The Hon. Tanya Plibersek's address to CEDA's State of the Nation 2023

 The Hon. Tanya Plibersek's address to CEDA's State of the Nation 2023

Good morning, everyone. Thank you all.

I want to start by acknowledging that we're meeting on the lands of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people who are the traditional owners of the Canberra area.

I pay my respect to their elders, past and present, and to any other First Nations people that we might have with us here today.

I want to thank CEDA for giving me the opportunity of speaking with you this morning as an organisation dedicated to Australia's economic development.

This question of how we make the transition to a more renewable energy‑focused economy is perhaps the most critical.

Because we really are standing on the cusp of something truly extraordinary, a future powered by cheaper, cleaner, more plentiful renewable energy, a future with more power available to more people produced at lower costs, sold at cheaper prices.

And we have to be absolutely clear about what that potential means for our country, because this is not, as the critics would argue, taking us on a journey backwards in history to a time of scarcity.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite.

It is a journey towards abundance.

The prospect of energy abundance is exciting.

Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you're doing for work and in so many ways, it's clear that Australians already understand this.

That's why, you know, we're leading the world with solar panels on roofs.

It's also something that the companies that many of you are representing here today understand and have understood for many years as smart business practices.

But for the best part of a decade, we've been missing something in this country, and that's been a government that is backing the transition to more renewable energy.

And that's what we've sought to change in our first 12 months in office.

To help to work cooperatively to lead wherever we can and to do it with the sense of urgency that I think most of us feel because we are in a race, we're trying to get to 82 per cent renewable energy in 82 months.

That is a tough goal to have set ourselves.

It does feel a little bit like Wallace and Grommet, where they're building the railway tracks as the train is coming along the tracks, the trains racing up behind.

And it's why we've moved so quickly this year, passing our safeguard laws, legislating a path to net zero.

Since I've become minister, we've doubled the number of renewable energy projects approved.

We're investing $20 billion to rewire the nation.

It's why we're establishing massive offshore wind zones around Australia, the Gippsland and Hunter ones being the most advanced.

That's why we're supporting an electric vehicle strategy.

That's why we invested $1.6 billion in the last budget to support the electrification of homes and businesses.

It's why we're investing in green hydrogen because we are really rushing to make up for lost time.

Australia could already be a global leader, but we have had too many years of inaction.

I do really want to pay special tribute to Chris Bowen for the enormous leadership he's shown as energy and climate minister over the last year to get these projects off the ground.

We have ambitious targets and to meet those ambitious targets, it's really critical that we get the underpinning settings right and really that's where I come in, in the environment portfolio, we need to make sure that we've got conditions that are stable and clearly signposted so businesses can invest with confidence and security and getting environmental approvals right as part of that process is absolutely critical.

So there was a cover of The Economist a little while ago, and it was a picture of an environmentalist hugging a transmission pole instead of a tree, and it was making the point that really, if you care about the environment, one of the best and most important things we have to do as a nation is really get this transition to net zero, right.

But the tree and the transmission pole do kind of symbolise some of the tension that exists in this area and it is a real tension that we need to manage.

We need to make sure that the massive industrial-scale transformation that we're going through in this country is done as sensitively to nature as is possible, and we also need to show communities that we're being thoughtful here to bring people along with us to maintain social licence.

So I want to be really clear it is this government's instinct to support renewable energy projects wherever they're feasible, wherever they're appropriate.

Our overwhelming preference is for action because the absolute worst thing we could do for the environment is to delay our fight against climate change.

But it's also true that not every renewable energy project or every transmission line is the right project in the right place.

We're not going to put a wind farm floating off the Great Barrier Reef.

We're not going to put the hydrogen plant in a World Heritage area.

We need to plan where those projects go so that they can be approved and rolled out as quickly as possible with minimal obstacles, and so we're not wasting precious time in examining the wrong place.

So that's really at the core of what we're trying to do with the reforms that we're making to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The further upfront we bring some of the decisions about the best places to place the new renewable energy projects, the further upfront of the process we examine matters of national environmental significance and proper consultation, including with First Nations people about the location, the faster and better we can make our approval processes.

Currently what often happens is that companies spend years investigating a project, whether a proposal is likely to impact a matter of national environmental significance, like a threatened species or a fragile ecosystem, or a critical habitat, and it can take years to work out whether a project is OK.

And it can take even longer to get a knockback.

And what's even more frustrating about that is because the information that's gathered from the scientific surveys and so on isn't really shared anywhere.

The next proponent can go and investigate the same or a similar project in a similar place with a similar outcome that also takes years.

It's the most irrational waste of resources and time and a massive opportunity cost for business.

So we want to improve the situation.

We want to improve the system.

And the best way that we can do that is to be very clear as early as we can about areas where developments are likely to be approved because it's not a sensitive area for development areas where it's never going to happen.

You know, national parks, water catchments, World Heritage areas and those places in the middle where development can happen in a sensible way if the right requirements are met.

And we think that when you look at things like offshore wind projects looking at early on scientific information like migratory bird migration patterns, the height of wind turbines to make sure that they're too high for birds to run into.

All of these things that the earlier we do them in the planning of a project, the more likely it is we can get that project going quickly.

So we want to identify places where renewable energy projects are likely, and we want to make those part of our regional planning framework.

We're currently doing that right now with Queensland and NSW looking at areas for renewable energy zones, we want to be, as a federal government active partners in that process with our laws, also by working with project proponents where it's appropriate moving in one direction.

When I talk to people, it seems you know most people find this pretty uncontroversial, that we should do regional planning, identify areas where developments are likely to go ahead and concentrate on those areas.

This sees developments get off the ground faster when we do, but it's not a universally supported proposition.

And I guess I'd say one of the key challenges for the people in this room is to understand that we have an opportunity here with regional planning and the reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to get faster, clearer decision-making for business and also for better protection for the environment at the same time.

What we're facing is pushback from people who really don't want to see renewable energy projects developed and in some cases are trying to block them in practice.

And those groups of people come from 2 very different perspectives.

On the one hand, I hear from green politicians quite often who say they're all for renewable energy.

They want to see more of it.

They believe climate change is a real threat, just not this project, not here.

It's very difficult to find a project that they do support sometimes.

And then on the other side, we've got people from the, you know, conservative parties who really are now beginning to use environmentalism as a cover for their opposition to renewable energy projects altogether.

Last month in Question Time, I had one National Party member who started asking me about land clearing for transmission lines.

It is literally the first time I've ever had a National Party MP asked me about land clearing in any other way than to say why isn't there more of it and why can't I do more of it myself.

But this is a real threat to the development of renewable energy projects to have, somehow, people claiming that renewables are bad for the environment, so of course we have to make sure that we are reassuring people that we are doing as little land clearing as is feasibly possible, that we are locating places in the least environmentally sensitive.

Locations that are close to transmission capacity so that they feed into our grid effectively.

And so that each energy project is done in the best practice, the closest to best practice it can be for a renewable energy project.

I want to finish on this thought as well.

We are, of course, going to see enormous investment in coming years in large-scale wind and solar in particular, large-scale batteries for firming.

All of this comes with disposal problems down the track.

We see some of the highest density of rooftop solar of any country in the world.

That means we've got tonnes and tonnes of solar panels going into landfill in Australia at the moment every year.

We've got to get much better at making sure that we not only develop the right projects in the right places in the right way, but as these projects develop, we're thinking about the whole life cycle of the project.

What happens to the solar panels when their useful life is over?

What happens to the batteries?

What happens to the wind turbines when their useful lives are over?

Thank you.