Australia: A Climate Look Past and Forward

Looking Back 2022:  Elections Result in a Pro-Science Government /

Looking Forward 2023: Hopeful Cancellation of Proposed Fossil Fuel Projects

In 2022 Australians took the opportunity to vote in a new Federal government that expressed belief in climate science and a commitment to legislate emissions reduction targets. After almost a decade of entrenched climate denial by the nation’s political leadership, a new leaf had been turned. Finally, the country could move past the years of being an international climate laggard of centre-right politicians fondling coal in parliament and of international embarrassment at the continued subsiding of the fossil fuel sector. The Federal election results delivering a left-wing Labor majority was the most important climate event that took place in Australia in 2022.

There were a number of reasons why this particular Federal election result was so important for climate action in Australia. The previous Liberal-National Coalition (known as the LNP) used its nine years of power to double down on climate denial and climate action obstruction. Under their stewardship, Australia became the only nation to have repealed an emissions trading scheme (formally known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme). In comparison, within 6 months of its election success, the new Labor Federal government has legislated a 43% emissions reduction by 2030 target.

However, this target remains inadequate while the power of the fossil fuel lobby to stymie meaningful action persists.  One reason why cynicism regarding the Labor Federal government’s commitment to climate action lingers is the substantial number of new coal and gas mining projects proposed across the country. Governments across states and territories in Australia have always struggled to withstand the pressure of the fossil fuel lobby, and Federal Labor is no exception. Indeed, the new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has stated that even in 2050 the country will still be mining coal. With Australia holding its position as the second largest thermal coal exporter, third largest exporter of fossil fuels, leading exporter of liquid natural gas, and powerless to stabilize an economy buffeted by each change in export market conditions, the fossil fuel industry has continually blocked any political action to reduce its power.

However, it is well past time that Australia releases itself from the industry’s vice-like grip. The most effective and definitive way to do this is to follow the advice of the International Energy Agency and block all 114 proposed new coal and gas mining projects currently awaiting approval. This approach may seem radical, however, indications that it could be achieved have already emerged. In late 2021, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek agreed to review 18 proposed new coal and gas projects. This agreement occurred after the Environment Centre of Central Queensland and Environmental Justice Australia submitted evidence from 3,000 documents demonstrating the harm these projects, if completed, would cause to nationally significant sites, cultures and eco-systems. While the outcome of the review is not expected until later in 2023, declining approval for these projects will put major fossil fuel companies on notice: companies which in these 18 proposals alone include Woodside, Whitehaven, Glencore and ConocoPhillips.

The importance of this decision is amply demonstrated by the numbers. The 114 proposed projects would result in almost 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2e annual emissions. According to research by the Australia Institute, this would be equivalent to building over 200 new coal power stations. These project-related emissions constitute double the carbon footprint of global aviation, 24 times the annual emissions of all 14 Pacific Island countries, and over three times Australia’s annual emissions. However, despite these horrific numbers, there are no signs that the Australian fossil fuel industry is losing its power to push these projects through. For example, although Woodside’s ultra-polluting Scarborough-Pluto gas project in Western Australia has been calculated to release 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime, it received the green light to proceed in mid-2022.

While community sentiment strongly supports a rapid transition to clean energy, it remains unclear whether Federal Labor will finally put its election promises of meaningful action into practice. In the meantime, these projects continue to face sustained opposition from ever-expanding coalitions of environmental groups and legal defenders. The Environmental Defenders Office, Environmental Justice Australia, Conservation Councils in each state and Territory and hundreds of professional and grassroots environmental groups are all seeking to keep these projects high on the public agenda. Through this work maintaining sustained community action and political pressure, we may hope, in 2023, to see the long-overdue decline of the Australian fossil fuel industry.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver


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