In his victory speech on election night last Saturday, Labor’s Anthony Albanese promised to turn Australia into a “renewable energy superpower” and end a decade of “climate wars”. This was good news. Under rightwing Coalition governments – an enduring alliance between the Liberal and National parties – Australia was seen as a climate pariah on the world stage. The new prime minister will have to do very little to raise his country’s standing.
From a global perspective, Mr Albanese’s most important policy is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Mr Albanese’s goal is not as ambitious as the UK’s or the EU’s. But it is a marked improvement on the last government and will be well received in neighbouring Pacific nations tired of seeing existential threats from rising sea levels dismissed in Canberra. The Coalition government led by Scott Morrison promised that Australia would reach net zero by 2050, which at best would have seen a 28% cut in climate-altering emissions by the end of the decade. But significantly there were no new policies under that administration to meet this distant objective.
On climate, Labor offered reform, not revolution, to Australian voters. This modest approach was born of bitter experience. The party went down to a surprise defeat in 2019. In that election Labor’s bold environmental policies were successfully demonised by Coalition adversaries. This time, the new prime minister was more cautious. Labor has few specific policies about how to reduce emissions from farming. Mr Albanese offered only slightly more onerous targets for decarbonising industry than Mr Morrison. It is true that he has some big ideas. Labor’s flagship policy of a public corporation to invest $20bn (£11bn) in modernising the electricity grid – and unlocking renewable energy supplies – is striking but unlikely to make the change that is needed without controversial policies such as carbon pricing.
For the rest of the world, Labor’s general lack of ambition is not good enough. Neither should it be for Australians, who have experienced bushfires, floods, drought and bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef. Mr Albanese’s policy puts him on course to meet the 2016 Paris agreement goal of keeping temperature rises to 2C compared with preindustrial levels. But the world has moved on. Cop26 saw leaders pledge to limit global heating to 1.5C. If Mr Albanese wants to host Cop29 in 2024, he will have to adopt the more aggressive emission reduction plans of the Greens and the “teal” independents, whose rise shows the environment is not just a leftwing cause.
Mr Morrison lost for doing too little, rather than too much, on climate. He hid behind claims that Australia was responsible for just 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions. If fossil fuel exports are included, Australia is behind 4% of global greenhouse gases. The country has more than 100 new gas and coal mining projects in the pipeline. Ending its dependence on coal for electricity generation by 2030, says Climate Analytics, is the most important contribution Australia could make to global efforts to limit global heating to 1.5C. Labor’s plans for the natural gas industry, a powerful lobby within the party, remain opaque. Mr Albanese’s government must find ways for communities that currently benefit economically from fossil fuels to benefit similarly from renewables. If it succeeds, it will earn the country’s – and the world’s – gratitude.