Australia isn't trying to stop global warming. We're subsidising it.
While the ACT is on track to source 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable energy by 2020, Queensland's state government is doubling down on the No. 1 contributor to climate change: coal.
Despite banks, economists and Australians in general showing little interest in handing Indian coal giant Adani billions of dollars to dig up a heap of carbon, many politicians just can't seem to wait to throw your money at it. The Queensland government's enthusiasm is exceeded only by that of Turnbull government ministers, who have taken to fondling lumps of coal on the floor of Parliament.
Ten days before the last Queensland election, then opposition leader Annastacia Palaszczuk blasted the Newman's government for picking winners and losers, warning: "What we're seeing at the moment is Campbell Newman throwing a bucket of taxpayers' cash ... at one particular company [Adani]."
She further promised that "Queenslander taxpayers' money is not going to be used to fund commercial operations". She then went on to win the election in one of Australia's biggest political upsets.
Coal subsidies are unpopular
Despite being elected on a "no subsidies" platform, the Palaszczuk government has since offered Adani free water (in the form of an unlimited, unchallengeable water licence), free coal (in the form of a reported $320 million "royalty holiday") and a possible 39-year raincheck on the clean-up bill. It's also on track for a $1 billion subsidised loan for its rail line from the federal government's Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.
At this rate, we'll soon be paying Adani to dig up our coal. And voters don't appear to be impressed.
The Australia Institute polled 1400 people and found almost two thirds (64 per cent) opposed the proposed $1 billion subsidised loan to Adani. It was unpopular no matter which state respondents lived in or which party they voted for. When given a list of infrastructure they'd like their taxes spent on, coal consistently came last.
All these subsidies represent taxpayers' money that won't be available for new schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities, faster internet or anything else we might want to invest in.
Adani mine's few fans
Taxpayers are right to be sceptical. Even Queensland's Treasury assessed the project as "unbankable" and, in documents obtained under freedom of information law, expressed fears about Adani's high level of debt and warned the company was a "risk" because of its unclear corporate structure and use of offshore entities.
Indian authorities are investigating five Adani Group companies for multiple alleged financial crimes, including trade-based money-laundering, siphoning money offshore and bribing public officials. And a shell company based in the Cayman Islands and controlled by the Adani family will receive up to $3 billion from an overarching royalty deed. That's right: while the Adani family is set to receive up to $120 million a year in royalties from the mine, Queensland taxpayers are reportedly set to receive just $2 million a year in royalties for the same coal. That's not a deal: that's getting screwed with your pants on.
The Adani mine's biggest cheerleader, federal Nationals frontbencher Matt Canavan, washed his hands of responsibility for looking after taxpayers' money, assuring there is "nothing inconsistent with Adani's company structure with Australian laws" and deflecting questions about the investigations to the infrastructure facility.
But the facility won't respond
Even though the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has $5 billion in public money to distribute, information about its processes is sparse. This may be because, in Canavan's words, "there is not really a formal submission or application process". I feel reassured, don't you?
The facility's submission form to apply for a $1 billion loan includes only three fields: name, email and "message". I filled in more details than that to get my Dendy loyalty card.
Late last year, the facility said it was still developing its due diligence requirements, despite one project already being at the due diligence stage. It did not have a risk appetite statement, either.
Taxpayers are right to be sceptical about the facility subsidising the Adani mine; not even the banks want a piece of it. The mine is still struggling to attract private finance after years of trying. Westpac was the last of Australia's big four banks to rule out financing the mine, revealing its "no new coal basins" climate policy and sending Canavan into fits of apoplexy.
In contrast, 12 separate large-scale solar project awarded grants by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency reached financial close this month. It's pretty clear the ACT has made the smart decision to go 100 per cent renewable as soon as possible.
'Threat to jobs'
There have many claims – mostly dodgy – about the jobs the mine will create. It's 10,000 out of court, though under oath Adani admitted it is only 1464. But the government has been conspicuously silent on the jobs Adani's mine threatens.
First, there's the obvious threat to the 70,000 jobs that depend on the Great Barrier Reef. The beauty of the reef is so exquisite it has moved people to tears. But now it's the scientists weeping as they survey the death and decay of one of the natural wonders of the world.
Severe and consecutive bleaching events over the past two years, caused by global-warming heated ocean waters, has seen 93 per cent of the reefs experience bleaching. Building a mega coal mine next door to the reef is the opposite of protecting the many small businesses and tourism and fishing operators whose jobs rely on protecting this natural wonder.
Second, the Adani mine is a direct threat to existing coal jobs in NSW and elsewhere in Queensland. Australia is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have a larger share of the seaborne coal market than Saudi Arabia has of the world oil market. In Paris, the world promised to use less coal. So what would adding the world's biggest export coal mine do to a market with flat or declining demand?
"Bringing on additional tonnes with the aid of taxpayer money would materially increase the risk to existing coal operations," said Peter Freyberg, of commodity trading giant Glencore. In other words, Adani threatens existing coal jobs in NSW's Hunter Valley and Illawarra, and elsewhere in Queensland.
No new coal
To protect existing coal jobs with a gentler transition, to protect tourism jobs and the reef, it's time Australia adopted a no new coal mines policy. Westpac already has a no new coal basins policy.
Australia has a pipeline of approved coal mines that stretches into the 2040s. If we stopped approving new coal mines, the effect on employment would be 0.04 per cent. That's because despite exporting lots of coal, coal mining employs few people – 99 per cent of Australians don't work in coal mining – and new mines threaten these existing jobs.
Palaszczuk and Canavan are bravely fighting against the tide. It's a minority view that building new coal mines is good economics or good environmental policy.
The world is abandoning coal. There is no way Australia can reduce its carbon pollution by building new coal mines. That's like trying to cure your lung cancer by smoking an extra pack of cigarettes a day.
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of The Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett