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Climate Change (Net Zero Future) Bill 2023

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Climate Change (Net Zero Future) Bill 2023, and I congratulate the Government on prioritising this legislation so early in its term. It is clear there is a genuine intention to establish a robust framework as soon as possible to drive a sustained, ongoing program of policy development and oversight to ensure that New South Wales meets its emissions reduction targets. I thank the Government for its collaborative approach with the crossbench and Opposition in working to incorporate some significant and extremely important amendments. The bill before us today is considerably stronger than it was when it was introduced originally, and the Parliament should be proud of that. But it should not be too proud because anyone who has engaged, even superficially, with what the scientific community, the insurance industry and any number of other experts are telling us about the accelerating, but once avoidable, changes to our climate knows that we are not doing enough.

If people are not deeply concerned, they are not paying attention. Many of us will remember that July 2023 was the hottest month on record for planet Earth. Unfortunately, that is just the beginning. The stream of scientific analysis and research warning us about the devastating consequences of climate change is constant. In July this year, as global heat records tumbled, I remember reading a newspaper article that, instead of providing just more facts and figures, documented personal reflections from scientists who have dedicated their lives to researching our changing climate and advocating to reduce emissions at the rate and scale necessary to limit dangerous global heating. The statements from those scientists were quite moving and I share some of them now. Professor Ian Lowe, emeritus professor in the School of Science at Griffith University, said:

I still recall reading the 1985 Villach conference report, alerting the scientific community to the possible link between greenhouse gas production and climate change. In 1988, I directed the Australian Commission for the Future and worked with CSIRO's Graeme Pearman on Greenhouse '88, a program to draw public attention to what the science was showing.

Now all the projected changes are happening, so I reflect on how much needless environmental damage and human suffering will result from the work of those politicians, business leaders and public figures who have prevented concerted action. History will judge them very harshly.

Dr Joelle Gergis, senior lecturer in climate science at the Australian National University, said:

What is playing out all over the world right now is entirely consistent with what scientists expect. No one wants to be right about this. But if I'm honest, I am stunned by the ferocity of the impacts we are currently experiencing. I am really dreading the devastation I know this El Niño will bring. As the situation deteriorates, it makes me wonder how I can be most helpful at a time like this.

Professor Lesley Hughes, board member of the Climate Change Authority and an emeritus professor at Macquarie University, said:

This is what climate change looks like now. And this is what climate change looks like in the future, though it will likely continue to get worse.

I don't know how many more warnings the world needs. It's as if the human race has received a terminal medical diagnosis and knows there is a cure, but has consciously decided not to save itself.

But those of us who understand, and who care, just have to keep trying—after all, what other choice do we have?

Indeed, what choice do we have? I turn to the substance of the Climate Change (Net Zero Future) Bill 2023. There are many robust aspects of the bill. It is clear that the Government wants to create an independent statutory body in the Net Zero Commission that can give full, frank and fearless advice. It wants to create an organisation that has longevity and has rigorous parliamentary oversight. The bill gives a clear signal that this Government wants to take a long-term approach driven by evidence and the best available science. It wants to be transparent and create a system of actors and processes that hold the government of the day to account and drive ambition in a policy area that is too often riven with toxic politics. This arrangement elevates technical expertise and advice, which I absolutely welcome.

The bill before the House today is a significant improvement on the original bill introduced in the upper House, and is a shared achievement of this Parliament. The most significant improvement is the inclusion of a duty for the Premier and Minister to achieve the emissions reduction targets. That is essential. The inclusion of a legislated interim target of 70 per cent by 2035 significantly strengthens the bill, and I thank the Opposition for moving that amendment. The ability for the Net Zero Commission to provide advice to the Independent Planning Commission is extremely important. The current reality is that there is an enormous pipeline of coal expansions in our planning system, with decisions to be made in the short term. At least 12 coalmines are seeking to expand, with life cycle emissions likely to exceed two billion tonnes. That equates to more than 15 years of all emissions in New South Wales at current rates.

Policy settings under the previous Government facilitated coal expansion after coal expansion. These settings must change so that the Independent Planning Commission can do its job and meaningfully take into account climate impacts. For every unit of CO2 emitted in our country, Australia exports over three units. While scope 3 emissions are not accounted for in our emissions, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this massive contribution to global emissions. Even direct scope 1 emissions from mining coal are significant, and fugitive emissions from mining are the only sector predicted to increase in New South Wales between 2020 and 2030. The Government's net zero dashboard predicts that, by 2029, fugitive emissions from coalmining will be larger than all emissions from electricity generation in New South Wales. The inclusion of a ratchet mechanism that will allow interim targets to be increased when they are hopefully met as technology improves and New South Wales gains momentum in reducing emissions is also a fundamental improvement.

Ultimately, the Net Zero Commission is an unelected body with limited direct powers. In her second reading speech the Minister for Climate Change referenced examples from around the world of climate change legislation that set binding targets. Such legislation also typically sets the operational architecture for government action. This includes mandating climate risk and vulnerability assessments, requiring climate change strategies and plans, and implementing interim and sectoral targets. This bill does not do these things. The bill sets targets and creates a commission but, unlike comparable legislation around the country and the world, it does not set a comprehensive framework for government action. For example, there are no requirements for the State Government to adopt and report on carbon budgets. We need sector‑based pathways to net zero and that means sector‑based budgets and targets adopted by the Government that directly guide decision-making.

The purpose of the bill is to create an organisation that will help advise on how to reach net zero. I do not deny that decarbonising the economy is a hugely complex endeavour, but we cannot pretend that we do not already know what needs to be done. In fact, there is much low-hanging fruit to reduce emissions that should be urgently prioritised. The Government has many levers at its disposal to meaningfully reduce emissions, and I urge it to use them. These levers include protecting our public native forests, creating planning laws that prevent the approval of massive new coal expansions, and using the Government's balance sheet to help bridge the gap between the high capital costs and lower operating costs of electrification to drive household decarbonisation at scale.

The Climate Risk Group's submission to the upper House inquiry into the bill highlights just how much skin New South Wales has in the game. Its analysis found that New South Wales is one of the States in the world that is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We rank in the top 5 per cent of States at highest risk globally. We cannot escape the fact that we are rapidly squandering the opportunity we have to limit the devastating impacts of rising global temperatures. This is a tragedy of epic proportions—a tragedy of lost opportunities, failures in leadership, greed and short-sightedness. Too much of this story has already been written for us to avert much of the suffering that is being, and will be, wrought by increasing global temperatures.

Climate change will unfold both fast and slow. Catastrophes such as floods, bushfires and storms will throw lives into disarray with little notice. Then there are the insidious, slow‑burn stresses of heat and sea level rise. Those impacts will touch all our lives, but inevitably will most affect the vulnerable and those least responsible for causing the problem. The intergenerational injustice is profound, and the kids have every right to be furious. We can only offer hope by acting boldly, at speed and at scale. This bill does not in itself guarantee bold action—I want to see more ambition—but it certainly puts us in a much better position to meet the challenges we face. I wholeheartedly welcome the bill. I look forward to following the work of the Net Zero Commission over the coming years and holding the Government to account as we strive to meet our net zero goals, deploy smart solutions at scale and keep our communities safe.

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