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Coal comfort: Aussies put their mines ahead of climate change

Australia is paying the price for being slow to harness renewables, but then it is heavily invested in mining

05 April 2022 - 20:08 By Professor Zubin
Australia has the world’s third-largest proven coal reserves and was the world’s second-largest exporter of coal in 2019, according to statista.com.
BLACK GOLD Australia has the world’s third-largest proven coal reserves and was the world’s second-largest exporter of coal in 2019, according to statista.com.
Image: Robert Tshabalala

Global warming: the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. All countries are affected by it, especially coral regions such as the Maldives and Tuvalu in the Indian and Pacific oceans respectively. Few, however, expected Australia would be badly impacted by global warming, but affected it surely is.

This giant in the southern hemisphere experiences its hot season from October to March and its cold season from April to September. According to the latest report from CSIRO, an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, the country’s climate has warmed by 1.4°C since 1910.


Increases in levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere have led to increases in levels of the chemical compound dissolved in the world’s oceans, including those around Australia.

The pH level of seawater around the country has decreased from about 8.19 in 1870 to about 8.05 in 2019. (Ph is a measure of acidity, with lesser values indicating more acidity.) Increases in sea-water temperatures coupled with high levels of acidity, among other things, cause coral bleaching.

At least six mass bleaching events caused by climate change have taken place in the Great Barrier Reef since 1998. And there are no prizes for guessing the importance of this mega reef to Australia. It is the largest reef complex in the world, was one of first places in the country to be designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, supports 64,000 jobs, according to a 2017 report by Deloitte Access Economics, and brings billions into the country’s economy. The Deloitte report estimated it contributes A$6.4bn (about R71bn) a year.

The following illustrates how the country has been affected by global warming.

In the 2017 to 2019 drought the average rainfall for the Murray-Darling Basin was more than 100mm lower than the second-driest period (January 1965 to December 1967). New South Wales received about 170mm less rainfall than the next driest period, the “Federation drought” (January 1900 to December 1902). The result of the latest drought was a bushfire that killed 33 people, including nine firefighters, and burnt more than 46-million acres of land, an area 2.7 times the size of Tasmania. Scientists estimated that in the forests and woodlands devastated during this bushfire season there would have been almost 3-billion native vertebrates, comprising 143-million mammals, 2.46-billion reptiles, 180-million birds and 51-million frogs. More than 3,000 houses were destroyed. Atmospheric monitoring showed that in early January 2020, the bushfires released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equal to three quarters of Australian industry emissions in 2018/19.

This was followed by storms and heavy rains in February that resulted in so much flooding that the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) declared the phenomenon a catastrophe on February 10. On May 28 that year the ICA reported that 96,594 claims for homes and businesses damaged by the storms had been lodged in southeast Queensland and eastern New South Wales, with estimated combined insurance losses of A$896m (about R9.9bn).

Since carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, upon emission, spread evenly throughout the atmosphere, all countries are subject to the ill-effects of this problem. So all emitters of the greenhouse gases are collectively responsible to affected people and organisations. Let’s see how much Australia contributes to mitigate this.

According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicator database, in 2018 Australia emitted 0.61-million kilotons of CO2 equivalent, while the world emitted 45.87-million kilotons. That means the country accounted for 1.34% of total emissions.

But in that year Australia’s population was just 0.33% of world’s. That explains its high per capita emissions. In 2020 it was the highest among 37 Organisation for Economic Cooperation (OECD) members.

One of many ways to reduce CO2 emissions is to harness sunlight, so let’s look at the country’s solar potential. Government agency Geoscience Australia says the country “receives an average of 58-million PJ (petajoules) of solar radiation per year, about 10,000 times larger than its total energy consumption”.

A solar panel does not convert all sunlight energy into electrical energy. Efficiency of panels is about 20%. Even then, 20% of 58-million is 11.6-million, which would convert to 2,000 times the country’s total energy consumption.

In 2020 fossil fuels accounted for 76% of total electricity generated, while sunlight, wind and hydropower accounted for 24%.

Why does this unfortunate situation exist?

Perhaps its because of the strong connection between the country and mining. Australia has the world’s third-largest proven coal reserves and was the world’s second-largest exporter of coal in 2019, according to statista.com. It had the highest value of coal rent as a percentage of GDP among OECD countries, according to World Development Indicators, and, according to statista.com, was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of natural gas. It is home to the headquarters of the top two most valuable mining companies of the world.

Under Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s leadership, Australia was one of the last developed countries to commit to achieving net-zero emissions at COP26 in Glasgow last year. The country also sat out of agreements to cut methane emissions, coal use and deforestation, despite many of the world’s largest nations doing so. 

Three months ago he said his government would spend A$1bn (about R11bn) over nine years to improve water quality and other aspects of the Great Barrier Reef. How committed his government is to achieving this will become apparent in that time.

Prof Zubin has taught environmental sustainability in Mumbai schools for the past 10 years. Global warming, waste disposal and environmental economics are his areas of interest and expertise.

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