This election marked a turning point on climate – but what will it mean for Australia?

·7 min read

It will take a while to untangle all the threads that led to Saturday’s extraordinary result, but there is little doubt this was the climate election Australians have long been told was coming.

A surge of Greens and Climate 200-backed teal independents turfed heartland Liberal MPs who were part of a government that claimed to be acting on emissions but wasn’t, pumped vast sums into fossil fuels and was considered a global blocker on addressing global heating.

Labor appears likely to have a small majority in the House of Representatives in part because Coalition scare campaigns claiming that greater climate action is economically damaging were, for once, not potent in suburban and regional electorates, including those with coalmines.

Consider two examples. The ALP received a small two-party-preferred swing to it in the New South Wales seat of Hunter despite a local scare campaign about the impact of climate policy. And the LNP suffered a near 7% swing against it in Flynn, based around Gladstone in Queensland, pushing it into marginal territory.

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Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising. It is consistent with a major survey by the Australian Conservation Foundation in March that found a majority of people in every electorate now believed the long-term economic benefits of acting on the climate crisis outweighed the costs. This trend was particularly strong in Flynn and seats won by teals and Greens.

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says it highlights a shift since the Coalition’s shock win in the 2019 election. She says a campaign by parts of the environment movement and some political candidates framing tackling climate change as an opportunity made a difference.

“This wasn’t an anti-Adani campaign like we saw in 2019. It was a highly local, multi-faceted campaign run on economics that happened in teal seats, in suburban seats and in regional seats where resources play a role,” Huntley says. “The shift I’ve seen in the last three years in seats like Hunter and Flynn is from ‘we’re not going to change’ to ‘we know this change is happening, we want a change we can trust’.”

Huntley says extreme weather events usually played a lesser role in changing votes than some people might expect, though the disasters that bookended the parliamentary term – the black summer bushfires and the recent catastrophic floods in northern New South Wales and Brisbane – were different. “It took the group of people who had climate at number five or six on their list of concerns and it suddenly accelerated it for them,” Huntley says.

What does this transformation mean for Australia’s climate policy?

For a start, Anthony Albanese will boost the national emissions target to a 43% cut by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. It is likely to be warmly welcomed by international allies – the end of the Morrison government will be a relief to many at UN climate talks – and means Australia will become one of the first countries to live up to an agreement at last year’s Glasgow climate pact that everyone should boost their commitments ahead of the next major summit in Egypt.

Related: How Albanese’s practical pivot on climate paved the way for a Greens surge | Katharine Murphy

Scientific evidence says Labor’s target does not go far enough. It brings Australia roughly into line with Canada and Japan, but trails pledges by the UK, US and European Union.

Labor reached its target from the bottom up, adding up what its policies were expected to deliver. Its policies are deliberately modest, designed to limit the political risk of a scare campaign while accelerating the rollout of renewable energy, cutting taxes to lower the cost of electric vehicles and gradually start to cut emissions from major industries.

Legislation will be needed to cut EV taxes and possibly to create a $20bn Rewiring the Nation Corporation, which Labor says will bring forward construction of major electricity transmission links to new renewable energy hubs.

Other elements of its plan won’t need to pass parliament. They include using the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” policy to start to lower industrial emissions, reviewing the carbon offsets system and bidding to co-host a UN climate conference with Pacific countries in 2024.

The incoming climate change minister, Chris Bowen, says the ALP wants to legislate its 43% emissions target but has made clear it doesn’t have to, and it won’t negotiate with crossbenchers demanding it be increased to between 50% and 75%.

The numbers suggests it won’t have to in the lower house. If Labor squeaks a majority, as looks likely, the influx of crossbenchers wanting greater action may have little opportunity to directly shape Labor’s legislative climate agenda, although independent MP Zali Steggall will continue to argue for her climate bill.

The exception is the Greens. The ALP will need their support in the Senate to pass any legislation not supported by the Coalition. Adam Bandt says he will take a collaborative approach but there are many unknowns here, including whether the minor party will ask for greater climate action in return for it supporting non-climate related Labor legislation.

The rise of the climate crossbench will be felt most beyond votes on the floor of parliament. As the new treasurer, Jim Chalmers, acknowledged on Saturday night, the number of voters demanding greater action can’t be ignored. Some Coalition MPs have been slow to pick up on it, and argued for a shift in the opposite direction. Good luck with that. The centre of political debate about climate may finally be about to move away from unrelenting and often misleading focus on the costs of action to talking about how much more Australia should be doing.

It’s worth remembering the 43% target is a floor, not a ceiling, and Albanese will be expected to set a 2035 target before the next election.

The crossbench is supported in its call for a stronger, legislated target by institutional investors, some business leaders and communities across the country. People may be surprised how rapidly some of them move now there is a federal government that backs action and is less likely to give them a whack if, to pick one example, they want to shut a failing coal plant earlier than planned.

There are consequential things Labor could do on climate beyond their headline commitments. They include restoring the public service including the advisory role of the Climate Change Authority, embedding climate as a priority in all government decision-making and putting much greater effort into building capacity to forecast and cope with the inevitable rise in extreme event risk.

For the Greens, a big issue will be fighting for a ban on new fossil fuel developments and a rapid phase-out of thermal coal while helping affected communities. It shapes up as a key debate in the next term. Bill Hare, from Climate Analytics, estimates if all the proposed coal and gas projects listed on a government pipeline go ahead it will add more than 8% to Australia’s emissions by 2030, and far more to global emissions after the fossil fuels are sold and burned overseas.

Labor’s position is there will be a shift away from fossil fuels as the world acts, but if companies want to invest they should be able to as long as they are meeting environmental standards. It raises a bunch of questions, including why it rejects the International Energy Agency’s view there would be no more oil and gas fields opened if the world is serious about limiting heating to 1.5C, and what it will do to strengthen the country’s environment laws, which virtually everyone agrees are failing.

Right now, there is no one to ask about that last point – the ALP’s environment spokesperson in opposition, Terri Butler, lost her seat in the Brisbane “Greenslide” a day after promising an Albanese government would set up an independent national Environment Protection Agency. Her replacement is yet to be announced.