Serious questions arise about Glencore's cap on coal output

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Open cut coal mine in Queensland (Image via envlaw.com.au)

Mining giant Glencore has announced a cap on its coal output, but news of a hidden pro-coal agenda is alarming, writes Dr John Iser.

THE RECENT announcement by multinational mining giant Glencore to cap its coal production capacity, broadly, to current levels is a welcome recognition of this company’s responsibility to its shareholders and to future generations.

The move is said to be a key part of the company's global response to the increasing risks posed by climate change and a shift the of focus away from coal to commodities — including copper, cobalt, nickel, vanadium and zinc.

However, serious questions arise from their stated aims.

Limiting coal production to current levels is inconsistent with efforts to reduce emissions, in line with the Paris Agreement of containing mean global temperature increase. Glencore is a multinational company with significant coal interests and its efforts to curb carbon pollution need to be more ambitious. In Australia, where overall emissions are still increasing, Glencore has sizeable coal developments — mainly in New South Wales and Queensland.

Additionally, news emerged last week that Glencore, prior to its announcement to cap its coal output, had been assisted by political lobbyists, the C/T Group, to push a secret pro-coal agenda. This is not only alarming for its manifest disregard of proper process, but it also undermines faith in Glencore’s stated commitment to halt coal production. "Project Caesar", Glencore’s multi-million-dollar coal campaign, sought to disseminate information that would build community, industrial and political pressure to continue to support coal while denigrating expansion of renewables.

It is imperative that major polluters such as Glencore get serious about their responsibilities towards reducing their contributions to human-caused climate change.

While the use of thermal coal for electricity production will continue for some years, it is clear from the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that greenhouse gas emissions must fall far more rapidly than current trends.

The report representing the world’s leading climate scientists has warned we have 12 years to make urgent and transformational changes to keep temperature increase to 1.5˚C, beyond which the risks of extreme weather such as heat, drought and floods, may increase dramatically.

The world has already warmed by one degree as a result of human activities, particularly the burning of coal and further rises will have catastrophic impacts on the global climate, and on our very existence.  

Human health relies on the strength of biodiversity and many complex biological systems, which are under severe threat from climate change. Effects which were forecast to appear in decades to come are occurring now. Global figures show weather-related disasters have increased by 46 per cent from 2007-2016 (compared to the 1990s).

Geographically, Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change as we have seen all too recently with soul-destroying droughts, destructive bushfires and catastrophic floods. As well as the direct effects on physical health, mental health suffers. In addition, there are indirect effects via worsening air quality, changes in patterns of infectious diseases, and threats to food and water supplies.

Extreme weather events are predicted to escalate and will make a mockery of the expected economic benefits of continued wide-scale use of coal. Queensland’s “summer of disasters” will cost at least $1.5 billion after catastrophic bushfires and floods.

This year, Suncorp is lifting its budget for natural disaster claims by $100 million and buying extra reinsurance to shield its business from wild weather — in part because climate change is causing more frequent extreme events.

In a speech in 2017, Australian Prudential Regulation Authority's (APRA) Geoff Summerhayes stated:

Population expansion and urban development trends in high-risk parts of Australia almost guarantee the cost of catastrophic events will keep rising, irrespective of other factors. For example, if Cyclone Tracey were to hit Darwin in 2017, the insurance bill – according to the Insurance Council of Australia – would top $4 billion, in large part because the scale of housing and business development is so much greater than in 1974.


Simply put, there’s more to destroy.

Major worldwide natural catastrophes caused $160 billion in economic damage alone in 2018, according to Munich Re.

As well as the escalating costs of reparation, the cost of cutting emissions must also be set against the cost of adverse health effects if insufficient action is taken.

The WHO has concluded very clearly that

'... failure to include health in energy and climate policy leads to economically inefficient decisions.'

Glencore has joined a growing list of global companies which have responded to shareholder and community pressure to act on climate change. Will the company back up its statement by shelving its planned coal-mine expansions in the Hunter Valley and Queensland? On the other hand, will it subvert its declaration by subterfuge, and undermine Australia’s and the planet’s actions to mitigate climate change?

With tens of thousands of inspiring school children in Australia and around the world missing school on 15 March to voice their justifiable demands for a future on a healthy planet – which their parents and their grandparents before them enjoyed – the right response, the only response is "Yes"  to action on climate change.

Dr John Iser is the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). You can follow DEA on Twitter @DocsEnvAus.

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