Australia’s ‘Climate Election’ Finally Arrived. Will It Be Enough?

SYDNEY, Australia – Just minutes after taking the stage to declare victory in Saturday’s Australian election, the new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged to turn climate change from a source of political conflict to a generator of economic growth.

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

With that remark and his victory — along with a wave of votes for candidates outside the two-party system who made global warming a priority — the likelihood of a significant shift in Australian climate policy has suddenly increased.

How far the country will go depends on the final counts, which are still being counted. But for voters, advocates and scientists who for years lamented in despair over the fossil fuel industry’s hold on the conservatives who have ruled Australia for most of the past three decades, Saturday’s results amount to an extraordinary turnaround.

A country known as a global climate laggard, with minimum 2030 targets for cutting carbon emissions, has finally set aside a denial-and-delay approach to climate change that most Australians, in pollssaid they didn’t want to anymore.

“These are the highly anticipated climate elections that Australia has been waiting for,” said Joëlle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist and author from the Australian National University. “It was a defining moment in our nation’s history.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the factors that led to that shift can be as powerful and compelling as the opposing forces that are so entrenched.

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

In the past fiscal year alone, Australian federal, state and territory governments have provided: 11.6 billion Australian dollars ($8.2 billion) in grants to coal and other fossil fuel industries.

Another 55.3 billion Australian dollars ($39 billion) have already been pledged to subsidize gas and oil extraction, coal-fired power, coal railways, ports and carbon capture and storage (although most CO2 capture projects fail

Like dr. Gergis noted in a recent essay: “That’s 10 times more than the emergency fundand more than 50 times the budget of the National Agency for Recovery and Resilience

In other words, Australia still spends a lot more money supporting the companies that are warming the planet than helping people deal with the costs associated with the greenhouse gases they emit.

There has also been an increase in renewable energy investments in recent years, but nothing on the same scale. And during the campaign, Mr Albanese’s Labor party tried to avoid addressing that mismatch directly.

On Election Day in Singleton, a bustling town in northwestern New South Wales where more than 20 percent of residents work in the mining industry, Labor banners reading “Send a miner to Canberra” hung next to National Party signs. , part of the outgoing Conservative coalition, which reads ‘Protect local mining jobs’. And the candidates from both sides were optimistic about the future of mining in the region.

“As people buy our coal, we will certainly sell it,” said Dan Repacholi, a former miner who won the Labor seat.

The coal industry is thriving in the area, but so are private investments in renewable energy sources, especially hydrogen. “We’re going to have a huge boom here with both industries going higher and higher,” said Mr. Repacholi.

During the campaign, Mr Albanese positioned himself as a “and-and” candidate, promising support for new coal mines and renewables – largely to cling to working-class areas like Singleton.

But now he will be under a lot of pressure to move faster on the climate front.

Saturday’s massive blow to the Conservative coalition included a tidal wave for the Australian Greens, who could eventually be needed by Labor to form a minority government.

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

Several new independent lawmakers, who campaigned at Australia’s request to raise its 2030 target for carbon emissions reductions to 60 per cent below 2005 levels – much more than Labour’s 43 per cent pledge – will also put pressure on Mr Albanese and his opposition .

“Both sides of politics will have to refocus,” said Saul Griffith, an energy policy expert policy advocates 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 experts, Mr Griffith said he was not particularly interested in bold official promises to end coal mining, which is expected to disappear on its own due to economic pressures.

New gas projects are a bigger problem. A massive extraction effort is planned for the gas fields of the Beetaloo pelvis in the Northern Territory could produce enough carbon emissions to destroy any hope that Australia will meet reduction targets comparable to those of other developed countries.

Climate proponents usually hope to start with legislation like the bill introduced by Zali Steggall, an independent body, that would create a framework for setting tougher emissions targets and working toward them through rigorous science and research.

Robyn Eckersley, a climate change expert at the University of Melbourne, warned that Labour, the Greens and independents “have to play a long game”, bearing in mind that a carbon tax led to a backlash who shy away from Australian climate policy for nearly a decade.

Fixing on a single number or idea, she said, would hinder progress and momentum.

“It’s important to get something in and build a consensus around it,” Professor Eckersley said. “Having debates about how to improve it is better than swinging back and forth between something and nothing.”

Mr Griffith said Australia has a chance to become a global model for the energy transition that climate change requires by leveraging the record-breaking take-up of solar energy on roofs. More than one in four homes now have solar panels in Australia, more than any other major economy; they supply electricity for about a fifth of what it costs via the traditional grid.

“The real action on climate must be community led,” said Mr Griffith. He argued that the election results were encouraging as they showed the issue resonated with a wider range of voters.

“It’s a less divisive set of politics, it comes from the center,” he said. “It’s a middle-class revolt, so climate action isn’t so partisan.”

Unfortunately, it took a lot of suffering to get there. Australia has yet to fully recover from the record-breaking wildfires of 2020, which were followed by two years of massive flooding.

The Great Barrier Reef has also just experienced its sixth year of bleaching — alarmingly, the first during a La Niña climate pattern, when cooler temperatures typically prevent overheating.

“People no longer have to use their imaginations to try to understand what climate change is like in this country,” said Dr. Gergis. “Australians have suffered the consequences of doing nothing.”

Yan Zhuang contributed reporting from Singleton, Australia.

SOURCE – www.nytimes.com

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