Disappointingly, Labor’s new environment spokesperson Peter Garrett, has chosen to kick off his tenure by restating his predecessor Anthony Albanese’s proposition that we can reduce CO2 emissions whilst continuing to use coal. Citing Australia’s coal resources as a “blessing”, Garrett’s endorsement of the ‘clean coal’ myth made it clear how far the ALP line is from the environment movement’s. His comments were in stark contrast to his successor as current ACF President, Ian Lowe. Speaking in Newcastle last Monday night, Lowe stated the obvious: “The only way the world can meet its carbon reduction targets is to burn a lot less coal”, and endorsed as “wise” the resolution of Newcastle Council to cap coal exports and introduce a ban on new coal mines in the Hunter Valley.
Garrett’s position is the standard ALP line; that you can somehow massively expand Australia’s coal export industry and continue to rely on coal for the majority of our domestic power yet still reduce CO2 emissions. The inadequacy of this position is revealed by looking at the policy of the NSW Government on greenhouse gas (ghg) reductions. The Premier, Morris Iemma, has committed to stabilising ghg emissions at 2000 levels by 2025. Given that we are near to those levels now this means that, in the next 19 years, emissions cannot increase. In effect, this is a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power stations in NSW. Indeed, when you factor in population growth; in new vehicles driven by Labor’s car-centred transport policies; and routine growth in emissions, it may be impossible to meet the 2025 target without actually reducing use of coal-fired power. Moreover, it is inevitable that the Iemma Government’s target will be superseded by more ambitious targets in the future as governments get serious about tackling climate change. To only achieve a stabilisation by 2025 would lead to a climate change induced nightmare.
As far as Australia’s coal exports go, both major parties commit rhetorically to engaging in an international process, which will lead to deep reductions in ghg emissions. Yet any international regime that does achieve this will inevitably put pressure on, and indeed reduce use of, coal. How can it not? Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels and reducing reliance on coal through efficiency, switching to gas or developing renewables are among the easiest and quickest ways to reduce C02 emissions from the electricity sector.
The standard response to this of course, is that so-called ‘clean coal’ will solve the problem. Firstly, clean coal is a furphy, the equivalent of ‘healthy cigarettes’. Coal is dirty, as even the Prime Minister has begun to acknowledge. And the claims being made by the coal industry that the technology to bury emissions is nearly available do not stand up to scrutiny. The World Coal Institute recently conceded that by 2020 it was likely that only nine projects using carbon capture and storage (CCS) would exist. That’s too little too late. We have about 10 years to start reducing emissions dramatically or we will likely pass the `tipping point’ at which dangerous climate change will be unavoidable. By 2020 we need to have our emissions at about 30% below 1990 levels. Yet we may not even know if CCS works by then and, as the United Nation’s expert panel on climate change stated in their recent special report on CCS, commercialisation will take even longer. So CCS is simply not even available during the next critical decade, and may never prove to be viable. To use it as political cover to keep opening new coal mines, expanding our coal exports and refusing to support efficiency and renewables is unconscionable.
The real question now is not whether we have to quit coal, but how quickly we can make the transition and how we can ensure those people dependent on coal for jobs and income are not left stranded. That, coupled with ambitious policies to stop energy wastage and promote renewables, will see Australia start to use the other resources with which we are “blessed”: sun, wind and ingenuity. Climate change can be solved, but not without quitting coal. The time to move on is now.
Greenpeace Energy Campaigner