Mining Ebulletin: All talk, no action


All talk, no action

Coal – it’s “good for humanity,” according to our Prime Minister and our Environment Minister thinks we’re “condemning people to poverty” if we don’t dig up lots of it.

How did they figure that? It could be that they’ve drunk some industry kool-aid and swallowed the claims of companies like Peabody Energy, who hold coal up as the answer to global energy poverty.

The coal industry’s line goes like this: there are lots of poor people in the world who don’t have access to electricity and there’s lots of coal in the world. If we dig up the coal and make more coal-fired electricity generators, electricity will be cheaper and the poor will be able to buy it.

And they’re right – in part. According to the International Energy Agency there are 2.6 billion people affected by ‘energy poverty’ – the lack of access to electricity and clean cooking facilities. Considered a “key imperative for economic development” by the World Economic Forum, energy poverty is a big problem.  It’s something the United Nations, World Bank and development agencies are working to improve with renewable energy and off-grid solutions.  

But could coal be the answer, as our coal industry repeatedly claims?

Research released by The Australia Institute today shows it is not.  In fact, when supporting electricity projects in developing countries, The Australia Institute couldn’t find a single example of coal companies using coal to alleviate poverty.

Instead, the report All talk, no action: The coal industry and energy poverty lists examples of coal companies helping provide renewable energy and a range of off-grid technologies in developing nations –  like Adani and BHP Billiton providing solar technology in India and Pakistan, and Rio Tinto connecting villages in Peru to hydo and gas-fired electricity grids.

Why don’t coal companies use coal in their energy poverty projects? Because it is too expensive. Communities that are more than one kilometre away from mains electricity are now better off using solar and battery storage in much of the world. Even where mains electricity is available, poor households often can’t afford them, which investment in new coal infrastructure will not change. 

So while the coal industry says coal is the answer to energy poverty, the industry’s actions show that isn’t the case. Will our Prime Minister and Environment Minister listen to what the industry says, or watch what it does?

Can you see what IPPC see?

The final instalment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report was released this week and in it UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon issues an extraordinary ultimatum: “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

The report represents a final warning to political leaders on all sides. Some 830 authors have analysed 30,000 pieces of research and drawn a startlingly clear line in the sand: to remain below two degrees of warming – the scientific upper limit of what can be considered ‘safe’- global CO2 emissions will have to peak by and begin falling from 2020.

2020 might sound abstract, but it’s sooner than you think. Tokyo is hosting the Olympics in 2020, and they’ve already put aside 400 billion yen to prepare for it. What has Australia done?

Well, not quite enough.

We’re moving to become the world’s largest coal exporter. It’s an ambition which, if successful, will see us export more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than Europe’s ambitious reductions targets will prevent.

In fact, over its lifetime, Queensland’s Carmichael coal mine will export more than double the annual CO2e emissions of the entire United States.

As the world’s poorest people scramble to adjust to an environment with the highest CO2 levels seen in 800 thousand years, Australia’s Government complains of not being able to export more.

The IPCC has declared the science of global warming to be “unequivocal”. The Pentagon are now treating it as an “immediate risk” to national security in the United States, who spend more on defence per year than the next 11 countries combined.

The world’s top experts are saying that a failure to act on climate change will create “violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The year 2020 is an extremely ambitious target, and it’s one we’re being told is too expensive. The problem is, it’s also the cheapest. The real cost of carbon renders Australia’s coal fool’s gold.

Australia’s climate debate is locked in a partisan paradigm the country cannot afford. And with this report, the world’s foremost scientific experts have passed the baton from the lab coats to the blue ties.

If there’s any truth to the perception that conservatives want things just as they were 50 years ago, then the most conservative thing we can do is act on climate change. The most radical thing would be to ignore it. 

More coal is not the answer

Australia is the second biggest exporter of coal in the world. Every year we produce 400 million tonnes of coal, which is enough to pave a road of coal around the world one and a half times. But climate change experts continue to warn of our need to move toward cleaner energy.

The mining industry rejected the findings of the IPCC report this week, asserting that coal would remain a key energy source, and that emissions from coal will fall in the future as the industry invests in technology to lower its environmental impact.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt echoed the coal industry’s sentiment; saying that cleaning up power stations is “the best thing” the Government can do to reduce Australia’s emissions. 

But “clean coal” and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are not the solution to climate change. There are only 13 CCS projects operating in the whole world, all of which are heavily subsidized and uneconomic. These projects have a total capacity of 25 million tonnes per year which accounts for just 0.07 per cent of world emissions.  CCS projects are being abandoned and it has been reported that industry insiders have “little confidence” in the industry’s future.

A shift away from coal will not destroy Australia’s economy as coal only makes up a small part. In Queensland, the biggest coal state, coal employs just 1.2 per cent of the workforce. That’s less than arts and recreation! Similarly, Queensland government revenue from coal royalties is small, making up only 4 per cent, the same amount of revenue that is generated from car registration. On top of this, the mining industry is 80-90 per cent foreign owned, meaning almost all of the profits go overseas.

Despite the small contribution of coal to the economy each year the Australian government gives the mining industry $4.5 billion in subsidies. This is on top of state mining subsidies; the Queensland Government alone has spent $8 billion  assisting the coal industry over the past six years. Not only do these subsidies promote coal use, they reduce spending in other areas. The Queensland Treasury stated that assistance to the mining industry means “less infrastructure spending in other areas…such as schools and hospitals”.

Stopping subsidies to the mining industry will not only help the world transition to a cleaner economy, it will also help the budgets of state and federal governments.

It’s time we listen to the science and recognise that producing more coal is not the answer to tackling climate change.  

TAI in the media

The Australia Institute says coal industry doing almost nothing to ease ‘energy poverty’
No champion solution for carbon
Coal companies talking rubbish on energy poverty
By the numbers: The Fin‘s divestment obsession
Terms of reference give Climate Change Authority’s emissions trading inquiry a wide remit
Galilee says no to jobs and mining debate



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