How's your carbon footprint going? Did you turn your lights off during earth hour last month? Have you replaced all your light bulbs with energy efficient compact fluorescent or LED bulbs? Do you make an effort to cycle or walk rather than drive your car for short trips?
Well it might be sobering to have a look at Peabody Energy's website at http://www.peabodyenergy.com. On the right hand side is a ticker showing its global coal sales for this year. Your can sit there and watch 500 tonnes of coal being sold each minute. That's about 1000 tonnes of carbon dioxide that will end up in the atmosphere. A thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide is what is emitted by 200 average cars over a year, or the electricity usage of 131 homes in a year. And that's how much coal it is selling each minute. You would need to plant 24,000 tree seedlings and watch them grow for 10 years, or change 25,000 light bulbs, just to offset one minute of Peabody's coal sales.
Who's Peabody Energy you ask? It is only the largest private-sector coal company in the world. Never heard of them? Well Peabody Energy has mining operations in every major coal region in Australia, including three mines in NSW and seven in Queensland. These operations resulted in sales of 35 million tonnes of Australian coal in 2013. Peabody is also a member of the consortiums that operate coal loaders at Port Kembla and Newcastle.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Peabody Energy is responsible for almost 1 per cent of all greenhouse gases contributed by humans since the industrial revolution. The only non state-owned companies that have contributed more are oil companies like BP, Shell and ExxonMobil.
While governments tinker around trying to reduce the emissions of energy consumers by a very small percentage, whether with a carbon tax or direct action subsidies, fossil fuels are extracted from the ground in ever-increasing quantities. There are no regulatory measures in place in Australia to reduce the rate of extraction and export of coal, even though coal is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emission on the planet. On the contrary, Australian governments have consistently encouraged a boom in coal mining and exports and have even subsidised it.
Australia is the world's leading coal exporter, according to the Australian Coal Association. The largest market for Australian coal is Japan, which takes almost 40 per cent of the coal.
The amount of carbon dioxide emissions that Australia exports is already double the amount that is emitted within Australia. Australian coal exports contribute around 3.3 per cent of total global carbon dioxide emissions and together with domestic emissions this puts Australia in sixth place after the far more populous nations US, China, Russia, India and Indonesia. And even though the federal government has committed to reducing domestic carbon emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, exported carbon emissions over the same period are likely to increase by more than 100 per cent.
The reason that this elephant has been allowed to stay in the room is in no small part the result of the ability of companies like Peabody to use their financial resources to persuade communities that they benefit from coal mining and exports and to hire armies of lobbyists to persuade politicians – those who have not already been won over by political donations – that they should support rather than phase out their damaging activities.
There was a time when these transnational corporations denied global warming was likely but, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, they have had to drop that argument. In fact coal companies are so confident of global warming that coal loading facilities in Australia are being upgraded to be able to withstand the consequences.
Coal companies now excuse their dangerous products by arguing they are needed to make the world a better place. Earlier this year, with the help of the world’s largest PR company, Burson-Marsteller, Peabody launched a global campaign to persuade the world that they sell coal to help the poor by providing them with cheap energy.
Peabody's PR-inspired 'concern' for the poor of the world wantonly disregards the recent IPCC assessment which makes it clear that it is the poor and disadvantaged who will suffer most from global warming caused by the fossil-fuel products of companies such as Peabody. For these people the cost of coal energy is not cheap.
It is true that people in developing nations do need affordable electricity but the efforts of coal companies to get them hooked on coal does them no favours in the long term. It is like a drug dealer offering vulnerable young people a sample to get them hooked. There is already considerable pressure on developing nations like China and India to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It would be better for all nations if wealthier countries helped poorer ones to build infrastructure to harness the renewable energy sources that they have at their disposal rather than commit themselves to a dirty, outdated energy resource like coal that they have to import.
Is Australia itself so addicted to coal exports that it won't face up to the consequences of its bad habit? If the Abbott government was really serious about direct action to curb greenhouse emissions it would start with the most cost-effective option of closing the coal loaders.
Professor Sharon Beder, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong.