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Protecting the clean energy package

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Penny Wright 3 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:46):  I rise to speak against the Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013 and related bills. In 2011 I was extremely proud to stand in this parliament as a South Australian senator with the Australian Greens and vote for a visionary package of 18 clean energy bills, which was to finally establish a framework for tackling the urgent challenge of climate change, and it was going to tackle it in a comprehensive and coordinated way. Today we are facing legislation which is designed to smash that framework and take us backwards, take us away from a system which is delivering a decrease in carbon emissions over and above what we dared hope for in 2011 and encouraging investment in energy efficient industries.


The fact is that this move from the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his government is stupid, irresponsible and deeply, deeply cynical. It is the outcome of a relentless political strategy to gain office. In opposition, Mr Abbott deliberately drummed up fear and confusion about climate change and actively encouraged the public to turn away from science and knowledge towards ignorance and prejudice. So, when it comes to the coalition's approach to climate change, do not look for policy, do not look for evidence and, despite all the rhetoric, do not look for good faith. Instead you will find political expediency. In trying to work out what is going on here, you will find an irrational and deeply visceral urge to destroy any legacy of the previous term of government, even if that legacy is, as we have constantly seen, effective, actually saves money and is demonstrably in the national interest, as we face the challenge of climate change across the planet, not just in Australia, this century. So, yes, I am dismayed by the fact that I have to stand here and face this onslaught, and I am angry about it.

This government's determination to rip down the clean energy package, repeal the price on pollution, dismantle the Climate Change Authority and destroy the Clean Energy Corporation I think amounts to a fundamental breach of the trust that lies at the heart of our democratic process in Australia, and that is the trust that people have when they vote for a government to govern in the best interests of the Australian people. The Australian people includes our young people; it includes the children, teenagers and young adults who cannot yet vote, but these are the Australian people who will inherit a parched and dangerous future if we do not do what we know we need to do now to prevent that from happening. If we do not take effective action, it is they who will experience the worst of it long after most of us in this parliament are well gone.

The Australian people also includes the farmers and the people on the land, one of the constituencies that this government, the Liberal Party and their National Party allies, claim to represent. These are people who are actually working at the coalface of climate. In my view it is a huge breach of faith that the government have sold these rural Australians a pup. The government have misled the very constituents who are relying on them to govern in their interests. Most recently, the Prime Minister has been out professing to care about farmers, but his drought package does nothing to acknowledge the increasing threat of climate change, which is acknowledged by the vast majority of scientists. It does nothing to build resilience in the face of what we know is coming.

The government's white paper, the guide to long-term agricultural policy, does not mention climate change at all. It is as if the drafters do not see climate change influencing agriculture into the foreseeable future, yet this view is at odds with most experts in climate and those who are working around the planet at the interface of climate and agriculture. Indeed, as it was reported in The Land on 1 March, the US Department of Agriculture's 2014 proposed budget includes US$98 million earmarked for programs researching interactions between climate change and agriculture-because they get it; they know that climate change is going to be an integral part of farming in the 21st century.

David Lobell, a Stanford University environmental scientist who, in 2013, was awarded a $600,000 MacArthur genius grant to further his work on the effects of climate change on food production, calculates that climate change has already clipped 10 per cent from global farming productivity growth over the last decade or so. He says that temperatures are rising and that generally temperatures do bad things to crops. Yes, we have experienced variations in climate in Australia, but the scientists are clearly telling us that these variations will get worse and more extreme as our climate becomes more volatile.

There is something that we can do about it. It is totally irresponsible not to take effective action.

The most recent report from the Climate Council, which was released on 18 February, shows Australian cities are already experiencing extreme heat. This is the extreme heat that was predicted in the 1990s, but it was not predicted to occur until 2030-so it is coming early. Heatwaves in Australia are becoming longer and hotter, occurring more often and starting earlier in the season. Since 1950, the number of record hot days across Australia has more than doubled. These heatwaves lead to more drought, more severe bushfires, more deaths of vulnerable people, the deaths of other animals in other species and the disruption of ecosystems.

So in 2014 and forward, ever more serious droughts and other extreme conditions will make it harder and harder for farmers to make a go of it. It will, tragically, drive some of them to suicide. Yet this government is intent on tearing down any vestige of the Clean Energy Future package-the 18 acts that are showing a reduction in carbon emissions in Australia. This move is spiteful, it is illogical and it is science denying.

What is interesting to note is that it has not always been like this. I would like to quote from a rather inspiring document now. It is a manifesto from a different era. I quote:

We embrace the philosophy of sustainable development - we reject the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment. We can have both, at the same time pursuing strategies of ecologically responsible development which improves our standards of living while promoting responsible, conservation policies which improve our quality of life.

We will work with all Australians to achieve these goals and with the States, the conservation movement, industry, scientists and all concerned citizens.

We seek a co-operative, federalist approach to the solution of environmental problems but we will never resile from a willingness to act in the genuine national interest wherever that is required.

This is a document signed by Senator Chris Puplick, who was then the shadow environment minister and minister for the arts, and Andrew Peacock, the then leader of the Liberal Party, when they were in opposition in 1990. This was the Liberal Party's climate change policy in 1990. I have the document here and I will be seeking leave to table this document in a minute.

They talk of sustainability and being responsible to ecology. They talk about the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment. They talk about working with people and the conservation movement, industry and scientists. They talk about the national interest. They were the glory days, indeed. At that time, the Liberal Party had a target to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2000. Today, 24 years later, when all the direst predictions from those days are starting to come true and come true early, the coalition's goal is to reduce emissions by five per cent. Even then, they have no effective mechanisms to achieve this paltry target.

Last week, the independent Climate Change Authority recommended Australian's emissions reduction target be almost quadrupled to 19 per cent by 2020 and suggested that it should then dramatically ramp up in the next decade to cut 40 to 60 per cent of emissions by 2030. I seek leave now to table this document, which outlines the Liberal Party's climate change policy from 1990. It is a very inspiring document which contains the signature of then opposition leader Andrew Peacock.

Leave granted.

Senator WRIGHT:  The truth is that the Clean Energy Future package-18 related bills introduced into the last parliament at the instigation of the Australian Greens and with the support of Labor-is working. Australia's emissions are being reduced in the various sectors which are covered. The electricity sector emissions were reduced by 6.1 per cent in the year to March last year. That is 12 million tonnes of CO2 less than the previous year.

In the first six months of the scheme, emissions from electricity generation came down by seven per cent and the dirtiest brown coal generation in Victoria fell by 14 per cent. The scheme only covers around 60 per cent of our total emissions, and yet total emissions-including transport, agriculture and waste that are not covered by the scheme-have remained flat while our economy has grown. In short, the vital decoupling of economic growth from emissions growth has now begun. But, despite this progress, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Climate Change Authority and the Land Sector Carbon and Biodiversity Board will be abolished by Mr Abbott's repeal package.

So, it is clear that, having just embarked on effective action on climate change, we are now again at a crossroads. We can go forward moving confidently towards the clean energy, low-carbon economy that will position us well in a world that will be increasingly intolerant of high-carbon industries and practices or we can remain fixated on failed policies of dig it up, cut it down and ship it away. This will lead us, as the scientists are telling us, to a volatile and dangerous future.

The Australian Greens oppose this bill, because we value a safe climate and a secure future for the next generation. We are not alone; we stand with thousands of Australians who oppose the trashing of these vital laws. In my own state of South Australia, 4,000 people marched for climate action in November last year. Half that number again have signed our petition calling to maintain climate action. We have heard from many of these people, beseeching us to be on the right side of history.

We have heard from Dianne. She and her husband are semi-retired farmers in a marginal area of the wheat belt in South Australia and they want strong action in response to climate change because they believe their children deserve to inherit a healthy planet. She writes of the measures they have taken themselves and then she says:

First, we are convinced by the science of climate change. Second, we have lived long enough on our land-over 35 years-to experience what we would argue are increasingly severe weather events that we believe are the result of climate change. Third, when our children were young we took them to the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkelled and dived in pristine waters surrounding reefs vibrant with multi-coloured coral and fish. Years later my husband and I returned to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and were devastated to see the state of the reefs we visited. They were, in reality and metaphorically, a pale imitation of the stunning World Heritage reef we had previously seen. Fourth, we believe climate change has been brought about by human intervention and that we should all contribute within our own capacities to intervention designed to reverse the change. We think we have already contributed significantly to intervention strategies in our own lives. Now, it seems, the coalition's direct action plan is asking us to pay again. Yet we wonder: when and how do the emitters pay?

And Merilyn has told us she does not want to be a 'here and now' Australian; she simply wants to ensure that her grandchildren, and future Australians, have a reasonable world to live in.

These South Australians have a right to be concerned. All the evidence is that the implications of climate change for my home state of South Australia will be catastrophic. We have just come through one of the hottest summers on record-just five years since the last one, in 2009. The Bureau of Meteorology has reported: 'One of the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record affected south-east Australia over the period 13 to 18 January 2014. While peak temperatures mostly fell short of those observed in 2009 and 1939, extreme heat persisted for a longer period than it did in those heatwaves over some areas, particularly near coastal regions of Victoria and South Australia, including Melbourne and Adelaide.' Numerous records were broken for extended periods of heat in January this year. On Thursday the United Nations Meteorological Organization declared that Adelaide was the hottest city in the world. Having effective climate action is absolutely crucial for the people of South Australia, not only in the future but, as we have seen, for people living right now.

The economic costs of failure to act on climate change are well documented. Contrary to the government's mantra that the carbon price is unaffordable, abolishing it will actually come with a huge price tag that will be paid for by future Australians-and by the poorest of the world-for generations to come. In 2006, economist Sir Nicholas Stern carried out the most comprehensive review ever on the financial cost of global warming and found that climate change could not only devastate the environment but also cut the world's annual economic growth by 20 per cent and cost $9 trillion. Three weeks ago he wrote that the risks are even bigger than he first realised, with annual greenhouse gas emissions increasing steeply and some of the impacts, such as the decline of Arctic sea ice, starting to happen much more quickly. Stern has recommended that governments raise money by 'implementing a strong price on greenhouse gas pollution across the economy, which also helps to reduce emissions and fosters low-carbon technological development and innovation to drive economic growth and avoid the enormous risks of unmanaged climate change'.

In Australia, this is what we have done. The price on carbon has been a source of revenue to a government that claims to be in the midst of a budget emergency. At a time when revenue forecasts are shrinking-and the government is using that as an excuse to cut scientific research, childcare workers, universities and low-income superannuation benefits-the post-election report from the Parliamentary Budget Office shows that abolishing the carbon price would remove $7.3 billion from the government's revenue stream over the forward estimates. What is even worse, half a trillion dollars of investment in low-emissions projects is at risk if the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is scrapped. The CEFC is brilliant. It can deliver three per cent of the five per cent abatement which the government has targeted while turning a profit for the government. It will increase the budget balance and ensure that tens of billions of dollars of private capital is invested in Australia. Every dollar it has spent has generated $3 in private sector investment.

If you look at the CEFC's website, there are some great case studies from South Australia. An icecream maker up in Laura, in the mid-north, who employs 50 people has managed to get a cheaper loan-not a grant, but a subsidised loan-where they leverage private money as well. They have reduced their carbon emissions by 50 per cent and secured their future, including exports to Asia. An office block in Adelaide used CEFC money to replace its lighting and reduce its CO2 emissions from lighting by 40 per cent. And there are other South Australian projects which would be well able to use the money and would benefit all of us. There is a solar thermal plant up in Port Augusta. Various Riverland farmers want to put solar panels in to help insulate them against the next drought coming. There is geothermal which is struggling in the far north of the state for want of investment-it is a project at risk. The beauty of the CEFC is that it leverages private money. It offers concessional rates and it offers longer term paybacks, which is what a lot of these industries absolutely need. The Investor Group on Climate Change says that, if the CEFC is trashed by this government, money and investment in skills will either sit on the sidelines or go to other markets.

The Australian Greens are long-term advocates of a price on carbon. We stand for sensible and responsible policy and investment based on established science and economics. We do not support this bill; we are on the right side of history for this. Unfortunately, that gives us little comfort if our fellow members of this national parliament are not willing to act on principle-and not out of spite-and vote with us against this bill. I will finish with this question: when future Australians look back at this government, and at this time, and ask- (Time expired)


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