Tuesday, 3 August 2021
Environment and Energy Committee; Report
On behalf of the Standing Committee on Environment and Energy, I present the committee's advisory report, incorporating dissenting reports, on the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020 and the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2020, together with the minutes of proceedings.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
by leave—Climate change is one of the world's most challenging and complex areas when it comes to public policy, and that includes here in Australia. What is often left unrecognised amidst the growing ambition to decarbonise Australia's economy is our strong track record in emissions reduction and also in emissions accounting and reporting. The evidence that came before the committee in this inquiry bore out these facts. Australia is not only meeting and beating its international obligations but is on track to beat its 2030 emissions reduction target, and work is already being done to determine a longer-term emissions reduction pathway in line with our commitment to achieving net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050.
Australia's reporting and accountability framework is world leading, providing quarterly reporting on emissions, annual forecasts and an annual low emissions technology statement. However, no area of public policy is without room for improvement, and the climate change bills proposed by the member for Warringah were welcomed by the committee as a contribution to the discussion. The committee, as it always does, diligently considered the proposed bills and the evidence that came before it from those who made submissions and appeared before the committee as witnesses. In its report, the committee has commended positive aspects of the bills, including requirements to consult with experts and the community in framing future climate policies and the importance of ensuring fair employment transition for those industries and workers impacted by change. The committee also supported better utilising the Climate Change Authority as an expert adviser to government and working towards even greater clarity of future emission reduction plans in advance of this year's United Nations COP26 conference.
At the same time, however, the committee's inquiry identified deficiencies in the proposed bills. Let me outline just three. Firstly, the bills proposed a climate change commission which would steer formal policy decisions away from the parliament and the executive to an unelected body. Our system of liberal democracy is well recognised as one of the most mature and well-functioning in the world, and it is imperative that its integrity be maintained. No matter how difficult it is to meet these substantive and political challenges of climate change, we parliamentarians cannot shirk our responsibility to determine the national response. What's more: the Australian people should not be stripped of their right to choose between alternative policy positions at the ballot box. Their voice—the people's voice—especially on an issue as important as climate change, must be protected. Secondly, the proposed climate change commission would replicate work already being done by the federal bureaucracy, including by the Climate Change Authority, and the bills, if they were passed and enacted, would place additional and potentially inappropriate reporting burdens on other Commonwealth agencies. Thirdly, the proposed requirement to reach net zero emissions by 2050 by legislative force, without recognising the importance of addressing the question of how such targets can be achieved, would give rise to a series of risks across the economy and across specific sectors and also for the jobs of hardworking everyday Australians. Does this mean that net zero should not be considered or pursued? No, it doesn't. Indeed, the Australian government has already committed to achieving net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050. But it would be irresponsible for a government to legislate for such a hard target on the what and the when without due consideration of the how. It is for reasons such as these that the committee has recommended that the bills not be passed.
Climate change is a global problem that can only be solved with a global solution. Australia is making its contribution, a strong contribution, and as we continue to do so we should have confidence that our climate objectives can and should be achieved using our existing, proven and world-class climate policy architecture. In a liberal democracy like Australia's, it would be unrealistic—dare I say naive—to expect a national consensus to emerge where everyone agrees on one specific suite of policies to tackle the issue of climate change. That's not a bad thing, I suggest. Liberalism and its two tenets of democracy and capitalism are a strength, not a weakness. When it comes to tackling a challenge as intractable as climate change, it's what allows open debate on public policy and it's what allows enterprise to consider new and emerging technologies.
Lastly, I thank my colleagues on the committee from the Liberal, National and Labor parties, along with the crossbench, who actively participated in and brought a critical lens to this inquiry, and I pay tribute of course to the ever-capable committee secretariat. I commend the report to the House.
[by video link] by leave—I'm glad to make some brief remarks on the tabling of the committee report on the inquiry into the private member's climate change bills, introduced by the member for Warringah, who is also a member of the committee. At the outset, I thank the secretariat for their work in assisting the committee. I acknowledge the effort and application of my fellow committee members under the often very reasonable stewardship of the chair, the member for Fairfax. The bills in question seek to address a harmful policy vacuum that has been created by the present government; namely, the absence of a plan to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the science, in step with the international community and in response to the steepening environmental and economic impacts of inaction. The majority report recommends against the bills. Labor members of the committee believe the bills have merit and should be properly considered, as set out in our additional comments within the report.
Australia previously had an effective omni-wide framework for tackling climate change and supporting the necessary energy sector and broader economic and social transition, and that was Labor's Clean Energy Future scheme. It was removed by the Abbott government, making Australia the only jurisdiction in the world to adopt and then abandon a systemic approach to decarbonisation. While the structure and measures outlined in the member for Warringah's climate change bills are not precisely the way that Labor, if elected to government, would tackle this critical and urgent challenge, Labor members of the committee nevertheless recognise that it presents a considered proposal and should be debated in the Australian parliament.
To some considerable degree, the bills follow the United Kingdom's approach of legislating an emissions reduction target for 2050, establishing an emissions budget framework to guide progress within five-year periods, and creating an independent climate change commission to advise on science and policy and to monitor and report on outcomes. To the extent that that's the approach of the United Kingdom has taken, it's hard to understand how anyone would argue that approach is somehow incompatible with the basic shape and principles of Australian democracy. In any case, Labor members support the need for the Australian government to adopt a commitment of achieving net zero emissions by 2050—a position shared of course by our international peers, by every state and territory government in Australia and by every significant business and industry stakeholder group, from the National Farmers Federation to the Business Council of Australia. Not surprisingly, that strong consensus was also reflected in the submissions to this inquiry.
The principle themes of the evidence to the inquiry were as follows. First, that action on climate change is vital; Australia is clearly not doing enough. Second, there are clear economic and trade benefits of being a proactive and cooperative part of the international decarbonisation effort through the global energy transition that is occurring. Third, that further inaction puts Australia at serious risk, and the longer we delay the more the costs and the risks grow. And, fourth and finally, there is a huge opportunity for Australia to benefit from our advantages in innovation, energy minerals, synergistic industries and high-quality renewable resources of every kind.
I note that Labor members of the committee supported six alternative recommendations that were not adopted as part of the inquiry and report. In addition to the recommendation that the bills be considered and debated by the parliament, recommendations also included sensible further steps like undertaking a full assessment of the sectoral costs of climate change. I note there are news reports this week of the ABARES assessment that farm profits have reduced, on average, 23 per cent between 2001 and 2021 because of climate change.
It's also worth noting that a successful amendment to the report, from the member for North Sydney, included the claim that the Australian government has committed to achieving net zero emissions as soon as possible and preferably before 2050—when there is no such formal commitment. If there is a formal commitment, then the government should be clear exactly when that was made and what actual weight and imperative sits behind that commitment we have heard often over the last few months. The Morrison government's only present commitment is to reach net zero by the second half of the 21st century—in other words, by 2099. The assertion that there is a commitment to achieve net zero as soon as possible and preferably before 2050 is really just an example of tricky political wordplay. I think we've all had enough of that.
Finally, Labor members note that, to a large extent, the policies, programs and supporting agencies referenced during the inquiry as being effective in the twin task of decreasing emissions and increasing renewable energy capacity and energy efficiency were, of course, established by the previous federal Labor government. The bottom line is: under this third-term coalition government, Australia continues to suffer by having neither a national energy policy nor a national commitment to a framework for achieving greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to protect Australia from the acutely harmful environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change.
I acknowledge the work undertaken by the member for Warringah and her staff in formulating the bills which were the subject of the inquiry. I thank the thousands of Australians who took the time to make their views known, the vast majority of whom called on the Australian parliament and the Australian government to do better in addressing the most enduring and all-encompassing challenge of our time, which is climate change.
[by video link] by leave—The Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy was tasked with inquiring into the climate change bills that I presented in November last year. The committee received over 6½ thousand submissions and had three public hearing days, where some 49 witnesses appeared. Witnesses and submissions were over 99.9 per cent in support of the approach proposed in the bills.
As part of the process, the committee reports on the inquiry to the Australian parliament. This is really important, because we desperately need to have a sensible discussion around climate change policy and emissions reduction away from electioneering, where it becomes a pointscoring exercise between both major parties. I must at least start by thanking the committee members for their hopefully open minds to hearing the evidence and hearing from so many across Australian civic society who want better policy on this. I thank the secretariat, who I know worked incredibly hard dealing with the vast amount of submissions, and especially all those who participated in the inquiry and who made submissions, both individuals and organisations. It was vitally important for so many organisations to be on the record for how global warming and climate impacts and all the risks associated are going to impact their sector, and for what they need to see from the government and the opposition by way of good policy.
It was unfortunately not possible to reach bipartisan agreement on the chair's final report and the recommendations flowing from the inquiry. Sadly, whilst this kind of inquiry should be capable of bipartisanship and coming together on such an important policy issue, we still saw a divide along political party lines. Despite the evidence received being overwhelmingly in support of the bills, all government members of the committee refused to incorporate the full extent of the support in the main report, even from a point of view of referencing the evidence, in relation to recommendations that were put forward to not only progress the bills but also progress the development of Australian climate policy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has, on a number of occasions, stated that Australia will not be told by the international community what Australia's climate policy should be, and the member for Fairfax again reiterated the need for liberalism and policy and that this should be left to the Australian people. But here was the opportunity to listen to a really broad section of the Australian public—the Australian civic society, environmental and business groups, industries, unions, health professionals—on what is needed by the government to address the policy issues of climate change, and still the government members on the committee were not willing to acknowledge that better policy is needed in Australia. It was still a question of maintaining the line that we are going to meet and exceed the targets and that we are doing enough. They were deaf to the cries of so many, the pleas of so many, that this policy area needs to shift. It needs to move away from being a political football to an area of consensus, like we have consensus on major health issues, like we have consensus on issues of defence.
It is disappointing, and it was disappointing for so many, that political partisanship could not be set aside for a moment to progress this policy area. I believe members of the coalition, in particular the member for North Sydney, are, in fact, embarrassed by the position of the government and its failure to act on climate change. Through the whole committee process, members, like the member for North Sydney, were looking for excuses not to support the approach proposed in the bills. They were looking for reasons to go against the recommendations. The member for Fairfax, in presenting the report just now, talked about a major reason being that we can't hand it to unelected experts to advise government on what good policy should look like. It is strange, when it comes to climate change, to take issue with unelected experts advising government when, for the last 18 months, the government has followed the advice of unelected chief medical officers in its response to COVID and it has had no qualms in imposing restrictions and following the expert advice and establishing an unelected COVID committee for the coordination—
Leave was granted on the basis of speaking about the report. The member's contribution is now straying a little bit away from the report, the committee's deliberations and how they reached them, so I just call on the member to bring her remarks back to that and perhaps wrap up her contribution.
I thank the minister for that, but I note this is the very point the member for Fairfax made in his speech.
The reality is we do need to listen to the independent experts on this policy area. The overwhelming submissions in response to this inquiry wanted that. The main report and the lengthy dissenting report make clear the evidence established the demand and the need for clear policy on this area. A national risk assessment needs to be done, but we need clear adaptation plans to address that and we do need to legislate our pathway to net zero so that the business community, the investment community, industry and also the working communities that currently are facing a very real and significant transition know what that pathway will look like. Putting our heads in the sand will simply not resolve this.
This inquiry was vitally important. These bills are needed now more than ever because the government does not have a clear policy in this area. The bills, the subject of this inquiry and of this report, are based and very much modelled on conservative policy in the UK. They are a demonstrated model that works, and I urge the government to look at the recommendations and implement clear policy that responds to the clear need that was identified during the inquiry. It is evident from organisations like the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Medical Association and so many in our communities that they want clear policy. They do not want divisive policies around this.
The core elements of the bills establish that five-yearly budgets for emissions reduction be established. That is something that will provide policy certainty, which is desperately needed. We know that our international trading partners are all committed to this. They are moving forward. It is vitally important, as we move towards Glasgow and COP 26, that we address Australian policy. This bill, put forward as a private member's bill, was put forward with the goal to actually bring together both sides of politics for the benefit and future of Australia long term. This is an area of policy that desperately needs partisan politics to be put aside so that, for the good of the nation and the safety of Australia long term, we have clear policy.
It is an existential threat. As the member for Fairfax made clear, climate change and the risks of global warming are existential threats. They are existential threats from the point of view of not only our environment but also our economy. The cost to the economy will be so large. It does not bear thinking about the impact to future generations if they are left with the burden of the last two years with the COVID pandemic and on top of that they are left with an unresolved burden of climate change and global impacts. These bills seek to put in place a sound framework to address these challenges. I urge government members and coalition members to really take on board what their legacy will be if they fail to embrace sound policy that needs to happen. We are seeing it at a state level and we need to see it at the federal level.
This report, ironically, paves the way, as we approach an election, for more Independents to try to put forward solutions that are not stuck in political partisanship. I thank the committee for its work. I express my disappointment that coalition members of the committee were not able to put aside political party allegiance and actually address and engage with the very real issues of climate change and the need for a clear policy to reduce our emissions.