by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in The Canberra Times, 15 June 2019]
Australia’s debate on the climate crisis reached a new level of lunacy this past week. Almost nowhere else in the world is the climate debate so divorced from reality.
Firstly, Adani’s groundwater plan was approved by the Queensland government in a rushed process. This came after the former commonwealth environment minister rushed Adani’s water plan through federally. The CSIRO’s advice to both Commonwealth and Queensland governments was Adani’s groundwater model was “not fit for purpose”. Despite this, both have accepted Adani’s promise to fix the model later, after it has started mining coal.
Canberra school students earlier this year striked from school against Adani’s coal mine and climate change. Picture: Terry Cunningham
As writer and anthropologist Professor Marcia Langton observed on ABC’s The Drum: “If we want an economy run like Brazil or PNG, where political pressure and corruption can distort the decision-making process on issues as important as the largest coalmines in the world, then we should continue on the way we are.”
This week Energy Minister Angus Taylor dissembled that it was good news that Australia’s emissions have risen for the third year in a row (mainly due to LNG), because our LNG is replacing coal overseas, thereby reducing global emissions. A few years back, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to tell us exporting coal helped to reduce global emissions because Australia’s coal was “cleaner” than other countries’ coal.
It was a nonsense argument then and it is now. Basically, Taylor, like Turnbull before him, is trying to persuade us our crap doesn’t stink and that Australia happens to be uniquely blessed with the only pollution-reducing fossil fuels on Earth. Think about it. More coal and more gas pushes emissions down? Only in Australia would this pass for legitimate debate.
The very the same people who run this line also argue that stopping new mines and exporting less will make no difference. They can’t have it both ways.
For decades Australian governments and fossil fuel companies have tried try to distract Australians from the enormous climate impacts of our fossil fuel exports.
Australia’s fossil fuel exports contain more than twice as much CO2 potential as Australia’s domestic emissions. Australia is the biggest per capita domestic emitter in the OECD, and our exports do twice as much damage.
Let’s be clear, the science hasn’t changed – together, coal, gas and oil are the number one cause of the climate crisis engulfing this little planet we all share. More coal and gas exports will fuel more droughts, bushfires, floods and heatwaves. That’s a fact. And if we don’t have a plan to move beyond coal, gas and oil soon, the climate impacts will only get worse.
This year’s Queensland budget talks about needing to “build greater resilience … in the face of the headwinds, like more frequent natural disasters caused by climate change”. The damage bill from Queensland’s summer of bushfires and floods will be $1.3 billion – that’s from just one summer – entirely paid for by taxpayers. It is a special kind of madness to acknowledge in the budget the cost of climate impacts will grow, while rushing through approval for a new coal mine.
To avoid dangerous climate change and comply with the Paris Agreement, coal use needs to immediately decline and be almost entirely phased out by 2050.
There has never been a worse time in human history to approve or build a coal mine that aims to produce 60 million tonnes of coal per year for 90 years.
The fact Queensland voters swung away from Labor at the federal election doesn’t magically solve the climate crisis or change the science; the environment doesn’t negotiate. Burning fossil fuels for decades has increased the temperature of the oceans. Half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead and no amount of coal royalties can bring it back to life. We could pass a law prohibiting anyone from talking about it, but it’s the dead coral that’s driving tourists away from the reef, not the scientists and environmentalists who are sounding the alarm.
Adani’s mine, and all the proposed coal mines in the Galilee Basin, are a threat to the tens of thousands of existing jobs that rely on a healthy Great Barrier Reef. Solving regional unemployment in central and north Queensland is important but building the Adani mine will barely shift the needle on greater employment.
Coal mining is one of the least labour-intensive industries in Australia, it just doesn’t need many workers. Especially not when the demand for coal is declining.
That’s why it was extraordinary when in an interview, the MP for Capricornia Michelle Landry admitted she has never actually asked Adani how many ongoing jobs there will be. Considering Adani has constantly changed its jobs figures depending on who it is talking to, and publicly stated it plans to automate the mine from pit to port, this seems like an oversight. Adani’s proposed mine is now four times smaller than originally planned yet it is supposed to deliver five times more jobs. Magic or madness?
The Queensland government is still offering Adani free water, a free pass on the mine rehabilitation bill and a special royalty subsidy that’s being kept secret.
But I’m an optimist. People thought the one-billion dollar Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan was a done deal before the Queensland government vetoed it when Queenslanders made it clear they oppose public subsidies for fossil fuel projects. The state government pulled out of its previous plans to give Adani a free $100 million road upgrade. Backers of Adani said it would have no trouble finding finance, but more than 50 financial institutions, contractors and insurers have ruled out any involvement and Adani was forced to self-finance the project.
And there’s plenty more standing in Adani’s way. To name just a few, it requires two more Commonwealth approvals for groundwater plans, which CSIRO says are not up to scratch. Adani has no construction contractor and it’s still unclear how they will fund the project. There is a court judgment still to come on the Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which is disputed by the Wangan & Jagalingou traditional owners.
But just as climate action being cheap isn’t the reason to take climate action – though it’s true – the fact that coal mines face obstacles isn’t the reason why we need to stop new coal mines.
Like damming the Franklin River, building an enormous new coal mine is fundamentally a bad idea – economically and environmentally. That’s why two thirds of Australians oppose the Adani mine.
A different way is possible. Sometime next year the ACT will become the first Australian jurisdiction to be 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity. Tasmania is set to achieve the same goal by 2022.
But we can’t pretend Australia is in any kind of “transition” while we are still approving new coal mines. That way lies madness.