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Issue #1448      24 March 2010

Editorial

Coal and credibility

Governments worldwide know that their people are worried about climate change and other urgent environmental challenges. There is plenty of lip service paid at the top to concepts like reducing the national carbon footprint and being responsible global citizens. At Copenhagen, Rudd and other leaders of developed countries suggested their efforts to make a difference were being thwarted by developing countries. That fiction was visible for all to see; the evidence is all around us.

In NSW whole communities live with the pollution, illness and disruption caused by the 150 year old coal industry. But rather than reining in the industry and placing tighter limits and regulations on the coal industry, the NSW government is overseeing its massive expansion in the Upper Hunter. Coal fired power stations are not being decommissioned, in fact a third one is to be built for Lake Liddell.

Workers need the jobs. Manufacturing jobs in the state have been moving offshore at an increasingly rapid rate. Around 15,000 people in NSW are dependent on the coal industry for their jobs – the highest number since the mid-1990s. The state needs the income. NSW’s treasury is expected to cream $1.41 billion in royalties and taxes from extraction of coal next financial year, just short of the $1.76 billion it derives from the state’s gambling habit. The jobs and the income have to come from somewhere but it is clear that all the talk of “transitioning” to a low carbon future and green jobs is hot air.

The social cost of this expansion is worrying communities previously given to accommodating a notoriously dirty industry. Winemakers and thoroughbred horse breeders are concerned about the effect the expansion might have on the countryside they share. The NSW government is currently considering applications for the expansion of 15 existing mines and the establishment of 11 more. A third export terminal will open shortly in Newcastle. Trains up to 100 carriages long already make almost 15,000 trips a year to feed ships bound mainly for Japan.

The biggest concern, one which prompted a series of articles in The Sydney Morning Herald, is for the health of residents living alongside the coal mining and handling establishments. Dr Tuan Au of Singleton has been testing students in local schools and found that 14.3 percent of them have low lung capacity compared to the national figure of 11.3 percent. The closer to a mine they live, the worse the results are. He has spent $5,000 of his own money on the research because the government is paying scant attention to these problems.

Last year coal became the dominant form of fossil fuel – a situation that has not existed for forty years. Figures from the Global Carbon Project show that carbon dioxide emissions rose by two percent last year. In Australia they fell slightly, not because of any large scale switch to cleaner energy sources or fuel saving measures but because of a sharp economic downturn. Developed countries still emit four to five times the main greenhouse gas compared to their counterparts in developing economies like India and China. The world is sick of the pious lecturing of leaders like Kevin Rudd; that might explain why we hear less and less about his grand plans to save the planet.

In the meantime, the various export booms being fed by the finite resources of the country are being given their head by policy makers. The NSW Minister for the Hunter, Michael Costa, is an open climate change denier. He said the Greens have “rocks in their heads” for calling for a moratorium on the expansion of open-cut mining in the region. Federal local member Joel Fitzgibbon called critics of the coal mining “extremists” who want to carry on a “jihad against the industry”. The cost of this forward charge can be counted in the health of local people and the increased rate of global carbon emissions.

Developed economies still need coal. Many industrial processes require it. Without it we would not have steel or cement, for instance. But the headlong charge to expand the industry in NSW shows that we do not have the leadership required to deliver a sustainable future. The current batch of political powerbrokers is captive to an industry that needs to be managed and controlled and reduced. They are endangering our future.

Next article – CPA letter to Rudd

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