The Australia Institute: Majority wants real climate action

A protest for the climate in Melbourne in August. Photo: Jacob Andrewartha

New research by The Australia Institute (TAI) shows an overwhelming majority of people want governments to take serious action to curb climate change.

The Climate of the Nation 2022 report by Audrey Quicke and Sumithri Venketasubramanian was launched on the eve of the United Nations COP27 climate summit in Egypt.

The annual report details people’s beliefs and attitudes towards climate change, its causes and solutions. Its findings are in line with what has been dubbed the “climate election” in May.

Given that climate change devastation is already being felt, with floods across large parts of the east coast displacing thousands of people and wrecking homes and businesses, it is not surprising a high 80% said they are concerned about more droughts, floods and bushfires.

An equally high percentage (80%) agrees that climate must be taken into account when considering new fossil fuel projects. A huge 79% support the phase-out of coal-fired power stations.

As rising seas obliterate islands in the Torres Strait, floods devastate Pakistan, and Western Europe, the Middle East and China swelter through record-breaking heat waves and droughts, climate denial is implausible.

The report found 80% believe climate change is real and 75% are “concerned” or “very concerned”. Younger people are more likely to believe climate change is happening (91%) than those over 65 years old (still a high 73%).

Stop coal, gas and oil

Warning about Australia being one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels, the authors state that new coal and gas projects on the drawing board would lead to “emissions equivalent to almost twice the annual emissions from global aviation [and] more than three times Australia’s annual emissions”.

“To have the best chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, fossil fuels must be left in the ground,” they said.

A majority wants an end to fossil fuels, a planned transition away from coal mining and a windfall profits tax on the oil and gas industry.

This is despite most of those surveyed having an inflated idea of how many people coal and gas corporations actually employ, and the sector’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP).

Interestingly, across “all political affiliations”, the report said respondents “are more likely to think coal-fired power stations should be phased out than kept running”.

Three quarters want governments to plan to phase out coal mining and transition into other industries and 64% want to stop new coal mines.

Gas is also unpopular, with just 4% saying it is their first choice for energy.

Around 57% support the International Energy Agency’s push for no new fossil fuel projects to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Half of the respondents opposed the $11.6 billion a year in public subsidies that go to the coal, oil and gas industries. That’s $22,000 a minute.

An overwhelming majority (92%) of respondents want public funds to instead be spent on healthcare (63%), cost of living support (48%), climate action (43%) and education (34%).

Renewables on the rise

Electricity generation from fossil fuels is Australia’s largest source of emissions. However, renewables provided one third of electricity through 2021 and the rise in benign energy supply is growing.

Most respondents (74%) agreed that a government plan to ensure the transition from coal to renewable is needed.

The report cited “just transition” policies in Germany and Spain that aim to diversify regional economies and support affected workers.

Solar was the most popular renewable energy source, with 75% selecting it in their top three from nine options. Wind energy came in second (60%), followed by hydro (40%). Coal was selected by just 17%.

The report attributes the strong desire for a transition to the steep rise of gas and electricity prices.

The unprecedented rise in energy prices internationally is being blamed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though it predated that war and is largely driven by energy company profiteering.

Asked who is responsible for rising energy prices, 48% said the privatisation of electricity generation and supply, 46% blamed excessive profit margins of electricity companies, 42% blamed excessive gas exports and 40% blamed policy uncertainty.

The report found differences between age groups. Older people were more likely to blame privatisation, whereas younger respondents were more likely to blame previous governments and climate impacts.

Only 26% believed that renewables are “unreliable” — a propaganda line of fossil fuel conservatives — and 29% believe renewable energy is “expensive”, despite the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) ranking wind and solar the cheapest sources of energy generation and storage.

The report found 46% ranked nuclear energy either first or last on their list of preferred energy sources. Respondents who ranked nuclear their “preferred energy source” were less likely to believe that climate change is happening.

Transport emissions need to be curbed

Climate of the Nation 2022 includes a section on transport solutions for the first time.

“Transport is the third highest emitting sector in Australia and one of the fastest growing sources of emissions” increasing by 52% over 1990–2020.

As cars and buses emit the most emissions, with the rest coming from rail, aviation and shipping, there is a need for a much bigger investment in public and active transport solutions.

Australia’s transport energy efficiency is poor compared to the other top 25 energy-consuming countries. This is due to a lack of fuel efficiency standards and limited public transport.

Two-thirds of respondents supported the introduction of national fuel efficiency standards and 82% supported high-speed rail connecting major cities to lower emissions.

“To curb rising emissions, Australia’s transport system must shift from being car-centered … to one that prioritises public transport, cycling and walking,” the report said.

Most respondents (62%) want governments to introduce policies to shift people from cars to public transport, walking and cycling. This rises to 69% of those aged 18–34.

The report noted that “road-focused infrastructure spending” accompanied by “lower-density development” made it “difficult for many people to reach services, jobs and destinations without a car”.

Most support the United Nations recommendation for 20% of transport spending to be dedicated to active transport solutions. Australia spends around 2%.

Respondents frequently listed physical and mental health as a benefit of active transport, as well as social and community benefits, cost and environmental benefits.

There was strong support (80%) for making streets more walkable, including investing in bike paths so cyclists and pedestrians do not have to share space. People with a disability cited a lack of adequate infrastructure, including footpaths, as serious hazards.

Electric vehicles

Most (62%) support schemes to encourage the use of electric bikes and scooters.

Electric vehicle uptake has been slow compared to other countries and two-thirds of respondents wanted the federal government to do more to encourage the use of electric vehicles, including: a government-funded network of charging stations; new apartment blocks be required to include charging stations; and subsidies to reduce electric vehicle purchase costs.

Most (72%) want people on lower incomes to be prioritised for electric vehicle subsidies.

Two-thirds supported the plan for all new car sales to be zero emissions vehicles by 2035. Regional participants were more critical, wanting governments to lead the way.

Seventy-five per cent supported bus fleets transitioning to electric by 2030. Regional groups supported electric buses over electric cars, putting the onus on governments and councils to reduce emissions.

Respondents strongly supported (76%) electric vehicles being made here, with 79% saying it would benefit the economy, society and environment.

Climate integrity

While governments and businesses promote carbon offsets and carbon capture and storage (CCS) as “solutions” to reduce greenhouse gases, the report noted that there is no framework to assess the claims.

Two-thirds said the government should check the accuracy of CCS claims. Just under half the respondents (44%) said they knew what a carbon credit is. Only 9% said they were “very familiar” with CCS.

Once informed, 61% said they believed CCS should be funded by the polluters, not governments.

The report found a significant gap between the perception and actual value of the coal industry to the economy. Respondents believed the coal industry employs up to 10% of the workforce, whereas it is just 0.3% or 41,600 workers.

People also overestimated the value of coal mining to the economy, believing, on average, that coal accounts for 13% of GDP: it is closer to 1.4%.

The federal Labor government has announced it will bid to host COP31, along with Pacific Island neighbours, in 2026. For Australia to be a world leader on climate change, as the TAI research states a majority do want, governments must invest in renewable technologies, a just transition for affected workers and it must support developing countries (including the Pacific Islands) make the energy transition.

[Join the COP27 protest for real climate action in Sydney on November 12.]