Voice of reason from the Australian Senate on the climate crisis

1 12 2006

On a day after a journalist named Milne made us laugh with his drunken outburst, we have a Milne of a different occupation – Senator – talking some sense in that red chamber on the hill.  The passage below is extracted from today’s draft hansard.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania) (2.30 pm)—

I am delighted that Senator Campbell posed that question, because I would have a national greenhouse cap for Australia. I would then have an emissions trading scheme and a combined range of feed-in laws, a carbon levy or tax and a whole range of initiatives including an energy efficiency target, a vehicle fuel efficiency target and so on—none of which we have—and within that context, as a federal minister with a trigger and the ability to assess those projects, I would have a look at any project and see what that was going to do to Australia’s capacity to meet its target.

In particular, I do not support the Anvil Hill coalmine, but that is a separate issue from the capacity to assess a particular project. I argue that, regardless of the project, you should be able to assess whether its greenhouse gas emissions are above 100,000 tonnes— or in this case 500,000 tonnes—but I do not support expanded coalmining in Australia. It is totally and absolutely unjust. This issue of climate change is a justice and ethics issue. How can you possibly support putting 12½ million tonnes of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from a project in Australia? How can you possibly support that, knowing what we know about the need to stabilise greenhouse gases? We need to rein in the particles per million in the atmosphere. We know that at 450 parts per million we will get a two-degree rise. They are trying to stabilise it at 550 parts per million by 2050; the likelihood is that we will not do it.

All this talk about mining is about profits from export industries. I am saying we need to change the Australian economy so that it makes a transition to a low carbon economy. I am saying that people currently employed in activities which generate vast amounts of carbon should be retrained and that we should give stimulus to those new industries which are capable of employing lots of people and building strength in the economy instead of hollowing it out.

The government’s whole strategy has been to take us back to the sheep’s back. Our whole export income is dependent on digging up and cutting down. We have lost the manufacturing sector and we are not building competitive advantage in new manufacturers, which we need to be doing. We are driving offshore all the new technologies. We have said bye-bye to the Roaring Forties. They have gone to China. Great! They are reducing global emissions by being in China but it is not assisting the Australian economy. Dr Shi took his solar business into China, where he became a billionaire. He is making a fortune in China. He could be doing that in Australia. Origin Energy developed the SLIVER cell technology. It would have taken $100 million to commercialise it here but, no, it will probably go offshore. There has been a great march offshore from all the innovative technologies that are not being developed here and not creating the jobs.

I think it is actually immoral to be arguing that Australia needs to maximise its profits from uranium mining and from coalmining in order to give tax cuts to people in Australia at the same time as we are seeing the devastating impact of climate change on farmers in this country and on ecosystems in this country. You just have to look at the drop in agricultural production. That is a direct result of intensified drought and changed rainfall patterns—and no doubt there will be extreme fires this summer—because of what the Howard government has failed to do in the last 10 years.

There are huge costs to the Australian economy. The absolute hypocrisy of this is shown in Queensland, where Peter Beattie, the Premier of Queensland, on the one hand is expanding coalmining, making the whole global climate change situation worse, and on the other hand talking about building cyclone bunker shelters from Cairns to down the coast to protect coastal areas from the extreme weather events caused by climate change which is caused by his coalmining scapades and new coal-fired power stations.

Then we have the Great Barrier Reef dying, with a huge impact on tourism and a huge impact on ecosystems. And out comes the proposition that we make some floating pontoons and sail cloths and pump up some cold water from underneath to try and keep bits of the reef alive—not for their ecosystem value but for the fact that they may support the few resorts that might still have access to that part of the reef. How stupid is that? We have to get consistent here.

This nation needs to be committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and recognise that we cannot expand coalmining. That is not a possible option in a country that is supposedly responsible. As I said yesterday, the rest of the world is going to take action through the World Trade Organisation to declare any Australian export as having achieved a subsidy because we have not ratified the Kyoto protocol and because we are not being seen as a globally responsible citizen. There will be European companies which will say that Australian exports are subsidised, and therefore we will start to see trade barriers as a result of this freeloading that Australia is engaged in globally with greenhouse gas emissions.

So there are a lot of actions that you can take, but I would separate the two issues in terms of a federal environment minister. Whilst the minister said that the greenhouse gas accounting inventory allows the government to see what the emissions are from any project, it does not allow the federal government to intervene in determining the environmental impact—and whether it is appropriate or not—of any of the proposals that might be generating those emissions. Even though you can say, ‘Okay, that is emitting so much, and it is in the inventory,’ it does not give the federal minister any power in relation to the environmental impacts of any of those large-scale proposals and the accumulated impact in terms of the total environment of greenhouse gas emissions.

I am delighted that the minister asked the question, because I think it is a moral and ethical question as to whether Australia should continue to expand its coalmines. The only reason the government is so focused on a technology that is not proven—that is, carbon capture and storage—is because of our huge dependence as an economy on coalmining and coal exports. If we were not in that position, we would not be so blinded to the fact that our major energy source in this country is solar radiation. In fact, coal is just a battery, if you like, of former solar radiation laid down as coal in previous epochs.

We have the best solar radiation resource in the world, we have some of the best technology in the world through the University of New South Wales and the ANU, we have fantastic capacity not only in solar but also in wind, geothermal and so on—and we are blinded to that because there are a few large companies in Australia that have huge amounts of profits which are closely aligned to the government. There is a mutual arrangement such that on the very day that the nuclear report came out, for example, the Prime Minister came rushing out to reassure the coal industry that he would not be putting a price on carbon in the immediate short term. He had to reassure his coal industry friends that taking action to try and make nuclear viable would not adversely impact on the coal industry.

I think Australia has to get beyond this absolute dependence on export income from fossil fuels, because it is not a feasible proposition. It is exactly the same as Easter Island did before it drove itself into the situation where there was no life left on Easter Island. Easter Island kept on cutting down its forests in spite of the fact that it was all rapidly coming to an end. It is exactly the same situation here: we are expanding coalmining as global warming is accelerating, and that is an indefensible proposition if you believe that we have any moral or ethical responsibility as a global citizen to try to ensure survival not only of the human species but of the ecosystems on which we depend.

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