The Australian climate elections have been won. Now comes the hardest part. It is now entirely possible that we could see a government committed to national climate action, accelerating the exit of coal and gas from our grid and electrifying transport – while exporting large quantities of fossil fuels so that other countries burn them.
In short, we could fall into what we can call the “Norwegian trap”: clean at home, dirty abroad. Norway has vigorously pursued clean energy and electric transport in its territory and is making good progress towards its goal of reducing emissions by 55% by the end of the decade – while doubling the export of its oil reserves and of gas, thereby undermining its national gains.
In Australia, the Labor Party still believes in supporting and expanding our fossil fuel exports, which are by far our biggest contributor to global warming. Supporting fossil fuels has undoubtedly helped the new government retain coal seats like Hunter in New South Wales.
To change this, we urgently need to reduce the influence of the fossil fuel lobby – and include our exported emissions in the government’s net zero plans.
Wasn’t it the climate election?
Despite the clear mandate for stronger climate action, both major parties have slowed exports to woo voters with massive coal and gas infrastructure. Seats such as Hunter and Flynn in Queensland recorded swings towards Labor in a 2019 election reversal, when Labor was not seen as championing the interests of coal communities.
This time around, Labor has made its support clear, signaling the continuation – and even expansion – of our fossil fuel exports. In a speech to the Minerals Council last year, Anthony Albanese said of coal exports: “We will continue to export these products.”
Read more: How to respond to the argument that Australia’s emissions are too low to make a difference
It means Australia will head to the next global climate summit trumpeting its increased commitment to cutting emissions while maintaining its dubious role as one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels. We may even see ourselves aligned with Russia and Saudi Arabia again on opposing production cuts.
It’s long been a climate-skeptical talking point that Australia’s emissions are just 1.2% of the global total – the 15th highest in the world. But our vast exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), thermal and metallurgical coal are equivalent to double our national emissions. This means that exports are by far our greatest contribution to climate change.
Real change starts with taming lobbyists
This situation will not change much as long as the Labor Party and the Coalition continue to listen to the fossil fuel industry – and accept millions of dollars in donations. Over the past decade, the fossil fuel industry has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to political parties. Woodside, one of Australia’s largest oil and gas producers, has donated more than A$2 million to political parties.
Without change, the revolving door of politicians and employees who end up working for fossil fuel companies will continue to slow down climate policy.
This election offers us a long overdue reset. What we need is to tackle Australia’s total contribution to climate change. This includes our role as one of the world’s leading exporters of government-subsidized fossil fuels. We cannot just aim to get Australia to net zero and say the job is done if we let the export industry continue to grow, with over 100 fossil fuel projects underway.
Actions the government should take immediately should include cracking down on fossil fuel lobbyists and the revolving door. It would be simple to prohibit government employees from joining the fossil fuel industry without a long cooling-off period, as well as to prohibit former ministers or politicians from taking up lucrative positions in the industry when they leave the Politics. The government should also end all direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
Our fossil fuel lobby has won too many victories over the past two decades. We cannot afford to have our government beholden to an industry that is incompatible with a livable climate. We can expect the pressure groups to lay low for a little while. But the role of these lobbyists is to ensure that nothing really challenges their ability to export large quantities of fossil fuels.
We cannot ignore our role in global warming
You’ve no doubt heard the argument that if we don’t export fossil fuels, someone else will. It does not stack.
This is because the argument ignores the impact that leadership in this area would have. If one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels in the world started phasing out its exports and establishing a just transition for those affected, it would have a huge impact on the financing of fossil fuels and the signal time is really up for an industry long considered untouchable. Leading this would show our Pacific neighbors that we can change.
This argument is also morally dubious. Just because someone else is doing something wrong doesn’t mean no one else is allowed to do the same. We cannot let our leaders and our fossil fuel companies off the hook just because there are other exporters of fossil fuels. If this argument were really true, then Australia should have no qualms about engaging in bribery or corruption to achieve its ends if other countries are likely to do so.
This election result – and in particular the climate campaigns of the Greens and the Teal independents – gave us our first good chance in years to make a real dent in our emissions, both local and exported.