News | 5th Dec, 2012

Coal exports add fuel to climate disaster

5 December 2012
Ian Lowe, The Age

It would be very easy to get depressed about the problem of climate change. Fifteen years after the Kyoto treaty, the scientific evidence is becoming ever more alarming, but we are no nearer a global agreement. Our national government finally put a modest price on greenhouse gas release and implemented important measures like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, in the face of vicious opposition from the Coalition parties. Meanwhile some state governments are irresponsibly approving expansion of fossil fuel exports, and we still provide billions of dollars subsidising supply and use of fossil fuels. If we were playing a responsible role, we would be phasing out those subsidies.

The current Doha meeting was preceded by three serious warnings. In September, the extent of Arctic sea ice declined to its lowest level since reliable records began. Just last week, an Alaskan study found new evidence that the Arctic permafrost is releasing huge quantities of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. These trends are what the science has warned about for 25 years: positive feedback effects that are hastening the rate of climate change.

This week's data on fossil fuel use is the really scary piece of information. It shows global emissions are slightly higher than one of the United Nations' top climate science panel's particularly pessimistic curves and are projected to lead to an increase this century in average global temperature of between 4.2 and 5 degrees. That is an alarming prospect. With an increase in average temperatures of about 0.8 degrees, some parts of this country have warmed by 2 degrees. The increase in severe weather events is a very serious problem. Every year we are now seeing what used to be once-a-century events: floods, droughts, heatwaves, severe storms. One leading climate scientist said that the difference between 2 degrees of warming and 4 degrees is simple: "human civilisation". As well as increasing risks of severe events, there are deeper problems. For example, the United Nations food agency has warned that it will be less and less likely that we can feed the human population if climate change continues on its present trajectory.

The science is unambiguous: to have a chance of keeping the increase in average global temperature below 2 degrees, we need to be reducing the world's rate of burning fossil fuels by 2020. That means countries like Australia should be cutting back now. But the pledges presented to Doha, by us and other nations, even if fulfilled, don't go anywhere near far enough. The world is sleepwalking to disaster, obsessed by short-term economic considerations.

Our major political parties agree on the inadequate target of reducing our greenhouse pollution by 5 per cent by 2020. That modest gain is overwhelmed by our fossil fuel exports. Last year we exported about 300 million tonnes of coal. When burned, that produces more than a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – double our domestic production. Yet there is bipartisan agreement to pour public funds into infrastructure to increase our contribution to the global problem still further. Exporting gas would be a legitimate activity if it were replacing coal, but in most cases it is adding to the world's fossil fuel use and therefore accelerating the warming trend. We should be taking a more responsible approach. Increasing our fossil fuel exports is indefensible. In the medium term, we will need to phase out coal exports.

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Read about the Baillieu Government's plans for a massive brown coal export industry >