21 ideas for a just transition to a coal-free future (and how to pay for it)

Coal being mined in Newcastle. That coal corporations can still make mega profits in a climate emergency is nothing short of criminal.

Australia’s political class is addicted to fossil fuels. We will need to build a people-powered movement capable of proposing and winning clear demands to break that addiction.

Here are 21 concrete proposals that could pave the way for the kind of just transition away from coal that the current climate emergency demands.

1. Mine rehabilitation

Coal mines are often located in fertile basins, displacing what would otherwise have been good quality farmland. Coal miners know what is involved to rehabilitate old open-cut mine sites.

Mining corporations like to shirk costly rehabilitation responsibilities by pretending mines are in “care and maintenance” mode, rather than declaring an end to their work life and fixing the mess.

Vast mountains of overburden could be moved to try and return mine sites to some sort of useable state, giving years of work for a large fleet of dump trucks. There are often giant lakes of salty, acidic, contaminated water at the bottom of abandoned mines, which need to be treated to reduce the impacts on groundwater. 

Once mine voids are filled in, trying to cap these vast fields of barren rock and build up topsoil capable of supporting more than just weeds is another vast project. 

2. Subsidies for existing local industries

Supporting and value adding to industries, including winemaking, pasture cropping, grain, fruit and vegetable production, dairying and horse breeding can be part of the transition. 

3. Food hubs

Aboriginal historian and author Bruce Pascoe urges we farm Aboriginal grains and crops that are suited to the local climate rather than continue with current unsustainable, thirsty forms of farming. 

Coal towns could act as hubs for retraining and supporting farmers to shift to Aboriginal grain and legume production and to collect, process and distribute the crops. 

Aboriginal organisations with an interest in this ecology could guide the process.

4. Reforestation

In consultation with Aboriginal custodians, new national parks with a diversity of plants to regenerate local biodiversity and create habitat for native species could be established in and around former coal towns.

Such parks could also host campgrounds and accommodation. 

Nurseries in coal towns could grow native seedlings that could be sent to various reforestation projects.

5. Tourism

Any successful transition away from coal mining to alternative industries will, in and of itself, generate local and international interest in these regions. This could contribute to an expansion of existing tourism. 

6. Education and training

A just transition for coal miners means retraining and redeployment into alternative industries on full pay. 

Equipping coal towns to retrain its workers will require resourcing TAFEs and local university satellite campuses for the task.

7. Funding for R&D 

For decades, the CSIRO has carried out world-leading research, but there is no capacity to turn its sustainable ideas into mass-produced items.

As a result, the CSIRO’s good ideas are often taken up by overseas investors, developed elsewhere and exported to the world.

The corporatisation of CSIRO should end and its funding boosted to allow it to experiment with mass production of new technologies in former coal towns. 

For example, developing cleaner types of battery storage than presently exists (which relies on toxic minerals) is essential for the mass storage of sustainable energy. 

8. Worker-owned cooperatives

Worker-run cooperatives could be provided with start-up capital from a transition authority to enable such co-ops to ramp up production. As the start-up capital is paid back, the co-ops would become 100% worker-owned.

9. Publicly-owned renewable manufacturing

Publicly-owned factories producing components for wind turbines, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic power systems, and grid upgrades could be established in coal towns and provide components to be used across Australia.

10. Construction, operation and maintenance of renewables

Along with manufacturing components for renewable energy systems, it makes sense to establish wind and solar generators and energy storage facilities in the vicinity of former coal towns.

Renewable energy is most effective when deployed across a geographically diverse range of sites. While wind and solar resources in former coal towns may not be as good as in other places, this would be partially offset by the fact there is already high quality transmission infrastructure in these areas. 

The Centre of Full Employment and Equity’s 2007 report, A just transition from coal to renewable energy in the Hunter Valley, identified locating renewable generation in coal towns as a logical and viable pathway to forge such a transition.

11. Electric vehicles 

The purchase of electric vehicles manufactured in former coal towns could be stimulated via government procurement and servicing contracts. Electric versions of classic Australian cars could be produced.

The Daniel Andrews Labor government in Victoria recently announced a $500 million subsidy for electric vehicle manufacturer SEA to set up in the Latrobe Valley.

12. Prefabricated housing

Prefabricated housing components such as tilt-up slabs, trusses, composite wall panels and hempcrete blocks could be manufactured in former coal towns and sent to demand centres.

13. Solar hot water 

A huge number of homes still rely on inefficient electric or non-instantaneous gas boiler hot water systems, the former limiting the net positive impact of houses with solar photovoltaic setups. 

The Earthworker Energy cooperative in Victoria produces high quality hot water tanks that can be deployed either as part of heat pump or evacuated tube solar hot water systems. These could help maximise the impact of rooftop solar in displacing coal from the grid.

14. Government contracts 

State and federal governments could preferentially offer contracts for various goods and services to co-ops and public enterprises based in former coal towns.

15. Prioritise purchases from co-ops and enterprises in coal towns

Industries could be financially encouraged to use products manufactured by co-ops or state enterprises in former coal towns. 

This could include food, clothing, electric vehicles and solar infrastructure. 

Another way to do this is by following the example of Earthworker Energy, which is encouraging unions to push for a clause in enterprise agreements that facilitate the purchase of its co-op-built hot water systems.

16. Recycling and composting hubs and washeries

Australia has a recycling crisis. Apart from needing new local recycling facilities we need a more robust approach to packaging which mandates reusable food and beverage containers (as opposed to single use packaging and bottles). 

Used bottles and containers could be collected in the cities and sent to former mining towns to be sanitised and sent back to food and beverage manufacturers for reuse.

Collecting and composting green waste and food scraps from urban centres, rather than sending them to landfill, would also create an environmentally friendly stream of compost and organic fertiliser. 

Mining towns already have ample rail capacity which could be used to transport materials to and from these centres.

17. Hemp

Hemp requires less water, nutrients and pesticides than other crops. It can be fertilised with treated sewage, reducing ocean pollution.

Hemp could be processed in former coal towns and various value-added hemp products, from textiles to foods to cleaning products to construction inputs, could be distributed and exported.

18. Marijuana

Among other benefits, legalising marijuana could provide an important source of jobs as, tonne for tonne, marijuana is worth more than coal and can support many more jobs.

19. Cultural hubs

Coal miners are not one-dimensional human beings. A program to support live music, recording, festivals, music production and visual arts (including reviving and documenting local Aboriginal arts and culture) could be established in former coal towns.

20. Generous redundancies for early retirement

Chances are if coal workers are offered a $1 million redundancy, many will accept the offer - especially those nearing retirement age. 

21. Aged care

A portion of those reaching retirement age may be interested in a “tree change” — living in regional towns and supporting a transition away from coal.

High quality public housing and publicly-run aged care facilities could be established in coal towns, which often sit on the doorstep of scenic day-trip opportunities. 

Former coal workers could construct, maintain and staff such facilities.

How to pay for it?

How to pay for a just transition away from coal is an important question and climate campaigners need to have answers.

Below are a few concrete ideas.

• End the loopholes that allow the bulk of Australia’s biggest corporations to avoid paying company tax. This would free up tens of billions of dollars. Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Much of the revenue from coal exports goes straight to tax havens. Analyst Michael West estimates that corporate tax evasion is equivalent to about a quarter of federal government expenditure annually.

• Raise company tax rate from its current low of 30% to 49%, the level it was under the Bob Hawke Labor government in the mid-1980s.

• Cancel the tax cut for the rich and raise the tax bracket on earnings above $180,000 from its current 45% to above 60%.

The top tax rate hovered around this level in the 1960s and 1970s, when infrastructure investment was high. Tax cuts in recent decades have corresponded to an infrastructure backlog, a decline in the quality of public services and a sub poverty level Newstart allowance.

• Introduce a Scandinavian-style resources tax. Oxford University analyst Juan Carlos Boué found that Australia had foregone about $90 billion in tax revenue since 2000 by giving fossil fuel companies various concessions and not charging a resource tax.

• During the transition phase, the government must nationalise the coal industry and recycle export revenue back into a transition fund.

It is likely that substantial cuts to coal production will push up its price, and this export revenue could be earmarked to help push a more rapid transition to renewables globally. This must include helping poorer countries, both those that currently rely on Australia’s coal to transition and those already suffering the effects of the climate crisis.

• Under public pressure, banks have slowly started to turn their backs on financing mines; under public ownership and control they could do much more, such as finance the kind of alternative projects we need. A nationalised banking system is vital if we are serious about a just transition.

In sum, those that contributed most to the crisis should be made to pay to fix the mess we are in. A just transition would be cheap, but unlike the alternative of continuing with business-as-usual, it will not cost us the Earth.

That coal corporations are still be making mega profits as they help cause a global mass extinction event is nothing short of criminal.

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