Skip to content

Australia’s ‘Green’ Government Expands Coal Rush

Environmental activists are attacking a $60 billion deal that will keep Chinese power stations supplied with Australian coal for at least the next two decades.

Under the agreement announced last week, the Australian coal and iron ore mining company Resourcehouse will build a new mining complex to give China Power International Development 30 million tonnes of coal annually for the next two decades. Resourcehouse Chairman Clive Palmer called it the “biggest-ever export contract” for Australia, which is the world’s leading exporter of coal.

But in supplying China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, green groups are accusing Australia of ignoring the role it plays in maintaining dirty energy economies around the world.

“It is hypocritical for Australia to on the one hand blame China for climate change and on the other hand try so hard to sell more coal to China,” said Ailun Yang of Greenpeace China. The deal, she said, “will only lock China further up in its unhealthy dependency on coal.”

Bradley Smith, spokesman for Friends of the Earth in Queensland, Australia, said it “drives another nail into the coffin of climate change. If the project goes ahead, then emissions from the exported coal would equal 20 percent of Australia’s total domestic emissions.”

The tensions come on the heels of last year’s climate change summit in Copenhagen. There, President Obama and the leaders of other industrialized nations like Australia successfully pushed China and other fast-growing developing nations to scale back the growth of carbon emissions. While the pledges are voluntary, U.S. leaders have described them as an important step in persuading all the major economies to take responsibility for their role in causing global warming.

The start of a continuing expansion of coal trade?

Activists say the deal raises fresh questions about what countries are most liable for global warming pollution. Economists, meanwhile, point out that the Australia-China agreement signals an expansion of the coal trade that will likely increase in coming years without an international carbon regime to regulate it.

“Production is going to flow, where there is no restriction for using coal,” said Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. With industrialized nations like Australia under pressure to go green, Carl said they likely “will export reserves that they may politically not be able to use at home.”

Attributing carbon emissions to a particular country is fairly straightforward. By all internationally accepted measures, countries “own” the greenhouse gases produced within their borders. Politically, though, the calculations are a lot trickier.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, Chinese leaders argued that since 30 percent of the country’s emissions are created by manufacturing and exporting goods to the West, industrialized nations should take responsibility for that portion of China’s carbon footprint. It’s an argument that didn’t fly with climate negotiators from industrialized nations, but resonated widely in the environmental community.

Australia, meanwhile, emits about 544 million short tons (493.5 million tonnes) of CO2 annually. But activists say the country’s greenhouse gas output doubles when overseas fossil fuel exports are factored in.

Full story