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Australia's last-chance climate election

May 18, 2022

Australia, a major coal exporter and one of the worst per capita emitters, goes to the polls Saturday. The result could be decisive for global climate goals, as voters demand lawmakers do more to cut emissions.

A fire truck putting out a wildfire
Australians are already dealing with hellish wildfires, worsened by climate change Image: Sean Blocksidge/DEPARTMENT OF FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES/AAP/dpa/picture alliance

The results of the Australian election this Saturday will set the climate agenda for one of the planet's worst per-capita CO2 emitters. It comes as the world faces a rapidly closing window to stop the most severe impacts of climate change.

The country, dubbed a "wrecker" at climate change negotiations, is a major exporter of fossil fuels, largely to East Asia and India. It has been criticized for grossly insufficient climate targets by the UK and US as well as its neighboring Pacific nations who could see their homes disappear as sea levels rise.

Voters facing record floods and droughts want more climate action

Climate activists march through the CBD during the 'School Strike 4 Climate' on May 06, 2022
Australians want action on climate change, but major parties have hardly mentioned the issue in their election campaignsImage: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

At the same time, polls clearly show voters back stronger climate action in the "sunburned land," having already experienced deadly and costly flooding and wildfires linked to climate change in recent years. Some big businesses, once against emissions cuts, have also done a U-turn on climate policy. The country is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis.

"Australians are feeling and seeing climate damage now and that's why most Australians are very worried about climate change and want the government to do a lot more than they are," said Kelly O'Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).

Despite public support, the major parties vying for votes in the tight election have barely mentioned the issue in their campaigns, said Peter Christoff, senior research fellow with Melbourne Climate Futures, which is part of the University of Melbourne.

"And that's really quite concerning and worrying," said Christoff.

Australian political parties in long 'climate war'

A house on fire in Australia
Wildfires in 2021: Australians are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis Image: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Since 2007, Australia's two major parties, the center-left Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have been in an open war over climate change policies, leading to multiple leaders being toppled.

"The public vitriol in political exchanges — particularly over an emissions trading scheme and a price on carbon and carbon taxes — led to some of the ugliest politics we've seen in Australia over a 15-year period," said Christoff.

Labor believes it lost the supposedly unlosable "climate election" in 2019 to the Liberals because of a backlash against its strong climate policies and job fears in key seats in coal-mining areas.

Coal lobby pushing against climate protection policies

Australia is the world's second biggest coal exporter. And because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising coal prices mean Australia will likely earn 100 billion Australian dollars (€67 billion, $70 billion) in one year from coal.

Meanwhile, between 100,000 and 300,000 Australian jobs connected to coal, oil and gas are at risk if the country doesn't prepare for the shift away from fossil fuels, according to a study by independent Australian think tank, the Centre for Policy Development.

Major parties weak on climate

Why does Australia refuse to give up coal? Climate change scientist Ian Lowe speaks to DW

To date, the conservatives have stymied significant action on climate change — blocking a major emissions trading scheme, slashing funding on climate research, subsidizing and allowing fossil fuel production to expand and abolishing the government-funded Climate Commission.

At the 2021 UN climate conference in Glasgow, the government refused to budge from its 2030 emission cuts of 26% to 28% on 2005 levels — one of the weakest targets in the developed world. The UN Climate Action Tracker rates Australia's emissions and net-zero targets as "poor" and "highly insufficient," putting it on a path to more than 3 degrees Celsius warming.

Going into the 2022 election, the Liberal Party pledged to go net-zero by 2050, but has given itself scope to ignore this. At the same time, it has vowed to continue exports of Australia's coal and gas past 2050 and has included these fossil fuels in its domestic energy blueprint.

Labor — currently forecast to win this election— has also vowed to go net-zero by 2050 and has stronger emission cuts of 43% by 2030. It has pledged tens of billions of dollars to revitalize the nation's energy grid and install solar banks and batteries. But it says it won't stop exporting coal and gas.

A new climate force in the country?

A woman stands in front of a podium. A sign on the podium reads: Vote Climate, Vote Green
The Australian Green Party, as well as climate-minded independents, are seeing a surge in support Image: Dan Peled/Getty Images

Australia is dominated by two main parties, but by dragging their heels on climate change Labor and the Liberals have opened the door to new challengers.

A group of independents, dubbed "the teals," are competing with Liberal lawmakers for urban seats. Mostly women, they receive funding from a group called Climate 200 — a relatively new political fund established by clean energy investor Simon Holmes a Court — and have campaigned on climate, integrity, and gender equality. They have all set ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets ranging from 50% to 70% by 2030.

And they appear to be attracting moderate Liberal voters who have become disillusioned with a lack of movement on climate change. Most recent polling shows several key seats are at risk.

Meanwhile, the Greens have enjoyed a surge and are now polling at about 15% nationally — compared to 10% in the 2019 election. They have pledged to cut emissions by 75% by 2030, go net-zero by 2035, phase out the mining, burning and exporting of coal by 2030 and convert the grid to 100% renewables.

Depending on the result of the election, both the Greens and the teal candidates could wield significant power over the government.

Tech billionaire vies to end coal

A close-up of Australian election posters
Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg may lose his seat to a climate-friendly independentImage: WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Businesses are also calling for more action. In one example, Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes is attempting to use his wealth to force energy giant AGL to exit coal-fired power generation.

Even the Business Council of Australia — which represents big banks and corporations, such as industrial and retail giant Wesfarmers, mining companies BHP and Rio Tinto and airline Qantas — is now also calling for major emission cuts by 2030. It's a dramatic shift for the organization that in 2018 called 45% emissions reduction cuts "an economy wrecking target."

"It's certainly not the community that is holding back the Australian political parties on climate action and also not the business community," ACF's O'Shanassy said. "Everyone wants climate action except for the people that go to Parliament House."

But neither Labor nor the Liberals' targets are enough to bring Australia in line with its Paris Commitments. Emissions cuts of at least 50% by 2030 are what's required to keep it below the upper threshold of 2 degrees warming and about 75% for the 1.5-degree target, according to some estimates.

Australia: Huge potential for solar, wind

ACF believes the next government should take advantage of the country's huge solar and wind potential and could quickly cut emissions while preserving jobs by replacing fossil fuel exports with products created with renewable energy such as hydrogen and ammonia.

"We need to use the vast amount of renewable energy we have in this country. We need to times it by about ten and then turn that into exports and stop exporting pollution to the world," O'Shanassy said. "That would be our greatest contribution to climate change."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins