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Address To The Nature Conservation Council of NSW Annual Conference

Delegates, ladies and gentleman. 

I’ve travelled here this morning from Bidegal country in Sydney’s south, on the northern banks of the George’s River.  And I speak to you now from Gadigal land, here in Chippendale. I pay my respects to ancestors and elders of all of the first nations across our magnificent state. 

It is an honour to serve the conservation movement in Australia as Chief Executive of this organisation. Indeed, I can scarcely think of an honour greater than the trust and confidence of dedicated citizens who invest themselves in the challenge of changing the world. 

Thank you for the ongoing generosity of spirit and friendship you offer me every day.  Thank you for the work you put in: sometimes hard, frustrating, thankless work.  Sometimes lonely work.  But always delivered with passion, always persevering, and always grounded in the hope that something better is possible. I hope I can live up to the example you set. 

Friends, I want you to close your eyes and take yourself back in time to 1992. For some of you that is close to an impossibility because 1992 pre-dates you.  Others were babies.   

Bill Clinton was not yet President of the United States.  John Major occupied Downing Street.  The Keating years in Australia had only just begun.  There had not yet been a Mabo decision or a Redfern Speech. 

Mark Zukerburg was 8.  Jeff Bezos had hair. It was the year Billy Ray Cyrus first sang about his Achy Breaky Heart. The average house price in Sydney was $183K. 

Now, this trip down memory lane is not merely recreational. This is a business trip. 1992 was also the year the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was first signed by 154 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio. And 1992 is as far into history as 2050 is into the future. 1992 was a long time ago, and 2050 is a long time from now.  Too long. 

At today’s conference you will be asked to adopt a new Climate and Energy Policy for the Nature Conservation Council.  It comes about after painstaking work by the NCC Climate and Energy Working Group, in collaboration with the NCC staff, and is based on the best scientific advice we can lay our hands on. 

It has a simple message: emissions reduction is an existential and urgent necessity, and the sooner we get to net-zero, the better. The climate and conservation movement in NSW has argued for decades now the need for dramatic action on damaging climate change.   

The grassroots organisations and activists at today’s conference have much to be thanked for because NSW has done well in recent times to set upon a serious pathway to net-zero.  The current target of a 50% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030 is good, and stands out in Australia for its ambition. 

A simple comparison to the Federal Government says it all.  Dragged kicking and screaming to a commitment to net-zero they don’t really believe in, the Morrison government has no credible plan for climate action, and absolutely nothing additional to say beyond the efforts already being made in NSW and the other states. 

Matt Kean has demonstrated that climate action can be core business for a Coalition government, and he has raised the standard for all Australian governments, and indeed future Australian governments. But this is not the time to slow down.  This is not a time to rest on the laurels of what has been committed.  The time is not yet ripe for bows and accolades. 

Today we set our leaders, and ourselves, a new challenge: a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, net-zero by 2035. Now let’s be clear: this is a very tough mountain to climb. Economically, socially and yes, politically. Glib commitments that will never be measured against actual action are of very little use to anyone. The hard work of making the case for change, changing minds and changing hearts, needs to be done. Policy asks that are dreamed up without a consideration to how they can realistically be achieved are not worth the paper they are written on. 

But NSW can do this. It is time to commit to the end of the coal industry, joining the over 40 nations who have done so this week in Glasgow. It is time to end land clearing and native forest logging, give real effect to the deforestation agreement that Australia has sign up to. It is time to invest in land restoration and a transformation of the agricultural sector, so that we can improve farm productivity and profitability whilst radically improving sustainability. And it is time to set a date to end sales of combustion engine motor vehicles. 

Just a year ago, the NSW Government had a target of a 35% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.  Today that target is 50% -- not because of a suite of new policies and initiatives, but because the momentum for change is building. More and more, the opportunity that climate action presents, not just the cost, has captured the imagination of the community and business alike. 

Clean energy is cheaper, not just better for the environment. Reducing greenhouses gases is better for our health, not just the climate. Protecting and restoring forests has the dual benefits of rescuing biodiversity and rescuing the planet. The decarbonising revolution currently underway, like the technological and industrial revolutions before them, present unimaginable opportunities for business and jobs. 

But we also need to recognise that this is a big ask. We won’t get there if all we do is keep raising the bar as if the only barrier to change is political will. If we set this as a pass/fail test for our politicians, and don’t do anything to bring the rest of the community along with us, then it is we who will have failed. This is a debate that needs to be won in Barwon, as well as Balmain. We need to inspire action in Blacktown, not just Newtown. We will win the culture war when we make room in our movement for people from every walk of life across the grand diversity that spans modern NSW. 

From bushwalkers, scientists and hippies, to women in hijabs and sarees, men in high-vis and just Mums and Dads trying to get by. Our movement is for everyone, and the race to net-zero by 2035 will be won when we enlist the enthusiasm of the whole community. That’s the hard work, and that’s the work we have started. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NCC will be strong when your organisations are strong. Despite the difficulties of COVID, we have stepped up our work to recruit new people into the movement and develop up the capacity of grassroots activists.  We are well on our way to our goal of engaging 600,000 of our fellow citizens in the work of the conservation movement. 

We need to take this work wider and further than we have ever imagined. And we need to build the collective resources of the movement so that we can be the organisations we need to be in order to meet the challenges we face. 

We need to build a war chest – not just for NCC but for all the organisations here today – capable of matching the deep pocketed opponents we face.  Self-imposed frugality is an affectation if it means we also forego winning. I didn’t come here to lose, and I don’t think you did either. 

We have plenty of challenges ahead: 

  • We need to back in NPA and the Invasive Species Council and see Kosci protected; 
  • We need to help NEFA and HCEC knock off the dreadful woodchip terminal proposal for Newcastle; 
  • We need to see Coastwatchers and SERCA through the fight to save the south coast forests from logging; 
  • We need to strengthen Healthy Rivers Dubbo and the Inland Rivers Network so we can get end of system flow targets set and met in the Murray Darling basin; 
  • And we need to do everything we can to make sure Colong wins in its fight to stop the raising of the Warragamba Dam. 

To say nothing of all of the dozens of battles we are all currently fighting. 

Nature has never needed a more powerful voice. Ambition, solidarity and hard work are how all of us here will continue to be that voice. 

6 NOVEMBER 2021  

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