseases. The IPCC was clear in its conclusion that rising temperatures are linked to greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere by human activity. In its Fourth Assessment Report, released in April, the IPCC stated:

Significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some ecologically-rich sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland Wet Tropics ….

Ongoing coastal development and population growth in areas such as Cairns and south-east Queensland (Australia) and Northland to Bay of Plenty (New Zealand), are projected to exacerbate risks from sea level rise and increases in the severity and frequency of storms and coastal flooding by 2050.

If we do not significantly reduce our greenhouse output, we could see the complete collapse of the reef in our lifetime. The evidence is abundant but so are the Howard government climate change sceptics and climate change apologists. We have just heard from one, who stated that Australia was on track to meet our Kyoto protocol target. Firstly, it is unlikely that Australia will meet our generous target. Secondly, those people who say that never acknowledge that in fact Australia is one of only three countries throughout the world that were given a generous figure, increasing their greenhouse gas emissions based on 1990 levels. If you take away the decisions by the Queensland and New South Wales governments to end broad-scale land clearing, you see our greenhouse gas emissions have spiralled, increasing by over 20 per cent since 1990. Our greenhouse gas emissions are on track, according to the government’s own figures, to increase substantially up to the year 2020. The government conveniently ignores the fact that it signed the Kyoto protocol because it had such a generous target and said that it would be, to quote the Prime Minister, ‘a win for the environment and a win for Australian jobs’.

Australia only retreated from that position—and joined with the United States in isolating ourselves from global action—after the United States made that decision. By Australia being outside of the global system, we do not have a say at the table in the post-2012 system. I have attended the last two UN framework convention conferences which have been held in conjunction with the first and seventh international conferences of the parties to the Kyoto protocol, in Montreal and Nairobi. At those conferences Australia does not get a say in the very significant meetings taking place regarding the structure and scope of the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol for post-2012. That is going to be a critical agreement as to whether the world can agree that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a global community. The structure which drives that change is the Kyoto protocol. The embarrassing performances by the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in describing Australia as a global leader is extraordinary, to say the least, and offensive to many, because the evidence is there that we need to take action. The evidence is also there that it is not a case of whether you put the environment or the economy first. It is the case that in order to sustain our economic prosperity we must have a sustainable environment and we must take action on climate change.

Just this week further research conducted by an international team of scientists—from the University of North Carolina, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science—who are working on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has revealed a ‘highly significant relationship’, to quote their report, between coral disease and warmer ocean temperatures. The researchers state their results suggest that climate change could be increasing the severity of disease in the ocean, leading to a decline in the health of marine ecosystems and the loss of the resources and services that humans derive from them. The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to contribute $5.4 billion and 68,000 local jobs to the Australian economy. Worldwide, coral reefs support more than 200 million people. The evidence is overwhelming, yet the federal government’s response is underwhelming. For more than 11 long years the Howard government has been complacent and has comfortably sat back and watched while the Great Barrier Reef has been threatened. It has done that because of an ideological view that is based upon scepticism as to whether climate change is indeed human induced.

Consider the best-case scenario which has been outlined in many reports. In February 2006, the CSIRO report Climate change impacts on Australia and the benefits of early action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions highlighted that, even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased today, the earth would still be committed to an additional warming of between 0.2 and one degree Celsius by the end of the century. The current momentum of the world’s fossil fuel economy precludes the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions over the near term. So it is clear that future global warming is likely to be well over one degree Celsius. Left unchecked, human greenhouse gas emissions will increase several-fold over the 21st century. The CSIRO report states that Australia’s annual average temperatures are projected to increase by between 0.4 and two degrees Celsius above 1990 levels by the year 2030 and by between one degree and six degrees Celsius by 2070. However, if we limit future increases in atmospheric CO to 550 parts per million, we would reduce 21st century global warming to an estimated 1.5 to 2.9 degrees Celsius. This would effectively avoid the more extreme climate changes.

It is widely accepted that a target of a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is required to stabilise CO emissions to 550 parts per million. In Australia we have a government that refuses to engage in discussion about greenhouse gas emissions targets. What does this scepticism mean for the Great Barrier Reef? Even in a best case scenario that we can limit CO to 550 parts per million, the consequences are devastating. A less than one degree Celsius rise in temperature would mean that 60 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef could be regularly bleached. A one-degree or two-degrees temperature rise would mean 58 to 81 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is bleached every year and a two- to three-degrees temperature rise would mean that 97 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef would be bleached every year. We need a plan to address these issues, we need targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and we need the economic instruments that would drive the move to clean energy, which is why we need a national emissions trading scheme. We need bold energy initiatives such as those proposed by Labor’s solar, green energy and water renovations plan for Australian households that will save families money on their energy and water bills and help the environment. We need to ratify the Kyoto protocol. We need a substantial increase in our mandatory renewable energy target.

Unfortunately, climate change is not the only threat to the health and long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef. It is difficult to believe that oil drilling and exploration can still occur on or near the reef. I have introduced a private member’s bill that is still on the Notice Paper that would stop this occurring. My colleague the member for Kingsford Smith has moved an amendment seeking support for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from Oil Drilling and Exploration) Amendment Bill. It was 1983 when the Hawke Labor government acted to prohibit drilling anywhere in the Great Barrier Reef region by extending the borders of that region east to Australia’s exclusive economic zone. Our legislation would remove the threat posed by exploration and mining both on and near the reef. The Howard government has never ruled out oil drilling east of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the very area our bill seeks to protect. If the Howard government is serious about protecting the reef, it will support the passage of Labor’s bill through the parliament. This bill would protect not only the reef’s extraordinarily diverse ecosystem but also the livelihoods of 200,000 Queenslanders and a tourism industry worth billions of dollars annually.

Rather than take practical and long-term action against climate change, the Howard government entertains absurd ideas to protect the Great Barrier Reef. In the collection of absurd ideas, perhaps the worst was the plan of the Minister for Small Business and Tourism to put a shadecloth over the Great Barrier Reef—a bizarre and impractical proposition from a government looking for political cover to hide the fact that it has no plan to tackle climate change. We need to reduce our greenhouse pollution, not publicly brainstorm absurd ideas. The minister, Fran Bailey, was topped on this proposal by the member for Tangney who wants to put a shadecloth in outer space to combat global warming. Dr Jensen, the member for Tangney, said in the Commonwealth of Australia Parliament:

After all, we have heard about aerosols and global dimming. Or what about some sort of shadecloth put in orbit? In that way we could actually tailor the area of the shadecloth and adjust it according to the energy balance.

A completely whacky proposal from a government member who is one of the people always put up to debate climate change in this House. One of the government’s key climate change experts is the member for Tangney, who supports putting a shadecloth into orbit along with putting nuclear reactors all around the coast of Australia—an absolutely extraordinary proposal. Whilst the member for Tangney calls himself a scientist, the plan for a giant intergalactic shadecloth in outer space does not constitute serious scientific discussion on climate change. When you look at the government’s spokespeople—the member for Tangney with his outer space shadecloth; the minister for tourism, a frontbencher, with her plan for a shadecloth to protect the Great Barrier Reef; and a Prime Minister who does not think that climate change exists and is sceptical but still wants to impose 25 nuclear reactors on the coastal areas and urban communities of Australia—it is little wonder that you see this government has no credibility when it comes to climate change.

It keeps going right to the top of this government, because a couple of weeks ago the Prime Minister opened—well, he did not quite open it because it has been shut down—the new Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney, which has undertaken some practical issues. They went ahead with the grand opening anyway, because the Prime Minister wanted to promote and use what is a medical research facility that has broad support to promote his narrow agenda on nuclear reactors. There, at the opening, the Prime Minister said that the Lucas Heights reactor was an ‘Australian icon’—an icon, along with the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. This was the third Sydney icon—not the Rocks, not the Blue Mountains, not Bondi Beach and the pavilion, not Balmoral, not Taronga Park Zoo, not all these great Sydney icons; this was the icon. Well, I say to the Prime Minister: ‘We do have an icon, in Far North Queensland, and that is the Great Barrier Reef’—the largest, most pristine, continuous coral reef archipelago on earth; our treasured natural icon, which is some 18 million years old. And it is astonishing that the government still has not placed the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s National Heritage List. The Prime Minister’s scepticism is getting in the way of good policy.

I conclude with this point: we do need to protect the Great Barrier Reef. I want future generations to have the opportunity that I have had to see this marvellous natural wonder. I also want the economic benefit that comes through jobs, and income to Australia, as a result of the Great Barrier Reef’s presence. But unless we have action on climate change we will not be able to save the Great Barrier Reef. That is a practical demonstration of why we need to move away from this government’s scepticism and have a government, one led by Kevin Rudd, which actually understands that climate change is a great challenge for our generation, and is prepared to do something about it—is prepared to take the action that is required.