PAUL TURTON, HOST: An interesting bit of research that is out today is suggesting that it’s not quite time to say goodbye to coal. It’s by an independent research company called Commodity Insights, which is a modest sized firm from what I can gather, out of Brisbane, but they’re saying that NSW needs to lift its coal export levels because of demand in Asia. Pat Conroy is the Member for Shortland and the Shadow Minister Assisting for Climate Change. He joins me at a time that the Labor Party is assessing its position on climate change. Pat Conroy, thanks for joining is this arvo.
PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER ASSISTING FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: Afternoon, how are you?
TURTON: Good, can I just read out one of these predictions for you. They say Indian thermal coal imports will increase to 287 million tonnes by 2040. We know that there are thermal power stations being built all around the world. Is this the time to be talking about reducing the output of our mines here in the Hunter?
CONROY: Well, Labor is certainly not arguing for that position. Other parties might be. I think it’s important to start with a basis of facts in this debate. Fact number one is that the submarket for our thermal coal, which is called the seaborne thermal coal market, peaked globally in about 2012-2013. At the same time, our thermal coal exports have gone up by about 27 per cent in that time as people turned away from less energy-efficient coal, coal with less energy in it, from places like Indonesia and Vietnam, and turned towards Australian coal and that’s good news for our area because that means more jobs and more income. But structurally we are close to reaching a tipping point globally where there will be a decline in coal. For example, I’ve seen some predictions that that will be as early as 2026. But in our region there is still strong demand for coal and that’s obviously good news for the local economy.
TURTON: Do you agree with your colleague up the road, the Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, says that Labor should drop its emissions reduction target of 45 per cent by 2030. It follows reports that some within Labor think it will be too difficult to achieve the 45 per cent target within eight years if they win the next election in 2022. Here’s what Mr Fitzgibbon had to say on Sky News:
AUDIO: “What Labor needs to do is maintain its commitment to Paris and then over the next couple of years, given that we’ve lost … See, Chris, this task just got a whole lot harder because we’ve lost this extensive period of time with the Coalition Government where we haven’t made the gains and emissions are on the rise.”
TURTON: Pat Conroy, does the broader community care as much about climate change as they possibly should, and as much as analysts think?
CONROY: I think the Australian public does care quite deeply about climate change. There was a report released yesterday from the Australia Institute and YouGov that demonstrated the concern and desire for action on climate change is at record levels. Joel’s point is one I agree with, which is, our fundamental commitment to the Paris Treaty is unchanged, which is to put in place policies to keep global warming well below 2 degrees. And part of that is our commitment to having net zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, by 2050. But Joel’s broader point is, our short-term goals, our medium-term goals, around 2030 are going to be more difficult to achieve because this government has a weak target of 26 per cent and won’t even meet that because every year since 2014 emissions in the country, emissions in the economy, have actually gone up. So we’ve got rising emissions from this government rather than falling emissions.
TURTON: But that’s the government that was elected a few months ago.
CONROY: That’s fine, they were elected. And we obviously accept the result. But, even if you accept their woefully inadequate target of reducing emissions by minus 26 per cent by 2030, they have to actually achieve it, and they’re not on track to achieve it.
TURTON: But the point is though Pat that the voters accept their position, clearly.
CONROY: Well, voters make decisions for a whole lot of reasons. Parties put up hundreds of policies at elections, so I don’t think you can say that they have agreed on every single policy. Even if we accept, which I don’t, but even if we accept for the sake of argument that the Australian public have said that they only want a 2030 target of minus 26 per cent, this government has no chance of meeting it. Emissions have gone up every year since 2014, so they won’t meet their own inadequate target. So, even in your construct of an argument, this government is failing because they are not going to meet their own appointed targets.
TURTON: Do you need to rethink the way you approach some of these marginal seats, clearly those that have a dependence, an economic dependence, on fossil fuels? Because a lot’s been done in the field of renewables but it’s not being done in the backyards of those who will be directly affected by the change in energy source. Do we need to put more solar farms in the Upper Hunter, for argument’s sake, rather than New England?
CONROY: I think there is a strong argument for greater renewable energy in the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie regions because we’ve got excellent transmission connections to the grid and a very skilled workforce. Some of the policies we took to the last election would have been really relevant to our area. For example, the $1.1billion hydrogen plan would have created an industry of 16,000 jobs in areas like ours and in areas like Gladstone in central Queensland. I think the main issue why people turned away in regions like ours was broader issues around the economy and trust. Coupled with that people thought we were ashamed of the coal industry, ashamed of the sacrifices that coal miners make every day and the income they earn. That is to some extent unrelated to climate policy, it was more a perception of an attitude, and that’s obviously something that I am working hard, with Joel and Mark Butler and the rest of the team, to disprove.
TURTON: Pat, if Labor changes its position, its targets, in regard to emissions couldn’t it be accused of surrendering ideology for electoral practicality, electoral reality?
CONROY: I’d make the point that we haven’t announced anything, and the next election is almost three years away, and we are going to take our time to develop our policies. We have been very clear in reaffirming our commitment to taking policies to the election where Australia plays its part about the Paris Treaty which is keeping global warming well below 2 degrees. And to do that we need to commit to net zero emissions, to carbon neutrality, by 2050. That’s the core of our commitment. It stands in stark contrast to the Government that doesn’t even have a 2050 target, let alone having a hope of achieve it. Our commitment to climate policy is unchanged but what you are seeing is people looking at the specific policy settings and working out where we are. Because as Joel said if we’re elected in 2022 we will only have eight years – and the first couple of years will be devoted to establishing the policy – to reach a specific 2030 target. So it’s quite reasonable to say, well we need to work out what is an achievable target in that context of rising emissions under this Government which will make it much harder. So, I want to assure your listeners that our commitment to strong climate policy is unchanged; we are committed to the Paris Treaty and keeping global warming below 2 degrees, and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. And we will just take our time and develop our policy to make sure it is practical and achievable without compromising our principles.
TURTON: So how then can you reconcile supporting a coalmining industry that is going to export to India, to Vietnam, to the Philippines in growing volumes over the next decades?
CONROY: Well, that is one projection of where the growth is. But let’s say for example that growth does continue, we are not legally responsible for the emissions released from that coal because it is exported. To hold us responsible for carbon dioxide that comes from burning Australian coal in India of equivalent to holding the Japanese Government responsible for carbon dioxide that comes out of Toyota cars in Australia. The entire international climate accounting policy method is based on the country where the carbon dioxide is emitted is responsible for the policy. So, we’re very clear that we want to implement strong domestic policies here that are consistent with Paris and working with other countries so that they implement policies to meet their obligations. But, it’s a ridiculous argument to say that we’re responsible for coal being burnt overseas because the same arguments could be levelled at foreign governments who export cars to Australia.
TURTON: Pat Conroy, thanks for joining us.
CONROY: Thank you.