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Australia's approach to global environmental issues

An address to the

Foreign Correspondents Association

by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill

May 5, 2000

With World Environment Day to be celebrated this year in Australia and the "Green Games" to follow shortly thereafter, there is significant international interest in Australia's philosophical and practical approach to global environmental issues.

So I am pleased to have the opportunity to address you again. The last time I addressed the Foreign Correspondents Association was back in 1997 in the months leading up to the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change. As some of you may remember, I spoke about Australia's position on greenhouse gas reduction and the negotiating stance we would take to the Conference. I seem to recall a healthy level of scepticism among the audience and certainly the temperature seemed to rise a degree or two during the question and answer session. Global warming, perhaps?

As we now know, the international community accepted Australia's argument at Kyoto that the economic burden of addressing climate change should be distributed fairly among the developed nations.

In fact, it can be reasonably argued that if Australia had not advocated the principle of differentiated targets there would have been no agreement reached in Kyoto.

We came away from Kyoto with a target which will impose a cost on our economy comparable to the cost imposed on other nations.

We were also successful in ensuring that the Kyoto Protocol gave nations access to the widest range of abatement measures and policies to achieve their reduction targets.

This flexibility provides nations with the opportunity to select a mix of policies and programs best suited to their own national circumstances. In doing so, we have made it more likely that nations will achieve their targets and contribute to a better global outcome.

We are now working constructively with the international community to resolve the outstanding issues of flexibility mechanisms, sinks, and compliance, and in doing so clear the way for the Protocol to be ratified and come into force. For example, Australia is a world leader in the debate on definition and scientific certainty of the sinks issue.

One of the key outstanding issues to be resolved is the question of how to meaningfully include developing nations in this global effort. Differentiated targets and the flexibility to access lower-cost abatement measures will be central to resolving this issue. Again, Australia can take credit for its work in ensuring these options are available.

Domestically, Australia has shown its willingness to act ahead of ratification of the Protocol.

We have committed almost $1billion to a range of domestic programs to promote leading edge renewable energy technology, increase the uptake of renewable energy, and improve the energy efficiency of Australian industry.

From a media perspective, much of the heat has gone out of the global warming debate. I can recall in the months leading up to Kyoto that every criticism of Australia's position, either perceived or direct, was devoured by the media and given great prominence.

How things have changed! Last week in Washington Australia was receiving praise from the international community for our actions in implementing domestic responses to Kyoto. Not surprisingly, that didn't rate a mention in the Australian media.

The fact that Australia had been invited to the US to address American business leaders on the success of our domestic action plans was significant in itself and certainly a world away from the atmospherics of the pre-Kyoto days.

Until the Kyoto Protocol is ratified, Australia is not technically required to do anything to advance its greenhouse reduction plans.

We have, however, willingly chosen to do the right thing by the environment and make a determined start in what will be a significant challenge.

The public investments we are making and the range of measures we are promoting are well in advance of the responses of most other nations.

The international community has acknowledged Australia's efforts to progress domestic responses to greenhouse before it is legally required to do so.

While the lack of similar acknowledgement domestically disappoints me, after four years in this portfolio it does not surprise me.

Australia does an enormous amount of work for the environment both domestically and internationally. We honour our commitments under international conventions. In fact, we usually go beyond what is required of us by such conventions by assisting the nations of our region in the management of their natural environment.

While international conventions may be useful for setting a global framework and in bringing nations together in a common cause, what is really important is this on-ground response.

Australia is, for example, a signatory to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Our domestic efforts have enabled us to phase out the most aggressive ozone depleting substance, halon, ahead of schedule.

We have also reduced our consumption of HCFCs to approximately half the amount Australia is allocated under the Montreal Protocol.

But our efforts extend beyond Australia's borders.

Australia has contributed almost US$20 million to the Montreal Protocol's Multilateral Fund which funds projects to assist developing countries meet their phase out obligations.

We also share our expertise with the nations of our region. For example, we are assisting the Chinese government to develop a mechanism to control the import and export of ozone depleting substances, based on our own system.

We have assisted Fiji and Vietnam to develop refrigerant management plans and have hosted a meeting on this issue for ozone officers from Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

We are now seeking to promote Australia's halon bank as a facility to receive halon from the Nations of our region.

The fact that this world leadership by Australia doesn't win regular newspaper headlines does not detract from its environmental significance.

It's a similar story in our involvement in the World Heritage Convention. Australia has 13 properties listed under the Convention ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to the remote sub-Antarctic wilderness of the Heard and Macquarie islands.

Australia's management of these properties is world's best practice. But once again, we go beyond what is required of us by the Convention.

Last year Australia, because of our reputation for excellence in world heritage management, was invited to establish an Asia-Pacific Focal Point for the World Heritage Convention.

The aim of this initiative is to promote awareness of the Convention within our region and to encourage nations to join the convention. We will also assist nations to identify properties worthy of inclusion on the World Heritage List and help them develop their nominations.

Following a recent visit to Papua New Guinea, I have instructed officials from my department to work with PNG officials to help them progress their world heritage nominations as part of the Asia-Pacific Focal Point.

The current focus of this work is a nomination for an area on the Huon Peninsula featuring former coral reefs which have been exposed by rapid uplift to form a dramatic series of land terraces.

I was also able to offer Australia's assistance for the PNG government's plans for the region surrounding the Kokoda Trail - an area of great significance to both of our nations.

While world heritage listing is not being sought for this area, we will be able to assist in the preparation of a nomination of the area as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. Such a listing would help put the Kokoda Trail on the international map.

Once again, we are not forced by any international convention to offer this assistance. We contribute willingly as a signal of Australia's commitment to working for a better environment.

Australia is also an active participant in the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

In 1998, our government successfully proposed the listing of 14 species of endangered albatross under this convention.

We then established threat abatement plans to cover the long-line fishing industry in Australian waters - plans which will produce a 95 per cent reduction in by-catch, the major killer of seabirds.

Some governments may have been satisfied with this achievement. Australia again chose to go one step further by agreeing to lead the development of a regional agreement to protect albatross species across the Southern oceans.

This same pro-active approach will be evident in Adelaide in July when Australia hosts the 52nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

Whaling was banned in Australian waters by the Fraser Government in 1980. Almost two decades later under the Howard Government, Australia is again leading the world in efforts to protect these magnificent creatures.

We have been actively canvassing support for our proposal for a South Pacific whale sanctuary, an initiative we see as being the next logical step toward a global sanctuary and an end to all whaling.

The recent reports of a Japanese government decision to extend its whaling operations to take Bryde's and Sperm whales underlines the importance of the efforts we are making.

No-one asked or required Australia to make these efforts. They are a voluntary expression of our commitment to a better global environment.

Australia sets similar high standards and seeks to play a leadership role even when international conventions or arrangements are not in force.

The supply of freshwater will be one of the most crucial environmental management issues of this century.

Australia has made an invaluable contribution to the international debate on this issue which currently taking place within the United Nations Environment Program.

Australia's efforts have seen UNEP re-orient it's work so that it now places emphasis not only on freshwater contributing to human development, but also the need for freshwater flows and quality to maintain biodiversity and habitats. In fact, Australia was singled out for praise at the last high level meeting of UNEP Ministers in Bonn late last year.

Needless to say that we have learned from the painful lessons of our own experiences in river systems such as the Murray Darling.

Australia's expertise in managing its rivers and its efforts to restore the health of river systems are highly respected internationally.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission is considered to be a world's best practice model in basin management, particularly across jurisdictional borders.

There are more than 260 such transboundary rivers worldwide. It is recognised that water disputes have the potential to create significant multi-national conflicts, making cooperative management of transboundary rivers not just an environmental but a security issue.

Using the Murray Darling Basin Commission as a model, Australia has supported the Mekong River Commission to provide for the sustainable management of the Mekong and to improve institutional arrangements between the countries involved, primarily Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Australia has also assisted projects to improve the access of rural people in selected provinces in the Mekong Delta to clean water supplies and better sanitation.

One of the key aims is to promote sustainable economic development in this region.

The Australian experience, mirrored around the world, has been that economic growth can help deliver better environmental outcomes.

Economic growth gives companies and nations the ability to invest in the new cleaner technologies needed to provide outcomes such as better air and water quality. Improved economic conditions for the general population give rise to the influence of consumer power which can influence the environmental behaviour of companies.

By promoting sustainable development in our region we are seeking that dual benefit - better economic opportunities coupled with a better environment.

And increasingly the nations of our region are looking to Australia for its expertise in this regard. Australia's environmental management industry has gained a reputation for excellence. But as yet it has really only scratched the surface of the opportunities provided by the global marketplace for its services and expertise.

That global marketplace is estimated to be worth almost US$500 billion and is growing at a rate of about 3 per cent a year. The size of the Asian market, excluding Japan, is estimated at US$24 billion.

Our environment management industry is worth almost $9 billion and employs around 100,000 people. This industry contributes economically, socially and environmentally to Australia's quality of life.

The scope of its expertise ranges across the full spectrum of environmental services: energy and cleaner production, hazardous waste management, urban development, water and air quality, stormwater management, environmental engineering, to name but a few.

These are all services required by nations within our region. As their economies and populations grow they will increasingly seek out the world's best practitioners for delivery of these services.

Not surprisingly, they are looking toward Australia.

Next week I will lead an environment industry delegation to China - the first time an Australian Environment Minister has led such a delegation to China.

Hong Kong's Chief Secretary of Administration has previously stated that there is considerable potential for Australian companies in environmental consultancy and technology and has urged Australian firms to capitalise on the opportunities that will present themselves over the next few years as the mainland market opens up.

There is clearly great scope for Australia to be involved in delivering better environmental outcomes in China.

The fact that we will be delivering an economic benefit for Australia through export dollars is an added bonus.

But I would note that in the long run, China will also benefit economically by investing wisely in environmental services thereby ensuring the sustainable management of its natural resource base.

It is an example of good economics driving good environmental outcomes. It is also another example of working to improve the environment without being forced to do so by an international convention.

In conclusion, the current Kyoto Protocol situation is a valid lesson for those in the media or the general community who may get hung up on the wording or relevance of international conventions.

One American business leader summed it up by saying his company couldn't afford to wait for the politicians or the scientists to reach a final agreement - they were going to act now.

In a sense, our domestic response reflects that sentiment. Words on a page are far less important than meaningful on-ground action.

It also reflects our broader commitment to the environment. While Australia will continue to play an active role in supporting and promoting cooperation through international conventions and agreements, our primary focus will remain on delivering real benefits and real environmental outcomes.

Commonwealth of Australia