Coal is the energy source that generates by far the most CO2, about 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, with coal-fired power plants the premier culprit. We all basically know this, because climate scientists have been saying it for decades.
And yet rich, coal-fired Australia — coal accounts for about 75% of Australia’s electricity generation — has refused at the COP26 environment summit in Glasgow to sign an agreement with 40 countries to phase out the dirtiest fuel.
And just as international interest in that decision was beginning to fade, with COP26 and attendant media stomping off to consider other environmental issues, Australia’s Resources Minister Keith Pitt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Australia was prepared to keep selling its coal to whomever would buy. And to hell, he seemed to say, with the environmental consequences.
“We have said very clearly we are not closing coal mines and we are not closing coal-fired power stations,” the Minister said. “We will continue to have markets for decades into the future. And if they’re buying … well, we are selling”.
The German national broadcaster, French daily Le Monde and numerous other world media carried the story within hours.
It bears repeating: the truth about coal — the coal truth, to borrow the title of David Ritter’s book a few years ago — is that it’s shockingly bad for the environment and human health and almost 90% of it according to a recent study in Nature, ought to just stay in the ground.
For Australia, the world’s sunniest continent and one of the windiest, there’s no earthly reason why the straight-forward replacement technologies of solar and wind can’t be more rigorously adopted through large-scale investment, especially when considerable momentum already exists. An energising bright spot on the generally gloomy climate change horizon, is that the cost of these job-creating technologies has plummeted in even the past five to 10 years.
The International Energy Agency’s tome-like World Energy Outlook – or “WEO”, a sectoral reference – reported last year that solar power has become, “the cheapest electricity in history”.
And yet, just days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his do-little “Australian Way” to net zero emissions by 2050, using unspecified “technology breakthroughs” — with nothing new mapped out for the critical years to 2030 — the British Prime Minister, European Commission and the United Nations all said that coal must rapidly exit the energy system if the world is to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Out with coal, says the COP26 agreement: for rich countries by the 2030s; for developing countries by the 2040s.
Meantime, Morrison’s cursory COP26 speech turned on an erroneous tale-teller’s gloat about Australia cutting CO2 emissions, when its total per capita greenhouse gas emissions are one of the highest in the world and some three times the international average.
According to Berlin-based Climate Analytics, Australia’s per capita carbon footprint, including exports, was recently nine times higher than China’s and 37 times that of India. It is also about four times higher than that of the United States (all three countries did not sign the COP26 text to phase out coal).
So, the hue of Australia’s position on climate change and coal in particular becomes clearer. Not only is Australia a major per capita contributor to climate change, and extremely exposed to climate change — as per the devastating mega-fires of 2019-20 — it also has fewer geographical and physical constraints than most countries to actually dealing with climate change. Australia ought to be ardently pro, both strong national and international actions intent on enacting solutions.
And yet the ‘coal truth’ is that Australian tax-payers subsidised the coal industry to the tune of a staggering $10.3 billion in the financial year to June 30, vastly more than the GDP of many of Australia’s ostensibly venerated regional friends, like Fiji and Vanuatu, facing existential threat from climate change.
The ‘coal truth’ is that the health impacts of coal, ranging from lung cancer and heart disease to premature death, cost Australian taxpayers an estimated $2.6 billion a year. The ‘coal truth’ is that burning the stuff emits toxic and carcinogenic substances into the air, water and land.
A fascinating essay by former political adviser Guy Pearse described the significant role mining has played in the Australian story. But he pointed out that the “rush that never ended”, as historian Geoffrey Blainey described it, has in fact been a history of boom and bust.
Today, the ‘coal truth’ is that Australia’s mining industry employs fewer Australians than McDonald’s and that Australia’s mining companies and energy producers are majority foreign-owned, so most of the profits go offshore.
If there’s no, or little action to phase out coal, the planetary bell that tolls may be for an ecological endgame at the bleakest end of what statisticians call, a “probability distribution of outcomes”. Climate Economics and Policy Centre director professor Frank Jotzo said last week, that a “cascading effect of climatic impacts” could mean, say, locking in El Niño, eventually making great tracts of south-eastern Australia virtually uninhabitable. The story then would be one of an Australian, not to say planetary nightmare, with no easy escape.