A major fault line in the movement for climate action centres around one’s response to coal exports. Should we be calling for an end to coal* exports or not?

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. This industry brings in more than $60 billion annually in export earnings. As the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change sets out that a country’s emissions are only a total of the emissions produced within that country’s borders coal exports do not impact on our official greenhouse emission tally. 

Australia’s domestic fossil fuel emissions plus emissions from its fossil fuel exports were roughly equivalent to 4.8 per cent of the global total for fossil fuel emissions in 2016. Put this figure up against Australia’s population, which is 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, and it becomes very obvious in the climate debate that there is a dark cloud over the future of the coal export industry. (The 4.8 per cent figure is based on emissions from fossil fuel combustion, that is it excludes other sources such as land-use changes and agriculture.) 

The main supporters of climate action that do not support a phasing out of coal exports are sections of the union movement, including the mining division of the CFMMEU, and the ALP. 

I will come back to Australia’s coal export trade. First off I want to acknowledge the ground breaking work Tony Maher, head of the mining division of the CFMMEU, has done over the past two decades in developing broad awareness within his union and the wider community of the dangers of human induced climate change. I understand that the mining division was one of the first unions to develop a policy on this critical issue. That policy backs the need to transform Australia’s electricity industry to zero or near zero emissions. 

In a speech at the ACTU’s 2016 Just Transition Conference Tony, referring to Australia’s future energy sources, said, “We know that most or all coal-fired power stations are going to close and will not be rebuilt.” While opinions vary on when this should happen it is clear coal for domestic local energy use has a limited life. This is the case due to the age of our coal-fired power plants and because renewable energy is becoming more commercially viable assisted by the development of smart grids and large scale battery storage. 

Although this is good news for reducing greenhouse gas emissions it is possibly bad news for many workers and their communities as they face an uncertain future of insecure or no work. 

For decades unions and climate action groups have raised the need for Just Transition programs that deliver jobs, retraining and industry restructuring. I acknowledge that the jobs message from the green side of this debate – environment groups and the Greens party – may not have been as strong and as comprehensive as is needed but it has been part of their policy mix. 

When considering the future of workers in the coal industry we can take heart from the German experience where in the phase-down of their coal industry none or very few workers lost their jobs due to the combined work of government at a national and local level, the mining industry, unions and climate/environment groups. 

The result was no forced redundancies. Some workers accepted the offer of generous redundancy packages, others chose to retire early while young workers were moved between remaining coal mines until they found new jobs. 

While much more work needs to be done on Just Transition programs in Australia a plan somewhat similar to the German model has been adopted at the Liddell power station in NSW. AGL, the owners of Liddell, have established the Innovation Project to repurpose parts of the Liddell site to help replace the energy needed and bring benefits to the community. The workers were given seven years notice of the planned closure and the project has strong backing from the Electrical Trades Union and the CFMMEU. This project demonstrates how workers can be assured of work when energy delivery is overhauled. 

This is a huge achievement and one that will help to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is good news but what else should we be doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The answer as shown by the high level of emissions produced in Australia compared with other countries suggests we need to do a lot more.  

This takes us back to the question should we call for the phase out of coal exports? While it is true that rules set by international climate change conferences do not put any obligation on Australia for emissions produced by our coal exports there are other treaties and agreements that do put the onus on the country where fossil fuel exports are sourced.  

In 2016 our Pacific Island neighbours issued the Suva Declaration that calls on Australia to stop building new coal mines. This is a strong statement that arose out of the tragic situation now occurring on many islands were the land is uninhabitable because of climate related sea level rises and extreme weather events.  

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne has put the case for Australia to adhere to treaties that enshrine the principle of harm avoidance as set out in the Stockholm Convention 1972 and the Rio Declaration of 1992. Australia is a signatory to both these treaties that state: “(parties) have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States”. 

Christoff’s conclusion that “Trade in injurious substances flies in the face of the harm avoidance principle” is a strong counter to those who rely on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to avoid dealing with Australia’s coal exports when talking about climate action. 

Bringing the export industry into a Just Transition approach would mean some tough decisions for state and federal governments. This is obviously a huge challenge but one that would be dwarfed by the damage to the economy and to our communities if we do not stop the impacts of run away climate change. 

The export industry employs six times as many people as the domestic coal power industry. The latter employs about 8000. Coal workers are paid up to about $150,000. Transition plans would need to ensure these workers’ right to move to well paid jobs. 

There is an urgency about starting the phase out now as Australia is on track to increase its coal exports. If the proposed coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin do go ahead they would turn that region alone into world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions.  

Right now Australia is not transiting away from the fossil fuel industry – expansion of coal, gas and oil extraction are a priority for the federal and many state governments.  

As we have seen with the Covid crisis the objective conditions can force massive transition on even a conservative government. If we don’t limit global warming to two degrees celsius disruptive change will occur. To achieve the transition that will deliver for coal workers, their communities and the environment there needs to be a planned phase out of Australia’s coal mining – domestic and export. Many disagree. This is the discussion the climate and union movements need to have. 

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* The use of the term “coal” in this article refers to “thermal coal” not “coking coal”, which is used for making steel. 

Photo – 2007 blockade of Port Newcastle – world’s biggest port for coal exports. Organised by Rising Tide.

This article first appeared in Search News.

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