Australia's coal production directly killing animals like the koala

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

If we want to prevent koalas being burned alive then Australia needs to stop burning coal.

It seems like a sensational claim to make, but the connection between burning coal and immolating wildlife is pretty direct, as this Climate Council explainer clearly illustrates.

As I noted in another recent column, coal is Australia’s greatest driver of climate damage — contributing just under 30 per cent of our domestic emissions.

This is a coal-fired crisis — coal is driving both the bushfire crisis and the Australian Federal Government’s inaction on climate, as Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s Dirty Power investigation explains. We are now experiencing catastrophic fire conditions caused by unprecedented heat and drought: direct effects of global warming with burning coal being the biggest contributor of emissions, and which in turn have led to the horrible deaths of so many koalas. 

The best estimates report that a quarter of koalas in NSW and between 25,000-50,000 koalas from Kangaroo Island have perished. Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has said that she believes that the iconic animal could now be listed as "endangered".

And of course, it is not just koalas – brown bandicoots, long-footed potoroos and glossy black cockatoos are among the creatures taken to the brink of extinction – while more than a billion other animals are estimated to have perished in the inferno.

Of course, none of this is to draw attention away from the 30 lives have been lost across this fire season, including four volunteer firefighters.

The images of burned wildlife have been among the most distressing of all the terrible things that we have witnessed as the fire disaster has unfolded. On the other hand, the stories and images of people helping out scorched, injured and distressed creatures have been a reminder of how much we love the precious animals with which we share the country.

But the truth is, no amount of rehabilitation, remediation and resilience can hold back the future tide of fire if we cannot slash emissions, and ramp up the transition to renewable energy. Experts have mapped out Australia’s transition to clean energy as possible within a decade. And those estimates are likely to be conservative if we mobilised to the task as if for world war, which is what the moment of climate emergency really demands.

It is important to speak plainly about cause and effect because no coal-burning or mining company is ever going to be honest about the consequences of a business which Professor James Hanson has described as "factories of death".

In their precious mission and values statements, coal burning and mining companies don’t announce that they are proud to support catastrophic fire conditions that lead to koalas and other creatures being burned alive, but in the interests of transparency, perhaps they should.

Here’s what some of the corporate statements would look like with some keywords added:

At Glencore we aim to achieve our key deliverables efficiently as a path to industry-leading returns, while maintaining a clear focus on excellence, quality, sustainability, burning koalas alive and continuous improvement in everything we do.

At Peabody, our mission is to create superior value for shareholders as the leading global supplier of coal, which enables burning koalas alive, economic prosperity and a better quality of life.

We’re pretty easy going at EnergyAustralia. But we have three core values. They define what we do and how we do it. Stating our values is one thing. But acting on them – that’s what we think is really important. So we make sure our values are not just about words in a policy document, but about how we act and behave including burning coal, which leads to burning koalas alive.

These three companies are not only key players in Australia’s mining and coal-burning sector, but they’ve also spent money and resources lobbying against emissions reduction laws and policies. And given that there have been at least 18 peak level expert warnings that rising emissions would lead to catastrophic fire conditions since 2013 – and plenty of others before that including Professor Ross Garnaut’s forecast in 2008 – they can’t say they were not aware of the consequences of their actions.

What has occurred this spring and summer is an ecological catastrophe at an almost unimaginable scale. And the origins of the tragedy lie with a set of deliberate political and corporate decisions not to reduce emissions.

As recently as November 2019 – with the fire crisis already engulfing our nation – EnergyAustralia was exposed by Environment Victoria for their efforts to undermine climate action in Victoria.

In the aftermath of fires, wildlife rescue and habitat rehabilitation are vital. But as unprecedented and terrible as this spring and summer of fire have been, there will be worse to come if we cannot stop mining and burning coal and other fossil fuels. Many more animals will suffer terrible injuries and deaths if we cannot stop the conditions behind the fires from getting worse - we have to stop mining and burning coal.

If nature in Australia is to flourish again, we must address the cure as well as treating the symptoms. 

David Ritter is an Independent Australia columnist and CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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