This week the Sustainable Futures Report looks at coal, the wonder fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution and now is shown to be threatening our very survival.
Globally we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050,
a seriously challenging target. The consequences of failing to do this will be devastating and irreversible, yet investment continues to develop new coal mines, to produce more coal and create more emissions. Many countries of the world are upholding court decisions to prevent new coal mines, but some are still going ahead, notably in Australia and in the United Kingdom.
Australia is a prosperous country, rich in natural resources. The country has handled the pandemic extremely well and while there have been hotspots, particularly on the east coast, most parts of the nation are more or less back to normal life. Australia has one of the largest per-capita carbon footprints in the world and the country is the fifth largest coal producer after China, India, the United States and the EU. The government is regularly criticised for weak environmental policies and for not getting domestic emissions under control. Little account is taken of the contribution of Australian coal to global emissions.
Annual exports are worth about US$260 billion. 33% of those exports consist of mineral fuels including oil and coal with a further 29% accounted for by ores, slag and ash. Unsurprising that the government is reluctant to do anything that could prejudice this contribution to the economy. During the last General Election campaign there were posters warning “There are no jobs on a dead planet,” but the message didn’t get through.
40% of Australia's exports of goods go to China, by far its largest customer, followed by Japan at 9%. Bad news then, that Australia has been in a trade war with China since calling for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID19 pandemic. China has not imposed tariffs on the Australian iron ore which meets 60% of its needs but it has imposed tariffs on Australian seafood, wine, barley, timber, meat and coal.
New Coal Markets
Tariffs on coal have left Australia looking for new markets. Adani Mining has been developing the Carmichael Mine in Central Queensland since 2010 and is now getting close to starting production, despite protests and challenges all the way. In fact the company has renamed one of its operating units “Bravus” to acknowledge its bravery in the fight for permission to operate. It is currently building a 200km railway to bring the coal to the coast, where, to the horror of environmentalists, the ships will pass through the Great Barrier Reef to reach the port.
Siemens signalling equipment
In January 2020, in response to protests in Berlin by Extinction Rebellion and a call from Greta Thunberg, Siemens announced it would re-evaluate its $20m contract to supply signalling systems for the rail link, but decided to continue with the contract saying there was "practically no legally and economically responsible way to unwind the contract without neglecting fiduciary duties.” Let’s hope that fiduciary duties will suck up lots of CO2.
Protests have cited a number of issues. Operations at the mine are expected to consume 12 billion litres of water each year and Adani's groundwater model predicts water table levels will drop "typically between 20 and 50m" and "up to around 4m in the vicinity of the Carmichael river. There are fears also of river pollution.
It is estimated that 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted over the expected 60-year life of the mine. - excluding emissions from burning the coal itself. A government minister has said that this represents no increase in emissions, because coal would be sourced elsewhere if the mine did not go ahead. This is the old argument of “If we don’t do it someone else will, so we might as well.” It is as morally bankrupt as saying that we’ll buy your poached ivory because the elephant it came from is already dead.
It’s not just protesters who have made things difficult for Adani and the Carmichael mine. In December specialty re/insurer Fidelis confirmed that it would rule out underwriting the Adani project, making it the 28th re/insurer to publicly make this commitment.
Global Capital reports that State Bank of India (SBI), 56% owned by the Indian government, is likely to be the only organisation willing to fund the Carmichael mine. In the face of shareholder pressure, major banks are divesting their coal investments. If SBI advances the $650 million that the project needs it is expected to then issue $600 million worth of bonds. The financial institutions which have qualms about investing in coal will have no problem in buying up these bonds.
New Markets for Coal
So where can this coal be sold if the Chinese don't want it? Is it a coincidence that the Indian government has announced major infrastructure works in Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the west coast? The plan is to double the railway track which runs across the state. This, said the government, was all part of a plan to improve communications in Goa and links to the rest of India with benefits for tourism and defence.
Locals claim that the objective is to create a route for the delivery of coal from the port to power stations in Karnataka. Goa’s main port, Mormugao Port Trust in the north of the state, has been on an expansion drive to become a hub for imported coal. The environment ministry has granted clearance for a third coal terminal and deep-water dredging to accommodate large coal vessels. Currently the port handles 12m tonnes of coal, but importers hope to increase that to 51m tonnes by 2035. And Adani, one of India’s biggest coal importers, has set up a terminal at the port. That’s the same Adani - it’s an Indian company - that’s developing the Carmichael mine.
There are plans to expand the highway and extend power lines along the route and while work goes on local people protest. They claim that the ruling BJP party has taken these decisions without reference to them. The BJP government has a reputation for autocracy and pushing its agenda regardless of opposition. Elsewhere in India there are protests by farmers which have been going on for weeks, complaining about new agricultural regulations imposed without consultation.
Mollem Nation Park and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary
In Goa there are protests that the new railway, highway and power line will damage the Mollem Nation Park and the adjoining Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, home to leopards, Bengal tigers, pangolins, black panthers and hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. Campaigners have connected coal imports to a reported increase in air pollution, lung diseases and more recently, a spike in Covid-19 deaths in villages near where the coal is unloaded and transported.
20,000 trees have been cut down on the edge of the Mollen National Park as part of the power line project. Goa’s BJP chief minister, Pramod Sawant, has repeatedly denied any of these projects are to boost coal transportation capacity, describing them as a “nation-building exercise” with “no threat to Mollem”. In November, he promised that coal imports to Mormugao Port Trust would be reduced by 50% and said he had sought assurances from the centre that Goa would not become a coal hub. The Adani Group has denied any role in the projects affecting Mollem.
If he’s right it seems the expansion of Mormugao Port Trust will be a waste of time and money. Of course if he’s wrong, all this infrastructure would be an ideal channel for Adani’s Australian coal.
Meanwhile protests, legal action and construction work all continue.
Meanwhile, here in the UK
As I hinted to start with, it's not only in far-off countries of which we know little that coal mines continue to be developed. Plans for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria in the north-west of England continue to progress. The local council has given approval to the plans but objectors have demanded that the minister should call them in and make the final decision. The ministers response is that this is merely a local issue and he will not intervene. Does he not realise that burning fossil fuels affects the whole world, and not just Cumbria?
Now the Cumberland and Westmoreland Herald reports that Cumbria County Council is to reconsider its decision to approve the mine. Councillors will review the project in the light of the Sixth Carbon Budget and the need to reduce greenhouse gases.
Robert Jenrick, the minister responsible, was severely criticised in an open letter from Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, pointing out the inconsistency of developing a coal mine in the face of the government’s own decarbonisation targets. He urged that local councils should be informed of their statutory duties to reduce emissions. In response to the letter, a government spokesperson said the decision to allow the coal mine would not be reversed. However, Lord Deben’s letter seems likely to be behind the council’s plan to reconsider.
James Hansen Challenges Boris Johnson
Jenrick was not alone in suffering criticism. James Hansen is the leading climate scientist who explained the risks of the climate crisis to the US Congress back in the 1980s. In his letter to the prime minister he says:
“Prime Minister Johnson, young people are fed up – and for good reason. They demand that political leaders follow the science and take the actions needed to preserve and restore a healthy climate. If this COP [that’s COP26, the international climate conference to be held in Glasgow in November] is like the prior ones – with soothing words and worthless ambitions – they will be justifiably outraged.
“In leading the UK, as host to the COP, you have a chance to change the course of our climate trajectory, earning the UK and yourself historic accolades – or you can stick with business-almost-as-usual and be vilified in the streets of Glasgow, London, and around the world.
“It would be easy to achieve this latter ignominy and humiliation. Just continue with the plan to open a new coal mine in Cumbria and continue to invest funds of the British public in fossil fuel projects overseas, in contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature.
“The contrary path is not so easy, but, with your leadership, it is realistic. And by providing the acumen and gumption required to change our course, you will earn a special place in history and the gratitude of young people.”
“…The great obstacle you must overcome – where others have failed – is that posed by the special financial interests that have bribed our governments and trashed our planet.”
The rest of the letter is well worth reading and you’ll find a link below.
In Australia, in India, in Northwest England will we see sense prevail? Will governments finally realise that while coal may create jobs they have to face up to the fact that it poisons the planet and the time to stop is now? It is surely ridiculous to set out a net zero carbon target for 2050, 30 years hence, and at the same time approve coal mines with planned lives of 60 years or more. It’s a political decision. Remember the quotation I shared last time?
What political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action?
I’ll keep an eye on this story and keep you posted. Oh, and if you want to add your voice to the protests, Greenpeace has a petition. Find the link below.
That’s it for this week.
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The A-Z of Sustainability
I've just announced that I am going to create the A-Z of sustainability. This will be built up letter by letter over the coming months and will be exclusively available to patrons of the Sustainable Futures Report. The first reaction I've had is “Good luck with Q and Z.” Not too much of a problem surely? Z is for zoophyte, but you'll have to wait till the very last episode to find out how that fits in with sustainability. I admit that Q could be a bit more difficult but for the moment I’m planning to go slightly off topic and give you a brief explanation of quantum theory, just as long as I can get that cat back in the box.
Don't forget, the full text of every episode of the Sustainable Futures Report is on the website, together with links to the sources of all my stories.
There will be another episode next week.
I am Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Greta Thunberg effigies burned in Delhi after tweets on farmers' protests
 Coal and climate change: what a difference a decade makes, Greenpeace UK -
 UK sets ambitious new climate target ahead of UN Summit, Gov UK -
 Whitehaven coal mine: Government refuses to call in plans, BBC - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/bbcoal1
 Government defends Cumbria coal mine green light, BBC - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/bbcoal2
 Controversial Cumbria coal mine gets go ahead, Mining Global - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/minecoal
 Climate change tsar Alok Sharma seethes at Robert Jenrick over Cumbria coalmine, The Times - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/coaltimes
 Biden to place environmental justice at center of sweeping climate plan, Wahington Post - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/coalwpost
 Letter from South Lakes Action on Climate Change - towards transition, SLACC - secure.greenpeace.org.uk/coalletter
Cumbria coalmine plans pit climate protection against job creation
Coalmine plans in Cumbria and a false dilemma
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