Queensland’s regions deserve a stronger pillar than high risk coal

Have you noticed lately how advocates for the coal interest in organisations like the Minerals Council of Australia and the Queensland Resources Council increasingly bemoan the damage being done by ‘radical greens’ to Australian jobs and exports.

It’s a message loudly trumpeted by promoters of the carbon economy, especially some in the Murdoch media.

The aim of the coal campaign is to paint a picture of civil disobedience to lawful authority and radical subversion of mainstream Australia and the prosperity of its citizens.

In the process is spawned a spurious “red herring” argument, namely, that opposition to further coal development is ideological, the ploy of fringe groups with alien values and is therefore illegitimate.

With carbon sequestration and clean coal now seemingly a forlorn and impractical dream, the new offense/defense tack taken up by the coal industry appears to be deny the environmental and health impacts of your product, absolve yourselves of any moral responsibility for existing and future generations by talking about third world energy poverty, rubbish alternative technologies, denigrate your opponents particularly those on the fringe, and talk up the short term economic benefits of opening up more coal mines.

If the vision of the coal mining lobby is realised Queensland will become a carbon pollution superpower exporting many times more greenhouse gas emissions than would be saved domestically either through Labor’s carbon tax or through the LNP’s taxpayer funded “Direct Action” program.

Expansion of the coal industry rests on the assumption that China and India will continue to tolerate pollution at the choking levels being experienced now and that the international community will not agree on action for climate change by cutting fossil fuel emissions.

That seems improbable given that many of the 3.7 million deaths the World Health Organisation says are caused annually from ambient air pollution mostly occur in our priority Asian coal markets.

To assume there will be no significant action by key markets (just when China has declared a “war on pollution”) presents a risky context for continuing business investment in thermal coal exports.

It presents an even bigger risk for the four pillar economic development strategy of Queensland and its regional communities.

By ramping up the coal industry in Queensland, money, infrastructure and skills are being diverted to an industry with which the future will want very little to do.

And while billions might be made in royalties and investment, this windfall pales when compared to the scale of the costs of climate change on the three other pillars of the Queensland economy.

Last week’s Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability has special implications for regional Queensland.

It points to global warming putting the economic security of some of our regional communities in question with particular risks for the agricultural, fishing and tourism sectors.

With so much of Queensland’s regional economy dependent on primary industries and with regional infrastructure and services in constant need of upgrade, people living in regional communities are likely to figure disproportionately among the most vulnerable impacted.

Not only will these communities need to come up with effective adaptation strategies in the decades ahead, to survive many will have to diversify their local economies away from climate exposed sectors – which will not just be coal mining.

The IPCC report points to our farming regions having to grapple with diminishing crop yields and “intensifying competition for water among sectors” – and in regional Queensland that could mean farming versus mining, food versus fibre, or even town versus farm.

In the years ahead these impacts will become evident in altered patterns of farm incomes and spending and likely result in the further industrialisation and corporatisation of agriculture as the only viable way forward.

Climate change will require major upgrades in already efficient farm production and irrigation or in other cases likely shifts in production to new areas as is being proposed for lands adjacent to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

It seems incredible that all these costs and risks to the Queensland community and economy can be put aside in the ‘climate denial’ column and the coal industry can look beyond recent price downturns and think of business as usual forever.

Even if it takes another decade to secure effective international action on reducing carbon emissions, the real threat to the future of coal is not an army of left-wing greenies, latte sipping urban elites, or even those expensive and impractical government programs both sides of politics dream up to pay people not to pollute.

No the ultimate threat to the coal industry is coming from the economic and financial promise of a spectrum of new technologies in fields as diverse as solar energy, distributed smart energy systems and storage, gasification and advanced nuclear, and new materials sciences in automotive and building design.

Does this sound far-fetched? Who thought five years ago that today there would be more than 3GW of installed electricity generation on more than a million Australian roofs?

Instead of fast-tracking new coal mines, our Federal and State politicians should be taking a fix on the already apparent longer term trends and stimulating increased private sector investment in sustainable alternatives.

That way we will assure the Queensland of tomorrow with genuinely innovative and competitive regional industries while buying more time to adapt to the climate change already underway.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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