The writing is on the wall for our relationship with coal, but the old political parties and the old media are clinging to it like an old flame.
How many clear signals, like the shelving of the new export port at Newcastle just days ago, can they take before they admit it’s time to move on?
Everyone from scientists to the Greens to local communities has been telling them for years that coal is dirty, making such a mess that our whole planet is getting feverishly hot. If pressed, Labor, Liberals and the commentators who still love coal will even admit that. But they cling to the hope that it will clean up its act, even though it’s obvious from years of effort and investment that it can never be truly clean.
It’s now also obvious that coal has been dining out on our collective credit card for decades. As a nation, we’ve been pumping billions of the dollars we pay each year in taxes for better schools and hospitals and support for the needy, into digging up, burning and exporting more of the coal that’s giving us a dangerously high fever. We’re told by Labor and Liberal ministers that it is vital to prop up the profits of these multi-billion dollar companies by building new infrastructure for them and paying their fuel tax bills. Apparently, if we don’t do that, coal might just up and walk away.
Talk about an abusive relationship.
Guess what? Not only is coal messing us up, but it’s taking our money and walking away anyway.
Last week the new T4 coal export terminal at Newcastle was delayed for 12 months and possibly shelved permanently because of falling global demand. Despite Minister Albanese promising huge wads of our cash to upgrade railways to get more coal from the mines to the ports faster, it turns out the Chinese and Indians don’t want our coal after all. They’re moving on to those shiny solar panels and magnificent solar power towers which they realise are not only cleaner but will actually be cheaper to run by the end of the decade.
Even the USA, under the second Obama Administration, is now actively moving to fund cleantech billions more by cutting their subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, according to an announcement that came within hours of the shelving of the Newcastle coal terminal.
Professor Ross Garnaut, one of our country’s most respectable relationship counsellors, said earlier this year:
“The awful reality is that parts of corporate Australia have dissipated shareholder funds by under-estimating the seriousness of the Chinese commitment to reduce the emissions intensity of economic growth. This has led to wasteful over-investment in thermal coal mining and export capacity.”
The same could be said for our state and federal governments of both red and blue stripes, insisting on paying for coal’s extravagant lifestyle with our cash despite the damage it is doing to us and the ever clearer warnings about the future.
And what can be said of the ‘sensible’, ‘grown-up’ commentary in our daily papers, which fail to report on the reality of the global coal markets let along the urgency of the climate crisis, and insist that advocating a shift from coal to renewable energy is foolish ideology?
Ideology? Far from it. The metaphor of an abusive relationship is instructive, but when it comes down to it this is basic arithmetic, using the laws of physics and chemistry to give us a clear answer.
We have been pumping out gases that we know heat our atmosphere and cause worse fires, floods, droughts and storms, without considering the consequences for over a century. We now know that there is very little space left in our atmosphere for more of those pollutants before we push the climate system beyond breaking point. We’ve been smart enough to invent alternative energy technologies that are mature and affordable and create several times as many jobs for each unit of energy.
Despite these basic facts telling us to run, not walk, away from coal, we still cling to it. That’s why the metaphor is instructive. There’s no way to explain our actions except as an abusive relationship that we can’t let go of.
It’s time for Labor, Liberals and the commentariat to wake up and smell the coffee.
Coal’s no good, and hanging onto it is doing us no good. We should show it the door and embrace the solar, wind and ocean power alternatives that are ready and waiting for us if we only looked around us.
Tim Hollo is a climate change campaigner and former Director of Communications for Christine Milne