Here's How We Get Serious About Transitioning Away From Coal

The scientific consensus is clear: climate change is happening, making extreme climate events like heatwaves, bushfires, droughts, floods and severe storms regular occurrences.

Across the globe governments are responding by transferring power generation to clean energy based on renewables, but NSW continues to lag behind, relying on coal power generation while doing little to help coal communities smoothly transition to new jobs and industries in the renewable energy sector.

Energy production is only part of the story in reaching our international obligations and responding to global changes in the energy market. The NSW Land and Environment Court refused a new coal mine in Gloucester last month partly because the extracted coal burnt overseas would contribute to climate change. This reminds us that our large coal mining industry has global climate implications. Most of the coal mined in NSW is exported for use in coal fired power stations and this makes us responsible for massive carbon emissions. We’ve been ignoring the climate change impacts of coal extracted in this state for decades. While the court determination may help change that, the coal industry is already set for decline by an impending global energy revolution.

We've been ignoring the climate change impacts of coal extracted in this state for decades. Image: The Invincible colliery at Cullen Bullen, near Lithgow, NSW.  Credit: AAP

The NSW Government’s projection for continued large-scale coal exports goes against the global trend. Efforts across the globe to meet Paris Agreement targets will dramatically cut demand for coal in the next two decades -- potentially by more than 50 percent. Coal exports are already decreasing with our major coal export markets scaling back and closing coal-fired projects.

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The Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recently reported that the NSW coal industry has begun a period of permanent decline and last week, Australia’s largest coal exporter Glencore announced it will cap its coal output, favouring assets resilient to climate change for shareholders. When even mining companies admit climate change is real and start to adjust, surely it’s time for government action to prepare our economy.

A transition away from coal is what the planet urgently needs. Yet it requires us to plan to avoid social and economic impacts in mining regions. A new report by the University of Western Sydney commissioned by Lock the Gate titled ‘Weathering the storm: The case for transformation in the Hunter Valley’ predicts serious economic disruption in Hunter coal communities if we don’t start to prepare now. Some regions rely heavily on coal mining and little is being done to build resilience in their economies. Coal mine closures are harder to predict than coal power stations yet less is being done to prepare for them.

We need a transition plan for communities whose economies rely on coal. Image: An open cut mine in the Hunter Valley near Newcastle. Credit: AAP
Creating new jobs in regions like the Hunter will be key as the world scales down its reliance on coal. Image: An open cut mine in the Hunter Valley near Newcastle. Credit: AAP

In a post carbon economy, there are great opportunities for regional communities like the Hunter including agriculture and wine, tourism and renewable energy. These diverse industries boost job creation while better preserving local soil, air quality, water and biodiversity.

Research from the Australia Institute suggests that the renewable energy industry alone could create up to 60,000 new jobs. We want as many of these jobs in NSW as possible.

Just as the threat of automation led to the creation of jobs for NSW and an inner city tech hub for hundreds of new and emerging businesses, we need a transition authority to support new jobs, retrain communities, and prepare our coal economies for the future. Such an authority would need to be led by local advocates of affected communities and involve workers and regional industries, including emerging industries.

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We need to transition to other forms of  energy and industry in traditionally coal-reliant regions. Image: The Acciona wind farm near Gunning NSW. Credit: AAP

If we are serious about saving the world from catastrophic climate change and protecting our local economy, we must take a holistic approach towards energy. We must transition our energy supply to clean renewables and support current coal mining regions to adapt and thrive as more sustainable economies for the long term.

Addressing climate change and transitioning jobs from the coal industry must be a package deal.

We don’t want to repeat the decimation of communities that came out of the manufacturing decline; we have to look at opportunities for communities, and invest in retraining and job creation.

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It's time for the major parties to urgently commit to a 10-year adjustment strategy for coal mining communities. This must be backed by substantial financial resources to affected regions. Let’s urgently develop a strong transition policy framework to support workers and diversify economies. By acting decisively now, we can prepare for the imminent change in coal demand, protect the environment and become a leader in job creation and economic gain from the emerging clean energy market.

This is article was co-authored by Dr Joe McGirr MP, Independent Member for Wagga Wagga.