Like tobacco, Australia has a coal problem to overcome

Australia has a problem and its name is coal.

The country has a good quantity, the quality is good and the extraction costs are relatively low. In addition, jobs have been created and infrastructure built around coal.

It’s all too easy to get it out of the ground in the Hunter Valley (or Queensland or Victoria), stack it on one train car after another, and take it by rail to the port of Newcastle and other places where a long line of coal-starved barges float ready and waiting to carry the black stuff to power plants in Southeast Asia.

How the hell is that a problem? And why should I listen to a visiting professor from the United States who argues that this is not just a serious problem, but an existential one for Australians?

Let me offer a provocative analogy to Australia’s coal problem.

Let’s say you are a tobacco grower. Your parents were tobacco farmers, just like his. He has many open fields, the tobacco business is lucrative and stable, and he has to feed his family.

He used to smoke but is quitting, his family doesn’t smoke, and all he does is legally grow a product that adds to his income and makes up a significant proportion of his community’s tax base.

Should it stop producing and selling tobacco just because science now clearly confirms that it kills millions of people who smoke?

In the case of tobacco, much of the world is trying to avoid it due to its profound public health impacts, which ends up costing not only the patient but society as a whole. To quit tobacco, governments have stepped in, first with nefarious labels like ‘This product kills!’, then with taxes so extreme as to discourage many new smokers from starting.

And tax revenue goes largely to smoking cessation programs, which ensure current smokers have support to kick their dangerous habit.

In this analogy, the important steps in making smoking an enemy involved medical science confirming the harm, then regulatory pressures to reduce the harm.

But what about coal?

Like tobacco, the coal problem used to be only theoretical at the beginning of the last century. We knew that coal produces carbon dioxide gas, long stored by ancient bog plants that are now fossilized black gold on the slopes of the Hunter Valley, but released at a rapid rate when burned for energy. stored.

Yes, Australia's carbon emissions have an impact

It was then calculated that the released carbon dioxide would do what physics demands it always does when it accumulates in the atmosphere: it acts as a greenhouse gas, warming the planet.

Carbon and coal began to move from a theoretical issue to a measurable one at the end of the last century, but it still seemed minor, a distant tragedy of stranded and starving polar bears. Then, as they say in America, “the chickens came home to sleep.”

The impacts of climate change are no longer measured by thermometers, but are meted out as a kind of apocalyptic justice, especially here in Australia.

Still reeling from the after-effects of massive bushfires, scorching temperatures and terrible air quality that sickened millions, parts of Australia are now inundated by a weather-laden super La Niña, bringing the wettest summer in recent memory. .

No, not all weather-related disasters are caused by climate change, just like not all cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, but it can now be reasonably argued that almost all of them are made worse by climate change. climate, sometimes much worse. .

The tobacco industry didn’t want to eliminate tobacco use any more than the coal industry wants to eliminate mining, for obvious reasons. But a combination of public awareness and government regulations have helped reduce the scourge of smoking. Not just nationally, whether it be in the United States or Australia, but also globally.

With climate, we’re in on it: Public awareness of the harm of climate change, which used to be a murmur, is now a global roar, increasingly fueled not just by activists but by ordinary people who are seeing the uproars of the climate firsthand. runaway climate change.

But the next step is the most difficult. Keep a “valuable” resource underground.

Institutional corruption keeps coal fires burning

This really requires regulations and some pivots that will be painful for some communities and some corporations. And it doesn’t really count if Australia commits to being “net zero” in terms of domestic energy production by 2050, as long as the hungry coal barges continue to line up in ports, their gaping maws devouring black poison to burn elsewhere. . but whose impact is hurting everyday Australians.

The odds of a quick switch to an easy and lucrative product appear low, particularly given that of Australia’s five largest coal mines, three will continue to operate until 2040 and the other two until 2050.

But the odds are low if the market can overlook the health and safety of Australians and the planet.

If, like tobacco, the price of coal includes its real net cost to society, it would be a loser. The odds would quickly and decisively shift toward less destructive ways of powering our light bulbs and factories.

I have no doubt that internal market forces will make this change happen here in Australia – I am much more skeptical that I will wake up next time, or two decades from now, and not see coal barges waiting on the horizon to fill up. But I would love to see that my skepticism is wrong, as is the planet.

Dr. Gabriel Filippelli is a biogeochemist with extensive training in climate change, exposure sciences, and environmental health. You can follow Gabriel on Twitter @GabeFilippelli.

Related Posts

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Leave a Comment