Coal must quickly shuffle off into retirement

There are better ways to provide energy than burning rocks that create pollution, and digging up finite natural resources.

By Jeremy Buckingham
Friday, October 7, 2016

It is not the Greens that say 80 per cent of the world's coal should stay in the ground, it is science.

A scientific study published in the respected science journal Nature compared the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves with the amount of carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere and have a 50 per cent chance of keeping global warming under two degrees.

The study found, globally, 82 per cent of coal, 49 per cent of gas and 33 per cent of oil reserves should stay in the ground.

This equates to 95 per cent of Australia’s coal, because we have such large coal reserves.

Coal is the number one cause of climate change.

At current production levels the hard science says we should stop digging up coal within three years in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

The Greens want state and federal governments to draft a transition plan to rapidly phase out coal and build renewable energy, with associated policies to provide alternative employment and economic activity in affected regions.

Practical projects

We know, realistically, that a phase out of coal will not happen in three years. But we advocate as rapid a transition away from coal as is possible and we are confident that building and operating renewable energy projects will be a net gain for the economy.

The Nyngan solar plant is providing 104 megawatts of clean energy. That’s enough to power two cities the size of Dubbo.

It created 300 jobs during construction. This type of project should be replicated throughout regional NSW.

If the world had acted on climate change after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, then we would have had 24 years to phase out coal, build alternatives and save the climate. Instead, politicians and the fossil fuel industry have avoided action and held up red herrings like ‘clean coal’ as an excuse for inaction.

So it is a bit rich for the coal lobby to now blame anyone but themselves for the fact we are running out of time to act on climate change.

Coal has served us well, but the ancient technology of burning polluting rocks should be retired.

Just as we stopped whaling for whale oil, we must stop mining coal.

No time to waste

The government should immediately prohibit new coal mines and mine expansions, such as the Chinese-owned Shenhua Watermark mine that threatens the fertile Liverpool Plains, Indian-owned Adani's giant mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, or the Anglo-American Drayton South mine that will destroy the thoroughbred breeding industry in the Upper Hunter.

Then they should put in place policies for a staged phase out of coal mining and the most polluting coal-fired power stations, in a way that balances the impact on regional economies.

Renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and value-adding, and services based around an NBN can revitalise regional NSW without the boom and bust of coal mining.

Modern mining is a highly mechanised, capital-intensive industry. The companies themselves are pursuing driverless trucks to slash jobs. The coal industry only employs 0.4 per cent of the Australian workforce.

Economic modelling by The Australia Institute concludes that a moratorium on new coal mines and a phase out of coal would lower GDP by just 0.6 per cent in 2040.

The coal lobby selfishly pretends that we can keep burning more and more coal. But that is a negligent position when the physical reality is that coal is rapidly warming the planet in a way that will be catastrophic for our economy, environment and society.

Coal will be phased out for solar, wind and other clean energy technologies. The real question is whether we are smart enough to phase it out in time to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

Jeremy Buckingham is the NSW Greens spokesperson on Energy and Resources.