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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Keynote address to Green Capital event Carbon Ethics, Who Wins, Who Loses?

Speech
Hilton Hotel, Sydney
20 November 2008

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Thank you, Elizabeth.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Cadigal people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Introduction

Its a pleasure to be here today at Green Capitals final major event for this year, Carbon Ethics Who Wins, Who Loses?

Today is a significant reminder that underlying the huge economic and political challenge of climate change - the policy debates, the recognition that adjustments and compromises will be needed; underlying this cut and thrust, today reminds us that climate change presents a challenge with a primary ethical dimension.

In every modeling exercise, every cost-benefit analysis, every call to action and argument for delay, we are weighing up impacts of climate change on future generations. It is this ethical dimension that asks us to consider, in the starkest terms imaginable, the legacy of our actions.

And that is why today is important, because it reminds us that whatever role we play in the corporate sector, in government or the non-government sector, we all confront a single, fundamental, ethical principle which demands that we act now to mitigate the effects of climate change - even though many or most of its impacts will not be felt by us, but by our kids, grandkids and great grandkids.

And while Australians will feel climate change impacts quicker and more acutely than most, with our already dry and weathered continent prone to climatic extremes, the ethical dimension of this challenge demands that we understand the impacts of climate change across borders, not least on our Pacific neighbours.

In fact, just two weeks ago, when I met with Indonesias Vice Admiral Freddy Numberi, Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries, he made the striking observation that Indonesia had already revised its total tally of islands downwards, with around 24 lost to environmental damage. As we debate the likely impacts of sea level rise, storm surge and erosion on our coastal communities, the potential loss of entire islands puts things in some perspective.

Climate change is in so many respects the ultimate environmental issue; directly illustrating the precautionary principle, asking us to come to terms with intergenerational equity and genuine sustainability.

Its an issue that asks us to step back from isolated causes and effects and look at the bigger picture, whether its whole of life-cycle management of resources or triple-bottom-line accounting.

Climate change costs

When it comes to carbon accounting, our planet is already in the red. Scientists talk about a two-degree temperature rise as the lower end of whats already in the system. It is the lower end of a legacy that were already feeling. The question we face is whether we want to continue that legacy or turn it around.

We increasingly understand that there is a pathway for effective action now, and if we dont take it, our planet and future generations will be the losers.

Thanks to the work of hundreds of scientists around the world and reports by Great Britains Lord Stern and our own Ross Garnaut, we know that the long-term costs of inaction, of not mitigating greenhouse emissions, far outweigh the costs of acting now.

We are aware that future generations will face even more difficult choices and our environment may suffer permanent damage unless, globally, we take effective action to stabilise greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere at levels which will avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

We are aware that Australias fragile water supply, coastal population and wealth of vulnerable natural wonders such as the Barrier Reef, make us particularly susceptible. Our buildings, roads and infrastructure risk rapid deterioration in the face of rising temperatures, more damaging floods, bushfires, storms and cyclones.

In fact, many of these risks were recognised on Tuesday at the first meeting of the Australian Council of Local Government, with councils aware they stand on the front line of climate change impacts on the infrastructure we use every day.

Ross Garnaut has noted that while the devastation of a 5 to 6 degree temperature increase would be global, Australia and some of our developing neighbours are among the most vulnerable countries in the world.

Professor Garnaut has also written that while an effective response to climate change will be mounted over decades, the shape of that response must be determined and established in the next few years. In his words: Delaying now will eliminate attractive lower-cost options. Delaying now is not postponing a decision. To delay is to deliberately choose to avoid effective steps to reduce the risks of climate change to acceptable levels.

Unfortunately it is very easy in the short term to argue for continued climate change delay. That is the argument we are seeing from the Liberal-National Party Coalition, with Mr Turnbull seeming to accept that climate change is occurring, but wanting to placate those in the Opposition who take a different view.

Its an easy position to take, but its not a rational or an ethical one. Because if you believe climate change is real, if you believe humans are contributing to it, then it follows that we must do something about it, and the sooner we take economically responsible action, the better prepared we are for the future.

As has been said elsewhere, delay is the next refuge of the climate change sceptic.

Ethics of climate change central to Governments response

Action on climate change is a deliberate choice, that that is why the ethics of carbon - or of global warming - are central to the Governments response to dangerous climate change.

After a decade of policy denial and delay, the Rudd Government has established three pillars for climate change policy which take into account the enormous scale of the challenge and the profound impacts of continuing inaction on future generations of Australians. Those pillars are:

Assistance for households & business

The centerpiece of our efforts to reduce Australias greenhouse gas emissions will be the implementation of the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2010.

The CPRS represents a significant economic reform, and the Government recognises that households will need help to transition effectively to a low carbon future and that some businesses will be impacted more than others.

With that in mind, we are building on our commitments to help households take practical action to save energy, save on energy bills and reduce their environmental footprints.

For business, the Government is giving careful attention to the needs and capacities of different economic sectors under the scheme. We are establishing mechanisms to assess and assist Emissions Intensive and Trade Exposed, and Strongly Affected industries as they transition to a carbon-constrained world.

In designing Australias response to the global challenge of climate change, some Australian businesses that compete internationally with countries which have not yet begun taking comprehensive action on climate change may need assistance from the Government to reduce the likelihood of carbon leakage and to help them adjust to a low carbon future.

Some limited assistance may also be provided to domestic industries that are likely to be strongly affected by the introduction of the scheme.

These are, as I said at the outset, the necessary adjustments and compromises that dominate the political debate surrounding climate change in Australia and of course in countries around the world.

However, at the end of the day, the actions of companies in reducing their carbon footprints will be critical.

Australias obligation & national interest

This Government acknowledges that as an advanced economy, Australia has a greater capacity to take effective action to respond to climate change than do developing economies.

And we should also recognise that an environmentally effective response is a clear opportunity an opportunity for innovation, to grow the green collar economy. For this reason, early action on climate change is not only an ethical imperative, its an economic imperative.

It is likely that those countries with greater capacity, including Australia, will be expected to take on ambitious commitments to reduce their emissions, as well as to support the efforts of less capable countries to manage their emissions.

It is also the case, however, that without effective mitigation action by developing economies many of whom are among the worlds largest emitters - emissions reductions achieved by the developed world will be overcome by emissions growth from the developing world.

An effective post-2012 global framework must reflect actions by all key countries, in binding international agreements, to slow the growth of, and then reverse, emissions. While national commitments may be expected to differ from country to country, all nations of the world will need to play their part.

Australias small absolute emissions in a global context and relative vulnerability to climate change impacts lend urgency to our efforts to establish an effective international framework. As a country taking strong action on climate change, we have a key role to play in shaping global efforts to agree to a new international climate change framework.

This Government is determined to be an active and vocal advocate in the lead up to, and at, Copenhagen in December 2009. My colleague, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, will participate in the upcoming negotiations in Poznan and actively pursue a new international agreement that is effective, efficient and fair, and sees all countries contributing to our collective efforts.

Energy Efficiency and Household commitments

As the Treasury modelling shows, we can take decisive action to reduce Australias carbon pollution while continuing to grow the economy and increase income.

The Government has also made a very clear undertaking, through the Green Paper, to assist Australian households in the transition to a low-carbon future.

This assistance will build on the significant investments and measures we are already bringing forward for household and community renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Ive spent a lot of time in recent months, including through a series of eight roundtables around Australia, getting a better understanding of the most effective ways households can take action on climate change.

One of the very clear messages that came through in these discussions from industry, from community and non-government organisations, and from various experts, is that household action on climate change is a fundamentally ethical question its about equity.

In significant ways, it is about low-income households, the most vulnerable, those who already spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy bills and are least able to invest in energy efficiency improvements up-front.

Its not only about bringing forward solutions from the private sector, from civil society and from Government, but also making sure households have access to these solutions to the right programs, and the right information in a form that is meaningful and accessible.

That is why, for example, the Government is establishing a One Stop Green Shop; a single, user-friendly, on-line portal for families, schools and businesses to access information on energy and water efficiency programs from all levels of Government.

This will be much more than just another website.

Once you start looking at the sheer volume of material that is out there, the overlapping programs, the various delivery points and the sometimes inconsistent messages, you appreciate that a centralised point of access for significant energy efficiency programs will be a very powerful tool; because not only do we all have a responsibility to act on climate change, we also all have a capacity, often much greater than we realise.

Importance of acting now

As I said at the outset, todays event is a reminder of the ethical dimension that underlies the climate change challenge.

We know this ethical dimension is genuine because of the many groups mobilised to find climate change solutions, including churches, trade unions, non-government organisations and the corporate sector.

From some quarters the Government is being told to wait, but climate change wont wait.

The impacts of climate change on future generations will not wait.

Choosing to delay may be a political answer for some, but it is no way to address an economic challenge, no way to address an environmental challenge and it is certainly no way to rise to a profound ethical dilemma.

This Government is intent on facing up to our ethical challenge by acting now.

I wish you all the best for this conference.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia