Do you want the good news or the bad news?
Let’s start with the good news: Australia’s surge in rooftop solar and wind energy has successfully reduced coal pollution, according to new data. The bad news? Australia still had the highest levels of greenhouse gas pollution from coal per person than any other developed country in 2021.
The data compiled by UK-based thinktank Ember shows that per capita greenhouse gas emissions from coal fell sharply last year, well below the average 5.34 tonnes of the previous five years. This drop has been attributed to the increase in solar and wind energy, which now make up a quarter of Australia’s power generation.
“Setting the stage for many fire seasons”
While the data marks progress, we’re still lagging far behind other developed countries when it comes to coal pollution. In fact, Australia’s per capita coal emissions of 4.04 tonnes a year is nearly four times the global average. The second-placed country was South Korea, with 3.18 tonnes a year, followed by China (3.06), South Africa (2.68) and the United States (2.23).
Despite the growth of renewable energy, we’re still the second most coal-dependant country for power generation in the OECD, behind Poland. And as we all know, burning coal on this scale comes with serious consequences.
“Burning coal on this scale is setting the stage for many fire seasons to come,” said Ember’s global lead, Dave Jones.
“The single biggest action the world can take to tackle the climate crisis is to rapidly transition away from antiquated coal power and towards the clean and renewables-based electricity system of the future.”
Why is Australia still so reliant on coal?
Given our abundance of sunlight and wind, you would think that Australia would be leading the way in renewable energy and the transition away from coal. So why are we still lagging behind?
There are a number of factors at play, but it boils down to two main issues: a lack of federal government support and an over-reliance on coal companies.
In terms of government support, Australia is lagging behind countries like Sweden, China and France, which have all introduced strong national emissions targets backed with policies to drive the transition to renewable energy. In contrast, our government has been slow to act on climate change and has only recently committed to net zero carbon and a “phase down” of coal by 2050 following intense global pressure.
What’s more, our government is still propping up the coal industry with billions of dollars in subsidies each year. Additionally, it has approved new mines and extensions with ‘clean coal’ investments such as carbon capture and storage. This support not only props up an industry that is damaging to our environment, but it also stifles competition from cleaner energy sources. Instead of phasing out coal – the worst fossil fuel – our government is committed to digging for more.
As for fossil fuel companies, they wield an alarming amount of power in Australia. Not only do they donate huge sums of money to political parties, but they also hold significant sway over government policy. According to Professor Samantha Hepburn, a climate law expert at Deakin University, they have been successful in watering down and ‘distorting’ a number of proposed climate policies in recent years.
The current government’s loyalty to mining companies is deeply ingrained. Mining has helped drive Australia’s economy for decades, and coal remains the country’s second-biggest export. The government often credits coal for much of the country’s wealth, but many analysts argue this is vastly exaggerated.
The BBC reported that coal exports totalled A$55bn last year, but most of this wealth was kept by mining companies. Less than a tenth went to Australia directly – that’s about 1 per cent of national revenue.
While coal jobs do sustain some rural communities such as Gladstone, there are significant opportunities for these same communities whose skills will become increasingly valuable as our energy systems change.
The coal ‘party’ is over
The reality is that the transition away from coal is already underway.
As countries race to meet their emissions targets, the long-term market for coal is looking increasingly grim. Australia’s biggest coal buyers – Japan, South Korea and China – have all pledged net zero targets by 2050.
“Australia knows the party is over. But the police haven’t been called yet. So they’ll continue to party on until they’re stopped,” says Richie Merzian, a climate expert at the Australia Institute.
Fortunately, mining companies are starting to wake up to this reality and respond accordingly. BHP and Glencore, Australia’s two largest export-oriented coal miners, have recognised the limitations facing coal in the future and have announced plans to divest in coal assets and establish decarbonisation pathways.
The writing is on the wall – it’s time for our federal government to catch up and start planning for a just transition away from coal. With the right policies in place, we can create jobs, support communities and protect our environment. All while reducing our emissions and doing our part to prevent catastrophic climate change.