KUALA LUMPUR - Rapidly phasing out coal power plants and mines will be vital for Australia's new government to meet its more ambitious carbon emissions targets, environmentalists said, while urging renewable energy investments for mining communities.
Australia's Labor Party formed a new government on Monday, after unprecedented support for the Greens and climate-focused independents ended nearly a decade of rule by the conservative coalition in Saturday's general election.
New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of centre-left Labor has promised to end the "climate wars" - disagreements over the need for action on climate change that have dogged politics in Australia for years.
"The election was a strong vote for climate action," Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University in Perth, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A phase-out of coal power is "crucial" to meet the Labor government's new climate goals, added Fontaine, who said Greens and independents may push for even more ambitious targets.
Australia's dependence on coal-fired power makes it one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita.
Green groups have long lobbied the federal government to stop supporting fossil fuels to better tackle climate change, especially after devastating bushfires and floods in recent years.
"Climate action (on emissions) will be the key, headliner legislation," said Fontaine, referring to the new government.
Given existing momentum, the power generation sector will likely be the first to seize the opportunity, he said, citing infrastructure improvements and rules to ensure government vehicle fleets are electric.
LAGGARD TO LEADER?
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Australia - often seen as a regional laggard on climate efforts - pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28% by 2030 versus 2005 levels.
But Prime Minister Albanese has set a new target of cutting carbon emissions by 43% by 2030, although he has yet to commit to curbs on new coal mines or scrapping existing fossil fuel projects.
The government's new emissions reduction target is not in line with the Paris accord aim of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, said Bill Hare, CEO at think-tank Climate Analytics in Australia.
Instead, the country needs to target emissions reductions of 60% by 2030 from 2005 levels, he added.
According to analysis by research coalition Climate Action Tracker, Australia's current climate policies are "highly insufficient", citing continuing support for new coal and gas projects - with 114 in the pipeline.
"The projected expansion of new coal mines and liquefied natural gas production capacity ... would add to national emissions by 8% to 10% by 2030," said Hare.
"Coal power will likely decline more rapidly under the Labor Party policies - given they have a higher renewable energy target - but Labor does not have an explicit target for a coal phase-out," he added.
Coal power plants in Australia - with a few exceptions - are mostly old and near the end of their life spans, so early closures would be one of the easiest routes to decarbonisation, environmentalists said.
Australia's biggest coal-fired power plant, Eraring, is due to shut in 2025 - seven years earlier than previously planned.
Retiring coal power plants is also made easier by high commodity prices and the rising cost of producing power, although this in-turn makes halting coal for export a greater challenge, according to Fontaine of Murdoch University.
To facilitate the process, state and federal governments must work together to provide support, training and transition plans to communities impacted by any closures, he said.
"Finding a transition for the affected workers and communities will be the key for the new Labor government," Fontaine said.
Ensuring new clean power facilities are built to replace fossil-fuel plants is vital, as failure to do so could cause price spikes and potentially harm the reliability of supplies, he added.
"The absolute single most important thing is to build new renewable generation before shutting the old coal power down," he said.
Currently, Australia's energy consumption is dominated by fossil fuels, with coal providing about 40%, oil 34% and gas 22%, according to government data.
Labor has set a target of renewables providing power for about 80% of Australia's electricity needs by 2030.
The new government will likely look to market forces to help drive down emissions in the coal and gas sector, said Mark Howden, director of the climate, energy and disaster solutions institute at the Australian National University.
Governments, investors and businesses around the world are under growing pressure to halt coal investments to help fight climate change, with some already committing to do so.
A tightening up of environmental laws - making it harder for new extraction of fossil fuels - also appears likely under Australia's new government, Howden said.
"The question is not so much whether this will work, but whether it will work quickly enough to meet the various emission-reduction targets," he said.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)