Monday, September 18, 2006

Kyoto 'a slogan, not a solution'

Some lip service to global warming from Australia but no action

Environment Minister Ian Campbell today stood firm on Australia's long standing refusal to sign onto the Kyoto protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions, declaring it a slogan not a solution. Senator Campbell, fresh back from the UN framework conference on climate change in Switzerland, backed urgent action on climate change but with better quality practical international action. He said there was a sense of frustration that the whole process was becoming too bureaucratic and that more practical action was needed.

But for Australia, that would not involving signing the Kyoto accord. "I don't think people who make alarmist predictions do us much of a favour because the public will switch off. There are going to be substantial serious consequences of not addressing climate change, urgently and with multiple billion dollar investments. "The problem is too serious to offer up slogans as solution. Signing Kyoto is a slogan. It's not a solution. Investing billions of dollars in the technologies we need to transform the way we produce and use energy is a substantial solution." Senator Campbell said Australia could end all carbon emissions overnight but growth in China alone would replace Australian emissions within 10 months. "We could be the best climate change country in the world - and we are one of the best - but without cooperative effective action internationally we will not save Perth's beaches," he said.

Labor has strongly backed Australia signing the Kyoto Protocol but Senator Campbell said the reality was that protocol was being rewritten. He said Kyoto signatories such as France were nine per cent over its Kyoto target, Norway 22 per cent, Portugal 26 per cent and Spain 36 per cent. "The whole world is moving beyond Kyoto and Labor is saying sign up to something that was really drafted six, seven, eight years ago, which we know is not working," he said. "There is no gain to ratifying. We are part of a process that is designing the post-Kyoto world."

Senator Campbell said the Switzerland meeting aimed to prepare a group of some 30 ministers for the next meeting in Nairobi in a few weeks. He said what he sought to achieve was a new focus on technology transfer so that innovative technology could be speedily disseminated through the world. Unlike many of his coalition colleagues, Senator Campbell backed the thrust of the movie An Inconvenient Truth by former US vice-president Al Gore. He said respected scientists agreed with him that the science in the movie was sound and the consequences of not addressing the problems were very substantial. "We have got to remember there are consequences of global warming. There will be sea level rises. There already have been," he said.


Tradesmen needed

Under threat from East European rivals, Britain's plumbers, plasterers and tilers are being sought by Australia to fill a vast skills gap. Australia is next month to begin recruitment drives in Britain and Ireland. It has added a dozen trades to its "occupations-in-demand list", which gives those in certain sectors the highest number of points as skilled migrants. The trades include carpentry, joinery, plumbing, welding and tiling.

So great is the need for labour that the Government has increased to 100,000 the number of skilled migrants it will allow to settle this year, compared with 20,000 in 2005. The Chinese economy's need for raw materials has fuelled a mining boom, with Western Australia and Queensland in particular desperate for tradesmen. New towns are springing up, generating demand for hairdressers, bakers and chefs.

Tradesmen from the British Isles speak the language and are happy with Australian irreverence. The Australian High Commission is to host "Australia needs skills" conferences in London, Manchester and Dublin, urging skilled workers to apply.


Baby bonus boosts birthrate

The Government's $4000 maternity payment has helped to accelerate the nation's birthrate with more than 10,000 extra babies born in the past year. Centrelink data on the number of parents claiming the $4000 baby bonus, obtained using Freedom of Information laws, reveals that the birthrate is rising at a much faster rate than previously thought. The figures show that 268,667 parents claimed the Federal Government payment for their newborns in 2005-06. While yet to be confirmed in official birth statistics, this number represents an increase of more than 10,000 births on the previous year and more than 16,000 on 2003-04.

Demographers suggest the maternity payment - worth $3000 when it was introduced in July 2004 but increased to $4000 in July this year - combined with low interest rates and low unemployment, may be driving the baby boom. Australia's fertility rate, which reached 1.8 babies per woman last year, is up from 1.72 in 2003 and is well above rates of between 1.2 and 1.4 in many other developed nations.

The figures provide the first comprehensive picture of the number and ages of people who have claimed the baby bonus in the two years since its introduction. According to the Centrelink data, there were 235,299 claims for the bonus - comprising 194,342 couples and 40,957 single parents - in 2004-05. The number of claims jumped by 33,368 in 2005-06 to 268,667, perhaps reflecting the fact that some parents failed to claim the bonus in its first year. The figures dispel suggestions the lucrative payment has encouraged teenagers to have children, with only 186 extra claims by teenagers between 2004-05 and 2005-06. Overall, 4800 teenagers claimed the bonus in 2005-06.

However, older women are increasingly giving birth. The number of claims by parents over the age of 40 increased from 9906 to 15,873. Similarly, the number of claims by parents aged 35-39 increased from 44,783 in 2004-05 to 55,350 in 2005-06.

A spokeswoman for Treasurer Peter Costello - who famously remarked at the 2004 Budget that families should have "one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country" - said the Government's family-friendly policies were responsible for the growing birthrate. "The Government has offered a number of incentives, such as the baby bonus, substantial increases in the rates of family benefits and extra childcare places to help with the hurdles of raising a family. "Having a child can be costly and it is pleasing that this payment is helping thousands of families around Australia with these costs. If it brings about an increase in the fertility rate, that is a good thing." A higher number of births reflected a growing level of confidence in Australia's future and that families had been experiencing a high level of economic security under the Coalition Government, the spokeswoman said.


Stupid water policies

Are the states imposing almost useless drought restrictions on water consumers while failing to build the infrastructure to bring water where it's needed?

As last summer ended, booming southeast Queensland was the only urban sprawl on the mainland without water restrictions. But suddenly, it seems, Queenslanders are also running short of water. On the first day of business after last weekend's Queensland state election, the re-elected Labor Government led by Premier Peter Beattie awarded 180,000 pool owners the toughest and most expensive water-saving requirement in the country: compulsory covers for their swimming pools to reduce evaporation loss. Many can expect to be out of pocket by as much as $2000 as a result. Are such restrictions value for money in terms of the cost of water saved? Not always.

Federal parliamentary secretary for water Malcolm Turnbull says the new Queensland "pool tax" is the latest example of short-term thinking and poor water planning in Australia, resulting from serial abuse of water utilities by state and local governments. "Water-saving measures are good, but you have to look at them with a hard head," Turnbull says. "Water is not the only scarce resource. So is money."

Water infrastructure - dams, desalination and recycling plants - is costly to build, but once in place the operating costs of the business are relatively low. State-owned water utilities are a valuable money pot for cash-strapped governments reluctant to give up some of the revenue stream to expand supply.

As part of new water restrictions beginning in Brisbane and other parts of southeast Queensland in November, gardens can only be watered legally by bucket or can. The taps have really been screwed down on backyard pools, effective as of summer 2007. As well as being required to fit a pool cover by the middle of next year, owners will need to complete two of three indoors retrofits: install a dual flush system in their toilet, fit a water-efficient shower head and buy a new, water-efficient washing machine.

Such is Brisbane's water supply that every drop counts, seemingly no matter what the cost. The Queensland Water Commission is quick to point out that 12 million litres of water is lost every day through evaporation from swimming pools. What it doesn't mention is that the cost of this imposed saving will be more than four times the cost of the water. At about $500 a pool cover, and assuming an ambitious but as yet unspecified regulatory regime to deliver savings of two-thirds of all evaporation, it will cost about $4 for each kilolitre of water saved. Presently Brisbane Water sells the same amount of water for 85c. Pool covers as a demand management strategy come in at five to 10 times more expensive than most of the more broadly accepted demand management options, including water-efficient showers and washing-machine rebates. This cost does not include optional extras including cover rollers and the extra cost to pool owners of replumbing their bathrooms. That it has come to this level of crisis management seems extraordinary in the fastest-growing corner of one of the most developed countries in the 21st century.

Dams take a long time to fill and a long time to empty. Queensland's Wivenhoe Dam is only a quarter full, enough water for two years, but who's taking chances? Being surprised by a water shortage is like having a tortoise sneak up on you. You need to be looking the other way for an awfully long time. And yet all state governments except the one in Tasmania have embraced the symbolism of water restrictions as a public response to shallower water levels, starting with Perth in the spring of 2001. Canberra followed suit a year later, then Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney in 2003.

For Brisbane, the warnings were writ large on the Wivenhoe Dam wall as early as 1991. The South East Queensland Water Resources Strategy of that year found that "existing storages ... have inadequate yields to meet the needs of the future predicted populations at current rates of water use. Even with stringent demand management, the provision of additional water supplies will be necessary in the future."

The Water Services Association of Australia represents the big water authorities providing water to three-quarters of Australians. It asserts population growth in Australia's cities - with the exception of Perth - has been catered for not by providing new water services, but by reducing per capita demand. In a paper on urban water last year, WSAA pointed out the easy measures had been targeted "and further measures are likely to be intrusive and may encounter community resistance".

In 2004-05, despite water restrictions in every mainland capital except Brisbane, city water authorities paid over $658 million in dividends to their respective state governments. That year, city water users saved 220 billion litres, with one exception: Brisbane.

The National Water Commission is reviewing and assessing the existing water restrictions. Chief executive of the Irrigation Association of Australia, Jolyon Burnett, says there is a bewildering array of water restrictions. "In southeast Queensland until this new state Water Commission took over, there were up to 14 different regulations. It is absolute madness, and the public have felt that this was a bit of a joke."

Burnett argues there are three problems with the present water restrictions. The first is the poor process, with a lack of consultation and lack of warning. "Secondly the lack of science, and thirdly the inequity. Outdoor water use is the only one that attracts mandatory attention," Burnett says.....

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