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Australia’s ‘climate elections’ have finally arrived.  Will that be enough?


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

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

With this comment and his victory – as well as an increase in votes for candidates outside the two-party system who have made tackling global warming a priority – the likelihood of a significant shift in Australia’s climate policy suddenly increased.

How far the country will go will depend on the final tallies, which are still counted. But for voters, campaigners and scientists who have spent years in despair, lamenting the grip of the fossil fuel industry on the Tories who have ruled Australia for much of the past three decades, the results on Saturday represent an extraordinary reversal.

A country known as a global climate laggard, with minimum carbon reduction targets for 2030, has finally abandoned a deny-and-delay approach to climate change that most Australians in polls have said they no longer want .

“This is Australia’s long-awaited climate election,” said Joëlle Gergis, award-winning climate scientist and writer at the Australian National University. “It was a defining moment in the history of our nation.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether the factors that drove this change can be as powerful and compelling as the countervailing forces that are so entrenched.

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

In the last financial year alone, Australian federal, state and territorial governments provided around A$11.6 billion ($8.2 billion) in subsidies to coal and other fossil fuel industries.

A further A$55.3 billion ($39 billion) has already been committed to subsidize oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power, coal-fired railways, ports and capture and storage carbon (although most carbon capture projects fail).

As Dr Gergis pointed out in a recent essay: “It is 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 supporting companies that cause global warming than it does helping people with greenhouse gas costs. that they issue.

In recent years, investments in renewable energy have also increased, but not on the same scale. And during the campaign, Mr Albanese’s Labor party tried to avoid tackling that mismatch directly.

On election day in Singleton, a bustling town in northwest New South Wales where more than 20% of residents work in mining, Labor banners reading ‘Send a miner to Canberra’ were hung nearby placards of the National Party, which is 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.

“While people are buying our coal, we will definitely sell it,” said Dan Repacholi, a former miner who won the Labor Party seat.

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

During the campaign, Mr Albanese positioned himself as a ‘both and’ candidate, pledging to support new coal mining as well as renewable energy – largely, to retain blue-collar areas like Singleton.

But now he will face strong pressure to go further on the climate, faster.

The massive move against the Conservative coalition on Saturday included a groundswell for the Australian Greens, who may end up being needed by Labor to form a minority government.

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

Several new independent lawmakers, who campaigned to ask Australia to raise its 2030 carbon emissions reduction target to 60% below 2005 levels – well beyond the party’s 43% pledge Labor – will also put pressure on Mr Albanese and his opposition.

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

Like many other experts, Mr Griffith said he was not particularly interested in bold official promises to end coal mining, which he expects to fade under economic pressure .

New gas projects present a bigger problem. A massive extraction effort planned for the Beetaloo Basin gas fields 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 action advocates mainly hope to start with legislation like the bill introduced by independent Zali Steggall that would set out a framework for setting tougher emissions targets and working towards them through science and technology. rigorous research.

Robyn Eckersley, a climate change policy expert at the University of Melbourne, warned that Labour, Greens and Independents must “play a long game”, bearing in mind that a carbon tax has triggered a backlash that has set back Australian climate policy. for almost a decade.

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

“It’s important to get something out there and build consensus around it,” Professor Eckersley said. “Having debates about how to improve it is better than toggling between something and nothing.”

Mr Griffith said Australia had a chance to become a global model for the energy transition that climate change demands by leveraging its record adoption of rooftop solar. More than one in four homes in Australia now have solar panels, outpacing all other major economies; they provide electricity for about a fifth of what it costs through the traditional grid.

“Real climate action must be community-led,” Griffith said. 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 policy, it comes from the center,” he said. “It’s a middle-class uprising, and so climate action isn’t as partisan.”

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

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

“People don’t have to use their imaginations anymore to try to figure out what climate change looks like in this country,” Dr Gergis said. “Australians are living the consequences of inaction.”

Yan Zhuang contributed reporting from Singleton, Australia.

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