Australian Election 2022: What will the result mean for the climate?

Australia’s targets for cutting carbon emissions are among the weakest of any developed nation, but a new government could accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

Environment


May 19, 2022

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 08: (L-R) Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison debate on live television ahead of the federal election, during the second leader's election.  2022 federal election campaign debate at Studio Nine on May 8, 2022 in Sydney, Australia.  Australian federal elections will take place on Saturday May 21 with Liberal leader Scott Morrison seeking to secure a fourth term in power for the Coalition Against Labor and opposition leader Anthony Albanese.  (Photo by Alex Ellinghausen-Pool/Getty Images)

Politicians Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison at a televised leaders’ debate in Sydney, Australia, on May 8.

Alex Ellinghausen – Pool/Getty Images

Climate change will be on the minds of many Australians when they vote in the federal election on May 21, and the result could have global ramifications.

Extreme droughts, bushfires, floods and Great Barrier Reef bleaching in recent years have been a wake-up call for Australia, which has lagged behind other countries in ditching fossil fuels. Two-thirds of people in Australia, where voting is compulsory, now believe more needs to be done to tackle climate change.

“It is a tangible reality for Australians now. It is no longer a future theoretical outcome,” says Cassandra Star of Flinders University in Adelaide.

The Liberal-National coalition of center-right parties has dragged its feet on climate policy since coming to power in 2013. In October 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally bowed to international pressure to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050. But his government still has a 2030 emissions target of just 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels, which is one of the weakest among developed nations.

Morrison himself has been slow to accept the reality of climate change. As treasurer in 2017, he brought a lump of coal to parliament and announced: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt you.” During the worst Australian bushfires on record in 2019, he went on vacation to Hawaii and said, “I don’t have a hose.”

The Labor Party, Australia’s opposition party, has promised a more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of 43 percent if elected. However, a target of 74 percent below 2005 levels would be needed for Australia to contribute its “fair share” of keeping global warming within 1.5°C, according to a model from the University of Melbourne.

The Australian Greens party, which currently holds one of 151 lower house seats and nine of 76 upper house seats in parliament, is campaigning for a 75% emissions reduction target by 2030, and several independents have similar goals.

Achieving these goals would require significant changes. Despite having abundant sun and wind and the space for infrastructure, Australia has been slow to adopt renewable energy. Currently, 75 percent of the country’s electricity is derived from coal; compared, 41 percent of UK electricity was generated from fossil fuels in 2020.

“Right now, our emissions are essentially stagnating; they’re not actually sinking,” says Mark Howden of the Australian National University in Canberra. Powerful industry groups have stalled the transition away from fossil fuels, he says. Australia is currently the second largest exporter of coal and has the third largest coal reserves in the world.

The Liberal-National coalition says it will reduce carbon emissions with “technology, not taxes” if re-elected. This will include investment in green hydrogen, which is supported by many leading scientists, but also some unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

The Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, has proposed rolling out more solar and battery infrastructure, upgrading the electricity grid so it can handle more renewable energy, making electric vehicles cheaper and investing in green hydrogen and green steel.

In terms of climate action, “labour policy is much better than what [Liberal-National] coalition is offering,” says Malte Meinshausen of the University of Melbourne.

Although Australia only contributes 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions due to its small population, the election result could still have a significant impact on global climate, says Meinshausen. One reason is that Australia has the resources to make green hydrogen and green steel on a large scale, which will be needed to help the rest of the world decarbonize, she says.

“If the new leadership means Australia becomes a renewable energy powerhouse, we could see a whole host of materials like green steel, green hydrogen etc. exported to the world market, which would enable energy transitions elsewhere,” says Meinshausen.

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