The year 2022 is likely to be seen as one in which Australians started to act as though the climate and environmental crises are not just abstract ideas that mostly happen somewhere else or in the distant future.
A political reckoning
The country finally had its long-promised climate election, and it was emphatic. Social research indicates climate concern helped drive swings from the Coalition to Labor in some areas, and from the major parties to “teal” independents and the Greens in others. It followed long-term campaigns by the conservation movement and some political candidates to frame tackling the climate crisis as an opportunity, not just a cost.
According to work by Rebecca Huntley, a social researcher, it was the first time extreme weather events – specifically, the black summer bushfires and catastrophic floods in northern New South Wales and Brisbane – clearly changed votes.
The new Labor government immediately lifted the country’s minimum 2030 emissions reduction target from 26% to 43% (compared with 2005 levels ) and pushed through modest, but symbolically significant, climate change legislation. The climate change minister, Chris Bowen, began work on policies to cut emissions from major industry, drive the uptake of electric vehicles, create an offshore wind energy industry and reach an 82% share of renewable electricity by the end of the decade.
Some details, including a revamp of the Tony Abbott-era safeguard mechanism and a review of a controversial carbon credit scheme, are due early in the new year. Experts say the new policies will need to be ambitious. While a significant improvement, Labor’s climate goals do not yet live up to what scientists say is necessary, or the government’s rallying rhetoric on the global stage.
The damage done, and to come
The floods that wrecked Lismore and surrounding areas in northern New South Wales and engulfed central Brisbane in February caused multiple deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage to homes and infrastructure. They were also just the start. Australia’s eastern seaboard was thumped throughout the year as a third-consecutive La Nina over the Pacific Ocean helped drive unprecedented rain in many areas, including the country’s biggest city, Sydney.
Scientists said while rising atmospheric emissions did not cause the wet conditions, they loaded the dice, making it more likely heavy rain would have a major impact. For every 1C of global heating, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture and Australia is nearly 1.5C hotter than in pre-industrial times.
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Adaptation remains an under-discussed part of the climate equation in Australia, but the floods prompted fresh warnings that parts of the country may become uninsurable and raised questions about whether it is wise to rebuild on floodplains and in cyclone-prone areas in the north.
The banking regulator cautiously weighed in, suggesting big banks could become unwilling to lend to households and businesses in the most at-risk areas as climate losses escalate.
Nature in freefall. Can it be fixed?
A five-year government report on the state of the environment, finished in 2021 but not released until after Labor was elected, set out evidence that the country’s natural heritage is in poor and deteriorating health due to the climate crisis, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, mining – and generally being taken for granted by its custodians.
Hundreds of species, including the koala and many less charismatic plants and animals, have been newly listed as threatened over the past decade. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and other ecological sites continue to be cleared. Nineteen ecosystems were said to be showing signs of collapse or near collapse.
The shocking report card followed years of deep cuts at the federal environment department, hundreds of recovery plans for threatened species not being completed and governments prioritising development over conservation. Environmental offsets used to justify project approvals have often been inadequately designed and sometimes just not delivered.
The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, has acknowledged the scale of the challenge and promised to act. She set a zero extinction target and plans a major overhaul of environment laws, including the introduction of a national environment protection agency, next year. The design will be important.
The science and politics of reef protection
The world’s largest reef system suffered through a fourth mass bleaching event in seven years, with aerial surveys showing almost no reefs unaffected across a 1,200km stretch. It was the first time mass bleaching had occurred in a La Niña year, when temperatures are generally cooler.
The response was familiar: denial from a vocal minority in the media; government funding to address local factors, including pollution from farms; acknowledgment that the 2,300 reef system is in strife unless global heating is more rapidly addressed.
As always, the health of the 2,300 reef system is a complicated story. The Australia Institute of Marine Science later reported the reef’s north and central areas had the highest levels of coral in 36 years. But scientists urged caution in interpreting the results, warning they could be short lived, as the fast growing corals that have driven the increase were most at risk from heatwaves, storms and the crown-of-thorns starfish.
In November, it was revealed a UN-backed mission had found the reef should be placed on a list of world heritage sites “in danger”. Plibersek said the government was doing more than its predecessor to protect the landmark, and would fight against the change in 2023.
Reasons to be hopeful: renewable energy
The bright news on climate action in Australia continues to be the rapid uptake of renewable energy, which is booming despite the previous federal government’s attempts to slow it down. Solar, wind and hydro energy provided little more than 20% of electricity on the east coast three years ago; over the past year it has been 35%, and over the past month 43%.
Solar power, in particular, has grown at an extraordinary pace, both from regional solar farms and on rooftops. More than 3m Australian households have solar panels. Their cheap supply in the middle of the day is quickly cutting short the life of old, failing coal plants. State government renewable energy policies are expected to accelerate the transition.
There are challenges in this – the grid needs a massive expansion of energy storage and interconnection to ensure a reliable and secure supply. Multi-billion dollar “rewiring the nation” deals between Canberra and some states – including a $7.8bn pledge this week with NSW – and a recent agreement to effectively underwrite new batteries and other forms of storage should help.
Reasons to ask questions: fossil fuels
The flipside to this optimism is that the coal and gas export industries continue to expand, with new projects likely to come before the government for approval.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent fossil fuel prices skyward. The fallout is adding to a cost-of-living crisis for Australian consumers and led to a heated showdown between the government and the gas industry, which resisted steps to curtail its war profits until parliament stepped in.
The boom times for fossil fuel companies won’t last for ever, but has created a burst of industry enthusiasm for projects previously considered unlikely to go ahead. Government data shows there are now 118 coal and gas developments in the “investment pipeline”, more than a year ago. Many won’t progress – 80 are at feasibility stage or earlier – but some are likely to be submitted for federal approval next year. Other decisions are already pending.
Labor has tried to walk a line on fossil fuels, promising to drive emissions cuts at home but not prevent new gas and coal exports that have private financial backing and meet on-ground environmental standards. It is an illogical stance, in part because export developments also release pollution within Australia.
Bowen ended the year rejecting industry claims that gas is a “transition fuel” or “low emissions” while saying its flexibility makes it a useful “background” supporting energy source. A big question for the government next year will be the extent to which its policies reflect this by deterring new fossil fuel developments, given they appear unlikely to explicitly rule them out.