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How Australia’s election will decide its role in climate change

The result could make the country a world leader on global-warming action — or leave it lagging.

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Students strike in protest of political inaction on climate change, Brisbane, Australia - 15 Mar 2019

Students protesting for greater action on climate change in March.Credit: DAN PELED/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For the fourth time in little more than a decade, an Australian election features a fierce battle over climate-change policy. Analysts say the result will decide whether the country stays on its current path, with national greenhouse gas emissions increasing, or adopts an ambitious target to reduce its pollution, which could pressure other nations to increase their commitments.

Australians are increasingly experiencing the effects of climate change, from extreme weather to mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. But the country also remains one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters per capita and is responsible for exporting one-third of global coal. These issues have had an outsized effect on the nation's politics, playing a part in the downfall of the past five prime ministers.

Whether that becomes six will be decided on 18 May. Voter surveys suggest a tight race, but that the right-wing Liberal–National coalition government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is likely to be ousted by the main opposition, the centre-left Australian Labor Party.

Australians are more concerned about climate change than ever. A March survey of 2,130 people by the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a research group focused on international affairs, found that 64% of those polled consider global warming to be the greatest threat to national interests, an 18-percentage-point increase in five years.

“Climate change has played a surprisingly large role in the campaign,” says Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra. He attributes this, in part, to a widening divide between the country’s major political parties on the issue.

Promises

If elected, Labor, led by former union boss Bill Shorten, is promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% of 2005 levels by 2030, as a step on the way to introducing net-zero emissions by mid-century. Then Labor would be pledging to do more than a bunch of other countries, including the European Union, according to Bill Hare, chief executive and senior scientist with the Berlin-based science and policy institute Climate Analytics. The coalition has questioned whether the country can afford this ambitious target.

Labor’s plan would make Australia one of the few countries with a domestic climate target compatible with the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting warming as close to 2° C and keeping it as close to 1.5° C as possible, according to an analysis by Climate Analytics. “It would be quite a significant step forward globally and be a challenge for other countries to match it,” says Hare. But Australia, like all developed countries, will need to do more, he says.

The coalition, meanwhile, is promising to continue its target to reduce emissions to between 26–28% of those levels by 2030, the country’s commitment under the 2015 Paris agreement, but not enough to meet the agreement's goal.

“It couldn’t be a more fundamental difference,” says Hare.

The next major United Nations climate meeting will be held in Santiago, Chile, in December. It will be preceded by a climate-action summit convened by UN secretary-general António Guterres in New York in September. Guterres has asked world leaders to announce "bold actions" to address climate change at the summit.

Policy plans

How Australia’s two major parties plan to cut emissions is also a point of difference. Morrison announced in February that the coalition's main policy to meet its 2030 Paris target is to invest another Aus$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) in a ‘climate-solutions fund’, under which taxpayers pay farmers and businesses for emissions-reduction projects such as restoring or protecting native vegetation. The coalition says it will also introduce an energy efficiency programme and take advantage of unspecified "technological improvements".

Climate-policy analysts, including Hare and Jotzo, say the climate-solutions fund, which was introduced in 2014 with $2.55 billion and called the emissions-reduction fund, has done little to slow the rise in national emissions, which have been climbing since 2014 when the government abolished the national carbon-trading scheme. Climate Analytics' analysis suggests that Australia’s emissions would almost certainly continue to rise if the coalition was re-elected.

The government says that emissions are coming down on a per capita basis — although this is mainly due to population growth. The government also maintains it will meet its 2030 target.

Alternative path

Labor says they plan to cut emissions by adopting two policies that the coalition designed but has not used. It would resurrect former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s policy to encourage cleaner electricity generation, known as the national energy guarantee (NEG), with a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030, which the coalition abandoned after replacing Turnbull with Morrison as leader in August.

At the time, scientists accused Morrison of walking away from the Paris agreement in all but name.

Labor says it would also adapt a scheme designed to limit emissions from heavy industry, known as the ‘safeguard mechanism’. Businesses have been allowed to increase their pollution. under the scheme's current implementation, but Labor says it would tighten the limits over time. The party says it would also reduce greenhouse emissions by introducing vehicle emissions standards, place limits on agricultural land-clearing and introduce incentives so that a million Australians have home solar-and-battery systems by 2025.

Labor has released an estimate of how much this would cost taxpayers – about Au$500 million. It says it is impossible to forecast what its policies would cost businesses given some will find cheap ways to reduce emissions, but argue that the cost of inaction would be greater.

During the campaign, the coalition has focused on the cost of Labor’s target and policies, claiming it would threaten the economy by increasing costs for industry and push up power prices. However, an analysis comparing several economic models of high emissions reductions by the Australia Institute think-tank in Sydney shows that achieving Labor's target would not affect economic growth, partly because the cost of renewable energy is declining.

Hare says there are unanswered questions about the design of some of Labor’s policies, but their plans seem as though they could be used to meet their ambitious target.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01543-6
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