28 March 2023

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (03:56): It’s no secret that the politics of climate change have frustrated me over my 16 years in this place, bearing witness to debates here, around our country and around the world. Too often I have borne witness to extreme arguments, variously coming from all sides—arguments that are detached from the facts of science, detached from the facts of economics or ignorant of the realities of geopolitics. It’s also no secret that I have pressed, publicly and privately, for my party to adopt a more positive position at times on matters of climate change and that I’ve been concerned about extreme perspectives that too often consider Australia in a vacuum, as if our actions alone can solve these issues or can isolate us from these challenges. The challenge of climate change necessitates a careful, analytical and fact-based assessment of the problem, the cause and the solutions available—a sober, fact-based approach. In these early hours of the morning, I hope to work through at least some of those issues and place on the record my thoughts about how we should view the problems, causes and solutions, in the context of Australia and relevant policies for Australia.

The problems and associated risks around climate change are well articulated, studied and published, even if they’re not accepted by all. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth assessment report assessed the impact of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity and human systems, with differing impacts across regions, sectors and communities, and outlined how best to reduce adverse consequences for current and future generations. The IPCC report found that impacts are increasingly severe, interconnected and often irreversible. It assessed the vulnerability of human and natural systems and outlined the role of adaptation in reducing exposure and vulnerability to climate change. It looked at the levels of resilience and how to further build them, including through transformations and transitions in human and natural systems. The IPCC report found that there is a greater than 50 per cent likelihood that global warming will reach or exceed 1½ degrees in the near term, and it observed the risks of concurrent hazards, compounding effects and extreme events.

From an Australian domestic context, from the perspective of many of our Pacific island neighbours, in particular, and from the perspective of most of our global friends and partners, these are risks that we can and should take seriously. This, of course, is not new news. Indeed, looking back on past contributions in some of these debates, I saw that way back in 2009 I quoted Margaret Thatcher speaking at the Second World Climate Conference on 6 November 1990. It’s a quote many others have used at different junctures. She said:

The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.

But, unlike 33 years ago when Thatcher spoke, we do know much more now. Not all the dangers remain unseen. We have made some breakthroughs but we need to make more.

Commitments under international climate change agreements, like the Kyoto agreement and the Paris Agreement, tend to be benchmarked off 2005 levels. I entered this place in 2007, and it’s instructive to look at the changes in the global and domestic emissions landscape over the horizon of that last couple of decades since those time frames. Globally, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had moved from its stable long-run base of an estimated 270 to 280 parts per million up to 384 parts per million by 2007, rising up to 419 parts per million in more recent estimates. This shift in atmospheric concentration has been driven by growth in annual CO2 emissions, climbing from around five to 10 billion tonnes per annum through the industrial revolution and global population explosion to reach an estimated 31½ billion tonnes by 2007. But since then we have seen the rate of global annual emissions rise even further, to a reported 37.1 billion tonnes in 2021.

This continued growth in annual emissions and atmospheric concentration fits the narrative of despair and emergency that we so often hear about. But what of our role and our contribution here in Australia? Australia’s emissions inventory, as reported under the Paris Agreement, has gone from 646 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2007 down to 498 million tonnes in 2020. So, while global emissions have continued to rise, Australia has reduced our emissions by 20 per cent, even as our economy grew by 45 per cent. That means that our rate of emissions intensity has declined even faster than our nation’s actual emissions. You wouldn’t expect or appreciate this from much of the commentary, but they’re important facts for us to bear in mind.

Australia’s share of global emissions used to be put at around 1.4 per cent of global emissions, but is now estimated to be closer to 1.1 per cent. More than half of global emissions are attributed to just three countries: China, which now accounts for around 32 or 33 per cent; the United States at around 12 to 13 per cent; and India at around six to seven per cent. The rapid growth in emissions from China and, more recently, from India—and of course from many other smaller nations pursuing their own development agendas—is understandable. It is a function of their pursuit of higher living standards—higher living standards which we otherwise celebrate their achievement of. The reality is that Australia’s per capita emissions remain significantly higher than these countries, who are still charting their development trajectory. If we are truly to combat climate change and truly to heed the messages of the most recent IPCC report, the test is not only for how we further reduce our emissions to meet our net zero commitment and to achieve ambitious interim targets which track towards it but also for how we best enable China, India and so many other smaller but economically ambitious nations to realise their development goals without them further worsening the global emissions challenge.

This is where low-cost transferable technology is essential. Australia, in our journey over the last 20 years in reducing our emissions and our emissions intensity, has seen remarkable transformation as part of that journey. One in four Australian homes now has rooftop solar panels, the highest rate of penetration by solar PV in the world. Years ago, the solar PV market was filled by huge subsidies—feed-in tariffs and government intervention. Today, it is largely fuelled by cost competitiveness. Commercial realities make household solar stack up for homes around Australia. Increasing cost competitiveness also saw some $35 billion invested into renewable energy in the period between 2017 and 2020, because the economics had increasingly switched in favour of those renewables as a source of generation.

To achieve global net zero by 2050 the International Energy Agency estimates that low emissions technologies including solar, including hydropower and including nuclear must grow from around 40 per cent of global power production to 100 per cent. Hydrogen and carbon capture, use and storage technologies are further estimated to need to grow and contribute around 50 per cent in emissions across heavy industries. These are the types of changes that are essential to effect change here in Australia and in the nations most contributing to continued global emissions growth.

That’s why the previous coalition government placed genuine focus on low-emissions technologies. We, in committing Australia to a net zero trajectory, identified six priority low-emissions technologies that Australia ought to focus on as part of a global effort. We set measurable, quantifiable targets to make these technologies affordable and accessible, to not only Australia but to other countries around the world who we knew would need that type of cost-effective breakthrough for them to be able to play their role in tackling climate change.

Those six priority low-emissions technologies were clean hydrogen, ultra low cost solar, energy storage for firming, low emissions materials, particularly steel and aluminium, carbon capture and storage and soil carbon. Examples of the types of financial analysis we undertook were that we acknowledged clean hydrogen needed to be produced at under $2 per kilogram to make it cost effective, not just in Australia but around other nations, and to drive its uptake. Similarly, in ultra low cost solar, we strived towards generation at $15 per megawatt hour; to achieve storage for firming at under $100 per megawatt hour; to achieve low-emissions steel production at under $700 per tonne or low-emissions aluminium production at under $2,200 per tonne; to ensure that CO2 compression hub transport and storage could occur for under $20 per tonne of CO2; and that soil organic carbon measurement could be achieved for under $3 per hectare per year.

These were detailed targets, backed by genuine strategies and investments. I regret that internal debates over matters such as the net zero commitment or images of those holding lumps of coal undermined the credibility of these strategies and, with that, undermined the focus on the investment, the success Australia has achieved in a emissions reduction. Take our work in relation to setting the nation up for hydrogen. We built and established major new cooperative agreements with Germany, with Japan, with Singapore and with the UK to build hydrogen supply chains to share technology. We backed it with investments in multiple hydrogen hubs across every state around this country. We invested in hydrogen electrolyser projects through ARENA. We made sure that there were real plans for Australia to be able to lead in that sector. I hope and trust that this government will make sure that it continues to pursue those types of positive policies in that space.

This government has come forward with a plan, contained in the legislation before us, now influenced sharply by the Greens, that is more like a stick to Australian industry than a carrot to not just deliver the change that can impact our industry but to impact and help deliver the changes that are necessary globally. Indeed the government’s policy approaches are making that change harder by being driven to ideological cuts to programs such as carbon capture, use and storage. We face a Labor government who have cut grants to CCUS hubs, who have walked away from projects that can help to achieve the type of step change in emissions control that is needed here in Australia and around the world. CCUS is going to be a big part of how most countries meet their targets, and it will have to be a big part of how Australia does too. To walk away from those types of policy settings is only to make that task harder.

I stand here tonight—or this morning, as it may now be—acknowledging fully the size of the challenge that we in the world have. We shouldn’t look at it through ideological blinkers. We shouldn’t look at it pretending there are silver bullets. And we certainly shouldn’t look at it denigrating what Australia has achieved, because we have achieved remarkable change in reducing our emissions. We have played a role in step change in technologies through, for example, our take-up of solar PV, and we can play a positive role if we focus on how we can get affordable technologies taken up here in Australia that set a model for the rest of the world.

So I urge the government to reflect, to consider the scale of those global challenges and to better equip Australia to contribute to those challenges not just here but right around the world, and for us to do so from a position of strength, where our role in technologies to combat climate change is the most positive one possible.