Australia shares with Canada and the United States the dubious distinction of being one of the top three per-capita greenhouse gas producers among the industrial countries. The dirty three.
Like its brothers it has learned little from experiencing the results of its behaviour. Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season was the worst on record. Fires burned 60–84 million acres, killed at least 34 people, and claimed the lives of up to three billion animals—an indescribable horror. Some endangered species may have been driven to extinction. This year the country has seen massive flooding with some states receiving more than a year’s rainfall in a week. And if that isn’t enough, the country’s greatest natural feature, the Great Barrier Reef, has just experienced a sixth year of bleaching.
Australia, one of the sunniest and windiest continents on Earth, could become a renewables superpower. But it has chosen to stay dirty. Already the world’s second largest exporter of coal, the worst of the fossil fuels, it has committed to up its production even further. (Rather like Alberta and its bitumen.) The country has approved dozens of new mines and provided generous tax subsidies to the industry.
Coal exports don’t even provide that much government revenue. Most of the wealth goes to the mining companies with less than a tenth going to Australia directly—about one percent of national revenue. McDonalds’s provides twice as many jobs.
As to climate policy, the country’s 2030 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is half that of Canadian and U.S benchmarks. The current government has cut renewables spending in recent years, and abandoned an emissions trading scheme in 2014, shortly after winning power in an election campaign heavily backed by mining interests.
But after a national election on Saturday, the government has changed hands. Will it take Aussie to a green new world? Some people think so. Joëlle Gergis, an award-winning climate scientist from the Australian National University, declares, “This is the long-overdue climate election Australia has been waiting for. It was a defining moment in our nation’s history.”
The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, positions himself as “both-and” when it comes to energy and the environment (rather like our Mr. Trudeau) but his Labor Party has a much more progressive approach than the defeated conservatives. Furthermore, it will be pressured by other parties that did well, including the Greens and a group of independent women candidates who prioritized climate change.
Perhaps the best approach was suggested by Robyn Eckersley, an expert on climate change politics at the University of Melbourne. Eckersley reminded the new government that its implementation of a carbon tax when it was last in power contributed to its replacement by a conservative party. This set climate policy back by almost a decade. (We saw a similar result in Alberta following the NDP’s introduction of a carbon tax.)
Eckersley advises, “It’s important to get something in and build a consensus around it. Having debates about how to improve it is better than swinging back and forth between something and nothing.” Of course something that will allow building a consensus will probably be less than what is necessary to deal adequately with global warming. But, unfortunately, that may be all Australia’s public (or ours) will tolerate. In any case, almost anything will be better than what the county has been doing over the last decade. I will wish them well and hope for the best.