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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Why the end to Australia’s climate wars isn’t enough

27 June 2022 - Henrietta Ardlie, a sustainability consultant at One Brave Step, discusses change in Australia's politics, the energy crisis and the need to focus on the larger picture of sustainability.

Early on Sunday morning, 22 May, I jumped in my car and, as I always do, turned on the radio. Within minutes, I found myself crying. Climate change dominated the conversation for the first time in nearly a decade and the relief was overwhelming. I heard voices of reason discussing the validity of climate change science and its importance to Australian voters. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘change is coming’.

Australians had voted. Our generationally-critical federal election had been held the day before. The leader of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, Scott Morrison, was out. So were his antics. Brandishing coal in Parliament while attacking his opponents’ ‘ideological, pathological fear’ of it and claiming electric cars would spell 'the end of the weekend' are some of his better-known.

Ultimately, a ‘visceral’ response to Scott Morrison, predominantly amongst female voters, had turned the dial on Australia’s leadership. Head of Australia’s left Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, was in. But he wasn’t the only victor in this highly unusual election.

Four female Independent candidates lead what’s been called a ‘teal revolution’. They were funded by Climate 200 Convenor and billionaire, Simon Holmes à Court. Their position was strong and clear: we need a science-based response to our climate crisis, to restore integrity to politics and advance gender equity.

Alongside this, the Greens Party enjoyed a ‘Greenslide’. With more representation than ever, the Greens now have four MPs voted into the lower house and 12 Senators in the upper house.

After nearly a decade of denial and inaction, the main party duopoly was shaken up by a sea of teal and green.

Australians were ready for change. Historic fires and floods and the bleaching of treasured and iconic coral reefs had hit home. Australia is on the front line of climate change impacts. And yet, it is the world’s largest exporter of coal and iron ore.

The dichotomy of these two realities is our everyday. This is what has driven the turbulent climate change agendas that have dominated Australia’s politics over the past two decades. It wasted valuable time. The Climate Action Tracker reveals there is much work to be done.

The new Albanese majority government seeks to end the ‘climate wars’ that have plagued progress. It’s tempting to take the foot off the pedal, but I argue that while we are seeing progress, it is not enough.

The government has now submitted our updated NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. We have seven and a half years to reduce emissions to 43% of 2005 levels. A new super Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water has been formed and new legislation is promised to be introduced when parliament sits in July. 

Albanese wants to turn Australia into a “renewable energy superpower”.

And, there’s no reason why we can’t be. Our world-leading wind and solar resources have the potential to rapidly decarbonise our grid and sell green energy abroad. We have the rare earth minerals needed to manufacture batteries for renewable energy and power electric cars. And green hydrogen technology has the potential to decarbonise emissions-intensive steel-making, increasing the value of this export.

And yet, despite this progress, our new government still wants to open new coal and gas mines. Australians voted for action on climate change, not more investment into fossil fuels. I encourage sustainability leaders to consider endorsing the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation treaty.

Today, Australia is amidst an energy crisis that appears to have been orchestrated not to feature during the election campaign. Thirty per cent of Australia’s coal power plants are offline due to operational faults. They are old and failing dinosaurs heading to extinction. We cannot and must not rely on fossil fuels for our energy supply.

The trap of focusing so keenly on energy (as you do when you are in a crisis) is that you miss the much larger and complex picture of sustainability. In this state of political change, and will, there is an opportunity to create a new position of Future Generations Commissioner, modelled on Wales, that will take a wider lens on the “social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being” of Australians.

Time is not on our side. In fact, we have no time to waste. What does this mean for sustainability leadership in Australia?

We cannot afford to duplicate. We must collaborate both locally and globally.

We aren’t inventing the wheel here. Being nearly a decade behind the global north has only one real advantage. There are lessons that can be shared. As leaders, we must take a global lens (thank you, CISL) to solving our local problems.

About the author

 

Henrietta Ardlie is a sustainability consultant at One Brave Step and a recent participant in our Business Sustainability Management programme,

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.

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