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ABC TV Lateline interview from Washington DC with Tony Jones
6 April 2009
JONES: A short time ago I spoke to the Environment Minister Peter Garrett in our Washington studio.
Peter Garrett, thanks for joining us.
GARRETT: Hi, Tony.
JONES: Another giant ice shelf has collapsed in Antarctica. Are your scientific advisers telling you that this is due to global warming?
GARRETT: Well, I haven't received specific advice on that matter but I've certainly seen the reports, Tony, and I don't think that there's any doubt that global warming is contributing to what we've seen both on the Wilkins ice shelf and also more generally in Antarctica. And it is the case that scientists, because of the fact of the Antarctic's unique and critical role in the world's climate system, are focusing very strongly on climate change research and also potential impacts.
JONES: Of course, sceptics are saying that ice shelves have been collapsing for as long as we've been travelling down to the continent, that this latest collapse is nothing new.
GARRETT: I find that pretty difficult to countenance, Tony. I think that this is a really significant mass of ice and it is the case that previously scientists had identified that it might potentially start to break away or collapse and that that would be as a consequence of warming.
Now, it's a big event. But there are many others in terms of the research that's been identified in and around the Antarctic, and also in other parts of the world, which I think tell us unequivocally that we're seeing climate change impacts. So to go to a sceptical position as we sometime still hear from our Opposition colleagues in Canberra, or from other voices, strikes me as being a little bit out of the realm of what we're actually seeing visually with our own eyes.
JONES: Here is something that is new: the report of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, it's 23 nations contribute to this, on the impact of climate change in Antarctic. It will be released today. It says that in west Antarctica the attribution of ice lost to human driven warming is now strong, and it warns that a number of climate influences could amplify this ice loss and accelerate future sea level rises.
The most scary thing it says is the upper level of those rises in global sea level could be as much as six metres - six metres - by the end of the century.
GARRETT: Look, I haven't seen that report yet, Tony, but I don't think there's any doubt those kinds of projections and scenarios are consistent with what the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change brought forward over the last couple of years.
And as more scientists do more work on potential climate change impacts, we're likely to be presented with these kinds of scenarios. Now, I have to say, I haven't seen this specific report yet, but the fact is that we're now entering a period where we are in a position to observe, particularly in the Antarctic, the consequences of global warming and climate change.
And I guess it's, for me, a reminder of how important it is for us to continue to work collaboratively in the region and one of the things that I'm doing in Washington is effectively celebrating what I think is a good part of the story on the Antarctic, and that is that we've had a treaty regime in place now for 50 years. It is a unique treaty in that it has produced very good cooperative science; it's a treaty which has a strong environment focus; it's also a treaty, given some of the other international developments, which has a strong disarmament and the peace component; and it's a treaty that has worked.
JONES: Is there any threat to the world park arrangements now built into that treaty, which prevent mining and exploration for minerals and oil in Antarctica?
GARRETT: Well, as far as the treaty states are concerned, and also the way in which everybody's conducting their research there; no.
And I think that that's a really unique and significant achievement.
Australia should hold its head up and say, "Look, we were a part of that." We've got a significant Antarctic history ourselves, some 100 years or so of involvement from Mawson, the great figures of our history.
But, you know, the first consultative meeting, the same meeting that I'll be attending today that's being hosted by the Secretary of State Mrs Clinton, was hosted by Australia, and in fact I hope to get the opportunity to offer to host the next meeting of the Antarctic treaty nations in 2012.
Now, the treaty itself is absolutely specific and clear; it is for the preservation and the conservation of the living resources of the Antarctic and it specifically precludes exploration and mineral exploitation. And the work that's been undertaken in the Antarctic by a number of nations down there, including Australia, has a strong science and research focus, it's not directed towards mineral exploitation at all because that's what the treaty provision clearly rules out.
JONES: OK, let's move on now. We've just seen more evidence of what scientists claim is at stake in Australia due to climate change - the biodiversity of plants and animals and birds and insects. How much help will the Government offer scientists to try and save species that are threatened in Australia?
GARRETT: Our program is particularly focused - I mean, we reformed the old conservatives' Natural Heritage Trust, and we turned it into Caring For Our Country specifically to deal with this issue.
Bio diversity, which is the health of native species and their interaction that gives us a kind of the healthy environment that we need, is one of the priorities which we've identified as being critical to support, and we're working very closely with land owners and in terms of program delivery to make sure that the habitat issues that go with bio diversity are seriously addressed.
We've set targets for the first time, Tony. It was never done before. I want to see over 400,000 hectares of specific habitat particularly habitat for threatened and endangered species, added in under Caring For Our Country in the next two years. That's ambitious. I want to see 5,000,000 hectares added to our national reserve system, and remember that we did actually quadruple the investment in our national reserve system, something that scientists had been calling for, and something which I understood and believed was very necessary.
Now, I'm not in any way again saying that we've got some really big challenges in front of us. We do, there's no question about that. I think there are some things which we can do better that have been done previously; that's dealing with things like weeds and ferals and getting the community working much more closely with one another, particularly in habitat protection and the like.
And I think we have to look at new ways of not only having national parks and reserves in place, which provide that kind of refugia, but also making that we've got the corridors and connectivity that these species will actually need to exist in a natural landscape; (a) which is evolving, but (b) which has climate change impact.
Now, throwing up a big fence and creating a huge park somewhere in order to do that may not be the best way to do it, but I'm certainly open to what scientists bring forward by way of ideas. I think we need to have evidence based policy and that's one of the things that drives this Government.
JONES: OK, let's go a bit broader. Is it in Australia's national interests to lobby for global emission reduction targets that keep CO2 level notice atmosphere below 550 parts per million?
GARRETT: Well, we've already said that we think the 450 parts per million is the appropriate benchmark to be borne in mind when it comes to both the international negotiations and moving forwards on reducing emission.
JONES: Yes, but the targets, proposed by the Australian Government, if adopted globally, would go nowhere near achieving that.
GARRETT: Well, Tony, I think the fact is - and I know that Penny Wong will have spoken on this issue on many occasions - there's always, and there always has been and there always will be, differentiated targets that will operate globally. And that's something which is well understood and recognised.
The fact is that we've got a comprehensive approach to deal with climate change and reducing emission. We've got a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme proposed. The Opposition are running away from it now, you know.
I mean, I counted six different positions on things like targets and emission reductions and so on and so forth before the Parliament broke, and now we seem to have an Opposition which is driven in part by old style scepticism about climate change or by a kind of "well, let's take political advantage in a situation where we've got a Senate which has got challenging issues in terms of bringing legislation through."
I mean, they haven't got a note to sing in their chorus because there's so much confusion with the Opposition. We've got a scheme which we want to bring through. We've also got really significant complementary measures, they're the energy efficiency measures which were part of the fiscal stimulus package. Once we start to drive those energy efficiency measures into the system, we will see the capacity for emission reductions as well. And we're committed to working in the international arena too.
I think that a substantive approach. I think it's one which recognises the seriousness and scale of the problem. It's a huge regret that we've got such opportunistic negativism coming from the Opposition on this issue.
JONES: OK alright, but do you accept that the targets that the Australian Government is proposing, if accepted globally, would not achieve what you want, which is to keep CO2 below 550 parts per million?
GARRETT: My response to that question, Tony, is to say that - as I said in my earlier answer - it is accepted and understood there will be differentiated targets according both to national conditions and also to the agreements that accumulate over time, both through Kyoto and beyond.
And that has always been the case. Our task is to make sure that we put in place a scheme which has targets, and we've done that...
JONES: You have made that point. But if the world adopted the Australian targets, do you seriously believe that would bring emissions below 550 parts per million?
GARRETT: Well, it's not a question of whether the world will or won't adopt those targets. The world will come to its view both collectively and frankly, individually as well, as to what target path it's going to take. We've come to ours, and we've set it out. And they're solid targets.
I mean, at the end of the day putting in place those measures now, being decisive and clear about what it is we think we can do, and also building in to our approach significant opportunities for emission reductions at the household level.
I mean, I'm lucky enough to have the challenge, if you like, of rolling out the biggest ever energy efficiency program that Australia's ever seen. We want to bring ceiling insulation and solar hot water, both of which produce significant energy cost savings, reduce emissions, and will also incidentally but importantly stimulate the economy through, and we want to do it for 3,000,000 Australian homes.
JONES: Alright, let's just move on. There have been recent reports of President Obama may seek a long delay before he signs up to any international agreement. In fact, it seems now unlikely because of opposition in the US Congress, that the US will sign up to an agreement at Copenhagen at the end of this year. That would be a huge blow for any international effort to bring down global emission, wouldn't it?
GARRETT: Well, I think it's a bit premature to be coming off that question straight away, Tony, although I know the report that you're referring to which have led you to ask it, legitimately.
You know, the Congress here will be absolutely critical in terms of the position that ultimately the administration does bring forward. In the brief period of time that I've been here, I've seen a real thirst on the part of people on the street, people we're talking to, and also officials, for the United States to be engaged and to be playing a more critical and important leadership role.
And I think the fact that the President has sought to have an additional meeting with the economies and nations to consider these matters is an indication of that. But at the end of the day, there are bills in the Congress, in draft form, they haven't travelled through what can be quite a long and sometimes convoluted process, but I don't think there's any doubt that the administration as a whole, and the President, have made clear they will address this issue and they will address it in a fashion which is focused, and consistent with what we've heard from President Obama and other officials previously.
JONES: Alright. Finally, Peter Garrett, the former president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, has just been appointed to head Australia's advisory panel on carbon capture and storage. Will that appointment speed up efforts in this area?
GARRETT: Well, I think it's a good appointment, and it will certainly mean that someone of significant experience can take up that role. Look, we just have had significant buy in from other major countries to the carbon capture and storage initiative.
And I think the US support for that initiative is absolutely critical.
The fact is, Tony, there are a number of components, significant and important components, that countries need to bring forward in addressing climate change. We've spoken about some of them tonight. Carbon capture and storage is another. And I think Wolfensohn will make a very good fist of that job.
JONES: Peter Garrett, we'll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to join us before your meetings in Washington today.
GARRETT: Thanks, Tony.