Australia Passes First Climate Law in More Than a Decade

Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen
Australian Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen on July 12, 2022. BROOK MITCHELL / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
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Australia has passed its first climate legislation in a decade as the new Labor government enshrined its election promise to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The new legislation passed Australia’s Senate on Thursday 37 to 30 and then Senate-proposed amendments passed the House of Representatives, Climate Home News reported. 

“[T]oday is a good day for our parliament and our country, and we’re going to need many more of them,” Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen said, as The Guardian reported. 

The new law comes as the Australian government has struggled to make progress on tackling the climate crisis for more than a decade, despite the fact that the country has suffered its impacts through historic flooding, devastating wildfires and the bleaching of its iconic Great Barrier Reef, among other things. The last climate-related law it passed was in 2011, according to Bloomberg News. Eight years ago, the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott repealed a climate bill that would have put a price on carbon, The Guardian explained. The new bill is seen as much needed momentum in tackling the issue following the previous conservative government’s hostility to climate action.

“The decade of climate wars is over,” Australian Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek tweeted after it passed. 

The new 2030 target enshrined in the law is 50 percent more ambitious than the previous government’s, as Reuters reported. In addition to the targets, the law also empowered the Climate Change Authority and mandated that the Minister for Climate Change update parliament yearly on the government’s progress against climate change, according to The Guardian.

“The passage of the climate change legislation sends a message to the world that Australia is serious about driving down emissions, and serious about reaping the economic opportunities from affordable renewable energy,” Bowen said, as Reuters reported.

Australia’s new Labor government first introduced the bill in July on its first full day in office, according to Australia’s ABC News. The measure then passed the lower house of Parliament in August, The New York Times reported. In the Senate, passage was trickier because Labor does not command a majority there, Reuters explained. However, the Greens, Jacqui Lambie Network and independent senator David Pocock all joined with Labor to pass the bill through the Senate, according to Australia’s ABC News. The Greens had wanted to increase the 2030 target to at least 75 percent and end all new coal and gas projects, according to Climate Home News, but these amendments were not approved. Amendments by Pocock calling for greater accountability and transparency did make it into the final law. 

While the new legislation could have gone further, it also pushes the needle on action forward. 

“This Climate Bill will not be enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals but it is a huge leap forward and opens a new era of cooperation and constructive policymaking,” Australia Institute climate and energy program director Richie Merzian told The New York Times. “There is still a lot of work to go to reverse Australia’s role as the third largest exporter of fossil fuel, but there is hope and momentum that things are finally starting to change.”

The next big battle will be over Australia’s Safeguard Mechanism that requires the country’s largest polluters to keep emissions below a certain limit. The government is proposing lowering that limit in keeping with its 2050 net-zero goal. 

Greens leader Adam Bandt said the Safeguard Mechanism had not worked so far, since emissions from industry have continued to climb since it was introduced in 2016, The Guardian reported. He thought that it was the wrong strategy for controlling emissions but was willing to work with Labor to make it more effective. 

“We’ve shown very clearly we’ve been prepared to work constructively with the government to get action on climate,” Bandt said, as The Guardian reported. “Now the rubber hits the road as the government starts to tell us exactly how they’re going to cut pollution from these big coal and gas plants.”

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