October 28, 2021
Scott Morrison has finally announced he was committing Australia to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as he heads off to the international climate summit in Glasgow this week. After some excruciating theatre about what they would ‘extract’ for their support, the Nationals gave net zero their blessing in exchange for another cabinet position. For all their talk about regional jobs it shows whose jobs they really care about.
The net zero commitment doesn’t come as a surprise – the same commitment has already been made by all Australian states, major companies like BHP, business groups like the Business Council of Australia and many of our trading partners. But the hypocrisy and politicking around it has been staggering.
The debate about dealing with the challenge of climate change has deteriorated over the past decade. Coal miners have been treated like political footballs by both extreme ends of politics and people are sick of it. We are sick of it.
Especially frustrating is the ridiculous claim by green activists that to take action on climate change means immediately abandoning all coal production and use. That’s simply not true. But it’s also galling to see so-called advocates for coal – like certain National Party MPs – pretending to support the industry but not offering a single policy that will deliver new mining jobs at the same time as backing mining companies to keep employing workers as casual labour hire.
Our coal industry still has a future – but that future looks different for the export coal sector and the domestic coal power industry.
Twenty-one coal-fired power stations still supply about 60 per cent of Australia’s total energy needs. But regardless of the net zero targets, our members in power stations have seen firsthand that coal power plants have been closing for years, with more closures scheduled in the years ahead.
The National Party, supposed champions of regional Australians, has no track record of going into bat for power station workers affected by these closures. They didn’t lift a finger to support workers who lost their jobs when the Hazelwood power station shut in the Latrobe Valley at short notice in 2017
Coal export is a different story. Coal comes second only to iron ore as our biggest export earner. We produce about 450 million tonnes of black coal annually, and export 90% of it. About 40 per cent of that is metallurgical coal, worth about $33 billion. There is currently no practical and economical alternative for steel-making. The rest is thermal coal for power generation. That’s worth another $24 billion. Prices for both thermal and metallurgical coal are currently booming.
Even as coal use shrinks globally, forecasts have Australia’s share of export trade continuing to grow. Nations that produce lower grade coal, produced inefficiently will leave the market first and we should absolutely make the most of that.
Australia’s export coal industry is currently booming and it will do so while customers keep buying our coal, regardless of our domestic targets. Meanwhile, we do need genuine support for workers and regions affected by structural change in our domestic power industry. What we are getting at the moment is plenty of scare-mongering, plenty of theatre and dress-ups, but no real support for jobs or work rights.
At the end of the day, the Nationals have backed in Scott Morrison’s Net Zero plan for Glasgow. They should own it and instead of worrying only about their own jobs, they should offer real support to coal workers – a first good step would be backing permanent jobs. I’m not holding my breath though.
Tony Maher, General President