climate change now: Our addiction to coal

This is an excellent article from the Age on 9/8/13 on the enormous problem of Australia’s coal exports:


Emissions from our coal exports nullify any planned
emission reductions within Australia many times over.

We encourage the
use of green energy in Australia, yet we export dirty coal like there’s no
tomorrow. Is this really the road to prosperity?

While Labor and the Coalition debate the virtues of Labor’s emissions trading scheme versus the Coalition’s direct action, there is a sleeper issue on climate. It’s Australia’s
dirty secret on global warming. It’s an issue neither side of politics wants to
debate. Merely raising the issue can provoke accusations of extremism. It’s
Australia’s booming export of coal.

Coal exports have tripled in the past 25 years to more than 300 million tonnes and coal corporations now want to double that figure . We are exporting coal like there is no tomorrow. Yet we know that to moderate global warming, the world must reduce the burning of coal.

For most Australians, the shiny black lumps of coal we dig or burn are
remote from our daily lives. If we think about coal at all, we dimly realise our
laptops, electric stoves and lights depend on the electricity produced by
burning this ancient rock. Occasionally, we may see an advert trumpeting
Australia’s growing coal exports to an energy-hungry world. While coal was once
burned in our fireplaces and in city-based power stations, today it is remote.
Most of us don’t smell or touch it. It is scooped up from distant mines, loaded
onto trains and disappears into comfortably remote power stations via ships that
sail off over the horizon. Out of sight, out of mind. A comforting illusion is
fostered that coal is benign.

However, it’s time Australians thought
much more about coal. Our future is increasingly tied up in it. About 75 per
cent of our electricity is from coal-fired plants. Australian coal exports
constitute one-third of the world’s seaborne coal trade. This increasingly feeds
the power plants and steel mills of India and China, both responsible for much
of the increasing global greenhouse emissions. Because climate change is global,
the consequences of burning coal in Mumbai or Shanghai are the same as burning
it in Victoria. That is why it is important to take a critical look at
Australian coal exports, as well as the domestic burning of coal.

are two additional reasons why our coal exports are a problem. First, there is a
significant degree of hypocrisy in Australia, where the use of green energy is
encouraged at home while huge profits are made from exporting dirty coal. The
greenhouse emissions from our coal exports nullify any planned emission
reductions within Australia, many times over. In Australia and the US,
greenhouse gas emissions have decreased slightly in the past year or two but
this is a limited advantage in a world where the power plants of China and India
are still gushing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, encouraged in their dirty
energy model by the easy availability of Australian coal.

Second, by
placing long-term bets on coal expansion, Australia is locking itself into an
economic reliance on coal exports at a time when it is becoming clear coal
should be rapidly phased out. It makes no sense to do this when it’s possible
that at some point an international agreement will emerge to discourage coal
use. Such an agreement may be too late to prevent dangerous temperature rises,
but when it occurs Australia’s economic dependence on coal will make us far more
vulnerable than we need to be.

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal
is already having damaging effects on Australia. Our atmosphere is 4 per cent to
5 per cent moister than it was 40 years ago and warm air traps more water vapour
than cold air. Scientists tell us this means we face droughts and floods on a
new scale. Another result can be seen if you go off Sydney Harbour and do a
litmus test in the ocean. It comes out redder than it once did. Our sea water is
30 per cent more acidic than in pre-industrial times.

This is one of the
big risks for the Great Barrier Reef. Yet coal shipped from Queensland’s new
ports is intensifying this problem. This was the fear expressed in a statement
by 2000 marine scientists who met in Cairns in July 2012, warning about the
warming and acidification of the world’s oceans.

‘‘ This combined change
in temperature and ocean chemistry has not occurred since the last reef crisis
55 million years ago,’’ they said.

Many Australians are wary about
challenging an export earner such as coal. But quite apart from the climate
consequences, we need to ask whether our increasing dependence on mineral
exports, especially coal, is really a road to prosperity.

The coalmining
industry is about 80 per cent foreign-owned , according to the Reserve Bank, and
therefore most profits eventually go offshore. The industry claims that much is
spent on employing people. In reality, the coal workforce of about 50,000 is a
tiny part of an Australian workforce of more than 11 million.

We already
have evidence that the boom in coalmining can damage other export industries
such as agriculture and education. Mining has driven up the value of the
Australian dollar, so Australian wheat, wool and manufactured exports have
become more expensive to overseas customers. A higher dollar makes it more
expensive for overseas students to study in Australia and for tourists to visit
here. All of this contributes to a ‘‘ two-speed’ ’ economy that disadvantages
the majority of Australians who do not work or directly benefit from mining.

But the most radical consequences of our expansion of coalmining are yet
to come. The need to prevent this was summed up by the former head of NASA’s
Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who endorsed our book. ‘‘
Kicking Australia’s coal habit is the greatest gift Australians could give to
everybody’s children, future generations and other life on the planet,’’ he

David McKnight is a research fellow at the

University of
NSW and co-author of Big

Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit. His coauthors
are Guy Pearse and Bob Burton.


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