Australia's New Prime Minister Vows to Bolster Coal Industry As Environmental Groups Denounce Coal Exports
By Samiha Shafy
The lucky country, as Australians call their homeland, sits on enormous deposits of natural resources: uranium, zinc, iron ore, lead, bauxite, copper, gold, manganese and nickel. But among its greatest assets are the world's fourth-largest coal reserves—an estimated 76.4 billion tons, or nine percent of global reserves.
Coal mining has powered the Australian economy for decades. In recent years, thanks to the seemingly insatiable energy appetite of China and other Asian countries, Australia’s coal industry has been growing at dizzying speed, its production rising 80 percent since the early 1990s and its exports more than doubling in the past decade. If all proposed mining projects move ahead as planned, Australia, currently the world's second-largest exporter of coal after Indonesia, could double its overseas shipments by the end of the decade to become the world’s largest coal exporter. Today, roughly three-quarters of Australia’s domestic electricity production comes from coal, making the sparsely populated continent of 23 million people the world leader in per capita greenhouse gas emissions.
So what are the odds that the country can overcome its coal addiction? Just a year or two ago, after Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Green Party allies successfully introduced a national carbon tax and set ambitious renewable energy goals, the prospects looked reasonably good. This month, however, things abruptly changed. On Sept. 7, staunch conservative Tony Abbott—a man who once dismissed human-caused climate change as "absolute crap”—was elected prime minister, significantly dimming the prospects that Australia will reduce its reliance on coal mining and coal exports anytime soon.
Environmental activists and members of the Green Party take some consolation in the fact that the public has become increasingly worried in recent years about the environmental impacts of the country’s massive, open-pit coal mines. Australians also have been shaken by a noticeable jump in extreme weather events, which scientists partly attribute to climate change. In addition, an increasing number of Australians are concerned about a major expansion of coal export terminals in the state of Queensland, which could threaten the country’s iconic natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.
“We're seeing more and more people becoming aware of what is going on, and they are outraged," Larissa Waters, the only Green Party senator from the coal rich-state of Queensland, said in an interview. “If it comes to turning the reef into a coal and gas highway or protecting it, people want it protected."
Environmentalists also note that commodity prices have fallen steeply, which has caused a slump in Australia's mining sector. The economic slowdown in China is putting a strain on Australia’s coal industry and shrinking the government's revenues. As a consequence, several new coal-mining projects have been shelved, and the coal industry has shed 11,000 jobs in the past year. Five Asian nations—Japan, China, South Korea, India and Taiwan—account for 88 percent of Australian black coal exports.
Outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd worried about the impact of the slowdown of China’s economy on Australia’s coal sector and urged diversification of an economy overly dependent on coal and other forms of mining. But the newly elected Abbott and his Liberal-National coalition dismissed Rudd’s hand-wringing and vowed to reverse the slump in coal mining. After his recent election victory, Abbott announced that Australia was “open for business.” His coalition has promised to scrap the carbon tax, dump a climate advisory body, expedite approval for new coal mining projects and loosen environmental regulations governing the coal industry.
Many Australians applaud such steps. The coal industry has a powerful lobby, and a report commissioned by the Australian Coal Association (ACA) said the industry generates 43 billion Australian dollars in revenue annually. The industry takes credit for the fact that Australia was the only G10 country whose economy did not slip into a recession during the global financial crisis in 2009.
The ACA projects that exports of thermal coal, which is used to produce electricity, will grow at 11 percent a year for the next five years. The association also says that coal companies are investing $25 billion in new coal mining projects that could increase production by about 20 percent by the end of next year. Nine new “mega mines” are proposed for the Galilee basin in Central Queensland, five of which would be larger than any mines that currently exist in Australia. A host of environmental groups are opposing the Galilee projects, which would comprise one of the largest coal mining complexes in the world.
To accommodate growing exports, Australia is expanding existing coal ports and building new ones, some of them along the coast of Queensland, not far from the 1,430-mile Great Barrier Reef. A government-commissioned report found that port expansions could seriously disturb reef ecosystems, since spoil from dredging can travel long distances. Dumped silt also can be moved repeatedly by storms, damaging coral and threatening marine animals like sea turtles and dugongs, which have a hard time finding food in murky waters. Critics warn that increased ship traffic also brings with it a higher risk of accidents, such as the one three years ago when a Chinese coal freighter crashed into the reef.
The coal boom threatens the reef in less direct ways, as rising greenhouse gas emissions lead to higher seawater temperatures and worsening ocean acidification, both of which can damage or kill coral reefs. Scientists have calculated that the reef, which in 1981 became the first ocean region to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has lost half of its coral since 1985.
In Australia, there are growing concerns that a boundless expansion of coal mining may damage the reef to such an extent that UNESCO could place the reef on a list of World Heritage sites in danger. At its annual meeting in June, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided to give Australia a grace period until 2014 to come up with a convincing rescue plan.
“When it comes to coal and gas, our government is completely blinded,” Waters, the Green Party senator, said in an interview. “They just want to export as much of the stuff as they can."
She is fighting a seemingly futile battle with the traditionally conservative Queensland Legislative Assembly to write UNESCO's recommendations for the reef‘s protection into law. “First,” she said, “no ports in untouched regions. Second, no port expansions that could impair the universal value of the reef. And third, a moratorium on port projects until 2015."
Creative Commons/ Marcus Wong Wongm
Industry representatives dispute that coal mining poses a threat to the reef. “I see a bunch of these activists jumping up and down, saying that we are destroying the reef,” said Paul Mulder, managing director for coal and infrastructure with the Australian-Indian energy giant GVK Hancock Coal. “They have no idea what they‘re talking about."
“We are in the coal business,” Queensland's Premier Campbell Newman said in response to UNESCO criticism. “If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat, we all need to understand that." Last week, Newman told Abbott that his top priority was developing the Galilee basin and that the best thing the central government could do was “just to get out of the way.”
Looking at the numbers, it seems unlikely that Australia could stop being a major source of coal in the foreseeable future. Over the last 30 years, no other country in the world has shipped more coal abroad, with exports reaching 457 million short tons in 2011.
Stopping Australian coal exports, however, is precisely what a growing number of environmental activists are attempting to do. Greenpeace has openly called for civil disobedience to stop exports, and in April activists briefly occupied a coal freighter bound for South Korea. American environmentalist Bill McKibben, who toured Australia in June to campaign against coal mining, was impressed with the public attention he received. “We had sellout crowds all over the place, and there was lots of press,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Apparently the coal industry thought it was a threat, because they came after me fairly hard.”
The industry has good reasons to be thin-skinned. Analysts blame the big mining companies for over-investing during the boom and ignoring the signs that demand from Asia could slow down in the long run. In May, the ACA issued a statement saying that “rapidly deteriorating investments in coal mining and coal infrastructure projects ... reinforces the urgent need for state and federal governments to focus on the competitiveness of the coal industry."
That is precisely what Abbott has pledged to do, and this month’s election results were an indication that many Australians place concerns about the country’s resource-based economy above fears of climate change or the environmental degradation associated with coal mining.
But environmental advocates say that despite Abbott’s victory, their message about the long-term damage done by coal mining—including threats to the Great Barrier Reef—is resonating with many Australians. One reason may be that Australians are feeling the effects of a changing climate earlier and more strongly than other nations. Storms and floods are increasingly common, as are heat waves, wildfires and droughts.
“The coal industry presents itself as quintessentially Australian,” said John Hepburn, founder of the Sunrise Project, an environmental group fighting the expansion of coal mining. “There is this sense that we are rich in natural resources, and what we do is we dig them up ... [But] the movement against coal has been growing incredibly rapidly. Something in the Australian psyche is starting to change."
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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