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Issue #1784      July 5, 2017

Culture & Life

Mucking about in the (coal) dust

Australia’s capitalist governments have for years had the unflattering habit of tagging along behind whoever’s in charge of the USA. Rather plaintively they hoped to pick up at least a few crumbs from the Yanks’ well-stocked table. Sometimes they did – and sometimes they didn’t. This sad apology for a foreign policy has never served us well and is not standing us in good stead now either. Certainly as far as green energy and climate change are concerned.

All the experts agree, green energy is where the jobs are going to be in the future. Not only that, but green energy sources will employ more people proportionately than the fossil fuel industries they replace, and under environmentally better conditions: jobs will not only be greener, they will be cleaner (and so will the air). US President Donald Trump however is carrying the banner for coal and oil (see page 5). And our leaders are dutifully falling into line.

Australia’s political leaders, in fact, have been vocal in continuing to flog the fiction that our coal is “much cleaner” than coal from other countries, and hence does not contribute to global warming. This may be comforting to those who cannot face reality, but it is bogus. Coal is almost pure carbon, and burning it inevitably releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Most of the world’s scientists recognise this. As the Paris climate agreement showed, so do most of the world’s governments. Even our own PM Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop went to the Paris talks and (presumably hypocritically?) signed up Australia to the global agreement. Only after they returned did they begin to show signs of reneging on what they had agreed.

Australia is ideally suited to exploit solar and wind energy, so why are the likes of Turnbull and Bishop so leery of embracing them? The answer probably lies in their class attitude: they approach every issue from the standpoint of whether it has the potential for corporate profit. The first power stations here as elsewhere were coal powered. Engineers however soon devised alternative ways of generating electricity. Hydro electric power was seen as the way of the future in Australia with the post-war Snowy Mountains Scheme. It, like other power generation at the time, was substantially a government enterprise. However, as private enterprise has taken a bigger role in power generation and supply, water and wind have been shown to have less opportunity for the generation of profit.

Writing about the US situation, Jonathan Thompson noted in Mother Jones that “coal could be commodified, unlike free-flowing water or wind, and it required labour to extract it, which made it a better fit for the capitalist system. Because it was a commodity, coal offered the opportunity for profit, and an industry grew up around its production. That, in turn, created the coal lobby (helped out by the railroads, which relied on hauling coal). Coal’s abundance and portability helped it ascend to dominance as a fuel for producing both electricity and heat, but it was the coal lobby’s influence on federal and state policies that kept it there for so long.”

Australia’s experience was somewhat different due to the involvement of state governments in the production and transporting of coal. That has now changed, however, with the mining and transport of coal now largely in private hands. Despite the adverse environmental effects of coal mining, its transport and use, vast amounts of coal are still exported annually from Australia. In fact, the port of Newcastle in NSW has become the largest coal-exporting port in the world. Which doubtless makes the coal companies happy, but does not bode well for Australia’s national health in the long term.

While Australia still mucks around with coal, and makes unconvincing claims that selling it to China and India will somehow be our economic salvation, China itself has been making enormous strides in the development and installation of wind and solar power, including the creation of large-scale floating solar panels.

Thomson notes that this is “a technology likely to prove widely adaptable by other countries seeking to increase their reliance on renewable energy” [so not Australia, then]. And Keith Bradsher commented in The New York Times that “the [wind and solar] project reflects China’s effort to reshape the world order in renewable energy as the United States retreats.

Such technological expertise will form the infrastructure backbone needed for countries to meet their climate goals, making China the energy partner of choice for many nations.” Just not ours, apparently.

But what of India? Thomson further notes that “India is also seeking to join the A-team of leading green powers. Once considered a stumbling block to any Paris agreement thanks to its partiality for coal-fired power plants, India is now making giant strides in the development of renewable energy.

According to the respected environmental website Carbon Tracker, India is now expected to obtain 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2022, eight years ahead of schedule. In the process, it is already cancelling many of its plans for new coal-fired plants.” And of course the coal for those plants was expected to come from Australia.

As Australia’s coal industry lurches towards its inevitable demise, the workers employed in it deserve a government that is concerned with making plans for their retraining and alternative employment, not artificially propping up the profits of coal companies.

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