The Morrison government was urged by major industry groups and investors to give popular draft climate change legislation from the independent MP Zali Steggall a chance at becoming law during a parliamentary inquiry.
Major business representatives gave evidence alongside conservationists, scientists and health professionals that broadly backed the proposed laws, which would legislate a 2050 net zero emissions target for Australia.
Widespread support continues to grow for Steggall’s bill, but will need backing from a reluctant government to allow it to be debated in parliament.
Steggall’s bill would also set out a pathway to reach net zero and establish an independent climate change commission to oversee annual climate risk assessments.
The UK government’s independent Climate Change Committee has also backed the bill in a submission to the inquiry, saying the bill set out a framework similar to its own 2008 Climate Change Act, which had helped “provide clear signals to investors, help build political consensus and navigate political challenges, and encourage an evidence-based approach to climate policy”.
The Committee on the Environment and Energy is conducting an inquiry into the draft bill and held the first of two public hearings on Friday, with a second scheduled for Monday.
Anna Freeman, a policy director at the Clean Energy Council representing Australia’s renewable energy industry, said the proposed laws “provide the prospect of us finally ending the climate policy impasse that’s afflicted Australia for the past decade”.
Unlike more than 100 countries and many of Australia’s major trading partners, the Morrison government has refused to adopt a net zero emissions target by 2050 – saying only it wants to get there as quickly as possible.
At the same time, the government has touted a “gas-led recovery” from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Australian Industry Group’s climate and energy policy adviser, Tennant Reed, told the inquiry: “Were the parliament to pass this bill it would be a strong contribution, but not the last word, of the long task of building a successful Australian response to climate change.”
Reed said there were other options open to the government to give businesses and investors more certainty, but Steggall’s bill – with some amendments – was “sensible and workable”.
The Business Council of Australia – a group representing mining, retail, manufacturing, banking and energy bosses – has also formally backed Steggall’s legislation.
Both the Planning Institute of Australia and the Property Council of Australia voiced strong backing for the bill during the inquiry, which Steggall said had received about 6,200 submissions.
Simon O’Connor, the chief executive of the Responsible Investment Association Australasia, said policy uncertainty was risking a loss of billions of dollars in investment across multiple sectors.
The association has 350 members, including superannuation funds and investment managers, which collectively manage about $9tn of assets globally.
O’Connor said parliament should consider the bill, which was a “strong step” in creating the certainty for investors that would help unlock billions more in investment.
Conservation groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF-Australia, also voiced strong support for the bill. They recalled how climate heating was threatening Australia’s wildlife and habitats through fires, droughts, excess heat, coral bleaching and warming oceans.
Prof Lesley Hughes, representing the Climate Council and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, said it was a “no brainer” for Australia to take a lead on climate change action.
She said: “The bill is absolutely essential for Australia to be in a leadership position, rather than be an international embarrassment.”
Representatives for doctors and veterinarians that advocate for climate change action also supported the bill, saying livestock, wildlife and humans were already suffering from global heating.
The committee chairman, Liberal National MP Ted O’Brien, questioned several speakers who had said Australian investment in renewables was being held back, and that Australia’s performance in cutting emissions was poor.
He cited information provided by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources for the inquiry, which showed high levels of investment in renewables and emissions cuts on a per capita basis in Australia.
During the hearing, Steggall and the Labor MP Josh Burns pushed officials from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources to say if work had been done to project when Australia’s emissions might reach net zero.
Kushla Munro, an acting deputy secretary in the department, said work was “ongoing” and would form part of a long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy to be submitted to the United Nations’ climate convention ahead of the next major talks in Glasgow scheduled for November.
Rob Sturgiss, a general manager in the department, was asked by the Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman if it was practically possible to prepare a greenhouse gas emissions budget out to 2050.
“I think it’s maybe sensible [to do],” Sturgiss responded.
Steggall told the Guardian the chance of her bill being debated – and therefore a chance at becoming law – depended on the willingness of the Morrison government to listen to evidence coming from across industry, science and health.
She said across many sectors, representatives wanted “a cohesive framework” of policies that would chart a path to net zero by 2050.
“The prime minister has said he won’t let the international community pressure him” she said.
“But I’d hope he would listen to the Australian community. Will he listen to anyone other than the fossil fuel industry?
“Clearly there’s a strong appetite for this debate. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said: “When it comes to net zero, we want to get there as soon as possible. It’s a question of ‘how’, not ‘what’.
“But Ms Steggall’s bill is simply a plan for more process and more bureaucracy. It has nothing to offer on the ‘how’.”