How Climate Change Became A Major Factor In Australia’s Upcoming Election

It’s election season in Australia and, unlike in the U.S., climate change is a major issue.

On September 7 Australians will choose between the two presidential candidates (they’re really just party leaders, per the parliamentary system, but they campaign like presidential candidates). Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia and the leader of the liberal-leaning Labor Party, is pitted against Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition center-right Liberal Party and head of the Coalition, a formal alliance of broadly center-right parties. Labor is fighting to stay in office after six tumultuous years, and is viewed as a slight underdog with most polls showing a close race.

The Situation On The Ground

The economy and climate change are two of the key issues going into the election. Climate change-related events have battered Australia so severely in recent years that many of them have their own names: the Big Dry, the Black Saturday Bushfires and the Angry Summer to name a few. In the last 10 months Australia has recorded its hottest day on record, hottest week on record, hottest month on record and hottest summer on record.


Climate change has started to impact everything from ski season to wine production Down Under. The economic toll of all this is severe. Combine that with the fact that Australia is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases (Australia’s per capita CO2 emissions are nearly twice the OECD average and more than four times the world average) due to its economic reliance on fossil fuels — especially coal and gas exports — and you get a perennial hot button issue.

The History

In 2007, then newly-elected prime minister Rudd commissioned a report on how climate affected the Australian economy, released in 2008 as the Garnaut report. Labor put together climate legislation and joined the Kyoto protocol at the 2007 Bali UN climate summit. However the legislation stalled, and Rudd’s claim on the Labor party receded. Julia Gillard won a leadership battle over Rudd and then thinly prevailed over the Opposition in the 2010 elections. She did so with the votes of the Green MP and three Independents — and a promise to pursue climate legislation in 2011.

That year her strategy worked, when Australia passed a Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme requiring polluters to pay for the atmospheric carbon pollution they create. After the legislation passed, a highly politicized debate ensued in which the Opposition government effectively labeled the plan a “carbon tax” which should be scrapped. According to John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute, a Sydney-based independent NGO focusing on climate change solutions, Australia is just now emerging from the shadow of that contentious debate.

Connor thinks concern for climate change in Australia is on the cusp of a comeback after suffering some serious setbacks, such as the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and the drawn-out national debate over carbon pricing. Recent research by the Institute has shown that Australians are perceiving climate change as a phenomenon impacting their lives right now, not in the future, due to recent extreme weather events, including Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. and droughts, floods and fires across the country. Their research has also shown that people are starting to also see climate change as a cost of living issue that impacts food prices, insurance premiums and other familiar economic concerns.


The political carbon scheme hubbub culminated last month when Rudd announced he was moving the “carbon tax” to an emissions trading scheme a year earlier than planned, next July, to ease cost of living pressure for families and help support the non-mining sectors of the economy. The Opposition was quick to point out that it would also add billions of dollars to the federal budget. For a good primer on the ins-and-outs of the early shift to an emissions trading scheme, see this article in The Age.

Two Options For What The Future Might Look Like

Whether the carbon tax will actually increase cost of living through elevated energy prices is an entire debate in itself — and one wrought with public misunderstanding. According to The Australian Institute, the Treasury’s own modeling shows that a majority of households will actually be better off once they receive the government compensation associated with the carbon plan. Research by the Sydney Institute found that over 50 percent of voters think it will significantly increase fuel prices when fuel is actually excluded from the carbon pricing scheme.

In response to Rudd’s recent policy change to the carbon scheme, Abbott called carbon dioxide an “invisible substance,” stating, “It’s a market, a so-called market, in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one.”

Ben Cubby, Environment Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, offered a concise breakdown of the politics behind this statement:

“The phrase “so-called market” not only plays to the sympathies of people suspicious of money markets, it positions the Coalition as the party with the knowledge to discern real markets from fake ones. The “non-delivery” hints at Labor government unreliability, and the “no one” points to the ethereal nature of the carbon exchange mechanism … Best of all, “invisible substance” plugs into a medieval mistrust of scientists and their incomprehensible powers. It suggests that Abbott is prepared to wear some public ridicule in exchange for speaking directly to that part of his supporter base that is unmoved by scientific evidence about global warming.”

Days ago, Abbott kicked off the Coalition campaign by pledging anew that his first order of business would be to scrap carbon pricing should he win the election. He restated his intention to replace it with a Direct Action Plan (DAP) to reduce the country’s emissions by 5 percent by 2020 — the same target as the current Rudd government has in place. The DAP relies on a Emissions Reduction Fund to support CO2 emissions reduction activity by business and industry rather than the alternative market-based Emissions Trading Scheme.


The DAP hasn’t been updated in three years and leaves a lot to be desired in terms of details — details that won’t be filled in until after the election, when they will come in a rush, as the Coalition has called for submission of a white paper within 30 days of the election, and for legislation to be released within 100 days and passed within 150.

A new analysis by the Climate Institute found that in order for Tony Abbott to keep his pledge to cut emissions by 5 percent by 2020 with the Direct Action Plan at least $4 billion will need to be added to that $2.5 billion that’s already been pledged over the next four years.

The analysis, based on modeling from Sinclair Knight Merz/MMA and Monash University’s Centre of Policy Studies, shows that without the extra money Australia’s emissions would rise nine percent under Abbott. This would be the equivalent of doubling the number of cars on Australian roads, according to the analysis.

Under the current DAP the Coalition estimates that up to 60 percent of emissions cuts will come from paying farmers to store more carbon in their soil. This is a contentious assertion, as soil carbon storage involves hard-to-measure approaches such as reduced soil tilling to keep organic matter underground. Critics of direct action say the potential soil carbon savings are unrealistic.

A recent editorial in The Age concludes that,

“The political rhetoric has been colorful, but the Coalition and Labor actually share a quiet consensus on climate change. Both parties have committed to unconditionally cutting Australia’s GHGs by five percent below 2000 levels by 2020. And both say they will increase the target to 15 or 25 percent depending on international climate action.”

The Other Party

In 2010 the Australian Green Party played a crucial role in helping pass the Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme, thanks to a hung Parliament in which Labor needed the support of the Greens for a majority.

When asked about the country’s carbon policy, Larissa Waters, Queensland’s first Senator from the Green Party, said that Australia has done a good job so far by starting with a five percent reduction goal by 2020 and then increasing that goal based on input from an independent scientific body. That way, the policy response can be adjusted over the years, making it a good model.

She went on to say, “Unfortunately, we’re possibly going to lose that with the new government. It’s a pretty big deal to ask Australia to take on mining companies.”

Australia’s Dirty Little Secret

With all this political back and forth over ways to mitigate carbon pollution, it’s important to keep in mind Australia’s dirty little secret — its booming export of coal. Coal exports have tripled in the past 25 years to more than 300 million tons and coal corporations want to double that figure. Even as the domestic coal industry struggles with dropping export prices, this is worrisome to those like Connor who believe that to achieve internationally agreed targets of global warming, only 20 to 40 percent of existing coal, gas and oil reserves in Australia can be burned. The rest must be left in the ground.

One of Connor’s biggest fears is that the country emerges from all this political upheaval looking something like Canada has under the anti-environmental government of Conservative PM Stephen Harper.

“I look at Canada as a similar country, and it is my nightmare,” Connor said. “Australia can easily become an international pariah, we are very good at derailing international negotiations as an effective middle power and vicious defender of self interest. Some of the Coalition have been to Canada and seen how they get away with walking away from Kyoto and exploiting the tar sands.

“The transition away from fossil fuels is a very hard one culturally, socially and economically for Australia to make,” Connor continued. “We are on the knife edge of walking backwards or moving forwards in sensible way.”