Do we need a new environmental agenda?

Author: Peter Garrett MP is the federal member for Kingsford-Smith

The last decade has seen NSW take large strides in conservation and environmental protection. However, many of the environmental problems we face today are global, and finding solutions at the local level is not always immediately obvious. What does this mean for today’s policy makers?

The agenda was to save; now it's to sustain. How to take better care of beaches, rivers, creeks and gullies, the habitat of native animals, the air we breathe, the oceans and the forests-all these things that make up the productive environment- is the necessary question bring us together tonight.

The scale of current environment problems means that for politicians, policy makers and community alike there is a pressing need for a serious environmental agenda to be put in place, and from my perspective particularly by the Federal government.

And yes, the environmental agenda should be innovative and new especially as we grapple with how to effectively address climate change.

But compared with a decade ago I think there is a better understanding of what elements would comprise a new environmental agenda.
Importantly the environmental agenda needs to be deeper, marrying social and economic considerations and being attuned to market economics which plays such a central role in modern societies.

The tougher part is putting such an agenda into place in time, as the trend lines of environmental health continue downward, both here and in most parts of the world.

Consider the range of challenges that are well known: cities and farmlands are gripped by drought, the numbers of species of plants and animals threatened with extinction rising ever upwards, we have declining health of fish stocks; the list is a long one. And, as has been well canvassed tonight, truly serious endemic problems of long term sustainability of our natural lands and waters.

The recent federal budget conspicuously ignored the environment (more on that later), the debate about infrastructure has for the most part done likewise, and global warming, whilst literally in our face, is nowhere to be seen on the national political radar.

Who then could seriously deny the need to create new, improved and more resolute approaches to addressing these issues?

Well I can answer that; our political opponents, who in national government for nearly ten years have presided over a continuing decline in the environmental health of Australia.

Between 1994 and 2004 there has been a 39 per cent increase in the number of terrestrial birds and mammal species listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable. The bulk of this increase occurred between 1997 and 2000.

In 2000 salinity affected around 4.6 million hectares of agricultural land. Estimated at around $187 million, the cost to our primary producers, and not to mention Australia's terms of trade, is immense.

On the important issue of water management, in 2000 just over one quarter of Australia's surface water management areas was classified as either highly used or overused.

Perhaps the most telling statistics over the past decade is that the sharpest rise in carbon dioxide emissions occurred between 1997 and 1998 (5%).

I want to concentrate on impending climate change as its impact will likely cascade down upon other ecosystems and to local communities, far and wide, affecting many in the developing world who are intimately dependent on the health of their local environments.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will continue to hear a great deal more about global warming and climate change in the coming years as this sleeping giant awakes, and as the scientific evaluation of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues.

And what better example of the 'do nothing approach', the absence of a new agenda is there than the failure of the Howard government to ratify the Kyoto protocol.

Yes there is a fair bit of heated debate ( pun intended) about the precision of predictions concerning climate change occurring around the margins, and much of it is fermented by those interests who have the most to lose from resolute action on global warming.

Notwithstanding this rattle and hum of propagandists and lobbyists there is broad scientific consensus on this issue. New Scientist, in its February 12 2005 edition, reported that science historian Naomi Oreskes of the University of California in her "review of all 928 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between 1993 and 2003 showed the consensus (that a warming would happen as a result of increased emissions of CO 2) to be real and near universal."

Climate change is simply the environmental global issue which subsumes all other issues in scale and impact. The prospects of global warming wreaking unpredictable havoc on our environment means substantial changes in the way we consume energy, build cities, organise transport systems -in fact to our whole way of life- are needed.

This is an imperative for government and it will be driven by increasing community awareness of the scale of the climate change issue.

It is here that the new environmental agenda must be developed and implemented, quickly.

Whilst a disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions thus far has been made by relatively few Western countries including Australia, in the future the industrial capacity of India and China amongst others in particular will add emissions, of course global population is expected to grow too.

So whether or not we reach a tipping point of temperature increases in the order of 2.5 C as some predict, where drastic alteration of the world's climate patterns becomes a possibility, the need to stabilise climate as soon as possible is pressing.

This was recognised as early at the Rio Earth Conference in 1992 which inaugurated the Kyoto protocol process. But the task is made more difficult by the projected increases in demand for energy, one of the largest components of greenhouse gas emissions. And by the call from developing nations that they not be denied the opportunity to grow their economies and enhance living conditions.

Consequently the need for international co-operation and international market mechanisms which permit carbon trading was identified by nations who desired a response.

The resultant Kyoto treaty is important as it represents the first international attempt to address the issue of climate change.

Despite the fact that the US and Australia (two of the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases) did not sign does not lessen this significance.

Yes Kyoto is a modest first step, however it has managed to bring a large number of states to the table as well as establish an international legal framework that facilitates carbon trading and investment in energy efficient technologies.

Now Federal Labor is committed to the Kyoto Protocol as are State Labor governments. The Shadow Environment Minister, Anthony Albanese, has consistently stated Labor's case for the need for Australia to sign on. Labor is also committed to 5% MRETs, a greenhouse trigger in the EPBC act and a national greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme.

Labor recognises that climate change is real and the impacts that it will have on both the environment and our economy are profound.

But the Howard Government, despite being a party to the treaty negotiations and gaining a special dispensation, still refuses to sign Kyoto.

The Australian Greenhouse Office predicts a 23% increase in greenhouse emissions by 2020. Yet last week's Budget confirms the Government's indifference to climate change with the abolition of the very same Greenhouse Office.

In June 2004 the Government released its Energy White Paper -"Securing Australia's Energy Future"- outlining its energy policy. Unfortunately the Government seems to be hell bent on ignoring the need for energy reform in this country.

The main components of the White Paper were; no major shifts in energy policy, excise cuts on fossil fuels, concentration on fossil fuels and clean energy technologies, no measures for demand management.

In other words the old agenda served up again, an agenda which most certainly won't rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

The new agenda must take into consideration global implications of climate change; melting polar ice sheets, large scale disruption to water supplies, relocation of environmental refugees affected by rising sea levels, increasing costs of insurance and protective infrastructure for farming communities.

I've recently called for Labor to consider developing policy that would see the MRET's increase to 10% by 2020 and a commitment to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions in the order of 60% by 2050.

So I was pleased to see this weeks Senate Committee for Environment Communications IT and the Arts response, to the Government's white paper on energy policy and climate change.
A headline in The Australian Financial Review (May 17 2005) put it best when it stated, "Greenhouse policy found wanting".

The Committee recommended a number of measures including:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050
  • Re-examining its position on Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets
  • Scrapping its proposed reduction in excise levels for diesel and petrol
  • Introduce a carbon trading scheme
  • Investigate the benefits of a carbon tax

All these are necessary elements to be considered in any environmental agenda in a time of climate change. Don't hold your breath waiting for the Howard Government response.

Labor supports signing on to the Kyoto Protocol because it provides positive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include: mandatory targets on greenhouse gas emissions, flexible and market based mechanisms to help countries achieve these targets and mechanisms to encourage developing countries to use renewable forms of energy.

Australia, by refusing to sign, misses out on the main benefit of Kyoto - carbon trading. Companies such as Macquarie Bank now invest in renewable energy projects overseas yet the Howard Government has also closed the Energy Research and Development Corporation which had invested almost $100 million in 350 energy innovation ventures since it was created in 1990. So much for the sensible aspiration for us to be a clever country.

Now whilst a range of measures including substantial investment in a range of alternative energy sources is needed, I do not include nuclear energy as part of the new environmental agenda. Of course we should be prepared to enter the debate with those holding up nuclear as the panacea to global warming.

But the ever present nuke problems; of radioactive waste disposal, increasing amounts of plutonium, greater possibilities of proliferation of nuclear weapons and a host of assorted unresolved and hugely costly problems associated with the existing nuclear industry rule this option out.

Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley's recent remarks about nuclear waste being an ever present obstacle to considering nuclear as a replacement power source were spot on.

The Australian economy has been characterised as "hot heavy and wet" and in the future it needs to be "cool, light and dry".

For the NSW State Government there are some tough decisions ahead with decisions about building a coal fired power station and a desalination plant to meet Sydney's projected energy and water shortfalls.

It is critical that NSW take seriously the need for real greenhouse gas reductions and consider the range of additional measures that could meet energy needs without fatally compromising the environment by building a coal fired power station.

I know Bob Debus and the NSW Government are well aware of this challenge. There are a range of possible replacement measures available; wind, solar, low-impact hydro and geo-thermal. A cogeneration power plant using natural gas could be considered to meet interim demand.

State renewable energy targets of 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020, are being called for as well as tax deductions and credits for investment in renewable technologies-they too could be part of the new environment agenda.

I don't doubt the political capacity to address tough issues of this kind. The NSW government commitment to end broad scale land clearing has come about following years of negotiation and consultation.

The recent decision to protect Western Woodlands Forests including the Pilliga and Goonoo whilst ensuring employment isn't diminished is a very good example of the constructive approach Labor governments can take on an issue of this kind.

This isn't what's tended to happen in Tasmania where the debate is often heated and the community polarised over forest policy.

In regard to the Howard Government package on Tasmanian forests and industry restructure, well it's a great thing about our world where no one group of people can decide if and when a debate ends.

For those people like myself who do not believe this is a perfect policy I have a strong feeling this debate will go on simply because there is room for improvement of the package. There is, still, stronger and proper protection needed for high conservation value Tasmanian forests scheduled for logging.

For national governments setting national goals, timelines and targets to reduce greenhouse pollution and encourage energy efficiency are the bottom line as we set about the task of reconfiguring the economy to use fewer resources and produce less greenhouse pollution.

There is a plethora of research and concrete examples which show the substantial employment generating spin offs from taking this path.

But as Mike Archer and others like Tim Flannery have pointed out we are perilously perched on an island continent with a unique environment much damaged by our actions thus far.

This has been a function of how we see things, how we imagine and dream about our culture as much as the economic imperative and so our culture also must change to take our unique and precious environment into account.
We live in an ancient, crusty land of drought and flooding rains, not on England's green Etonian fields.

So the new environmental agenda must also be informed by a deeper awareness of the land we live upon, its history and its natural endowment, and that task is in all of our hands.