To: The new Federal Environment Minister
From: Don Henry
Re: Some friendly advice

Dear Minister

The United Nations secretary-general recently articulated your greatest challenge. Ban Ki-moon was speaking on the release of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ‘synthesis report’, which said the evidence on climate change was “unequivocal” and the effects could be “abrupt and irreversible”. Launching the report the secretary-general said the world’s scientists had spoken with one voice and “I expect the world’s policymakers to do the same”.

That’s your cue. The science is in. We cannot delay any longer. Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, so Australia has a seat at the table of international climate negotiations, is a vital first step. We have been laggards, not leaders, for far too long.

Science-based 2020 targets to cut our greenhouse emissions are also essential. The UK Government will soon introduce a bill to the British Parliament, committing to binding targets to cut greenhouse pollution by 26-32 per cent by 2020. Australia’s 2020 target should be at least this strong.

If your government passes laws requiring substantial cuts to greenhouse emissions and ratifies Kyoto, Australia could fast become a world leader in developing and using clean renewable energy. With a strong renewable energy target you can put us on the right track for solar, wind, geothermal and other renewables to be supplying a quarter of our electricity by 2020.

And there are plenty of challenges ahead aside from climate change. Every credible analysis of the health of our environment has all the major indicators going in the wrong direction. Your department’s State of the Environment report, released in December last year, showed Australia’s biodiversity under serious threat, the condition of vital rivers deteriorating and many plant and animal populations seriously declining. It had Australia lagging behind other countries on appropriate water reuse and storm water harvesting.

If the Murray-Darling’s stressed wetlands and wildlife are to survive, you’ll need to fast-track the spending of the $3 billion already set aside to tackle over-allocation under the National Plan for Water Security. Under current arrangements the plan will deliver next to nothing – at best 200 gigalitres – in the next term of Parliament, while scientists say the river system needs at least 1,500 gigalitres just to have a moderate chance of survival. That means a minimum of 500 gigalitres returned by 2009.

The world’s scientists are telling us we need strong, urgent action from policy makers if we are to avert a massive environmental crisis. The economists are telling us it’s achievable and affordable. In May last year the Business Roundtable on Climate Change report showed Australia can substantially cut greenhouse emissions without damaging the economy. In fact, it showed early action will be far cheaper than delaying.

You have the opportunity – and the wonderful privilege – to act decisively to restore and protect Australia’s environment for our children. This is an opportunity future environment ministers may not have. I urge you to grasp it with both hands.

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