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What Canada can learn from Australia’s plans for going green

In the Stephen Harper years, Canada’s climate reputation was subpar – winning the dubious distinction of “fossil of the year” from a collection of environmental groups.

That began to change in 2015. The Liberals were elected and backed the landmark Paris Agreement at that year’s United Nations climate conference. Last year, the Liberals upped a promise to cut greenhouse gases to between 40 and 45 per cent by 2030 – even if there’s not been much actual progress on lowering emissions to date.

Australia, in many ways a southern hemisphere mirror of Canada’s, is going through a similar shift.

A decade ago, Australia briefly introduced a small and limited carbon tax, which was scrapped by a centre-right government in 2014. At last year’s UN climate meeting in Glasgow, environmental groups branded Australia a “colossal fossil.” This spring, in what was called a “climate election” in Australia – following recent years of extreme weather, including historic wildfires – the centre-left Labor Party won power.

Australia may avoid another colossal fossil award at this year’s UN climate conference, which starts Sunday in Egypt. But the country’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is hardly a revolutionary.

Like the Trudeau Liberals, with their $26-billion investment in the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and expansion, Mr. Albanese has promised a balance between emission reductions and economic reality. He isn’t planning to shut down his country’s fossil fuel output, much of which is exported, nor is he planning a carbon tax. But he is promising big things. In September, Australia’s parliament passed climate legislation that includes a 43-per-cent cut in emissions by 2030 – about the same as Canada’s goal.

The similarities go on. Mr. Albanese is trying to cut emissions without overly disrupting an economy that, like Canada’s, is heavily reliant on exporting fossil fuels. (In Australia’s case, that’s coal and natural gas.) Agriculture is a significant industry in both countries, and Mr. Albanese is also avoiding any big cuts there.

One key difference is that Australia’s electrical grid remains reliant on fossil fuels. That’s where Australia is making a big bet on industrial policy to reduce emissions, as is the United States. Of A$25-billion pledged for climate action in Australia’s recent federal budget, 80 per cent of the money will go to “rewiring the nation” – transmission projects to help clean up its power supply.

In Canada, with lots of electricity from hydro and nuclear, it is oil and gas extraction, along with transportation, that are the largest emitters, half of our total. In Australia, it’s electricity and heating at roughly 40 per cent. Coal still dominates Australia’s grid and, together with natural gas, fossil fuels generate about 70 per cent of the power.

Renewables, however, are surging – in a country with sunshine so abundant that some estimates claim Australia could generate enough juice to power every country on earth. Australia wants to reach 80 per cent renewable power by 2030. The government’s push will help propel change already in motion. The company that runs the country’s largest coal plant plans to close it in 2025, seven years early, because it can’t compete with the falling cost of renewable energy. A quarter of houses in Australia now have rooftop solar, and one forecast sees annual additions of rooftop solar as generating energy equivalent to that massive, and soon to be closed, coal plant.

Australia’s turnaround is welcome. It’s also essential in a world where the worst forecasts of climate change have been avoided, but heating is still predicted to hit between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. That’s far above the Paris goal of 1.5 C. The consequences could be severe, from human health – heat deaths and the spread of infectious diseases – to regular and costly extreme-weather batterings.

But as in Australia, what’s emerging is the realization that cutting emissions doesn’t have to mean impoverishing modern economies. There are lots of small opportunities to find efficiencies, and lots of big opportunities to switch to new technologies. There is a lot of money to be made, and saved.

An air of gloom hangs over this year’s UN meeting. Progress feels slow. But in some places, a lot of progress has been made, quickly. Australia is an example of how much things can change, and how quickly. It’s still early days, but the former laggard could be a model for many other countries, including Canada.

Source: The Globe and Mail