The majority of Australians believe Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change and shouldn’t wait for other countries before it strengthens its emission reductions targets, according to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation report.
Launching the report at a webinar on Wednesday, NSW environment and energy minister Matt Kean pointed to the “enormous opportunities” that addressing climate change — and helping other nations do the same — can pose for Australia.
“Fifty percent of the world’s GDP is now signed up to hit net zero emissions, [but] many of them don’t have the pathway to get there. We can provide that pathway thanks to the entrepreneurial innovative spirit of Australians,” he said.
“We can develop the technologies that will help economies around the globe decarbonise through the work of our businesses and our universities, and our lived experience right here in Australia. And in doing so, we can gain a competitive advantage, a low carbon global economy, creating jobs, industries, and indeed growing our living standards.
“We need to do that though, in a way that leaves no one behind and that’s the big challenge, and we’ve been stuck in this debate for over a decade because we haven’t found that pathway forward to ensuring that no one’s left behind.”
The 2020 report found that 79% of Australians agree climate change is occurring — the highest result since 2012 — and 74% of people are concerned by it.
The climate change impact which has concerned the most Australians is more bushfires, at 82% — up from 76% in 2019. This is closely followed by droughts and flooding affecting crop production and food supply (81%), animal and plant species becoming extinct (80%), destruction of the Great Barrier Reef (79%), and more extreme weather events like floods and cyclones (77%).
The report noted that the Black Summer bushfires were Australia’s most expensive natural disaster, estimated to have cost up to $100 billion.
“The fires destroyed homes, contents and vehicles, and resulted in lost income from farm production, tourism and other industries. Some costs are more difficult to measure, including the devastating loss of human life, the social costs of mental health problems, unemployment, domestic violence, and the impact on animals and plants,” it said.
Kean said the horror bushfire season “was exactly what the scientists had warned us about” in regards to the impacts of climate change, and contrasted it with the COVID-19 crisis, during which governments across Australia listened to and acted on the science.
“Now, my view is that we need to listen to the scientists, we need to listen to the experts, we need to act on their advice. I mean, this sounds like a relatively uncontroversial idea but you know when it comes to climate change, apparently it is,” he said.
“It’s a strategy that served us well during the coronavirus pandemic and it’s the right approach to take when dealing with this issue as well. No one wants to see bushfires like we saw last summer. We know what we need to do as part of a global effort to reduce the impact of climate change and my view is rather than sit back and watch … Australia should lead the way.”
While the federal government has been pushing for a gas-led economic recovery, 59% of respondents would prefer Australia’s recovery to be primarily powered by investment in renewables, the report found, with just 12% preferring gas.
The report argued that the gas industry would be a “poor option for stimulus and recovery spending as it provides few jobs, pays little tax and is unlikely to bring energy prices down”, and more gas would “lock in increased emissions”.
Only 19% of Australians ranked gas in their top three energy sources. Meanwhile, 54% ranked solar as their number one energy source, with 79% placing it in their top three. Just 14% ranked coal in their top three energy sources.
Three quarters of Australians agreed that governments should implement a plan to ensure the orderly closure of old coal plants and their replacement with clean energy, while 83% want coal-fired power stations to be phased out either gradually (52%), or as soon as possible (31%).
Half of Australians said fossil fuel producers — coal, gas and oil companies — should primarily cover the costs of preparing for, adapting to, and responding to global warming impacts. A large number of respondents (65%) said they would also support the introduction of a levy on Australia’s fossil fuel exports to help fund local government actions to prepare for, and protect from, the impacts of climate change.
Kean argued that climate change “didn’t start out as a political issue”, and it must stop being viewed as a political issue in Australia.
“There can be plenty of debate about how best to reduce our emissions. But there should be no debate about the fact that we need to do so, and climate change should not be a partisan issue,” he said.
“It’s not in the UK … it’s not across Europe, and it’s not in places like Japan. In fact, largely those jurisdictions are run by conservative governments and they’re leading the way on this issue. What could be more conservative than protecting and handing our environment to the next generation better than we found it?”
The report found that 71% of respondents thought Australia should be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change, with 62% disagreeing that Australia should wait for other countries before it strengthens its emission reductions targets.
On Tuesday evening, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Scott Morrison to set “ambitious targets” for Australia to reach net-zero emissions. The UK set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 last year. China and Japan both recently pledged to reduce emissions to net zero by 2060 and 2050 respectively.
The report found that 68% of Australians support a national target for net zero emissions by 2050, with majority support across Coalition, Labor and Greens voters.