As my family huddled in a double-brick building, coughing out smoke and listening to firefighters sobbing through the emergency radio, Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited a nearby village called Cobargo. He was heckled by locals who had lost their homes and their friends.
The criticism was largely deserved. As I’ve said elsewhere, the federal government’s inaction and misleading language on climate change has built a debt to the truth that ordinary people are now having to pay.
Australia has also copped criticism in international media for its lacklustre climate policies, which it doubled down on even as the continent’s south-east went up in flames. Australia is one of the few countries using carry-over credits to meet its Paris Agreement commitments and has one of the highest per-capita carbon emissions on Earth, largely thanks to its reliance on coal-fired power stations.
Yet all is not lost. The political power needed to reduce emissions doesn’t actually tend to reside in Canberra. Australia’s model of federation means state governments actually retain power over everything from conservation and the environment to public works, agriculture, and emergency services. This includes the power to set their own energy policies.
So as Australia’s federal government cops plenty of domestic and international criticism, its state governments are quietly getting on with the transition to clean energy. South Australia, for example, is on track to run on 100 per cent renewable energy within a decade. It also has regulator-approved plans to export renewable energy to NSW, Australia’s most populous state, to help it transition away from coal fired power using a massive transmission line.
In Victoria, Australia’s second most-populous state, the Labor government has locked into law a target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050. The first target is likely to be surpassed in 2029, which will likely prompt coal plants to close earlier than planned.
In NSW, the most heavily coal-dependent state in Australia, Environment Minister Matt Kean has criticised his federal colleagues and committed NSW to its goal of zero net emissions by 2050 ‘regardless of what the federal government is doing’. NSW is also building three ‘renewable energy zones’ to incentivise new wind and solar projects, set to be the first of their kind in Australia. It will also host the world’s largest pumped hydro plant, Snowy 2.0, when it is completed in 2024.
Tasmania is the country’s green leader thanks to abundant water sources. It is currently running on almost 100 per cent hydropower and the state government’s energy company Hydro Tasmania (Australia’s largest renewable energy producer) has plans to use this power to export renewable hydrogen. It is also advocating for an expansion of undersea connectors to Victoria to maintain energy supplies as coal plants shut down and support that state’s plans to decarbonise by 2050.
Whilst Western Australia has been criticised for not legislating renewable energy targets, but the state is also home to enormous plans. A major wind solar hybrid project – the Asia Renewable Energy Hub - is planned for the Pilbara that will generate the equivalent of 20 per cent of Australia’s total clean energy generation. It will be used to create green hydrogen for export to southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, the Northern Territory is moving ahead with plans to build the world’s largest solar farm (called Sun Cable) to produce up to 20 per cent of Singapore’s energy requirements. Canberra, the national capital, became the first city outside Europe to run on 100 per cent renewable energy in October last year, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent. That means Scott Morrison’s office is currently running on clean energy.
Of course, it isn’t all good news. Queensland is the country’s worst performer. It has a target of 50 per cent renewables by 2030 but is not on track to achieve it, with numerous projects stalled and others seemingly shelved. The target is not legislated. Queensland is also hosting the controversial Adani mine, which could emit the same amount of carbon per year as all of Vietnam.
Yet overall, things aren’t looking too bad. The federal government has acknowledged that we are likely to reach 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 (thanks to state efforts), and our national energy market operator has said that we are likely to reach 73 per cent renewable energy by 2042 even by relatively conservative estimates.
So yes, the Australian government deserves criticism. Its current levels of investment in combating climate change are abysmal. But to those reading this from overseas, have faith. We’re quietly getting there.