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National Academies Forum

Australians and our Changing Climate - Past Experiences and Future Destiny

Opening Address
By Senator Robert Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

Becker House (The Dome)
25 November 1996

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I welcome the initiative of the four Academies in sponsoring this forum . A forum of this kind provides a means to bring together the diversity of expertise needed to develop strategies to reduce global warming.

This task was described by Tim Worth, the United States Under-Secretary for global affairs as "probably the most complicated scientific, environmental, economic and political challenge in history."

The theme chosen by the Academies is timely as Australia, together with several other nations present their negotiating position. Before I address the challenges facing Australia, both domestically and internationally, it is important to review our recent climate change history.

During the 1980's scientific evidence about the possibility of global climate change led to growing public concern. By 1990 a series of international conferences had issued urgent calls for a global treaty to address the problem. The United Nations General Assembly established an Intergovernmental negotiating committee to undertake treaty negotiations.

As a result , by May 1992 we adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Today, 159 countries have ratified the Convention. It should be remembered that Australia was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention and in 1992 implemented a national program on climate change.

The Convention lays the basis for global action "to protect the climate system for present and future generations". It provides a "framework" for governments to work together to carry out policies and measures that address climate change.

Australia, together with other signatories, have agreed to work towards "stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". It was acknowledged that countries would strive towards such levels in a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure food production and health is not threatened and to allow economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

The first Convention of the Parties [COP-1] held in March 1995 in Berlin commenced the negotiation process to develop a protocol to the Convention. I led Australia's delegation to the second Conference of the Parties [COP2] in Geneva in July 1996. The Ministerial meeting was an important staging point in the negotiations that are continuing to focus on the adoption of a protocol at the next ministerial meeting at Kyoto in December 1997. Australia endorsed the Ministerial Declaration with the notable exception of a key part on legally binding targets.

Australia was very much in the spotlight at COP2. It proved a difficult and complex meeting . The US EU alliance on legally binding targets shifted the debate on targets beyond the position held by Australia.

It was put to us, many times, that there was no specific target nominated, and therefore, there was no harm in accepting the idea, while silently reserving our right not to accept targets we did not agree with in the next round of negotiations.

That is not the way Australia negotiates in international fora. We are not prepared to sign blank cheques. We have always advocated transparent negotiations that reach a good international outcome and at the same time promote and protect Australia's position .

Throughout the Convention we:

We were not prepared to associate ourselves with an open-ended commitment to legally binding targets in advance of knowing what they were and how they would be structured.

Instead we put forward a proposal that countries' commitments should be differentiated to reflect differing national circumstances. In his statement at COP 2 Tim Wirth outlined a number of principles which he believed should guide the negotiations. They were:

Australia supports this position. At Geneva I emphasised that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would require us to be innovative, cooperative and realistic in order to achieve environmental outcomes both globally and for Australia.

It is clear, however ,that developed nations cannot achieve global outcomes without the cooperation and participation of developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

It is acknowledged that although, historically, they are not part of the cause, developing countries are contributing to the global future problems. It is expected that by early next century developing countries will contribute more than 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This must be addressed at Kyoto. It should also be emphasised that Australia accounts for only 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But we acknowledge our role as a global citizen. We recognise that we are part of the problem and therefore, we must be part of the solution.

The current review of the National Greenhouse Response Strategy provides a major platform for Australia to take forward its greenhouse agenda into the next century.

The goal is for the Council of Australian Governments to adopt a revised Strategy by mid 1997, including the release of a Discussion Paper for public consultation in March 1997.

The review process will draw on the active participation of each level of government and key stakeholders.

The Government also recognises the important role to be played through partnerships involving government, the professions, industry and the community in addressing a comprehensive and effective response to climate change.

As an example, the Government has demonstrated its commitment to achieving a successful Greenhouse Challenge program.

The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory also provides an important tool in measuring our progress in abating national emissions of greenhouse gases.

I note that several of the participants at the Forum today have been providing their expertise in the development of this inventory.

There is still important work to be done in improving estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those connected with the Land Use Change and Forestry Sector where there are high level uncertainties in the estimates.

The Natural Heritage Trust will provide the Government with the opportunity to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the enhancement of sustainable agriculture, improving land management practices and sinks.

It is estimated that the national greenhouse response measures implemented so far, or being implemented will by the year 2000 , reduce our growth in emissions to between 3-7% above 1990 levels. On the other hand, a "business as usual" scenario predicts a 14% rise in emissions between 1990-2000.

Australia's performance on emissions reductions compares favourably with that of other developed countries

In October Australia submitted a proposal that calls upon all countries to bear an equitable share of the global costs of addressing climate change. Australia's proposal involves using a set of economic indicators to differentiate country targets to take into account the economic structure of each economy, its resource base and other individual country circumstances, including dependency on fossil fuels.

Other countries have also put forward proposals:

Japan : Japan supports the concept of differentiation relying on a menu that would allow parties to choose a per capita percentage level of improvement towards emissions stabilisation or reductions objectives.

Norway: The Norwegian proposal is also focussed on differentiation but gives support to legally binding targets as part of the Berlin Mandate outcome.

The European Union: The key feature of the EU approach is their support for mandatory policies and measures for Annex 1 countries to reduce emissions after the year 2000 to below 1990 levels within specified timeframes. It proposes a legal instrument to provide for compliance mechanisms.

In other words, the proposals vary greatly.

The coming year will see an increase in momentum and hopefully an increase in clarity. The negotiations will be complex and intense. We all hope that the third Convention of the Parties at Kyoto will meet the original aims of the Convention and will be truly an equitable and flexible global response to global warming

Australia remains committed to a responsible, equitable and effective outcome at Kyoto; an outcome that is fair and achievable for all countries. We will continue to contribute, both politically and scientifically to find a global solution to this global environmental problem.

I am sure that today's forum will contribute to this outcome, and I look forward to the second session which, I am pleased will address the wider social issues of climate change.

Commonwealth of Australia