A Transition Plan for Australia’s Coal Industry

The new IPCC report into 1.5 degrees of global warming made headlines across Australia the day it was released. The message was that we face a stark choice: accept the recommendations of the report and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees or lose the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest and most diverse coral reef systems. Disappointingly, politicians from the governing conservative party chose to downplay the report, scoff at the recommendations or simply lie about the risk posed to the Reef.
A key recommendation from the IPCC was that coal-fired power must be completely phased out worldwide by 2050 to stand a chance of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees. Coal remains one of Australia’s key exports and contributes the vast majority of our generated electricity—there are also suspicions that politicians in the governing party are unduly influenced by donations from fossil fuel companies. Despite numerous polls showing the Australian public wants to transition away from coal power and invest more in clean energy technologies, federal politicians continue to stymie any efforts to decarbonise Australia’s energy sector. Dire warnings from IPCC scientists that this will result in the loss of Australia’s premier natural wonder has done little to shift this reality.

Australia desperately needs to plan for an orderly transition away from coal-fired power. Just this week the country’s leading union for mining workers has publicly called for the Australian government to implement a transition plan that re-deploys coal workers into other sectors (especially clean energy) and ensures we are ready for a complete shutdown of coal power by 2050—in line with the recommendations of the IPCC report. Also this week, the state government of New South Wales announced a modest but important fund would be set up to help the state transition to renewable power. This move is timely—70% of the state’s current coal power is set to be retired by 2035. Most Australian energy companies have indicated they are planning for coal power to be significantly curtailed by 2050 due to power plant retirements (with zero planned additions to the coal fleet), but measures to re-deploy workers or move wholesale to clean energy technologies are sporadic. The impetus for such transition needs to come from a government level through policy.

Australia’s emissions trajectories to 2030. It is quite clear a lot more work is needed for Australia to reach its current 26% target (black line to the right), let alone hope to meet the recommendations of the IPCC report (the purple line to the right). Phasing out coal power by 2050 will go a significant way to achieving the second goal.

Policy Likelihood: ** Significant hurdles to overcome

The current conservative government has made no indications it accepts coal power will be significantly reduced in Australia by 2050, despite the plans of energy companies. There is even talk of underwriting new coal generation, or indemnifying new coal plants against a future (and inevitable) price on carbon emissions. Given their hostility towards union movements—who are now at the forefront of the movement to transition Australian coal communities away from the industry—it is unlikely they will ever be interested in planning for a just, orderly transition.
The government’s main opposition is the Labor Party. Although Labor MPs have been talking about the need for a just transition for twelve months there is little policy framework to show for it. The Labor Party is still to come out against the planned Adani mega coal mine and its national leaders carefully tiptoe around the issue of shuttering the coal power industry to try and prevent alienating their traditional working-class voters. At a local government level, the state Labor government in the Northern Territory is seriously considering opening up the region for fracking, which would catastrophically raise Australia’s carbon emissions.
But in other states the Labor Party is leading the way on transition. Although defeated in an election this year, the state Labor Party of South Australia worked with activist groups to transition the coal community of Port Augusta to clean energy, and invested significantly in decarbonising the state’s electricity supply. The Labor Party in Victoria – with an election just a few weeks away – committed to establishing an electric vehicle factory in the Latrobe Valley, a region dependent on the ailing coal industry for survival. Workers from a coal power plant that closed last year will have first access to the jobs on offer at the new EV factory. Local citizens welcomed the news, but reminded the Labor Party that more investment is needed to fully transition their communities off the coal industry.

Take Action: Please send the following message to the policymaker below:

Dear Mr. Shorten,

We write to you because your Party—unlike the current Coalition government—has made serious noises about planning & implementing a just transition policy to reduce Australia’s use of coal-fired electricity to zero by 2050. We know this is not only possible, but absolutely necessary if we are to save the Great Barrier Reef from total wipeout. The loss of the Reef will be devastating to the entire state of Queensland, taking with it a thriving tourist industry and damaging many local economies beyond repair. We thank you and your Party for taking the warnings of IPCC scientists seriously, and hope your actions can put us in line to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

We implore you to heed the CFMEU and other major unions by committing to a transition plan for coal communities across Australia. Not only is there an environmental imperative to closing coal power, but economists and the major energy companies all agree that the use of coal for electricity is in terminal decline in Australia and we need to know what comes next. To not plan for what comes next for these workers, their families and their communities would be a great disservice, especially when Australia has so many opportunities in the clean technology sector to take advantage of. Re-deploying and re-skilling workers to be part of a renewable energy revolution makes sense on so many levels, and it will put us in a fantastic position to meet our Paris targets and then some. We may even stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Please follow in the steps of your state counterparts by working with community groups to plan for a just transition. Already in South Australia and Victoria we’ve seen great policy initiatives and great examples of government working with private industries. With your leadership at a federal level other states will be encouraged to set up similar schemes, and there’s the possibility to pass legislation in Canberra that will bring Australia into a clean energy future. This isn’t about shutting down industries or shuttering economic progress: climate action and creating a bright new future for coal communities goes hand in hand.

Leader of the Labor Party the Hon. Bill Shorten MP
Suite 1A, 12 Hall Street
Moonee Ponds, VIC, 3039

Telephone: (03) 9326 130, (02) 6277 4022

E: Bill.Shorten.MP@aph.gov.au


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