Tony Abbott might be consigned to the back-benches of the Australian government, but one of his favourite political slogans, that coal is good for humanity, lives on.
Over the weekend, federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg showed that a Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition still supported the development of what could be Australia’s largest new coal mine – the Adani-owned $16.5 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Indeed, as we pointed out on Friday, this is one area where the Coalition and Labor are in furious agreement. In fact, Labor – both state and federal – may be even more keen for the Carmichael mine to go ahead than the government.
Speaking on the ABC Insiders program over the weekend, Frydenberg gave Abbott’s old coal line new a new spin, arguing there was a “strong moral case” for the mine, the development of which federal environment minister Greg Hunt approved for a second time on Friday.
“I think there’s a strong moral case here,” said Frydenberg. “I’ve just been at the G20 and at the APEC energy ministers’ meeting and they pointed out that over a billion people around the world don’t have access to electricity.
“This means more than two billion people today are using wood and dung for their cooking.
“The World Health Organisation says this leads to 4.3 million premature deaths – that’s more people dying through those sort of inefficient forms of energy than malaria, HIV aids and tuberculosis combined.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, the strong moral argument against digging up an estimated 60 million tonnes of thermal coal a year in a severely carbon constrained world, let’s look at the validity of Frydenberg’s claims.
First, the claim Australian coal can help prevent premature deaths from pollution. Without doubt, the practice of burning wood, dung and other types of locally sourced biomass fuels in developing countries is a big killer.
But is coal any better? As James Conca wrote in Forbes in 2012, when it comes to the energy “deathprint” – that is, the number of people killed by one kind of energy or another per kWh produced – “like the carbon footprint, coal is the worst.”
“For coal, oil and biomass, it is carbon particulates resulting from burning that cause upper respiratory distress, kind of a second-hand black lung,” Conca wrote.
“Our lungs just don’t like burnt carbonaceous particulates, whether from coal or wood or manure or pellets or cigarettes.
“The actual numbers of deaths in China from coal use exceeded 300,000 last year since they have ramped up coal so fast in the last decade and they usually do not install exhaust scrubbers. The impact on their health care system has been significant in not just deaths, but in non-lethal health effects and lost days of work.”
As for the argument that coal is the answer to the energy poverty problems of countries like India – where tens of millions of people exist without an electricity supply – this is an argument disputed by many, from the IEA to former Indian energy ministers.
The World Bank, for example, has said precisely the opposite; that continued use of coal is exacting a heavy cost on some of the world’s poorest countries, both in health impacts as well as climate change.
“In general, globally we need to wean ourselves off coal,” World Bank climate change envoy Rachel Kyte said in July. “There is a huge social cost to coal and a huge social cost to fossil fuels … if you want to be able to breathe clean air.”
Kyte went on: “Do I think coal is the solution to poverty? There are more than 1 billion people today who have no access to energy. …If they all had access to coal-fired power tomorrow their respiratory illness rates would go up, etc, etc …
“We need to extend access to energy to the poor and we need to do it the cleanest way possible because the social costs of coal are uncounted and damaging, just as the global emissions count is damaging as well.”
In India, the current Modi government has placed energy security on the highest priority with a pledge to provide all Indians with reliable electricity before the next elections in 2019 – but mainly via distributed solar energy, and not coal.
As Srinivas Krisnhaswamy wrote in this article in July, past data clearly shows that a doubling of India’s thermal generation capacity over the last decade has electrified only 8 – 10 per cent more rural households, for reasons that are not hard to fathom.
“The centralised power supply model, where the cost of supplying power to rural areas is high and increases with distance from the grid, is increasingly making rural electrification difficult and uneconomical.
“At least 50,000 villages out of a total of 550,000 villages in the country will always be too remote to connect to the grid at reasonable cost. What is required then is demand-driven electrification that can be tailored to the local needs and scaled as per local requirements.”
EAS Sarma – India’s former secretary of the Ministry of Power – argues much the same in an article published in August; a direct response to Tony Abbott’s coal claims.
“Studies have shown that when a village is more than 5 km from the grid, the cost of supplying electricity from solar and other off-grid solutions is far below the costs of supplying from conventional sources such as coal,” Sarma wrote.
“This is due to the high cost of building out the poles and wires to provide access to coal electricity and the technical losses involved in transmitting and distributing electricity to the consumers.”
It is, he continues, “simplistic and simply inaccurate to assume that new electricity generation capacity added to the grid will automatically reduce electricity deprivation among the poor.”
Sarma also cites the recent Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis study which showed that the cost of producing electricity in India using Australian coal from the Galilee Basin is roughly two times the current average wholesale cost of electricity.
“This makes Galilee Basin coal too expensive for India,” he writes. And when you factor in the huge social costs of coal power pollution, any perceived benefits of added coal power infrastructure are well and truly outweighed.
Finally, there is very strong, scientifically supported argument that digging up new coal reserves is not the right thing to do for anyone on the planet: morally or economically.
This is because, in order to stay within the world’s carbon budget – the well accepted, scientifically-based method to determine how much carbon humanity can “spend” if it hopes to avoid dangerous climate change – the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground: 62 per cent of it, for just a 50 per cent chance of meeting the 2°C limit; and 77 per cent of it for a 75 per cent chance.
For coal alone, 88 per cent of global reserves are currently considered unburnable.
As an April report from the Climate Council noted, this translates to over 90 per cent of Australia’s coal reserves being redundant, even under the most generous carbon budget.
“We are already at a global temperature rise of almost 1°C and climate change is making many extreme weather events in Australia significantly worse,” said report author and Climate Council Councillor Professor Will Steffen.
“A 2°C rise in global temperature will have very serious impacts on people worldwide, and could trigger major changes …like the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
“If we want to meet our international obligations to keep below the 2 degree target, not only can we not develop any new coal mines but we also have to have a planned phase-out of our existing fossil fuel extraction and usage.”
This makes coal a huge economical gamble, too.
A report by HSBC, also published in April, said the fossil industry was facing risks from several fronts at once, including ever-cheaper renewables, dramatic advances in battery storage, and much more efficient use of energy.
The bank said high-cost fossil projects will be driven out of business by fast-moving low-carbon technology.
“The two key drivers of a low-carbon future are energy efficiency and a scale-up of renewable energy,” the HSBC analysts wrote.
“In December, we expect a universal climate agreement to be signed in Paris as part of the drive to reduce CO2,” the report said.