As I noted a few days ago, I went to listen to an I-SEE seminar by Richard Denniss. It was an enjoyable event, delivered with some style, although I thought that we were reminded once too often that Australia was a continent. But the size of the place means that coal (and other) mines, even gynormous ones, are not only out of sight but, for much of civic society, out of mind as well.
The message of the seminar was that if there is no moratorium on new coal mines, we can kiss goodbye to an effective COP21 agreement, and all the hopes that hang on this. This is because new mines will mean much more cheap coal flooding onto the market, thus making other forms of electricity generation less competitive and likely – not to mention all that CO2
All such new mines will not be in Australia, but the ones there will be big. The proposed Carmichael mine in the Galliee Basin in Queensland has 4bn tonnes of coal in it, and the corporate plan, it seems, is to extract 2bn of that. Despite the fall in the global coal price, this will be profitable because of the subsidies provided by the generous ever-Australian taxpayer. These include a free rail link and a new (no cost) port that is rather close to the Barrier Reef.
Richard Denniss said that those who matter in Australia want COP21 to fail to achieve anything significant so that its extractive industries can continue as if there is no tomorrow, but it is widely reckoned that 80% of proven coal reserves will have to be left alone if the battle against global warming is to be won – or at least fought out to a draw.
Global coal production has increased by 50% since 1990, despite all the talk of climate change, and Denniss invoked the green paradox to explain this: that sometimes problems are caused by talk of solutions. In other words, all the chatter about climate change has alerted coal conglomerates to the need to sell the stuff as quickly as possible even if the profit is lower than optimal.
President Tong of Kiribati is urging a global moritorium on new coal mines, and has the support of 12 pacific island countries, not to mention the likes of Stern, Klein and Figuerres (and probably Bono, et al.). "Make mine a moratorium” says Ross Gittins of the Sydney Morning Herald, showing that not everyone in Australia things like a coal owner – See also NoMoreCoal. Ironically, a moritorium on new mines might drive a wedge between old mine-owners and new ones, which would be good for the hard-pressed old mine companies such as Peabody and Glencore, whose business could then carry on (regardless) – producing coal.
Denniss said that support for a moratorium from the UK and others would be devastating to the Australian government, but will the UK do that? Probably not. Ow will the sclerotic and dysfunctional EU? Doubtful, given the dependence of key member states on the black rock for power. Anyway who would police it? The UN? UNESCO? The Vatican? Bono's band?
I came away even gloomier than usual about the future. By the way, if you planning that trip of a lifetime to Kiribati, best to get there asap before the sea rises even higher.