Q&A: What does the new Australian Labor government mean for climate change?
The Labor party has swept to power in Australia, ending nearly a decade of rule by the Coalition government that has been marked by opposition and delay when addressing climate change.
The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has promised to turn Australia into a “renewable energy superpower” and end the “climate wars” that have hampered progress for years.
Under the centre-right Coalition – an essentially permanent alliance between the Liberal and National parties – Australia earned a reputation as a climate “laggard” on the global stage, taking little meaningful action even as droughts, fires and floods devastated the nation.
By contrast, the centre-left Labor party has positioned itself as outward-looking and ambitious on climate. However, its proposed policies only target some areas of the economy and leave Australia’s large fossil-fuel sector largely untouched.
Here, Carbon Brief has spoken to experts and assessed Labor’s policies to gauge what impact the new Australian government will likely have on efforts to tackle climate change.
What is the state of the ‘climate wars’ in Australia?
In his victory speech, Albanese told his supporters he would “end the climate wars” in Australia. He referred to a decade in which climate politics have been highly fraught, contributing to the downfall of multiple prime ministers.
The Coalition has faced particularly heavy criticism over its climate stance both at home and abroad under Morrison’s leadership. Despite setting a net-zero target for 2050, the government failed to come up with any realistic policies to achieve such targets.
Labor has more ambitious targets, as Carbon Brief’s interactive grid of manifesto pledges below shows. However, the leadership has been unwilling to take the kind of aggressive action on fossil fuels that climate advocates would like to see.
This tempered climate ambition has been linked to the party’s fate in 2019 during what was often dubbed the “climate election”. Then-Labor leader Bill Shorten suffered a surprise defeat when coal communities rejected his party in favour of the Coalition.
Albanese has avoided Shorten’s fate, but many of his policies and goals are limited when compared with those in other large economies (see sections below for more details).
As the election results came in over the weekend, many observers hoped that Labor would have to rely on an alliance with Green party or independent “teal” candidates to form a government with strengthened climate policies.
The Greens had pledged to end Australian fossil-fuel projects altogether, while the teal candidates managed to oust several Liberal MPs in wealthy regions following campaigns that supported comprehensive climate action across the economy.
At the time of writing, Labor looks set to win an outright majority, although the presence of more climate-conscious MPs and Greens potentially holding the balance of power in the Senate could still push them further.
Australian climate scientist Dr Bill Hare, who is also chief executive of Climate Analytics, tells Carbon Brief that, when compared to other industrialised nations, Australia is playing catch-up on many policies:
“If you look across the landscape of policies…for nearly everything, whether it’s industry efficiency, housing, commercial building efficiency, motor vehicle standards, truck efficiency standards – whatever – we don’t have it. It doesn’t exist. And that’s a product of the climate wars of the last decade.”
He says he struggles to see how Australia will significantly reduce its emissions unless these kinds of policies are implemented:
“My sense is that the political landscape has shifted and these measures should become possible. The question is whether the Albanese government will have the flexibility to adapt to that situation, or whether they’ll have to wait until a second term.”
How ambitious is Labor’s climate target?
Labor announced its target of cutting Australian emissions 43% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline in its Powering Australia plan, which was released at the end of 2021.
This will now be submitted to the UN as Australia’s new nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. Labor says it will also set the nation on a course for net-zero emissions by 2050.
The target is less ambitious than the one proposed by the party in both the 2016 and 2019 elections, when it suggested a 45% cut in the same timeframe.
Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement on the Coalition’s target of a 26-28% emissions reduction. This is less than the 30% cut that would be expected to take place in Australia with no additional action taken, according to analysis commissioned by Labor.
Australia had originally submitted this target in 2015. Later, the Morrison government refused to increase it despite international pressure in the run-up to COP26.
Commentators noted that while Labor’s new target is roughly comparable to the ones set by Japan and Canada, it is not as ambitious as those of the EU, the UK or the US.
The main means by which Labor plans to meet its goal is by incentivising the rollout of renewables and tweaking the “safeguard mechanism” that is meant to drive industrial decarbonisation. (See: What are the plans for decarbonising Australian industry and transport?) This can be seen in the chart below, taken from an assessment of Labor’s target carried out for the party by analysts at RepuTex Energy.
The chart by Climate Analytics below shows the targets of the main Australian political parties.
According to this analysis, the Coalition government’s goal would not have set the nation on a Paris Agreement-compliant track, but Labor’s target is in line with the lower ambition Paris target of 2C.
In contrast, the 2030 targets set out by the Greens – a 75% cut – and the teal independents – a 60% cut – were both in line with the more ambitious Paris target of 1.5C.
As the Glasgow Climate Pact called for all countries to “revisit and strengthen” their NDCs this year to align with the 1.5C goal, there is pressure on Labor to come forward with a more ambitious plan.
However, so far the party has ruled out negotiating to increase its 2030 target, a move that could threaten the fossil-fuel industry it has worked hard to reassure.
The election result coincided with the release of a new report from E3G and other thinktanks, highlighting Australia as one of the G20 nations that had failed to enhance their 2030 climate targets when updating their NDCs.
With <6 months to #COP27, all eyes are on the big climate laggards that didn’t enhance their targets last year & even weakened them…
That means new 1.5C aligned 2030 targets from:
Australia 🇦🇺 (looking at you @AlboMP👀)
Indonesia 🇮🇩, the hosts of the G20
— Tom Evans (@TomEvansClimate) May 23, 2022
How does Labor plan to make Australia a ‘renewable energy superpower’?
Under its Repowering Australia plan, Labor says it will increase the share of renewables in the National Electricity Market (NEM) to 82% by 2030.
(This is not 82% of Australian electricity, as the NEM only delivers around 80% of the nation’s power, with the rest coming from smaller, local grids.)
This compares to two baseline scenarios in which this proportion was expected to be 68-69%, with no new policies. Many Australian states and territories have been making considerable progress expanding their renewables, despite years of federal inaction.
Labor’s Powering Australia plan to make our country a renewable energy superpower is the fastest way to cut pollution and the most effective way to act on climate change. It will cut power bills for families and businesses.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) May 18, 2022
Labor’s flagship policy to make Australia a “renewable energy superpower” is Rewiring the Nation, which will establish a public corporation to invest AUD$20bn (£11.3bn) to modernise the grid and “unlock the development of large renewable energy resources”.
It is expected to contribute the vast majority of the emissions cuts in the party’s plan for the power sector – cutting 37m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) by 2030.
Other renewables policies in Labor’s manifesto – investing battery storage for households, “solar banks” for those who cannot access rooftop solar and net-zero public-sector emissions – will have a relatively small impact on emissions. In total, these measures are expected to cut just 616,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2030.
Dr Dylan McConnell, an energy research fellow at the University of Melbourne, tells Carbon Brief that, in his view, it may be difficult to reach an 82% share without additional policies such as carbon pricing – a highly controversial topic in Australia – or a renewable energy certificate scheme:
“I remain sceptical that transmission expansion alone will be sufficient to drive the investment in renewable generation required. To achieve these levels of renewable energy generation by 2030, we would need to more than double the rate of renewable energy installation that’s been achieved in the last four years or so.”
As it stands, investment in large-scale renewable energy fell from $4.5bn(£2.6bn) in 2020 to $3.7bn (£2.1bn) 2021. There are also concerns around local backlash to transmission projects.
Prof Kate Crowley, a public and environmental policy researcher at the University of Tasmania, tells Carbon Brief that it is “completely unfair” to leave the power sector responsible for so much of the nation’s climate goals, although she adds:
“It is understandable that Labor is, however, building on a sector that is raring to go economically and that has just been waiting for the right signals and certainty from the federal government.”
What are the new government’s plans for coal and other fossil fuels?
Australia is responsible for 1% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but its status as a major coal and gas producer means that when emissions from its exported fossil fuels are accounted for, this figure is closer to 4%.
Even as the nation’s own power supply shifts more towards renewables, fossil-fuel sales could remain an important part of the Australian economy. It is currently the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and the second-biggest exporter of coal.
Australia is on track to continue producing fossil fuels in large volumes, with 69 new coal projects and 45 new LNG, gas and oil projects in the investment pipeline, as of October 2021.
This gives the government’s attitude to its fossil-fuel resources global significance. Since Labor’s defeat in the 2019 election, which was blamed in part on losses in coal-mining heartlands, the party has made it clear that it supports new fossil-fuel infrastructure.
Albanese has said he backs coal mines if they “stack up environmentally, and then commercially”, and has even suggested that he thinks Australia will still be mining coal in 2050 in a net-zero world.
Crowley tells Carbon Brief that these issues will be high priorities for Greens and teal independents in parliament:
“Labor needs to wean itself off fossil-fuel donations and to remove the revolving door of influence that the fossil-fuel industry has had over the last 30 or more years.”
There are also questions around Labor’s attitude to coal power, which still made up 52% of the nation’s electricity system in 2021, according to Ember. Natural gas contributed another 18%.
Labor’s manifesto was fairly quiet on the role of coal and gas power, but the party has insisted that ageing coal plants will not shut down earlier due to their plans. Commentators have argued that this does not stack up economically, given the projected scale of renewables rollout.
So, um, figure this one out.
Labor’s 82% 2030 renewable share target is one they insist doesn’t come with any “early” (weird word but okay) coal retirements.
AEMO’s ‘most likely’ Step Change scenario also projects 82% for 2030. But sees coal retire 3x faster. pic.twitter.com/qoUShPEctb
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) December 10, 2021
According to Climate Analytics, coal generation would need to be completely phased out in Australia by around 2030 to keep the world on track for 1.5C, well ahead of the current retirement schedule.
What are the plans for decarbonising Australian industry and transport?
Another key component for cutting emissions from Labor’s strategy is a change to the “safeguard mechanism”, which targets industrial emissions. The impact of this change is projected to be larger than the proposals for the power system, cutting 48MtCO2e in 2030.
The safeguard mechanism was devised by the Coalition government in 2016 to cover Australia’s high-emitting sectors, such as metals, mining and oil and gas extraction. It covers 215 facilities that are responsible for 28% of the nation’s emissions.
The system involves emissions limits being set for these facilities, with businesses required to purchase credits if they breach those limits.
It has come under fire for setting limits higher than the actual emissions levels from those facilities, resulting in no pressure to cut emissions. Companies covered by the mechanism have, therefore, increased their emissions by 7% since implementation.
This chart from Santos’ 2021 ‘climate report’ is a perfect illustration of how the dodgy ‘safeguard mechanism’ adjusts emissions “limits” upwards as the country’s worst polluters get even worse: https://t.co/epV4mKjQqI
(next step: they get carbon credits for this scam) pic.twitter.com/CIn12fl40o
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) November 3, 2021
Labor’s policy involves tightening these limits – essentially, sticking to the original principle of the mechanism, as devised by their political rivals. Nevertheless, Morrison tried to brand it as a “sneaky carbon tax”.
According to Labor’s plan, industries can meet their targets either by actually cutting emissions or buying external offsets from Australia’s “carbon farming” sector, for example through reforestation projects. However, Labor has also committed to review the nation’s carbon credit system after a whistleblower described it as “largely a sham”.
As for agriculture more broadly, Labor has provided little detail on tackling emissions from the sector.
The party’s main approach to decarbonising transport is through a National Electric Vehicle Strategy, which involves investing AUD$251m (£142bn) in an electric car discount to help buyers and removing “inefficient taxes from low-emissions vehicles”.
This is an improvement on the Coalition’s strategy, which contained no measures to make electric vehicles more affordable.
However, it is only expected to contribute a relatively small 4MtCO2 emissions reduction in 2030. Hare tells Carbon Brief the plans are “insufficient to be on a pathway towards net-zero emissions”. Unlike many European and North American nations, there are no plans for CO2 emissions standards or targets for the phaseout of petrol and diesel vehicles.
How will this affect Australia’s international climate politics?
One hoped-for element of Labor’s victory is that it could help re-establish Australia’s international reputation on climate change, after enduring pariah status under Morrison.
It could also help the nation rebuild relationships with neighbouring Pacific nations, which are among the most vulnerable to climate change.
Albanese, who told reporters in May the nation was currently in the “naughty corner” at UN climate summits, has pledged to put in a bid to host a future conference of the parties (COP) – specifically COP29 in 2024 – with “Pacific partner countries”.
Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy programme at the Australia Institute thinktank, said in a statement that taking on a COP could be meaningful:
“Partnering on the UN’s largest roving event would demonstrate solidarity with Pacific neighbours, but it must be accompanied by more support including re-joining the Green Climate Fund [GCF].”
Australia stopped payments to the GCF, the UN’s main tool for leveraging climate finance from developed nations, in 2019. It is one of the worst performing nations for providing funds to poor and vulnerable nations to help address climate change.
How has the media responded to Labor’s victory?
Many global publications reported on Australia’s general election results, with BBC News noting that climate change was a “key concern for voters”.
In the Washington Post, ABC Radio Sydney presenter and Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Richard Glover outlined “10 lessons from Australia’s election rout”. He wrote that “you can’t win without action on climate change”. Glover pointed out that, according to “the country’s largest survey of voter intentions”, most voters wanted much more action on climate change, which is “hardly surprising in a country that has been ravaged by floods and fires of increasing severity.” He also pointed to slogans that proved to be “former marketing man” Scott Morrison’s “undoing”, including, “I don’t hold a hose, mate”, when questioned about a holiday in Hawaii during Australia’s summer bush fires of 2019-2020.
Murdoch has lost the Australian election…. pic.twitter.com/RI9wSRUwOF
— Terry Hughes (@ProfTerryHughes) May 22, 2022
Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “there has been a notion simmering away in Australian opinion over the last three years: that the climate shift was fundamental and required urgent response”. He added: “Saturday’s rout of Scott Morrison’s Liberals has several explanations, but would not have happened without climate.”
An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald said that Albanese now has a “clear mandate to end the fake culture and climate wars – often imported from the US and fuelled by some sections of the media – which have set city against country and progressives against conservatives”.
It was youth voters who changed the political landscape of Queensland, said ABC News. In the article, Prof Susan Harris Rimmer of Griffith University said “a lot of people in regional Queensland know a climate transition is coming – they just want to see the plan, so it’s not like there’s a deeper ideological divide necessarily – it’s about who cares about us the most”.
Damien Cave, the New York Times Sydney bureau chief, wrote that “for voters, activists and scientists who spent years in despair, lamenting the fossil-fuel industry’s hold on the conservatives who have run Australia for most of the past three decades, Saturday’s results amount to an extraordinary reversal.” At the same time, “Australia still spends far more money to bolster the companies causing the planet to warm than it does helping people deal with the costs”.
In the same article, Prof Robyn Eckersley, head of political science at the University of Melbourne, warned that Labor, the Greens and independents needed to “play a long game,” given that a carbon tax “caused a backlash that set Australian climate policy back by nearly a decade” and not “fixat[e] on a single number or a single idea [which] would impede progress and momentum”.
Before the results were announced, the Guardian reported that Scott Morrison toned down his negative language around climate action at the time of making a trade deal with the UK in 2021 and that analysis found that more than $1bn of climate funding pledged by the Coalition would have been spent on fossil-fuel projects.
The Guardian’s Adam Morton wrote that it could “take a while to untangle all the threads that led to Saturday’s extraordinary result, but there is little doubt this was the climate election Australians have long been told was coming”. Morton added that Australia’s incoming climate change minister, Chris Bowen has said the Labor party “wants to legislate its 43% emissions target, but has made clear it doesn’t have to, and it won’t negotiate with crossbenchers demanding it be increased”.
According to social researcher Rebecca Huntley, who was quoted in the same article, “extreme weather events usually played a lesser role in changing votes than some people might expect”, but the summer bushfires and recent catastrophic floods “took the group of people who had climate at number five or six on their list of concerns and it suddenly accelerated it for them”.
Commenting in Climate Home News, Richie Merzian from the policy thinktank the Australia Institute pointed out that the country has 114 new gas and coal mining projects in the pipeline, most of whose emissions “will not show up in Australia’s carbon accounts as the fuel will be burned overseas”. Pointing to the incoming Labor government’s pledge to increase renewables’ share in the country’s electricity mix to 82% by 2030, he added: “Currently, Australia excels at exporting the problem. Maybe it could export the solutions instead.”
Australian researchers are “cautiously optimistic” that the new government will take stronger steps to cutting greenhouse gas emissions than its predecessor, said a piece in Nature. “Australia is badly exposed to impacts from climate change, yet research on climate-change impacts and adaptation has been starved for years,” said Prof Frank Jotzo, an environmental and climate change economist at the Australian National University, quoted in the article.
Editorial in today’s Financial Times:
“The result promises to make Australia less of a global outlier on climate policy, and carries warnings for parties of the right elsewhere…The message from this election is that pro-business and pro-climate policies can coexist.” pic.twitter.com/Htu7NzEfNA
— Leo Hickman (@LeoHickman) May 24, 2022
Finally, an editorial in the Financial Times reflected on the election result said that it “promises to make Australia less of a global outlier on climate policy, and carries warnings for parties of the right elsewhere”. It concluded that “the message from this election is that pro-business and pro-climate policies can coexist”.
Sharelines from this story