Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:11 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Climate Change Authority (Abolition) Bill 2013. We on this side will not be supporting the bill. I hope government senators and members consider the benefits of an independent Climate Change Authority—an independent body that ensures all the available science is considered and all the available perspectives are examined in order to provide our community with accurate information on our current emissions, trends and forecasts for emissions reduction targets and to provide this service to the community at arm's length from the bureaucracy, whose job is to advise the executive, not the nation as a whole.

The new coalition government proposes to subsume the authority into the Department of the Environment, although the authority was set up to provide independent advice on Australia's emissions reduction targets The clear goal of this move is to remove the independent advisory role and decrease transparency. As ideology has got in the way of climate change policy too many times over the past decade, it is vital that the scientific targets and policies that underpin our response to climate change are conducted by an agency independent of government. Independent advice and constructive criticism of government policy from public institutions is a positive measure; it should be encouraged, not shut down.

This new coalition government is demonstrating that it wants independent criticism, with over 50 reviews instigated in just the first few months of the parliament. Most are small reviews, with set reporting dates and without long-term analysis of the issues. This new government has instigated over 50 reviews, spanning all areas of public expenditure, yet the public body tasked with continually reviewing our response to climate change is up for abolition. This is just double standards. It is clear that we must not shy away from a national conversation on climate change.

Regardless of the personal views of anyone in this chamber, the problem is bigger than all of us. While it will be some time until a bipartisan approach to this issue is again reached, the problem will not go away. In fact, the problem will only get worse. As senators are well aware, around this time four years ago, bipartisanship on action on climate change was lost. Around four years ago, Mr Abbott defeated Mr Turnbull by one vote and ended the bipartisan support for strong action on climate change. He ended the bipartisan support for a price on carbon and ended the bipartisan support for a legislated cap on emissions. In many ways, it ended the bipartisan commitment to combat climate change.

We all know from the Prime Minister's own comments that he has never been serious about climate change. Just a few months before Mr Abbott won that leadership, he said that he was 'hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change'. That was in a rare appearance on the 7.30 Report, on 27 June 2009. It was a disappointing statement from someone who was aspiring to the top leadership position in the country.

In 2009, the 'so-called settled science', as Mr Abbott put it, was at that point the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth report, released in 2007. Created in 1988 by member states of the United Nations, the IPCC's mandate is:

… to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.

The reports of the IPCC include an assessment of scientific confidence that humans are causing global warming. As I said, at the time of Mr Abbott's appearance on the 7.30 Report, the latest statement from the IPCC was its fourth report, released in 2007. This is from one key summary of that report:

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [90 percent confidence] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

This 'so-called settled science' was a 90 per cent certainty that global warming was being caused by humanity. This 'so-called settled science' was that there was a 90 per cent chance that humanity's actions, through emitting greenhouse gases, were causing global warming.

Of course, in science, you do not ever say absolutely that one action is causing another, but you do set out to find the probability of a link between cause and effect. In 2007, the IPCC determined there was a 90 per cent probability that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions were causing global warming. Many people make the logical leap that, if you were told by international experts that they were 90 per cent certain that your house was going to burn down or your investments were going to turn sour, you would do your best to mitigate those risks; you would do your best to reduce those risks.

The new coalition government's approach is to ditch the clean energy mechanism and ditch the advisers. Their approach is like putting your head under a pillow and screaming, 'It's just too hard.' The problem of climate change is too difficult for Australia and we are better off putting our heads under a pillow and screaming that it is just too hard. Those opposite need to acknowledge new evidence when it is produced—new evidence from global experts, where the 'so-called settled science' has only become more settled.

Just a few months ago, the IPCC began releasing tranches of its fifth report. This release moves that confidence level from 90 per cent in 2007 to 95 per cent in 2013. Six years on, based on new evidence and updated analysis, the IPCC is 95 per cent certain that there is a direct link between humanity's actions and global warming. This 'so-called settled science' is now, in 2013, settled to the degree that there is 95 per cent certainty that humanity's actions are causing global warming. A summary of the 2013 release says:

It is extremely likely [95 percent confidence] more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

The 'so-called settled science' is that there is now a 95 per cent chance that humanity's actions, through emitting greenhouse gases, are causing global warming. As I said, in 2007, the IPCC had determined there was a 90 per cent probability that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions were causing global warming. By 2013, the evidence is such that there is now 95 per cent confidence in this link—five per cent more. To use the previous analogy, the house is now 95 per cent certain to burn down and the stocks are now 95 per cent certain to crash in value.

In Australia, we need to do our best to mitigate these risks. This new coalition government is foolish, having this independent advice, to move to abolish the very institution that sets targets and provides critical appraisal of emission reduction efforts. This new coalition government needs to get out from under the covers and back the evidence from global experts. The 'so-called settled science' has only become more settled.

It is interesting to note that there has been a subtle change in the language of the reports. The 2007 IPCC statement only went to human greenhouse gas emissions, those gases that increase temperatures in the atmosphere, whereas the 2013 statement includes the impact of both greenhouse gas emissions and aerosol emissions on the climate. This includes the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions that many sceptics hold up as counter to global warming. The media summary says:

Cooling from human aerosol emissions offsets about one-third of the warming from human greenhouse gas emissions.

Critically, they report, the new 2013 statement says:

… even taking that aerosol cooling effect into account, humans are still the main cause of the global warming over the past 60 years.

This is new information from the world's most eminent scientists. They consider that human activity—that is, the warming activity from carbon emissions—even if offset by the net cooling activity from aerosol emissions, is the main cause of warming.

As times change and knowledge develops, it is appropriate to reconsider one's stance. If there were ever a time to be convinced by the 'so-called settled science on climate change', it would be when the world's most eminent scientists have come to the conclusion that there is a 95 per cent certainty that human activity is causing global warming.

I participated in the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into these repeal bills—a quick inquiry of just one hearing and only few days for people to make a submission. It limited the ability of experts in the field to provide advice to the committee on the legislation. The new coalition government referred the suite of repeal bills to the committee simply to examine the cost of pricing carbon to households and businesses. The opposition referred the bills to the committee on the basis of examining how they fitted in with Australia's long-term climate change obligations. Put simply, we start from and continue to see this through very different lenses. On one side, the new coalition government see climate change purely in terms of the here and now; on our side, we see the problem in terms of the medium to long term. As important as any 2020 target is the need to have in place a pricing mechanism for emissions reduction beyond 2020, with targets for reduction by 2030 and 2050. We want to ensure the transition is a smooth one but we acknowledge we have to start somewhere.

The former Labor government put in place a suite of measures to address climate change, including the establishment of the Climate Change Authority. The value of the Climate Change Authority extends beyond carbon pricing. At present, the independent Climate Change Authority performs five clear roles for government: to provide recommendations on future pollution caps; to make recommendations on the indicative national trajectories and long-term emissions budgets; to provide independent advice on the progress being made to reduce Australia's emissions to meet national targets; to conduct regular reviews of the carbon pricing mechanism; and, to conduct reviews of and make recommendations on the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting System, the renewable energy target and Carbon Farming Initiative. Its reporting schedule is publicly available, with 20 reports scheduled from 2012 to 2018 on topics including the renewable energy target, national emissions reductions targets, carbon budgets, five-year pollution caps, the Carbon Farming Initiative and voluntary action reviews.

Quite clearly these roles could be amended to refer to a different emissions reduction mechanism other than carbon pricing—for example, direct action. Its work can be separate from whether Australia has a carbon pricing mechanism, an emissions trading scheme, direct action, a carbon tax or does nothing for a year or two or for however long some of those opposite would wish. We have a bipartisan emissions reduction target in this country. We have agreed that by 2020 at the very least we must reduce Australia's emissions by at least five per cent on 2000 levels. While we are clearly not agreed on the path to achieve that target, the target is bipartisan and it is appropriate that reviews of how as a nation we are travelling to reach the target be conducted by an independent authority.

I also note the Australian Conservation Foundation noted in its submission that the repeal bills do not reallocate the responsibility for consideration of renewable energy targets from the abolished Climate Change Authority. Is this just an oversight from government or are there moves afoot to remove the renewable energy target? The clear goal of this move by the new coalition government is to remove the independent advisory role from the government sector and to decrease transparency. This view is not just expressed by this side of the Senate. Many witnesses at the hearing and submissions to the Senate inquiry provided evidence which was the same. Mr Erwin Jackson, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at The Climate Institute, noted the political record of climate change policy and highlighted the need for climate policies based on evidence, not on the political agenda. He said:

The Climate Change Authority plays an essential role in informing that climate change should be retained. Australia has a track record of highly politicised approaches to climate policy. This has produced policies that are often inefficient and continually readjusted, which in turn has resulted in significant business uncertainty, higher costs associated with investments and inadequate emissions reductions. To achieve a sustained emission reduction consistent with our national interest, Australia needs climate policies that are based on a sound foundation of evidence rather than on a political agenda.

While the science appears to be settling, it is clear that climate change has been one of the most overtly political issues of the past decade. As such, it is vital that the scientific targets and policies that underpin our responses conducted by an agency independent of government. Consideration of abolishing or maintaining the Climate Change Authority or amending its functions is a separate matter from the carbon price mechanism.

The authority's advice is valuable whether you want to pursue a market based mechanism, as we do, or a command and control policy, as advocated by the new coalition government. Both the Investor Group on Climate Change and Dr Frank Jotzo from the Australian National University highlighted in submissions and in evidence the worth of the Climate Change Authority under the coalition's Direct Action policy. The Investor Group on Climate Change said:

The Climate Change Authority's analysis assists investors to interpret the likely future emissions reduction trajectory for Australia and the scale of policy response that will be required.

So here we have a group of investors who benefit from the independent advice provided by the Climate Change Authority. This independent advice assists serious institutional investors, with total funds under management of approximately $1 trillion, to make long-term decisions. Dr Jotzo said in his submission:

The institutions created in Australia as part of the clean energy legislation fulfil important roles in an effective climate change policy framework. This would be useful regardless of whether or not a carbon pricing mechanism is in place. The Climate Change Authority has a crucial role in conducting analysis of Australia's climate change policy settings, providing input to government and to parliament. In its draft report on emissions target the authority has it made clear that its advice on Australia's emission targets and trajectories is not tied to the existence of the carbon price mechanism.

Again, here we have a climate change expert outlining that, regardless of the carbon emissions abatement method, there are clear benefits from an authority which provides independent advice on pollution caps, carbon budgets, the credibility of international units and the performance of climate change mitigation initiatives. The submission from the investor firm Regnan noted the risk to Australian business from the abolition of the Climate Change Authority:

Abolition of the CCA increases the risk that Australian regulatory settings will move increasingly out of step with emissions reduction developments emerging at the international level in response to new science and global carbon budget commitments. The implications for Australian businesses would be to increasingly fall behind in carbon competitiveness, risking large and disruptive failure impacts in the future. We see implications particularly for carbon intensive companies with long-lived assets in the absence of regulatory settings which provide sufficient signalling to influence capital investment programs and technology choices.

Regnan's advice to the committee was particularly insightful. Here we have a market investor. They could invest coal energy, gas, transport infrastructure—you name it. They are advocating that investing in carbon intensive companies is a risk to them and to the people who trust them with their savings. These submissions are not questioning the so-called settled science on climate change; they are focusing on how we best mitigate our risks and how we get on with the job of reducing our emissions. They accept the link between human actions and climate change. They appreciate the work of the Climate Change Authority and value its independence.

This new coalition government is simply proposing to subsume the authority into the environment department. To do so will be to remove the independent advisory role, decrease transparency and decrease accountability and, no doubt, this will lead to Australia not meeting the bipartisan commitment of a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. There is a strong foundation of scientific fact underpinning the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the risk of global warming above two degrees. The science is settled. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has moved the settled science from 90 per cent confidence that humans are causing climate change to 95 per cent confidence. There is nowhere left to go but to heed this advice and to act.

I encourage the new coalition government to look beyond the rhetoric and keep the independent Climate Change Authority, recognise the public good that is contributed from quality independent advice and recognise that this authority may assist in clarifying and developing their Direct Action Plan. Climate change is too serious a problem to continue to play politics with. The world is acting and Australia must contribute to global emissions reduction efforts. We need strong action with legislated emissions reduction targets. We need independent advice on climate change policy. As the Chair of the Climate Change Authority, former Reserve Bank of Australia Governor, Bernie Fraser, recently said:

On a subject as complex as climate change, I would have thought every government—whatever its complexion—would want to get good independent advice.

This advice will not be provided by a government department. Logically, we must keep the Climate Change Authority.


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