Climate Change: Emissions for Export

David Teather
Emeritus Professor and long-standing NPA member

The Paris agreement on climate change, of 2015, has been adopted by 196 countries. It aims to limit global warming to 2 degrees C by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Researchers at University College London (McGlade and Elkins, 2015) calculated that in order to limit warming to 2 degrees, a third of the world’s oil reserves, half the gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves must remain unused during the next 40 years. Meanwhile, in Australia (as if on another planet) coal barons and corporations were jockeying for position to begin mining the Galilee Basin – one of the world’s largest untouched coal deposits.

What’s at stake in the Stop Adani campaign?

The magnitude of coal mining proposed for the Galilee Basin of central Queensland is not widely appreciated. Mining on the scale planned would have an impact on global greenhouse gas emissions larger than that of the whole of the rest of the Australian economy.

In 2011 the Mackay Conservation Group collated information about coal mining applications lodged with government authorities. They found proposals for 9 new mega-mines in the Galilee Basin, of which 5 would be larger than any coalmine then operating in Australia. If these mines proceed as planned, they could produce up to 330 million tonnes per year of coal for export.

When burned in power stations overseas, this quantity of coal would release 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. (For comparison, the whole of Australia emitted 533 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in the year 2018).

These findings were made public in 2012. At the same time a comprehensive plan to oppose the mining proposals, titled “Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom,” by Greenpeace, was leaked to the press. Thus began what has now become the largest environmental campaign in Australian history.

Two key sources

Two comprehensively researched and very readable books explain, and underline, the global significance of the Stop Adani struggle. “Adani and the War over Coal” is by Quentin Beresford, professor of politics at Edith Cowan University, Perth. “The Coal Truth” is by David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

In his introduction Beresford states: “this book unpacks the war over coal and the pivotal role of Adani’s Carmichael mine in this process. In Australia, there are few bigger political fights to take on …. What Oil is to Texas and Tar Sands is to Canada, Coal is to Australia.”

As Ritter points out, in 2009 James Hansen described coal as “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”. The eminent NASA scientist didn’t mince his words: “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”

Both Beresford and Ritter structure their books chronologically. Beresford outlines reasons for the growing global demand for coal in the period 2000-2012, and the response to this in Australia. He describes the rise of Gautam Adani, India’s coal billionaire, and recounts how multinational mining corporations operating in Australia shored up political support for the coal industry as concern grew about the effects of climate change. He considers threats to Great Barrier Reef: politics in Queensland, and politics at Commonwealth level under Abbott and Turnbull.

The second half of Beresford’s book considers the campaigns opposing coal mining in the Galilee Basin. Traditional owners and environmental organisations are using the courts. The growing divestment movement focuses on influencing Australian and overseas banks, and other financial institutions.

Ritter’s book reveals much the same story, though with differences in perspective, message and emphasis. Ritter makes more use of personal examples, vignettes and case studies. Beresford writes in a more traditional academic approach.

The preface of Ritter’s book is by Adrian Burragubba, a long-standing campaigner for Aboriginal rights. He succinctly explains the spiritual and practical nature of the relationship between the Wangun and Jagalingou people and their Country. Five of the 14 chapters in the book are written by invited experts on economics, health, climate science, social science and nature conservation.

Both Beresford and Ritter draw similar conclusions from the wealth of information they present. Beresford concludes: “Ideological fervour, propaganda, lies and institutional corruption have been the quartet of forces orchestrated by the fossil fuel power network that created and sustained the proposal to build the Carmichael mine. Employment has been the fig leaf of justification for the project. Large chunks of the case for the economic benefits have evaporated under legal challenge and when exposed by financial experts and investigative journalism. Australian governments have willingly embraced a rogue corporation.”

Ritter writes “The single corporate name ‘Adani’ has become a metonym for out-of-control corporations, rules that aren’t fair [including a Queensland legal system that has yet to recognise the contemporary reality of climate change], and politicians who don’t give a damn.”
Ritter continues, “a powerful movement has arisen, determined that the Carmichael mine will not be built, the Galilee will stay closed, the Great Artesian Basin will be protected, the conditions will be created for the Great Barrier Reef to blossom again, and that there will be a clean energy transition to ensure our future flourishing.”

Collective action

More than two million Australians (8 per cent of our population) belong to organisations that have joined the Stop Adani Alliance. These include long-established environmental bodies (e.g. the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Marine Conservation Society), organisations focused on climate change (e.g. the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and Farmers for Climate Action), and activist organisations (e.g. Greenpeace, GetUp!).

Beresford observes that the campaign against Adani has united the separate environment and climate change movements in Australia into one. Many of the 36 organisations that have joined the campaign are using social media to recruit mass membership. They are mounting effective campaigns to target corporate interests. Stop Adani is now rated as the biggest environmental campaign ever in Australia.

Lawyers take up legal challenges; independent economists, climate scientists, health professionals and other experts contribute their analyses; artists and celebrities declare their opposition. At the time of writing, former Senator and leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, plans to lead a motorcade from Tasmania to the Adani mine site, and to the national capital.

Both Ritter and Beresford agree that collective actions of ordinary people are necessary to speed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Pressuring Australia’s big four banks towards stronger commitments on climate change and away from funding Adani is helping achieve this goal.
Both Ritter’s and Beresford’s books are clarion calls to action. Both are optimistic in asserting that the world is still there to be won. However, to prevent decisions being made with far-reaching and disastrous consequences, it’s necessary that reasonable people take action against them. The British science-fiction writer H.G. Wells once said that life was a race between education and disaster!

The Commonwealth Government’s role

In 1939, after the British Prime Minister declared war, the UK economy was re-organised within months to serve the new priorities of the state.
What powers will bring about the changes that are now needed in the Australian economy? (see Gilding; Shearman and Smith). Clearly we need real action, orders of magnitude greater and more effective than the steps yet taken, rapidly to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in Australia and overseas.

Specifically, we need decisive government action to prevent the extraction of thermal coal from the Galilee Basin, lest Adani’s latest, scaled-down proposal becomes a Trojan Horse for future expansion.

Let’s leave the last word to Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, professor of marine science at the University of Queensland: “We really have to confront those people who support fossil fuels, and outline the massive environmental and human costs of the path we’re on …. We really need to compel our political leaders to stop treating climate change like a second-tier irritation and start treating it as a global emergency.

Beresford, Q. (2018) “Adani and the War over Coal.” 411pp. NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.
Gilding, P. (2011) “The Great Disruption: How the climate crisis will transform the global economy.” 304pp. Bloomsbury, London.
McGlade, C. and Elkins, P. (2015) The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature Vol. 517, pages 187-190.
Ritter, D. (2018) “The Coal Truth: The fight to stop Adani, defeat the big polluters and reclaim our democracy”. 226pp. UWA Publishing, Crawley.
Shearman, D. and Smith, J.W. (2007) “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy.” 204pp. Praeger, Westport.

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