The township of Camberwell in the Hunter Valley and Camberwell coalmine in the background.
Early this month, Beyond Zero Emissions published a report called Fossil Economy, which highlighted the potential economic risks to Australia because of its heavy dependence on fossil fuel exports.
While not remotely close to what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change, many countries are now moving towards increased use of sustainable energy, including countries that import Australian coal and gas.
Germany has reached almost 75% of household electricity from renewable sources. Hawaii’s state legislature has passed a bill that calls for 100% renewable energy by 2045.
Ultimately, Australia cannot rely on coal exports to sustain its economy.
Fossil Economy suggests that official projections of coal, gas and iron ore exports will fall short by $100 billion a year by 2030, due to the carbon emissions reduction efforts of trading partners.
Activists believe the reality of climate change means people need to take this issue more seriously for more than economic reasons.
Derek Finter from Stop Coal Seam Gas Blue Mountains said raising public awareness is essential.
“No progress will be made until [raising awareness] happens,” he said. “Australia is extremely suitable to have large-scale solar energy production, however our government seems totally opposed to any such progress.”
Governments often do not investigate the claims made by coal and gas companies when they apply for licences. The exploration and expansion of new mining and fossil fuel projects are putting natural resources like water aquifers, wildlife and agricultural land at risk for economic benefits that are at best short-lived.
Research indicates the need for more thorough government regulations, contradicting the claims made by the gas industry that CSG gives off 70% less emissions than coal. Methane, which leaks in coal seam gas production, warms the planet 21 times faster than carbon dioxide.
This means Australia's emissions reduction targets are not only too low, but are based on underestimating the impact of emissions from the rapidly growing oil and gas sector.
Finter believes governments should implement stricter rules and conduct independent testing before allowing any new expansion of the coal industry.
“The federal government [is] slowly but surely killing off investment in renewable energy projects,” he said. “Huge amounts of potential investment have been lost. Again it is a case of vested interests influencing government policy.”
Yet with government support, the volume of coal that Australia exports increased by 11% last year.
Contamination of aquifers, damage of agricultural land and destruction of wildlife should signal a need to withdraw investment from the gas industry.
The expansion of the gas industry in Australia is worsening climate change. It can only go so long before resources become exhausted.
The mixture of a fundamentally risky industry and growing competition from more sustainable, efficient energy will almost inevitably cause a faltering in the unconventional gas industry at some point.
Finter said the energy market is based on a system that put profits before people’s welfare. “Mining companies of all types, everywhere in the world, have absolutely no concern for the wellbeing of people affected by their operations, and in many cases for those working for them,” he said. “Despite claims that operations in Australia are heavily regulated their track records are littered with cases of environmental damage.”
Affected communities near the mining areas, farmers and environmentalists across Australia have continually voiced their disagreement over the expansion of the coal and gas industry.
Murray Drechsler from Front Line Action on Coal said switching to renewable energy is the only solution.
About 54% of Australia’s land — 437 million hectares — is covered by coal and gas licences or applications. International tourist attractions are at stake. The classic Australian landscape is at risk from plans for up to 31 new or expanded coalmines, and new coal seam gas fields.
Data from around the world shows that coalmining communities have higher rates of mortality from lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. In the Hunter Valley, airborne dust levels often exceed national health standards and there has been a 50% jump in dust emissions from coal over five years.
The Hunter Region is one of Australia’s oldest wine producing areas, is internationally renowned as Australia’s horse breeding capital, and is a prime tourism location, with estimates of 6.3 million visitors to the region a year generating $1.3 billion.
After decades of exhausting our natural resources and putting a strain on our environment, we now have to make great efforts to salvage the situation
It is now time to put the environment before profits and for people to conserve what we still have so that future generations can have a habitable environment.