Action to rein in runaway climate change took a battering in the past couple of weeks. On top of the meaningless APEC "aspirational goals" statement touted by Prime Minister John Howard, the New South Wales Government approved one of the state's biggest coalmines.
Every year, this one coalmine at Moolarben in the Upper Hunter will boost Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by more than 5 per cent.
Burning and mining coal already causes 40 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, so governments can't be taken seriously on climate change if they don't have a plan to phase out the coal industry.
With 22 proposals before the NSW government for new coalmines or extensions to mines, Premier Morris Iemma's climate change credentials are under the spotlight.
Under the 10-year reign of his predecessor, the so-called "green" premier Bob Carr, productivity in the coal industry jumped 48 per cent and NSW coal exports soared 33 per cent, to the point where Newcastle is now the world's biggest coal port. The Labor Government, with the support of the Coalition opposition, have encouraged and supported this coal boom at every turn.
NSW Labor is not alone. Amid rising coal prices, no government anywhere in Australia has been willing to knock back a coal company wanting a new mine, a new coal loader and a bit of rail and road infrastructure on the side.
This open-slather approach has massively increased Australia's annual greenhouse gas emissions. In the 2005-06 financial year, 161 million tonnes of coal mined in NSW for export and domestic use produced 386 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Even a canny politician like Carr would have difficulty keeping up the charade of climate change concern in the face of this boost to coal production and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the politicians are still in lock step with the coal industry, public opinion is shifting.
Recently in the Upper Hunter town of Scone, a public meeting on coal and climate change attracted 400 people. A meeting on the same theme, held in Marrickville in the lead up to the March 2007 election, had similar numbers. As the number of proposed new coalmines in the Hunter area climbs, many locals are reassessing their support for the industry, while city types are starting to note the hypocrisy of Labor’s climate change speak.
Some workers in the industry are also voicing concerns. Although the miners' union understandably continues to back the expansion of the coal industry, a number of individual miners and retired miners are now linking up with the Greens and environment groups. Many of them only work in the coal industry as they see no other options. Witnessing environmental damage on a daily basis, they understand that climate change is real and they hope coal is not part of their children's future.
As details of each new mine proposal are made public, opponents of coal industry expansion gain new allies. Winegrowers and horse breeders in the Upper Hunter have voiced their opposition to mine expansion. On the Liverpool Plain, farmers have stopped BHP Billiton exploring for coal on their properties.
The Hunter Valley Research Foundation has found that more than 80 per cent of the people surveyed say climate change will affect their lives. When asked about the benefits of the coal industry to the region, opinion was more divided: 40 per cent were convinced the negative side of coal operations outweighed any benefits, while about 40 per cent believe the opposite.
Not too long ago, support for the coal industry would have been near-universal. Now the word is out that coal is bad news for the environment and the economy. Labor and the Coalition parties cannot be credible in fighting climate change unless and until they come up with a plan to phase out coal.
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