Opinion: The right side of history? Labor's noble climate talk lost in coal smoke


As published in the Sydney Morning Herald 30th August 2019

Labor is all over the shop on climate change. This week its national president, Wayne Swan, is preaching that the party must stay on "the right side of history" and stick to ambitious carbon targets. He speaks out even as Labor's Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, expresses pride in coal exports. 

The right side of history? Labor will not stop new coal mines. 

And even as Swan says Labor must risk an unpopular policy, he defends Senator Penny Wong's response to pleas from Pacific Island nations: No, she told them, an ALP federal government would not ban new coal mines. 

"Coal is not the only issue in town," Swan told ABC radio on Thursday. While we did need a rapid transition from fossil fuels, he said: "The truth is Australia produces about 4 per cent of the world's thermal coal. If we're going to reduce emissions in Australia, 19 per cent of our emissions come out of the transport sector." 

Talking down the impact of Australia's coal will not put Labor on the right side of history. Australia's domestic and export fossil fuel emissions now account for 5 per cent of global emissions but current coal, gas and oil developments could increase that to 12 to 17 per cent by 2030, according to study by Climate Analytics

An Australia Institute study indicates the climate impact of Australia's fossil fuel exports ranks behind only those of Russia and Saudi Arabia. 

Our choice is stark. To continue, along with the US and a few other recalcitrant nations, makes not only the disaster of a 2-degree-warmer world certain but a catastrophic 4-degree-warmer planet likely, based on mounting evidence collated in a paper by Breakthrough - National Centre for Climate Restoration Policy. In effect, Labor now supports the government on a policy that invites such a catastrophe. 

The structural, health and food-producing impacts of this climate emergency will devastate economies. Major companies such as BHP have acknowledged that climate change is an existential risk to the planet. If they don't cut their dependence on fossil fuels, they will sink with the ship. 

In its federal election platform, Labor proposed comprehensive reforms including a National Sustainability Commission to determine policy based on science, and a National Environmental Protection Agency to deliver decisions nationally, though the former was dumped before the election. Now, licking its wounds after its defeat, Labor is reviewing its policies - and the signs aren't good. 

Doctors for the Environment Australia has analysed current fossil fuel developments in Australia and their impact on the fragile sustainability of rural lands. 

In Queensland, the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment has reported on the groundwater resources of the Surat and southern Bowen Basins which support extensive coal and gas mining in a region bounded by Toowoomba, St George, Emerald, Cracow and Kingaroy. Current water extraction for 6000 coal seam gas wells is about60,000 megalitres a year. To give that some scale, all other use of precious water by industry, agriculture and humans in this region is 164,000ML a year. Some aquifers connect with water in the Great Artesian Basin, which is being used without metering. Water tables are being lowered in some instances and many water bores are failing. 

Other industrial water usage in the region includes five operational and six proposed coal mines. The Acland New Hope mine was subject to a Queensland Land Court judgment on water and health issues so damning that it is difficult to understand why this mine is allowed to continue. The number of coal seam gas wells is projected to triple, supported by the Queensland government. 

Pre-election, the Morrison government acceded to community demands that any decision on exploiting oil in the Great Australian Bight would be independently reviewed. In this review by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, the government excluded economic and health impacts of a spill on local communities. 

Perhaps industry will move ahead of government to protect our future. The explorer in the Bight is Equinor, a Norwegian-owned company that is increasing its investment in Australian renewable energy. It will be aware of the Norwegian Sovereign Fund's decision to divest from fossil fuels and of Australian community representations to the Norwegian Parliament. Might a decision by Equinor to abandon drilling become a turning point. 

And, of course, BHP has indicated its determination to be, as Swan puts, "on the right side of history". Swan can talk that talk, but Labor needs to start walking on the right side of the line, and trust that voters will walk with them.

 


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