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On The 43% Climate Bill

Speech given in the Senate on 7 September 2022.

I'd like to start by thanking Senator Canavan. I really appreciate how much he stands up for communities who have relied on fossil fuels for generations in terms of workforce. It is going to be a really important part of this transition to actually look after those communities. It's actually a huge opportunity for regional areas if we get this right. That starts with actually having some certainty after a decade of uncertainty, inaction and delay. To actually have the big picture settings that say, 'We're heading in this direction,' will allow that transition to happen. It will allow us to actually look after regional areas.

I would like to touch on a few of the things that Senator Canavan mentioned, most of which I disagree with, and that's the beauty of this place. He, rightly, talked about the cost of living. We are in a cost-of-living crisis around the country. The economics of climate action have changed so fast that I understand that some people in this place may still be relying on old figures. This continues to change. We're now in a position where electrification offers households savings of thousands of dollars a year if we get this right. We've seen it done with rooftop solar, started by the Howard government. We now have some of the cheapest rooftop solar in the world. Many people across the country are benefiting from this. We can do the same thing with batteries, heat pumps and electric vehicles, and unlock real savings—not just a one-off discount or fuel excise cut, but thousands of dollars every year going forward for everyday Australians.

Another comparison Senator Canavan made which I disagree with was comparing us to Europe. Europe buy a lot of gas from Russia. We don't buy any gas from Russia. Yet we're subjected to international prices for gas because members of both major parties have allowed gas companies to charge us export prices for our own gas. That's a real failure of legislation, and I think it really speaks to just how much influence the gas companies have. At a time when they are making up to 500 per cent more profit, just the thought of actually recouping some of that to invest into our regions doesn't seem to be on the table.

The last thing I'd like to respond to is Senator Canavan's concerns about the judicial system and litigation. This is already happening. Tiwi Islanders are currently in court against Santos about a gas project that is trying to access some of Australia's dirtiest gas from their homelands. The Gamilaraay people in Narrabri are also taking Santos to court about their proposed Pilliga project, and the former government was taken to court by young people in Australia who said that the government has a duty of care to actually protect young people and their futures. This is really what climate action is about, and this bill is a start to get us on the right track.

It's clear that human influence on the climate system is now an established fact. Our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, and the results are disastrous. Just turn on the news: more intense floods, fires, cyclones and heatwaves, and warming and rising oceans. Climate change is the greatest challenge we face. It will affect all the people and places we know and love.

Our communities around the country are demanding action—action from each other, action from corporate Australia and action from government. Jurisdictions from the UK to New Zealand have adopted climate laws that give a framework for climate action. Some Australian states and territories have done the same. The ACT, who I proudly represent, passed a climate act in 2010. Victoria passed a similar act with broader functions and powers in 2017.

As with so many aspects of climate change policy, after a decade of inaction the Commonwealth lags woefully behind. There are more than 80 pieces of legislation relating to energy and various elements of climate policy. The sum of these parts is not an effective framework. A more complete and ambitious climate law would provide this framework. It would include guiding principles, adaptation action plans and an emissions budgeting framework. This bill, the Climate Change Bill 2022, has none of those.

What it does is perform two key functions. First, it sets two targets: 43 per cent by 2030 and net zero by 2050. Second, it provides an accountability framework for climate policy. The science on the target is clear: 43 per cent by 2030 is not enough. Scientists like former Chief Scientist Professor Penny Sackett and eminent climate professor David Karoly are unequivocal. According to Professor Karoly, the emissions reduction target is too weak to represent Australia's fair share of global emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. I'd like to thank the many eminent Canberrans who have been pushing for action: Professor Frank Jotzo, Professor Mark Howden, Professor Will Steffen, Professor Nerilie Abram, Professor Colin Butler, Dr Arnagretta Hunter and many others.

We clearly have a moral obligation to act on climate change. As a wealthy country, doing the bare minimum does not cut it. We can and should be going harder and leading the world. We stand to lose so much from inaction: the incredible Great Barrier Reef, many of our beaches, heat-sensitive species like the greater glider, and an uninterrupted summer of cricket, to name just a few. Yet we stand to gain so much from bold climate action. We can build a better future—a livable future—and an economy for the future. We can protect and conserve so much of what makes this nation great.

Unfortunately, the new Labor government have been explicit that 43 per cent is as high as they are willing to go. While I would like to see more ambition, climate scientists would like to see my mission and I think millions of Australians would like to see more ambition, 43 per cent is certainly an improvement on where we were 12 months ago. Legislating a target is a significant step forward. This target will provide certainty to encourage the large-scale investment that will be needed in the transition to renewable energy. This is a development the community supports. After more than a decade of climate wars, we need to get some gains and move from the 'what' to the 'how'. Perfect should not be the enemy of the good. So, if the government is unwilling to be more ambitious, I support the legislated targets.

Outside of the targets, I call on the government to support my amendments to improve the accountability and transparency mechanisms within this bill. The bill has three primary accountability and transparency mechanisms: first, the annual statement on climate change from the minister; second, publicly available advice from the Climate Change Authority on that statement; and, third, publicly available advice from the Climate Change Authority on updated emissions reduction targets. Each of those mechanisms should be strengthened, and I will move amendments to do just that.

Accountability and transparency on climate action is so important, particularly in the context of Australian climate policy. We don't have a carbon price. We don't have a cap-and-trade system. We have a set of overlapping and complex policies that provide a mesh of incentives and penalties. All of this complexity makes inaction and damage easy to hide, or to dress up as action, as we have seen in the past. Without accountability and transparency, it will be hard to identify and measure the impact and effectiveness of policies. Without transparency, we are putting our climate and our future behind an opaque window.

Beside that window, while we debate this 43 per cent in both the lower house and Senate, another government minister is spruiking the opening of 46,000 square kilometres of new offshore oil and gas exploration; fossil fuel subsidies remain, at the same time we are seeing fossil fuel companies making extraordinary profits; and, at the same time, we are hearing that the cost of actually helping everyday Australians is too much for the government to consider. We have seen climate wrecking projects like Beetaloo and Scarborough stay in the pipeline. Thousands of carbon credits with questionable integrity continue to be issued. This attitude of 'just trust us; we'll get there' is not good enough and Australians are demanding better.

I believe we should know what impact federal budget measures will have on our emissions reduction targets. We should know how much of the targets are to be achieved by different sectors of the economy. We should know how developments in climate science are influencing climate policies and targets. If science is not being followed, we should be told why not. Science is referred to just once in this bill. By contrast, it appears seven times in the UK equivalent. We should know whether Australia's emissions reduction targets represent our fair share of the reductions needed and, if they don't, why they don't.

We don't have to look far to see our Pacific Islands neighbours crying out for climate action. For many of them this is an existential threat. They risk losing their homes and they are crying out for more action but also leadership from their neighbours. Australia has a moral obligation to act on climate change. We are, relatively speaking, an extraordinarily wealthy country. With that comes responsibility to lead—not just do the bare minimum, as we are seeing in this bill, but actually step it up. So, while this is an important symbolic move, getting back to the table, let's not pat ourselves on the back too much about this bill. It's a first step. There's so much more to be done.

With climate policy, everything has to be looked at through the lens of integrity, because a target without integrity is just a number. It's not going to matter, and future generations will judge us harshly for our inaction and for some of the ridiculous arguments that we've used to avoid acting on what is the biggest challenge humans have ever faced. We have to act. We have to act decisively. I support this bill, and I look forward to working with my colleagues here in the Senate to ensure that this is just the first step not only in ending the climate wars but in winning them and going from being, when it comes to climate action, an embarrassing laggard who turns up to international summits to talk about climate action, spruiks gas companies and tries to water down agreements.

Countries that have hardly contributed at all to climate change are paying a massive price. When you turn on the television, you can watch what's happening in Pakistan. You see some of the famines happening in Africa. We know the awful consequences, not only to human life but to ecosystems around the world, with unchecked climate change. We're starting to get a glimpse.

What happens next is up to us. We can act decisively. We can be part of actually building a better future together. We can lead in the global community. We've heard concerns raised by Senator Canavan about what countries like China are doing. We should be out there demanding more action from the international community. It's clear that developed countries need to lead this. It's a huge opportunity for us here in Australia, in terms not only of our economy—building an economy for the future and unlocking energy savings for households—and having a cleaner environment in our cities but also of then being part of exporting that intellectual property and those ideas around the world as everyone has this transition. It's happening. It's going to happen whether we like it or not. The speed at which it happens is up to us. What an incredible opportunity to be part of! We stand here as one of the first generations to know the scope of this issue, this problem, and one of the last to actually be able to act.