No New Coal Mines

Along with 60 other Australians, mostly more eminent than me, I’ve signed an open letter to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions. The letter focuses particularly on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine but it’s important to be clear that this is part of a global movement to stop new coal mines everywhere in the world.

The underlying reasoning isn’t spelt out but ought to be clear enough. If we are to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or below, as the world’s leaders have already agreed we should, it is necessary for carbon dioxide emissions to peak soon, and decline to zero over the next 30 years or so. Given that burning coal creates major health hazards in addition to C02 emissions, coal burning needs to eliminated even more rapidly. That means first, that no new coal mine can expect to work for an operating life of more than 30 years, and second that any new coal mine must be offset be additional closures of existing coal mines. Once these factors are taken into account, it’s essentially impossible for new coal mines to make economic sense within the constraints imposed by a limited carbon budget. Certainly, that’s the case for Carmichael, which is a massive boondoggle keeping alive only in the hope of extracting some form of government assistance or compensation.

42 thoughts on “No New Coal Mines

  1. There are two problems with burning biomass for cooking: firstly, it’s dirty and inefficient, leading to smog problems and more importantly lots of smoke pollution /inside/ houses which is what kills people; secondly, it tends /not/ to be sustainable – it tends to come from unsustainably harvested local forests, and can lead to serious issues with deforestation.

    That said replacing it with coal-burning power stations and electric stovetops isn’t the only solution. Burning biomass /cleanly/ can be done with properly designed stoves, which fixes the indoors air pollution issue; those stoves tend to be vastly more efficient as well, and can burn much lower quality biomass (i.e. they’ll burn anything vaguely woody that’s dry, including grass stems and the like), which makes a big different to the sustainability of cooking with biomass. Look up information about gasifying stoves if you’re interested. You can also replace inefficient wood burning stoves with natural gas systems supplied by methane digesters – in rural areas with cattle and sheep and the like, that’s almost a no-brainer, and it even produces high-value fertiliser as a by-product (you can even feed your home/town sewerage in as well, dealing with /that/ sanitation nightmare as a bonus).

    All those kinds of ideas can be implemented /locally/, too – methane digesters can be built by anyone with basic plumbing skills, efficient gasifying stoves can be made by anyone with basic metalworking skills, really all that you need to add to the mix is the /knowledge/. Massive improvements in people’s standard of living can be achieved without needing to ship raw materials half-way around the world, without having to screw over the environment, and without having to disempower people or destroy much of their traditional culture and way of life in the process.

    Coal is not the solution.

  2. @john goss

    “But in our passion to achieve necessary changes we can sometimes choose blunt instruments which may have some negative consequences.”

    Passion? I don’t think so; it’s just rational to prevent any more of the damage that some of us with less passion can clearly see has been happening and the negative consequences can not be as bad as the negative consequences that come from the burning of coal, but you don’t see these already present negative consequences.

    Perhaps your ‘passion’ for coal is motivated by the ubiquitous cultural cognition that ensures that people who have profited from coal and the neo-liberal ideology that encouraged the profligate use of coal are not able to understand how negative the consequences have been for other humans?

    Do you think that ‘the market’ to which you refer is a very blunt instrument that has, in the hands of people who are passionate about their foolish belief in this made up ‘system’, rather than sceptical and rational, can and has created a hell on earth for so many people not like you?

  3. Julie. There are so many things wrong with your characterisation of my position that there is no point in trying to argue against it. But let me assure you I do not have a passion for coal. I want the world to go to negative carbon emissions asap which means we must quickly move away from coal.
    I am disappointed by your misunderstanding of my position because, in my view, your black and white style thinking which does not consider the evidence but puts out views based on priors, is the sort of thinking we get from the fossil fuel interests. And that sort of thinking is unhelpful for the planet and for humanity.

  4. I disagree with a moratorium and I have explained why at JamesPTrevelyan.com. At its simplest, while the move to renewables is of great urgency, we need everyone on board to do it. This proposal will seem hypocritical coming from Australia as we have benefitted enormously by burning coal and selling the rest to others to burn it, and we will continue to do just that. Second, your comments in particular are directed at an Indian consortium, so it will be perceived in India as being in Australia’s self-interest. While Adani might not be popular at home, this will be likely to boost his standing. To make a global transformation to renewables, we need a broad consensus and as long as weak nations perceive self-interest by wealthy nations like Australia, consensus will be all that more difficult than it has been already. We need a smarter approach.

  5. I disagree with having to have “everyone on board” to switch to renewables; you only need a majority to get elected.

  6. @James Trevelyan

    You mention “India” and “weak nations” within a sentence or two of each other. India is not a weak nation. It might be a poor nation on a per capita basis but it is not a weak nation.

    1. Population is estimated at 1.270 billion of July 1 2015 (rank 2, 17.5% of world population).
    2. Rank 7 in world in GDP. Rank 3 in world in GDP based on PPP (the more realistic measure).
    3. Military rank 4 in world in conventional power.
    4. Also possesses nuclear weapons.

    India is a great power. Australia is a low ranking middle power at best. India can stand on its own feet, make its own energy decisions and create its own energy future. It does not need our coal as it has a lot of its own coal (7% of known world reserves). But let’s hope it doesn’t use it. The sun falls on all countries. The solar power is there for the taking.

  7. @john goss

    Yep I agree with you that there is no point in trying to argue against my characterisation of your position. I did only respond to what you wrote and the words you used and if you think my position is black and white and based on my priors and unhelpful then I think a good definition of any further conversation between us that addressed your concern about me misunderstanding your position would be “incommensurable”.

    Looking at things from the position of the regional people – my neighbours – who were once determined climate change deniers, the idea of power being provided by renewables that we could manage at the local level is a thing that changes their minds about climate change not being a real thing.

    Their attitude toward the loss of those jobs from no more mines has also changed and the negatives of this type of work is another thing that people in my town are talking about rather than the money that can be made doing this work.

    The idea that important people are concerned enough to back a call for no more mines is a good thing for stimulating the conversation about how we can make the change to renewables and we don’t need to be smarter either.

    What does it even mean to be smarter?

  8. @john goss
    If , as you suggest, coal miners paid for the full environmental cost of their product, they would not make a profit. So they wouldn’t open any new mines. Your proposal is rather more draconian than the one called for in the open letter – you would be shutting down existing mines.

    Clearly your approach is better, and I suspect the only reason the open letter makes its proposal is as an interim step before your proposal becomes reality.

  9. @John Brookes

    “If , as you suggest, coal miners paid for the full environmental cost of their product, they would not make a profit.”

    I agree with that statement. It’s interesting to consider this idea more widely. Let us consider the following proposition.

    “If modern production systems paid for the full environmental cost of their products, they would not make a profit.”

    I am not saying this is true in all cases but I suspect it is true in a lot of cases. What this idea essentially says is that capital accumulation in the current economy often occurs at the cost of the destruction of natural capital. It begs the question. How will capital accumulation (economic growth) continue when most of the earth’s natural capital is depleted?

    Natural growth forests continue to be destroyed at a great rate. Plantation forests deplete soils and reduce species diversity: more forms of natural capital depletion. The oceans are being depleted of wild fish and also destroyed by acidification, plastics pollution and so on. Modern industrial agriculture depletes soils, rivers and aquifers. The list goes on.

    I suspect if natural capital were valued accurately we would see currently that the world is losing capital not gaining it. That is to say, natural capital destruction is greater than capital accumulation in our economy. This has to be the case, considered at the first level, as no conversion process can be 100% efficient. At a second level, incoming solar energy is the only substantial input that comes “free” from outside the earth system. Thus at this second level it is theoretically possible for both natural capital and economic capital to increase in value simultaneously, at least up to a limiting point. But to operate in that zone, our economy would have to not be observably or measurably diminishing natural capital. We would need to see natural cycles replenishing natural capital at least as fast as we use it. Currently, this is clearly not the case.

    The main activities obviously depleting natural capital faster than natural replenishment are;

    (a) fossil fuel use
    (b) agriculture
    (c) forestry
    (d) fishing
    (e) mining
    (f) urbanisation (as “paving over”).

    Natural capital is not simply primary resources like mineral deposits, natural forests and fish stocks. Natural capital inheres in biosphere services which include ecological and even geophysical services. A clear example is the climate system which provides us with a set of geophysical services. Damaging these systems also equates to a depletion of natural capital. I suspect if the accounting were done correctly we would see that earth’s total capital (natural capital plus human economy capital) is now declining rapidly.

  10. It looks like that subsequent to a number of polls and elections politicians have sensed the wind change and the Keystone pipeline project is dead.

  11. Regarding Keystone, sure there are plenty of other ways for oil producers to get their product to customers. But it’s the political change that is of significance.

  12. @john goss
    “. If all the above is done why should the government interfere with a commercial decision to build a new coal mine”

    For the very good reason that the damage caused by the release of more carbon into the atmosphere transcends any commercial considerations. Particularly at the level of carbon emissions associated with the Adani project. If someone intended to explode a nuclear bomb for some commercial reason and defended it on the basis that it they would subsequently make good the damage caused we would hardly accept it as a valid argument. The continued burning of coal is that veritable “nuclear bomb” in terms of the damage it causes In making the planet inhabitable in the future.

  13. @Ikonoclast
    A valid argument, so while we may not be in a position to completely replace natural capital we should at least try and reduce its depletion. We can do this by using renewable forms of energy, by eliminating conspicuous/unneccessary consumption and some form of population control or encouragement to reduce population growth.

  14. The reason a government should interfere to stop new coal mines, and should be looking hard at ways to close down dirty brown coal fired power stations, is a really simple one: if we are to have a better than 50/50 probability of not exceeding a 2C increase in temperature on average, we have to put a stake in the ground and say “stop it”. Let’s face it, arm waving and nice white paper reports explaining the consequences have been entirely lost on the last two LNP oppositions and the current LNP government, especially that recent ex-PM Tony Abbott.

    The LNP have demonstrated quite convincingly that if a party is persuasive enough, it can garner votes to get over the line, even though it isn’t in the best interest of the very people voting them in. No person who has young children should be putting their chances of a good future at unnecessary risk, and yet that is what our woeful shortfall in action is doing. Ol’ John Howard loved to inform us that our efforts would be at best 1.5% of the total difference, so we shouldn’t harm our current prosperity by spending a dirty nickel on helping out…but he was wrong, because not taking action is a symbolic action of its own, saying Australia doesn’t think there is a problem, or if there is, it can’t be bothered helping…

    The trouble is, a few well-placed individuals, trumpeting their opinions in their own global media empires, can exploit the inaction of Australia as leverage to discourage other much larger and more significant countries from taking adequate action. We all know of at least one doofhead who has employed that strategy. Thing is, they have so much wealth that their heirs can probably buy their way out of most of the trouble which global warming is tipped to cause, so they feel safe from consequences. If they think that far ahead.

    We need more coal mining even less than another hole in the head. Racing around blowing billions looking for more, when we know the exercise in self-punishment that burning it will bring to bear, is insane; if that dough were channelled into other options, we’d be creating a margin for safety which we currently don’t have (because of our BAU trajectory).

    A look back through the past 40 or 50 years at this topic really feels like Groundhog Day.

  15. @rog
    My understanding of Keystone is that it was crucial for the future of Canadian tar sands exploitation by transporting it to the Gulf of Mexico states. Now it will mean the Canadians will have to consider pipelines to either the Pacific or Atlantic coasts – a huge expense that the Alberta tar sands could not economically justify. In fact I wonder how this form of extraction which I thought was dependent on the oil being above US$85 a barrel is still operating. Is it a case of the development having matured to a point where production costs can be ‘buried’ by sheer volume produced like Rio and BHP currently do with iron ore exports?

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