The recent Australian election, with the defeat of Morrison’s pro-fossil conservatives, is surely a turning point. After a decade of pro-fossil-fuel lobby policies, the popular vote rewarded a (Labor) party that in its election program indicated, through the “Powering Australia” plan, a decisive turn toward investment in renewable energy in conjunction with a major decarbonization of the economy as early as the next eight years. The new head of government is expected to succeed, parliamentary dynamics permitting, in setting up government task forces right away that can oversee the amount of bidding, procurement, legislative and facilitative processes needed to impart this green turnaround, which in intentions is all about renewables at the expense especially of coal. A just transition for workers will not go without a focus on industrial reconversions, but Albanese’s election program devoted space to this issue as well, as imaginable. Internationally, Albanese should certainly push his government toward new and more ambitious international commitments even outside UN forums, for example by joining the multilateral Euro-American 2021 methane initiative.
Today, Australia is the 16th largest country in the world in terms of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and contributes 1.1% to global warming, slightly more than Italy. Numbers seemingly marginal compared to Chinese or U.S. emissions, but by no means negligible when considering that the remaining 80% of the world has no historical responsibility with respect to global warming, but it is now drowning while trying to adapt to extreme events and temperature changes. At the negotiating level, for at least a decade (with the Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison governments, all liberals), Australia has perhaps been closer to the positions of the Russian Federation than to those of the West, with a strong negotiating and political insistence aimed at maintaining the status quo, against moving away from fossil fuels and in particular coal. Coal is today the country’s main source of energy, along with oil and natural gas, and it is still the source of 55% of the country’s electricity production. In recent years, Australia has stood out in international negotiations for its attempt to transfer previous emission credits from the outdated 1997 Kyoto Protocol under the Paris Agreement, a way to circumvent new and necessary international commitments. Australia’s international pledges under the Paris Agreement so far included a projected reduction in GHG emissions of -26,-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, an all but ambitious scenario, while the rest of the developed world is aiming for a sharp decarbonization over the next decade. Albanese promised an updated target with projected reductions of -43% by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, we will see if this news comes as early as COP27 in November. Recovering a player like Australia would be of extreme importance for the whole process.
Australia is and remains a central country in international dynamics, particularly given its role in the British Commonwealth and as a Western (commercial, cultural) pivot between Indian and Pacific oceans. Adding Australia to the list of ambitious Western countries, list also abetted by the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement under Biden administration, will lead to a strengthening of the positions of the mitigation (emission reduction targets) ambition club, hoping that the new Albanese’s government will also be able to devote sufficient attention to the issues of adaptation finance and loss & damage, particularly dear to developing countries, expecially to many Oceania states, already fully involved in extreme adaptation actions and geo-demographic reorganization, without neglecting the rights of indigenous peoples. As a result of the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, the current international political ultra-polarization could compact this club even further in the run-up to COP27, taking away from Putin a strange but hitherto cooperative ally.
Taking the Australian case and looking at our own country, in recent years there has been, as in most democratic countries, a decisive entry of climate and environmentalist demands into the political agenda, in some cases through Green parties (Germany, others), elsewhere through transposition of proposals by, mainly, progressive or, more rarely, populist-inspired parties. Popular involvement with respect to the climate issue was on a steep rise until the outbreak of the pandemic, invisible emergency meeting visible and mediatized emergency, and is now partially overshadowed by the issue of war, but such sensitivity does not fade away in such a short time: it is clear that the impact on electoral outcomes will tend to increase. I am not too convinced that the current energy price crisis will reverse this trend; in the face of a part of the population that seeks safe havens (fossil fuels) there is a majority of citizens who observe the dynamics and orient their choices, purchasing and electoral choices, differently; the growth of clean energy providers for domestic consumption, the rise in electric cars sales, and the emergence of energy communities are small promising signs in this direction, but in Italy a definitive popularization of the issue, beyond empty slogans, is still lacking. Similarly, greater awareness will orient markets even more toward sustainability in a virtuous cycle. As of today, there is an urgent need for Italy to update its climate plans to the most recent European climate goals, completing the revision of the PNIEC and the adoption of the PNACC, the national plans on emissions and adaptation. Not only that, it is important to work on the transfer of skills, as well as of finances, to local governments, to municipalities, which are certainly behind on climate and risk issues especially in provincial realities; as Italian Climate Network we work a lot in this direction. In any case, the Australian elections can teach that, even in a country economically and politically dominated by fossil fuels, the popular vote can contribute to a decisive change of course, net of other Australian internal political dynamics that from this point of view it would be bold to comment on.
Article by Jacopo Bencini, Policy Advisor and UNFCCC Contact Point at Italian Climate Network