Public concern over climate change was a clear factor in the election of Australia’s new Labor government. Incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has committed to action on the issue, declaring on Saturday night: “Together we can take advantage of the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower”.
Following Labor’s win, frontbencher Richard Marles said the new government would stick to the climate policies it took to the election. But it’s not yet clear if Labor can form a majority in the lower house, or will rely on support from the teal independents and Greens MPs – all of whom campaigned heavily for stronger climate action.
Independent Monique Ryan, a pro-climate teal MP projected to win Kooyong, on Sunday declared she would work with a minority Labor government if it went further on climate policy – including ramping up its 2030 emissions target. Other crossbenchers are likely to take a similar stance.
Labor’s climate and energy policies provide an important foundation for progress. But there are some sectors of the economy that still need far more focus. So what might the next parliament bring on climate action?
Saturday’s federal poll was the first where Australia had a national commitment to net-zero emissions. Whoever won government faced the task of normalising the target within government and across the economy, and accelerating rapid real-world emissions cuts.
Under the Morrison government, Australia pledged to reach net-zero by 2050. But our research, conducted with the CSIRO, has shown Australia could get there by 2035.
Such a target would be consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃. It would also unlock our competitive advantage in a net-zero world – one where we can be a major player in exporting green energy and other low-emissions commodities.
Labor’s Powering Australia plan would reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030, based on 2005 levels.
Analysis shows Labor’s proposed target, while far more ambitious than the previous government’s, is consistent with 2℃ of global warming. This is not yet in line with the Paris Agreement goal for “well below” 2℃ warming.
In minority government, Labor would come under pressure from the crossbench to adopt a stronger 2030 goal. Incumbent Warringah independent Zali Steggall, for example, is calling for at least 60% emissions reduction by 2030, and the Greens want even more.
Greens and teal independents are aligned with Labor on legislating Australia’s net-zero emissions target and reinvigorating institutions such as the Climate Change Authority.
A climate change bill, which Steggall and others championed in the last parliament, is more comprehensive. It would provide legislated timeframes for action on climate change, and implement a process ensuring targets are in line with the science.
The teals are likely to support Labor’s plans to standardise company reporting on matters such as climate risk and emissions. The move brings Australia in line with international best practice and will bring substantial benefits.
So too will Labor’s commitment to net-zero emissions in the federal public service by 2030, which will stimulate demand for low-carbon goods and services.
A gap to be addressed by the Labor government is creating roadmaps to net-zero for sectors and key regions. These could be integrated into Labor’s proposed National Reconstruction Fund, and should be devised in collaboration with the states and industry, as well as communities and workers affected by the global shift to net-zero.
The electricity sector produces about one-third of Australia’s emissions. The teals and Labor both went to the election aiming for renewable energy to comprise 80% of the electricity mix by 2030, which is about the pace of change needed.
Two major new Labor policies will be the basis for this:
Rewiring the Nation: includes A$20 billion in new electricity transmission infrastructure. If designed sensibly, the investment will unlock further private investment
Powering the Regions: investment in ultra low-cost solar banks, community batteries and improving energy efficiency in existing industries.
Yet more must be done – for example, more planning and new energy market rules. These should ensure the future energy system is no bigger than it needs to be, and that zero-emissions energy by 2035 is produced at least cost.
Spotlight on industry
The Greens and teals want to halve emissions from Australia’s industrial sector by 2030. Labor’s current plans for industry aren’t that specific – and a crossbench with the balance of power is likely to pressure Labor in this area.
Labor’s policies on industry emissions comprise two main building blocks:
National Reconstruction Fund: $3 billion from the fund will aid industry’s low-carbon transition, including for manufacturing of green metals such as steel and aluminium
a revised “safeguard mechanism” requiring big polluters to reduce emissions.
Australia’s energy-intensive industries are already planning their response to shifting global markets. Labor must help these industries manage the change at the scale and pace required.
A broader transport plan
In transport, Labor has proposed removing taxes and duties on lower-cost electric vehicles – making them cheaper – and adopting Australia’s first electric vehicle strategy.
The party has already committed to 75% of all new Commonwealth fleet cars being low- or no-emissions by 2025. The teals want 76% of all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030. The Greens would also push for a far stronger electric vehicle policy.
Labor will also take steps to establish high-speed rail on Australia’s east coast. But its transport policy essentially ends there. It could do more on public and active transport, as well as decarbonising freight and aviation.
A broader transport strategy – especially involving infrastructure planning and investment – would help the transport sector move towards net-zero.
Strip emissions from buildings
Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund is rightly focused on building new social and affordable housing, but is silent on net-zero. All governments have agreed to a zero-carbon buildings trajectory – now it’s time the federal government worked proactively with the states to achieve this.
The forthcoming review of the National Construction Code is a chance to bring in higher energy performance standards for new buildings.
But existing homes and business premises also need attention. A package of funds and regulations to drive electrification and energy performance gains there would bring lower energy bills and better health outcomes to many Australians.
A sustainable land sector
Labor policies will support innovation in agriculture, including reducing methane emissions from livestock and other carbon farming opportunities. There will also be crossbench support for increased tree planting and soil carbon storage, as well as more spending on low-carbon agriculture practices and technologies.
Under Australia’s carbon credit scheme, landholders are granted carbon credits for activities such as retaining and growing vegetation. Serious questions have been raised over the integrity of the scheme, and dealing with these issues should be a priority for the new government.
Many of Australia’s natural systems, such as rivers and other ecosystems, are stressed or near failure. The land sector both contributes to this alarming trend and can be part of the solution, and will be badly affected if the problems are not addressed.
Many farmers have shifted their practices in response to climate and environmental threats. But the new government should create a roadmap to place the land sector in a wider environmental context. This would ensure the sector seizes investment opportunities and plays its part in a sustainable future.
Such a plan would also help Australian agriculture shore up its share of global food exports in a world increasingly demanding low-emissions products.
A bigger, bolder vision is needed
The new Labor government has three years to steer Australia in a world that expects – and badly needs – every nation to take rapid climate action across the economy.
Australians have voted for a parliament with a stronger climate action agenda. More will be needed beyond the headline measures.
The onus is on all Australians help shape and implement these changes and ensure the nation not just survives, but thrives in a warmer world.
Anna Skarbek is CEO of Climateworks Centre which receives funding from philanthropy and project-specific financial support from a range of private and public entities including federal, state and local government and private sector organisations and international and local non-profit organisations. Climateworks Centre works within Monash University's Sustainable Development Institute. Anna is on the board of the Green Building Council of Australia, the Centre for New Energy Technologies and Sentient Impact Group. She is a member of the Blueprint Institute’s strategic advisory council and the Grattan Institute’s energy program reference panel.
Anna Malos is part of Climateworks Centre which receives funding from philanthropy and project-specific financial support from a range of private and public entities including federal, state and local government and private sector organisations and international and local non-profit organisations. Climateworks Centre works within Monash University's Sustainable Development Institute.