Time for the Coal Industry to Face Reality

Aug 16, 2019

The first priority of any government is the security of its people. The greatest threat to that security today is human-induced climate change. Because of the refusal of political and corporate leaders over the last two decades to take climate change seriously, it now represents a threat which will wipe out civilisation as we know it, unless we move to emergency action. We have left it too late to make a gradual transition to a low-carbon world.

Unfortunately the comments by Matt Canavan and Stephen Galilee at the recent NSW Minerals Council conference demonstrate that climate denial continues to dictate government and industry thinking.  This is extremely dangerous for the future of the Hunter Valley and its coal mining communities.

Around the world, dangerous climate change is happening at the 10C temperature increase we have already seen, as extreme weather events in the Arctic, Europe, Asia and North America demonstrate only too well, imposing great economic hardship, loss of employment and severe damage on many communities.

To stay below the 20C upper limit of the Paris Agreement, which Australia ratified, means that coal demand will drop dramatically – down 57% by 2040 according to the International Energy Agency.  This contradicts the misleading view given by Senator Canavan that demand will grow to 2040.  If it does, temperature will increase by 3-40C, a world of social chaos, according to global national security experts, in which those markets will be destroyed anyway. Coal expansion is no longer alleviating poverty around the world and improving living standards, as the Senator implies, but  having exactly the opposite effect as climate impact worsens.

Coal is not going to disappear overnight. But political, union and corporate leaders need to prepare the community for the fact that it will decline fairly fast, and to grasp the major new opportunities that are opening up in low-carbon industries, with retraining and transition support.  These represent the real future of the Hunter region, with potentially far greater benefit than the coal industry has provided historically.  But there must be real commitment to change, rather than a half-hearted response.

Fortunately, planning organisations seem to be gradually facing up to reality.

The Rocky Hill mine proposal which was rejected by the Land and Environment Court, partly due to its carbon emission impact, is a line in the sand.

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) proposal that the United Wambo mine expansion sell coal only to countries complying with the Paris Agreement, and seek to minimise carbon emissions when the coal is burnt, is a step forward.  But then the IPC’s current consideration of the Bylong mine proposal centres on legal detail over their expired Gateway Certificate. Neither are enough.

The IPC mandate is to: “deliver a high level of independence, expertise and transparency – to ensure well executed developments that benefit the people of NSW”. 

If that mandate is to be fulfilled, this can no longer be a matter of legal niceties or half-measures.  We cannot afford any new fossil fuel projects, particularly coal in the Hunter Valley, or elsewhere, otherwise the NSW and Australian communities generally, will be placed in great jeopardy.  You only have to look at what is already happening around the State as rural communities grapple with major climate-induced drought disaster, which is bound to get worse as the effect of historic carbon emissions takes hold.

The attitude of Messrs Canavan and Galilee in refusing to face reality and plan for a sensible transition away from coal is extremely irresponsible, particularly when they have access to the best possible scientific knowledge on climate impact, and choose to ignore or misrepresent it.

The Federal government and coal industry bodies have too much invested in denial to ever lead on climate change. Community organisations, coal companies themselves, unions and regulators, all in their own self-interest, must now start to plan the transition, otherwise many people will be badly hurt, particularly in the coal industry itself.

First published in the Newcastle Herald on 10 August 2019

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a senior member of the advisory board of Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration. 

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