Six reasons to phase out coal exports

August 2, 2008

The export of coal is an important issue for climate campaigners to consider. Australia exports more carbon dioxide in the form of coal than its entire domestic emissions of the gas.

However, while Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, the domestic production and use of coal in the US, Russia, China and India is of a far greater magnitude than Australian coal production. Coal lobby firebrands such as the NSW Minerals Council's Nikki Williams use this fact to argue that phasing out Australia's coal exports would have zero effect on global coal use and would simply be a major blow to "our" economy.

Progressive organisations including the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and have repeated such arguments, and merely argue that workers should get a bigger slice of the revenue and that more should be spent on social revenue. Socialist group Solidarity has argued that stopping coal exports should not be a focus of the campaign, for the similar reason that the effect on global coal production and use would be minimal.

Here are six reasons to campaign to phase out coal exports.

1. Climate change

Australia is the most arid populated continent in the world. The deepening drought in the Murray Darling basin is a sign of what is to come: the massive desertification of useful crop land located in drought-prone areas. Developed rich countries like Australia need to be at the forefront of an international effort to cut emissions and cannot wait for other countries to lead. This is doubly true for the Australian continent as it is particularly prone to drought.

Clean coal will not exist on a broad scale until 2030 at the earliest (if it can even be made to work). Globally there needs to be an immediate and sharp reduction in coal use until clean coal can be developed (which may never happen).

Phasing out coal exports will send a strong message to the world that coal needs to go.

2. Pollution

The dust pollution caused by open-cut coal mines leaves a trail of carcinogenic particles around the mines, causing cancers and other respiratory problems in mining communities. Subsidence caused by longwall mining under or near rivers has been demonstrated to crack the river beds, causing catastrophic and permanent damage to our very limited drinking and agricultural water supplies.

Sydney's main water-supplying river, the Nepean, is threatened by this phenomenon and coal seam gas is bubbling to the surface of a long stretch of the river adjacent to where longwall mining operations are occurring. Mining under soaks and water tables that feed into rivers is just as problematic and threatens to poison key water supplies.

3. Peak oil

Coal mining currently attracts around $8 billion a year in subsidies, much of which is in the form of subsidised diesel. Coal mining and shipping uses copious amounts of oil. As the price of oil continues to rise, Asian coal users are likely to source their coal from geographically closer producers to save on shipping costs.

Phasing out coal early while Australian coal is still in strong demand will give Australian mining workers maximum bargaining power. Unionised miners could use their collective strength to struggle for just transition programs to ensure new jobs and exports are created. If mining workers wait until the mining companies are ready to move offshore (or until regulation shuts the industry down) their ability to use their industrial strength will be greatly diminished.

Similarly, if Australia restructures its economy early there will be more time to iron out problems, whereas if the Australian economy remains structured around coal as our major export for as long as possible, the inevitable transition will be more difficult when the shift has to be made.

4. Influence on Japan

Almost half of the coal exported from Australia goes to Japan. While it is true that Japan could increase its imports from other producers like China and Indonesia, it is unlikely that these countries could instantly fill the void left by a rapid reduction in Australian exports.

A July 14 Bloomberg article noted that the price of thermal coal had doubled in the last 12 months, because "[i]n a world of limited spare capacity and sluggish supply growth, prices are rising to ration demand down to the levels of available supply".

Vietnam, the world's eighth-largest coal exporter and China's biggest supplier of coal, is cutting exports to China by around a third this year, and will phase out all exports by 2015. This is to reserve coal for domestic use rather than to prompt a shift away from coal, but further demonstrates that there won't necessarily be an automatic substitution of Australian coal with that of other producers.

Japan is one of the world's largest producers of solar panels and has a large and advanced manufacturing base, making it well-positioned to move to renewable energy.

Japan is the world's second-largest economy. Forcibly calling into question its use of coal would encourage Japan to canvas a range of solutions including a move to cleaner energy. The "energy crisis" created by cutting coal exports to Japan may not be permanent (other coal producers could eventually boost exports to fill the void) and Japan's response would not automatically be to increase investment in renewables.

However, the choice between engaging with the climate crisis or continuing to ignore it would be posed even more starkly than is currently the case. An Australian "coal strike" would surely increase the pressure on Japan to move to clean energy.

5. Technical example

Cutting Australia's coal exports would set a valuable example to other economies of how to make the transition away from coal exports (and fossil fuel exports more broadly). The Australian economy would have to be restructured around other types of jobs and exports.

Alternative exports such as renewable energy units (photovoltaic panels, solar thermal plants, wind turbines, etc.) may be developed and existing cleaner industries expanded to fill the void. The lessons learned in the transition and the model finally developed out of the transition would be a useful case study for other economies around the world in how to shift to ecologically sustainable international trade relationships.

6. Political example

The other international example is the political example. None of the above transitions could occur without a vibrant, vocal and active movement prepared to call for the transition and see it through. This could take the form of a revolutionary government that actively supports the transition, or else a government that is forced by the movements to carry out the transition.

It is fairly unlikely that coal mining could be shut down without conscious industrial action by mining workers in support of this aim. Activists from Australia could go on international brigades to other countries to share their experiences in bringing about the Australian transition.

Any political movement that is able to bring about a substantial transition to clean energy, clean jobs and exports, will act as a case study for other climate campaigners around the world.

The suggestion that stopping coal exports from Australia will have no effect internationally on coal use is premised upon the idea that the working classes in other countries are not aware of climate change and will not take action to phase out the use of coal in coming years. It is premised upon the idea that the many new mines commissioned overseas to replace mines closed in Australia would not be met with community opposition. It is also premised upon the idea that only Australia can use renewable sources of energy, but that other countries will remain locked into their massive use of coal.

These assertions are untrue. The technological capacity exists to make the transition away from coal. New coal mines overseas — a notable example being in Phulbari, Bangladesh — have been met by strong and well-organised community opposition.

A transition away from coal exports will not be easy or simple. But it must be attempted. Runaway climate change can only be stopped if coal use globally is massively reduced, starting with advanced economies like Australia. The flow-on effects of the world's largest coal exporter deciding to rapidly phase out the vast bulk of those exports should not be underestimated.

[Zane Alcorn is a Resistance and Socialist Alliance activist.]

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