Australia enters ‘new era’ on climate change as greenhouse gas bill passes

The Australian government has passed a bill in its lower house of parliament to bind the country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, in what it called “a new era” of commitment to addressing climate change.

The shift in course puts the country “on the right side of history”, prime minister Anthony Albanese said, after years of being a climate policy laggard under former leader Scott Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in parliament as a testament to his Liberal party’s steadfast support of coal and gas despite catastrophic bushfires and floods during his tenure.

Albanese’s Labor government, elected in May, campaigned for the emissions reduction target to be introduced by legislation. The bill also enshrines a pledge of net zero emissions by 2050. It brings Australia closer to commitments by Canada, South Korea and Japan, while still being behind the US, EU and UK.

Labor gained the support of the Green party and independent MPs, including ‘teal’ politicians who won seats on an environmental platform, despite pressure from Green representatives to go much further in setting targets during negotiations.

Chris Bowen, the climate change and energy minister, said: “The passing of this bill in the House of Representatives starts a new era of climate and energy certainty, one that is well overdue.”

Allegra Spender, a teal MP who won her seat in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs from the Liberal party, said the bill would “mark the start of a new way of doing politics that finally gives several communities like mine a voice”. 

The Liberal party, now in opposition, refused to back the government’s climate bill and said it would come up with its own proposals which could include a push for nuclear power to be adopted as an energy source.

Australian climate change minister Chris Bowen introducing the bill in the House of Representatives in Canberra in July
The benches of the opposition party were empty as Australian climate change minister Chris Bowen introduced the bill in the House of Representatives in Canberra in July © via REUTERS

The climate bill is set against a backdrop of an energy crisis that has caused power shortages on Australia’s populous east coast, as well as record exports of fossil fuels, including coal and gas, that have fired the economy as it has emerged from the pandemic.

The government refused to ban new oil and gas projects altogether despite pressure from the Green party to do so during talks over the climate bill. Pacific island leaders also pushed Albanese for a moratorium on greenfield fossil fuel projects at a meeting in Fiji last month.

However, the first signs of a stricter approach were clear on the same day the bill was passed when a proposal for a new open pit coal mine 10km from the Great Barrier Reef was effectively rejected.

It is the first time that an Australian federal environment minister has blocked a new coal mine, although the proposed rejection by Tanya Plibersek, the minister, was on the grounds of potential damage to the reef and water supply rather than specifically related to climate change.

Adam Bandt, leader of the Green party, said that the proposal to reject the Queensland mine was a case of “1 down, 113 to go”, and a moratorium on all new coal and gas projects was needed. “You can’t put out the fire by pouring petrol on it,” he said.

Central Queensland Coal, the company behind the Styx basin coal plan owned by billionaire Clive Palmer, did not respond to requests for comment. The rejection of Palmer’s new coal mine is also symbolic as the billionaire is the leader of the United Australia party which has one senator who has pledged to vote against the climate bill.

The bill will now move to the senate, Australia’s upper house, where it is expected to be adopted.

The adoption of the 43 per cent emissions reduction target has been welcomed by the broader business community on the grounds that it will introduce investment certainty as Australia upgrades its energy network and stimulates its renewable energy industry.

Andrew McKellar, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, called for swift passage of the bill. “The best way to secure the planning, investment and innovation that will underlie an efficient energy transition is through legislated targets,” he said.

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