Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014


Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Import Levy) Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Import Levy) (Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (Manufacture Levy) Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, True-up Shortfall Levy (General) (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, True-up Shortfall Levy (Excise) (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Customs Tariff Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Excise Tariff Amendment (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013, Clean Energy (Income Tax Rates and Other Amendments) Bill 2013; Second Reading

5:38 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Australian political representatives on both sides of the ideological divide are often accused of being short-sighted. Too concerned about immediate political advantage and winning the day, they forget about the long-term challenges facing Australia.

For the most part, I think this is an unfair characterisation. Many of the policies of the previous Labor government demonstrate that we were ready to face the harder and long-term challenges that Australia has been confronted with. These included initiatives designed to diversify Australia's economy, so it was less reliant on our mining exports; infrastructure projects such as the National Broadband Network, which the Australia of today needs if we want to stay competitive in the economy of tomorrow; and policies such as the Better Schools package, which sought to overhaul the model of education funding in Australia and ensure that the workforce of Australia's future had access to people with a world-class education. None of these policies were short-sighted. In fact, I can confidently say that they all had the long-term interests of Australia and Australians at their core. However, I cannot say this about the bills we are now debating: the Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013 and related bills.

It is without a doubt one of the most short-sighted, narrow-minded and senseless pieces of legislation I have seen in my 18 years as a senator in the Australian parliament. This bill not only repeals a piece of legislation that is working; it replaces it with something that even its proponents know will not work. Labor's position on climate change is clear, because the science of climate change is clear.

Over 97 per cent of published climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that it is driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Since the beginning of the 20th century global average air temperature has increased by just under one degree Celsius. The average temperature in Australia has increased by 0.9 degrees over the last century and every decade since the 1950s has been hotter than the one preceding it.

We know that the speed of this climb in global temperature is unprecedented in the history of the earth. The World Meteorological Organization records show that the decade from 2001 to 2010 was the world's warmest decade and that the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s, which, in turn, were warmer than the 1980s.

We also know that, over the same period, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb. Since the industrial revolution, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture and land clearing have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

We are now seeing the environmental impacts of this climate change. Our oceans are changing, with climbing greenhouse emissions as well. Firstly, the oceans are becoming warmer. The world’s oceans absorb 90 per cent of the heat input caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Sea temperature is the single greatest determinate of the diversity, abundance and distribution of marine life in Australian coastal waters. It stands to reason that any change in sea temperature could therefore have a devastating effect on the marine ecosystems that surround Australia, including of course our World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

Greenhouse emissions are also making the world’s oceans more acidic. For tens of millions of years the world's oceans have remained at a relatively stable acidity level. However, in the last 200 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have witnessed a rapid and substantial increase in the acidity of the world's oceans.

The oceans absorb carbon dioxide where it forms carbonic acid. It has a massive capacity to do this. We now know that about half of the anthropogenic carbon emissions have been absorbed by the ocean over time. That actually slowed the rate of climate change as the ocean took on a disproportionate amount of emissions compared to the atmosphere.

This acidification has considerable environmental impacts, slowing the growth of hard-shelled organisms. This may seem minor, but these same organisms are the basis of the marine ecosystems that produce the fish we eat. With over a third of the world’s population relying on seafood as their primary source of protein this represents a major problem.

Finally, changes in atmospheric temperature are causing the world's sea levels to rise through a combination of melting ice caps and thermal expansion of the oceans’ water. We know that even a slight rise in ocean level could have a serious impact on Australia’s eastern seaboard, not to mention the many island nations in our region which face devastation with rising sea levels.

Climate scientists have not just pointed out the correlation between emissions and warming; they have discovered the causes underlying the link. The ability of carbon dioxide to influence the earth’s climate has been understood for well over a century. We know that atmospheric carbon dioxide is one of the most significant drivers of global climate change. We also have some idea of what the consequences will be if the world fails to act to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned the world that aggressive mitigation strategies are required to hold global warming to less than two degrees Celsius.

The Labor Party accepts all of this and we believe that something needs to be done about it. During our tenure of government we implemented an integrated set of policies to drive deep reductions in carbon pollution, while enabling us to achieve more ambitious targets in the long term.

Firstly, we introduced an emissions trading scheme, which put a legal limit on pollution for Australia’s 370 largest polluters, specifically formulated to cut pollution in the cheapest and most effective way. Every year this legal limit reduces the ability to ensure that Australia meets its pollution reduction targets and, by extension, our international obligation in the fight against climate change.

By pricing carbon, the ETS encourages businesses to develop technologies and processes that curb their carbon emissions. In keeping with this we gave unprecedented support to the renewable energy sector. Our renewable energy target guaranteed that at least 20 per cent of Australia's electricity would come from renewable resources by 2020. Labor invested $3 billion in the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to support innovations that not only increased the supply of renewable energy in Australia but also made our country competitive in the international market for renewable energy technology. ARENA, which is the acronym for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, supports 100 projects in Australia.

We also established the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which this government tried to abolish the last time we sat in this place. We did this because we respected the consensus of the world's scientific community. And we did it because we took the advice of Australia's leading economists, who still say that a market based mechanism would be the most effective means of reducing emissions without damaging our national economy. Unsurprisingly, these policies are working. During our time in office Australia's wind capacity trebled, more than one million solar panels were installed, compared with only 7,500 under the Howard government, and employment more than doubled in the renewable energy sector.

Within one year of the introduction of the carbon price we saw a significant impact on Australia’s emissions and our economy—but not in the way this government would have us believe. In fact, 150,000 jobs were created with the carbon price in place. Our economy grew by 2½ per cent and inflation remained at record lows. Crucially, though, Australia’s pollution in the National Electricity Market decreased by seven per cent, while our renewable energy generation grew by 25 per cent.

By any measure, the carbon-pricing mechanism was a success: emissions declined in the industries targeted by the price, the renewable energy sector grew and the economy remained strong. Yet today we have a bill in front of us that will abolish this mechanism and replace it with a package of legislation as worthless as the paper it is printed on—Direct Action. Under the coalition's Direct Action, instead of having Australia’s 370 largest polluters pay for their pollution and the costs that pollution imposes on the rest of us, Australian taxpayers will finance a slush fund to pay polluters to cut their emissions without any guarantees that equivalent emissions reductions are actually occurring—the Emissions Reduction Fund. This fund relies on the ‘baseline and credit’ methodology—a methodology under which it is impossible to know whether emissions reductions are truly additional or whether they would have happened anyway. And despite what the government might say, no amount of rigorous policy design can fix this fundamental flaw. No independent analysis and no reputable economist or climate scientist has been able to demonstrate that Direct Action can deliver on the coalition government's claims. Their policy will remove a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions, meaning that our environment will once again be put aside for the short-term economic gain of those who are big polluters.

But worst of all, perhaps—and there are many bad things about it—this policy will see Australia default on its 2020 reduction targets. We know it and the government knows it. Mr Abbott has already indicated that he intends to abandon Australia’s emissions reductions targets when Direct Action fails. And he is scrapping the organisation that recommended these targets—the Climate Change Authority.

The reality is that the coalition government is happy to sit back and do nothing while Australia fails to meet its obligations to the international community and to do its part to combat global climate change. That is exactly how Direct Action will be viewed by the international community—as a refusal by Australia to act while the rest of the world moves to tackle climate change. Ninety-nine countries, including Australia, have made formal pledges to the United Nations to reduce carbon pollution. Collectively that covers over 80 per cent of global emissions and 90 per cent of the global economy. Thirty-five countries, including Australia, have national emissions trading schemes. Collectively they have a population of 560 million people. When we include subnational emissions trending schemes, that number grows to 900 million. By 2015 that number will be closer to two billion. China even plans to introduce a nationwide ETS after 2015. But no other country relies on grants-tendering schemes like the Emission Reductions Fund as their primary policy to reduce emissions. And that is because no other country has a government that is foolish enough to implement a policy that will drain their budget, trash their international reputation and do nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

We used to be in a privileged position here in Australia. We used to argue about whether Australia should lead the world in the fight against climate change. Labor always believed that we should—that if we could then we should. We had survived the global financial crisis thanks to the stable management of our economy by the Labor government and we were best positioned to develop the clean energy policies and the technologies the rest of the world would come to rely on. That is what the clean energy package was designed to do for Australia, and what it still could do for Australia—as long as the bill before us today does not pass.

I find it very depressing to know that with a change of government Australia has gone from leading the world to debating whether Australia should be left behind. And make no mistake: if this piece of legislation passes through our parliament, Australia will, I believe, be left behind. It will be humiliating for Australia and a great blight on our history as it is told in later years. As a country we cannot hide from the economic or environmental impacts climate change is going to have on Australia. One way or the other, we will be forced to transform into a clean energy economy. But for every day that this government delays, for every backward step it takes and forces the rest of the country to take, it will only make that transition more difficult and ultimately more painful for the people of Australia—particularly future generations, who will be left to pick up the pieces of the era of neglect.

That is why the Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill and related bills that we are debating should not pass. As a nation we should not sacrifice our long-term stability and prosperity and our international reputation so that Australia's big polluters can continue to make more money today. If we do, history will judge this government and this parliament as hopelessly short-sighted—and none of us will be able to say that that is an unfair judgement.

Australia is a proud place of extraordinary innovators. Their ability to take great ideas and turn them into inspiring technologies designed to shape our country for the future and to meet those modern challenges is, I think, unsurpassed. We were able to demonstrate, through a period of government, the success of great Australian ideas turning into great Australian businesses, with those businesses contributing to the economic transformation that we all know is so essential for our country.

Our abundance of sunshine, our tracts of land and the availability of space mean that we are in a unique position to harness the sun's energy and not only replace, through renewable technologies, what we are currently using in fossil fuels but do it in a way that the rest of the world can look at and be inspired by. This in turn is an export industry in itself.

I recall the years very early on in the Howard government when I lamented the reductions in the higher education budget of the late nineties that saw our leading position in the area of photovoltaic technology diminish over the subsequent decade because of that lack of early investment. While we were able to restore that position on many fronts, through a period of Labor government, we are now seeing the same pattern again. The disinvestment that is occurring in that sector, and the walking away from a program of investment that would see us meet our renewable energy targets, not only fails to address the issue of climate change but is disabling what is arguably one of our most significant future export opportunities in renewable energy that Australia is likely to see as we move through the next challenging decade.


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