Meeting the Challenge of Sustainability
Australian Fabian Society National Conference
11 November 2005
Today I want to give you a sense of the great environmental challenge facing Australia and outline how Labor is well placed to address that challenge.
Labor’s challenge is to ensure that environmental sustainability is central to the economic and social policy debate – central, not secondary.
Labor must challenge the view promoted by conservatives that a choice must be made between economic and environmental objectives, between jobs and the environment.
That is a false debate.
Labor has to continue to be out there listening and talking to the community about environmental issues – climate change, water, protecting our heritage.
That’s one of my main tasks – it’s what I do – and it’s also important that Kim Beazley, Wayne Swan, Lindsay Tanner and others are talking about the environment, and incorporating sustainability into their way of thinking.
I’m pleased to report that is increasingly the case.
Labor has prioritised 4 environmental themes, and we’re campaigning hard on these issues.
These issues are: climate change, water, sustainable cities and protection of our natural and cultural heritage.
Just as sustainability must be at the centre of economic and social policy, so must climate change be at the centre of sustainability.
Climate change is clearly Australia’s number one environmental issue. It will have profound implications for our way of life, our economy, our water supply, our cities and our natural heritage.
But it’s not just an environmental issue – it will hurt our economy, our health, our society.
I want to briefly remind you of the scale of the challenge we face with climate change.
A recent Australian Government report, Climate Change Risk and Vulnerability, suggests Australia could face the following risks from climate change:
• an increase in annual national average temperatures of between 0.4 and two degrees by 2030 and up to six degrees by 2070;
• as much as a 20 per cent reduction in rainfall in south-west Australia and up to a 20 per cent reduction in run-off in the Murray-Darling Basin by 2030; and
• more severe cyclones, storms and bushfires.
These threats could put some of our significant population and tourist centres like Cairns, Broome, Darwin and Townsville at considerable risk.
Our major capital cities in southern Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth – will face increased pressure on access to critical natural resources, like water.
Climate change is also a public health issue.
Recent research from the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Conservation Foundation suggests:
• temperature related deaths in Australia could more than double over the next 15 years to 2 500 deaths per year;
• flood related deaths and injuries may increase by 240% in some regions; and
• there will be an increase in the intensity and frequency of food-borne and water-borne disease.
Make no mistake. This will have a wide impact and will particularly hurt low income earners, the elderly and remote Aboriginal communities.
That means climate change is also a social justice issue.
So those of us who care about social justice, who care about people’s health, who care about a healthy economy have to care about climate change.
We cannot build sustainable cities unless we avoid dangerous climate change.
We cannot address our water crisis unless we avoid dangerous climate change.
We cannot protect our heritage unless we avoid dangerous climate change.
In fact, the storm clouds of climate change hang darkly over the future of Australia’s great natural wonders.
The Great Barrier Reef could be one of the first victims of climate change.
Rising global water temperatures are increasing the incidence of ‘bleaching’ events and coral diseases, and this could result in the complete collapse of the Reef in as little as 20 years.
The Wet Tropics is also highly vulnerable to climate change. Half of northern Queensland’s highland tropical forests could disappear over this century.
Kakadu also faces a very uncertain future. If global temperatures rise by a further 2 degrees, half of Kakadu’s majestic wetlands will be wiped out.
Labor worked hard in Government to protect these natural treasures, but now they are under real threat.
The Climate Change Risk and Vulnerability report urged the Howard Government to give particular priority to our World Heritage areas.
It urged the Government to explicitly factor the threat from climate change into the Natural Heritage Trust and other Government programs.
There is no evidence, however, that this has happened.
In fact, the Howard Government seems to have given up on our World Heritage properties.
We have a National Heritage List which is supposed to protect places of genuine national significance.
But only one of our 16 World Heritage sites are protected through the National Heritage List.
Imagine a National Heritage List without the Great Barrier Reef or Kakadu – that’s what we have now.
This is a disgrace.
Even worse, Federal Government funding to State managed World Heritage areas more than halved between 1994/95 and 2003/04 (from $17 million to $7.5 million).
In spite of all of the evidence, the Howard Government refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It refuses to establish a national greenhouse emissions trading scheme. It refuses to set an ambitious renewable energy target.
In fact, Australia’s greenhouse pollution is set to rise by 23% by 2020.
What an outrage.
Dangerous climate change is a real and present danger for Australia’s heritage. It demands urgent domestic and international action, and not the complacency that we see from the Howard Government.
Economic Opportunities in Clean Energy
It has to be said that there are also significant economic opportunities in tackling climate change, opportunities that we are missing because of government complacency.
Because Australia really is a sunburnt country, we all understand the natural fit solar energy is for our energy future.
Australia would have been well-placed to be the Silicon Valley of solar energy 10 years ago. But after nearly a decade of being starved of government backing, it is hard to imagine Australia being able to recover the position we once held as a world leader in solar energy.
Without national leadership, opportunities to capitalise on the fast growing greenhouse friendly industries will be lost to Australian firms.
By doing the right thing by the environment, by investing in clean energy, by supporting market mechanisms to cut greenhouse pollution, we can create innovative new industries and be at the forefront of the sustainability revolution.
That is precisely the point Kim Beazley made in a recent speech to the Institute of Securities, Finance and Banking:
“It’s hard to imagine any issue where government leadership is more clearly required than in addressing climate change, energy efficiency and future carbon costs…
Without national leadership, opportunities to capitalise on the fast growing greenhouse friendly industries will be lost to Australian firms.”
A Beazley Labor Government would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, set a binding national target for greenhouse pollution, establish an ambitious renewable energy target and establish a national emissions trading scheme.
It is simply incoherent for the Howard Government to argue Australia will meet our Kyoto Protocol target, yet at the same time to say the Kyoto Protocol will destroy our economy – you can’t have it both ways.
The Kyoto Protocol is real, it’s in force now and we’re missing the economic opportunities that come from taking early action to cut our greenhouse pollution.
Labor stands for a strong economy, creating wealth and security for all Australians.
Unlike our conservative opponents, we understand that environmental sustainability is not only a necessary component of that economic prosperity, it can also help drive that prosperity.
Doing the right thing by the environment can be good for the economy.
The pricing of our environment and of our natural resources will be the next major economic reform.
It is critical that we establish the real price of production and get that right.
We need to better price our energy resources, our water and our timber, so that we can achieve sustainability dividends from our investments.
The proper pricing of resources will help drive resource efficiency, but at the moment the signals are all wrong.
The price of the most greenhouse intensive energy sources are the lowest. You can get a tax rebate for cutting trees but not for planting them.
There is no incentive to do anything other than go for the option that costs the least.
We have to change that and factor in costs to our environment.
We need to ensure that our national resources are directed to uses that maximise benefit for the current and for future generations.
We need to make sure the technology we develop and apply improves living standards now and into the future.
The economic reforms of the 1980’s did just these things. They moved our national resources up the value chain.
Over the last ten years, there has been a growing understanding of the need for ecological productivity as well as economic productivity, but the Howard Government has been arrogant and complacent.
Yet again we will have to wait for a Labor Government to tackle the next real reform agenda – and with it, the issue of climate change.
Labor is not afraid to tackle the tough issues and to work with industry to ensure that we can address the issue of climate change, achieve long term emission reductions and secure a prosperous economy for Australia.
There is ample proof that resource efficiency can deliver economic growth to the economy and greater profits for business, and Professor Ian Lowe recently spoke about this at the National Press Club.
The recent book, Natural Advantage of Nations, identifies many case studies where companies have reduced their greenhouse pollution and increased production.
While increasing production by nearly 30 per cent, Du Pont has cut its greenhouse gas pollution by over 70 per cent in recent years, saving more than $2 billion in the process.
Five other major firms, including IBM, Alcan, Bayer and British Telecom, have reduced their greenhouse pollution by 60 per cent since the early 1990s and saved another $2 billion.
The Climate Group, a UK based non-profit organisation, recently reported that 43 companies had significantly reduced their greenhouse gas emissions and saved a total of $15 billion.
This shows that energy efficiency is good for the environment but importantly it is also good for the economy.
Another critical element of sustainability reform is ensuring we have the right institutions and policy framework.
This was at the heart of a recent Parliamentary inquiry into sustainable cities.
The bipartisan inquiry recommended establishing an Australian Sustainability Charter that sets national targets for all the key indicators of environmental health, including water, energy, transport and biodiversity.
They also recommended establishing an independent Sustainability Commission which would administer sustainability payments to States and Territories and would monitor the performance of governments across agreed targets.
That’s a level of accountability we don’t have at the moment, and it’s one that could have prevented a decade of mismanagement of the environment and ensured national leadership when it was sorely needed.
The ALP will look closely at this proposal as we develop policies for the next federal election.
The creation of healthier, more sustainable cities is a critical test for our economy and our society.
As Marcus Spiller, the National President of the Planning Institute has said:
“We must not think of sustainable cities as some sort of cost that we have to bear in the interests of a greener and more sustainable future.
The fact is that, if we had sustainable cities, there would be a significant productivity dividend to the country.”
Sustainability is good for the economy and good for the environment.
So this is the challenge for Labor:
• ensure that environmental issues are central to the economic and social policy debate;
• ensure environmental sustainability is a core component of economic strategy;
• ensure that Labor is out there listening and talking to Australians about the issues that matter to them;
• send the message that we must act now to address the threats and opportunities presented by climate change; and
• make sure that sustainability is at the heart of Government.
I am confident that Labor can meet this challenge.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.