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Australia Has Finally Woken Up to Climate Change

First came the drought. Then the bushfires. Then the floods. And then, on May 21, 2022, came the federal election. After nearly four years as Australian prime minister—a term in office marked by repeated and record-breaking natural disasters—the conservative Scott Morrison was ousted following a contest that hinged on climate change.“It’s a very clear illustration of the concern that Australians have and their desire for climate action,” says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to climate change communication. The hope is that the new Labor government will quickly improve Australia’s poor track record on carbon emissions.Australia certainly has a lot of catching up to do. Its efforts to mitigate climate change have been declared “highly insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker, an independent project that assesses countries’ climate policies. Despite ranking 55th in the world in population, Australia is the 14th-highest emitter of carbon dioxide—and the fifth highest if its large fossil fuel exports are factored in. It is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal. On a per capita basis, the country is one of the highest emitters of CO2 in the world. The election delivered a mixed result—but one that could help change this. New prime minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party gained the most seats in Parliament—far more than the incumbent coalition of the center-right Liberal Party and National Party, which took power in 2013. But it wasn’t a landslide, with Labor exceeding the number of seats needed to govern in its own right by just one.The surprise twist was the election of five new “teal” independents—so-called because of their campaign color. These candidates all ran on a platform of substantially stronger action on climate change than Labor, which in turn promised far more action on climate change than the coalition. Many teal independents won in previously secure Liberal Party electorates. The Australian Greens, who have the strongest climate policies of all the parties, also increased their electoral share from one to four seats in the lower house.Prior to the election, the Australian government had maintained a commitment to a 26 to 28 percent decrease in emissions by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, which was compatible with around 3 degrees Celsius of warming. Labor went into the election with a range of climate and energy promises, including a commitment to a 43 percent reduction in emissions, which McKenzie says is “certainly not enough.” Analysis suggests this is still consistent with 2 degrees of warming. The teal candidates’ platforms aim for a 60 percent reduction, and the Greens’ for a 74 percent decrease. “Our analysis from a scientific perspective is it needs to be a 75 percent reduction this decade,” McKenzie says.The hope is that the climate-focused independent and Green presence in Parliament will push Labor towards even greater climate action, says Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at Australian National University in Canberra. “For the government, this should mean a license to do more rather than less on climate change.”