"[It] would be imprudent to tip the winners in the race for low emission technologies", wrote Barney Glover, University of Newcastle deputy vice-chancellor, in an April 10 letter defending the university's research in so-called clean coal technologies.
"In the race to find a solution to the problem of climate change, clean coal may have a future role", he wrote.
His letter was in response to a statement presented to the university by students at the Fossil Fools' Day protest on April 1. The statement criticised the university's role as a partner of the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development, an Australia-wide research partnership which aims to "optimise the contribution of coal to a sustainable future".
Glover is on the board of the CCSD.
The students' statement argued that the university "cannot provide independent research into climate change solutions while it is a CCSD partner alongside some of the world's largest mining corporations (Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Xstrata Coal)".
According to the statement, between 2001 and 2007 the university spent more than $3.6 million in cash and in-kind contributions to the CCSD. Meanwhile, Newcastle University joins many of the same corporations as a partner of the Cooperative Research Centre for Mining.
As well as mining companies, the CCSD also brings together the University of Queensland, the University of NSW, Macquarie University, and Curtin University of Technology. The statement argued that the CCSD "is being driven by the coal industry's interests rather than a genuine response to climate change".
According to the vast majority of climate scientists, drastic changes have to be made within the next 10 years to keep global warming under 2°C (above pre-industrial levels). According to Friends of the Earth, warming above 2-2.4° C would lead to further unavoidable rises, taking temperatures beyond the range of the last million years.
The change necessary to avoid this, the statement argued, would involve a reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions of 50-80% by 2050. This would require "a rapid shift away from the use of coal and other dirty fossil fuels for energy production".
Clean coal research is based on the idea that we can continue to extract and burn coal but bury the carbon emissions underground through an as yet unproven technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Even if the technology is successful the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has assessed that "the majority of CCS deployment will occur in the second half of this century", which is too late to make the necessary reductions to keep global warming below two degrees.
"The expectation that CCS technology will be successful in the future cannot be used to justify the expansion of the coal industry today … Rather, as long as clean coal remains unviable, the mining, burning and exporting of coal must be drastically reduced", the statement said.
If the university is serious about developing solutions to climate change it should call for coal to be phased out until clean coal is proven viable, if it ever is. A transition away from coal is possible because, in contrast to CCS, renewable energy technologies already exist.
The statement called on the university to prioritise research and development of renewable energy technologies. "[These technologies] could be further developed and implemented on a far greater scale with the support of the government and institutions like our University."
The university conducts renewable energy and clean coal research at its Priority Research Centre for Energy. However, the centre is unlikely to "win the race" to solve climate change with its current inadequate aim to "develop technologies that can reduce greenhouse gases internationally by 2% and nationally by 20% by 2030\".
Universities must play a central role in developing responses to climate change. This requires more public funding and independence from coal corporations that are doing their best to preserve business-as-usual.