09 January 2012

Australian coal’s expansion plans make a mockery of government’s carbon tax claims

David Spratt

The expansion of Australian coal mining will add about 1.75Gt (gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere – about 11 times what the Australian government estimates will be saved by the carbon tax legislation that recently passed Parliament.

That’s Guy Pearse speaking at Woodford on 31 December.   He says that even the emissions from smaller players have a staggering impact, for example:
  • the annual emissions from Aston/Whitehaven’s new mines, or of QCoal's mines will each be greater than all the CO2 saved by all the hybrid cars ever sold world-wide;
  • The new mines of the relatively small Jellinbah Coal add nearly 100 times as much CO2 as is saved by all he household solar panel installations in Australia.
As Padding Manning reported in the Fairfax business press on 21 November, the coal industry is hoping to double or triple export volumes in the next five to 10 years, to as much as 1 billion tonnes a year, up from about 300 million tonnes this year:
The accumulated emissions of those coal exports, over a mine life of 30 years, would be roughly 20 gigatonnes,assuming the carbon content of coal is 70 per cent.

Using the carbon budget approach advocated by our Climate Commission, says Climate Code Red co-author David Spratt, the world's total emissions must be no more than 175 billion tonnes between 2012 and 2050, if we are to keep warming to 2 degrees.

It is hard to imagine little Australia will get to chew up 11 per cent of the whole world's carbon budget for the next four decades, so it can increase coal exports. ''We have a choice between a billion tonnes of year of coal exports, or a climate with the food and water security fit for the worlds people,'' says Spratt. ''We can have one or the other, but not both.’’
Those were back of the envelope figures I did in hurry, and now Pearse has provided a lot more analysis, and included gas exports, to come up with a  similar figure of 1/8th of the global carbon budget, of around 12%.

Pearse’s speech is available here. In a note to his e-list, Pearse says:
I gave a talk at Woodford last Saturday that may be of interest. It focussed on the ever increasing scale of the coal boom in Australia, the key players and the emissions implications.

I had not previously seen someone tally the mine production and life of mine data to enable an assessment of the cumulative Gt CO2 likely to come from Australia’s coal industry by 2050. Having done so, albeit a little roughly, I estimate that Australian coal exports will generate around 75Gt CO2 between now and 2050 – perhaps another 5Gt will come from domestic coal use, and 8-10 Gt from LNG if the expansion of coal seam gas proceeds. In rough terms, between now and 2050, Australian fossil fuel could account for about 1/8th of the remaining carbon budget for 2 degrees C. This highlights the global significance of the coal boom now unfolding in Australia. I have also tried to break the Australian coal rush down to explain the CO2 emissions company by company in terms more readily understandable for the general public. So, for example:
  • The proposed GVK/Hancock mines in the Galilee Basin are equivalent to a 6% increase in the global car fleet (another 63 million cars);
  • the Waratah mines (excluding Carmichael East -- yet to be quantified) are like increasing international aviation by 1/3rd;
  • the new Xstrata mines are like doubling Australia’s coal fired power stations;
  • the Adani mine (just one project) is like doubling Queensland’s emissions;
  • the proposed Mejin mine is like doubling the emissions of 60 small countries;
  • the new Peabody mines in Australia almost equate to adding the CO2 emissions of Pakistan, 
  • the Bandanna mines are like doubling Australia’s agricultural emissions.
Even the emissions from smaller players have a staggering impactor example:
  • the annual emissions from Aston/Whitehaven’s new mines, or of QCoal's mines will each be greater than all the CO2 saved by all the hybrid cars ever sold world-wide;
  • The new mines of the relatively small Jellinbah Coal add nearly 100 times as much CO2 as is saved by all he household solar panel installations in Australia.
Tallied up, the new/expanded coal mines in Australia add about 1.75Gt of CO2 annually – about 11 times what the Australian government estimates will be saved by the carbon tax legislation that recently passed Parliament. By 2020 or soon thereafter, Australia is exporting nearly twice as much CO2 as is Saudi Arabia today. If these numbers are not already an underestimate, as I believe they probably are, they will soon be. New mines are being announced ever month or two—quickly rendering CO2 calculations redundant 
Needless to say, it’s hard to see how this sort of expansion in coal production is consistent with any effective global climate change response. 
That is a beautiful understatement. When the government's carbon tax draft legislation was released in mid-2100 we said that it was a compromise between players with different, and often opposing interests, and is far from being as ambitious and science-driven as the community climate action movement understands is necessary.
Statements from the prime minister that Australia's coal industry will continue to expand are frightening and suggest that some in the Labor government have chosen not to understand the depth and urgency of the climate change challenge. Real action on climate means winding down coal exports, and ensuring that no new coal mines are opened.
A large gap remains between political will and the scientific realities, and the scheme's targets must be lifted over time, together with an industry plan for skills, jobs and investment to build the clean, renewable energy economy. The national carbon reduction targets must rise rapidly, so as to respond appropriately and urgently to what the climate science is telling us.


  1. Abbott's pessimism about the carbon tax (emission trading) has taken people's focus off the big picture. If you want a reasonable outcome, invent this:

    1. Australia earns foreign exchange by exporting coal.
    2. Australian farmers grow energy crops that collect CO2 from the atmosphere. (emitted by o/s power stations that burn Australian coal.)
    3. The Australian energy industry separates the CO2 from these energy crops, stores it in depleted gas fields, and generates clean energy with the hydrogen that remains.
    4. Australia (farmers and energy industry) earn foreign exchange in Carbon Credits -for collecting and storing this CO2- from the o/s power station operators that burn Australian coal.

    1. How is this going to be possible in 4 or so years? CCS in particular is a pipe dream, since it is only being used on a very small scale and has not been demonstrated to sequester CO2 for long periods.

    2. Are you saying that it is ok to be the number one supplier of coal to the international market, so long as we "offset" this in some way? It would take alot more "offsetting" than Australia has room for, and to say that farming achieves this is misguided at best. When the crops are harvested, Co2 is released. Prove me wrong! I am serious, prove me wrong, I look forward to rebutting any attempt!
      Striving for immediate gain at the expense of long term wellbeing has long been understood by the wise as a major failing in humans. There is no rational reason why we should continue burning stuff for the generation of energy, other than in an example of this unwise behaviour. Those with vested interests (ie, shares in mining companies in your retirement package = corrupted=vested interest)are drifting further and further away from reality in their transparent greed. What would the world be like if every single person turned on an air-conditioning machine? Is it therefore fair, rational or reasonable for YOU to turn on an air-conditioning machine? No it is not. Climate change is not the only thing you lot are denying. You are denying the rights of all human beings to a sustainable option in your unsupported insistence that you have some "right" to these luxouries.
      "Base load power" is demonstrably (ie, this already has been proven in practice, particularly in scandinavia)acheivable through genuine renewables; Solar photo-voltaic, solar thermal/ parabolic array, wind and tidal energy. This is no longer up for debate, plese stop recycling previously discredited arguments.

  2. David
    I agree completely with what you are saying. It dovetails nicely with the interesting debate started by Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth around the question of Australia's climate credentials. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/18/australian-and-us-coal-exports-and-climate-change/
    Revkin contrasted the Government's self-congratulation over its climate tax-ETS against its coal production-export ambitions. He also cites that talk from Guy Pearse. Among the comments Revkin refers to an interesting response from Carl Pope outgoing president of the Sierra Club http://crocodoc.com/oxdbl2R
    Pope's analysis of the intricacies of the coal market is fascinating and suggests a slightly different reading of current Australian realities. Pope concludes as follows: "Keeping the next wave of coal plants from being built is thus, I would argue, short-term the most urgent thing. But to have a chance to do that the world needs to understand that we now face an informal OCEC (Organization of Coal Exporting Countries); that the price of coal is inextricably linked to the price of the diesel embedded in it; and that cheap, abundant coal is no longer available, except at the mine mouth. They myth of cheap, abundant coal is our biggest enemy -- not the eagerness of the Australians to fill the market with expensive coal which Asia actually can't afford." I'd be interested in your comment if you have time.

  3. Your comment policy seems to reject comments on ideological grounds: obstructing discussion of any solutions regardless of merit that differ from your personal preference.

  4. Doug mentions Australia's climate credentials, which are not looking very good but what about Australia's Human Rights credentials?
    As I see it plans by Australian governments to expand coal exports amount to no less than plans to raise the Earth's temperature by several degrees.
    It has been made abundantly clear that a rise of more than 2 degrees a a global average translates into the disappearance of the low lying island countries and more frighteningly temperature rises of the order of 6 degrees in much of Africa.
    In Africa this will amount to Genocide over a vast area which will dwarf the scale of the Nazi genocide of Gypsies and Jews.
    The solution I suggest is to lay a charge of conspiring to commit genocide at the International Criminal Court www.ictj.org/international against the relevant Australian Commonwealth and State ministers and company CEOs.

  5. I earlier posted a comment about the fact that the article mentions 6 tonnes and the graph shows over 20 tonnes but my confusion was that the 6 tonnes refers to tonnes of CARBON whereas the 20+ figure is tonnes of CARBON DIOXIDE. Mea culpa.

  6. Australian miners must be responsible enough to limit their mining activities to that which cannot harm the environment. Though, mining really causes harm, at least make this limited as possible so they will not contribute much to the earth's damages. mining equipment

  7. It seems the australian coal mining companies do not care how much effort the australian government is spending suppressing excessive carbon emissions and supporting the development of electric car conversion kits for all vehicles. Very disappointing.

  8. Coal mining is indeed a good source of energy, but it’s not environmentally friendly. To lessen air pollution, air quality monitoring services came into the picture. Well good thing these coal mining companies are following and implementing these monitoring services, because if not, the government wouldn’t allow them to operate.

  9. Bad news alert for the australian government. If they can't handle the coal industry, how they can regulate other environment-related issues, like car emissions and non-sustainable living practices?

  10. They should not even try to attempt to initiate this. They have the data that show what it does to our environment. Even if it would generate a lot of income it doesn't matter because the environment is at risk with the expansion.

  11. Upon deciding on this matter they should take in consideration each and every factor that will be affected by this play. Just to make sure that majority will be benefited from it.