Climate Change

5 February 2020

I want to use my first senator's statement of the year to urge the federal government to get real on climate change. Why? Because: how good is clean air; how good is it to have a home, a town and a family that wasn't decimated by bushfires? Australians have had a reality check this tragic summer. We've experienced firsthand the devastating conditions that scientists have warned us about for years. At times over the last couple of months, it felt like the apocalypse was very much upon us. But, instead of accepting that ignorance and inaction won't save the planet, the government's takeaway appears to be that we all just have to accept a new reality.

In his so-called agenda-setting speech at the Press Club last week, the Prime Minister simply spoke about building our resilience and the need to prepare for and adapt to the climate we are going to be living in.

He made token references to mitigation but was silent about what practical action the government will take to cool our planet's raging fever. Government is hounding the states on gas supplies when the states are already on track to a carbon-neutral future. Securing more domestic gas will certainly be good for prices, and I agree gas is needed as a transition fuel, but it is not the only option the government should be focused on when renewable energy technology is advancing incredibly rapidly. Battery storage, in particular, is taking variability out of the renewables equation. We need much more. We need serious action.

The lack of a carbon price or a carbon tax, which economists view as the best means of quickly reducing emissions, effectively provides an ongoing subsidy to fossil fuel emitters. Fossil fuel emitters don't carry the costs for their environmental damage and there is no incentive to clean up their act. If the government doesn't tackle this bigger issue, the Commonwealth will arguably be just tinkering around the edges. Meanwhile, every state and territory is committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. They have so far been doing it alone, because the federal government has refused to do any of the heavy lifting. In my home state of South Australia, we're already well on this path, and so is the ACT, where we all stand today.

There is no shortage of good examples of progressive action around the nation, and I acknowledge that the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation have played a very important role in this. But I caution the government not to take a set-and-forget approach to ARENA and CEFC's good work. These agencies back green tech projects that might, at an early stage, not be commercially attractive. I know that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation does an excellent job with the $10 billion in capital it has, and it will have another $1 billion to invest in grid stability projects. However, its level of funding keeps us constrained. An extra $2 billion to $3 billion into its capital fund would give it more investment certainty and enable it to invest in much bigger projects, something Australia very much needs. Is the government listening? I suppose we'll see in the forthcoming budget.

The Commonwealth made a step in a positive direction last week when it struck an agreement with New South Wales in which the federal government will kick in cash for emissions reduction initiatives in exchange for the state unlocking more of its gas reserves. As I say, it's a good step, but we need more than just state-by-state agreements. We need a national plan that provides investment certainty and which embraces short- to medium-term transition and ongoing mitigation, not a mishmash approach.

Under the Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to reducing its emissions by at least 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. We should be far more ambitious. The European Union has pledged to cut emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. Even New Zealand has committed to an emissions reduction target of 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The aim of the Paris Agreement is to keep the average global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees. Global average temperatures have already risen above one degree, and we have seen firsthand what that means for Australia—not just through this horrible, horrific bushfire season but also through record-breaking heat across the nation. Drought has ravaged farms in the south-east, there have been fish die-offs and, at the other end of the scale, there have been storm events such as the monsoon that created devastating floods in Townsville. What will our future world look like if we can't stem these temperature increases?

To play its part, Australia will need to get its annual emissions down to at least 462 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Emissions for 2020 are predicted to be 534 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent and, at current rates, are expected to fall only slightly over the next decade to 511 metric tonnes by 2030. So it's obvious that there really is nothing to crow about, and much more work needs to be done.

Australia has been banking on the Kyoto credits to claim progress. The government has tried to use this to argue it is on track to meet its Paris target, but the numbers from the Department of the Environment and Energy's latest emissions projections really make that questionable, and it will be impossible to achieve if government doesn't do some heavy lifting on greenhouse gas abatement. As more than one person has noted, the environment doesn't work on dodgy accounting and spreadsheets; either we are actively, absolutely reducing our emissions every year or we are not. The federal government needs to get its head in the game on carbon emissions. There's no point arguing we're only a minor player on the global stage; we all have to be part of the solution. This is especially the case in a world where the US is backing out of its climate agreements and heading in the wrong direction on the environment, and, in my view, in many other areas. When I first heard Donald Trump tell the World Economic Forum a few weeks ago that 'now is a time for optimism,' while he denounced climate change activists as 'prophets of doom'. I thought, what planet is he on? Then I even heard a government minister complimenting the president's ridiculous statement, saying it was 'a great speech'.

I truly can't believe that there is anyone left in Australia who thinks that now is a time for optimism or who thinks we can ignore the need for solid action on climate change. Australians around the country are experiencing the effects of climate change. They are suffering through record bushfires, floods and droughts. From farms to country towns to our major cities, people are living the reality. Many have lost homes and lost their livelihoods, and some have lost their lives. Over summer, the air in the south-east of the country regularly became the most toxic in the world. Who would have thought we'd see a time when we couldn't go outside and just breathe without endangering our health? The quiet Australians of which the Prime Minister now speaks—by which I assume he means the silent majority—know climate change is real. They know we have to do something about it.

The Prime Minister once took a lump of coal into parliament, in what he thought was a clever response to blackouts and the use of renewable energy in my home state. It was stupid then, and it's come back to haunt him now. We have wasted a decade in pointless partisan debate on whether and why we should address climate change. Now the debate must be about how we will actively achieve a carbon-neutral future and how fast we can make it happen. While the states get on with the heavy lifting, the federal government needs to show leadership to put Australia on the path to a carbon-neutral future, sooner rather than later. It's time: may 2020 be the year that the federal government finally acts decisively on greenhouse gas emissions. Quiet Australians deserve it.

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