Coal burning must end

April 29, 2009 at 5:22 am Leave a comment

CSIRO scientist James Risbey told an April senate inquiry into the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that Australia must end coal-burning.

Australia’s current climate policy “is Russian roulette with the climate system, with most of the chambers loaded,” Risbey said.

Melbourne’s Beyond Zero Emissions interviewed Risbey about why we must cut emissions rapidly and begin to draw carbon down from the atmosphere to avert a climate catastrophe.

Below is my review of Guy Pearse’s excellent essay – Quarry Vision – on the Australian coal industry from Green Left Weekly.

You can view Peter Mares’s interview with Pearse on Slow TV.

*****

Australia and the sunset on coal

Review by Simon Butler

“Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the end of the Resources Boom”
By Guy Pearse
Quarterly Essay, Issue 33
Black Inc, 2009
129 pages, $16.95

The more some things change, the more the Australian government’s close relationship with the toxic coal industry seems to stay the same.

This is the theme of “Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the end of the Resources Boom” published in Quarterly Essay Issue 33.

A change in the government from Coalition to Labor; new evidence about the enormous threat of global warming; the rise of a grassroots climate movement demanding action; and the end of Australia’s long resources boom has not shifted the government’s ingrained support for the coal industry.

PM Kevin Rudd has presented the illusion of an effective response to climate change, which steers the middle ground between big business and green groups. However in practice, he is just as pro-coal as his predecessor, John Howard.

Australia, already the world biggest coal exporter, plans to double its coal exports by 2030.

From the standpoint of future generations, Australia’s coal policy is a policy of madness.

“Coal”, warns Dr James Hansen, one of the world’s best-known climate scientists, “is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet”.

In his forceful and compelling article, Pearse terms this reckless policy “quarry vision”.

The quarry vision of Australia’s business, government and bureaucratic elite means they can see a prosperous future only if Australia remains the world’s “greenhouse ghetto”.

“In effect”, Pearse says, “the warnings that business and consumers should receive about the looming impact of rising oil and carbon prices are being intercepted and shredded by government to protect industries we wrongly believe are our economic backbone and future.

“If we took these warnings seriously, we would shred something else: our decades-old coal-fired export strategy that to this day no government will admit is flawed.”

Australia should rapidly phase out coal-mining, coal exports and coal-fired electricity plants, Pearse says.

Drawing on Hansen’s research, he says this is vital because the world’s atmosphere already contains too much carbon to guarantee a safe climate.

“If we aim merely to stabilise greenhouse-gas concentrations at their current levels, scientists agree that some catastrophic tipping points are a coin toss; if we stabilise emissions at a higher level, they are odds on”, he says.

Past governments have long followed a plan to make Australia the world’s “coal mule” — a Saudi Arabia of coal.

Today, Australia’s domestic use and export of coal “generates close to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually — more than one in every 30 tonnes generated globally from fossil-fuel burning”, Pearse says.

“For a country with one in every 313 of the world’s people, this is polluting well above our weight.”

The move away from coal would be far easier for Australia than many other countries. Australia is relatively roch, and has near-unmatched conditions for solar, wind and geothermal power.

The economic impact of such a move would not be nearly as large as the carbon lobby and the government pretends.

On average, Australia’s coal exports make up just 3-4% of gross domestic product. At the height of the mining boom, the mining sector made up just 1.3% of jobs.

“In Australia today, more people work in restaurants and cafes than in mines. [The hardware store] Bunnings employs almost one-and-a-half times as many people as the entire aluminum industry”, Pearse points out.

Direct government investment in renewable energy, public transport and sustainable farming would create many more green-collar jobs for those now working in the most polluting industries.

Nor does the mining industry contribute so much to public coffers. Coal royalties average just 3% of government revenue in NSW and Queensland — the two states with the biggest coal production.

The whole mining industry pays about $18 billion in state and federal taxes. At the same time, “mining, metals and energy industries enjoy billions of dollars in tax breaks, fuel excise rebates, cheap electricity contracts, royalty holidays, and infrastructure”.

Every year about $9 billion “that the quarry industries contribute returns [back to them] by a different route”, Pearse says.

Quarry vision exists only because taxpayers subsidise it heavily.

Pearse’s 2007 book High and Dry exposed the role of fossil-fuel industry lobbyists in influencing — and sometimes even writing — climate change policy under the Howard government. One lobbyist even boasted to Pearse in an interview that the lobbyists liked to call themselves the “greenhouse mafia”.

He shows how the greenhouse mafia still holds huge sway with the Rudd government.

The ALP was elected on the promise it would take decisive action on climate change. Yet what “many either failed to notice or dared not say was that Labor’s policy platform was no guarantee of an effective response to climate change”.

The greenhouse mafia game plan was unchanged.

“Their strategy was to prevent action by Australia, and if that failed, to delay action, and if delay failed, to shift the burden of emission cuts elsewhere.”

Two outcomes of the greenhouse mafia’s “carbon capture” of the Rudd government were the tiny target of a 5% emissions cut by 2020 and the planned Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

The CPRS, Pearse says “[keeps] with the Yes Minister tradition of ‘always disposing of the difficult bit in the title’ because ‘it does less harm there’”.

Along with its many other problems, the CPRS will actually allow carbon pollution in Australia to rise. The 5% target will be mostly met by buying up billions of tonnes of carbon offsets cheaply from Third World countries. Pearse aptly calls this a new “carbon colonialism”.

Pearse is scathing of the Rudd government’s eagerness to bow down before Australia’s biggest polluters.

“Having set an emissions target that could be met without cuts at home, having removed all limits to exporting cuts, and having misrepresented this as a superior effort to that of other developed nations, all that remained for Kevin Rudd was to compensate Australia’s leading emitters,” he says.

This year the Rudd government announced coal companies would receive $3.9 billion in free permits and tax breaks under the CPRS.

The other “gift” big coal receives from the ALP government is political support and public research funding, for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) — or “clean coal” technology.

Clean coal is a dangerous fiction — akin to a healthy cigarette, or safe asbestos. The technology is extremely expensive, mostly unproven and its potential for large-scale use is non existent.

Pearse calculates that “a new pro-CCS media release is issued for about every 100 tonnes of CO2 actually captured and stored. The spectacular growth industry is not clean coal, but clean coal PR.”

Rather than prop up the deadly industry, Australia must quickly end coal mining and coal burning altogether. Coal is a “sunset industry by moral and environmental necessity”, he says.

“The choice facing Australia is what type of sunset that will be: a long one that fuels catastrophic climate change, or a short one that fights it.”

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #792 29 April 2009.

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Reject the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Climate justice vs climate denial

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