Not only were conservatives foaming at the mouth about the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for child sexual abuse, but also about the opprobrium heaped on St Kevin’s college for attempting to cover up grooming of children1. In addition they are horrified that those damned scientists would have the gall to investigate what is causing the planet to heat up and lay the blame at the door of the fossil fuel industry. This is because the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity to heat buildings and for transport emits Carbon Dioxide, and it is this gas as well as a couple of others which are emitted often as part of the production and distribution of fossil fuels2.
Many climate change deniers in parliament3 and in the Murdoch media and other media such as 2GB4-8, have at their absolute best, on a good day, with the wind behind them, a very limited understanding of science, let alone climate science. Many of them use the argument from personal incredulity (“it’s only 415 part per million”) and cannot understand how that would have an effect on the retention of heat in the atmosphere, despite the mechanism for this being known for nearly 200 years. This is also despite the thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of scientific papers demonstrating how it is happening, and how quickly it is happening. They seem to think that just because they are incapable of understanding something, nobody else can. Fortunately, the ignorant do not design or service aircraft or vehicles, diagnose and treat disease, perform surgery, design heating systems, install household circuitry, design sewerage systems, design buildings, explore for minerals, or develop antibiotics or vaccines; they just write drivel for Murdoch and other rubbish media.
While the far religious right now holds sway in the Liberal Party, and has done ever since the days of Howard, despite the insipid Turnbull interregnum, it is only since the rise of the destructive Abbott that the Coalition has been stridently denialist. This rabid denialism reached its apotheosis when Morrison brought a lacquered lump of coal into parliament.
Why are there so many climate change deniers in the Liberal Party? As well as not understanding how science operates, it is also because they are very much dependent on those who cross their palms with cash. These donors include many of the larger coal mining companies in Australia. Perhaps even more pertinent are the donations by such climate change denying organisations such as the Cormack Foundation9, and the fact that many of the Coalition parliamentarians are alumni of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA)10, a right wing ‘think tank’ which is funded by Murdoch’s organisations, Gina Rinehart and large fossil fuel companies such as Exxon, Shell, Caltex and BHP, as well as a few denialist think tanks in the US11.
In addition to organisations like the Cormack Foundation and the IPA, Senator Matthew Canavan has been a constant spruiker for the coal industry. Canavan’s vocal support of the coal industry has included calls for new coal-fired power stations, despite some of his normal colleagues opposing the idea. He used to be a minister until he resigned prior to an attempt to get the Beetrooter (Barnaby Joyce) elected to the leadership of the parliamentary National Party, at the expense of the incumbent, Michael McCormack. Canavan’s brother, John, is a former executive of Peabody Energy and part owner of Queensland’s Rolleston coal mine12.
Besides having had a few former Liberal MPs in her employ, Gina Rinehart, Australia’s wealthiest mining magnate has a strong relationship with former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, to the extent she has helped fund his political campaigns, even trying to hide a $40,000 donation by inventing a prize, and presenting Joyce with a novelty cheque at a concocted event13. Rinehart is a co-owner of some major coal mining licences in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. So, she’s set to benefit greatly from the opening up of the region for further mining, which will come with the establishment of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine and its accompanying rail line.
Trevor St Baker is one of Australia’s richest coal barons and is another influential donor, in this case, mostly to Queensland’s Liberal National Party. He has ‘predicted’ that Australia’s fleet of coal-fired power stations could effectively remain operational forever. Even more ludicrously, he suggested the ACT government was to blame for the closure of a South Australian power station, for obtaining 100% of its electricity from renewables. He is also chairman of Delta Electricity, owners of the 1,320MW Vales Point coal-fired power station14. The company bought the power station from the New South Wales government for $1 million, while Gladys Berejiklian was NSW treasurer in a Coalition government. With the rise in electricity prices, the power station has now been valued at over $700 million14. In addition to having sold it at the worst possible time in the NSW energy market, the NSW government may be in part liable for its decommissioning, 15.
The extent of the exposure of those who donate to the Coalition parties and to the assorted denialist organisations is huge, and they want the money to continue roiling in. That is why coalition politicians are trying to prop up the coal industry even to the extent of replacing their declining income with taxpayer funds. Indeed, the Coalition is giving consideration to underwriting the building of a coal-fired power station in Collinsville, Queensland. They have already given $4 million to the company wishing to build the power station, to conduct a feasibility study16.
The failure of the federal Coalition parties to see the reality looming before them is astonishing. Simply put, coal is history. All states and territories realise this, in that all have signed up with a net zero emissions target no later than 2050. This is a target backed by business, unions and the federal opposition. Some states have even gone further. Australia has three Liberal state energy ministers. South Australia’s Dan van Holst Pellekaan wants to see his state hit 100% renewables by 2030. Tasmania is powered mostly by renewables currently, but its energy minister Guy Barnett wants to get it to 200% renewables, so that it can be a net exporter of power across Bass Strait. In a landmark speech late last year, New South Wales energy minister, Matt Kean made it clear his government would respond to the climate science and embrace the opportunities presented by decarbonising the economy. He even took a swipe at the federal coalition and its donors in saying: “To those vested interests and ideologues who want to stand in the way of this transition, I say enjoy your Kodak moment”17. For this he was mercilessly attacked by the Murdoch media and even by Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, in a childishly contemptible swipe, said “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he doesn’t know what’s going on in the federal cabinet [and] most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was”17,18. The Australian Capital Territory’s electricity system is already effectively 100% renewable. For every watt of power the ACT consumes, it pays one back through its renewable investments around the country. Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter said ACT homes still consume energy produced by coal and gas plants. However, what it actually means is that the ACT has taken a choice to incentivise renewables in the grid that are capable of providing enough capacity to match its entire demand19.
The stupidity of the federal Coalition in not dealing with reality is, as I say above, astonishing in the face of the steps being taken by the various states and territories. However, it is doubly so when you consider what is happening around the world. India is moving away from coal-fired power plants and towards electricity generated by solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. This means that the amount of carbon dioxide the country emits should come down dramatically20. Consequently, India will not be importing thermal coal beyond financial year 2023-202421. In addition, the rapid diversification of India’s electricity sector is creating an abundance of jobs and bringing an influx of new investment, which will need to reach $500 billion over the coming decade if the targets are to be met20.
Just over a week ago, the Japanese government announced it would shut down about 100 coal-fired power stations by 2030. It was the first time the government had given a figure and a deadline for shutting these units down. In 2019, coal accounted for 33% of the nation’s electricity mix and the government’s long term basic energy plan continues to envision coal supplying 26% of the nation’s electricity in 2030. But Japan will still face pressure to further reduce its reliance on coal, both domestically and abroad, and embrace renewable energy sources22. It is exceptionally unlikely that coal will supply as much as 26% of Japan’s electricity by 2030.
South Korea’s imports of Australian thermal coal were down 21% in the first quarter of 2020 and there are signs that this will be a continuing trend. The recently elected South Korean government came to power pledging to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and to phase in a Carbon tax23. As another way of phasing out coal, the coal import tax will be increased another 28% to $USD40 per tonne, while the LNG import tax will be reduced 75%24. Longer-term plans will need to be drafted to regulate and end financing for coal plants, impose the phased carbon taxes, increase ‘energy welfare’ for people suffering from the effects of climate change, and to reduce overall air pollution23.
To meet its Paris agreement targets, China will need to reduce its coal power capacity by 40 percent over the next decade. At present, this seems unrealistic. In addition to roughly 1,000 gigawatts of existing coal capacity, China has 121 gigawatts of coal plants under construction, which is more than is being built in the rest of the world combined. But the odd thing is that most of the time, these coal-fired power stations are idle. If China already has more coal-fired power than it needs, why does it keep building new plants? This is because of energy regulations crafted during the Chinese coal boom of the 1980s. As China opened itself to market reforms, it accelerated economic development, and its energy supply simply couldn’t keep up. Coal is an abundant natural resource in China, so the government adopted several energy policies to encourage the construction of coal-fired power stations. As a result, they proliferated as fast as the government could process them. Another factor was when the central government was the one approving each new power station, it could ensure that supply approximated demand. That all changed in late 2014, when China’s federal government allowed provincial governments to approve power stations on their own. The aim was to expedite the years-long approval process for new power plants while also boosting China’s economy by meeting its projected energy needs. Unfortunately for China, this opened the floodgates and resulted in a glut of coal-fired power station construction. That has now changed, because the central government has rolled back the rules that allowed construction to go into overdrive. As a consequence, coal consumption has flat-lined. In 2021, China will adopt its 14th five-year-plan, which will provide a roadmap for the country’s political and economic priorities through 2025. China’s state-run National Centre for Climate Change Strategy has advocated for the next five-year-plan to include hard caps on carbon emissions. Whether that happens remains to be seen25. In addition, China is intensifying efforts to better use its own resources and push for more renewables in the sunny and windy western provinces, combined with ultra high-voltage power transmission to get it to the coast. This should reduce coal demand by about 18.4% by 2025, or more than four times what China imports, according to the State Grid Research Institute. These plans have become more aggressive over time as the cost of renewables has fallen and China’s middle class values breathable air more than bragging about steel output numbers. For Australia, which exports a quarter of its coking and thermal coal to China, this presents an enormous problem. Chinese imports of thermal coal could go to zero and likely will very quickly26.
On top of all this bad news for the coal industry, the European Union is threatening to impose tariffs on goods from the U.S. and other countries such as Australia, that lack tough climate policies. This would help European industries to avoid being handicapped by the EU’s greenhouse gas minimisation efforts. Potential carbon tariffs were an active topic at the United Nations climate conference in Madrid in December 2019, where nearly 200 nations had been at odds over how to counter the continued global rise of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, some diplomats say it’s inevitable that governments will turn to trade barriers in the effort to fight climate change27.
The climate change denialism by the current federal government and its disingenuous boosting of the coal industry, with the likelihood that it will continue shovelling taxpayer funds to coal miners which have no long term future; the government’s worsening relationship with China; the government’s inability to embrace the economic and diplomatic reality of climate change; and their inability to understand where the future prosperity of Australia lies, do not augur well for this nation.