Analysis: Climate change was the defining issue of this election. So what will more ambitious action actually look like?

Despite Labor and the Coalition being conspicuously quiet about climate change during the campaign, it was in many ways the defining issue of this historic change of government.

Arguably, Anthony Albanese enters government with a bigger mandate on climate than even he intended with a large part of the Coalition’s decimation attributable to teal independents running on climate policies more ambitious than Labor’s.

There were all the signs that 2022 was going to be the climate election. But after similar predictions ahead of the 2019 poll didn’t ring true, few were willing to declare that of this year’s election before the weekend.

According to the ABC’s Vote Compass, more people listed climate change as their most important issue this election than any other topic.

Amazingly that was true not just overall, but in every single electorate in the country except for two — Longman and Flynn — where it was the second-most mentioned issue after cost of living.

And the election results on the weekend speak for themselves.

The “teal wave” swept the country, ousting moderate Liberal candidates with campaigns that were primarily focused on climate change.

A slew of independents, including former journalist Zoe Daniel, won seats on climate change platforms.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

The Greens, who have the most ambitious climate policies, look like they could increase their numbers in both houses by about three seats.

And even in a seat like Flynn in Queensland — where fossil fuels are big business — there was a 4.3 per cent swing to Labor, indicating more ambitious climate policies did not drive voters away.

But now the electorate has made their choice, and voted for more ambitious climate action, what will that look like?

What you can expect

There are a few key elements to Labor’s platform.

The first is Australia’s greenhouse gas emission target for 2030. Labor will lift Australia’s 2030 target from the Coalition’s 26-28 per cent to 43 per cent below 2005 levels.

To get there, Labor has promised to implement its Powering Australia plan, which involves three key things:

  • A $20 billion investment in upgrading the electricity grid to facilitate private investment in renewable energy generation. Labor’s modelling suggests it will unlock $58 billion in private investment.
  • It will strengthen the Coalition’s “Safeguard Mechanism”, which puts a cap on pollution from some of the country’s biggest emitters — a policy recommended by the Business Council of Australia. Those caps will be tightened “predictably and gradually over time”.
  • Government support for the building of electric vehicle charging infrastructure around the country and the introduction of tax breaks for people and businesses purchasing electric vehicles.

But the big question is whether Labor will feel urged — or even be forced — to take its climate policies further now that the electorate has, in many cases, voted in representatives in parliament who campaigned on stronger climate targets.

There is still a chance Labor won’t have a majority in the lower house. If that happens, there would be a significant role for the new teal independents before they pass to the Senate.

And whatever happens — although Labor has said it won’t be pushed further on climate policy by the crossbench and will stick to its election promises — Labor will likely need to do deals with the Greens and others to get legislation through the Senate.

What role will the Greens play?

When Greens leader Adam Bandt was asked about how they’ll use the party’s power in the new parliament, he doesn’t focus on domestic emissions targets but on Labor’s support for new coal mines that “stack up environmentally, and then commercially”, as well as for the development of new gas basins like the Beetaloo in the Northern Territory.

But the Greens might find themselves in a tricky situation. Memories from the last time Labor was in government haunt the Greens to this day.

When the Rudd government tried to introduce its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009 — a type of emissions trading scheme — it was killed by Greens and the Coalition in the Senate.

The Australian Greens team after Saturday’s election. Leader Adam Bandt, second from right, will have to decide how to use their power in the new parliament. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)

The Greens’ criticism at the time was that the emissions targets in the policy were too weak — a criticism that was backed by some top climate scientists.

But the narrative that stuck was simple and effective: the Greens were responsible for Australia’s lack of action on climate change.

To this day, the Greens argue Labor’s policy was bad, and by blocking it, the party was able to work with the Gillard government to introduce a more ambitious Emissions Trading Scheme.

But the narrative did damage, and if there’s a threat of a similar narrative being weaponised again, will the Greens be neutered of its one key power: the ability to block legislation?

Greens are not alone

Since 2009, public awareness of what’s needed to stop climate change has increased dramatically — as has the urgency of action.

The Greens would hope to bring the public with them if they find themselves wanting to stop plans they think aren’t ambitious enough.

And the parliament is very different too. With a swathe of teals in the lower house potentially making similar arguments, the Greens are unlikely to be alone in trying to change the discourse.

With more Vote Compass respondents in nearly every seat in the country listing climate change as the most important issue to them, Labor might find negotiating with the climate-focused crossbench is the easiest way forward.

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