Coal’s just getting in the way of a better future

In Australia the debate over climate policy is fractious. As is the case in the US, the conservative side of politics here realised political mileage could be gained from opposing climate action and renewables and backing coal and gas.

63% of Australia’s electricity generation is from coal and in 2015 the country was the second largest exporter of thermal coal. Coal companies have a lot of sway in the halls of Parliament House, particularly with the pro-business conservative Coalition government. Even the previous centre left Labor government discovered the power of mining companies in Australia after they launched fierce and effective media campaigns in opposition to the Labor government’s mining tax and a price on carbon emissions in the past 5 years.

So when it comes to climate action in Australia the market rules. Which is to say that the business interests of incumbent coal companies have equal, if not greater, weight than those of climate science. Government’s of either stripe are reluctant to intervene too much in the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Contrast this with China where the cities are scrambling to meet clean air targets for the end of the year imposed by the government with all kinds of direct interventions into energy and manufacturing markets. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Steel production has been halved in major steel cities, coal banned in China’s coal capital, factories closed down for failing pollution inspections, and hundreds of officials sacked for failing to meet environmental targets.

Reduced steel production has had impacts on world markets and businesses inside and outside China have complained. This is where the difference between China and Australia emerges.

Unlike what happens when polluting industries push back against government policy in Australia and the US, they have been given short shrift by China’s Ministry for Environment Protection.

Director of environmental impact assessment for the ministry, Cui Shuhong, is even quoted by the SMH as saying that polluting companies “disrupt the market order”. This is a far cry from Australia where the government may be on the verge of rejecting a clean energy target proposed by an independent review and supported by the opposition, industry, and environmentalists.

To be fair, the interventions in China are short-term (around 5 months in length) and enforced due to public pressure to improve air quality in cities blighted by smog but the actions and the language around them represent a move away from fossil fuels and in support of renewables globally that will only grow.

More than this, they offer a vision of the way that powerful, incumbent industries can be challenged by governments. Not just when these industries threaten public health and the climate but when embracing innovative alternatives, like renewable energy, provides opportunities for economic growth and employment whilst improving environmental and social well being.


Photo at top: erhard.renz, Flickr


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