Coal versus climate in Australia

As G20 summit approaches, Australia’s coal-friendly government refuses to put climate change on the agenda.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described the science on climate change as 'crap' [Getty Images]

Australia continues to frustrate efforts by fellow G20 members to include climate change on the agenda at the upcoming leaders’ summit in the eastern city of Brisbane this weekend.

As the host nation sets the G20 meeting’s agenda, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – an avowed sceptic of human-caused climate change – has resisted calls for global warming to be discussed when world leaders gather on November 15 and 16.

Despite a recent official draft summary of proceedings appearing to make token references to climate change, the level of importance afforded to the issue remains unclear. Climate change was on the agenda at the previous eight G20 summits.

Since forming the government in September 2013, Abbott has repealed Australia’s nascent emissions trading scheme and slashed funding to agencies and programmes promoting renewable energy and the environment. 

The mining industry has been central to the Australian economy over the past decade and its contribution will be more important than ever in the years ahead.

by - Ian Macfarlane, industry minister

In 2009, he described the established science of climate change as “crap” and argued against imposing financial constraints on heavy polluters. A decade-long boom in the minerals and resources industries has strengthened the sector’s influence on politics and contributed to Australia becoming one of the world’s leading carbon emitters per capita.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane made clear the government’s opposition to tackle climate change and raise costs in the mining sector in March.

“The mining industry has been central to the Australian economy over the past decade and its contribution will be more important than ever in the years ahead,” he said, adding scrapping the carbon tax would encourage the industry’s growth.

Coal versus climate

The repeal of carbon pricing has raised questions on Australia’s ability to meet modest carbon reduction commitments – five percent of 2000 levels by 2020. Abbott champions a “direct action” scheme rewarding big polluters for cutting emissions.

Australia is the world’s second largest net exporter of coal, one of the world’s leading sources of carbon emissions. The Minerals Council, an industry lobby group, said coal accounts for 4.6 percent of GDP, generating $50bn for the national economy and raising $24bn in taxes. 

Campbell Newman, premier of Queensland state, put the political equation bluntly in June, saying: “We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat, we all need to understand that.”

Opening a new coal mine in October, Abbott lavished unbridled praise on the industry, describing it as “good for humanity”. While the comments confounded many who consider climate change an issue of critical importance, they surprised few engaged in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Both Australia’s major parties have either been captured by the mining lobby or are intimidated by it,” Clive Hamilton, a professor in public ethics at Charles Sturt University, told Al Jazeera.

The Abbot Point coal terminal in Queensland state [EPA]

Mine expansion

Recent corruption scandals exposed extensive links and illegal deals between the resources industry and politicians. An independent inquiry into corruption in the state of New South Wales identified 26 reforms to lessen corruption in the state’s management of coal resources.

“Corruption in NSW is small beer compared to the corruption of the policy process at a national level,” said Hamilton.

Australia is in the middle of a production boom involving the opening or expansion of 120 new mines. Two of the biggest, the Carmichael and Alpha mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, will add a combined 90 million tonnes to Australia’s production each year. Their development will include expansion of port facilities in close proximity to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.   

Government approval for the projects followed a highly critical UNESCO report, released in June, threatening to list the site as “in danger” should concerns over rapid coastal development within the reef’s ecosystem not be assuaged. International investment banks have signalled an unwillingness to provide funds to the projects, citing UNESCO’s concerns.

The Alpha and Carmichael mines, both backed by Indian mining companies looking to secure supply to India’s coal-fuelled power stations, have met opposition in Australia and India. Environmental groups claim burning coal for electricity production is responsible for between 85,000 and 110,000 deaths in India each year.

Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust (CAT) has initiated legal proceedings in Australia’s courts opposing the Carmichael mine’s development, on the basis of the resultant environmental damage in India and Australia.

“Burning an additional 60 million tonnes of Australian coal in India would add to the number of deaths and increase the number of people suffering from asthma and chest ailments,” said Debi Groenka from CAT.

Realistically, there will be no recovery of coal prices in the foreseeable future and a response other than one that produces more of something that's not profitable is required.

by - Tom Sanzillo, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

Coal is considered a cheap energy source, but the electricity it produces is out of reach for one-quarter of India’s population. Groenka said affordable renewable energy sources are more likely to provide electricity to India’s impoverished millions than a new fleet of coal-fired power plants.

“The establishment of new coal power stations in India will result in the loss of biodiversity and deplete the natural resources on which 300 million Indians – who live below the poverty line and have no electricity – are dependent for their survival,” said Groenka.

Carbon tipping point

The financial and environmental stakes on the climate change debate are high. According to Greenpeace, emissions burned from Galilee Basin projects alone would be enough to create a global carbon tipping point.

Despite the coal rush, prices are at five-year lows, having halved since 2011. In Australia, miners are tightening their belts – shedding hundreds of jobs in recent months in search of efficiency gains – but remain set to triple production by the decade’s end.

“Australia’s politicians should take a deep breath and look for other options,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “Realistically, there will be no recovery of coal prices in the foreseeable future, and a response other than one that produces more of something that’s not profitable is required.”

In June, the United States released plans to oversee 30-percent reductions in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. Such mandated cuts are expected to see coal power stations there made redundant. 

Any discussion of the need for a concerted effort to reduce emissions at this week’s G20 meeting will make uncomfortable discussion for Prime Minister Abbott, unable to escape attendance as he did at September’s UN Climate Change summit in New York.

Source: Al Jazeera