Just hours after being sworn into office as Australia’s newest prime minister on Monday, Anthony Albanese boarded a plane to Tokyo.
During the flight, the 59-year-old Labor Party leader—who now finds himself helming a nation that is one of the largest coal and gas exporters in the world—got on a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and discussed the challenges of responding to climate change.
This was the first of several such conversations with fellow world leaders. After arriving in Tokyo, Albanese will sit down on Tuesday with U.S. president Joe Biden to discuss cooperation on clean energy, among other things, as part of a summit with the U.S., Japanese, and Indian leaders that the Australian prime minister described as an “absolute priority.”
“It enables us to send a message to the world that there is a change of government, [and] there will be some changes in policy, particularly with regard to climate change and our engagement with the world on those issues,” Albanese said, pledging to “get down to business’’ on his party’s policy agenda when he returns on Wednesday.
The newly elected Labor Party has already committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030—a stark improvement on the longstanding target of 26 to 28 percent that was put forward by the conservative Liberal-National Coalition under Scott Morrison—and Albanese appears keen to waste no time in getting the wheels rolling.
Morrison conceded electoral defeat in the late hours of Saturday night, as the Labor Party secured its first electoral win since 2007 and supplanted an increasingly embattled Coalition that has retained power in Australia for almost a decade.
Over the past few years, that Coalition has been beleaguered by controversies surrounding women’s issues, refugee policies, mistreatment of First Nations peoples, and pandemic mismanagement. But its most damning legacy—at least, as far as the international community is concerned—will almost certainly be the Morrison government’s notorious reputation for climate inaction.
Australia, one of the world's largest coal and gas exporters, has become a global pariah on issues of environment, with the Morrison government stubbornly resisting calls to set more ambitious targets to help mitigate human-induced climate change. It is the worst performing of all developed countries when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels, according to an October report by the Climate Council, and has been heavily criticised for its lacklustre policies by climate experts, world leaders, and the United Nations.
Data last week showed that Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution from coal in 2021 was the highest per capita of any other developed country at 4.04 tonnes per year, four times the global average.
Ironically, Australia has also borne the brunt of multiple, and at times compounding, climate catastrophes over the past three years: from historic droughts, to some of the most devastating wildfires in Earth’s recorded history, and recurrent floods from which victims are still only just picking up the pieces.
Morrison’s climate ambivalence and mismanagement of those disasters severely tarnished his reputation in the lead-up to the election, particularly his bungling of the 2019–20 bushfires. It was during that crisis that he took a holiday to Hawaii and fended off criticism by declaring “I don’t hold a hose, mate”—in doing so almost certainly steering large swaths of Australian voters away from the Coalition.
Albanese is promising a shift in the status quo. And for young Australians—particularly those engaged at the frontline of climate issues—the change in leadership is a welcome one.
Anjali Sharma, an 18-year-old student climate activist from Melbourne who in 2020 was among eight teenagers who took the Morrison government to court for failing in its duty of care over the impact of climate change, described the recent election results as “incredibly reinvigorating.”
“This is definitely a step in the right direction. And it was brought about by everyone who made this election ‘the climate election,’” Sharma told VICE World News.
“It's an opportunity for Australia to change its view on the international stage. We're viewed as an international climate laggard; we're viewed as a country that has historically dragged its feet on action to do with climate change.”
Australia’s Greens Party, one of the nation’s most progressive on issues of climate action, also recorded their best ever electoral performance over the weekend, securing 12 percent of the primary vote in the House of Representatives and 13.9 percent in the Senate. Such a parliamentary presence will grant the party a strong voice when it comes to directing policy on climate-related issues and ensuring that the Labor Party follows through on its promises.
The Coalition, meanwhile, is in tatters, decimated by the so-called “Green-slides,” Labor swings, and an unprecedented number of newly elected independent MPs—many of whom campaigned on the issue of climate.
“I think climate action will [now] be taken more seriously and climate policy might be put through,” Varsha Yajman, a 19-year-old climate justice advocate and law student from Sydney, told VICE World News.
“It'll probably be easier to pass some sort of climate policy through government, which I'm really happy about, because it's been a long time coming and it's so, so needed.”
Yajman echoed Sharma’s feelings of hope for the future following the election results, saying she was “really happy that we weren't stuck with a Liberal government.” Had things swung the other way, she suggested, she and many other young Australians would now be experiencing some very different emotions.
“I woke up [on Saturday] morning feeling like I was getting the biggest exam results of my life or something. It just was such an uncomfortable feeling,” she said. “I know that so many people had anxiety. I think that would have just continued with so many of us [if Morrison had won]; just a terrible feeling and a sense of fear.”
Nonetheless, both Sharma and Yajman were quick to acknowledge that there is still plenty more work to be done. Albanese’s climate policy commitments are an improvement on those spouted by Morrison, but the Labor Party has still drawn criticism for its commitment to build new coal mines across Australia, while others believe they are not being ambitious enough in their carbon emissions pledge.
In comparison to Labor’s planned 43 percent reduction, the U.S. has committed to emission cuts of 50 to 52 percent by 2030; Canada is targeting reductions of 40 to 42 percent; and South Korea has committed to 40 percent.
Many young Australians who are most likely to bear the cost of the climate crisis, said Sharma, won’t stand for anything less than meaningful climate action going forward.
“We're taking a few days now to celebrate that Scott Morrison's out and all of that, but as we get back to business as usual, people like me and everyday Australians are going to be demanding accountability,” she said. “Now that they [the Labor Party] have promised climate action, we're going to hold them accountable.”
“We're not going to stand for just lip service now, because we've gotten enough of that from the old government… [against] the backdrop of floods and fires and devastation and rising insurance prices. Australians are sick of that.”
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