Statements by Senators

23 November 2022

The 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 27, has just wrapped up over in Egypt. I want to take some time today to reflect on Australia’s representation at the conference and what lessons that we can all take away from what was discussed.

First of all, it’s great that Australia can finally be taken seriously at these international conferences. The Liberals and Nationals spent a decade tearing each other apart on the issue of climate change, and were completely left behind as the rest of the world recognised the necessity of reducing emissions and the economic imperative for investing in new technologies. Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, gave our national statement to the COP 27 last Tuesday, and I think this quote really sums up why electing a federal Labor government has had such a positive impact on our international reputation. The minister said that Australia is back as a constructive, positive and willing climate collaborator.

Unlike the coalition, Labor does not see investing in new technologies and collaborating with our allies as contrary to the national interest. In fact by sticking its head in the sand on climate change, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government put Australia at an enormous economic disadvantage. They left us with an ageing energy grid that is not ready for the new technologies that we know have a part to play as part of our energy mix in order to lower emissions and lower prices. We know that we’re playing catch-up in this area, but Labor are determined to do everything that we can to become leaders in this space—both to tackle climate change and also to set up our economy for the future.

We know that taking climate change seriously is also essential for our relationships with our Pacific neighbours. As Minister Bowen told COP 27, climate change is a primary economic and security challenge for our region, and it is a threat to the Blue Pacific continent. I was excited to see the announcement that Australia is seeking to host COP 31 in 2026 with our Pacific family. What a difference just six months of real leadership has made!

Today I also want to focus on the actual climate change solutions that were discussed at COP 27, because while there is, rightly, a lot of focus and interest on new technologies as part of addressing climate change there is so much more innovation and so many good practices in traditional industries—particularly in agriculture and forestry—that will be essential parts in reducing our emissions. I believe it is really important that we talk about these industries when we’re talking about climate change. Entire communities depend on agriculture and forestry, and far too often the climate change conversation feels like city folk are talking to workers and their families in the regions, usually without ever setting foot on a farm or in a mill.

So we should really be proud that our delegation to COP 27 included representatives not just from the National Farmers Federation or the Australian Forest Products Association but also the CFMEU Manufacturing Division. It was really good to see a whole collective there representing the industry. This shows that the Albanese Labor government understands that these industries are part of the solution to climate change and that lowering our emissions requires a collaborative approach between government and industry. Indeed, at the Australian pavilion, the Australian Forest Products Association hosted an event with participants from Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and the CFMEU Manufacturing Division, talking about how sustainable forestry will play a critical role in mitigating climate change and sustaining livelihoods.

One of the most significant outcomes from COP27 is that Australia has become a founding member of the Forests and Climate Leaders Partnership, a new international group that has been tasked with accelerating the contribution of forests to global climate action. United Nation research suggests that 33 million hectares of new plantations are needed to meet future demand and our climate goals. Our delegation highlighted how Australia can actually lead the way by achieving our 2030 goal of one billion new production trees. I’ve spoken many times in the Senate about the significant contribution made by our sustainable forestry industry to achieving our emissions reduction targets. It’s quite simple when you think about it. We know that trees absorb carbon, so using timber products stores that carbon, and then new trees are planted to replace the timber that is used for those products.

It’s great to see the role forestry plays in climate action being recognised and encouraged on the world stage. Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Senator Jenny McAllister, spoke at the ‘Keeping 1.5 degrees alive through growing the climate-smart forestry based bio-economy’ panel at COP27, along with representatives from other government and industry bodies. The panel considered new research that urges nations to grow their sustainable forestry industries, thereby addressing an emerging global timber and wood supply gap as the world pivots to climate-friendly fibre supplies. This research clearly shows that we are already doing what we knew. Demand for timber products is increasing, and, if we do not support sustainable forestry, this demand will either be met by unsustainably sourced timber or by other products that do not have the same climate benefits and may even contribute to higher emissions.

This is one of the great frustrations that I have with environmentalists. They do everything they can to disrupt the forestry industry in my home state of Victoria. We have one of the most sustainable forestry industries in the world, with very strict regulations, but nothing is ever enough for these activists, most of whom live in the inner city and have never spoken to a timber worker in their life. But they are hell-bent on destroying the livelihoods of thousands of workers and effecting dozens of regional communities. What actually occurs when these people succeed in their goal of disrupting Australia’s sustainable industry forests?

Demand for timber products doesn’t decrease. Instead buyers and consumers have to source these products from forests overseas that are not sustainably managed. Where are you going to get your timber for your furniture, for your floorborads, for your decking and other parts of the building. I have been engaged in this debate for years now, and I’ve never heard one of the activists explain how this is good for the environment or lowers our emissions. That’s why is was particulary disappointing to see a decision by the Victorian Government to close down the native timber industry.

But it is great to see that world leaders know better. They are recognising the need to expand the production of sustainable forest products. AFPA and the NFF collaborated at COP27 to showcase how agriculture and forestry can work together on innovation climate solutions. One example I want to highlight was a Victorian red meat and tree farmer, Mark Wootton, who spoke at the event with the peak bodies. I want to read a quote from Mark to the chamber because it demonstrates how agriculture and forestry are an essential part of the solution to climate change. Mark said:

“About 20 per cent of our land has been converted to trees, half of that for farm forestry and half for biodiversity. The benefits have been amazing. We are now able to carry a far greater number of sheep and cattle thanks to the shelter the trees have provided, reducing losses from windchill. There have also been marvellous biodiversity dividends. We counted 45 bird species in the late 1990s. Now we have more than 170. In addition, we are soon to benefit from a major financial gain when our production trees are harvested for timber.”

Mark’s example is a real wake-up call that environmental interests and industry interests do not need to be opposed. They don’t clash. In fact, they work and compliment one another. Far too often we see politicians and activists spurring on this opposition for their own political ends. Whether it be some political parties trying to boost their support in the inner city by campaigning against the industry in regional Australia or the conservatives telling voters in regional seats that action on climate change will have a negative impact on their communities, these cynical political tactics don’t stack up against the reality that the development of the industry in regional Australia is essential if we are to meet our climate goals. This is not federal Labor’s approach. What we are trying to do is to bring Australians together to confront the big challenges like climate change, not wedging people against each other. And I’m glad that this approach was endorsed and reflected at COP27.