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Climate Change - Grievance Debate

Australia must cut emissions by at least 74 per cent by 2030 and reach zero by 2035 just to stand a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.

Dr READ: I grieve for our planet’s climate and the damage that will now inevitably result from global heating in years to come. Our state can and must move faster to try to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. In November 2019 a group of climate scientists published in the journal Nature an alarming report of how close we already are to several climate tipping points which will irreversibly accelerate global heating. Arctic permafrost is beginning to thaw and release carbon dioxide and methane, which in turn will increase global temperatures. Climate change is accelerating climate change. Some tipping points are probably already feeding each other, so melting sea ice in the Arctic may be slowing a key Atlantic current and causing drought in the Amazon, turning one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks into a carbon source. An author of that report, Professor Will Steffen from the Australian National University, is on the Climate Targets Panel, which last week announced Australia must cut emissions by at least 74 per cent by 2030 and reach zero by 2035 just to stand a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees. Even that is considered optimistic by other scientists who argue that past emissions alone will get us to 1.5 degrees by 2030.

The Victorian government is almost a year overdue in announcing its own targets, but at least now we know how ambitious they must be. So, Premier Andrews, you spent much of last year arguing for urgent, ambitious and often painful action to counter a threat identified by science. We need the same urgency and ambition from you and your government on climate change. Right now Victoria is taking climate action slowly, with a target of just 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, which we will likely achieve, and to close the Yallourn power station by 2032 and the Loy Yang stations by 2048, reaching zero emissions from all sources by 2050—that is in 30 years. Our 2018 greenhouse gas emissions report has only just been published, almost two years after the fact, and the latest public information on Victoria’s coal consumption is only out for the year 2018–19, when we burned 42 million tonnes of coal.

But tipping points like the loss of the Amazon and the sub-arctic forests of Canada and Russia are now considered likely at global temperature increases of between 1.5 and 2 degrees. And given the forest fires we have already seen around the world and those yet to come, we need to pick up the pace and act like it is an emergency, just as we did last year with COVID.

Victoria burns the most polluting call of all, brown coal, and that is the single biggest source of our state’s carbon emissions. So we need to give Latrobe Valley coal workers and communities an urgent, planned transition into clean industry by 2030. Germany’s well-funded transition is a good template. We can and must strive for 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and we need to spend like it is an emergency just as we did last year with COVID. We cannot afford not to.

Most Victorians heat their homes with gas. We call it natural gas, but that is a euphemism for methane. It is a growing source of emissions worldwide, and soon a lot more of our methane will come from fracking in Queensland and New South Wales. Fracking releases large amounts of this powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, where it is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. We have to stop treating methane as clean energy and recognise it as the planetary threat that it is. We can move homes to 100 per cent renewable electricity using heat pumps and reverse cycle air conditioning, so we absolutely must stop connecting new homes to gas immediately, if not sooner. The best way to deal with the predicted gas shortage is to use less of it, and it is not too late to reverse last year’s decision to open Victoria up to gas drilling, which was not this government’s most forward-thinking decision.

And now, Victoria, we need to talk about transport emissions. They have been rising for decades, and now they are pushing us close to those climate tipping points. We will not win the climate battle unless we cut emissions from cars, trucks and planes. How do we do this? Cars contribute just over half of our emissions, and trucks most of the rest. Moving people onto public transport, walking and bikes and moving freight onto rail will cut emissions, clean the air and reduce traffic jams. I congratulate the state government for their large public transport projects, but I must point out the urgency of improving bus services, especially in suburbs with no trams or trains. Parkville Gardens, for example, in my electorate, gets one bus per hour.

We must do better. Getting people onto bikes and walking will replace a lot of short car trips. It has taken COVID to get this government to invest in more separated bike lanes, and it is great to see it beginning. For many Victorians cars are a necessity, but we can eliminate their emissions too. They will be replaced by electric cars—sooner perhaps in Northern Hemisphere countries and perhaps more slowly here, judging by the enthusiasm of the Victorian and federal governments. Some electric cars are charged by home solar panels, but many will charge from the power grid, making it even more urgent to get Victoria off coal. Hydrogen from renewable energy is another option for zero emission transport, but electric cars, trucks and buses are available now. The ACT government is offering incentives for people to buy electric cars and has nearly completed switching their entire government car fleet to electric. President Biden has announced his plans to do the same; Victoria has announced a tax on electric cars. China has half a million electric buses; Melbourne has one.

Electrifying our transport will also clean our air. Cars, trucks and buses are major sources of air pollution, particularly around busy roads, where paradoxically childcare centres are often built. Cars and trucks put thousands of tonnes of irritating nitric oxides, nitrogen oxides and fine particle pollution into the air, irritating airways, triggering asthma and increasing the risk of heart and lung disease and cancer.

The biggest source of air pollution in Victoria, however, is probably our three brown coal burning power stations in the Latrobe Valley. An EPA review of their licences is meant to set new pollution standards for these stations, which are currently allowed to emit much higher pollution levels than stations in Europe, North America and China. This seems to have stalled for the past couple of years, with no news from the Andrews government about lowering pollution levels. Between them, Victoria’s three coal power stations put about a tonne of toxic mercury into the atmosphere each year, and there is currently no limit set for that at all in Victoria.

I urge the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change to see that new and lower pollution limits are set for any stations that are allowed to remain open for longer than 12 months and to accelerate the replacement of all of them with clean energy before the end of the decade.

About 15 per cent of Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farming, a figure that has barely changed in 30 years. About two-thirds of that is the methane from the digestive systems of cattle and sheep; nitrous oxide from fertiliser accounts for much of the rest. These emissions are not falling, and they should be. We must eliminate emissions from cattle and sheep with feed additives or offset the remainder by trapping carbon in the soil with regenerative agriculture. Feed additives such as asparagopsis seaweed are becoming available. But a good first step would be to make consumers aware of the carbon emissions from all foods, particularly from the different types of meat, and to identify genuine low-emission beef and lamb. Alerting consumers to food miles from, say, asparagus imported from Mexico will also benefit local producers as well as the climate. Emissions from importing food may not be counted as Victorian, but we have to cut them if we want to protect farmers from ever-worsening climate-related droughts.

With atmospheric CO2 now well over 400 parts per million and sea level rises of over 1 metre—possibly 2 metres—looking likely by the end of the century, we will need to do more to prepare for a more hostile climate. Rainfall has already declined across this state over the past 50 years, and Victoria will continue to get dryer. Droughts, fires and heatwaves will be more frequent and severe, and we will need to prepare for that. More people will see the need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, known as drawdown, or even explore other ways of cooling the planet, known as geoengineering. Most of these strategies are expensive and unproven, and many of them are potentially risky, but our state government needs to start talking about them.

One carbon dioxide drawdown option deserves special mention: protecting our forests. With forests burning and being cleared around the world, our native forests are now so much more valuable as stores of carbon than as sources of paper. We must end native forest logging within a couple of years and well ahead of the scheduled 2030. You only have to think about carbon dioxide drawdown or geoengineering for a few minutes to realise that moving as swiftly as possible to zero emissions is cheaper and safer by comparison. We are undervaluing our native forests for this reason. If people want to know more about this, I urge you to read the Climate Cure by Tim Flannery, which came out this summer. We cannot afford to keep producing greenhouse gases for another 30 years. We need to get as close to zero emissions as we possibly can within a decade.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
4 February 2021



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