Stop climate change: Phase out coal exports!

By Tim Stewart

Exactly 20 years after his June 23, 1988 testimony to the US Senate, which alerted the public that global warming was underway, Dr James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, offered a sobering deadline — one year — to begin deffusing the “global warming time bomb”.

In a statement released the day before he was due to address Congress about global warming, Hansen said: “The difference is that we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation. Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

“Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals. I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year.”

Hansen called the phasing out of coal use the “primary requirement for solving global warming”. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel for generating electricity, emitting around 1.7 times as much carbon per unit of energy when burned as does natural gas and 1.25 times as much as oil. A typical (500 megawatt) coal-fired power plant burns 1.4 million tonnes of coal each year. Worldwide there are around 50,000 coal-fired power stations.

In its 2008 International Energy Outlook, issued on June 25, the US energy department notes that coal’s share of world energy output is growing at 2% per year. While coal fuelled 41% of the world’s electricity output in 2005, the 2008 IEO estimates it will fuel 51% of global electricity output in 2030, with twice as much coal being burned as in 2005.

Coal is also one of the richest source of profits for capitalist companies. Last August the world’s largest mining corporation, Australia’s BHP Billiton, reported a record $13.7 billion in annual profits — the fourth year in a row that its annual profits had risen. Most this was from the mining and sale of coal.

Australia is the world’s fourth largest coal producing country, and the world’s largest coal exporter. From the world’s biggest coal-loading facility under construction at the Port of Hunter in Newcastle (which is already the world’s biggest coal-exporting port) to the more than 50 coal mines existing and proposed for the Upper Hunter Valley, nowhere is the contradiction between the need to phase out of coal use as the “primary requirement for stopping global warming” and corporate greed more evident than in the Hunter region.

Every tonne of coal exported ends up as around two tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Multiply that by the 270 million tonnes of coal now being exported each year, and it’s readily understandable why Australia is a chief contributor to the problem of global warming. A pie chart produced by the Australian Coal Association proudly shows Australia as accounting for 28.9% of global coal exports in 2004 — twice as much as its closest rival Indonesia.

Champions for coal companies

Australian governments, both Coalition and Labor, are stalwart champions for the “coal industry”, i.e., BHP, Rio Tinto and the other coal-producing corporations. A landmark 2007 report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures compared the “perverse subsidies” of $7.1 billion a year for fossil fuel mining and use to the paltry $334 million in government support for the renewable energy industry. Coal continues to be used to generate electricity because it is “cheap”, but it’s cheaper than other energy sources because of the “perverse subsidies” governments provide to the coal companies.

While quick to insert the words “urgent action” in almost every public announcement it makes on climate change, the new federal Labor government headed by PM Kevin Rudd has continued with its predecessor’s practice of providing massive subsidise to the coal companies, including Howard’s $500 million fund for the development of “clean coal” technology.

Realising they are confronting a major public relations battle in seeking to open new coal mines, the mining corporations have added a little fog to the mix by peddling the idea that undeveloped and unproven “clean coal” technology will help end coal’s contribution to global warming. To do so they’ve enlisted some influential mouthpieces — almost all of whom are in the ALP. From Rudd to mining union national secretary Tony Maher, the Labor leaders act as de facto spin doctors for the mining companies. While acknowledging the need for action on global warming, the bottom line for them is that coal mining and exports must not be challenged.

Just how far away is “clean coal”? The US Electric Power Research Institute estimates that it would take as long as 15 years to go from starting a pilot plant to proving the technology will work, assuming it will. The institute has set a goal of having large-scale tests completed by 2020. Paul Anderson, former BHP CEO in 2002, stated last year that the long-term storage of CO2 produced by burning coal, i.e., burying trillions of tonnes of liquified CO2 gas safely underground for centuries, may be as difficult as safely storing nuclear waste.

What needs to be done?

James Hansen is clear that we have had 20 years of “business as usual”, while more and more evidence has accumulated about the climate catastrophe facing humanity. His warning that there is only one year to take a “transformative change of direction” needs to be heeded and acted on. What measures here would dramatically turn the tables on runaway emissions? Here are some:

1. A moratorium on all new coal mines and coal-fired power stations. There should be an immediate sunset plan for the industry, including compensation and retraining packages for all workers involved. On a small scale, this has already happened with the tobacco export industry, which ceased in 2007.

2. Removal of all subsidies to the coal companies; no more corporate welfare. Without subsidies (government funding, land and water concessions), the coal industry would very quickly die a natural death.

3. Nationalise the coal-mining industry and coal-fired power stations and run them for social need (including the need to stop climate change). The taste for corporate superprofits has clearly blocked any possibilitie of the radical transformation of the energy sector that is necessary. Now more than ever, these industries need to be put under public ownership (or not privatised) so the task of transitioning to renewable energy sources can commence immediately.

4. Immediate government support for renewable energy technologies through nationalisation of the renewable energy industry and the implementation of a massive public works program to replace coal with renewable energy sources.

5. Rejection of the dead-end of market solutions such as carbon trading and carbon taxes. All of these “solutions” have either proven to be ineffective in well-researched cases in Europe and the US. Such schemes favour the already wealthy corporate players and end up imposing extra costs and taxes on working people. None of these schemes have any hope of matching the critical timelines that scientists such as Hansen have repeatedly told us must be met to immediately reorient away from fossil fuel dependency.

6. Rapid expansion of environmental clean-up programs, e.g., retrofitting and building a renewable power grid, reafforestion and investing in a massive expansion of public transport infrastructure. We need to embark on a “war economy” against climate change with millions of people employed in public service to begin turning back the tide of disaster.

7. Nowhere is the environment more destroyed than in underdeveloped countries buried under mountains of debt. The foreign debt these countries have to the government and banks of the rich countries should be immediately written off.

8. Free renewables energy technology transfer to the Third World. Instead of exporting coal to China and India for corporate profit, Australia should aim to become a major exporter of solar thermal and other renewables technology to Third World countries as an act of human solidarity and mutual survival.

Australia should provide free of charge and free of political strings, the expertise and the resources to help poor countries make the transition away from dependence on selling underpriced goods and resources to the rich countries. Without addressing the global trade inequality, the global environment will inevitably pay. Shifting the dirty and hazardous industries to China or other low-wage countries simply ignores the demand for a planned and rational use of the world’s resources.

All these measures run directly counter to the profit-seeking interests of corporate capitalism and the governments that serve it. To even begin to implement them will require a “transformative change” — a social revolution — in the institutions of political and economic power in the rich countries, with working people being organised as the rulers of society. Working people keep the country running; working people should run the country, not the corporate elite and its politicians.

[Tim Stewart is an antinuclear and climate campaigner and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]