Morrison’s stance on coal has drawn comparisons with that of President Trump, who announced in 2017 that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord. But Australian coal and climate politics are more complicated than that. Even though Morrison publicly defends the coal industry, he has stuck to the Paris agreement, which seeks to rein in that industry. And although the majority of Australian voters fear climate change, Morrison has made electoral gains by backing coal.
To make matters more complicated, Australia is far from being only a top coal-producing country. It’s still unclear whether Australia will be able to meet its emissions targets, but the country is now outperforming other developed countries in switching to more climate-friendly alternatives. Between 2018 and 2020, its wind and solar power capacity is set to grow almost three times faster than Germany’s, for instance, according researchers Matthew Stocks, Andrew Blakers and Ken Baldwin.
“Australia is demonstrating to the world how rapidly an industrialised country with a fossil-fuel-dominated electricity system can transition towards low-carbon, renewable power generation,” they argued. Some of this is certainly due to the fact that Australia — with vast and sunny stretches of land — doesn’t exactly have to try hard to generate solar energy.
Australia’s shifting role in the production of renewable energy does not come as a coincidence. Sixty-four percent of Australians viewed climate change as “a critical threat” in a Lowy Institute poll this year — a figure that’s up almost 20 percentage points since 2014.
Sixty-one percent also expressed support for more action in the same survey, even “if this involves significant costs.” In 2012, 36 percent of respondents agreed with that assertion.
So, if Australians favor tackling climate change, why would Morrison want to be seen as the defender of the coal industry?
While most Australians agree on the threat that climate change poses to their country, they vehemently disagree over who should carry the economic burden of trying to counter it.
When Morrison defied polls and celebrated an upset victory during elections in May, his center-right Liberal Party’s surprise success was attributed to his tough line on immigration and promises of tax cuts, as well as to a pledge to withstand demands for more decisive climate action. The country’s coal industry — drawing from the world’s fourth-largest coal reserves — employed at least 35,000 people last year, and Morrison promised to protect those jobs.
The opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, proposed a more decisive shift toward renewable energy, aiming to produce 50 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. (Some researchers have said Australia is already on track to meet that threshold by 2030.)
But similar to Brexit in the United Kingdom, climate change cuts across party lines in Australia: Regional party leaders muddied the national leadership’s message. The Labor Party premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, sought to advertise his state as a gas and oil haven. Other Labor politicians similarly emphasized the role that natural resources would continue to play.
That approach backfired in two major ways during spring elections: In states dependent on the coal industry, Labor lost crucial votes to the center-right party. But Labor also struggled in urban districts, where it alienated liberals who believed that Labor was not insistent enough on action to protect the environment and who voted for alternatives such as the Greens.