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

Coral Triangle Initiative; energy efficiency; Great Barrier Reef

Interview with Paula Tapiolas, ABC North Queensland Morning Show
10 November 2008

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PAULA TAPIOLAS:I mentioned the Minister of the Environment, Peter Garrett - he is in Townsville today. He's here for a gathering of the Coral Triangle Initiative which spans Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, PNG, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands.

Minister, is this the first meeting on this scale for the Coral Triangle Initiative?

GARRETT: Yes, it is, Paula, and it actually comes about from a suggestion that I made at the Bali conference when President Yudhoyono expressed his strong support for the Coral Triangle and we're really pleased that we've got these countries gathering in Townsville this morning to look at this Coral Triangle Initiative.

The region's a really important one, it's one of the most significant areas of actual marine environment that we have left in the world. It's one of these places which produces quite a deal of wealth and where you have very high populations living there, about 30 per cent of the world's coral reefs, over 3000 species of fish but, at the same time, some 240-250 million people all living within about 30 kilometres of a coastline.

So we've got quite a bit of expertise in the management of coral reefs. We've certainly got our challenges with the Great Barrier Reef. I know you and your listeners are aware of that but I think this is a really terrific initiative and I'm really pleased that I can be here with these other representatives from other countries as we look at the best ways in which we can go forward and look after the Coral Triangle.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: How do you describe the health of the corals in that triangle?

GARRETT: Well, they're still in reasonable health but regrettably, because of the level of over-fishing in some places, sometimes some destructive fishing practices, when we look across the region we've got about 80 per cent of the reefs in the south-east Asian portion are under medium risk, about half are at high risk and that's mainly from coastal development issues and from fishing related pressures and we've got some fish stocks, tuna and shark in particular, that might be headed towards collapse.

So whilst the reefs themselves are of really significant environmental value the pressures are intense and that's why it's absolutely critical for the Coral Triangle initiative to get going and that's why today's workshop is an absolutely positive and necessary first step in order to do that.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: Would it be fair to say it's been fairly politically sensitive to bring all these people from - these ministers from different countries together?

GARRETT: Oh, no, I don't think so. I think that we've got a really good level of cooperation at government to government level with these countries and I think that there's a growing awareness, particularly in the north of Australia, and especially for countries like Papua New Guinea, Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia and others, that they're sharing a common resource, a common environmental resource in terms of the coral reef and their own sustainability and the livelihoods of their own people is very much dependent on that reef being well looked after and remaining healthy.

And I found, in our discussions when we were in Bali with senior figures and political leaders there, that there's a very clear understanding that we're reaching the point now where climate change pressures, the potential for ocean acidification, sea level rise, increasing storm and cyclone events that come with climate change, plus these pressures that I spoke to you before about, the coastal development and fishing pressures, mean that we're in a scenario where if we don't start to take real and critical action now then we'll see, in the short and the medium term, continuing degradation of these reefs and these countries can't afford that to happen. Neither can Australia.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: I'm with the Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, who's in Townsville today for the meeting of the Coral Triangle Initiative.

Minister, Anna Bligh's pledged $50 million to stop agricultural runoff on the Great Barrier Reef and she says she's prepared to do whatever it takes. Is this sort of money the answer or is it time for legislation to make people reduce their energy consumption, to really tackle climate change?

GARRETT: No, look, I think the announcement by Premier Bligh is a really good one. As you know, the Commonwealth also committed just this year some $23 million as well. That's part of our reef rescue package of some $200 million.

It's high time that we started to put some funds and investment into managing off-farm practices and reducing the nutrient load onto the reefs.

Look, the Great Barrier Reef is our greatest national natural asset. That's the bottom line. And one of the things that's most critical in terms of preparing the reef for the impacts of climate change and the likely threats it's going to face, is to make sure that those inshore water qualities are lifted and, as a consequence of that, I'm really, really sure that this investment both from the Queensland government and from the federal government will go a long way towards starting to get that job done and I do know from being up here previously - I was up here, what was it, about two-and-a-half months ago - speaking with communities inland from Cairns, speaking to some of the farming communities there, people are ready to really start to do this work but we must have some investment, we must have some support for them to do it and I think the commitment that Anna Bligh's made is a really good one.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: Just in terms of general energy consumption though and in terms of tackling climate change, there's a feeling among scientists, internationally respected AIMS researcher, Dr Charlie Behrens, he's probably the leader of them, he says the only way to reduce our energy consumption is to legislate because people will not go there of their own accord. Do you agree with him?

GARRETT: Look, I think there's obviously situations where you do need to have a legislative framework to operate within but if we're talking about energy consumption, one of the things that I know that we're very focused on in terms of the introduction of the carbon pollution reduction scheme is to have a national energy efficiency strategy that operates at the same time.

I think the thing here, Paula, is that we've been pretty wasteful with energy in the past and Australians are recognising that not only is energy efficiency a good idea because it reduces sometimes greenhouse gas emissions and so that's starting to get some of the carbon levels down, but it's also good for the hip pocket.

So we think that there are many, many opportunities. Now, sometimes you'll need a legislative framework to do that but in other cases it's just having the right policy settings that enable that to happen and I expect that we'll have more to say about this in the coming months.

The challenge of climate change runs across so many important but quite diverse areas and also portfolios and so, from my perspective, the fact that we've got a Solar Schools Program, the fact that we're going to be bringing through a new low interest Green Home Loans plan, the fact that we're really looking seriously at some of the issues in relation to helping, say, for example, landlords get a rebate from putting insulation in rental properties, because quite often it's not in the interest of the landlord necessarily, at first blush, to improve the energy efficiency of a property because it might cost a little bit of money but we want to deal with those kinds of issues and give them the opportunity to do the right thing for their tenants as well.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: You've got the Coral Triangle Initiative meeting starting shortly. More than 90 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions come from countries that aren't represented in this Coral Triangle group so can something be achieved?

GARRETT: Look, I think it can. I mean, it's really a unique gathering that we have here today. We've got senior leaders from all of those countries, we've got senior leaders from some of the agencies that are providing the support, we've got the Australian Institute of Marine Science, we've got the ARCC centre of excellence for coral reef studies, we've got GBRMPA here too and quite a lot of the issues that are being faced by these communities in the Coral Triangle go to having sustainable practices in place, a clear sense of what the real value of these coral reefs are, a recognition that they're under significant threat now and that the only way we're going to significantly and properly address those sorts of issues is by working together and I think that's what people will be thinking about and wanting to do when they gather together in Townsville this morning.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: Do you think all of these countries have the same value for the coral reef as Australia does?

GARRETT: Ah, well, I think there's a high level of awareness about how important the reefs are and I think that we want to provide the opportunity in this workshop to share the science, to share some of our learnings on managing the reef.

I think we are arguably amongst the world leaders in terms of our own management practices but, you know, there are definitely situations that countries face which are different from the ones that Australia face, the pressures that they have for their populations, particularly in terms of people's livelihood are much greater in some areas.

So they will want clearly to be able to identify and put their own management practices in place as well but importantly on the basis of a shared understanding of the science, a shared understanding of what can work and what has worked in the past, and also a recognition that when you're generating the amount of income out of the Coral Triangle, some $2.3 billion annually, there's a very strong economic as well as environmental argument for making sure that you maintain the sustainability and the health of that reef.

PAULA TAPIOLAS: Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, thank you.

GARRETT: Thanks Paula

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia