Australia’s targets for reducing carbon emissions are among the weakest in developed countries, but a new government could accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
May 19, 2022
Climate change will be on the minds of many Australians when they vote in the May 21 federal election, and the outcome could have global ramifications.
Extreme droughts, wildfires, floods and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in recent years have been a wake-up call for Australia, which has lagged other countries in moving away from fossil fuels. Two-thirds of people in Australia – where voting is mandatory – now believe more needs to be done to address climate change.
“It’s a tangible reality for Australians now. It is no longer a theoretical future outcome,” says Cassandra Star at Flinders University in Adelaide.
The Liberal-National coalition of centre-right parties has been dragging its feet on climate policy since coming to power in 2013. In October 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally gave in 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 was 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 Australia’s worst recorded wildfires of 2019, he took a vacation to Hawaii, claiming “I don’t hold a hose”.
Australia’s opposition Labor Party has pledged a more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of 43% if elected. However, a target of 74% below 2005 levels would be needed for Australia to contribute its “fair share” to keeping global warming within 1.5°C, according to University of Melbourne modeling.
The Australian Greens party, which currently holds one of the 151 seats in the lower house and nine of the 76 seats in the upper house in parliament, is campaigning for a 75% emissions reduction target by 2030, and several independents have similar targets.
Meeting these goals would require significant changes. Despite having abundant sun and wind and space for infrastructure, Australia has been slow to adopt renewable energy. Currently, 75 percent of the country’s electricity is derived from coal; by comparison, 41 percent of UK electricity was generated from fossil fuels in 2020.
“Right now, our emissions are basically stabilizing; they’re not really falling,” says Mark Howden of the Australian National University in Canberra. Powerful industrial groups have stalled the fossil fuel transition, 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 investing in green hydrogen, which is supported by many leading scientists, but also in some unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
The Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, has proposed deploying 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, “labor policy is much better than [Liberal-National] coalition is offering,” says Malte Meinshausen of the University of Melbourne.
Although Australia only contributes 1% of the world’s carbon emissions due to its small population, the election outcome could still have a significant impact on the global climate, says Meinshausen. One reason is that Australia has the resources to produce green hydrogen and green steel on a large scale, which will be needed to help the rest of the world decarbonise, he says.
“If the new leadership means Australia becomes a renewable energy powerhouse, we could see a huge influx of materials like green steel, green hydrogen etc. being exported to the world market, which would allow energy transitions elsewhere,” says Meinshausen.
Sign up for our free Fix the Planet newsletter to get a dose of climate optimism straight to your inbox every Thursday
More on these topics: