Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, by a considerable margin. We export roughly 70% of the coal we produce. What’s more, coal production in Australia is expected to rise by a staggering 43% over a six-year period, according the Federal Government’s Energy White Paper.
We are also the fourth biggest coal producing country in the world, behind China, USA and India.
This is both a problem, and an opportunity. A problem because our contribution to the climate crisis has been significant, and an opportunity because being such a big player, by facilitating change at home we have the ability to have a positive impact and make a real difference, to the quality of our lives, our futures and to that of everyone’s on the planet.
The draft of the US National Climate Assessment that was released in Washington last Friday has left no doubt that as a planet, we have already begun to experience the climate change consequences of large-scale coal consumption. Also within the week the University of Reading’s Walker Institute has published a global plan to call for global coal consumption to peek in 2016 before declining at a rate of 5% per year until 2050. This plan would limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees (a target which has been discussed at international climate negotiations, of which the latest occurred in Doha in December 2012) in order to avoid unmitigated global catastrophe. Furthermore the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK, Edward Davey is calling for a global legally binding deal by 2015.
By contrast, the Executive Summary of the Federal Government’s Energy White Paper 2012 details Australia’s aggressive growth plans for coal production and export to the tune of 43% between 2011 and 2017. It demonstrates we are not only hopelessly out of touch with reality, but also behaving mindlessly and irresponsibly. Australia continuing to mine coal, and stubbornly continuing to increase mining and production of coal is no longer an option, as the carbon and climate crisis looks certain to come to head in the next few years.
At some point Australia will be forced to stop, but the Federal Government along with the large corporations who irresponsibly fund new projects are proving they are either unable or unwilling to. So who does that actually leave with the ability to do anything meaningful? The answer is ordinary people, specifically, the Australian people.
We are in a unique position as a developed country and the world’s largest coal exporter. We must start talking about Australia’s contribution to the climate crisis as a big player, and discuss our country’s responsibilities. Specifically about putting a stop to the unchecked growth plans for coal. After all, what on Earth is the point of introducing a carbon tax on big polluters within Australia if our overall plans are to continue drastically increasing coal production and export?
We also need to demand that our government implement a real plan to convert Australia to be fully powered by clean, renewable energy within the next five to ten years at no additional cost to Australian consumers, in order to turn off coal-fired power stations at home for good.
Not only do coal-fired power plants pump mind-staggering volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere contributing to climate change, but the process of generating this type of electricity creates unwanted sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, as well as heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium as by-products, all of which enter our environment in one way or another. These heavy metals don’t just go away, they remain in our environment to be absorbed by living organisms, including humans. This simply can’t go on in a developed nation that has an abundance of renewable energy resources such as sunshine.
Currently the Australian Government has a Renewable Energy Target or RET and says it’s committed to “ensuring the equivalent of at least 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2020”. This target is both grossly inadequate and embarrassing. I highlighted Ontario, Canada in my last blog post, and again want to draw attention to their comparable population to Australia’s, along with their success in transitioning to being 100% powered by renewable energy by the end of 2013. Apart from Australia’s target of 20% by 2020 being unacceptable, I’d like to know what the word ‘equivalent’ is doing in there? Is the inclusion of the word ‘equivalent’ designed to allow a way out of delivering on the target?
The time has come to demand a lot more from our government. I call for a binding commitment to ensuring 100% of Australia’s electricity comes from clean, renewable sources by 2020. If anyone in the Australian Government is reading this, I suggest they get in touch with Dalton McGuinty, the current Premier of Ontario, for some tips on how to achieve this whilst ensuring consumers don’t pay more.
As citizens we have the ability to pressure our government and our financial institutions to change things before life for us and for everyone on this planet gets really uncomfortable, and suffering, poor health, widespread loss of biodiversity and subsequent food shortages due to increased global temperature becomes a permanent reality.
As individuals we have more sway than we might realise. We can do things like boycott large companies who support growth in coal, speak up online in order to raise people’s awareness and to start conversations. We can sign online petitions, donate to environmental organisations, and even turn up to protests. The simple act of retweeting or sharing a message, or signing and sharing an online petition has already demonstrated the newly realised power of social media in raising awareness, driving discussion and instigating change (as seen by the big Australian social media events of 2012 including the live export debate, the banning of the super trawler, and the manner in which the Alan Jones story unfolded). In addition, boycotting an organisation also has enormous potential to effect change. Even “corporate executives admit that boycotts are the most effective weapons wielded by consumers”. (1) Every act we as individuals do has the ability to change the world a little bit.
Australians are arguably already suffering from the effects of the climate crisis, with dry winds and record-breaking temperatures no doubt contributing to the ferocity of the recent bushfires in Tasmania and New South Wales. For the USA, 2012 was officially the hottest year on record with 362 record-breaking hottest temperatures and zero record-breaking coldest temperatures. These figures are for the USA only. Add to that Australia’s recent record-breaking temperatures in recent weeks and there’s little room for doubt about the direction we are all heading.
In a few short decades time soaring carbon emissions, rising temperatures and melting Arctic permafrost will be causing real global pain. The world will be looking at the big coal providers and chances are there will be international pressure on us as the world’s largest coal exporter. We need to realise the unique position Australia is in as a developed nation and a key player in coal, and either be prepared for sudden and drastic change in 20 years time (at which point we risk being internationally criticised for having behaved irresponsibly), or work towards change now to demonstrate our responsibility as a developed nation that is committed to contributing positively towards lessening the climate crisis.
The time for us to do something is right now. We have a very small window of opportunity now, so let’s do something. Let’s get talking about:
- Stopping Australia’s growth plans for coal production and export, and
- Asking the Federal Government to commit to a binding agreement to transition Australia to 100% renewable energy by 2020.
Our country has played a significant role in contributing to the climate crisis, but on the upside, Australian people are in a unique position to shape the future, whether for good or for bad.
6 Easy Things You Can Do Right Now That Will Make a Difference:
- Share this blog post on Twitter or Facebook to continue the conversation about Australia’s role in climate change and our nation’s future in coal and renewable energy.
- Sign and share this online petition regarding ANZ Bank’s investment in Whitehaven Coal.
- Sign and share this online campaign titled Let’s Talk About Coal, which is signed by the CEO of Greenpeace and advertised in The Australian Financial Review yesterday, 15th January 2013.
- Subscribe your email address to not-for-profit community organisations such as GetUp! in order to keep abreast of Australian environmental and social issues that aren’t always covered (or covered very well) by the mainstream media. GetUp! has approximately 600,000 members, all concerned Australian citizens who are not necessarily young and ‘radical’. In fact 4 out of every 10 members is older than 56 years old. Joining GetUp! is free and requires only an email address.
- Create a Twitter account if you don’t yet have one. It allows you to follow the global news organisations you want with a much broader choice of news sources than Australian mainstream media provides access to. Many journalists use Twitter to find the news anyway.
- Believe that every thing you do as an individual has either a positive or a negative impact on the planet.
3 Slightly More Committed Things You Can Do:
- Read the Equator Principles for financial institutions (of which ANZ Bank is a voluntary signatory) to better understand why ANZ’s investment in Whitehaven Coal is so controversial and irresponsible.
- Write to ANZ Bank regarding their investment in Whitehaven Coal and ask them for a reply. I used this letter as a template. Or consider boycotting them if you are their customer.
- Scrutinise the environmental policies of your local candidates well ahead of the next election.
(1) David Suzuki & David R. Boyd, Suzuki’s Green Guide (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008) page 141
All other reference texts are hyperlinked.