Non-renewable fossil fuels still account for about 85 percent of Australia’s electricity generation. But with 2019 bringing the hottest summer on record and increasing extreme weather events, many voters are calling for change as the country prepares to pick its next prime minister and parliament on Saturday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s centre-right Liberal-National Coalition is seeking a third-straight term in power, but polls have shown Bill Shorten’s opposition Labor Party clinging to a narrow lead. The left-wing Greens Party is expected to remain the third force in the country’s politics.
“Australia doesn’t solve climate change by itself,” Morrison insisted last week during the final party leaders’ election campaign debate.
“It actually does its bit in concert with other countries.”
But Australia is one of the world’s largest per capita emitters – producing some 1.3 percent of global carbon emissions in 2017 with only 0.3 of the world’s population.
“Climate change is shaping up to be a number one issue in this federal election,” said Kelly Albion, the head of campaigns at the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, attributing this to “young people as a moral voice for action on the greatest issue facing our generation”.
Exposed to extremes
Australia is one of the most vulnerable developed countries to climate change. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the 2018-19 summer was the country’s hottest on record, leading to heatwaves, drought and bushfires.
“We’ve got repeated climate extremes, such as the torrential rain event in Townsville that killed over half a million cattle,” said professor Mark Howden, the director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University (ANU).
“There’s also growing evidence of impacts on ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef, food and water.”
A recent United Nations report warned that one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction due to climate change and human economic activity.
The study earlier this month sparked media debate around the world, including in Australia where Melissa Price, the country’s environment minister, issued a statement stressing the Coalition’s commitment “to meeting its international emissions targets and to investing in the protection of our native species and their habitats.
“We are investing billions of dollars to deliver a cleaner environment,” Price said.
But the minister, who just last month signed off on a controversial coal mine for the Indian mining giant Adani in Central Queensland, has been conspicuously absent from the election campaign, except for some appearances in her Western Australia electorate. Her office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
On Sunday, the launch of the ruling Liberal Party’s campaign was met protests by dozens of anti-Adani demonstrators outside the venue in Melbourne. Opponents of the mine say it will pose grave risks to the Great Barrier Reef and have launched legal challenges, but the government has dismissed them as “vigilante litigants”.
The World Wildlife Fund of Australia, meanwhile, said last month that the country’s iconic koala faced extinction in the state of New South Wales by 2050 – primarily due to habitat loss caused by deforestation.
The Australian Koala Foundation recently said that koalas may already be functionally extinct, with only 80,000 left in the wild across the country.
“Both parties say they want to protect the environment,” said Deborah Tabart, the organisation’s chairwoman. “It would be a great way to start by protecting koala forests which cover 20 percent of our continent.”
Debates over energy and climate change have been damaging for consecutive Australian governments. In August last year, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal to reduce energy emission levels by 2030 saw his colleagues vote to remove him in favour of Morrison.
“Climate change is most toxic at this election for the Coalition. It hasn’t had an effective policy in the area since 2009, when Malcolm Turnbull first lost the leader’s job attempting to introduce an emissions trading scheme,” said Kerry-Anne Walsh, a Canberra-based political commentator and author.
The Liberals promise to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 via expenditure on programmes rather than policy change. At the same time, the government has pledged to reduce power prices by a quarter by the end of 2021 with an emphasis on traditional power sources.
The Labor Party, meanwhile, has promised to introduce new federal environmental laws and ensure that 50 percent of national electricity is sourced from renewable energy by 2030.
“I want [my children] to see a nation which has embraced climate change and action on climate change,” Shorten said recently during a debate.
Changing climate, changing attitudes
Last month, hundreds of children turned out in front of Morrison’s office in Sydney as part of a global climate campaign of strikes by school students.
“The point of the strikes was to get people talking,” Oscar Alateras, a 16-year-old Melbourne student who was instrumental in organising the strikes, told Al Jazeera.
“Ever since I’ve started doing all my work outside of school for the environment, my parents are more conscious of how they live their life in terms of environmental decisions and also who they’re voting for,” he said.
A recent poll by the Lowy Institute, one of Australia’s leading think-tanks, found that 64 percent of adults see climate change as a “critical threat”, ranking it above “terrorism” and North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Natasha Kassam, the Lowy research fellow who spearheaded the research, said that “there’s a difference in how younger people and older people are responding to climate.
“If you look at Australians aged 18-29, it’s 81 percent that say global warming is the issue we should act on even if there are significant costs,” she told Al Jazeera.
A Green revival?
The Australian Greens, who will likely partner with the Labor Party to form the government if Shorten comes first, want a 100-percent-renewable-energy economy and to phase out coal exports by 2030. Coal exports reached record levels in 2018 to become Australia’s most valuable export.
The weekend before the election, Morrison told The Australian newspaper that “the Greens represent the greatest threat (to the economy and national security)”.
The Greens have said they will work with a Labor government to develop “real climate action”.
“The biggest threat to national security and our livelihood is global warming,” Adam Bandt, the Greens’ climate change spokesman and a member of the House of Representatives for the seat of Melbourne, told Al Jazeera.
“We are the only country in the world to have had a price on carbon and then scrapped it – and that’s this government’s legacy,” Bandt added.
While the Morrison government insists it is on track to meet Australia’s commitments under the 2020 Kyoto targets, it also seeks to placate the country’s powerful extractive industries and energy sector. A week prior to the election, Morrison announced 30 million Australian dollars ($20.7m) for a new school of mines and manufacturing at Central Queensland University.
“I think Scott Morrison and his government are the most pressing danger because they’re not only not taking no action on climate change, but they’re throwing petrol on the fire.”