Coal and climate change, a turbulent family affair

Australia’s long-term sordid relationship with Coal and its reluctant fling with climate change, makes for a turbulent family affair.

Climate change is the lover that divided the conservative family who wanted to preserve the old money, lifestyle and reputation that comes with canodoodling and colluding with the Coal family. In fact, a national identity has been born out of the love affair – an identity that associates coal with the first settlers and pioneers and the building of a nation. A national identity that sees coal as providing the bread and butter for the Aussie battler living in our harsh terrain. A national identity that completely ignores the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and averts its eyes to the possible health impacts, environmental destruction and massive contribution to global climate change.  It’s really not that dissimilar to the son-in-law who everyone pretends is not that bad to keep up appearances, despite the alcoholic outbursts and odd bout of domestic violence, so long as when Christmas rolls round there are presents a plenty and you’re all invited to the annual Christmas party.

This year’s UN Climate Conference in Doha, Qatar is no different. Minister for Climate Change is expected not to attend, sending parliamentary secretary for climate change Mark Dreyfus in his place. Opposition spokesperson for Climate Change Greg Hunt says it is an indication of the Government’s lack of faith in the UN process. It’s an odd move considering where in the midst of (to continue the analogy) what could only be described as a family catastrophe. The recent release of The World Bank’s ‘Turn down the Heat’ report emphasizes the “cataclysmic” impacts of inaction on climate and the eventuation of a 4C warmer world. Off the back of Hurricane Sandy slamming into the America’s East Coast (let’s call America, Australia’s rather influential older brother) it seems out of place that Australia is not showing face at the family affair.

Australia is all too familiar with a spot of denial. Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter. When we talk about climate change we often seem to be struck with afflictions of myopia, and stress that we only emit 1.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions so our culpability and responsibility is comparatively small. If, however, you factor in the green house gases that are not released within Australia, but nonetheless are a product of the coal that we export –our contribution to global emissions leaps up to almost 5%. That makes us the world’s sixth largest contributor to green house emissions. Yet, Prime Minister Gillard is still talking about coal playing an important role in Australia’s future despite the overwhelming evidence that coal is a bad (and relatively short-term) bedfellow.

The coal industry is a bad bedfellow because it will do a runner and leave us empty handed and our short-sightedness will leave us without the infrastructure to transition to alternative energy sources. After a whirl wind love affair (that spanned from the 18th century to some date in the not to distant future) the fly by night industry will leave a trail of broken people and butchered land in its wake. The problem with hanging onto Coal until its inevitable self-destruction is that all the scientific evidence suggestions that by then it will be too late. The World Bank’s report projects 4C global warming within this century; blowing the tolerable limits of 1.5C-2C rising well out of the water.

Progress in Doha is essential to achieving a legally binding treaty in 2015. Expectations were exceeded at last year’s COP17 in Durban (though few would know due to mainstream media lack of coverage). Governments agreed in Durban to finalise the Bali Action Plan and move it to full implementation, to enact a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol (which Australia has signed onto despite some hoo haa) and to negotiate a legally binding treaty to be finalized in 2015. Doha is critical to ironing out technical difficulties, smoothing over frictions and factions within the negotiating process and to finalising the Bali Action Plan and Kyoto Protocol so that they are prime for implementation.

It is easy to dismiss the UNFCCC processes as overly bureaucratic and frustratingly slow. Arguably, they are both of these things, especially in a context where time is very much of the essence. However, the progress that has been made even within the last 3 years is astounding. As UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres put it during her recent visit to Australia, the attitude has shifted from a “you first” to a “move first” mentality as increasingly countries become aware that acting on climate change is in their national interest. Australia is far from acting alone in responding to climate change; and Minister Combet’s ‘excuse’ for not attending COP18 because after a year of working on the carbon price he needed to focus on his manufacturing portfolio; gives undue weight to impact of the carbon price (which is an important step forward but outweighed by the impact our coal export industry) and demonstrates a lack of commitment to and ambition for the UNFCCC process at a point in time when confirmation of commitment is needed most.

COP18 negotiations in Doha, Qatar will start tomorrow morning. After Copenhagen, media and public interest has dwindled across the board for the international response to climate change. It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the negotiations this year in Doha which have the potential to either streamline and focus the attention, ambition and resources of governments to allow integrated negotiations towards a legally binding agreement in 2015; or to grind talks into a deadlock if there is inaction on the Bali Action plan and the Kyoto Protocol. It’s time for Australia to cut the ties with Coal and look forward to a future that is safer, more economically secure and more sustainable.

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