Coal shipped out of Australia’s ports last year carried 897 million tonnes of embedded carbon dioxide emissions – almost double Australia’s domestic emissions and more than the entire national CO2 emissions of Europe’s biggest emitter and the world’s fourth largest economy Germany.
A new interactive tool launched by UK-based climate think tank Ember, which allows users to view the coal export and import flow around the world, reveals Australia was the second most prolific exporter of coal in the world in 2020, shipping almost 368 million tonnes of the fossil fuel. It was only just behind Indonesia, which shipped 372 million tonnes of coal.
No other country came anywhere near those two, which together shipped 59 per cent of the world’s seaborne coal. The majority of coal was shipped to China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
While Indonesia shipped slightly more coal, Australia’s coal ports are the biggest in the world. Port Newcastle in NSW is far and away the world’s single biggest coal export terminal, shipping 155 million tonnes of coal export in 2020, with embedded emissions of 378 million tonnes of CO2. The vast majority of that was thermal coal. Globally, Ember said a “staggering” 12 per cent of global coal exports went through Port Newcastle.
Hay Point in Central Queensland is the world’s second biggest coal port, shipping out 100 million tonnes of mostly metallurgical coal, with embedded emissions of 243 million tonnes.
With embedded emissions of 621 million tonnes of CO2, Newcastle and Hay Point together ship out 20 per cent more embedded emissions than Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions of 510 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Apologists for Australia’s lack of aggressive climate policy like to point to the fact Australia’s domestic emissions only make up 1.5 per cent of the global total. But when scope 3 emissions from coal exports are added to the mix, Australia’s share increases to around 3.5 per cent – and that doesn’t include emissions from gas exports.
The sheer volume of coal passing through NSW and Queensland’s ports serves as a sobering reminder of Australia’s reliance on the most climate polluting of fossil fuels, and offers a simple answer to why climate politics remain so difficult in this country.
But even if the domestic politics don’t change, Ember suggested pressure could start coming from the international community. Currently the global climate regime under the UNFCCC focuses heavily on domestic emission, but Ember analyst Nicolas Fulghum said more scrutiny needed to be paid to what countries were exporting.
“While profits flow to coal exporting countries, the environmental impact is shipped overseas.They conveniently ignore their ‘scope 3’ emissions despite their significant contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions,” Fulghum said.
“Despite net zero announcements from coal consuming countries, growing scrutiny of coal generation and higher carbon prices, there have so far been few binding agreements to address the supply side of the global coal industry.”
Ember’s analysis found as European markets turn away from coal, exporters from further afield – such as Colombia – were increasingly turning towards Asian markets. But their analysis suggests this will not be a growing market. They suggest India’s coal demand may have already peaked, and they predict total coal global demand will fall from 1700 million tonnes in 2020 to 1300 million tonnes in 2030, and by 80 per cent to 340 million tonnes in 2050 – lower than Australia’s total coal exports today.
James Fernyhough is a reporter at RenewEconomy. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and the Financial Times, and is interested in all things related to climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.