18 October 2015
by Giles Parkinson

In Australia, both Coalition and Labor remain wedded to fossil fuels

The response to Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s approval of the massive Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin was as swift as it was damming.

The decision has appalled environmentalists and academics, and attracted the attention of international media, particularly in the context of the Paris climate talks, just weeks ago.

Much of the reaction has been focused on local impacts on water, fauna, and the Great Barrier Reef, but the mine – labeled a “carbon bomb” by green NGOs – will also produce some 60 million tonnes of coal a year, should the $16 billion project ever get the finance to be built.

Professor Samantha Hepburn, from the faculty of business and law at Deakin University, said Hunt’s disregard for the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal was unethical and indefensible.

“If we are to stay under 2 degrees of warming, coal is an obsolete resource,”

“The strategic issue for Australia (and the globe) is how to manage the termination of existing coal plants and accelerate the shift to lower carbon intensive energy sources.” Hepburn said.

The Greens lamented that the “Coalition government’s coal obsession is clearly continuing under Malcolm Turnbull.”

Senator Larissa Waters, their climate change spokesperson, said in a statement:“The world is desperately trying to avert catastrophic global warming, and yet the Turnbull government has gone ahead and signed off on what would become Australia’s largest coal mine.”

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is a bipartisan position between both major parties.

Opposition energy spokesman and former energy minister Gary Gray sends out a media statement nearly every week declaring his support for the Carmichael coal mine project.

“I support this project,” Gray said in another press release following Hunt’s approval on Thursday. “This project is of great importance to Queensland and to Australia. Australia’s coal exports are important to our customers and our mining communities.”

Gray even appears to support using government funds to support the building of the $3 billion rail link, although he suggests that the Coalition publish the funding rules for its $5 billion Northern Australian Infrastructure Fund, labeled the Dirty Energy Finance Corporation, before it actually hands out money. And, of course, the Queensland labor government also seems fully supportive, and willing to allocate money, despite advice that it could be a white elephant.

Gray is not the only senior front bencher supporting the exploitation of coal.

Innovation and industry spokesman Kim Carr on Thursday was trumpeting the Toyota Mirai, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. He said it was an example of a zero-emissions vehicle that could “suggests to us what is possible with new alternative energy sources.”

And then he promptly pitched the use of brown coal. “We also have enormous reserves of brown coal in Victoria, which is a great source for hydrogen,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to the possibility of Victoria playing a major part in the future automotive industry through the development of hydrogen resources in that state.”

That’s as dispiriting as the comments earlier this week from Japanese industrial giant, Kawasaki Heavy Industry, in particular, when they told a hydrogen technologies conference in Sydney that they planned to use brown coal to produce hydrogen for import into Japan.

Those comments caused dismay at the congress. Apart from the fact that this idea relies on the tenuous hopes of carbon capture and storage technology, it underlines how big business is still wedded to the fuels of the past, and major political parties with them. And it reinforces the view of some that hydrogen is simply the “fossil fuel economy repackaged with a green sheen.”

And in Australia, the fossil fuel industry has carte blanche to do whatever it likes.

There is no carbon price.

There are no emissions limits on vehicles.

There is no national energy efficiency scheme.

There are no emissions requirements for coal-fired generators.

The Coalition’s Direct Action plan allows coal-fired generators to continue to pollute at their highest level for the past five years without penalty.

There is no plan – from either the Coalition, or Labor – for transitioning the workforce in Australia’s coal regions to new technologies and new industries. There is no strategy to grow green markets and green jobs.

Australia does not have a plan to cut coal consumption.

Despite repeated warnings from Australia’s own Climate Change Authority, the UN, the International Energy Agency, and numerous other institutions, that most fossil fuels must stay in the ground if the 2C targets are to be met, there is no carbon budget.

Even the Bank of England governor has warned about the dangers of ignoring this budget and the risk of stranded assets.

And, as Melbourne University research fellow Cathy Alexander notes in a new report, the national government has not set targets for states, industries or coal-fired power stations to reduce emissions.

It is not planning to remove fossil fuel subsidies (for example, tax credits for diesel fuel for mining companies).

And it remains the only developed country to actually reduce its target for renewable energy (from 41,000GWh to 33,000GWh, or from around 28 per cent to 23.5 per cent).

As Alexander notes in her analysis, China is about to inaugurate a national emissions trading scheme; it has cut coal imports by 45 per cent, and produces a higher percentage of renewable energy (21 per cent ) than Australia (15 per cent).

China produces 29 times more renewable energy than Australia – a figure that some want to change by using Australia’s vast solar and wind resources to create hydrogen and export this clean fuel to north Asia economies such as Korea and Japan.

Over the next three years, China is expected to install enough solar generation capacity to power Australia.

Overnight, China confirmed that it has lifted its 2020 solar target to 150GW – about three times the size of Australia’s entire grid.

As Alexander concludes: “Australia is not displaying vision or leadership on climate policy, one of the major challenges of the 21st century.”