Australia remains wedded to coal as PM Morrison faces global climate pressure

A coal-to-hydrogen plant is pictured in Loy Yang, Victoria, Australia, on March 12, 2021.
A coal-to-hydrogen plant is pictured in Loy Yang, Victoria, Australia, on March 12, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Australia's former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was recently appointed to a role helping the state of New South Wales move towards clean energy, but he had not yet started before he was swiftly dumped.

His offence was to back calls for a ban on new mines in New South Wales. He said approvals for new projects were "out of control" and were turning the coal-mining region north of Sydney into a "lunar landscape".

"This is massive devastation that is going on," he told ABC Radio. "There are mines being approved which would have capacities vastly in excess of the demand for coal that exists."

But Mr Turnbull's comments were a step too far for the State's ruling Liberal-National Coalition, particularly as it faces an upcoming by-election in the coal-mining region. The NSW Coalition removed Mr Turnbull from the role, saying it was concerned about "alienating" its right-wing base.

The dumping of Mr Turnbull highlighted the extent to which Australia remains committed to the coal sector, despite growing pressure for it to commit to stronger climate action.

A recent report by The Australia Institute, a progressive public policy think-tank, found that there are 23 plans for new or expanded coal projects in NSW.

"With flat or falling world coal demand… there is simply no market for, nor transport infrastructure to market, an enormous increase in new coal production in NSW," the institute said.

Australia's coal sector is booming. The nation is one of the world's biggest exporters of coal, with exports worth $AUS56.4 billion last year. The main buyers include Japan, China, India, Taiwan and South Korea. Australia has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world. According to the Minerals Council of Australia, the sector directly employs about 50,000 people.

Despite calls for Australia to wean itself off its reliance on coal, the Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, remains a firm supporter of the sector. In 2017, as Federal Treasurer, Mr Morrison famously brought a lump of coal into Parliament, which he used as a prop while ridiculing the Labor opposition's commitment to renewable energy.

"Don't be scared, it won't hurt you," Mr Morrison said. "It's coal."

As Prime Minister, Mr Morrison has continued to defy calls to scale back coal mining. He has conceded that the global push for clean energy may jeopardise the coal industry's long-term future, but has insisted that the sector will continue to be an important part of Australia's economy for decades.

During a visit to a mining region in the state of Queensland in January, he said: "People who work in these sectors know that things change over time… But what's important is that we continue to extract and get the value from the opportunity and wealth that's there."

The Labor party proposes achieving net zero emissions by 2050 but also says it will continue to support coal exports beyond that date.

Mr Morrison is under growing pressure to take tougher climate action, particularly following moves by nations such as the United States, China and Japan to adopt targets of net zero emissions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday committed to limit the increase in coal consumption to 2025 and then begin phasing it out from 2026. In an address to US President Joe Biden's climate summit, he said China will "strictly control coal-fired power generation projects".

Mr Morrison also addressed the summit this week and insisted that Australia would move to "net zero" emissions but refused to adopt new carbon emissions reduction targets. Instead, he highlighted the use of technology to achieve cuts. Before the summit, he pledged an additional $AUS539 million spending on hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage projects.

An expert on international climate politics, Associate Professor Matt McDonald from the University of Queensland, said this week that Mr Morrison's technology funding announcement was part of a "smoke-and-mirrors approach".

It "throws a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry and placates internal party dissent, while attempting to appear to the rest of the world that Australia is acting on climate change," he wrote on The Conversation website.

"But the announcement is telling for what it isn't: a clear commitment to achieving net zero emissions by the middle of the century."