As a resource-based economy, Australia has long relied on the export of coal and gas and is one of the world’s top producers of iron ore, nickel, gold and diamonds. Along with Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Australia has a warm climate, high annual rainfall and a population concentrated on the coastline, making it highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
According to the 2022 Climate Change Performance Index, Australia ranks 58th globally and received a “very low” rating for its performance in every CCPI category: greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy.
While Covid-19 brought the attention of the globe to the devastating impacts of global warming, the last few years have seen Australia come face to face with its own unique signs of impending climate disaster. From the “Black Summer” bushfires of 2019–2020, which saw over 18 million hectares (ha) burned and millions of animals perish, to unprecedented floods happening across the eastern part of the country, as well as the sixth major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the koala listed as endangered – Australia’s climate vulnerability has become glaringly obvious and yet the country has remained slow to act.
Considering these figures, it was little surprise that many Australians called this the country’s “climate election” and voted with climate action in mind. While Albanese’s party has won the most seats overall, a record number of seats have been taken from both the Liberal and Labor Parties by the Australian Greens and several Teal independents, predominately young women pushing for ambitious climate action. In fact, if enough seats are taken by The Australian Greens Party and independents, they may even hold the balance of power in parliament, edging Labor further towards the left.
Climate action back on the agenda
With this fundamental shift in Australian politics, it is worth comparing Labor’s environmental policies to that of the past government and the policies of The Greens and independents.
According to Labor’s Powering Australia plan, the government aims to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030 to zero emissions by 2050 by upgrading the electricity grid to fix energy transmission, offering discounts on electric vehicles and investing in low-cost solar banks and community batteries. An additional A$194.5 million (US$139.9 million) will go towards protecting and restoring the Great Barrier Reef, while A$224.5 million (US$161.6 million) will go towards Labor’s Saving Native Species Program and a national koala conservation strategy.
While more ambitious than the previous Liberal government emissions target, which would see 3˚C warming bordering on 4˚C by 2030, according to the research centre Climate Analytics, Labor’s target emissions are still consistent with 2˚C warming by 2030, while the independents and Greens would be 1.5˚C by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement.
The Liberal Party, headed by Scott Morrison who infamously visited Hawaii during the bushfire crisis, kept climate action firmly out of their election campaign, while pushing for 26–28% emissions reduction by 2030 and like the Labor Party, zero carbon emissions by 2050. According to Climate Action Tracker, the long-term actions set out by the Liberal government would not even achieve this target, with the continued support of new fossil fuels projects across the country driving emissions up, not down.
In comparison, The Greens want to see net zero emissions by 2035 or sooner and Australia take on a leading role in negotiations leading to an emission abatement treaty. This treaty would recognize the greater historical and current contribution of wealthy industrialized nations to the climate crisis. The Greens also hope to halt the animal extinction rate through investments in habitat restoration, stronger environmental laws, ending old-growth forest logging and banning the creation of new mines without an assessment on their climate impact first.
The Teal independents, named after the colours of their campaign materials (a shade between blue and green), largely support independent Zali Steggall’s climate bill, which aims for 60% reduction in emissions by 2030. Although running as independents, they share a common set of policy principals on the environment, gender equality and climate action and are funded by the crowd-funding initiative, Climate 200.
With The Greens purported to have 12 senators in the upper house (their highest to date) and, along with the independents, potentially holding the balance of power in Parliament, Labor may be pressured to do more in the way of climate action and environmental policy. One thing is for sure: Australia has made a commitment, however tentative, to do more to combat climate change.