One of the arguments commonly used to defend Australia’s minimal efforts to combat climate change is that Australia is responsible for only 1.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is claimed, there is little Australia can do to make a difference.

There is however another way to consider this. The primary driver of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The Climate Council of Australia recently released a report that showed we need to keep the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. They articulate a concept known as the carbon budget. This asks how much more carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere and avoid global warming of more than 2°. Using 2012 as the base year they concluded that to have a 75% chance of keeping global warming below 2° our carbon budget is 1,112 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, once we hit 1112 gigatons that’s it. Any emissions after this will drive warming beyond 2°.

The problem is that the world has reserves of coal and oil that, if burned, will see us massively exceed the carbon budget. If you take into account only those reserves that are commercially viable to extract and sell, we will reach our carbon budget once we have burned just 23% of the reserves. And on current trends we will reach this point well before 2030.

As we all know Australia is a major coal producer. According to the Minerals Council of Australia we produce 7.5% of the world’s black coal and have 9% of the world’s reserves. It is estimated that we have 110 years of black coal resources.

This puts an entirely different complexion on our responsibility in dealing with global warming. We are not a minor player, but a very significant one. Our reserves alone are sufficient to blow the global carbon budget. If we are to play our part in preventing global warming beyond 2° we must accept that most of our coal needs to stay in the ground. We don’t have to stop producing coal tomorrow, but we must surely be planning our exit from coal production over the next decade or two.

I live in Newcastle, New South Wales, which is home to the largest export coal port in the world. As a citizen of the world I recognise that the primary driver of the economy in my city must come to an end. As a citizen of Newcastle I am deeply concerned that the longer we fail to plan for the end of the coal mining industry, the more difficult it will be to develop new industries to replace coal. If we start investing now we have the technological and scientific know-how to become world leaders in clean industries. I wish we could go on burning coal forever. But we can’t do that and have a hospitable planet. It’s time for us to admit this and get on with building new industries.

 

 

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