Environment Analysis

Like tobacco, Australia has a coal problem it must overcome

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Australia has a problem and its name is coal.

The country has a fair amount of it, the quality is good, and the mining costs are relatively low. Also, jobs have been created and infrastructure has been built around coal.

It is very easy to dig it out of the ground in the Hunter Valley (or Queensland or Victoria), pile it on to train car after train car, and rail it down to the port in Newcastle and other places where a long line of coal-hungry barges float ready and waiting to bring the black stuff up to electricity plants in southeast Asia.

How in the world is that a problem? And why should you listen to a visiting Professor from the States who argues that it is not just a serious issue, but an existential one for Australians?

Let me provide a provocative analogy to Australia’s coal problem.

Let’s say that you are a tobacco farmer. Your parents were tobacco farmers, as were theirs. You have lots of open fields, the tobacco business is lucrative and stable, and you have your family to feed.

You used to smoke but are quitting, your family doesn’t smoke and all you do is legally farm a product that adds to your income, and constitutes a significant proportion of your community’s tax base.

Should you stop producing and selling tobacco just because the science clearly now confirms that it kills the millions of people who smoke?

In the case of tobacco, much of the world is trying to shun it because of its profound public health impacts, which ends up costing not just the patient but society as a whole. To get off of tobacco, governments have stepped in, first with dire labelling such as 'This Product Kills!', then with taxes so extreme as to disincentivise many new smokers from starting.

And the tax revenues go largely toward smoking cessation programs, which make sure that current smokers have support to stop their dangerous habit.

In this analogy, the important steps to make smoking an enemy involved the medical science confirming the harm, then the regulatory pressures to reduce the harm.

But how about coal?

Like tobacco, the coal problem used to be just a theoretical one in the early part of the last Century. We knew that coal produces carbon dioxide gas, long stored by the ancient swamp plants that are now fossilised black gold in the hillsides of the Hunter Valley but released at rapid rates when burned for its stored energy.

It was calculated then that the released carbon dioxide would do what physics demands it always does when it accumulates in the atmosphere — it acts as a greenhouse gas, warming the planet.

Carbon and coal started moving from a theoretical issue to a measurable one by the end of the last Century, but one that still seemed minor, a distant tragedy of stranded starving polar bears. Then, as they say in America, “the chickens came home to roost". 

The impacts of climate change were no longer measured in thermometers but meted out like some apocalyptic justice, especially right here in Australia.

Still reeling from the aftereffects of massive bushfires, scorching temperatures, and terrible air quality that sickened millions, portions of Australia are now awash in a climate-charged super La Niña, bringing the wettest summer in recent memory.

No, not every weather-related disaster is caused by climate change, just as not every case of lung cancer is caused by smoking, but it can now be reasonably argued that nearly all of them are made worse by climate change — sometimes a lot worse.

The tobacco industry no more wanted to phase out smoking than the coal industry wants to phase out mining, for obvious reasons. But a combination of public awareness and governmental regulations have helped to reduce the scourge of smoking. Not just nationally, be it in the United States or Australia, but also globally.

With climate, we are partway: the public awareness of harm from climate change, which used to be a murmur, is now a global roar, increasingly driven not just by activists but by normal people who are seeing firsthand the rampages of uncontrolled climate change.

But the next step is the hardest one. Keeping a “valuable” resource in the ground.

This really does require regulations and some pivots that will be painful for some communities, and some corporations. And it really doesn’t count if Australia commits to being “net zero” in terms of domestic energy production by 2050 so long as the hungry coal barges continue to line up at the ports, their open jaws devouring black poison to be burned elsewhere, but whose impact is hurting everyday Australians.

The odds of a quick shift away from an easy and lucrative commodity seem low, particularly given that of the five largest coal mines in Australia, three of them are set to continue operating until 2040 and the two others until 2050.

But odds are only low if the market is able to run rough-shod over the health and safety of Australians, and the planet.

If, like tobacco, coal is priced to include its actual net cost to society, it would turn out a loser. The odds would shift rapidly and decisively toward less destructive ways to power our lightbulbs and factories.

I have no doubt that internal market forces will make this shift happen here in Australia: I am much more sceptical that I will wake up next, or in two decades, and see no coal barges waiting on the horizon to fill up. But I would love to see my scepticism proven wrong, as would the planet.

Dr Gabriel Filippelli is a biogeochemist with broad training in climate change, exposure science and environmental health. You can follow Gabriel on Twitter @GabeFilippelli.

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