Back to All News

The carbon challenge: Speech to the Carbon Expo Australasia 2010

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today. I am very pleased to be addressing you as the first Greens MP elected to a lower house seat at a general election.

There is no greater leadership required at the moment than that necessary to meet the carbon challenge.

The challenge of how to shift to a zero-carbon economy in Australia contains many pitfalls and hurdles, but also enormous opportunities and possibilities.

But, given the perils we face, we have no choice but to pursue these opportunities.

I had the chance to cover some of these in my first speech to Parliament recently.

I said: We all have a very short period of time in which to respond to the climate emergency facing us, to this planet's rapidly dwindling condition and to the nagging feeling many of us share that this way of life simply is not sustainable. We are all in this together but we should never forget the amazing things humans are capable of when our creative labours are unleashed. We chose to go to the moon-and we made it.

To quote Jodi Dean, the Apollo project boldly predicted the 'we' of a common humanity aspiring to break the bonds of particularity and reach beyond our imaginations. It is that commons that we can find again.

I believe that it is with dreams of great proportions that we will solve our current crises.

What are those dreams of "great proportions"? For The Greens that includes a rapid shift towards 100 per cent clean renewable energy by the middle of the century and engaging in the process of creating a zero-net carbon economy.

And it is these goals that underpin the approach that I and The Greens take to the challenge of re modernising our economy.

It is an approach that will ensure we can rise to the dual challenge of achieving energy security and moving on the path to a carbon free future.

If there is one thing that the recent financial collapse has taught us, it's that the economic platitudes of the last 30 years - that nothing should stand in the way of the market and that the era of government backing winners is over - can go out the window at the drop of a hat when there is a crisis brewing.

But just imagine if we'd reacted to the financial crisis in the same way as the climate crisis, with global meetings rescheduled for years on end and endless deference to the self same groups that caused the crisis in the first place.

It is now time to extend to the planet the same courtesy we have to merchant banks.

We need a GFC like response to the climate crisis. We need to see the same kind of urgent, globally coordinated and massive intervention to get us quickly to a carbon free future.

Now for me I find this an inspiring and exciting prospect. To be part of what could be described as a new industrial revolution - a clean energy revolution - where we transform the way we work, live and play and completely de-link our society and economy from carbon.

Climate change and carbon

We have no choice but to take on that task.

Again as I outlined in my first speech to Parliament:

As human beings we have an amazing capacity to interact with our natural environment.

But we have also sought to tame and master it, and now we have learned that in the long run such a relationship is unsustainable.

Our actions in heating the planet have led us to a very real climate emergency. In 2007, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said, 'This is an emergency, and for emergency situations we need emergency action'. In recent congressional testimony in the US, the NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, warned:

We have reached a point of planetary emergency ... climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a perfect storm, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

We would not get on an aeroplane if it had a 50 per cent risk of crashing or even a 15 or a five per cent risk. Yet these are precisely the kinds of risks we seem prepared to take with the planet and all its inhabitants. Accepting the science means accepting the science, not what we would like the science to say.

Here in Australia we are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In 2009 Professor Will Steffen, who like me is also participating in the recently established climate change committee, outlined the risks for Australia in a report for the Department of Climate Change.

He warned that we are facing "faster change" and more "serious risks" than had previously been predicted.

He also identified a crucial factor often overlooked in the discussion of climate risk and that is that climate change may not always proceed in smooth linear fashion but instead "extreme events, abrupt changes, and the non-linear behaviour of climate system processes will increasingly drive impacts on people and ecosystems."

He said that for Australia this could mean "possible sealevel rise at the upper end of ... projections ... the threat of recurring severe droughts and the drying trends in major parts of the country; the likely increase in extreme climatic events like heat-waves, floods and bush fires; and the impacts of an increasingly acidic ocean and higher ocean temperatures on marine resources and iconic ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef."

We don't have time to review all those impacts now, but let's just focus for a moment on an area of the country and economy that has had a lot of attention this week: the Murray Darling Basin.

Professor Garnaut, who you have just heard from, outlined in his Final Report some of the impacts on the Murray Darling Basin.

He says that the median projection for end of the century in the Murray Darling Basin is a 92% decline in irrigated agricultural production unless Australia and the world cuts carbon pollution.

Now that is a staggering figure and given the recent debate over the future of the basin is centred on a plan that does not factor in significant water losses from climate change you can see how important even moderate climate impacts will be on the future of Australia's agriculture and economy.

And it is worth noting that these are projections based on conservative climate models and do not factor in many of the longer term changes to the climate system that scientists are now becoming very concerned about.

Again in his 2009 report Will Steffen warned that:

"Longterm feedbacks in the climate system may be starting to develop now; the most important of these include dynamical processes in the large polar ice sheets, and the behaviour of natural carbon sinks and potential new natural sources of carbon, such as the carbon stored in the permafrost of the northern high latitudes. Once thresholds in ice sheet and carbon cycle dynamics are crossed, such processes cannot be stopped or reversed by human intervention, and will lead to more severe and ultimately irreversible climate change from the perspective of human time frames."

The stark implication of this scenario, inevitable if we continue with our current carbon pathway, including implementing the patently insufficient pollution cuts agreed to at Copenhagen, was outlined at a recent global conference on a four degree world.

Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the UK, said "If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4, 5 or 6 degrees, you might have half a billion people surviving."

So we now know that the science tells us we must take profound steps to cut our carbon pollution and find ways to remove carbon from all aspects of the economy.

It is for these reasons that the Greens have approached the process of energy reform and carbon pricing in the way we have.

It is why we have not been prepared to lock in targets way below what the science and protection of our economy and society demands.

Climate Change Committee and a carbon price

I note the speech delivered by Climate Change Minister, Greg Combet, to you yesterday where he had said he was glad that the Greens had joined his committee and rehashed tired old arguments about our opposition to the government's CPRS emissions trading legislation.

Let's get some facts straight.

Instrumental in the Labor Party forming government was the agreement reached with The Greens. That agreement - signed by Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan for Labor and Bob Brown, Christine Milne and myself for The Greens - included the establishment of a committee that would examine how to put a price on carbon. The concept of a multi-party committee supported by expert advisers comes from my colleague Christine Milne's experience leading the Greens in balance of power in Tasmania during the 1990s. After the agreement was signed and after the Government was formed, Julia Gillard named Greg Combet the Minister and tasked him with looking after process.

So, we are glad Mr Combet was able to join the committee which was established at our behest.

In relation to the CPRS, Greg would be better to give it a rest.

As Andrew Macintosh, associate director of the ANU Centre for Climate Law and Policy, describes the policy it was "a spectacular screw-up from a policy and political perspective".

He says the first draft of the plan had some credibility but, by the time it got to version four in late 2009, it was terrible:

"The mitigation targets were weak and the government caved in to every half-baked plea for special assistance from industry, thereby stripping the scheme of economic credibility. Coal generators were offered $9 billion-$12.5 billion worth of free permits over 10 years... emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries would get $48 billion-$83 billion over 10 years... the list of handouts was never-ending."

And Treasury modelling showed our domestic emissions would not fall until 2035 under the scheme.

As Ross Garnaut said at the time it was 'one of the worst examples of policy making we have seen on major issues in Australia'.

So everyone knows by the time the Coalition got their hands on the scheme it was a lemon and they just made it worse.

The CPRS would have sent a signal to the energy sector in Australia that they did not have to change a thing and could continue investing in polluting infrastructure - something that would have been a recipe for disaster.

But now we have a new opportunity. To return to principled policy making based on sound economic policy and crucially what the science says is needed.

This is why we proposed the Climate Change Committee, to bring the various parties together, informed by expertise, and to find a way to put a price-tag on pollution that the Parliament could agree to.

As you know the composition of the committee was outlined by the Prime Minister and Senator Brown earlier this month.

The committee is comprised of the Prime Minister and the Greens leader Senator Brown and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan. Greg Combet and Greens Senator Christine Milne will be deputy Chairs and the Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, Parliamentary Secretary Mark Dreyfus and I will also participate.

Four independent experts- Professor Ross Garnaut, Professor Will Steffen, Mr Rod Sims and Ms Patricia Faulkner-will support the Committee as expert advisers.

The committee has had its first meeting last week and has agreed on a work plan. So we have rolled up our sleeves and are getting down to work on developing a plan for carbon pricing, and potentially a range of complementary measures that can be implemented as quickly as possible.

People need to be clear about what the committee is and is not. It is not a Senate Inquiry or other type of Parliamentary committee that will be holding hearings and taking submissions.

It is a working committee that aims to negotiate a plan for a price on carbon and potentially relevant complementary measures that can go to Cabinet and then potentially be legislated.

I note again yesterday's speech of the Minister, where he said that we "... will have robust discussions on the best way forward for Australia. We are unlikely to agree on every point of detail. However, as we enter into our deliberations, we cannot lose sight of the real priority. What is important is to get agreement on a framework that will deliver a carbon price. ..."

I couldn't agree with him more. We accept, as Bob Brown outlined in the press conference with the Prime Minister, that there will need to be compromise on all sides. And we also accept that the given the delay up until now that we all need to go the extra mile to make this work

But our participation on the committee does not mean we will automatically support any outcome and we reserve the right to disagree with approaches that lock in failure and that will prevent us building on reform in the future. We need an approach that is both effective at cutting pollution and that will ensure that investment in clean energy can move forward, but also an approach that is capable of being supported by the parliament.

The committee intends to meet regularly until next year and I hope we can work quickly.

I note in some recent media reports there is a suggestion that the government is positioning itself to adopt the Greens' timeline to legislate a carbon price to come into effect as soon as possible, not post-2013 as was their position at the election.

This is to be welcomed.

Regardless of whether or not the government's decision is driven by political motivations rather than social, environmental and economic considerations, the final outcome of a swift process towards a carbon price will be positive.

The Greens have made no secret of the fact that we want to see a carbon price introduced as soon as possible.

Uncertainty in the energy sector is driving electricity prices higher, causing pain to Australians struggling to make ends meet.

We need to send a very clear signal that all energy investment in Australia from now on must work to prevent climate crisis not make it worse and a strong, effective carbon price introduced as soon as possible is part of that signal.

By introducing a carbon price Australia will not be out in front of the rest of the world, in fact we need to be catching up.

Already, major economies in the European Union are starting to discuss an increase in their abatement targets from 20 to 30 per cent below 1990 levels, and this is regardless of what the rest of the world does. Why? Because they have realised that in a carbon constrained world, it will be a competitive advantage to be limiting pollution and that they are in a race with China and other countries to deliver the technology that will underpin the zero carbon economies of the future.

Carbon price

Finally I want to outline the policy we took to the last election and that informs our thinking.

This is not to pre-empt any of the committee discussions but to give you an idea of where we were at prior to the committee's formation.

Most of you would be aware of our proposal for a carbon levy, based on the Garnaut Review proposals, starting at approximately $20 a tonne and rising each year. This would be an interim measure in the transition to a functional and effective emissions trading scheme.

Revenue from the scheme would provide a dividend for households and include assistance to small business and the emission intensive trade exposed industries. Most importantly the rest of the revenue could be used to drive the transition to clean energy and investments in energy efficiency.

This is policy we took to the election and this is the thinking we take to the table in the current discussions.

This approach by the way is supported by the community. A national poll conducted by the Greens in April showed that 72% of Australians were in favour of the government working with the Greens, independents and other senators to introduce a levy that will ensure the biggest polluters pay for climate pollution.

We also believe a range of additional measures are needed to facilitate investment in clean renewable energy.

These include infrastructure planning for the full transition to 100% renewable energy, investing in upgrading the grid, increasing the renewable energy target again and supplementing it with a feed-in tariff for all forms of renewable energy at all scales, increased public investment and loan guarantees to facilitate private investment in base-load renewable power stations.


I don't have time here to layout our complete policy framework or our approach for other sectors, including our plan for energy efficiency measures, but you can get a fair idea from the set of Safe Climate Bills Senator Christine Milne has introduced into Federal Parliament and which we hope to pursue in the life of the parliament.

What you will find is a very real plan for how we can move rapidly to a cleaner safer future. What you will not find are false-solutions masquerading as green policy which unfortunately sometimes continues to find a place in government policy.

Here in Victoria, for example, the Brumby Labor government is putting $50 million into a new coal-fired power station in the La Trobe Valley under the supposedly green 'DualGas' moniker, which will according to the Friends of the Earth increase Victoria's greenhouse gas emissions by between 3 million and 4.2 million tonnes each year, at one stroke wiping out the mooted 4 million tonnes of abatement associated with a partial closure of Hazelwood power station.

And at a Federal level we continue to pour money into subsides for coal exports which will soon make Australia a bigger exporter of carbon than Saudia Arabia

In conclusion, as I said at the out-set, moving to a zero-carbon economy will require ingenuity and commitment that will transform the way we live.

Just this morning I was lucky enough to launch Swinburne University's Plug-in 4 Power: electric vehicle showcase which is showcasing some of the recent developments in electric vehicle technology including work by Swinburne students as well as the big auto-makers.

Electric vehicles offer not just the prospect of zero emission transport and possibility of storage and management of energy on the grid, but also cleaner and quieter cities.

I believe it is with the spirit of innovation and imagination that characterises some of the developments in this field that we must all seek to embrace a carbon free future.

Back to All News