Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia

23 April 2021

Even if the Carmichael mine is certain to go ahead, it is still not too late for Australia to change course and abandon its destructive use of coal, Vinod Thomas and Chitranjali Tiwari write.

After all that Australia has been through from extreme effects of climate change, it is incomprehensible that the government has approved Indian conglomerate Adani’s $16.5 billion dollars Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. At capacity, the mine is expected to add a massive 55 million tonnes of coal a year to Australia’s total coal output.

This is bad news for health, the environment, and global warming. Global warming has dramatically raised the risk of the hot, dry weather associated with Australia’s bushfires — by at least 30 per cent. Carbon emissions, the chief culprit in global warming, are now 36 billion tonnes a year worldwide, and nearly 40 per cent of that comes from coal.

Of the close to eight billion tonnes of coal produced globally in 2019, a sixth is exported, the largest share of which – roughly a third – comes from Australia. In this context, Carmichael mine is making an already precarious situation worse.

The rather dreadful irony of the Carmichael mine is that it will become viable only through costly and environmentally destructive government subsidies. Because of declining coal prices, the true financial picture for the Adani enterprise is bleak.

Likely the special conditions of this deal will leave Bravus Mining & Resources (formerly known as Adani Australia) with a profit, and 17 international banks have declined to fund the Carmichael mine based on its weak financials and grave concerns over its environmental impact.

A report by the Australia Institute points out that the spill over harm from coal extraction and combustion is not included in the true cost of coal projects. A main form of this cost is in carbon emissions. For instance, annual emissions of 79 million tonnes of carbon equivalent from this project alone will be higher than Sri Lanka’s entire annual emissions, which amount to 57 million tonnes.

More on this: Recharging Australia’s energy future

The Carmichael mine will also lead to nine additional coalmines being opened up in the Galilee Basin, which would cumulatively emit an estimated 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year — more than 1.3 times Australia’s current emissions.

The financial cost of coal’s damage to the health of Australians is estimated at $2.6 billion per year. For example, annual health damage from coal-fired power stations in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales carry an estimated public cost of $600 million a year. Carbon is not even the only serious environmental risk of coalmines like this. Thermal coal from the Carmichael mine will have to be washed because of its high ash content, and massive amounts of water will be required for the mine.

Western Queensland being adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, dredging activities to expand port capacity also present major risks. Along with carbon being pumped into the atmosphere, coal dust and fragments will end up in the water near the reef from stockpiles and conveyors. All this threatens further an already fragile ecosystem.

Yes, Australia will benefit from local job creation associated with mining and exporting coal, but by how much is disputed. A land court in Australia found that Adani had ‘routinely overstated’ the mine’s employment benefit, which will be just over a thousand full-time positions in Queensland.

While coal mining contributes to employment and output in Australia’s economy, the destruction from pollution, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss mean the net effect of continuing to embrace coalmines is strongly and decidedly negative.

Following deadly heatwaves, bushfires, and flooding that can be linked to climate change, it seems incredible that the government, in approving the Carmichael mine, is comfortable inflicting so much harm on the environment and public health in such delicate circumstances.

Australia, on its own, cannot change the global course of climate change, but it is a big player, ranking sixth in per capita emissions and 12th in total emissions among 221 countries and must be a prominent part of the solution. Even after this deal to mine and trade has been approved, the government can and should stop all other future coalmines, and finally act on the realisation that the best place for coal is underground.

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