Governments must proactively prepare workers and communities as part of a ‘just transition’ in response to an inevitable phase out of coal mines and power stations, leading energy and climate policy experts have warned.
The international group of researchers has argued that a global phase out of coal, necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, will require governments to engage with coal-reliant communities and workers, to ensure there is a “fair” closure of the fossil fuel industries.
The new research has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change, and has been authored by academics from the Australian National University working in partnership with researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany, India and the United States.
The Australian National University’s professor Frank Jotzo said that the global phase out of coal would have significant consequences for Australia, and it was important that governments worked to avoid the same mistakes made in response to earlier power station closures.
“In Australia, coal use is invariably on the way out, as renewable energy is now the cheaper way of producing electricity from new plants, and Australia’s coal power plant fleet is relatively old. Coal is also being phased down quite rapidly in much of Europe and North America,” Professor Jotzo said.
“The closure of Hazelwood and the controversies over the planned closure of the Liddell coal plant show that this transition can be difficult.”
“The lesson from the experiences in other countries is that closures need to be planned ahead of time, giving time to seed alternative business activity. Success requires looking after the interests of workers, local communities as well as the energy industry, but not forgetting the interests of energy users and taxpayers,” Jotzo added.
The research paper argues that meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, which includes an aim to achieve zero net emissions in the second half of the current century, requires a rapid phase out of coal use internationally.
Governments must therefore work proactively and early with communities to ensure appropriate support is offered to mitigate the economic and social impacts on coal communities and to avoid some of the difficult political battles that have hampered action in some countries, particularly Australia.
“Efforts to phase out coal will only succeed if stakeholders are involved early on in the decision process to ensure democratic legitimacy. This is particularly important during times in which populist parties increasingly depict climate change mitigation as a project undertaken by the political elite against the interests of the broader population, and where well-founded concerns about economic prosperity dominate public discourse,” the paper says.
Two key Australian communities, Victoria’s Latrobe Valley and New South Wales’ Hunter Region are two core examples of communities that have been built around coal as a primary generator of income and which will be significantly impacted by a coal phase-out. Policies must be put in place to avoid a catastrophic social and economic collapse in these communities.
Australian National University researcher Dr Bec Colvin, who has also led research into how the transition away from coal can be appropriately managed, said that communities need to be provided an opportunity to understand and be consulted on the challenges involved in the closure of coal power stations and mines.
“These issues can be very contentions and even divisive. Everyday people need to be given the space to grapple with the complex social challenges of planning for a prosperous, low-emissions future,” Dr Colvin said.
“This can mean governments and industry investing in genuinely participatory processes to make possible conversations across political and social divides, especially in regions that will experience the changes. A ‘just transition’ for regional communities requires overcoming the ‘us and them’ mentality promoted in the national political discourse.”
Electricity generation represents around one-third of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with most of these emissions caused by coal-fired generators.
The heads of two of Australia’s energy market regulators told a Clean Energy Council forum last week that all coal generators in Australia could be closed as early as 2040, suggesting that it will have a less disruptive impact on the electricity sector than some have claimed.