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Climate Change Bill Speech To Parliament

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
8 December 2016

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — It is my pleasure to speak to the Climate Change Bill 2016 before the house. As we have heard from many other speakers, this bill fulfils the government's election commitment to review the Climate Change Act 2010 and improve it after the previous Liberal-Nationals government tore it to shreds. In that sense we do welcome many of the changes contained within this bill, and we are really heartened to see the state government acting on its election commitment to review and amend this act.

I would like to congratulate the Premier and the Minister for Energy, Environment, and Climate Change and all the staff in the department for taking this step forward.

The bill is a real improvement on the previous Climate Change Act 2010, and the government should be commended for that. However, there are still some holes in this act which would allow this government, or a future government that does not care about climate change — —

Honourable members interjecting.

Ms SANDELL — I am talking about the opposition, the member for Essendon and the member for Melton, so maybe have a little bit of a listen, because I think you are probably on the same side on this. There are holes in this act that could allow a future government or this current government to get away with doing very little on climate change but still meet the requirements of the act.

I have some questions of the minister about those holes, because in that sense it is really a missed opportunity to embed in our laws requirements for governments to deal with the biggest moral challenge of our generation.

I am a little disappointed that the Labor government will not let this bill go into consideration in detail, as I did request on Tuesday, so that we can ask questions of the minister about some of the really important details that are in this bill, because the devil really is in the detail.

Even though the intention is really good, the devil will be in the detail and I would have appreciated an opportunity to ask the minister questions about that detail. If we have time for the opposition to make budget reply speeches for a budget that was handed down over six months ago, I think we should have time to actually debate climate change. It brought forward a supposedly urgent bill on parole reforms, and if we have time to discuss those kinds of urgent matters, why is this government not considering climate change urgent enough to even go into consideration in detail on this bill?

Over the years it has become increasingly clear that responding to climate change cannot be left to federal governments alone and that state governments need to step up to the challenge. Just this week we saw the Turnbull government in complete disarray over its climate change policy with the right wing really setting the agenda and blocking Malcolm Turnbull from taking any action. So it is becoming clearer and clearer why states need to step up.

This is especially the case for states like Victoria, where we are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change due to our carbon-intensive brown coal power industry. So I am very pleased that the Victorian government has recognised the need to take some responsibility for reducing Victoria's emissions and the impact they have, not just here but globally.

Many of the measures contained in the bill can be useful and effective tools for combating climate change. In particular, setting the 2050 emissions reduction targets and interim targets is really important; those interim targets are really the key here so that we do not leave action to down the track when it will be much more expensive and more difficult to achieve.

The mandate for the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions is very welcome, and the whole-of-government focus on emissions reduction, particularly requiring each sector to pledge emissions reductions, is also very welcome. If implemented under a government that is truly committed to tackling climate change, this bill has really great potential to drive emissions reduction and adaptation.

But unfortunately it does not guard against the whims of future governments who may be less concerned with the dangers and risks posed by climate change. So while this bill implements an overarching system of principles which call on the government to consider mitigating climate change across all its decisions, it really places no real actual requirements on decision-makers to do so. Crucially, the bill also lacks any consequence for a government which does not fulfil the requirements that it lays out.

Put simply, this bill is not strong enough to mandate government action on climate change regardless of the views of the government of the day. It is quite a scary thought, given the contributions from the opposition side, who clearly do not want any action on climate change at all and are even opposing this bill.

Mr Nardella interjected.

Ms SANDELL — So if the government were actually serious about tackling climate change, it would have — and here is my solution, member for Melton, it is a very simple solution — included a charter, as recommended by the review into the Climate Change Act, or a 'climate test', as proposed by climate and environment groups really early on in the climate change review process.

These would obligate this government and all future governments to actually reduce emissions, regardless of their personal views on climate change or their ideological position.

Unfortunately, as it stands, there is nothing in this bill that prevents a future government from doing essentially nothing. They would not even, on my reading, need to repeal the act in order to take very little action on climate change.

Honourable members interjecting.

Ms SANDELL — And I would hope that the member for Melton and the member for Essendon, who are interjecting, are just as scared about a future Liberal government undoing action on climate change as I am.

There is no third-party standing in this bill where a community group or the public could take action against the government for failing to meet its climate targets.

This lack of enforcement or incentive for action is really in contrast to, say, the bill to ban unconventional gas and fracking which, I note, has been disappointingly delayed until next year so the government could focus on its punitive law and order agenda this week.

However, that bill looks like a really good bill, and in order to allow gas fracking in Victoria, a new government would actually need to repeal that act and bring that before Parliament and endure the scrutiny of the public in doing so. But that is not the case for this bill.

Without some stronger enforcement mechanisms, Victorians can take no real reassurance that these plans for 2050 will actually be followed through until 2050. So there is not much point having an emissions reduction target for 2050 if there is no real incentive for going through with it or punishment for not doing so. It is concerning, because Victoria has long been falling behind other parts of the world in responding to climate change.

As the minister has acknowledged, Victoria is already feeling the effects of climate change and has experienced a rise in temperature and a reduction in rainfall across the state since 1950. Droughts have been getting longer, bushfire seasons are becoming more unpredictable and more extreme, and extreme weather events are becoming more and more likely.

Just last week, experts told us we are now seeing weather patterns and events across Australia that we did not expect to see until at least 2030, which is a pretty frightening prospect. So climate change is happening even faster than scientists have predicted, and that is very scary, especially as we go into another dangerous, long, hot fire season.

So we are running out of time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It is entirely possible that it is already too late to avoid any impact on Victoria — on our environment, our agriculture, our economy and our way of life. That is why the Greens would have liked to see this bill be stronger. It is disappointing the government has fallen short of including a 'climate test' or charter in this bill.

During the review process environment stakeholders called for provisions to be included in the new bill that required any government agency considering a major decision which would make it difficult for Victoria to meet its emissions reduction targets to reconsider that decision until it did not have that impact.

The aim of this is to mandate climate considerations across all areas of government so that emissions reductions in one area are not completely wiped out by increases in another. For example, if a department is considering a huge, new toll road that would put more cars on the road and contribute to more emissions, this bill allows them to do so. If the energy minister wanted to open up new gas fields or coalfields, this bill would allow them to do so.

Instead, this bill has included climate principles and policy objectives that certain decision-makers are asked to consider, but without any requirements beyond that. Essentially, as long as departments and ministers say they have considered climate change, then the job is done. Sure, that is better than nothing, but it could have been a lot stronger.

The bill also leaves some key questions unanswered. That is why I would have liked to go into consideration in detail, to get some clarity from the minister on these questions. It might be that the government has the best intention, but we will not know that because we are not able to question her.

It seems like there is no upper limit on the international offsets the government can use to meet its emissions reduction target. For example, can the government buy dodgy offsets from palm oil plantations overseas and say it is saving emissions, while doing virtually nothing to actually change our energy system systematically at home? The bill does not seem to say that it cannot.

We understand that interim targets before 2050 might be best set outside of the act, we understand that, but we are concerned that the first set of targets — that is, for the period 2021–25, will be set so close to the commencement date for these targets that they will have to be set so low to actually meet them in the tough and tight time frame that is required.

So why not set them in 2017, as was initially indicated to environment stakeholders? Why is there a delay? Why will they be pushed off to 2018 or beyond? And why has the government not introduced more timely reporting of emissions?

Currently the bill looks like it will use the current emissions inventory to report on Victoria's emissions, but by the time these are released they are usually one-and-a-half or two years out of date and therefore often useless in determining if the government policy on emissions reduction is having an impact.

It would have been more sensible, I would have thought, to at least institute some kind of interim omissions reporting or more timely emissions reporting to bring a bit more transparency into the process. That would help this government to hold future governments to account as well.

One really good thing about the bill is that if a future government wants to amend the interim targets they need to publish that in the Government Gazette and also online along with their reasons for changing the targets. However, disappointingly, if they want to vary the sector pledges, which are actually the most important part of this bill, there is no requirement for the minister to publish the reasons for doing so.

Why is this the case? I would have loved the chance to ask the minister that question, why there is not transparency in the sector pledges and whether that will let departments and sectors off the hook. It means that future governments can ratchet down targets for sectors. If that is the case, that would be quite a bad outcome.

If this government really wants transparency around climate action and wants to ensure future governments actually meet the targets, why not make the minister publish the reasons for varying the sector pledges, given they are the most significant part of the act, as I have said, for reducing emissions?

Speaking of the sector pledges, they are only required to be made under categories which will be prescribed by the minister under regulation. It is a little confusing to me why these are not listed in the act in order to embed them in the law and make them more resistant to being eroded or changed by future governments. The minister has outlined some of these sectors in her second-reading speech and the explanatory memorandum of the bill, so why are they not in the act? This does not seem to make much sense to me.

It seems like it would be easy to fix. Perhaps the government is not inclined to fix it and therefore certain sectors can get away without pledging emissions reductions. Will this leave out some of our biggest emitters like stationary energy and forestry? It is very scary.

Speaking about stationary energy, in setting the interim targets this government will need to make sure that much, much more is done in this sector to reduce emissions given that we do have the dirtiest and the most polluting brown coal in the country, if not the world. Now that Hazelwood has decided to close, due to a company decision not leadership from this government, I might add, the government cannot simply claim this as enough of an emissions reduction and therefore do nothing else when it comes to coal.

I am quite worried that they will just count Hazelwood's emissions reduction and say, 'That's that; we can leave the rest of the brown coal industry doing as it likes, and that is enough of an emissions reduction'. That is just not the case. If we want to meet our 2050 targets, if we have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change on ourselves and future generations, we must have a comprehensive plan to retire our old dirty brown coal power stations and replace that power supply with clean energy.

We know we can do it. The Greens have a comprehensive plan called Renew Australia that would make us the clean energy superpower. I think all governments should look at that plan and adopt some of those policies, because we can become a manufacturing powerhouse and a clean energy powerhouse again.

If this Labor government does nothing on brown coal during its first term, it will really be an abject failure — not just a failure in terms of climate change but also a failure in terms of planning for the future of coal communities, who are crying out for new industries and new jobs beyond coal.

They really deserve a comprehensive plan from this government not just a reaction once brown coal closes on the day the announcement is made. They deserve a plan and jobs ahead of time.

In conclusion, the Greens will of course be supporting this bill — we are happy to support anything that takes a step in the right direction on climate change — but we will be looking for potential amendments in the upper house. I note the member for Melton and the member for Essendon were asking what those amendments are.

Rest assured, they will come in the upper house to make sure that this bill is ambitious and as robust as it needs to be and to make sure that this government and future governments cannot get away with skirting their responsibilities to deal properly with climate change. We look forward to working with this government to make this bill the game changer that it really could be.


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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
8 December 2016




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