WA election changes the conversation on climate change – ABC News

Posted: February 27, 2021 at 3:19 am

On a packed, sun-drenched oval at the University of Western Australia's "O Day", thousands of boisterous first-year students wander excitedly from stall to stall, signing up for as much fun as possible.

The euphoria is palpable. The pandemic is forgotten for now. The future is theirs for the taking.

Amid the sea of tents, the political parties are out in force, hoping to boost their young membership and win some votes, ahead of the WA state election on March 13.

A bizarre cardboard cut-out of the Queen is propped precariously against the Young Liberals' stall while just around the corner, at Young Labor's tent, a similar life-size model of Labor Premier, Mark McGowan, is attracting a lot more attention.

Selfies with "Markie", who has been experiencing rock-star treatment over his handling of COVID-19, are definitely a thing for these first-time voters.

But, pressed on what they care about as the election draws closer, almost all of the students who spoke to the ABC turn a little more serious, nominating "secure jobs" and "climate change" as two of the most important issues.

Molly Standish, a computer science student, said she was excited to be voting for the first time.

"Climate change is a very important thing to me," she said.

"I think I'd like to have an environment that is around for my kids and my kids' kids."

That brings us to one of the more remarkable aspects of the highly unusual election campaign unfolding in the west.

The WA Liberal opposition stunned just about everyone when it departed from the party's traditional non-committal stance on climate change and vowed to close coal-fired power stations within four years, setting a target for Government to reach net zero emissions by 2030.

The politics, the policies and the people. We've collected all our coverage on the election campaign here.

Its New Energy Jobs Plan, which includes boosting wind and solar to power a hydrogen export industry, has been ridiculed by Labor as likely to cost billions and lead to huge job losses, higher bills and black-outs.

Since then, the Liberal leader Zac Kirkup has all but raised the white flag, admitting the party could be decimated by a Labor landslide.

But, by kicking the ball onto the climate debate field, renewable energy groups say the Liberals have "lifted the bar" on cutting down on fossil fuels and this could have lasting consequences, beyond the election.

Ian Porter has 45 years experience working in the oil, gas, power and nuclear industries.

He now heads up a volunteer lobby group, Sustainable Energy Now WA, and says the Liberals' surprise policy has changed the dynamics around the debate.

"I think the Liberal Party's policy is definitely stronger because they have said all state-based assets will be carbon-free by 2030," Mr Porter said.

"Labor has an aspirational target, it's not actually a legislated target, they're saying net zero by 2050.

"I think we're going to see that the Labor Party will be forced to move to this new platform of much tougher environmental policy moving forward."

WA Labor announced its climate policy late last year, topping it up earlier this month with a promise of $240 million to build standalone power systems, including solar and batteries, across the state's regions.

It has also released a 20-year blueprint for the future of WA's main electricity system, but gives no set deadline for closing all coal-fired power stations, saying they still play an important role in the power mix.

Mr Porter said the electricity and transport sectors were the "low-hanging fruit" to bring down WA's emissions.

According to the latest available figures, Australia's total emissions for the year to June 2020 fell 16.6 per cent from 2005 levels.

However, the most recent state-wide figures available show that WA's emissions increased by 21.1 per cent between 2005 and 2018, while in every other state, they fell.

"WA is one of the most carbon-intensive places in the world," Mr Porter said.

"We represent an enormous carbon footprint on a per capita basis.

"The problem with [emission] targets for the Government is that they have the gas industry lobby behind them giving them a lot of pressure."

Australia's peak oil and gas body released its state election platform warning against impromptu decision making and state-based targets for carbon emissions.

WA Director of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Claire Wilkinson, said she was not aware of Liberal policy before the party's announcement and decisions made without consultation with industry ran the risk of deterring investment in projects.

"It didn't talk about natural gas which is surprising given nearly half our energy supply in Western Australia is powered by gas and it's got a really big role to play as we move towards a cleaner energy future," she said.

"Climate change should be addressed at a national level with policies that are consistent with the Paris agreement.

"We don't see that the states have a need, or a requirement, to set state targets."

"APPEA and our companies actually already have quite a strong focus on reducing emissions and many have got targets of net zero emissions by 2050, if not before."

In the south-west coal town of Collie, the shire president, Sarah Stanley, is scathing about the Liberal Party's proposed shutdown of coal-fired power.

"It's an ambitious policy. Obviously it's one that a lot of us would like to see at some point in the future a zero emissions energy environment but we've got to keep in mind the reality of bringing that to bear," she said.

"What voters need to keep in mind is that we want reliable electricity across our gridit needs to be cheap, it needs to be there when we need it."

In an election overshadowed by the popularity of a Premier, others issues have been sidelined and the Liberal Party's energy policy is a "difficult sell" to its own base, according to Notre Dame University political analyst, Martin Drum.

But Mr Drum said it did have the potential to shift the conversation around climate policy, if it was a lasting Liberal position.

"The difficult thing is that when you announce that you are going to take action on climate change, it's very difficult to walk that back," he said.

"Kevin Rudd found that out in 2010.

"The Liberal policy does have the potential to push Labor further with their own policies around the generation of power in WA.

"It allows the Liberal Party to aggressively attack Labor on that issue on energy policyover the next three to four years, if we don't see action in that area.

"It could be what we might call a two-term strategy where you announce something even if you can't win an election.

"By the next time around, it's suddenly a lot more appealable."

In the meantime, Ian Porter, one of WA's 1,500 electric vehicle drivers, is encouraged by both the major parties' promises to upgrade the state's fast-charging network although he says much more needs to be done to incentivise the uptake of EVs.

He called for bi-partisanship after the March 13 election.

"To put climate at the forefront," he said.

"Not for the sake of old guys like me but for the young people."

Rob Dean, the chair of the Tesla Owners Club of WA wants more certainty on the time-line for rolling out the new EV infrastructure.

Currently, there are no fast-charging stations north of Geraldton.

"To make electric cars go mainstream, we need DC charging, fast charging where people are not inconvenienced, where they have enough time to stop, have a cup of coffeeand then keep going," he said.

"The policies from the two major parties are quite good.

"The fear among a lot of electric vehicle owners is that that policy will take a long time to enact.

"Most politicians think that we won't be moving to renewables and electric vehicles until after 2030.

"It's going to happen a lot sooner than that, so they need to start acting now."

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WA election changes the conversation on climate change - ABC News

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