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Australian parties spar over climate change ahead of elections

Extreme weather swipes at economy of one of world's largest coal exporters

Young protesters in Sydney answer a student-led call for action against climate change, which many Australians blame for the extreme weather conditions that have been affecting their country. (Photo by Fumi Matsumoto)

SYDNEY -- Global warming is becoming a major campaign issue in Australia, one of the world's biggest coal exporters, as the nation moves closer to federal elections due by the end of May.

Extreme weather has been battering Australia for years, but in 2018 the country's farms came in for particularly harsh punishment. Droughts, wildfires, floods and heat waves also persuaded the largest opposition party to come up with an ambitious renewable energy plan. And that convinced the ruling Liberal Party-National Party coalition to promise adding 2 billion Australian dollars (U.S.$1.4 billion) to a previous government's anti-climate-change spending initiative.

The policy debate is intensifying.

"Labor's reckless emissions reduction target will put... a wrecking-ball through the Australian economy," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in late February.

He then announced the additional A$2 billion in spending, which is to be spread over 10 years. His Climate Solutions Fund will mainly take the form of subsidies paid to farmers and businesses that introduce technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Morrison's plan usurps and adds to the A$2.5 billion Emission Reduction Fund launched by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014. The original fund has subsidized around 400 projects, but Frank Jotzo, a professor of environmental economics at Australian National University, wonders if the money is doing any good.

"There is doubt over the effectiveness," Jotzo said, and "a risk of wasting tax payers' money."

Coal is not only a big export product for Australia. It also feeds generators that provide more than 60% of the country's electricity. This will have to change if Australia is to keep its Paris Agreement commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels. The deadline is 2030.

A kangaroo drinks from a water tank in a drought-effected paddock in northwestern New South Wales in June 2018.   © Reuters

As of 2018, the country was more than a third of its way to its Paris commitment, having reduced emissions by 11% from 2005 levels. But the numbers paint a misleading picture. Australia's emissions are actually on their way up again; they began increasing after 2016.

The power generation sector accounts for one-third of the nation's emissions. "In terms of meeting the existing target and going further," Jotzo said, "the most important thing to start with is to facilitate the transition in the electricity sector from a coal-based system to a renewables-based system."

But demand for coal remains strong, particularly in the eastern part of the country, home to many coal mines.

Labor's targets are more ambitious than those in the Paris accord. The party is calling for decreasing emissions by 45% by 2030 and for Australia to generate 50% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Labor Party leader Bill Shorten has criticized Morrison's fund as "disappointing." On Twitter, he said, "Scott Morrison is so devoid of ideas he's dug up Tony Abbott's climate change policy. Only Labor has a plan for more renewables, less pollution and lower power prices."

Former Prime Minister Abbott is known as a coal industry advocate.

As Labor and the ruling coalition criticize each other's plans, extreme weather patterns have been walloping Australia.

Climate change has pitted Australia's coal sector against the country's agriculture sector. Today, coal plants like this one in the state of Victoria provide Australia with more than 60% of its energy. (Fumi Matsumoto)

"The drought will continue to weigh on aggregate GDP during 2019," said Guy Debelle, deputy governor of the Reserved Bank of Australia, the country's central bank. In a speech on March 12, Debelle noted that drought reduced farm production by 6% and gross domestic product by 0.15 of a percentage point last year. Australia's GDP came in at 2.8% in 2018; the government was shooting for 3% growth.

Furthermore, Debelle said, frequent cyclones have forced "the insurance sector to re-price how they insure [and reinsure] against such events."

Insurers said they received more than A$1.2 billion worth of claims for 2018.

Debelle went on to point out that abnormal weather exerts a negative impact not only on farms but also on forestry, fisheries and a broader range of other industries.

The Climate Council, a nonprofit organization composed primarily of Australian scientists, has published a report blaming global warming for droughts, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events that struck the country in 2018.

Australian voters have traditionally fallen into two groups. Liberals, mostly in urban areas, support environmental protection and anti-climate-change measures. Conservatives, many outside of big cities, emphasize employment and other economic benefits provided by extraction industries like coal.

Today, however, the damage left behind by extreme weather is bringing together Australians from across the political spectrum.

On Friday, Australians in Sydney and other cities took part in a student-led global initiative demanding that climate change be dealt with. Some carried placards reading, "This election, vote for clean energy," and, "Make Earth cool again."

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, 57% of likely voters in New South Wales said climate change policy will affect how they decide at the ballot box on March 23 in a state poll that precedes the federal election.

The 57% surpasses the percentage of those who attach importance to easy access to hospitals and schools, and of those who favor investments in railways and other infrastructure.

Now with about two months until the general election, the emerging mindset could lead to a reordering of Australian politics. There is also an ominous trend line for the ruling coalition: The opposition Labor Party has received higher approval ratings in 50 consecutive surveys going back to the latter half of 2016.

If Labor is to win the election, said political analyst Naoki Matsumoto, it has to "show effective greenhouse gas reduction methods." The coalition, Matsumoto said, must "show that it can bring about economic growth and effectively counter global warming."

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