QUARTERLY ESSAY 33 Quarry Vision



Robert Merkel

Barnaby Joyce and his denialist confrères are wrong about a great many things, but they are right about one: Australia, on its own, has an extremely limited influence on the ultimate fate of the world’s climate. Therefore, as Ross Garnaut argued in his review, Australia’s domestic actions in the near future matter in large part in how they contribute to achieving concerted, effective global action on climate change. 

It should be appreciated that any program of action to substantially mitigate climate change will involve what sound like impossibly ambitious engineering feats. However, whatever mix of environmentally sound energy technologies and efficiency measures eventually wins out, the efforts required to switch to this mix will be a tiny fraction of our human endeavour, as crudely approximated by GDP. Compared to the massive shift in industrial production achieved during World War II, mitigating climate change should be a doddle, both locally and globally. The difficulty in taking action, as in the case of economic reform, to which Pearse draws apt parallels, is simple to express yet fiendishly difficult to overcome. The benefits are long-term and shared by all the world’s citizens, current and future, while the costs are borne in the here and now and fall disproportionately on numerically small, but cohesive, well-organised and financially powerful groups. 

But we come back to the key question: what can Australia do to achieve as much global action as possible, as quickly as possible, in the imperfect world in which we live? It is in this context that we must closely examine Pearse’s proposals for the future, particularly those which concern foreign countries. We do not have time for empty gestures – while symbolism is important, it is only important in the context of convincing the entire world to sign up to the necessary action. And, like the financial crisis, sometimes we’ll have to hold our nose and let thoroughly undeserving types profit along the way if it achieves a broader goal. So, for instance, while it is galling that Australians will be rewarding rent-seeking by the various multinationals that make up the carbon lobby, this will have little to no effect on the world’s emissions trajectory. If buying the carbon lobby’s silence will enable Australia to play a positive role in negotiating the best possible global-emissions deal, it will be cheap at the price. 

So let us examine the effects of Pearse’s key proposal: phasing out coal exports. As Pearse has noted, while Australia may be the world’s largest coal exporter, our production represents a mere fraction of global production. And the world’s coal reserves are immense. The orderly shutdown of Australia’s coal industry would merely result in a lot of heavy machinery being shipped overseas to dig up coal elsewhere. Pearse is correct that it would be rather less of a disaster for the Australian economy than the coal lobby claims, but its substantive impact on the world’s carbon emissions would be negligible. So we are left with the possibility that the voluntary discarding of a fairly substantial source of export income would stun the world into similar action. Frankly, I think a more likely reaction is a collective shake of the head from our customers and the continued purchase of coal, extracted using the same machinery by the same multinational companies that previously operated in Australia. 

Instead, it is my view that we should concentrate on our own backyard, where black coal, and the carboniferous mud that is Victoria’s and South Australia’s brown coal, provide most of our electricity. V8 Commodores and Toyota Prados clog suburban streets – and, in an often neglected but very substantial source of greenhouse gas, cattle and sheep burp and fart their way across the barren, decarbonised soils of the vast interior.

In that sense, we would be far better off pricing our domestic greenhouse emissions to the hilt (through a radically beefed-up emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax) and using the revenue to subsidise the development and early deployment of clean technologies of whatever form, so that they are capable of replacing dirty coal and oil on the scale required. 

Pearse’s essay skirts the issue, but the hard facts are that none of the renewable-energy options currently available in Australia, either singly or in combination, is yet capable of permanently shutting down Australia’s coal-fired power stations, let alone supplanting the fossil-fuel motor vehicle. Leaving aside cost issues for a moment, neither wind nor solar power can be relied upon to deliver energy when and where it is desired. There are any number of ideas on the drawing board, or in the early stages of development, which may overcome this problem, including various forms of energy storage and more reliable forms of renewable energy, such as hot-rock geothermal energy. I’m quite confident that, eventually, some of them will work well. But they do not exist today, however much proponents of renewable energy would like to claim that they do, and it is not at all certain that they will be available sooner, and cheaper, than carbon capture and storage (or, indeed, a domestic nuclear-power program). And they will not come to exist in our lifetimes unless government mandates (in one form or another) force their invention and commercial deployment.

It is my view that such a program of domestic emissions reduction would send at least as inspirational a moral message to the rest of the world as the largely empty gesture of phasing out coal exports. It would also achieve two other important goals. We would achieve a small but useful reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions, buying the world a few months more to act. More importantly, forcing the wide deployment of clean-energy technologies in Australia would contribute to making the technologies available to the rest of the world, so that when China, India and the other developing nations decide to turn off the emissions from their gargantuan domestic coal sectors, the technologies that enable them to do so at an affordable cost will be more than a glint in some venture capitalist’s eye. 

Pearse is withering on Australia’s intended use of cheap forest credits from developing countries to avoid taking any action of our own. It is indeed a major concern that cheap credits from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia will further postpone the clean-up of our domestic emissions. But we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the biosphere does not care where greenhouse-gas emissions occur and that rainforest destruction in Australia’s neighbours makes a considerably greater contribution to greenhouse-gas levels than Australia’s own emissions. So we should not treat the prevention of emissions from rainforests in our near neighbours as some kind of optional extra in Australia’s overall strategy for mitigating climate change. Given our proximity (and in the case of Papua New Guinea, considerable influence), we should make stopping and indeed reversing that deforestation one of our highest priorities. Again, it seems to me that this would not only be morally appropriate but would also make a considerable practical difference. 

All of this will be much easier to do if we continue to be supported by the ill-gotten gains of the coal industry. It may well be that, in the long run, the thermal-coal industry will die of its own accord as its export customers no longer burn coal for their electricity needs. Perhaps carbon capture and storage will be deployed widely enough to ensure a continuing market for our coal. We should indeed be prepared for the possibility that our thermal-coal industry will die, but there is no point in killing it prematurely.

The medium-term future I am sketching out for Australia may seem rather distasteful. Australia’s coal exports are far more harmful than Afghani heroin or Colombian cocaine, and it would not be inappropriate for Australia to wear similar levels of international opprobrium for them. But a unilateral withdrawal from the coal trade would be as pointless as a single Afghani farmer getting out of the opium business. In the imperfect world we live in, we need to figure out how to stop the entire world from sending its future up a coal smokestack. By forcing the speedy deployment of clean technology through the application of domestic economic pressure, we can make a far bigger contribution to that urgent goal.


Robert Merkel is a postdoctoral research fellow in software engineering at Swinburne University of Technology. He has a blog called The View from Benambra.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 33, Quarry Vision. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 34, Stop at Nothing.


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