Queensland’s mega-mines will cook the climate

A new report by Greenpeace says plans to double Australia’s coal exports will damage worldwide attempts to reduce carbon emissions and limit climate change.

Released on September 18, Greenpeace’s report, Cooking the climate: Wrecking the reef, focused on the Galilee Basin, a coal-rich region in central Queensland.

Several companies are seeking approval to build nine huge coalmines there, “five of which would be larger than any existing coal mine in Australia”.

Ten years ago, the largest coalmine in Australia produced 10 million tonnes of coal a year. Now the biggest mine produces 20 million tonnes. The biggest of the proposed Galilee mega-mines will dwarf these, with expected outputs of up to 60 million tonnes a year.

Australia now exports about 283 million tonnes of coal each year, but this would more than double if the new mines are allowed to open. Once exported, the coal would be burnt to generate electricity, contributing hugely to global CO2 emissions.

Greenpeace said: “If the Galilee Basin were a country, the carbon dioxide produced from using this coal would make it the seventh dirtiest fossil fuel burner on the planet.”

The Cooking the climate report said Australia’s domestic carbon emissions are now 402 million tonnes a year. The emissions from the proposed mines alone would be 705 million tonnes a year.

The Queensland government has already granted approval to the Alpha coalmine, owned by mining billionaire Gina Rinehart. The other mines -- including the Carmichael and China Stone mines, which are larger than Rinehart’s Alpha coalmine -- are finalising their environmental impact assessments and will soon seek approval.

But under the approval process, neither the federal nor state government need to take into account the climate change impact of coalmines. Nor will the government count most of the CO2 emissions from the mines as Australia’s emissions, because the coal will be burnt overseas.

Greenpeace is calling for the coal reserves to remain in the ground as these emissions will affect not just Australia, but the entire world. As the report notes, if the global demand for coal in future was such that Queensland’s coal reserves were fully exploited, it would make it impossible to limit the world’s carbon emissions.

This would lead to an average global warming of 6°C or more – a catastrophic outcome.

Greenpeace’s report said: “Exploitation of the coal reserves in the Galilee Basin is incompatible with the internationally agreed goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C above preindustrial temperatures.”

It is not just the climate that will be affected by these mines. Surrounding farmland and the Great Barrier Reef will be damaged too.

The new ports being built or expanded to export Galilee Basin coal are inside the World Heritage-listed area of the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of ships will travel through the reef every year. There are real concerns these ships will pollute the reef. An accident or spill on the reef could be disastrous.

Another proposed Galilee Basin coalmine, Clive Palmer’s China First mine, is in the Bimblebox nature reserve. This nature reserve is home to endangered wildlife and will be destroyed if the mine goes ahead.

But despite the huge environmental dangers posed by these mines, the federal and state governments are helping drive and facilitate the coal rush.

The federal government’s official stance on climate change suggests that promoting a new coal boom would be catastrophic.

In a submission last year to the UN’s Rio+20 environment conference, the Australian government said: “Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of the climate change our children and grandchildren experience. It is essential to transition to low emission development pathways if the world is to tackle climate change and achieve sustainable development.”

But in reality, both the Queensland Liberal National Party government and the federal Labor government are only too happy to ignore the climate danger and help the coal industry with fast-tracked approvals and big public subsidies.

They regard the decision to go ahead with these mines as one to be made privately by businesspeople for profit, even though the harsh consequences of coalmining will be felt by people worldwide.

Australia should take responsibility for the impacts its resources will have on the world. Instead of supporting the coal industry, the government could invest in a renewable energy industry and export this technology to the world.

This is the critical decade to halt dangerous climate change. Once the mines and infrastructure are built, they will last for decades and it will be much harder to shut them down.

The record Arctic ice melt this year is a warning: allowing these mines to be go ahead will lock in the ruin of our climate.