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Janet on the effects of climate change on infrastructure

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 13 Aug 2018

I present the report on current and future impacts of climate change on housing, buildings and infrastructure, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This report serves as an important reminder, given the context of what's being discussed this week, both here in the parliament and in the media, about the future of our electricity supply and systems. Climate change is real. It's happening now, and if we don't put the brakes on as fast as possible the ramifications will be dire. The report is the learnings from many submissions and hearings in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. The committee spoke to local councils, engineers, climate experts, insurers, business leaders and scientists—the whole range of stakeholders who are staring down the barrel, looking at the impacts of climate change. At its core, this report serves as a tally of the risks and the costs of a do-nothing approach to climate change—the still severe but manageable consequences of a world where carbon pollution is rapidly reduced and the options available to government to manage and choose between these alternatives.

Now I want to note up-front, as is clear from the structure of the report, that the committee was not able to reach consensus recommendations that could be included in this report. As Chair, I put forward a suite of recommendations that I felt were based very strongly on the evidence that was produced before us, but the committee determined not to support those recommendations. As it stands, the recommendations that I put forward as Chair have been included as additional comments from the Greens. The government senators had no recommendations. Their additional comments merely note a range of things that the government is already doing. They were not engaging with the serious nature of the evidence that was put before us in this important committee.

The Labor Party's recommendations go considerably further than the government's, but they're basically a watered down version of our recommendations, if you compare the two of them. For example, we recommend that we should reach net zero emissions by 2040; the Labor Party say 2050. Where we have recommendations that say, 'These are things that need to occur,' the Labor Party's recommendations say that they will consider them. And where other recommendations actually put some firm time lines in place to acknowledge the importance of urgent action, those timelines are left out of the Labor recommendations in their additional comments. So I encourage you to look through all sets of recommendations, and, if you read the report, I think you will see that the Greens' recommendations are strongly supported by the evidence put before us.

One of the most serious areas that we looked at, which is a consequence of our ongoing fossil fuel use, is the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and the thermal expansion of the oceans.

It's going to result in a sea level rise of at least 1.1 metres over the coming decades. That's looking more and more like a lowball given the accelerating rate of sea level rise. Initial estimates are that there will be $226 billion in potential damage to our infrastructure because of sea level rise. The department of climate change has calculated that a third of the estimated 700,000 existing homes in the coastal zone are at risk of inundation under a sea level rise scenario of 1.1 metres. That's a quarter of a million homes.

Our inquiry found that we were simply not ready for such a scenario. Federal, state and local governments are not preparing for what this is going to mean. Managed retreat, which would require new development to occur further away from the shore, we found was an effective form of adaptation to minimise the costs that would ultimately be incurred. And, yes, managed retreat is really difficult, but it seriously needs to be considered. Our Greens recommendation was very strongly that state and territory governments should develop effective coastal retreat mechanisms.

That sea-level rise is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If we can't reduce emissions in time to stop the slide of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets into the Atlantic and Southern oceans, we will be facing ongoing sea level rise and coastal retreat for centuries, if not millennia. Governments and planners must start planning now and preparing for this scenario or risk exacerbating the cost and the damage that's going to occur.

We received evidence from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology that looked at the implications of four degrees of warming by 2090 for heatwaves in our major urban centres. 2090 might sound a long way off, but my heart goes out to babies that are being born this year. And a shout-out to Aiden Bakker and the soon-to-be-born offspring of my staff member, Georgia Webster. They will only be 72 in 2090, younger than a number of senators in this place. 2090 and four degrees of warming—it is unthinkable what that is going to mean. In Melbourne, my home town, we'd see the average number of days over 35 degrees more than double from 11 to 24. Perth goes from 28 a year to 63. But worst of all is Darwin, which will have 265 days per year where the maximum temperature over 35 degrees Celsius. To compound this, we know temperatures will be exacerbated by the urban heat island effect. And we already know the awful impacts that extreme heat has on human health, including heat stress and heatstroke exacerbating pre-existing conditions. And then, of course, there are the knock-on effects of increasing drought and increasing bushfire risk from this extreme heat.

Our building codes are woefully inadequate for this future. We need serious action on minimum construction standards to mitigate the effect of extreme heat and to ensure that buildings are themselves energy efficient so that they're not just adding to the problem.

Then there are the ramifications for our electricity infrastructure. It's well known that heatwaves increase demand, putting pressure on our grids to supply sufficient power. But the inquiry also heard about the risks of climate-driven extremes, including the potential of heat stress shutting down generating units, including those baseload coal power stations, grid transformers and transmission lines. Drought means that thermal generators run out of water to run their cooling cycles and that hydroelectricity plans have insufficient water to generate power. And powerlines, as we know, are particularly vulnerable to intense storms and wind speeds, just like we saw in South Australia with a storm that somehow those on the other side of the chamber continue to blame on wind turbines.

I could go on. The impacts to our water infrastructure, our transport infrastructure, the challenges of adaptation in cyclone regions and the tricky management of responsibilities between the three levels of government all pose challenges that are worthy of separate reports in their own right. They demand immediate consideration by governments to ensure that we are prepared. The tragedy is—as the evidence to our inquiry showed—that, despite our best efforts to adapt once we decide to seriously do so globally, it may not be enough.

We must face the reality that a world that will be four degrees warmer than today by the end of the century is a world that most likely cannot be effectively adapted to. We simply can't be certain exactly how the earth system will adjust to such inflated levels of carbon dioxide being injected into the atmosphere at what is probably the fastest rate in the planet's history. This isn't to cast doubt on the amazing work that climate scientists do—and, yes, I know this work at very close range, living with one of those climate scientists! It's the reality of complex systems with tipping points and non-linear feedback loops that we are still to this day learning about.

What we do know is that if we, as a society, can reduce our carbon pollution to zero as quickly as technically possible, and then draw down carbon to a safe limit, we can avoid most of these anticipated costs. We will avoid spending the dollars, we will save lives and we will protect the future survival of our human societies on this planet. But if we don't—if, globally, we continue to delay, to prevaricate and to listen to the dinosaurs—then, simply, we are stuffed.

This is an existential risk. It's a generational challenge that we must confront. It's absolutely damning that, instead, we are caught in this awful debate about whether a 26 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of the electricity grid by 2030—the easiest and the cheapest part of our economy to decarbonise—is too little or too much or just about right. This is why the Greens have as our first recommendation:

That the Australian Government commit to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions for Australia by 2040 and the actions necessary to achieve this target.

Australia must do its fair share and it must do it fast.

I want to thank everybody who made submissions to this inquiry, everybody who attended our hearings, my colleague committee members, and the secretariat for the hard work that they do. I really hope that this report is going to be a very valuable resource in considering what the impacts of climate change are going to be.

– Order! Senator Rice, your time has expired.

–  I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

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