The Cairns Post



AUSTRALIA is now heading towards net zero. Our economy depends heavily on coal, and will for many years to come. Both of these are true.

It has been dishearten­ing to witness the degradatio­n of the climate debate over the past decade. On the right, there has been climate denialism, or the view that Australia has no role to play “because we’re small”. On the other side are those who say to avoid climate armageddon Australia must lead the world on immediatel­y abandoning all coal production and use.

The sensible middle has always been here and we have had no help from either extremity. Maybe now we are moving toward a more rational conversati­on.

The first thing we need to do is understand that the export coal sector and the domestic coal power industry are very different.

Some 21 coal-fired power stations still supply about 60 per cent of Australia’s energy needs. But regardless of this week’s theatre over targets, coal power plants have been closing for years and the published plans of all power station operators shows that the remainder will be progressiv­ely retired over the next couple of decades.

The main debate here is how we will treat the 35,000 Australian­s they support.

The Nationals, supposed champions of regional Australian­s, has no track record of going in to bat for workers affected by structural change in the domestic power sector.

They didn’t lift a finger to support workers who lost their jobs when the Hazelwood power station shut in the Latrobe Valley at short notice in 2017.

Coal export is a different story. Some try to downplay its significan­ce but the raw numbers speak for themselves. Coal comes second only to iron ore as our biggest export earner. We produce about 450 million tonnes of black coal annually, and export 90 per cent of it. About 40 per cent of that is metallurgi­cal coal, worth a total of about $33bn. There is currently no practical and economical alternativ­e for steelmakin­g. The rest is thermal coal for power generation. That’s worth another $24bn. Prices for both thermal and metallurgi­cal coal are currently booming.

There are about 50,000 direct jobs in coalmining and another 65,000 jobs in the industries servicing mining communitie­s. Add in dependants, and more than a quarter of a million Australian­s rely on the coal export industry.

Even as coal use shrinks globally, forecasts have Australia’s

share of export trade continuing to grow. Nations that produce lower-grade coal, produced inefficien­tly, will leave the market first.

Customers for Australian coal are mostly in Asia. If we stop selling to these countries there isn’t a skerrick of evidence it will change the direction of their energy policy. Under global agreements, each country is responsibl­e for reducing their own domestic emissions. We don’t ask Japan to stop exporting cars to reduce transport emissions.

So let’s be clear-sighted about the path we’re on. Australia’s export coal industry is currently booming and it will do so while customers keep buying our coal, regardless of our domestic targets. Meanwhile, let’s stop the huffing and puffing and come up with a plan to support workers and regions affected by structural change in our domestic power industry.

Tony Maher is president of the Mining & Energy Union

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