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Australian Coal Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about Australian coal and its impacts. If you have suggestions for more questions we could answer, please email [email protected].

Research from Climate Analytics published in 2019 found that, when accounting for the coal and gas that Australia exports, Australia is responsible for about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This carbon footprint is equivalent to the total emissions of Russia, which is ranked the fifth biggest CO2 emitter globally.

Australia’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions means we have both a responsibility and opportunity to make a big difference by keeping our coal and gas in the ground.

Analysis prepared by researchers at the University College London and published in academic journal Nature in 2021 shows that 95% of known Australian coal reserves must stay in the ground for a 50% chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to safer levels of 1.5°C.

A few degrees of warming is incredibly significant. This resource from the Climate Council shows the difference in impacts at 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. While 1.5°C will be tough, 2°C is significantly worse on all measures. 

The impacts that we are experiencing now at around a 1.1°C rise in average temperature are forerunners of rapidly escalating risks as global temperatures rise towards 2°C and beyond. Time is rapidly running out for humanity to avoid the extremely serious risks of a 2°C or warmer world.

Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can prevent will protect lives and livelihoods for generations to come. That’s why it’s so important we keep Australia’s coal in the ground.

Australia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change. The Paris Agreement's long-term temperature goal is to keep the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 °C  above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5 °C.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, the International Energy Agency has said that there can be no new coal, oil, or gas development from 2021. This means the 69 new coal projects in the pipeline for Australia must be cancelled.

The Paris Agreement also requires wealthy OECD countries like Australia to phase out existing coal by 2030, and 2040 for the rest of the world.

Australia and Indonesia are the world’s largest exporters of coal. In 2020, Australia exported 390 million tonnes of coal. When burned, coal exported from Australia is responsible for 1 billion tonnes of carbon pollution annually. 

Export coal is Australia’s single biggest contribution to the global climate crisis. The greenhouse gas emissions from coal that is mined in Australia and burned overseas are nearly double Australia’s domestic emissions from other sources, including transport, electricity generation, and agriculture.

In 2019, Australia exported the highest volume of coal in history at 580 million tonnes. In 2030, the Australian government projects that we will export just one tonne less – 579 million tonnes. This would fly in the face of global efforts to phase out coal in OECD countries by 2030.

Australia mines  two main types of black coal products; metallurgical coal and thermal coal. Metallurgical coal (also called met coal or coking coal) is mostly used for steel making and other industrial processes. Thermal coal (also called steaming coal) is used for electricity production.

For the latest figures see here

According to the International Energy Agency, Australia has more new coal projects for export in the pipeline than anywhere else in the world –  accounting for 41% of advanced projects globally. 

For a chance at limiting global warming to 1.5 °C, all of these proposed coal projects must be cancelled immediately.

See here for the latest number of new coal projects across NSW and QLD. These include some entirely new coal mines, and many expansions of existing coal mines

Australia exports most of its coal to Japan,South Korea, Taiwan,and India. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have all committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions  by 2050. Both Japan and South Korea  are seeking to reduce the use of coal through a combination of phasing out and decommissioning coal-fired power generation plants, improving plant efficiency and restricting capacity growth.

Until recently, China was Australia’s biggest coal customer. However, in 2020 China implemented a ban on imports of Australian coal after then Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the initial coronavirus outbreak in China.

India is the second largest importer of coal in the world after China, and in 2021, 80% of their coal imports came from Australia. India is currently facing an energy crisis, however, their long term goal is to become less reliant on imports and boost domestic production to meet their energy needs.

88% of the black coal currently mined in Australia is exported overseas, not burned for electricity in Australia. In fact, all of Australia’s new proposed coal projects will be for export, not for domestic power generation.

Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest continents on Earth, and many states are well on their way to running off 100% clean, cheap, renewable energy. Since 2020, 100% of the ACT’s power has come from renewable sources;Tasmania met its 100% renewable energy goal two  years ahead of schedule; South Australia turned off its last coal power generator in 2016 and is aiming for 100% renewable power before 2030; and now Queensland has pledged to end its reliance on coal power by 2035.

Coal can broadly be divided into two categories - thermal coal, which is used to generate electricity, and metallurgical coal (also referred to as coking coal), used in steel production. 

The iron and steel industry produces more carbon pollution than any other heavy industry -  it’s responsible for up to 11% of all global carbon dioxide emissions. [1] The main reason conventional steelmaking is so polluting is that it requires a lot of coal. 

Coal plays a couple of roles in conventional steel making - it provides heat for the furnaces, and also provides an essential ingredient for the chemical reaction that produces steel.  Without getting too technical, metallurgical coal is reduced to a carbon-dense substance called coke. When that coke is put in a blast furnace with iron ore, it acts as a ‘reducing agent’ that removes oxygen from iron ore to leave pure iron, the main ingredient in steel.

The good news? It is now possible to create low-emissions ‘green steel’ using processes that don't require any metallurgical coal. Heating can now be provided by renewable energy like solar and wind instead of coal. And new steelmaking processes such as Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) allow hydrogen made with renewable energy to act as a reducing agent, instead of coal. [2] 

These low-emissions steelmaking technologies are proven and being used today. Many major steel companies are already seeking to reduce their use of coal or completely replace it with renewable energy. [3] As these 'green steel' technologies develop and get cheaper, they will have a significant impact on demand for metallurgical coal. [4]

The transition to green steel will take time. It will require support from both government and the private sector to accelerate the production of hydrogen and cheap renewable energy, fund research and development and train-up and re-skill workers. But it’s entirely possible to decarbonise steel production and reduce our reliance on coal in the process.

[1] Pedal to the Metal - No time to delay decarbonizing the global steel sector, Global Energy Monitor, 2021

[2] Solving Iron Ore Quality Issues for Low-Carbon Steel Technology Solutions Are Under Development, IEEFA, August 2022

[3] The end of an era: how the global steel industry is cutting out coal, The Narwhal, May 2021

[4] Technology developments starting to challenge the long-term future of Australia’s metallurgical coal, IEEFA, August 2022

Eight year behind schedule, and billions of dollars in debt, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine is operating, but not as planned. 

In 2022, Wangan and Jagalingou Cultural Custodians  marked a year standing their ground at Waddananggu (‘the talking’) – an ongoing ceremony and sovereignty camp on their ancestral lands next to Adani’s mine. Custodians maintain that Adani does not have free, prior, and informed consent for their mine, and have vowed to maintain their presence on Country, asserting their human rights to practice their culture and protect the environment and cultural heritage from destruction by Adani. You can find out more about their fight here. 

In 2010, Adani spent billions buying the Carmichael mining rights and the coal port at Abbot Point. It planned to open Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in 2014 and a coal port on the Great Barrier Reef. But it didn’t count on Australia’s biggest ever social movement rising to take them on. In 2021, Adani began mining some coal at the Carmichael mine, but there’s a big difference between what Adani planned and what it has now. 

Over 110 major companies have refused to work on Adani’s mine, including over 40 insurance companies. Adani haven’t been able to find a single bank willing to provide direct finance to the project, forcing Adani to prop it up themselves through inter-company loans. Adani’s mine is being run by second-rate contractors who have never run a project like this before, and workers are complaining of blatant safety oversights, mistreatment and terrible management. Adani are struggling to find insurance coverage - further raising the risks of the project.Read more about Adani’s failed plans here.

Although Labor’s Climate Bill is indeed historic – it being the first federal climate legislation to pass in a decade – more still needs to be done to meet the scale of the climate crisis. The Bill doesn’t prevent the development of new coal and gas projects, and doesn’t include a mechanism or funding to cut emissions from electricity, industry, transport, agriculture or other parts of the economy. According to the Climate Council, “This bill alone doesn’t cut emissions and must be backed up with action.”

As of September 2022, the federal government is currently considering 29 applications for new coal mines and expansions.

In 2022, for the first time in Australia’s history, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek proposed to reject a coal mine. Minister Plibersek proposed to reject Clive Palmer's Central Queensland Coal Project on the grounds it is likely to damage the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s important to note that no coal mine has ever been rejected on grounds that it will cause damage to the climate, despite coal being Australia’s top contribution to the climate crisis, and  the State of the Environment report finding that climate change threatens every ecosystem in Australia.

When the federal government assesses and approves coal mines, climate impacts aren’t considered. This is because it is not required under Australia’s environmental law -  the ‘‘Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999’ (EPBC Act) -  which was made more than two decades ago. Despite this, many organisations and The Greens are working to change the Act to include a ‘climate trigger’ which would see Australia take some responsibility for our country’s major contribution to the global climate crisis through the mining and exporting of coal and gas.

As defined by the World Bank, state capture refers to “the exercise of power by private actors — through control over resources, threat of violence, or other forms of influence — to shape policies or implementation in service of their narrow interests”. State capture is used by many different industries, and one of the worst examples in Australia is the fossil fuel industry. This has come as a result of the mining lobby pouring millions of dollars into the media and politics, creating a narrative that Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels and insinuating the mining workforce is bigger than it actually is.

According to the Australia Institute, the mining lobby and fossil fuel industry has a ‘stranglehold on our climate policies and rob us of our democratic right to have leadership to protect our country’. 

In the 2021 financial year, fossil fuel companies gave over  $1m in political donations to the three major parties, according to data from the Australian Electoral Commission. Among the top 10 donors with interests in coal mining include the Minerals Council of Australia ($200,783) , The Trustee for St Baker Family Trust($165,202) and COAL21 ($114,500).

Coal mining companies pay low rates of tax, and many utilise accounting tricks to minimise the tax they’re required to pay. As a consequence of this, some of the biggest coal corporations pay $0 in tax at all! Check out this analysis from Market Forces.

Fossil fuel corporations cost Australians a staggering $11.6 billion in the 2021-22 financial year according to new Australia Institute research. Fossil fuel companies pay $4 billion in royalties, and therefore these corporations are pocketing more than DOUBLE in subsidies than what they pay to the state and federal governments in royalties. 

In the 2020-21 financial year, the coal industry employed 37,335, which makes up roughly 1% of the Australian population. For context, McDonalds employs more Australians than the coal industry.

First Nations rights are integral for achieving climate justice. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time, but it’s also an opportunity to create a more sustainable, inclusive and just world. Aboriginal peoples have cared for Country for tens of thousands of years, and they continue to lead fights to protect land, water and cultural heritage from destructive mining projects today. First Nations people know what's best for their land and communities, and they must be free to decide which projects to pursue, and how best to protect their Country and sacred sites for generations to come.

Right now, mining corporations are able to destroy sacred sites without permission from Traditional Owners. This is a national problem, with multiple instances occurring in recent years, including Rio Tinto’s appalling destruction of 46, 000 year old heritage site at Juukan Gorge in WA.

The devastating destruction of First Nations cultural heritage comes as a result of weak state and federal Aboriginal Heritage and Native Title Acts that fail to give traditional owners a right to appeal and are carefully crafted to favour development interests. Find out more info here.

The Native Title Act contains no right of veto for First Nations people when mining companies intend to mine on Aboriginal land. This has meant that Traditional Owners have to enter into negotiations in order to get the best possible outcome . First Nations people are calling for ‘veto rights’ as a way to protect their country and remove the power of the government to overrule the wishes of Aboriginal communities.

Workers in affected industries are calling for a job guarantee to ensure they can move to jobs in new industries. Government must ensure these are good, secure union jobs, located in coal-producing areas. This means building more diversified local economies, with jobs in renewable energy, mine rehabilitation, better emergency response, health care, transport infrastructure, and more.

What’s more, the coal industry cannot be allowed to abandon workers and communities when projects fail or close. Instead, coal corporations must contribute some of their billion-dollar profits towards the cost of these programs. Many of these corporations have avoided paying their fair share of taxes for years, while pocketing billions in government subsidies. It's time for them to give back.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is calling on the Albanese Government to establish a National Energy Transition Authority, which would be tasked with managing an orderly and fair transition process for affected workers – including support for redeployment, skills and training, and secure jobs opportunities.

According to the report, ‘Secure Jobs for a Safer Climate’, Australia’s energy transition has been chaotic to date – when coal power stations have closed, workers and communities have been left devastated.  Yet, with proper government support, affected workers could be the first in line to benefit from Australia’s transition to renewable energy, and the secure, well-paid jobs it brings.

Nuclear reactors are not a viable solution for Australia’s energy needs, instead, Nuclear is a distraction from real action on the climate crisis and phasing out coal by 2030 in line with the climate science. This is because:

Nuclear will take too long to build

  • Experts say it could take 25 years to build nuclear reactors in Australia. This will mean no reduction in climate pollution in this crucial decade.

  • There is a ban on nuclear reactors and the federal level and there are state bans in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. The time frame to lift the bans federally and in each state, and set up a regulatory system for nuclear reactors means reactors will not reduce climate pollution this decade.

  • Former Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel: “By time you change the legislation, start investing, building the workforce, find the right nuclear technology, go through all the regulatory hurdles that will be required for both environmental considerations and social licence, it’s hard to see any nuclear in Australia in, say, less than 20 years.

Nuclear will cost too much

  • These are four major latest-generation reactors completed or near completion in Finland, the United States, the United Kingdom and France: Olkiluoto 3, Flamanville 3, Hinkley Point C, and Vogtle. Cost overruns at these recent reactors average over 300%, with more increases to come.

There is no long term solution for nuclear reactive waste

  • First Nations communities, particularly in remote areas, have borne the brunt of the harm caused by nuclear activities in Australia. First Nations communities continue to protest and take legal action against radioactive waste burial on country. There are communities who are still unable to access their land due to radioactive waste.

  • In 2019 Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan said that as the resources minister he struggled to find a home for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the sole nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney's south-west that is used for the production of nuclear medicine. He said, “Obviously, if we can't find a long-term solution for that level of waste it's pretty hard to fathom that we could go beyond that for the production of nuclear energy that does produce a larger amount and more waste of a higher category to manage."



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