On Tuesday this week, a high court challenge against an expansion of the New South Wales Vickery coal mine, operated by Whitehaven coal, commenced. The challenge is being led by a group of young Australians who will directly suffer the impacts of the use of the product this company is selling.
Climate Litigation – These Teens (And A Nun) Are Taking The Government To Court Over Climate Change https://t.co/PUVjojo9kk #auspol #auslaw #climate #environment #coal #youth #justice c @GretaThunberg @Fridays4future
— Matthew Rimmer (@DrRimmer) March 2, 2021
It is, of course, a brave and important thing to do. As I have written here before, the act of removing fossil fuels from the ground is a key step in the process that leads to them being burned, and greenhouse gas emissions being released. It is, broadly in Australian culture, politics and media, treated as if it a wholly neutral act – a passive facilitation between supply and demand. “They’d simply get their coal elsewhere if we didn’t do it”, is the primary catch-cry.
The ‘drug dealer’s defence’ pretends there is only a one-way relationship between supply and demand. But, of course, plentiful supply leads to lower costs, which increases consumption of the product. In this case, coal is the primary driver of the greatest threat ever faced by our species, and a direct threat to the lived experiences of these teenagers.
In Australia – A group of teenagers have launched a lawsuit against a proposed coal mine in New South Wales. They say Whitehaven's mine will exacerbate climate change and endanger their future. More here for @BBCWorld pic.twitter.com/S2EaTdW5fw
— Katie_Silver (@Katie_Silver) March 2, 2021
How much of a threat? The project these young Australians are opposing is the expansion of the Vickery coal mine, which would more than double the capacity of the mine from 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year to 10.
“Importantly, the Project’s Scope 3 emissions would not contribute to Australia’s [Paris 2030 target] as product coal would be exported for combustion overseas. These Scope 3 emissions become the consumer countries Scope 1 and 2 emissions and would be accounted for in their respective national inventories”
This is a deeply silly argument. The court case is not arguing that Scope 3 emissions ought to be counted in Australia’s formal emissions registry – it is arguing that the project is an action that leads to climate impacts that will be suffered by Australians. It doesn’t matter who accounts for what – it matters that Australia is a major participant in the supply chain of massive climate harm.
The idea that greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts obey the boundaries of country borders is something that really needs to be challenged, if this problem is due to be addressed. The scale of ignoring ‘scope 3’ emissions – those created when the product is used, rather than those created when the product is dug up and processed – is often not particularly clear. But the extension’s Environmental Impact Statement lays out in a table buried deep in an Appendix:
That tiny red sliver down the bottom is the impact on Australia’s domestic emissions accounts – the big green area – around 98% of total emissions – is the climate impact of the use of Whitehaven’s product. You understand why ‘Scope 3’ emissions are generally excluding the decision making process here, right? Why the responsibility is shuffled entirely onto the customers of the product, rather than the company that profits from supplying it?
To give you a sense of scale, here’s the annual total emissions of the Vickery coal mine, including the impact of the use of their product, compared to the annual emissions reductions achieved by Australia’s Renewable Energy Target policy:
This coal mine isn’t even Australia’s largest, either approved, in operation or planned. As I wrote last year, Australia is planning a huge swathe of new coal mines, and the International Energy Agency highlights Australia as a major global player in the supply of the stuff that’s directly threatening the lives of all Australians, young and old. Keep in mind when look at the chart below that this expansion is ‘only’ 5 megatonnes per annum.
Of course, the IEA’s report on coal was heavily criticised for not putting these numbers in the context of climate action (and yes, Whitehaven coal were thanked for “providing input” to the report, along with the Minerals Council of Australia and the World Coal Association).
This exact moral question is the focus of much media coverage in the United Kingdom. The output of this mine will be 2.43 megatonnes per annum – half of the extension of Vickery. “Boris Johnson has been warned by some of his foreign ambassadors that a planned coal mine in Cumbria is damaging his reputation”, wrote the BBC, yesterday. Yet, coal has reached such a toxic saturation point in Australia that there’s no chance Vickery will be thought of as damaging Scott Morrison’s reputation.
“We face an increasing amount of natural disasters and the climate is becoming unliveable for us. This is a crisis that disproportionately affects people of colour, young people and marginalised people around the world”, said lead claimant, Anjali Sharma, outside the court. “As the Australian economy starts to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, it is vital that major employment-generating investments in the economy are not delayed by legal claims that have no substance,” replied Whitehaven CEO Paul Flynn. “It’s just a nuisance at the moment, and — but we’ve seen this before. We’ve just got to put our heads down and work our way through this with government”, Flynn told shareholders on the 17th of February. On that call, Flynn even admits that their coal’s particular characteristics “certainly drives demand for the premium products that we sell”.
There is no mystery behind this issue. The extraction, transport and burning of coal all sit in sequence to create the bulk of the climate threat, and all three processes need to be ramped down as quickly as possible. The first step in this process means ditching the weird idea that climate impacts obey country borders, and recognising that flooding the market with coal actively and directly contributes to its continued usage. It means acknowledging that a country can’t brag about its renewable credentials while supplying a major boost to the coal industry. It means knowing that constrained supply will help accelerate a transition to zero emissions steel manufacturing and reduce the usage of metallurgical coal. The UK gets this.
It doesn’t matter which country books the harm on their spreadsheets – the moral calculus is inarguable. The suppliers of a dangerous drug bear some, if not most, of the responsibility for the consequences. Time to stop the dealing, and listen to those who are set to face far worse impacts than we are.
Ketan Joshi is a European-based climate and energy consultant.