Australia’s first climate change legislation in a decade has passed federal parliament with support from the Greens and key crossbench senators.
Labor’s climate bill – which includes the national targets of cutting emissions by at least 43% by 2030 (compared with 2005) and reaching net zero by 2050 – cleared the Senate 37 votes to 30 after the government accepted some minor amendments proposed by the ACT independent David Pocock.
It was backed by Pocock and the Jacqui Lambie Network and opposed by the Coalition, One Nation and United Australia’s Ralph Babet.
The amended bill returned to the House of Representatives for the formality of a final vote at 4pm on Thursday. The climate change minister, Chris Bowen, told the parliament “today is a good day for our parliament and our country, and we’re going to need many more of them”.
He said the passage of the legislation would send a message to the world that Australia was driving down emissions and was “serious about reaping the economic opportunities from affordable renewable energy”.
“Legislating these targets gives certainty to investors and participants in the energy market and will help stabilise our energy system,” he said.
The Liberal MP Bridget Archer again crossed the floor to support Labor’s legislation, having argued her northern Tasmanian community expected her to vote in support of action on climate change. It passed the lower house 86 votes to 50.
Bowen said other elements of the bill – including a requirement that the minister give an annual climate statement to parliament and strengthened public advisory powers for the Climate Change Authority – would improve transparency and accountability.
The Senate vote followed an at times fractured debate in which Pocock was forced to withdraw an unparliamentary remark after describing contributions from some senators who questioned the science of climate change as “bullshit”.
The passage of the bill was broadly welcomed by business groups and the environment movement, though climate activists urged the government to do more.
It comes more than eight years after the Abbott government repealed a climate bill that included an economy-wide carbon price scheme. The 2022 legislation is comparatively modest and does not include measures to cut emissions in the private sector. Those will follow in the months ahead when the government attempts to change the safeguard mechanism, which covers emissions from big industry.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said the passage of the bill was a “small step” in tackling the climate crisis, but immediately flagged the party would pressure the government on the safeguard, which was introduced by the Coalition under Tony Abbott ostensibly to prevent increases in industrial emissions. In practice, companies have been allowed to increase pollution without penalty and industrial emissions have continued to rise since it began in 2016.
The government has released a consultation paper on changes to the safeguard mechanism that it intends to introduce next July. It would involve 215 major polluting facilities covered by the scheme being set new emissions baselines, or limits, that would be gradually reduced over time. Companies will either have to cut emissions onsite or buy carbon credits to stay within their baseline.
Bandt framed the debate over the safeguard as being primarily about coal and gas developments, saying 50% of the pollution covered by the scheme came from fossil fuel industries. He said Labor’s choices over the safeguard design – including whether it hoped to win support from the Greens or Coalition to pass legislative changes needed – would “set the course of climate policy for the next decade and determine whether pollution rises or falls”.
He said the policy was a “rent seeker’s paradise” and “the wrong way to go” to cut emissions from industry, but that the Greens were ready to work with Labor to improve as long as the changes ensured that pollution actually went down.
“We’ve shown very clearly we’ve been prepared to work constructively with the government to get action on climate,” Bandt said. “Now the rubber hits the road as the government starts to tell us exactly how they’re going to cut pollution from these big coal and gas plants.”