The future of Australia’s biggest emitters looks uncertain under the new Labor government, with the Greens and climate change-focused independents set for a loud voice.
Companies, from airlines to miners, say they are already a step ahead on carbon reduction, but many of their targets are below what will be implemented under Labor.
The question now is: How far can industry be pushed, especially if the Greens end up with a balance of power?
Labor went to the election with a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent within just eight years.
Many companies already have their own 2030 targets, including the major airline Qantas.
The ASX-listed company’s target is a 25 per cent reduction in net emissions by 2030, which is below Labor’s pledge and even further below the 75 per cent target the Greens will push for.
“We need to make sure that we’re moving at a pace that allows us to keep that important part of travel and keeps that investment in the country,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said in response to questions from ABC News.
Qantas’ competitor Virgin has a lower 2030 target: A 15 per cent net reduction in carbon emissions.
Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka is yet to commit to higher targets but has said the airline will work with the new government.
Ms Hrdlicka says more investment in sustainable fuel industries in Australia can help business hit higher targets.
“We look forward to conversations with them [the Labor government] about sustainable aviation fuels and the opportunity to make a very profound difference with respect to the environment, and we expect those conversations will start in earnest next week,” she said.
Coal and gas projects were already risky before Labor
Outside of air travel, Labor’s win has major ramifications for the gas and coal industry.
That industry was already grappling with its future viability.
Sustainable energy such as solar power has already gained prominence and carbon-intensive energy is becoming less profitable.
Rio Tinto has been selling its coal mines and is unlikely to approve new ones, while BHP has also committed to an exit and has a 30 per cent carbon reduction goal for 2030.
The big four banks have publicly committed to stop financing coal by 2030 or 2035, although critics argue they still invest each billions in fossil fuels such as gas.
Labor also wants to impose emissions limits on the 215 most polluting facilities.
The details are yet to be determined, but it could involve changing the current “safeguard mechanism” introduced by the Abbott government in 2016.
This mechanism covers Australia’s biggest carbon polluters, which emit more than 100,000 tonnes in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) covered emissions in a financial year.
It impacts businesses across a broad range of industry sectors, including electricity generation, mining, oil and gas extraction, manufacturing, transport, and waste.
Under the mechanism, these businesses must ensure the facility’s net emissions do not exceed the baseline determined by the Clean Energy Regulator. There have been suggestions that Labor may increase that baseline.
The Climate Council’s report ‘The Lost Years: Counting the Costs of Climate Inaction in Australia’ found that the Federal Liberal-National Government has overwhelmingly failed on climate action over its three terms of government.
As Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie says “The record is clear, in eight years, the Federal Government’s decisions have exacerbated the climate crisis and they have tried to cover up their policy failings. Australians have lost almost a decade of what should’ve been our moment to take strong and bold action on climate.”
We call on all parties to get emissions plummeting THIS DECADE. There’s no more time to waste.
Industry group says companies ‘could trip over’ if targets rushed
A lobby group that represents manufacturers is urging the new government to set workable time lines.
Ai Group’s head of climate, energy and environment policy, Tennant Reed, says most businesses are committed to net zero emissions by 2050 or well before.
“If we impose such high costs on local businesses that are uneven relative to those their competitors face that they lose market share or lose profitability, we’re going to have some problems.”
He says the safeguard mechanism for industry is a more effective way of meeting climate commitments without sending businesses into ruin.
“I don’t think anybody argues that we can get to 100 per cent reductions overnight,” he said.
Emma Herd, the head of climate change and sustainability for consultancy firm EY, says the make-up of the new parliament will usher in a new debate on climate targets for 2035.
“Up until now, you really had industry voluntarily taking a lot of action around reducing their emissions.
“The review and the tightening of the safeguard mechanism is going to bring around that compliance driver and really begin to push industry to reduce their emissions at a much more rapid rate.”
She says there is no doubt the debate will now centre around how businesses increase their targets.
How the Greens could push Labor to set more ambitious climate targets
How far the new government will go on carbon reduction will depend on how big a voice the climate-focused Greens and independents end up with in the new parliament.
However things look more uncertain in the Senate where Labor is not projected to hold a majority.
If Labor does not have the Coalition’s support, the Greens’ support will be mandatory for any legislation it wants to pass through the Senate. Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie will find she has a greater voice too.
If the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, it will give them leeway to negotiate stronger emissions reductions targets as well as push Labor to phase out about 114 coal and gas projects that are currently in the pipeline.
“The Greens will have balance of power in the Senate, potentially in our own right, and the government can’t take our votes for granted,” Greens leader Adam Bandt told the ABC.
“This election delivered us a mandate to act on climate. The Greens want to sit down with the government and work out a plan to pass climate legislation, but that should include a freeze on new coal and gas projects.
Mr Bandt identified new gas projects, including Scarborough in Western Australia and Beetaloo in the Northern Territory, as those they would push back against.
Apart from the Greens, there are now also the “teal” independents, who campaigned heavily on climate change action in the lead-up to the election.
Independent candidate Monique Ryan, who took the seat of Kooyong from former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, has described Labor’s 43 per cent target as “manifestly inadequate”.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global emissions must be halved by 2030 to have any hope of limiting global warming to, or close to, 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Labor has an emissions reduction goal of 43 per cent by 2030, which is less than the 45 per cent cut promised ahead of the last election. This goal, if replicated in other countries, is consistent with 2C of warming globally.
The Greens’ more ambitious 2030 target of 75 per cent and net zero by 2035 is consistent with keeping warming within 1.5C.
The new Labor government has been contacted for comment on how far it will go on its targets and when it expects to start implementing them.
Climate-friendly policies to help renewable energy sector
While some companies may be nervous about being pushed further on their emissions reductions targets, the renewable energy industry is excited.
It sees Labor’s win as likely to speed up the transition to battery storage.
“If they get more ambitious, we would be delighted,” says Brian Craighead, founder of Energy Renaissance, which manufactures lithium batteries for commercial and industrial use.
Mr Craighead has welcomed Labor’s targets but wants further action.
Mr Craighead says business is booming off the back of a greater appetite for renewables, with some pf his company’s big customers working in farming, defence and transportation.
“Demand is through the roof. We’re seeing more and more folks, large companies asking for batteries as quickly as they can. This election is only going to accelerate that.”
Natural Solar chief executive Chris Williams says the next decade is an exciting one for the renewable energy space.
“The future of renewable energy, particularly in Australia, on the back of this election result is very promising,” he said.
The company installs household batteries to store solar energy. Currently 3 million households in Australia have solar but far fewer of them have batteries to store the power and use it any time.
Mr Williams says the company has had a spike in battery sales since the election result.
“We’ve seen an uptick today compared to Monday of last week at around about 25 per cent,” he said.
More than 100 Australian startups have also signed a campaign to draw attention to the need for stronger action on climate change.
One of them is Australian non-alcoholic beer company Heaps Normal. Its co-founder and chief executive Andy Miller says Australian businesses have done a lot of heavy lifting on climate change, and the government needs to act fast.
“We need our Government to step up to the plate.”