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Byron Shire
April 20, 2021

Tony kowtows to old king coal

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Global ambassador against coal, Bill McKibben. Photo Nancie Battaglia, 350.org
Global ambassador against coal, Bill McKibben. Photo Nancie Battaglia, 350.org

Mungo MacCallum

Last week the world-renowned American environmentalist, Bill McKibben, declared that our prime minister now apparently saw his principal role in international affairs as the global ambassador of coal, his only real concern being to protect Australia’s own coal industry.

The immediate cause of McKibben’s description was the television image of Tony Abbott being presented with an over-sized Stetson hat by some of America’s biggest oil barons, to which our man responded with a somewhat embarrassed: ‘Yee ha’.

Now McKibben is himself a global ambassador against coal, which he regards as the dirtiest and most polluting of all fuels, and the greatest driver of climate change: he is hardly an impartial observer. But he has a point. In Texas Abbott spruiked the need to prevent the ostracising of any particular fuel source and earlier in Canada he had warned that we should not clobber the economy in order to reduce emissions and combat climate change.

So it is clear that he sees the environment and the economy as fundamentally opposed, with the economy being paramount. The idea that both can be developed in harmony is dismissed as wishful thinking, a fanciful Utopia. This approach is totally consistent with Abbott’s goodies-versus-baddies view of the world, but it is increasingly being left behind by his more sophisticated global peers, and not just the political ones.

Last week the GetUp organisation announced triumphantly that four major financial institutions – Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Credit Agricole and now the Bank of Scotland – had withdrawn their financial support from the Abbot Point coal loader, whose construction may be detrimental to the Great Barrier Reef. The UNESCO World Heritage Commission had warned of the dangers when giving the Australian government a year to act or the reef would lose its world heritage status.

GetUp understandably attributed the rejections to the public campaign, which it said was now being extended to Barclay’s Bank, among others; but a dispassionate observer might consider that cold-hearted economics had something to do with it as well. The world price of coal is now in decline – European prices are the lowest for five years and there is no expectation that the trend will be reversed.

The problem is both over-production, especially from Australia, and lower demand: almost all coal-consuming countries are now trying to cut down on their reliance on the fuel. In China, Australia’s most important market, coal now accounts for 67.5 per cent of all its energy needs – the lowest figure on record. True, China’s imports of coal are still increasing – last year at a healthy (from Abbott’s point of view) 4.7 per cent, but this figure is only half what it was a few years ago.

In China, the pollution problem has now become a serious public health issue, and the country is not alone. In America, Barack Obama is selling his own crackdown on dirty industries not as an attempt to combat climate change – a concept apparently considered beyond the reach of his electorate – but as an attempt to combat chronic lung diseases, increasingly common in many industrialised areas.

In overall terms, coal and oil are still clearly ahead of the rest, but renewables are growing more rapidly than either. Reportedly, Abbott felt constrained to reassure the American president that his resumption of oil price excise indexation was sending the same price signal to consumers as Julia Gillard’s carbon tax. Obama’s response to this preposterous assertion was not recorded.

And at home, of course, even as some of the planned coal expansions, especially in Queensland’s giant Galilee Basin – the ostensible reason for ports such as Abbot Point – are being put on hold, Abbott remains determined to get rid of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The old senate knocked him back twice; now he is counting on the new senate, or more specifically Clive Palmer, to wave it through next month. And why not? After all, his sensitive Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has already pronounced wind farms utterly offensive, a blight on the landscape, obviously preferring the aesthetically pleasing view of a few coalfields.

Abbott claims to be in tune with the thinking of his new soulmate, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, but there is a significant difference. Harper is determined to develop the vast oil sands fields of Alberta, possibly the only fuel source to rival coal as a pollutant; but it could be argued that in his vast, frozen, northern domain with few resources other than rocks and trees and water, he has no real alternative. But in Australia the slavish addiction to fossil fuels is not only short-sighted but positively perverse: no country is better placed to exploit wind and solar power. Yet the intention is apparently to ignore them, if not phase them out altogether.

Abbott still (or rather, for the last couple of years) claims to believe in man-made climate change and to want to do something about it – as long, of course, as it does not affect the economy in any way at all, and that means the coal industry in particular. He will politely ask the big polluters if there is anything at all they can do to clean up their act, and if they manage to do so, he will reward them. If they don’t, or just tell him to piss off, well, that’s their right.

But not all his troops are quite so gung-ho. Last week the environment minister, Greg Hunt, deferred approval for the giant Galilee Basin Carmichael Mine, owned by the Adani Corporation, the people behind Abbot Point. It’s only a deferral, and with unrelenting pressure from Abbott and from Queensland’s single-minded premier Campbell Newman, Hunt will probably end up signing on the dotted line. But the longer it drags on, the more likely it is that not just public pressure but more importantly economic reality will catch up with the project, and many others like it.

Our ambassador for coal may suddenly find himself representing not just a fossil, but one of value only to collectors of memorabilia. Not much to yee ha about in that.

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  1. ooook, Mungo–you get up, turn on the electric computer, open the electric refrigerator, maybe flick on an electric light bulb or two. And that’s just the start of the day… after all’s said, in the real world, Far Left hot air just ain’t gonna keep them power generators rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.

  2. Steven Frank, maybe Mungo has Solar Power. Good article Mungo. Abbott always gets it a bit wrong, I saw it on Insiders, he actually says : ‘ Yee How ‘.

  3. To be fair Steven, none of that means we can’t use other sources of power to run the fridge, lights etc.
    Geothermal for a start. Enough of your right wing conservative mumbo jumbo.
    Good article Mungo. I know you don’t feel guilty when you open the fridge. It’s all about considering alternatives.

  4. Why don’t you go solar mate you might even make a quid, you could even save a few people from getting black lung.

    • Steven,
      at present our pollies in power seem hell-bent on going Future-to-the Back. This is even worse than the H (cough splutter) years, when we only looked back to Menzies…

      Australia is in a unique position: We have resources, We have abundant natural energy (as in Hot Rock, Solar, Wind) & we are close to SE Asia. My feeling is that we should quickly move away from Fossil fuels, & use those resources for more important uses. We also could supply Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore with cheap natural energy if we set up solar power stations in the North. There is also the possibility of using natural energy to smelt our minerals, so we exported value-added raw materials instead of our current dig-it-up & send-it-overseas mentality.
      The Fuel Tax offset for Primary production was put in place many aeons ago togive Australian manufacturers access to cheap raw materials so they could manufacture goods then export some of the production. Unfortunately, with the downturn in manufacturing in Australia, there is not as much need for these cheap raw materials now, so in effect we are subsidising the Mining industry by allowing them to claim a tax deduction on the fuel excise. If we lose the Mining Tax, the miners should lose the Fuel tax subsidy. (Agriculture is different: they need the fuel subsidy to survive, & much of the produced food is consumed in Australia)
      If we had a sensible Government, that government would embrace alternative energy sources, & look for ways to assist Australian Industry & consumers to move to a more eco-friendly consumerism. We are rapidly approaching a time where centralised power generation is uneconomical. A more de-centralised approach would be far more efficient. Instead of having Coal generators in Newcastle for instance, we can have smaller stations scattered around the state, so reducing the Transmission losses (which can approach 30% loss for long haul delivery). There is also economical storage solutions coming: molten salts for solar-thermal for instance, as well as recent developments in battery technology.
      There have already been studies done by various universities that found that with existing technology Australia could be 100% renewable for electricity generation with no change in lifestyle. Put this against the pie-in-the-sky Clean Coal technology that has yet to be proven, & will make coal generation less efficient, so Coal fired power will be much more expensive than Other natural forms of energy.
      In the future (I think possibly in the next 5-10 years) we will have farming equipment that is solar powered. It makes a lot of sense. Battery technology is improving very quickly, so either there will be a possibility of recharging by changing electrolyte, or having fast-charge stations that have stored power that will charge equipment rapidly. Put this with GPS robotic control &you have agricultural machinery that operates itself, charges itself & can operate quietly (because of electric power) 24H/day. This is also applicable to the Mining industry.
      Transport is another area where improved battery technology will have a major effect. Once we have a car that can go 250Kms on a charge, & recharging stations easily accessible & fast, Transportation will move away from fossil Based fuel sources.

      So, Steven perhaps it is time to face reality & embrace Alternative fuel sources for the sake of the planet. This is not a Greenie/Leftie sentiment, it is reality. The faster we embrace this reality, the more ahead of the pack we will be. If we continue the current thinking of Future-to-the-Back (a pun on that film), we could very quickly be left behind & could become another 3rd world country, with little future for our Children or grandchildren.

      So please think of the opportunities. Otherwise we may go the way of the Dinosaurs.

      regards Doug

      • Doug, Thank you for saying what I could not so eloquently put into words. Absolutely wonderful to read what you have said.


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