Government must allow climate change debate

Published on Tue 3 August 2021 4:25pm

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.

Mr Wilson (4:25pm) – [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.

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