Back to basics on coal's role in climate change

We need to talk about coal. Not emission reduction strategies, the advantages of hyper-supercritical coal-fired power stations or the architecture of global climate agreements. Coal.

Coal is the major source of the greenhouse gasses that the world's scientists, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, believe is causing dangerous climate change.

Yet Australia plans to dig up and sell far more coal in the coming decades than we ever have before. The 40 kilometre-long pits of the Adani/Carmichael mine will, for example, pour an extra 2 billion tonnes of coal into the world market and an extra 4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the world's atmosphere. That is what causes climate change.

You can't tackle climate change while you are increasing the amount of coal that is being burned. Read that sentence again if you need to, it's really quite important.

After 20 years of debate about climate change, it seems ridiculous that such a statement of the bleeding obvious needs saying, but – given the statements of Mr Turnbull and Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg – it seems we need to go back to basics.

Step 1 - the more coal that gets burned, the more CO₂ enters our atmosphere and the more global warming we get. The atmosphere doesn't care how or where the coal is burnt, and it really doesn't care whether we tell ourselves that we could have burned even more coal if we wanted to.


Step 2 - inventing more "energy efficient" coal-fired power stations could only reduce greenhouse gas emissions if you bulldozed the old power stations and replaced them with the new ones. But, and this is important, when you build hundreds of new coal-fired power stations and you don't bulldoze the old ones then no matter how "efficient" the new ones are, the extra coal that gets burned causes extra climate change.

Alarmingly, neither Mr Turnbull nor Mr Frydenberg seem to understand this. Maybe the following example would help them. Just as burning too much coal causes climate change, drinking too much alcohol causes drunkenness. And just as the only way to turn around climate change is to stop burning coal, the only way to sober up is to stop drinking alcohol. Are you with me?

Now imagine at the end of a long night a drunk said to you that they accepted they had behaved irresponsibly, they accepted that they had drunk too much, they accepted they needed to do something about it, and that is why they were only going to drink light beer for the rest of the night.

Just as you don't sober up by drinking less beer than you could have, you don't tackle climate change by burning less coal than you could have. The atmosphere doesn't respond to threats, it responds to emissions. More emissions equals more climate change. If you are at all confused, it's only because our politicians want you to be. If you need to check your bearings, just read step 1 again.

Step 3 - it is absurd for Mr Turnbull and his government to simultaneously argue that our new coal mines have no impact on global emissions, but play an important role in solving "energy poverty". Which is it? Putting 200 years of economic theory and evidence aside, even if it were true that building enormous new mines in Australia doesn't increase the supply of coal by "one iota", how could our new coal mines provide the extra energy to the extra billion people the government says it wants to help without causing extra emissions?

The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, wants to talk about coal. Inhabiting one of the lowest lying counties in the world, his people – who have done almost nothing to cause climate change – will pay the highest price. On present trends most of Kiribati will be underwater or rendered uninhabitable in the lifetimes of its current residents. We aren't talking about "future generations" we are talking about when kids grow up.

President Tong understands step 1 and, because he has no incentive to make the simple seem complicated, he has called for a global moratorium on new coal mines. Put simply, a world that is burning less coal would need less coal mines, not more. That's the kind of world that gives Kiribati some chance of a stable future.

The urgency of the need to reduce emissions combined with the obvious effectiveness of a moratorium on new coal mines has led to growing support for President Tong's call. The leaders of 11 Pacific island countries have now joined him, as have voices as diverse as Sir Nicholas Stern and Naomi Klein. At the local level the idea has been endorsed by Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Doherty and former RBA head Bernie Fraser. It's hardly a silly idea.

What is silly, is the straw man arguments and high school debating tricks being used to prevent Australia from having an honest conversation about coal and, more specifically, whether selling a lot more of it is what Australians think our "contribution" to tackling climate change should be.

President Tong has asked Mr Turnbull a simple question: will Australia stop building the new coal mines that will fuel dangerous climate change? To date, Mr Turnbull hasn't even bothered to formally respond. Rather than answer simple questions about whether Australia is planning to be a part of a world that is burning more coal or less, our politicians feign concern about "energy poverty" as they cut our aid budget, and talk of creating jobs as they shed public servants.

Malcolm Turnbull is betting that the voices of the Kiribati people can be drowned out with drivel, so let's give the last word to President Anote Tong.

"I challenge any of these leaders to say 'Yes we know what is going to happen to Kiribati, but it doesn't matter. We don't care, because otherwise we would lose the next election'.

"They use the excuse of the poor. But we are the poor and we are speaking on our own behalf and we will be affected."

Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the Australia Institute.

Twitter: @RDNS_TAI