A huge new coal mine to be built inland has polarised opinion on climate change in Australia. Critics say that politicians are giving in to global warming sceptics. Chris McCall reports.
After years of discussion and legal challenges, work will finally begin this year on the giant Carmichael coal mine in northeastern Australia, expected to supply coal to thermal power stations in India and elsewhere for 60 years. Australia’s conservative federal government and the Queensland state government, led by the rival Labor party, have both backed the project and look likely to provide subsidies to different parts of it.
Led by India’s Adani Group, the massive mine has drawn sharp criticism from voices concerned about Australia’s lack of action on climate change, including economists, environmental activists, and doctors. Australia has a modest population of 24 million people, but is among the world’s highest emitters of greenhouse gases per person.
Critics say that support for the mine is sending all the wrong signals. “It is a public health disaster”, said David Shearman, a spokesman for Doctors for the Environment Australia. “All the reasons that have been expressed by the government are spurious.”
The company has said the mine and associated operations, which include a new rail line and port operations on the coast near the Great Barrier Reef, will create up to 10 000 new jobs directly and indirectly. The project will include six open cut pits and five underground mines, located on land that is now a cattle station, and has a total value of at least AUS$16·5 billion (US$12·5 billion).
Environmentalists have warned that several threatened species of plants and animals could be adversely affected by the development, which is widely expected to pave the way for further mines. The effect of port operations relating to coal mining on the Great Barrier Reef in general has been a hot topic of debate for several years. UNESCO has ordered a series of reports on the state of the reef, a World Heritage site, which marine scientists say is deteriorating, many blaming activities related to coal mining.
However, the greatest area of concern over the mine is the sheer levels of the emissions the coal will produce, which will not register in Australia’s own accounting of its greenhouse gas emissions as the coal is primarily intended for export. Burning of coal from the mine is estimated to produce 4·7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the past decade Australia’s policy on climate change has see-sawed from one extreme to the other, with a carbon tax introduced, then axed. Prominent politicians regularly question whether climate change is real, despite strong scientific evidence that it is already affecting parts of Australia. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was once seen as a centre-right conservative who favoured meaningful action on climate change. These days, ruling with a one-seat majority, critics say he is more concerned with placating his own right wing than with supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“His record is abysmal. He has weighed into the renewable debate in a very anti-renewable energy way”, said Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute, an independent think-tank, citing government support for the Carmichael coal mine as a prime example. “It is proof not just to Australia but as well to the world that no-one is serious about tackling climate change. If they were at all interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they should be abolishing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, not introducing new ones.”
However, even the rival Labor party, which once introduced a short-lived carbon tax, is backing the mine. Labor is the opposition party at federal level but in government in Queensland, where the mine will be built. The state government says the project has met all required environmental impact assessment requirements, including measures that would protect the Great Barrier Reef. The state government has declared it “critical infrastructure”.
It was former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard who defied the odds in 2012 to introduce a tax on carbon, which studies later showed substantially reduced Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions during the short time it was operational. The tax was quickly scrapped, however, when right-wing politician Tony Abbott won power in 2013.
When Abbott lost power to Turnbull in a party coup in 2015, many hoped for a better attitude, but in the 2016 election Turnbull barely scraped back in by a single seat, leaving him vulnerable to any internal dissent within his conservative coalition. Turnbull’s government did in fact ratify the Paris agreement on climate change in 2016. However, his commitment to actions such as financial incentives to polluters to reduce emissions rather than carbon trading are widely seen as ineffective.