ABC News Breakfast interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek


LISA MILLAR, HOST: Welcome back on this Friday morning. You’re watching News Breakfast. It’s great to have your company. Sky rocketing energy prices will be top of the agenda when National Cabinet meets virtually this afternoon, with the government keen to give Australians some reassurance before Christmas. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is still recovering from COVID, but he’s going to have his work cut out for him trying to thrash out a plan with State and Territory leaders. The government is expected to temporarily cap gas prices and put pressure on the States to cap coal.

JAMES GLENDAY, HOST: Yesterday the nation’s energy ministers signed on to a scheme that would pay renewable energy providers to increase electricity supply at a moment’s notice. Albanese frontbencher Tanya Plibersek joins us live now.

Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning.


JAMES GLENDAY: I want to get to your portfolio in a second, because there’s some big news going on in that as well. But first, this meeting of leaders today and talk of a deal to push down energy prices. Is the Commonwealth looking to temporarily subsidise bills?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m going to let the Prime Minister and the Premiers nut out the details of a deal. But what I would say, what everyone recognises I think, is that almost a decade of energy policy paralysis here in Australia, topped off with the war in Ukraine, the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine, affecting gas prices in Europe and globally means that we’re in a very difficult situation right now. We can’t allow Australian homes and their families and businesses to bear the costs of a decade of policy paralysis under the previous government and the war in Ukraine.

JAMES GLENDAY: There’s a lot of discussion about capping coal prices at around $125 a tonne, limiting gas prices to between $12 and $14 a gigajoule. Do you believe intervening in the market in that way is a good idea?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not going to talk about the specifics that the Prime Minister and Premiers might come up with today. I’d say that there is very broad understanding in the Australian community that something has to be done. We can’t keep seeing these sorts of bills for families and businesses. Families are really struggling with cost of living, and businesses are contemplating reducing hours, even closing their doors if energy prices continue in the way they have been growing.

JAMES GLENDAY: Just maybe slightly closer to your portfolio then, one of the perils of intervening in a market is the consequences of that, you can mess up with price signals. Some renewable energy advocates are slightly concerned that making fossil fuels cheaper, even temporarily, can interfere with the attractiveness of renewables. Do you have – share any of those concerns?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think we’ve made very clear as a government that we’re on a path to a much greater share of our energy coming from renewables. We’re targeting 82 per cent by 2030, and to do that we’re investing in the transmission lines that will bring the renewables from where they’re being generated into our homes and businesses. Of course, we’ve also got our safeguards mechanism for large emitters, so we’re pushing down carbon pollution that way. We’ve got new measures on methane and ozone. We’re investing to make sure it’s easier to buy and drive an electric vehicle. There’s a lot going on right across our economy that will bring down carbon pollution, will bring down energy prices as we get more renewables into the grid delivering cheaper, cleaner renewable energy to Australian homes and businesses.

So I think we’re on a very clear path to more renewables. Right now we’re dealing with the consequences of the Liberals’ 22 separate energy policies. They failed to land a single one. And we’re dealing with the Russian invasion in Ukraine pushing up energy prices globally. We absolutely need to deal with those issues immediately because Australian families and businesses really just can’t cope with the sort of energy price increases we’ve seen in recent times. That doesn’t in any way reduce our commitment to move to more renewable energy in our grid.

JAMES GLENDAY: Okay. To your portfolio area, and you had a big announcement yesterday setting up a new environment protection agency to better assess new developments, look more closely at the damage that’s being done. What sort of difference – can you explain to us what sort of difference will having an EPA actually make?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we know that our current environment laws aren’t working because the environment is just being destroyed. And businesses continue to explain about the slow and bureaucratic processes that they’re faced with. And that, of course, has a cost for projects and a cost for jobs. What we’re after is a win-win situation where we have better environmental protections and faster, clearer decisions for business.

An environment protection agency is part of that, setting clear national environment standards that projects need to meet is part of that. Being very clear in our regional planning approach that areas where development can proceed with minimum impact where we can fast track development or areas where development should never happen because the environment there is too precious and looking at those areas in between and saying if you meet the rules, these are the rules upfront, if you meet these rules, you’re likely to get an approval. That system taken together will mean faster decisions for business. That’s lower costs, that’s more jobs, and it will mean actually turning around the rate of environmental destruction in Australia, halting and reversing the trajectory we’re on.
Right now a recent New South Wales parliamentary inquiry said that if we keep going the way we’re going, koalas could be extinct in New South Wales by 2050. I mean, we have the highest rate of extinctions of any country in the world. We are not protecting our natural environment well enough. At the moment we’re not meeting anyone’s needs – not the environment and not business. We need to change that.

JAMES GLENDAY: Okay. The Greens and some members of the crossbench have been pushing for an environmental trigger so that major projects would have all of their – not just the environmental destruction but also their contribution to global warming calculated as part of that. How do you respond to the criticisms of yesterday’s announcement?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, what we’ve said is that large projects should disclose their carbon pollution, their emissions, in Australia. So, what’s called scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, the pollution that they’re generating in Australia needs to be made transparent when the project is in the planning phase, when it’s going through its application processes.

What we’re not going to do is duplicate the safeguards mechanism that my colleague Chris Bowen, the Climate Change Minister, is working on with large polluters. We’re not going to have two systems for determining a project’s carbon pollution, and we’re not going to hold them to two standards. We’re going to hold them to one standard – that’s the safeguards mechanism. That’s certainly what Professor Samuel recommended in his review as well – that there should be transparency about the lifetime emissions of a project but we’re going to use the safeguards mechanism to make sure that those large projects fit within Australia’s domestic target to reduce carbon pollution, to get to zero net emissions by 2050.

JAMES GLENDAY: All right, Minister, I just had one final question: you’re about to go to Montreal for a major biodiversity summit. Do you think there can actually be a global breakthrough in this area, and do you want Australia to be playing more of a global role in trying to help set environmental standards?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: 100 per cent. Look, this is a very important conference. Australia has recently signed up to protecting 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our oceans by 2030 for biodiversity, for nature. And we know that this is part of a global movement to better protect nature. It’s important. It’s absolutely critical for human health, it’s critical for our economy. We need to do better on nature protection. And Australia can play a really good role in that.

We’re already working with Pacific nations on projects like blue carbon, like mangrove restoration, for example, protecting their coral reefs as we’re protecting our own Great Barrier Reef. We’re working with countries in South East Asia, with Indonesia, in the Pacific to deal with issues like drift nets and plastics in our oceans. Of course, by legislating our own carbon pollution reduction targets, acting on methane and ozone we are showing that we are prepared to be part of a global movement to better protect nature.

JAMES GLENDAY: Okay. Tanya Plibersek, Federal Environment Minister, thank you so much for speaking with News Breakfast.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Great to talk to you.