Australia’s climate election: Where do parties stand on renewables?

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Australia’s 2019 federal election has been dubbed “the climate election” for a reason. In the aftermath of the nation’s hottest summer on record, reports about rising greenhouse gas emissions and other studies show that the country is not on track to meet its Paris Agreement targets. Many voters in the polling booths this Saturday will therefore be thinking about climate change.

A recent poll from the Lowy Institute showed that 64% of Australians rank climate change at the top of a list of 12 possible threats to the nation’s vital interests over the next 10 years. This was the first time climate change was the top-ranked threat in a Lowy poll, followed by cyberattacks from other countries, international terrorism, and North Korea’s nuclear program.

The fears about climate change are well-grounded, as shown by a recent report from the Climate Council. The report, Compound Costs: How Climate Change is Damaging Australia’s Economy, shows that there are few forces affecting the Australian economy that can match the scale and systemic risk of climate change.

The accumulated loss of wealth due to reduced agricultural productivity and labour productivity as a result of climate change is projected to exceed A$19 billion ($13.08 billion) by 2030, A$211 billion by 2050 and A$4 trillion by 2100, the report showed. The country’s property market is also expected to lose A$571 billion in value by 2030 due to climate change and extreme weather. And the list goes on.

A recent poll by national broadcaster ABC of more than 1, 377,302 Australian voters clearly showed that climate change has become the number one issue for a majority of Coalition, Green and Labor voters. Up from 20% in 2013, around 80% of Australians want more renewable energy, greater uptake of electric cars and a price on carbon, with renewables garnering the most support.

Australia’s main political parties have shown different levels of commitment to renewables in their climate policy packages ahead of the 2019 election. Here are the pledges they have made.

Coalition

The Coalition government does not have a renewable energy policy beyond 2020 and will not be replacing the Renewable Energy Target (RET) “with anything“ when it expires in 2020. Many analysts have voiced concern that investment in renewables will slump beyond 2020, as policy uncertainty surrounding the sector’s outlook is undermining investor confidence.

The notable policy that the ruling Coalition is taking to this election is the Climate Solutions Fund, a rebadged policy from the era of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It includes another A$2 billion to be used for the Emissions Reduction Fund auctions and does not bring much for the electricity sector.

The package retains the goal of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, which according to the Coalition government can be met without any government intervention. But reports such as the annual UN Environment Emissions Gap Report, released late last year, have shown that Australia is one of several countries that are not on track to reach their 2030 targets or appear uncertain based on current projections.

It appears the ruling Coalition is hoping to win over voters with its commitment to pumped hydro. It has pledged A$1.38 billion in funding for the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro expansion, along with A$56 million for the Marinus Link project, part of Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation program, which would provide a second interconnector across the Bass Strait to increase the availability of the state’s hydro resources on the mainland. While analysis shows that additional energy storage capacity makes financial sense in light of coal retirements, experts have warned that the potential of these pumped hydro projects can be fully exploited only when they operate in concert with renewables.

Pumped hydro also emerged as a big winner in the government’s Underwriting New Generation Investment Program. The list of 12 projects which could be eligible for taxpayer money includes six renewable pumped hydro projects, five gas projects and one coal upgrade project in the state of New South Wales.

Finally, the Coalition recently unveiled a A$50 million pot to power remote communities. It has allocated funding to support up to 50 off-grid and fringe-of-grid feasibility studies investigating whether building a microgrid can be a cost-effective solution.

Labor

In November, the Labor Party came up with a plan for Australia’s energy sector that positioned renewables and the energy transition as major pillars of its strategy. The party pledged to revive the National Energy Guarantee with a higher emissions reduction target of 45% by 2030, and vowed to push towards a headline goal of 50% renewables by 2030.

Unlike the Coalition government, which plans to carry over Kyoto credits to reach its much weaker emissions reduction target of 26% by 2020, Labor will not use the carry-over to meet its target.

To boost the share of renewable energy, Labor has pledged to double the original investment in CEFC by A$10 billion to support new generation and storage, concessional loans for household purchases of solar and battery systems, commercial community renewables projects and the transformation and growth of new and existing industries.

It also plans to encourage the uptake of household solar and battery systems by setting a target of 1 million household battery systems by 2025. It plans to offer a A$2,000 rebate for 100,000 households on incomes of less than A$180,000 per year to purchase and install battery systems, as well as low-cost loans for households.

Looking to boost Australia’s sluggish decarbonization of the transport sector, Labor has set a national electric vehicle target, with half of the cars on the Australian roads to be electric by 2030. It has also proposed new fuel emissions standards for all vehicles.

Greens

The Greens have set the most ambitious renewable energy goals of all the parties. They have a 100% renewable energy target by 2030, including support for households and batteries, zero net emissions by 2040 and the phasing out of thermal coal. The party’s pledges are supported by a A$1 billion transition plan for workers. The party also wants to ban petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2030.

According to Climate Analytics, the Green’s greenhouse-gas emissions reduction target is 63-82% below 2005 levels by 2030 and is within the “fair share” range in the scientific literature. It therefore includes both domestic emissions reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement and contributions to emission reductions in poorer countries.