Australia’s parliament has passed groundbreaking climate laws targeting the country’s worst polluters, forcing coal mines and oil refineries to cut emissions by around 5% each year.
The laws apply to 215 large industrial facilities – each producing more than 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year – and form the backbone of Australia’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Experts said on Thursday the laws mark the end of Australia’s bitter ‘climate wars’ – a decade of political tussles that have repeatedly derailed attempts to tackle the country’s contribution to global warming.
With the new legislation, the country’s centre-left Labor government has predicted it could prevent 200 million tonnes of carbon from being released into the atmosphere over the next decade.
“What parliament has done today is to protect our climate, protect our economy and protect our future,” Australian Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen told lawmakers.
“What Parliament has done today is put an end to 10 years of dysfunction and 10 years of delay.”
“We now have a climate policy”
Aluminum smelters, coal mines, oil refineries and other big polluters will be forced to reduce their emissions by 4.9% each year.
“This is the first time that reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been enshrined in Australian law,” said University of New South Wales sustainability expert Tommy Wiedmann. “It’s obviously a good thing. We now have a climate policy.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the government struck a deal on the so-called safeguard mechanism after engaging in high-stakes negotiations with the left-wing Greens party.
The previously skeptical Greens, whose support was needed to pass the laws, agreed to back the carbon plan after persuading the government to put a hard cap on emissions.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said the move forced oil and gas companies to cut emissions “for the very first time in law”.
Climate “dead end”
Australia’s economy is fueled by mining and coal exports, and it is among the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per capita in the world.
For years, Australia has had a reputation for lagging behind in global action to stop climate change. But a series of severe natural disasters helped convince the country’s leaders to take the climate emergency seriously.
Strong storms in 2022 caused catastrophic flooding on the east coast of Australia, where more than 20 people died.
The 2019-20 “Black Summer” bushfires burned more than eight million hectares (19.7 million acres) of native vegetation, while marine heat waves caused massive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor government came to power last year promising to change the pro-fossil fuel stance of the previous decade-old Conservative government.
Although many hailed the laws as a crucial first step, sustainability expert Wiedmann warned that Australia cannot rest on its laurels.
“It is not enough on its own to reduce emissions and avoid dangerous climate change,” he said. “The tough decisions will come in the next few years.”
Murdoch University sustainability expert Martin Brueckner said the plan ended Australia’s climate “gridlock” and sent a strong signal to business.
“It pretty much pushes climate deniers into a corner. We’ve had a lot of investment uncertainty in the market over the past 10 years under poorly defined climate policy,” he said.
“Having taken this first political step – however small – I think it paves the way for more progressive policies to follow.”
“The facilities will close”
Australia’s mining industry has warned that the financial burden of compliance could lead to massive job losses.
“If we are not careful, some facilities in Australia will close,” the Minerals Council of Australia said before the laws were passed.
“Not only would this hurt our economy and reduce tens of thousands of regional jobs and billions of investments, but it would also place the burden of reducing emissions on other countries that are less able or less willing to decarbonize.”
Global mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP operate a number of mines and smelters that will be forced to cut emissions.
Australia’s Climate Council has estimated that the 215 facilities are responsible for almost 30% of the country’s total emissions.