Save a bit here, ship a whole lot there

coalcartoonHere’s some figures to make you queasy after all that rich Christmas dinner. As was reported recently, Australia’s bold new short-term greenhouse gas reduction target is to reduce carbon emissions by 4% on year 1990 levels by 2020.  What does that mean in real terms? Well, according to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, our total emissions in that reference year were 552.6 Mt (million tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-e), with 286.4 Mt of that coming from energy generation. In 2006 (the latest inventory year), it was 576.0 Mt, with a whopping 400.9 Mt of that now coming from energy.

So, our world-leading aim is to ‘only’ be emitting 530.5 Mt CO2-e by 2020 — a saving of 22 Mt on 1990 levels. Forgive me if I’m less than impressed.

But in reality, it’s far, far worse than that — actually, ridiculously so.

Why? Go read this news story. To quote Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

“…$580 million of today’s investment will be used to expand capacity and rail corridors to service the Hunter, the Hunter Valley Coal mines, and of course their connection to the Port of Newcastle.”

The reporter then blandly notes that this investment will more than double the export capacity at Newcastle (New South Wales) from 97 to 200 million tonnes of coal a year.

Hmmmm. Let’s see — that’s an extra 103 Mt of coal being shipped out each year. Now, when you burn a tonne of coal, you yield about 3.6 tonnes of CO2 (since the carbon atom combines with 2 x oxygen atoms). So that’s $580 million of taxpayers money being channeled into a handout to the fossil fuel industry that will result in an additional 371 Mt CO2-e being pumped into the global atmosphere each year.

Oh, but silly me — it’s all heading offshore, so as the cartoon says, it’s no longer our problem. Easy as that! Never mind that this tidy little half-billion buck infrastructure by the Rudd government will ‘offset’ (read: cancel) our measly 2020 savings almost 17 times over…

But wait, there’s more! Actually, this was from earlier in the year, but the wound still smarts when you rub salt into it. In April 2008, ‘Environment’ Minister Peter Garrett gave the green light for a multi-billion dollar three-phase plan to expand the Wiggins Island Coal Terminal in Gladstone (Queensland), such that it will be able to export an additional 84 Mt of coal per year — a decision applauded by the Queensland State Government.

Okay, so that’s another 302 Mt CO2-e released by someone, somewhere, up into the great aerial ocean. But hey, again, it’s for export, so it’s just not our problem. All 371 + 302 = 673 Mt CO2-e of it. It doesn’t matter that these two infrastructure projects, announced in 2008, will result in emissions 17% greater than Australia’s TOTAL CO2-e annual emissions, and cancel out our 4% reduction by 2020 commitment more than 30 times over. Nah, no sweat. It’s all covered by offshore sequestration.

Treasurer Wayne Swan reckons the above stimulus is our ‘best shot’ at avoiding recession. What he doesn’t say is that it’s also our best shot at ensuring deadly climate change. But it’s the economy, stupid! (h/t Matt Mushalik)

So, we’re stuffed, because as Jim Hansen said:

If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants [or supplying them in Australia’s case], those coal trains will be death trains — no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

Reduce 22 Mt here, add 673 Mt there. Yet Mr Rudd says this trade-off “…gets the balance right“.

Sigh. I (almost) give up…

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

19 replies on “Save a bit here, ship a whole lot there”

Keep going, Barry. Very best wishes for 2009.

Thanks for all you are doing to protect the environs from wanton, irreversible degradation and global biodiversity from massive extirpation; to preserve Earth’s resources from relentless dissipation and the future of our children from reckless endangerment; to save “the pale blue dot” from the ravages of unbridled global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species in these early years of Century XXI.


True… here we go again… economic growth *IS* good intention, right? but we also may know, that “road to hell is paved by good intentions”

Now, you are forbidden to slow down economic growth, but we also know, that our planet and the sources are not endless. Oh, wait! Of course, in economic terms, resources *ARE* endless and before they run out, we switch to another source – we did in the past, we will in the future. That is, BTW, the main reason why most of economists do not see peak-oil as a prbolem. More to that, some people think that this planet could possibly sustain up to 50 000 000 000 happy people. In their point of view, constraining CO2 emission (and/or growth) equals to eco-facism… now what? Ideas?


I suspect that if you suggested to someone in government that we should reduce coal exports, they will tell you with a perfectly straight face that if we reduced coal exports, that will just mean that “an equivalent amount of coal will be mined elsewhere”.

There are two problems with that argument. One is that it oversimplifies the way that price works (it assumes that the price-elasticity of demand for coal is totally inelastic, or the price-elasticity of supply of coal is totally elastic. The other problem is that it is basically arguing that we should be free-riders in a prisoners dilemma.


Based on the best current interpretations of the science (denialist phantasy-physics aside), and considering the current global political trajectory, I think that the planet’s current ecosystems’ integrity was essentially screwed about three or four years ago.

It’s best (and last) hope is that Obama is as diametrically opposite to Dubya as it is possible to be, and that he has the courage and the capacity to enact all such differences. And that in doing so he drags the rest of the world in his wake…

Otherwise the biosphere is simply going to barf up the pain in its belly in the only way that it knows how.


When Thailand got hit with bird flu in 2003 (?) the attitude was, quick lets
sell all the effected chickens before anybody finds out. Happily some whistle
blowers foiled the attempt. Our approach is similar, lets sell as much
coal as quickly as we can before we get forced to leave it in the ground.


The problem here is that Australia has not adopted a standard for reporting its indirect emissions. Our Government likes to think that if it doesn’t need to report some emissions under the Kyoto reporting guidelines, then they just don’t exist for Australia.

If we are to have integrity when tackling climate change, there is an ethical place to acknowledge indirect upstream and downstream emissions (that fit into the Scope 3 category as we do not import electricity from other countries), as well as our direct emissions released from the Australian Continent, associated islands, territorial waters and Antarctic operations.

It is not hard to recognise that Australia’s coal and gas exports cause emissions of the same magnitude as Australia’s acknowledged emissions. To completely ignore this impact is a bit like saying that one is not responsible for killing endangered animals; it is the customer fault for buying ivory and Rhino horns. Of course we bear responsibility for our part in the economic and other harm that this contribution to climate change is causing.

Managing scope 3 emissions requires working with our customers to switch to lower greenhouse intensive solutions and where Australia’s coal is burnt for electricity this should be a very high priority as there are alternative lower greenhouse energy sources available.

Our greenhouse reporting should also acknowledge the emissions caused ‘within’ forestry operations that are not reported under Australia’s Kyoto requirements and additional emissions that are or may result from climate feedback loops such as the overall drying and thinning of Australia’s forest remnants, and potential changes in ocean sequestration in Australian waters.

For the Australian Government to demonstrate its commitment to tackling climate change, it should report the Australian emissions picture in full as different from its Kyoto requirements, so that we don’t just keep hearing the half truth’s such as “Australia accounted for less than 1.5 per cent of global emissions” (John Howard 2007).


G’day Barry.

Yet another frustration-inducing post. Politics trumping policy again.

On the topic of politics over policy, are you able to shed some light on what the ‘lobbying’ process would have been between the Fed Govt and the carbon intensive industries prior to the release of the CPRS white paper?

The majority of articles focused upon the impact of the lobbying upon the efficacy of our CPRS. I am yet to read about EXACTLY WHAT the lobbying process would have been. Are you able to shed some light on this? In your opinion, how would any negotiations between the govt and industry lobbyists have proceeded? What would the carbon-intensive industries actually have bought to the table in any ETS-related negotiations? Surely they must have more than the old chestnut of the ‘off-shore job leakage’ threat.

I understand you may not have knowledge of the political process Barry, so if anyone else out there does, their explanation would be greatly appreciated!!



Many years ago, I was part of the local Friends of the Earth group in Elmbridge, Surrey, asking people in our local shopping centre whether they were concerned about global warming. Most of the responses were unmemorable. But one response was memorable, it was: “No, it’s all right, I don’t live here!” He was disguised like a normal human, but presumably he was an extraterrestrial.


Interesting question Paul. I don’t know how the coal industry lobbies but
the agricultural industries seem to have some pretty direct knowledge about
what is happening a long time before it happens. Back in
May (27th of May, transcript of Standing
Committee on rural and regional affairs) Christine Milne quizzed Meat and
Livestock people (Palmer and Thomason) about cattle emissions. Both
Palmer and Christine Milne seemed to know that agriculture wouldn’t be
in any ETS, but McGauran didn’t. May was a long time before it was announced
that agriculture wouldn’t be in the ETS when it started.

But apart from whatever happens behind the scenes, don’t underestimate the
Parliamentary committee system as a lobbying tool. That 27th May transcript
makes interesting reading, MLA manage to make all sorts of spurious
claims and half truths sound plausible and there was nobody with the
knowledge to properly question what they were saying. I’ll bet that if
you trawl the Parliamentary committee transcripts you’ll find the energy
boys and girls playing the same game. They get to talk to politicians without
a Brook, Glickson or Hansen upsetting the flow of the conversation with
hard information. It’s all on the public record but not at the top
of anybody’s reading list.


A big chunk of the Australian public may be content to be fooled into believing our contribution to global emissions is small and policies are in place to make them smaller, but the rest of the world knows Australia is a major source of coal and will notice that the world’s no.1 exporter of coal is building the infrastructure to export more. I don’t see any real signs that the Rudd gov’t truly appreciates the seriousness of climate change or will put the longer term need to get serious ahead of short term expediency.
I tend towards despair that we’ll see any appropriate policy from mainstream politics. I fervently hope that we’ll see peel and stick PV that’s as cheap as chip wrapper soon enough to make renewables the low cost, easy, “sensible” choice. It would be nice to think that there’d be enticements and incentives (such as car makers get) to make them here, but honestly I don’t care if they are made in the US or India or China or Spain as long as they get massively mass produced.


Paul @7: Meeting with officials, MPs and relevant ministers, lunches, briefing papers, in-house economic impact analyses, ‘alternative’ business plans, donations — the whole gamut. Mostly just having lobbyists there, constantly selling ‘the message’. But I’m not a political animal and so don’t know the detailed methods — only what I’ve occasionally observed first hand. Geoff @9 is also right about a lot of Hansaard passing through to the keeper because no one is sufficiently across the material to challenge right from wrong (or misleading).

Ken @11: Agreed, I see no signs either. Terribly disappointing, but not unexpected.


Excerpt from my book ‘ZERO Greenhouse Emissions – The Day the lights went out – Our Future World’

That leads me back to those mineral exports. Mother Nature gave Australia the great honor of being chosen as one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet to sequester billions of tonnes of carbon and methane in coal deposits over millennia for safe keeping. We are now proudly returning the favor by being one of the world’s popular carbon mining for atmospheric release sources. The Australian Coal Industry through its Coal Association proudly boasts in 2005-06 an increase of 43 percent in exports on 2004-05 levels. It boasts: “Australia maintained its position as the world’s largest coal exporter with exports of 233 million tonnes in 2005-06, or 30 percent of the world export total. They go on proudly to say: “As the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia supplies markets in more than 35 countries around the world.”
At under the section entitled Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, they offer the following helpful advice: “it is not the use of coal, but how coal is used that must be the focus for action: Meeting the needs of an increasing energy hungry world, while at the same time reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, is one of the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. Rapidly increasing world energy demand will ensure that coal remains a vital energy source for electric power generation and the metallurgical industries for many decades. By 2020, coal consumption will be 50 percent higher than it is today. Ceasing the use of coal and other fossil fuels in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions is simply not a realistic option for the foreseeable future.”
They go on to offer: “Emissions from mining and use of coal contribute less than 20 percent to the enhanced greenhouse effect: Coal is just one of the many sources of greenhouse gases generated by human activity. Others include oil and natural gas, agriculture, land clearing and waste disposal. Greenhouse gases associated with coal include methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Methane is released from deep coal seams during mining. Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are released when coal is used in electricity generation or industrial processes such as steel making and cement manufacture.”
So it appears they are off the hook. It’s not the use of coal that’s the problem, but how coal is used! It’s not cigarettes that are the problem, it’s the way people smoke them.
What do they imagine their customers in thirty-five countries around the world are going to do with it? Like Pigou’s solution, Australia as a proud 30 percent export participant in the global problem should at the very least accept 30 percent of the blame. The Australian Coal Industry has obviously done some figuring to project their commercial interests to 2020 for a 50 percent increase in global consumption. If their assumptions are correct, and I think we can trust these guys, then on present exports, by 2020 we will have exported over 3 billion additional tonnes. And how do we get our gross domestic product of coal exports of around $2 billion a month out of the country and off on their adventure back to the atmosphere?
Australia proclaims presently (in 2008) to only be the contributor to 1.46 percent of global carbon emissions. Doesn’t the fact that we export the fossilized carbon that creates massive amounts of environmental damage get to figure in our responsibility for global pollution? I think I would have Pigou’s vote to include it as part of the Australian national footprint.
The coal industry and the political parties supporting them would have us believe they can continue with the fossilized carbon release and offer up for our comfort, the silver bullet, of “Clean Coal Technology” and “Carbon Capture and Storage—CCS.”
Digging deeper, as they also must to keep up with exports, we find the plot thickens.
END Excerpt

For more on the CCS coal and political green wash see Blog at

Section posting ‘Carbon Capture and Strorage. Or has Elvis already left the building?’

Bob Williamson
Greenhouse Neutral Foundation


Nice article, for me coal production is the number one climate change concern in Australia.
There is one minor error is in your calculations: one tonne of coal actually gives only 2 tonnes of CO2 for thermal coal and 3 tonnes of CO2 for coking coal because coal is not pure carbon. If you look in the National Greenhouse Accounts Factors you can find the conversion rates. I guess that Wiggins Island Coal Terminal will be mostly exporting coking coal, while Newcastle will be mostly thermal coal. I use 2.3t CO2/t coal as a conservative estimate

There are also many other significant infrastructure expansions taking place, the Queensland Government has budgeted $5.4 bn for coal infrastructure and plans to increase exports by several hundred tonnes by 2030. Summary information that is only a little out of date is available on a slideshow here. More up to date information will be up soon.

If you are interested in being part of a growing campaign against this expansion, or supporting the many communities and farmers opposing new mines, please get in touch.

cheers, Brad (bradley.r.smith at


Thanks Brad – yep, you are right that coal of different ‘quality’ yields different CO2 amounts on combustion – my figures were rough, but still in the right ballpark. Of course given that I didn’t include in that calculation all the particulate uranium, thorium, mercury and lead that also goes up in the coal smokestack via combustion, and carted out in the voluminous post-combustion coal ash residue, nor all the methane vented from coal beds and open cast mines, I reckon it fairly well balances out!

BTW, when you say: plans to increase exports by several hundred tonnes by 2030 – I assume you mean ‘several hundred million tonnes’?

Opposing ANY new coal fired power stations or mining developments is a clear and present priority, given our current inability to capture the emissions and sequester them. So yes, I’ll certainly support such actions.


The failure to regulate (or often even acknowledge) emissions from Australia’s coal exports is one of the greatest failures of Australia’s response to climate change at present. However, the international system sets the stage for this approach as the Kyoto Protocol attributes liability only for direct national emissions (although even these can be offset with emission reductions in developing countries under the Clean Development Mechanism).

If anyone would like to read an examination of some of the legal issues with this problem and how the legal response is likely to change in the future, I am happy to email you a copy of an article I wrote, “Regulating greenhouse gas emissions from Australian coal mines” (2008) 25 Environmental & Planning Law Journal 240-262. My email is

The abstract of the article reads:

“This article explores the evolving response to climate change in Australia, focusing on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from Australian coal mines. It considers key science and the current regulatory regime as a basis for anticipating likely future trends in the regulatory regime. It concludes that the regulation of direct and indirect emissions is likely to escalate rapidly in the future. One of the major trends is that the legal system will increasingly move to attributing legal liability for climate change based on activities directly or indirectly emitting greenhouse gases without needing to establish a causal link to any specific or discernible environmental impact. Another major trend that can be anticipated is that coal mines will be required to assess direct and indirect emissions. Regulation of emissions from the use of coal mined in Australia remains a live issue. Mandatory requirements for carbon capture and storage of emissions from coal is a logical step for the future regulatory regime.”


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