Coal and Climate Change in Queensland

Julian Coppens looks at the links between a major Australian industry and its impact on the climate.

The recent severe flooding in Australia that caused scores of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage and which was followed by an unusually powerful cyclone that caused damage hundreds of kilometers from the Queensland coast are the result of climate change. Floods and cyclone are natural phenomena but their unusual intensity and increasing frequency are linked to changes in weather patterns.

The Australian government’s own research reflects this. The Department of Climate Change website lists “observed climate changes”, including increases in atmospheric moisture content, more heavy precipitation events, and more of the most intense tropical cyclones.

Likewise, a 2010 Queensland government report titled Increasing Queensland’s Resilience to Inland Flooding in a Changing Climate notes: “With our changing climate, flooding events are likely to become more frequent and more intense.”

Meanwhile, ocean surface temperatures off northern Australia have been at record levels — as much as 5°C above average in some places.

These factors also mean longer lasting cyclones and a higher chance they will cross the coast because the average intensity of cyclones is rising.

Given this knowledge, the silence on the contribution of climate change to the January floods and Cyclone Yasi is deafening. The Royal Commission announced to investigate the floods will be limited to the response to the disaster and not the cause.

The Australian and Queensland governments are putting fossil fuel company profits ahead of human safety.

The mining and burning of coal is responsible for 50% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Australians are the highest per-person greenhouse gas polluters in the developed world. 85% of electricity in Australia is generated by coal. Electricity is 36% of Japanese prices and half European prices.

Despite Labor party rhetoric about climate change they are ramping up the level of subsidies provided to coal-fired power stations by ensuring the cheap supply of coal for the next few decades. These subsidies cost up to A$1.5 billion per year in New South Wales alone compared to A$67 million provided in subsidies for renewable energy.

Coal is big business and a major mineral export that accounts for nearly 25% of Australia’s export earnings. Black coal is Australia’s largest export, worth more than $A50 billion in 2008-09.

Australia is also the world’s largest net exporter of coking and steaming coal, accounting for 9.03% of the world total. Australia’s coal industry is dominated by BHP Billiton (Aus), Anglo American (UK), Rio Tinto (Australia-UK), and Xstrata (Switzerland).

Ironically all new mining operations must account for the possible effects of climate change on operations within their Environmental Impact Statement, effects such as the recent flooding and cyclone that turned three quarters of the state of Queensland and a third of Victoria into a disaster zone.

However, as the Environmental Impact Statement for the expansion of Xstrata’s operations in Queensland – which will increase national black coal output by around 5% – puts it, “These measures will ensure that climate change related impacts will not affect the environmental or commercial feasibility of the Project.”

The same may well be said of the Labor government.

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