For some time now, I’ve written about the problems with the climate policies (or lack thereof) of the Australian government. There are many, and most of the problems lie in what’s not being addressed, rather than what is.
They are operating by omission. Australia has not had a solid, substantial climate policy proposed for nearly half a decade now, and has not had a solid climate policy implemented for many more years since.
In 2019, after the September climate strikes and the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, climate change was on the agenda. Scott Morrison had barely been Prime Minister for a year and already he was being hammered by questions about what he was going to do about climate change.
In 2020, his government enacted a program of massive fossil fuel subsidies through the ‘gas-fired recovery’, but was congratulated for walking back a ludicrous plan to minimise Australia’s climate targets by using an accounting loophole.
In 2021, the government has been engaged in a massive global greenwashing campaign to mask both the near total inaction on domestic emissions and the massive subsidies and rorts for the fossil fuel industry. A flurry of global climate meetings and conferences mean all hands are on deck trying to make Australia’s terrible track record look as if it’s great.
This is going to converge at COP26, the agreed five-year (six years in this case, thanks to Covid19) update on the Paris agreement. Countries are meant to ratchet up their Paris climate targets to align more closely with a 1.5°C target. Currently, the world’s climate pledges will result in a serious overshoot of the Paris target, and the situation is worse if you consider just the policies that have actually been implemented.
We got excited with the @IEA Net Zero 2050 scenario, but we also need some reality…
Stated Policies: Currently leads to flat emissions.
Announced Pledges: Bridge a part of the 'gap', but are not backed up with policies.
We are talking net-zero 2050, but not acting it out! pic.twitter.com/r4oFPNqLHD
— Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) May 20, 2021
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Australia’s stagnation. And I think the cause is really simple. Scott Morrison’s fantasy – a quiet Australia, in which everything remains muted and unambitious and generally vaguely ignorant – is coming true.
Covid19 has helped, with closed borders, people dobbing in their neighbours and a generalised and increasing anxiety that absolutely does not make any major political party keen to be loud.
It’s reflected in media, with climate remaining well below the peak in late 2019 and early 2020. There was some recovery after the onset of Covid19, but it’s still barely a third of what it was prior.
If you look back to 2019, using January as a baseline, the climate strikes and bushfires meant that Australia saw the greatest relative increase in media coverage of climate, compared to various other world regions. But in the midst of Covid19, Australia remains at the lower end. There has been no re-focusing back on climate – it’s still a background issue.
There is a huge gap between Australia’s current projected emissions, and where the country needs to be to align with a net zero by 2050 (sooner, preferably) target. Emissions need to plummet immediately, if the pathway to net zero is to be smooth and as painless as possible – deferring action to later years means much worse and much more painful work.
Climate policy needs to be loud again: It needs to reach out and take risks. It needs to be spoken with a full-throated confidence. It needs to be presented as it is, not packaged in safe, distracting wrapping.
Australia’s Labor party remains just as absent on climate policy as the government. The plea here is that they’ll simply release their climate plan closer to an election. There is the small matter of three full years of government malfeasance on climate going almost entirely unchallenged due to the absence of any alternative. Why the delay? What mystery is there, about climate change or climate solutions they’re waiting to unravel? Why wait until an election to show leadership, and fight for climate change?
Australia needs to phase out coal-fired power in eight years time. It needs to set a target of a combustion engine car sales ban by at least 2035, if not 2030. It needs to put a hard mortarium on all coal and gas mining expansions, and create a plan to phase-out fossil extraction within the next two decades. All of these policies need to come with strict and generous safety nets for the workers exposed to these changes.
All of this can be created through immediately beneficial policies. Electric transport is cheaper and cleaner. So is renewable energy. Heating powered by electricity uses significantly less energy than fossil fuels, and is therefore noticeably cheaper, too.
These changes can only happen if they’re held with full confidence, and are advocated for loud and proud. Australia will only have a chance if climate becomes loud again – if it becomes prominent and proud and confident. Climate policy must become pro-active, not reactive.
Many people are trying. Independent MP Zali Steggall’s efforts are admirable, as are those of fellow independent MP Helen Haines. Both are focusing on key issues like a solid net zero framework and community ownership of power. Imagine if the Greens and Labor teamed up to just put their head down and raise their voices together – in alignment with the climate science, and done purely for the goal of protecting life from the physical impacts of burning fossil fuels.
It isn’t likely, I know. But it’d be the circuit breaker that Australia needs. It’d tie in closely to COVID19 recovery, and it’d snap Australia out of the funk that it’s currently sinking deeper into. Fortress Australia is not conducive to climate action – it’s conducive to delay and denial and a worsening of the problem even as climate change continues as a problem around the world.