What's moral about more coal?

October 23, 2015
Moramardana village in Bihar. Much of rural India is not connected to the grid, and more coal from Australia will not solve this

The new federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has affirmed that the Turnbull-led government will not budge from policies that afford maximum profits to the outdated and dangerous fossil fuel corporations.

Frydenberg used his appearance on the ABC's Insiders program on October 18 to spruik the Indian-owned Adani mega coalmine in central Queensland. The minister said there is a “strong moral case” for Australia to export coal to developing nations, such as India. He said Australia's coal could help lift 2 billion people out of poverty and 4 million would be saved from dying prematurely.

It was a long bow to draw.

In Australia, there is a growing scepticism, if not outright opposition, to the development of more coalmines: the massive expense and public subsidies, health problems, environmental vandalism and global warming are key concerns.

The Australia Institute (AI) has just released research that found 42.4% support a global moratorium on new coalmines as part of the Paris Climate talks in December. Just 19% opposed the idea.

The new polls were released in September as part of AI's new report When you're in a hole — stop digging! The economic case for a moratorium on new coal mines.

Author Richard Denniss said there has been “'too much' investment in coalmining and that a global moratorium on new coalmines would be welfare enhancing”.

“It would be in Australia's interests to act unilaterally and to introduce a domestic moratorium on new coalmines even if other countries chose not to,” Denniss states. He added that only companies wanting to build new coalmines would be affected by such a moratorium and that, in any case, they are already being affected by the downturn in the world coal industry.

The global downturn in coal exports, along with declining prices, does not seem to worry Frydenberg. He sees it as a temporary setback “consistent with commodity cycles”.

Worryingly, Frydenberg sees the development of “low emissions technologies”, in particular the as-yet unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, as being a big part of coal's future. In a speech to an international conference on coal science and technology on September 30, he spruiked CCS as a “carbon abatement strategy”.

Large-scale CCS deployment is unproven, and it is risky and expensive. A better option — also for export — would be renewable energy.

Indian officials quoted in the Australian media seem to agree.

Former energy secretary EAS Sarma wrote in The Guardian on August 7 that since 2001 India has failed to expand access to those not on the grid, and that extra coal from Australia “doesn't make economic sense”.

“Australian coal, like any other coal, is not good for Indian people's health and it will not deliver electricity to those who are not currently living in energy poverty,” Sarma wrote.

He said the claim that millions will be lifted out of energy poverty by a new wave of coal exports — driven largely by Indian companies such as Adani — “reveals a deep lack of understanding of the real situation in India”.

He explained that of India's population of 1.24 billion, a majority (68%) live in rural villages. Of these, 45% or 75 million rural households have no electricity. About 8%, or 6 million urban households also remain without electricity.

“These figures have not changed appreciably since 2001, though around 95,000 MW of new largely coal-based electricity generation capacity was added during the intervening decade.

“In other words, the benefits of adding new generation capacity accrued largely to the existing, affluent consumers.”

When a village is more than five kilometres from the grid, the cost of supplying electricity from solar and other off-grid solutions comes in far below the cost of supplying from conventional sources such as coal because of the high costs of building poles and wires, Sarma said.

“It is ... simplistic and simply inaccurate to assume that new electricity generation capacity added to the grid will automatically reduce electricity deprivation among the poor ... It's time for the Australian government and coal industry to realise that the era of Australian coal exports is coming to an end. What Indians need is affordable, locally-generated renewable energy, not coal.”

This is a powerful moral argument that the movement for climate justice needs to deploy to beat back the deniers.

The Climate Council released a report in April saying that pollution from Australia's coal resources, particularly the enormous Galilee coal basin in Queensland, could take the world two-thirds of the way to a two degree rise in global temperature.

It makes four points that rebut Frydenberg's “moral” case for coal:

• “To tackle climate change, 195 countries around the world, including Australia, have agreed to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2°C”;

• “Most of the world's fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground, unburned, to keep global temperature rise to no more than 2°C”;

• “Australia is potentially a huge contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions through domestic use and exports. Use of coal must be severely constrained to tackle climate change effectively”; and

• “This is the critical decade to get emissions tracking downwards and to move investment away from fossil fuels.”

Coal-fired power is clearly an enormous failure if, after some 150 years, the world's poor still has no access. Those of us concerned about the impact of coal are not “anti-progress” or “selfish” as apologists for the industry, such as Miranda Devine in the October 17 Daily Telegraph, argues.

Australia, with abundant renewable energy, can and should help impoverished communities in India and China access cheap and sustainable energy. This is far from fanciful, as a report from Beyond Zero Emissions argues.

“Zero carbon Australia: Renewable Energy Superpower” shows Australia has the technology and the opportunity to become a renewable “superpower” in the region.

What's needed, however, is the political will.

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