Australia looks set to ditch its climate-laggard global status after voters strongly backed more ambitious green policies – but can the change in government help reignite global climate action, as geopolitical challenges escalate?
In election results that have been hailed in some quarters as a ‘greenslide’, Labor Party leader Antony Albanese has been confirmed as Australia’s Prime Minster, immediately promising to ramp up the country’s climate ambitions and transform it into a renewable energy superpower.
After almost a decade of governments presided over by conservatives such as Tony Abbot and Scott Morrison who have faced widespread criticism on the world stage for dragging their feet on climate action, Saturday’s landmark election signals that a major shift in climate policy is on the cards in one of the world’s most important resource-rich fish. Could Australia be about to ditch its climate laggard reputation and in the process help reinvigorate climate diplomacy efforts worldwide?
Albanian, a veteran politician who served as deputy prime minister under the last Labor government that was voted out in 2013, is to be sworn into office today. He has long defended the scientific consensus on climate change, and having been a fervent criticizing the outgoing Liberal-National coalition government’s weak green policies over the past three years, he touted this weekend’s election results as “an opportunity to end the climate wars in Australia”.
Although Labor has refused to back a phase out of coal use or block the opening of new coal mines in Australia – which remains one of the world’s largest exporters of the carbon-intensive fossil fuel – the party has promised to adopt more ambitious emissions targets and turn the nation into a global renewable energy ‘superpower’.
“Australian businesses know that good action on climate change is good for jobs and good for our economy, and I want to join the global effort,” Albanese told the BBC shortly after Prime Minister Scott Morrison formally conceded defeat on Saturday.
The past three years under Morrison had seen numerous devastating wildfires and flooding events hitting Australian homes and businesses, yet his government had continued to strongly back the nation’s industry, while offering little more than business as usual policies on climate resilience and various clean tech initiatives that were widely condemned as underpowered by critics. Moreover, the coalition government has long been a thorn in the aspect of successive UN climate talks.
Morrison was eventually pressured into announcing a 2050 net zero target for Australia last year, but critics were quick to point out that the plan for getting there lacked detail or credibility. The country’s national climate action plan under the Paris Agreement remained worryingly underpowered, aligned with as much as up to 4C of global warming, according to some experts.
During the fraught election campaign in recent weeks, Morrison’s government had attempted to attack Labor’s climate plans as a threat to living standards, and one senator even declared that Australia’s net zero target was “dead”. Moreover, in the immediate wake of its defeating the National party wing of the outgoing coalition government that has signaled it may drop it support for Australia’s net zero target altogether.
Yet last week a majority of Australian voters sent a strong signal that they wanted a major shift in approach on policy, with the Green Party and independent candidates pushing for more ambitious climate action far outperforming expectations and picking up crucial Parliamentary seats right across the country .
Dubbed ‘Teal’ independents – a reference to the color that results from mixing the blue traditionally associated with the Liberal Party and its fiscally conservative values and green views on climate change – this loose grouping of mostly women candidates stood on ambitious climate platforms and emerged victorious in a host of formerly safe Liberal party seats. Despite strong support for the outgoing government from an Australian media landscape that is dominated by Rupert Murdoch-owned titles notorious for peddling climate scepticism and decrying green policy action, the Teal independents and the Greens emerged as the big surprise winners.
And now the victorious Teal MPs may well play a key role in determining government policy over the next three years. Albanese is being sworn in as PM today after his Party won the most seats, but it remains unclear whether Labor can form an overall majority. As such, Albanians will likely need to form a coalition in order to govern, and climate campaigners hope this could force Labor to strengthen itself its climate policy platform, which has come in for some criticism for lacking ambition.
Lucy Mann, CEO of the campaign group 350 Australia, welcomed signals of increased climate policy ambition from the incoming government, but said Labor still lacked a comprehensive plan to transition away from fossil fuels, support a ‘just transition’ to net zero, and turn the nation into a renewable energy superpower.
“Climate change was a top issue during the election campaign because the community is sick of inaction in the face of worsening impacts like sea level rise, bushfires, heatwaves and floods,” she said. “The new Labor government has made commitments to significantly increase Australia’s action on climate change. These commitments represent a major improvement on the previous government’s policies, but also must be strengthened.”
On the one hand, Labor has backed a range of policies to support renewable energy infrastructure, strengthen an emissions-capping system for the nation’s biggest polluters, and build out electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure. It has also promised to set a 2030 target to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, and this would likely mean submitting an enhanced Paris Agreement plan – or nationally-determined contribution (NDC), in UN jargon – ahead of the COP27 Climate Summit later this year. Labor has even said it wants Australia to host COP29 climate talks in two-years’ time.
But as critics have pointed out, Labor’s EV targets remain relatively unambitiousit has no plans to curb Australia’s powerful coal industry, and even its 2030 emissions target – if achieved – would only place the country in line with 2C of warmingrather than the totemic 1.5C pressed for in the Glasgow Climate Pact that was agreed by hundreds of nations at the COP26 Climate Summit last year.
Even so, with Australia’s incoming government promising to ramp up its own climate goals while also – for the first time in a decade – unashamedly advocating for multilateral action in support of the Paris Agreement on the world stage, Saturday’s election could well inject some much- needed momentum into global climate diplomacy in the run up to COP27 in Egypt in November.
Richie Merzian, director of the climate & energy program at The Australia Institute think tank, said the election of a new government in Canberra offered a chance for a reset with “a new approach to climate diplomacy”.
“The incoming government has said it will bid to host a climate conference in two years and coordination with Pacific nations,” he said. “Partnering on the UN’s largest roving event would demonstrate solidarity with Pacific neighbors but it must be accompanied by more support including re-joining the Green Climate Fund.”
With the geopolitical landscape having been transformed by the tumult sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, prompting fossil fuel, energy, and food princes to surge around the world, the fragile climate consensus achieved in Glasgow last year has been under significant pressure in recent months. Although the case for shifting away from expensive, risky fossil fuels towards greener sources of energy and EVs has scarcely been clearer, political priorities have shifted towards bolstering national security inflation and tackling, and as such there has been a renewed policy push in many countries to expanding domestic fossil fuel resources.
As such, Egypt’s incoming COP27 Presidency faces a major struggle to keep climate action high up the agenda among the world’s leaders as it gears up for the summit in Sharm el Sheikh in November
Speaking to select media and businesses representatives during a visit to London on Friday, Egypt’s Finance Minister Mohamed Maait conceded the fractious geopolitical backdrop posed a challenge for the host nation, but he remained bullish about the chances of achieving significant fresh breakthroughs at the Summit.
“This is the benefit of COP27 – we must come together to address these challenges to save this Earth,” he added. “Let’s come and sit down together to try and come up with a solution because we are policymakers and it is our duty… climate change risks are not related to one country – they are related to all of us.”
The Glasgow Climate Pact included a hard-won pledge for countries to come forward in 2022 with formally reassessed NDCs ahead of COP27, with a deadline for reviewing and potentially updating plans set to fall in September. To date, however, no enhanced NDCs have been submitted by major implanted in 2022.
Analysis released today by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) makes clear that none of the world’s richest nations which make up the G20 have made new enhanced emissions reduction pledges in line with a 1.5C compliant pathway this year, despite promised to revisit and strengthen their NDCs in the Glasgow Climate Pact. G20 nations, which include Australia, the UK, and USA, account for around 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore have a critical role in keeping the Paris Agreement goals within reach.
Ma’it’s comments also come as the world’s biggest harvest – including the UK – gear up for the G7 Climate and Energy Ministerial this week, with the group having last week said it expects to meet its long-overdue target to deliver a collective $100bn climate finance support to support vulnerable nations in 2023.
Quizzed as to whether the lack of updated NDC submitted in 2022 so far, and the continuing failure to deliver and build on the $100bn of climate finance pledge, could threaten to demolish talks at COP27, Maait stressed the need for progress on both fronts. However, he pointed out that Egypt had only last week announced a new national climate strategy, including plans to invest $211bn by 2050 on mitigation efforts and $113bn on adaptation measures by 2050, and hinted this would be reflected in a fresh NDC in the coming months.
“The Prime Minister has announced Egypt’s strategy, and I hope that by November we will see other countries will follow,” Maait said.
Cautious hopes that more renewed and enhanced national climate plans could be submitted in the coming months ahead of COP27 have now doubt been further buoyed by the election result in Australia over the weekend, which could well see the Albanian government come forward with a new 2030 NDC this year.
At the same time there is clearly potential for the likes of the UK and EU to strengthen their NDCs by simply translating their new energy security strategies into fresh climate action plans that could be submitted under the Paris Agreement.
Even so, with the cost of living crisis only set to deepen over the coming months in many parts of the world, and the UK staring down the barrel of a potential recession, the international climate consensus reached in Glasgow last year and hopes of urgently ramping up action in 2022 remain on a knife edge, even if Australia does shed its climate laggard reputation.
As ECIU’s international lead Gareth Redmond-King made clear today, the next six months could prove critical mission for the international climate agenda, but the tools for delivering the ambitious change needed remains within the grasp of richer nations.
“Now, as the world confronts a plethora of interconnected crises, and as nations scramble to end their reliance on Russian fossil fuels, we have less than half the year left to make progress ahead of COP27,” he said. “This is as clear a to-do list as could be for G20 leaders and upcoming COP presidents – for averting the worst impacts of climate change, but also for helping ensure every nation’s national security.”