Opinion pieces


March 18, 2020

The recent letter from former Greens councillor and failed parliamentary candidate John Brown (NH, 9/3) regarding Labor's net zero emissions policy and his call for an end to coal mining was as flawed as it was hypocritical.

An Albanese Labor government has committed to make Australia carbon neutral by 2050. This is about securing a strong economy and a healthy environment for the generations that follow ours.

Not only will Australia be among the hardest hit should global temperatures get out of control, but we have the most to gain economically from adopting a carbon neutral target.

Australia has the potential to become an economic and energy superpower - but only if we show leadership and act now to seize the opportunities in front of us.

Details of Labor's plan are being developed and will be announced well before the next election scheduled for 2022.

What will not be in the plan will be a policy to close Australia's export coal industry. This is because it is inconsistent with international climate treaties and it will not work as some sort of trigger to reduce global fossil fuel use.

Under international climate agreements, Australia is responsible for reducing its own emissions of greenhouse gases. In terms of coal, that means reducing emissions from our electricity generation sector by promoting clean energy.

Labor has already said there is no place for new coal-fired power stations in Australia because it will lead to higher power bills and more carbon pollution.

Other countries are responsible for reducing their emissions, including from coalfired power generation. Holding Australia responsible for the burning of exported coal is equivalent to holding Japan responsible for the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted by driving Toyotas or Mazdas in Australia.

It is a ridiculous position that betrays a misunderstanding of the UN framework convention on climate change and the history of climate change negotiations.

Furthermore, it will not work.

Without actions to reduce global demand for coal, cutting Australia's exports will achieve nothing. Australia produces 4.6 per cent of global thermal coal, or less than one in 20 tonnes of thermal coal produced worldwide.

If Australia ends the export of coal, alternate supply will come from other nations such as Russia.

Activists often argue it is immoral for Australia to export coal. My response is that it is immoral to put thousands of people out of work in the Hunter if it does not lead to a drop in coal use. It might make some people feel warm and fuzzy, but it does not help global emissions.

The best way Australia can help reduce global emissions is by establishing scientifically creditable and ambitious emissions reduction targets, then implementing policies to actually cut our pollution and play a positive role in international negotiations.

We then have the international credibility to work with other nations to reduce their emissions and their demand for fossil fuels, which must occur absent carbon capture becoming economical.

The fate of our coal industry will be decided by overseas governments and company boardrooms around the world.

Over time as other nations shift to renewable energy and the global thermal coal trade declines further, Australian thermal coal exports will at some stage start to fall.

This will not come to pass next year or the year after that, but over the decades to come.

This is why we need to start planning.

Australia has been very poor at handling these big structural adjustments. In almost every mass redundancy event studied in Australia, the result has been one third of the workers find a secure new job of similar condition to their original job, about a third are relegated to insecure, intermittent employment, and the other third do not work again.

It's not just about jobs, but about the health, education and social cohesion of communities that are destroyed by these closures. Our region - our country - must have a plan to help workers and communities respond.

But to unilaterally close down our export coal industry will not help diversify our region, nor will it reduce global emissions or support community acceptance of the need to reduce Australia's emissions.

This opinion piece was first published in the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday, 18 March 2020.