Dec 17, 2004

Matters of Public Importance: Kyoto Protocol


17 December 2004

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.52 p.m.) —When Senator Ian Campbell became the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, he described himself as being for many years a sceptic on global warming and climate change. However, very soon after, on the Insiders program, in his first media performance, he said he `wasn’t a sceptic anymore’. He now describes climate change as the biggest environmental challenge facing the international community. Well, hallelujah! Welcome to the real world, Minister: it is the single most important challenge facing the international community.

Today marks the beginning of the 10th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is being held in Buenos Aires. According to article 13(2) of the Kyoto protocol, because Australia has not ratified the protocol, our ability to formally participate in the proceedings of the UN conference currently being held in Buenos Aires is severely compromised. According to the protocol, as a country which has not ratified, Australia `may participate as observers in the proceedings of any session of the conference’ but not participate as a serious player.

The Russian government’s recent decision to ratify the Koyoto protocol means that Australia is now in an even more isolated position because of this Australian government’s failure to ratify it. However, this has not stopped the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, others from the department and staff spending taxpayers’ money to fly themselves to Argentina for a conference where they will be on the outside looking in. The Kyoto protocol is not good enough to ratify, sign up to and be a part of—but we will not miss out on the international junket! Australia will find itself on the outside looking in, as will the minister. Looking in like a gatecrasher at a 21st birthday, the minister would have us believe that he will be taken seriously—but he will not be.

The world is moving quickly. The Kyoto protocol will come into effect on 16 February next year. The Kyoto protocol is a carrot and stick approach. Essentially there is a deal involved here: countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and in return they get the carrot of gaining new economic opportunities through a global carbon trading scheme. The government boasts about meeting the targets, but it is missing out on the economic opportunities that are there. This is a no-brainer. For the government to not ratify the protocol is an extraordinary abrogation of its responsibility to this nation and its greater responsibility to the international community.

The emission of greenhouse gases associated with industrialisation in a world population that has increased sixfold in 200 years is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has now become alarming and will become an absolute crisis. The increase in global warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is simply unsustainable in the long term. We have changed and are continuing to change the balance of gases that form the atmosphere. This is especially true of key greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Greenhouse gases are vital because they act like a blanket around the earth. Without this natural blanket, the earth’s surface would be some 30 degrees colder than it is today.

The problem is that human activity is making the blanket thicker. For example, when we burn coal and oil, we spew huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. When we destroy forests, the carbon stored in the trees escapes to the atmosphere. If emissions continue to grow at current rates, it is almost certain that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will double from pre-industrial levels during the 21st century. The rate of global warming is simply unsustainable.

Everyone can help in a small way, but political representatives have a special responsibility to act. As Prime Minister Tony Blair stated in a major speech on climate change on 15 September, the challenge of climate change:

… is complicated politically by two factors. First, its likely effect will not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken, has passed. In other words, there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact. Secondly, no one nation alone can resolve it. It has no definable boundaries. Short of international action commonly agreed and commonly followed through, it is hard even for a large country to make a difference on its own.

If no steps are taken to slow greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite possible that levels will triple by the year 2100. The most direct result, according to the scientific consensus, is a one-degree warming by 2030 at the latest and a three-degree increase in temperature over the next 100 years. And it is happening right now. The 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1990. Average global temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.

Just to reassure conservative members opposite that this record is not a green conspiracy or simply a media beat-up, the world’s biggest insurers are all joining the chorus of concerns over the connection between global warming and severe weather events. According to the federal government’s own report released in December 2003, Australia will be gripped by increasing natural disasters, costly droughts and water shortages as temperatures rise. There is no question climate change will drastically affect farmers, as droughts increase in frequency and intensity, according to the recent 240-page Australian Greenhouse Office assessment.

Tourism operators will also be hit hard as hotter water temperatures kill coral in the Great Barrier Reef and because the number of days over 35 degrees in most capital cities is set to nearly double. International experts reported just today that 20 per cent of the world’s reefs have already been destroyed by human activities—mainly rising temperatures, coastal development and pollution. The experts say that another 50 per cent of the world’s reefs are under serious threat from coral bleaching associated with climate change. While scientists are busily working to understand more clearly the effects of our greenhouse gas emissions, countries around the globe have joined together to confront the problem. Literally thousands of scientists are now engaged in this work. They have scrutinised the data and developed some of the world’s most powerful computer models to describe and predict our climate.

There is no doubt that the time to act is now. Tony Blair was right when he said, `No one nation alone can resolve climate change,’ because climate change does not have definable boundaries. As of 25 November, 129 nation states and regional bodies, such as the EU, had ratified the Kyoto protocol. It is worth noting that every member country of the OECD, except Australia and the United States, has ratified Kyoto. The Kyoto protocol’s creation in 1997 followed compelling evidence from the 2,000 or so scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that urgent action was required. However, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, the Prime Minister has stated that ratifying the Kyoto protocol would not be in Australia’s interests. The government is prepared to take the cost, but it does not want the benefits. The truth is that it is in the economic interests of Australia to ratify the protocol.

On the economic front, the government should think again. Firstly, the targets for the first phase of greenhouse gas reductions—just over five per cent in 2008-12—are modest to say the least. Secondly, the protocol was designed to be flexible. There are numerous actions that governments and industry can take. Under the Kyoto protocol industrial countries can offset their emissions by clean and green energy systems in other countries. This will not only deliver much-needed electricity to poorer parts of the world but also increase the market, export and job creation prospects at home and abroad. The Kyoto protocol is a recipe for prosperity and financial savings rather than economic harm. Australia is the worst greenhouse polluter in the world per capita—25 per cent higher than the United States. So we have a responsibility to lead—not to denigrate as the parliamentary secretary does opposite—developing countries. Every other country in the OECD except for the United States is showing that leadership, and it is happening throughout the world. Yesterday the Minister for the Environment and Heritage said:

There’s no carbon trading taking place at the moment … and the costs of setting that up are so high they outweigh the benefits.

This is simply not true. Canada is currently developing an emissions trading scheme, and since March 2000 the EU has being developing an EU-wide emissions trading scheme. In the United States nine north-eastern states have agreed to develop a regional emissions trading scheme in the absence of action at the national level. In the US, action is already taking place. Senator John McCain, the Republican senator, in concert with Senator Joe Lieberman, from the Democratic Party, recently put forward a proposition to have a flexible method of market trading to reduce gases implicated in global warming. And the EU was not the only major economic entity developing plans. It is happening here. In September 2000, Australia took its first step towards carbon trading when the Commonwealth Bank of Australia announced it would manage BP Australia’s new register of emission reduction units. BP Australia was positioning itself so that, if carbon trading becomes a reality, oil companies such as BP would use these clean units to offset their own emissions. BP’s aim was to work with other groups to bring about a pilot emissions trading scheme in Australia that would not be mandatory, and it was already participating in the parent company’s internal emissions trading.

Tradeable pollution rights and emissions trading are being increasingly used as an environmental policy tool for pollution control. This is a well known fact. Perhaps someone should tell the minister and the parliamentary secretary, because it allows firms to trade the right to emit specific pollutants. They are now being proposed as a method for meeting Kyoto protocol targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Global firms such as BP and Shell established these internal carbon trading systems more than four years ago. Given the minister has so comprehensively misstated what is actually happening when he said no carbon trading was taking place, I might just give some detail of what is happening right now in the EU. After intense negotiations, the European Parliament in 2003 approved the directive establishing the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. Implementation at EU as well as member state level commenced. The major implementation tasks public authorities have worked on include passing the EU directive into national law, identifying the installations that would participate in the scheme, developing and implementing national allocation plans and designing and implementing an electronic allowance registry system. This is all happening, and it is due to start on 1 January 2005. It will establish the world’s largest market in greenhouse gas emissions.

But Australia wants to go it alone. The environment minister is over there in Buenos Aires. I am not sure what he is doing—perhaps he is at the beach—because he says that Australia should not ratify the protocol. If you are not going to participate in an organisation in a treaty, surely it is beyond belief that you turn up at the conference and have any credibility. But the minister also says Australia is meeting its targets. On one level, perhaps that is arguable, but only because, at this stage, of the actions of the Queensland state government in halting land clearing. The federal government had a deal with Queensland which it then reneged on. If you put that aside, Australia has a continuing disastrous performance on greenhouse gas emissions. Australia needs to be part of the international community, sign up to the protocol and do the right thing, because it is in the interests of the international environment and also in Australia’s economic interests. It makes sense for the economy, it makes sense for jobs and it makes sense for the environment. Australia should sign up before February 16 next year. (Time expired)