Interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC NEWS Radio

5 May 2021

THOMAS ORITI: First this half hour, communities around Australia will get help rebuilding and recovering from natural disasters from a new national agency. So $600 million will be spent on projects to protect homes from bushfires and cyclones. Also, a flood control measures will be in its mandate as well, pretty important to discuss after we've recently seen in New South Wales. The National Recovery and Resilience Agency is what it's called. It was flagged last year in the Government's response to the Natural Disaster Royal commission. And for more, we're joined now live by the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Minister, good morning.

SUSSAN LEY: Good morning, Thomas. Good to be on your program.

THOMAS ORITI: Thank you for your time. This announcement comes 18 months after the Black Summer bushfires. This year alone, we've seen cyclones wreak havoc in WA, widespread flooding across New South Wales. Can you explain how this funding will improve responses?

SUSSAN LEY: You're right. Climate-related disaster costs an average of $18.2 billion a year. So this is a massive problem and we're responding to recommendations from the Royal Commission by building two key capabilities to support Emergency Management Australia, which many Australians are familiar with. We're, as I said, responding to some really detailed recommendations from the Royal Commission in this new agency, National Recovery and Resilience. But importantly also, the Australian Climate Services is being set up and that's more in the space that I look after, which is climate adaptation and how we better prepare for natural disasters, how we support our communities. People know the bushfires and the havoc they wrought. But in many cases, it took up to six months to map exactly what we needed to do to rebuild in a particular area, whether it be the built environment or the natural environment. That mapping happened on a geospatial scale, some of the data was held federally, some at the state level. We've got to bring that together. That's what Australian Climate Services is going to do, bring that intel together, and the agency you mentioned, Thomas, is all about responding and doing the best we can when disaster strikes.

THOMAS ORITI: So a lot of money on offer here, almost half a billion dollars, more than half a billion dollars. And how do we know how the money is actually going to be spent at the moment?

SUSSAN LEY:  Australian Climate Services will provide the intel, as I said, the data and information to support an initial round of $600 million of support funding into communities that have been affected by the fire and floods. Now, it's important that at the same time as you respond and rebuild, you build back better, so you do it in the right way to prepare for the future. So we've got to have that intelligence from the BOM, from CSIRO, from Geoscience, from the Bureau of Statistics, that one single authoritative source of climate and disaster risk information. That is just so important. Otherwise, there's a little bit of chasing your tail, responding to something that's happened, helping a community but not entirely certain of how you can plan better for the future. We're reducing that risk with these announcements.

THOMAS ORITI: And I'll note, you know, it makes me think about, for example, in New South Wales, Resilience New South Wales, it's headed by Shane Fitzsimmons in the wake of the fire. So a lot of bodies in different jurisdictions looking at this. How is this new agency or the new bodies, how are they going to work alongside the states and territories emergency management teams?

SUSSAN LEY: They're going to share information and share capability. And that's one of the key recommendations that came out of the Royal Commission. And I'll come back to that single source of climate and disaster risk information, which are our specialist capability that we don't have, but that we're going to bring together in Australian Climate Services, as I said, from scientists in the CSIRO, from expert weather forecasting in the BOM, from Geoscience with spatial mapping, from the Bureau of Statistics. Because it's about people and how we understand what people need in a particular area. If there's a flood, how- critical infrastructure has been cut off, whether it's power, whether it's waters. I mean, we perceive that this will be able to map down to that granular local scale and actually help people during and preparing for natural disasters.

THOMAS ORITI: I mean, Minister, you've been quick to point out and experts around the country would agree with you, you know, climate change induced disasters. But I note at the recent International Climate Summit, the Prime Minister - this has been well covered - I mean, refused to put a firm date on a carbon reduction target. A lot of people have said that puts Australia well at odds with some of our allies who have more ambitious plans to tackle emissions - the United States being one of them. I mean, are we being left behind here?

SUSSAN LEY: No, we're not. We're doing many things internationally and we we're part of an international adaptation coalition and the work that we've just been talking about is actually- will actually assist in leading this type of approach and response internationally. The Prime Minister's been very clear about our ambition to get to net zero as soon as possible.

THOMAS ORITI: Why not have a target on it? Why can the US give a year, give a deadline but we can't?

SUSSAN LEY:  Well, we said as soon as possible and what we're doing, we should be measured by our actions just as much as our words. Today, you've seen an announcement about three hydrogen plants approved with a $100 million of federal funding. Now, that's about clean and competitive hydrogen industry in Australia, but also in the world. So, while we're a very small part of global emissions, we're still playing our part. Number one, in our agreements under Paris, but number two, in sharing our technology and the world leading approach we have to adaptation with the world. So, we are absolutely focused on reducing emissions here at home and overseas.

THOMAS ORITI:  I mean, some academics would disagree. We've had quite a lot of them on the show and they say that Australia's policy to use low-emissions technology - yes, you're right, that's part of the mix. But they say a meaningful response to climate change, just doing that is not enough. Greater attention needs to be paid to the bigger picture and that we are lagging behind. A lot of people seem to be, that view in Australia, who watch this closely. What would you say to them?

SUSSAN LEY:  Well, some people do have that view and I accept that the view that the Government has, which is, I believe in the national interest and the interests of all Australians, when it comes to supporting a global effort to be absolutely ambitious. No one wants to be more ambitious than me about getting the global emissions down. But Australia has to recognise where it can best play its part and renewable technologies are critical in that. And if our hydrogen announcement today leads to green hydrogen production at a reasonable cost, that is a technology we can and will share with the world and the world is definitely watching. Recently, I made a $100 million announcement on oceans with the Prime Minister, reflecting Biden's comments, that climate is oceans and oceans are climate. And the role that our Southern Ocean can play in storing carbon, that comes out of the atmosphere. Because obviously, it's just not about what we emit, but how we can reduce and take carbon out of the atmosphere.

THOMAS ORITI:  Joe Biden's also calling on developed countries though, like Australia, to do more when it comes to climate change. Are we really part of that global effort, if we can't even put a date on it? if we're saying as soon as possible?

SUSSAN LEY:  Of course we are, because the US is interested in our technology and wants to partner with us on the technology stretch goals and Angus Taylor's technology roadmap and the hydrogen effort that we're making, carbon capture and storage, the work that our major resource companies are doing. It all feeds into an international approach and Australia's world leading in that technology approach. That can actually lead the way, not just for developed countries, but for developing countries. But I don't shy away from the need to work on climate adaptation, which is why Australian Climate Services that we're talking about today will give us that meaningful information that we need, that data that we need to recognise that, yes, the climate is changing. Yes, Australia is at the front line of that, because of the nature of our semi-arid continent and our farmers too. I live in a regional area and I'm seeing the work they're doing in adapting every day with their farming systems to be able to contribute nationally and internationally. 

THOMAS ORITI:  Okay. Minister, we're out of time. But thank you very much for joining us on the program this morning.

SUSSAN LEY:  Thank you, it's a pleasure.

THOMAS ORITI: Really appreciate it. That's the federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley.