Legislative Council: Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Environment Protection (Objects of Act and Board Attributes) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 15 June 2023.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (17:37): I rise as lead speaker for the opposition on this bill in this chamber. Fundamentally, this bill seeks to make discrete amendments to the Environment Protection Act 1993—and by 'discrete' I mean very discrete—by expanding the objects and principles of the act at section 10 to include a requirement to have regard to climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation.

It also requires persons engaged in polluting activities to ensure their facilities and premises are designed or progressively improved so as to limit the risk of environmental harm from those activities and in relation to the impacts of a changing climate. It includes a member on the board of the Environment Protection Authority with practical knowledge of and experience in climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation.

Most of this bill we believe is virtue signalling with next to no action, which is what the Minister for Climate, Environment and Water in the other place seems to do best. The minister, during her second reading explanation, implied that this bill was a demonstration of the government's commitment to taking real action on climate change and made further reference to the government's adaptation to a changing climate, referencing their progress towards an urban greening strategy and ways to improve the planning system to ensure they are building resilient communities.

Yet, at almost the same time as she was delivering these statements, she and her government, in the 2022-2023 state budget, axed almost $70 million of practical environmental projects that would have helped South Australia respond to the changing climate. This included slashing the Greener Neighbourhoods program—$4.5 million worth—which would have seen up to 10,000 trees being planted across suburban schools, and also cutting the Greening Adelaide's Heart program, worth $10 million, which would have seen a range of practical greening and cooling projects for the CBD to respond to an increase in temperature and create more wetlands and plantings along the River Torrens.

These actions show the absolute hypocrisy of this Labor government on this topic and indeed on other topics. In fact, every few weeks, I remind the Leader of the Government in this place about his government's failed election promise around fixing ramping by asking him specifically about the ever-worsening ramping statistics that are going on in our state and how his government are going to act on their promise and—surprise, surprise—he cannot answer because they are failing at doing what they said they were going to do before the election and that is fix ramping.

But that is what they do best: talk about it, promise it, but when it comes down to it, do not deliver. That is what we are seeing in this bill: on the one hand, shouting from the rafters about stronger action on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and then on the other hand slashing the environment budget and cutting projects that deliver practical environmental outcomes. Shame on them—all talk, no action, or as we like to say in my country: all hat and no cattle.

Regardless of the passage of this bill, the EPA will shortly commence developing a climate change environment protection policy, formed with the assistance of an industry reference group which will require further investigation and consultation with key stakeholders and other government entities pursuant to part 5 of the Environment Protection Act 1993.

In closing, I simply note as lead speaker on this bill that we on this side have some serious reservations as to the value of this bill, but given the somewhat thin legislative agenda this government has so far, I am not surprised that this is being put forward, I suspect in an effort to fill the Notice Paper.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:42): I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak in support of this bill. Australia is blessed with unique and precious species, ecosystems and natural resources, and is home to 20 World Heritage sites, over 600,000 native species and two out of the 36 areas identified as biodiversity hotspots by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. However, over the last two centuries, Australia has suffered the largest recorded degeneration in biodiversity across the globe and continues to be threatened by the impacts of climate change.

There is an increasing pressure on the biodiversity, ecosystem services, clean air, clean water and natural resources upon which all Australians depend. The impacts of climate change are already being seen in drastic reality, through multiple bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef, the death of wetland areas caused by reduced rainfall, and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events. You simply have to look at the newspaper or listen to the radio. Day after day, week after week, we are seeing this unfold right before our own eyes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Synthesis Report, published on 20 March 2023, highlighted the urgent need for stronger environmental governance to ward against the increasing risk of climate change. That IPCC report unequivocally states that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it will be nearly impossible to limit global warming to close to 1.5° Celsius or even 2° Celsius.

Climate change poses the greatest existential threat to the world's collective environment and health. While the main focus of the Environment Protection Authority is generally on regulating pollution, environmental destruction and waste, these issues are inseparable from climate change, which is a phenomenon caused by a diverse range of environmentally harmful activities.

The EPA should therefore have a duty to take action to reduce the risks of climate change. As a result of this interrelation between pollution, environmental destruction, waste, and climate change, reducing the risks of climate change through mitigation and adaptation is a natural part of the regulations under the EPA and so we welcome this bill today.

We must pursue emissions reductions efforts to ensure that we are taking responsibility for the emissions from products that we are profiting from and exploiting, and to ensure that we are not promoting their continued use. This is particularly important, given the EPAs are responsible for development approvals and licences in several jurisdictions which typically have the most responsibility for emissions.

Addressing climate change is also a necessary step to ensure that environmental justice is achieved, as climate change disproportionately impacts those most vulnerable to environmental harm, both here in Australia and, of course, across the globe. For example, in Australia, Torres Strait Islanders have been experiencing the impacts of sea level rise from climate change for decades, yet they are one of the smallest contributors globally to the cause of that climate change.

The inclusion of climate change in the EPA Board objectives is also essential to achieve intergenerational equity, given the worst impacts of climate change will be felt not by us but by future generations who have not contributed to global emissions and pollution. The development of environmental protection policy with a focus on climate change will provide a clearer pathway to meet our commitment under the Paris Agreement to pursue efforts to limit temperatures across our globe to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

This is a simple bill but it is a profound bill. I note the earlier contribution from the Liberal opposition that this was somehow virtue signalling. I am going to point out that virtue signalling is about telling people that you are doing good. This bill does good. It has virtue. It has validity in itself. It may be a small step, but it is an essential one. The Greens welcome this bill and look forward to its speedy passage.

The Hon. S.L. GAME (17:46): I rise to speak to this bill to comment on the government's expensive and unreliable climate emergency crusade, as it continues to commit the people of South Australia to an energy policy that an increasing number of households and local businesses can no longer afford. Placing further pressure on cost of living, the government is committed to the risky and expensive pursuit of net zero emissions by 2050.

The Environment Protection Authority, as the state's principal environment regulator, regulates industrial pollution, placing limits on industry that are protective of human health and the environment. This bill seeks to align the EPA with the government's failing environmental policies.

These amendments will add to existing regulation, and therefore restriction, on local businesses already struggling under the weight of a spluttering economy and high energy prices. The EPA must have regard to the objects of the act, and seek to further them when considering applications for environmental authorisations under the act, and also when considering development applications that are referred to it under the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016.

The proposed amendments include future development of an environment protection policy under the act that will provide more detailed climate change policy. This policy specifically sets out matters that are to be taken into account by the EPA in relation to environmental authorisation applications or development application assessments.

The development of a climate change-focused environment protection policy will further control the regulatory approach for licensees and development proponents, providing a pathway to increasing restrictions on business and ensuring higher costs as the government pushes towards its climate change targets.

Our industries and households are being forced to rely on inconsistent power sources. This uncertainty is a huge drawback of green renewable technologies. The cost of renewables is effectively unaffordable to Australian households. The industry is totally reliant on government subsidies and, perhaps unsurprisingly, we are experiencing the highest energy prices in our history.

We need real solutions. Our businesses need reliable power and our households need cheaper power. Green renewables are not the solution we have been promised. Let's dispense with the idea that our poorest residents should be slugged with disproportionately high energy costs just so our political elites can bask in their moral superiority.

The Hon. T.T. NGO (17:48): I rise to speak in support of the Environment Protection (Objects of Act and Board Attributes) Amendment Bill 2023. These amendments will strengthen the existing powers of South Australia's Environment Protection Authority (EPA), enabling it to further consider climate change issues when administering the Environment Protection Act. We all know that addressing climate change is a long-term undertaking and every action, no matter how small, contributes to the collective efforts to combat this massive global issue.

The amendments provide for the addition of climate change knowledge and expertise on the membership of the EPA Board, which will facilitate expertise and guidance on the EPA's regulation of climate change related matters. Specific climate change adaptation and mitigation definitions are also included in the amendments so that the EPA's role and responsibility is clearly communicated. The definitions will give administration and courts dealing in climate change action clear information about the EPA's function.

In recent times, there have been several court actions and legal challenges against Australian governments for inadequate policies on climate change and greenhouse gas mitigation. In 2020, a group of activists initiated legal action against the New South Wales government, arguing that the government had a duty to protect young people from the harmful impacts of climate change, and claimed the government's approval of a coalmine expansion would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Although this case was dismissed, this and other similar cases have created increased attention to the legal debate around government responsibilities.

These amendments will support the important development of a climate change environment protection policy in the future. Essentially, at this stage, the government is proposing only the amendments to the objects of the Environment Protection Act and attributes of the EPA Board so as to clarify how the EPA can support the government's climate change and emission reduction policies moving forward. The EPA will continue to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through regulating the waste and resource recovery sector. We have already achieved over a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2019 levels.

Amendments made to the act will provide a costed plan to net zero. The EPA will work with government and industry to prepare a policy that requires high-risk licensees to develop climate adaptation plans and high emitter licences to develop emission reduction plans to reach net zero by 2050. The proposed changes to section 10 of the Environment Protection Act will specifically include addressing climate change adaptation and mitigation when administering the act.

Amendments to section 14B will require climate change adaptation or climate change mitigation experience to be a required attribute of the membership of the EPA Board. The following definitions will be added to the interpretation of section 3: climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Importantly, this bill and amendments have the support of the majority of stakeholders involved in consultations with the EPA. During these consultations, all of South Australia's largest greenhouse gas emitters were contacted. Key stakeholders were provided with an overview of the proposed amendments to the Environment Protection Act and of the EPA's intention to develop a climate change environment protection policy.

It is pleasing to note that feedback from the discussions with the large emitters on the intent to develop a climate change policy was overwhelmingly positive. Many of these businesses already have plans in place to achieve net zero by 2050, including Adelaide Brighton Cement, BHP and OZ Minerals, and I understand AGL are in the process of doing so too.

Overall, a climate change environment protection policy was seen as being a valuable instrument by some larger emitters. It was seen to set an equal playing field for industry regarding climate change expectations as well as supporting company officers to make a case for decarbonisation to company boards and management. With a combination of individual action, community engagement and policy changes such as these amendments address, South Australia can start making a meaningful impact to address climate change. I commend the bill to the house.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (17:54): I rise to speak to this bill. While climate change and greenhouse gas emissions were known issues in 1995 when the Environment Protection Authority was established, they were not a conversation starter in the community. In 2007, with the election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, climate change became a real political discussion in Australia, but for many in the community it was hard to understand what climate change meant because it was not a touch-and-feel issue.

Since then, governments have brought the public along by introducing environmental policies that have a direct impact on the public. Policies that promote the installation of things like solar panels and batteries on people's homes have made people think about what they can do to combat climate change. In South Australia, we led the way by banning single-use plastic bags in 2009, and we have now banned single-use plastic bowls and plates, plastic cotton buds and plastic pizza savers.

We are leading the way in renewable energy. Our government, through the South Australian Research and Development Institute, is partnering with industry and research organisations around Australia to undertake work examining how feeding seaweed to livestock could reduce methane emissions. As a government, it is our responsibility to take bold decisions, and we must also have policies that make the issues tangible for the public. When we do that, people are more accountable and more aware of reducing their own impact on the environment.

We are now also seeing more intense weather events, further highlighting the issue of climate change. We have been watching the devastating impacts in the Northern Hemisphere over the last couple of months with extreme heatwaves, wildfires and now floods in Europe and North America. Four thousand people lost their lives in Libya's deadliest flood in over a century. But we need not look to the other side of the world. This past week, there have been bushfires along the east coast of Australia, with near-record September temperatures in Sydney.

In South Australia, Ceduna has already recorded the highest temperature for September, with 39.8° just last Sunday, and our memories of the 2019-20 summer bushfires are still fresh as we head into another dangerous period. The Environment Protection Act is our most important piece of environmental legislation, and climate change is the most important environmental issue in our time. It is therefore appropriate that addressing climate change should be included in the objects of this act.

The Environment Protection Authority, by its powers through the Environment Protection Act, is responsible for monitoring water and air quality, regulating waste management and disposal, dealing with soil contamination and excessive noise, and regulations for the disposal of PFAS waste. There is no specific mention of climate change in the act.

While the current objects of the act are broad enough that climate change and greenhouse gas emissions can be considered in any development applications or environmental authorisations, the amendments introduced by this bill put it beyond doubt that climate change adaptation and mitigation are within the scope of the act and, by extension, the authority's powers.

This will resolve any ambiguity, which is particularly important where there is court action regarding interpretation of the act. Of course, the EPA has already been doing important work in contributing to the government's climate change action plans. In 2022, it published a role statement outlining how it is supporting South Australia's response to climate change. The Malinauskas Labor government is committed to continuing the legacy of what Don Dunstan established in 1972, when he created the first environment department. We have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

Our Hydrogen Jobs Plan will streamline and coordinate development of hydrogen and renewable energy projects, with more than $20 billion worth of projects in the pipeline. We are transitioning to an efficient, zero-emissions public transport system. I am advised the Gawler train line now runs all electric trains, and hydrogen-fuelled and battery-powered buses are currently being trialled. As governments around Australia and the world wrestle with combatting climate change, ensuring our environmental watchdog has clear objectives and the board has sufficient knowledge about climate change is an obvious reform.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I. Pnevmatikos.