Australia’s ‘climate elections’ are finally here. It will be enough?

SYDNEY, Australia — Just minutes after taking the stage to declare victory in Australia’s election on Saturday, Anthony Albanese, the incoming Labor prime minister, vowed to turn climate change from a source of political conflict into a generator of economic growth.

“Together we can end climate wars,” he told his supporters, who cheered for several seconds. “Together we can seize the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower.”

With that comment and his victory, along with a surge of votes for candidates outside the two-party system who made fighting global warming a priority, the likelihood of a significant change in Australia’s climate policy has suddenly increased.

How far the country goes will depend on the final accounts, which are still being counted. But for voters, activists and scientists who spent desperate years lamenting the fossil fuel industry’s grip on the Conservatives who have ruled Australia for most of the last three decades, Saturday’s results represent an extraordinary setback.

A country known as a global climate laggard, with minimal targets for 2030 to reduce carbon emissions, has finally abandoned an approach to denying and delaying climate change that most Australians, in polls, have said they already they do not want to.

“This is the climate choice Australia has been waiting for a long time,” said Joëlle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist and writer at the Australian National University. “It was a defining moment in our nation’s history.”

However, it remains to be seen whether the factors that led to that change can be as powerful and persuasive as the countervailing forces that are so entrenched.

In Australia, as in the United States, it will be difficult to break or change the traditional energy habits of many decades.

In the last fiscal year alone, Australia’s federal, state and territory governments gave around A$11.6 billion ($8.2 billion) in subsidies to the coal and other fossil fuel industries.

A further AUD55.3bn ($39bn) has already been committed to subsidize oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power, coal-fired railways, ports and carbon capture and storage (although the most carbon sequestration projects fail).

As Dr. Gergis noted in a recent essay, “That’s 10 times more than the Emergency Response Fund and more than 50 times the budget of the National Agency for Recovery and Resilience.”

In other words, Australia still spends far more money to support the companies that cause global warming than it does to help people deal with the costs related to the greenhouse gases they emit.

In recent years, there has also been an increase in investment in renewable energy, but nothing on the same scale. And during the campaign, the Albanese Labor Party tried to avoid directly addressing that mismatch.

On election day in Singleton, a bustling town in northwestern New South Wales where more than 20 percent of residents work in mining, Labor banners reading “Send a miner to Canberra” hung alongside signs from the National Party, part of the outgoing conservative coalition. , which read “Protect Local Mining Jobs.” And candidates from both parties were optimistic about the region’s mining future.

“As long as people buy our coal, we will definitely sell it,” said Dan Repacholi, a former miner who won the seat for Labour.

The coal mining industry is thriving in the area, but so is private investment in renewable energy, especially hydrogen. “We’re going to have a massive boom here through those two industries going up and up,” Repacholi said.

During the campaign, Mr. Albanese positioned himself as a “both-and” candidate, promising support for new coal mines and renewable energy, in large part to cling to blue-collar areas like Singleton.

But now he will face a lot of pressure to go further on the climate issue, faster.

The big blow against the Conservative coalition on Saturday included a surge from the Australian Greens, who may end up being needed by Labor to form a minority government.

Adam Bandt, the leader of the Greens, has said banning new coal and gas projects would be the party’s top priority in any power-sharing deal.

Several new independent lawmakers, who have campaigned to call on Australia to increase its 2030 carbon emissions reduction target to 60% below 2005 levels – well beyond Labour’s 43% pledge – will also push to Albanese and his opposition.

“Both sides of politics are going to have to refocus,” said Saul Griffith, an energy policy expert who advocates for policies that make it easier for people to power their cars and heat their homes with electricity. “This is a very clear message about the climate.”

Like many other experts, Griffith said he wasn’t particularly interested in bold official promises to end coal mining, which he hopes will disappear on its own due to economic pressure.

New gas projects present a bigger problem. A huge extraction effort being planned for the Beetaloo Basin gas fields in the Northern Territory could produce enough carbon emissions to destroy any hope of Australia meeting reduction targets on par with those of other developed nations.

Climate action advocates mostly hope to start with legislation like the bill introduced by Zali Steggall, an independent, that would establish a framework for setting tougher emissions targets and working to achieve them through rigorous science and research.

Robyn Eckersley, a climate change policy expert at the University of Melbourne, warned that Labour, Greens and Independents needed to “play the long game”, noting that a carbon tax sparked a backlash that pushed back the Australian climate policy. for almost a decade.

Fixating on a single number or idea, he said, would impede progress and momentum.

“It’s important to incorporate something and build a consensus around it,” said Professor Eckersley. “Having discussions about how to improve it is better than vacillating between something and nothing.”

Mr. Griffith said Australia had an opportunity to become a global model for the energy transition required by climate change by harnessing its record consumption of rooftop solar power. More than one in four homes in Australia now have solar panels, outpacing any other major economy; they provide electricity for about a fifth of what it costs through the traditional grid.

“Real action on climate has to be community-led,” said Mr. Griffith. He argued that the election results were encouraging because they showed the issue resonated with a broader range of the electorate.

“It’s a less divisive politics, it comes from the center,” he said. “It’s a middle class uprising, so climate action is not that partisan.”

Unfortunately, it has taken a lot of suffering to get there. Australia has yet to fully recover from the record-setting bushfires of 2020, which were followed by two years of widespread flooding.

The Great Barrier Reef has also just experienced its sixth year of bleaching, eerily the first during a La Niña weather pattern, when cooler temperatures normally prevent overheating.

“People no longer need to use their imaginations to try to understand what climate change looks like in this country,” said Dr. Gergis. “Australians have been living with the consequences of inaction.”

yan zhuang contributed reporting from Singleton, Australia.

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