When it comes to coal, Australia has transitioned away from economics and common sense
by Richard Denniss
[Originally published on The Guardian Australia, 21 Augustr 2019]
Australia isn’t transitioning away from extracting fossil fuels, it is doubling down on them. That’s right – even though Australia is already the third largest fossil fuel exporter in the world, the federal government still wants to double our coal exports, drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight and open more farmland to fracking.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. In fact, our share of the world’s traded coal market is bigger than Saudi Arabia’s share of the world oil market. If Australia opened the Adani mine, and all the other mines proposed in Australia, we would indeed double our coal exports. But we would also drive down the world price of coal, drive down production in existing coalmines, and drive up global emissions. It’s not complicated. But while Australia shows no sign of transitioning away from fossil fuels, we have well and truly transitioned away from economics and common sense when it comes to coal.
And in the rush to mine more coal, Australia is transitioning away from its stated foreign policy. Since the second world war, Australia has sought to play a leadership role among the Pacific Island nations. This positioning has provided both a physical buffer to our north and a significant diplomatic platform. But that could all be coming to an end.
In 2015 Pacific Island nations issued the Suva Declaration calling on Australia to stop building new coalmines. This request was repeated last month in the Nadi Bay declaration. Yet last week, the Australian prime minister seemed either surprised or enraged that such a request would be included in the Pacific Island Forum declaration in Tuvalu. Adding insult to injury, the deputy prime minister said he was “annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector”, even though “many of their workers come here to pick our fruit”. There’s a reason why National party MPs don’t get the trade portfolio any more.
To be clear, Pacific leaders have never called on Australia to shut down our coalmines. What they have asked, repeatedly, is for us to please stop building new coalmines at a time when Australia’s emissions, the world’s emissions, and the Pacific Ocean are all rising steadily. But despite years of polite requests the Australian government, and large sections of the Australian media, can’t even be bothered to listen properly to what our neighbours are actually asking for.
While our deputy PM skilfully managed to interpret the Pacific’s request to stop opening new coalminers as a demand to shut down our entire resources industry, he was not alone in his wilful deafness. Several journalists confused a call to stop building new coalmines with a demand we shut them all down tomorrow. The Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial informed us: “No doubt Australia will not be able to meet all the islanders’ demands, which include a ban on new coalmines. We cannot close down the thermal coalmining industry overnight.” No doubt at all.
After years of ignoring Pacific leaders’ calls to stop expanding our coal production, the Australian political class has now switched from pretending they can’t hear the Pacific to pretending they don’t understand them. No wonder Pacific Island leaders are getting frustrated.
While rising coal production and rising sea levels are working against the Pacific Island nations, a seismic shift in global geopolitics are starting to tilt the tables their way. The strategic rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region has rattled the defence and foreign policy establishment of Canberra, who now fear an expansionist China. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper warned of the need to strengthen our relationships with our Pacific neighbours and in 2018 Scott Morrison reversed Tony Abbott’s strategy of aid cuts to the Pacific in announcing his so-called “Pacific Step Up”.
Announcing a policy and implementing one are quite different things. As last week’s disastrous trip to Tuvalu shows: when given the choice between promoting the expansion of the coal industry or opposing the expansion of China in the Pacific, the Morrison government will choose coal any day. Iceland is hosting a memorial for one of its lost glaciers, Greenland lost 11bn tonnes of ice in a day and the Arctic Circle hit a new record high of 34.8C. But the Australian government is not only on the wrong side of science, it is now on the wrong side of global diplomacy.
Next month, world leaders will gather in New York to discuss the progress or, more precisely, the lack of progress on reducing global emissions. Word on the street is that Scott Morrison will be a no-show, despite being in the United States. Apparently – with Australia’s domestic emissions rising, our determination to use dodgy carbon credits to meet our Paris commitments, and now the open revolt by the Pacific over our plans to build new coalmines – the reception for Australia might be a little too icy for our prime minister.
Australia isn’t just the world’s largest coal exporter. We are the world’s largest exporter of LNG, the third largest exporter of fossil fuels and the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. We emit more than 40 countries with bigger populations than ours, and our exported emissions add double that again.
While Morrison argues that what happens to our coal and gas after we sell it isn’t our problem, that’s not the way the rest of the world sees it. It’s not the way the world sees those countries that export landmines, nuclear weapons technology or endangered species either.
Even Morrison knows that the obligations for a country’s actions extend well beyond their borders. That is why he is imposing restrictions on the export of Australian waste, and that’s why he now keeps raising the issue of China funding coal-fired power stations in other countries.
But what Morrison does or doesn’t believe is not what matters. What matters are Australia’s actions and how other countries respond. The Pacific Island nations have made clear that they want Australia to stop building new coalmines. They believe we all have a shared obligation to reduce fossil fuel production and consumption. But at the same time Morrison is rebuffing such requests from the Pacific, he is asking them to put their country’s survival aside and work with Australia to secure our own geopolitical and economic interests. What could go wrong?
• Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the Australia Institute