A harsh title for a harsh reality. Our continued fetish for exporting and using coal is killing us and many other species on Earth. Let me explain.
We all know that coal is a fossil fuel that when burnt, releases additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn increases the amount of solar radiation trapped in the Earth’s biosphere. These additional greenhouse gasses throw out the delicate balance of the natural carbon cycle.
This creates an enhanced greenhouse effect, which is causing climate change, and this additional heat fuels the extreme weather events that we are experiencing more frequently. A 1-in-100 year event are now 1-in-10 year events, or even shorter. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Australia exports black and brown coal, and lots of it. In 2011, coal was our second biggest export behind Iron Ore, and was worth A$46.8b in export revenue. We also use a lot of it to generate electricity for the national grid.
It is had to imagine that figure so this is what it looks like, A$46,800,000,000. That is a lot of coal, and it makes a lot of money for some of the richest people in this country.
Money also means power. Political power in the form of lobbying, to entice governments to change policies in favour of exporting more coal, building more coal infrastructure with taxpayers funds, and making more money without looking at the long term damage it is causing future generations. Shareholder returns for death and destruction. Cash before the welfare of Earth.
Even though Australia has a price on carbon pollution, this price per tonne of CO2-e is only calculated on the extraction and transportation of the coal within our borders. It does not extend to the coal we export which when burnt overseas is adding to the global levels of atmospheric greenhouse gasses. With governments approving new coal mines in this country, they are damaging any good effects achieved by the carbon price.
Ironically, as other countries burn this exported coal, it affects the global climate, which causes extreme weather events all over the planet including the originating country.
We all know that these extreme weather events cause death and destruction, not only here in Australia, but throughout the world. I won’t dwell on the tragic loss of life, suffice it to say that it is happening, and it is sad that we are the makers of our own destruction.
Even more ironic is that the main states affected by the increasingly frequent extreme weather events here in Australia are Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria, which are the biggest exporters and users of coal in the country.
Even though our coal exports may contribute greatly to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they are causing more harm than it is worth.
Domestically, it was estimated that the 2010-2011 Queensland floods caused over A$3b in damage, with an estimated reduction in Australias GDP of about A$30b. This was quickly followed by the Victorian floods, which caused over A$2b in damage. This years floods in Qld and NSW have caused over A$2.4b in estimated damage to date, with an unknown impact to GDP, so one would expect a similar reduction to the 2010-2011 floods. All events are currently being attributed to warming oceans and a hotter planet. Last financial years flood levy was not to pay for flood damage, it was to pay for our own stupidity.
I hope the shareholders who benefit from these short term export profits think that it is worth it all of the current suffering and future heartache for their descendants. In the end everyone suffers.
Now, dear reader, the irony continues, as Australia has one of the highest per capita ecological footprints (7th of all countries) on the planet. This is driven by our own consumer culture that is one of the main causes of coal demand from China. We buy stuff made in China and across Asia, who makes the stuff with electricity generated by burning coal that we export. Our own coal exports harm us directly.
Simple logic would determine that if we demanded less stuff, we would import less stuff, and they would need less coal to burn to make the stuff, therefore lowering atmospheric pollution. However it is not that simple anymore. It may have been the case a decade ago, however increasing affluence in Asia makes domestic demand rise, and therefore increasing domestic resource utilisation. It is a very ‘Catch 22’ situation.
Australia and China are not alone. All countries that export and consume fossil fuels expedited by a consumer culture are at fault to some extent, which really makes it a global issue.
The only solution I can think of is to divest from fossil fuel companies, via either a reduction in consumer spending or ethical investment and switching to renewable energy sources reduces the political power held by these conglomerates, and transfers it to the greater good (in theory, anyway).
I believe that every single dollar that we spend or invest makes a difference in our current economic system. So to stop or at least slow the death and destruction, spend wisely. Invest in renewable energy sources, or consume less. The future is everyone’s hands, not just governments.
We are the people we have been waiting for, so lets work on the solution to biggest challenge that has ever faced humanity.
P.S. All I ask in return for you reading this post it to share it via you favourite social network if you agree. Lets get the conversation started.
Kathy P. says
The good news is, here in the US, coal use is down considerably because power plants are switching to much cheaper natural gas. This has, of course, been politicized by the Tea Party right into “Obama’s war on coal”, but it has nothing to do with Obama. Natural gas is cheaper than dirt right now because of the fracking bubble, driven by Wall St. greed and other factors. On the face of it, gas is better than coal because it burns cleaner. In reality, gas is just as polluting when you factor the filth produced in extracting it. And a lot of methane escapes the wells adding to climate change, since methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And yeah, big money buys politicians; and a lot of willfully ignorant people have bought into the denialist meme, funded by Big Carbon.
And then there’s Canada’s tar sands…and the Keystone XL pipeline they want to build from the Canadian border, right through America’s heartland (and the Oglalla aquifer) to Texas or Louisiana, or somewhere, so the Tar Sands extracts can be shipped overseas to China and elsewhere. But of course the politicians tell us all this is making America “energy independent”.
Seems greed and corruption, like fossil fuel, is a global commodity.
Gavin Webber says
Very true Kathy. It looks like greed and short term thinking is a global phenomenon, just like climate change.
There’s an election this year in Australia – how about showing our frustrations at the ballot box. We just have to bite the bullet and go solar, wind, etc. Joy
Gavin Webber says
Good pick up Joy! It is indeed an election year here in Australia, so check out each parties policies and vote with your conscience. I know who I am voting for. 😉
Wholeheartedly agree with you Gavin. Clive Hamilton in his talk at the Sustainability Festival reckons we have about 10 years to start pushing carbon dioxide levels down. After that it is climate change running out of control, beyond the tipping point. Whilst it is critical that each person develops a consciousness and acts accordingly, we also all need become political and develop a sense of urgency about this. It seems to me that many talk about the need to do something but few are prepared to actively stand up for it.
It’s not inaccurate to assume if we reduced our coal exports to China, and invested more in renewable energy, it may be possible to start reducing carbon emissions. However the effect of that will be, the price of things like solar panels and power purchased on the grid from renewable sources, will start to increase in price. Why? Because it’s the “increased” trade between both countries which creates the cash flow to drive down prices in production. So if we cut back the supply of coal, China cuts back the supply of solar panels, because there is no projected profit in a stagnating or contracting economy. Production starts to scale back.
Is that good news for the environment anyway? I guess you could say it is, theoretically, but what about the billions of average Australian households, with mortgages to pay with increasing prices and job losses in the economy. That’s what you get in a stagnating or contracting economy. While there is this imagined notion of the government creating jobs in the renewable energy sector, it requires cash flow to make it happen. Cash which comes from tax payers who are suffering job losses and no longer spending money in the economy. If you’re asking the government to help, you’re really asking the taxpayer to pay.
There is a reason there are few extremely wealthy people in our country. It’s because they don’t traditionally spend their own money. They get it from other people’s investments and use the existing economic system to turn a profit. That money does come from shareholders, but many involve superannuation funds too. You start telling the few wealthy people they cannot import coal at the rate they are, and many retirees start to see they can no longer retire when they thought they could, because their superannuation fund just took a nose dive.
It’s not a simple matter to make an environmentally friendly wish list and push it’s agenda. What you end up with is a lot of contraction in the economy and average people with their livelihoods tied to it (even if they compost, recycle and have solar panels on their roofs) end up needing to find a means to feed, clothe and house themselves, some other way.
Get enough “voters” feeling the reality of their imagined environmentally friendly wish list, and see how quickly they change their vote to the party who promises to get them “financially” back on their feet? There will be no need to mention sustainability in the fake, electronic, pseudo green age any more: because it was all tied into coal and uranium exports anyway.
There is no imagined distinction between them, as if coal is the bad polluter and renewable energy is environmentally friendly. It’s a good salesman’s pitch to the middle class right now to push for green votes, but the reality is (the unavoidable reality) is they are tied together economically.
The best approach would be for the political parties to be honest about the reality of economics, and demonstrate a plan that includes both increased coal production AND increased renewable energy. Because to draw from one economically, would be to starve the other. Unless of course, people feel they can live in a world without solar panels connected to the national electricity networks, and want to start paying double for the same panels and their own battery bank to store their power.
It’s nice to imagine a better world, but how are we going to pay for it? I don’t disagree with your environmental projections (ie: pollution is bad for our planet) but if we don’t address the economic reality, any plans for genuine change, will keep eluding us. To put it another way, how can we increase renewable energy while we cut the cash flow from coal? Where does the money come from?
Gavin Webber says
Hi Chris. Thanks for your very detailed comment. Did I strike a nerve?
As most reader will know, I am not an economist, but wouldn’t it make sense that over time, the loss of revenue would be offset by not having to pay massive amounts of compensation/insurance and infrastructure capital to repair the damage caused by extreme weather events?
I realise that my view is very simplistic, but it must have some merit?
No striking nerves necessary, it’s purely mathematical. 😉
You don’t have to be an economist to understand what I’m saying though, as you practice it every week with your family budget. There’s a set income you divide according to priorities. If you take actions to reduce your income, you have to proportionally reduce your expenses.
Likewise, you cannot increase investment in renewable energy, at the same time you cut the cash-flow derived from fossil energy. It would be like taking a pay cut, when you want to continue paying down the mortgage at the rate you are, and not reduce what you’re currently spending on green upgrades for the future.
At some point you’re going to get a deficit and have to cut back on something, or increase your earning potential again. You mentioned the loss of revenue being offset by not having to pay massive amounts of compensation/insurance for damage caused by extreme weather. But as you would know from your research into climate change, we are not going backwards – the climate extremes are escalating. Some scientists even proclaim it’s too little too late.
So any means to offset financial liability in the future, will have to be paid in advance today, with interest. I’ll take a present day example. The federal govt has recently announced a 100 million to various States to help with flood relief and mitigation projects. Insurance bodies have announced this could reduce insurance premiums in some locations by 70%. But where does that 100 million come from? We don’t have it in advance (the budget is presently in deficit) so we have to borrow it from elsewhere and pay interest – just like on your home loan. Then we hypothetically cut coal imports because it’s better for the planet.
How would your bank manager react if you said you were cutting your cash-flow and couldn’t pay as much? I’m sure they’d rub their hands together and calculate exactly how they can profit from it. But nonetheless, your objective has changed. You’ve gone from investment builder to increased borrower, and your future options have been reduced. How can you then spend your money on green upgrades, when it’s tied further into borrowings?
People seem happy to discuss the painful reality of what not reducing our emissions means for the planet, but seem reluctant to face the fiscal reality any changes will bring.
Gavin Webber says
Hi Chris. What you recommend as a potential solution. Obviously pumping more CO2-e into the atmosphere should not be encouraged, whereas anything that assists in drawing down or preventing excessive emissions should.
In your humble opinion, where to from here?
Sorry for the delay in responding, but life took a sudden detour in priorities. 🙂
You asked the million-dollar question. What exactly are we expecting however, by wanting to decrease CO2 at the same time we increase our purchases and use of products, which involve CO2 emissions? Whether we’re talking green products or the usual fossil fuel nasties, it collectively totals an increased output – not a decreased one.
If we want to reduce coal exports to China, we need to embrace the reduced capacity to invest in renewable energy so cheaply here. The same way we would have to embrace the loss of investment opportunities, if we voluntarily reduced our income for a good cause at home.
You answered the million dollar question by asking how to reduce CO2. Reducing the output of coal production is an option, but does that meet your current expectation to expand investment in renewable energy at the same time?