Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, which is in turn the most emissions intensive fossil fuel. To prevent runaway climate change, the burning of coal must be rapidly phased out. The Socialist Alliance rejects the assertion by the Australian Coal Association that Australian coal exports could simply be replaced 'overnight' by other producers if Australian exports were phased out. A phasing out of Australian coal exports would create (at least temporarily) a shortage of supply, sending the price of coal up. The political impact of the world's largest coal exporter cutting exports would be substantial. The two main uses of coal are in steel production (Metallurgical/coking coal) and electricity production (steaming coal).
Modern renewable energy technology such as wind turbines and "base load" solar thermal with storage present practical alternatives to coal fired electricity. Other technologies like solar photovoltaic, wave and tidal power, bioelectricity (from crop wastes) and geothermal present promising avenues to further development of renewables. The Socialist Alliance believes the ongoing use of coal for electricity generation is unjustified given the availability of viable renewable alternatives. Australia must eliminate domestic use of coal fired power, and must also seek to phase out its exports of steaming coal as rapidly as possible. Coal exports could be scaled back on a country by country basis, with those countries best placed to move to renewables (and most obliged given their economic position and historic emissions) having their access to Australian steaming coal scaled back and ultimately eliminated.
Currently Coking coal is a necessary input in the steel-making process, with no alternative industrial scale method of extracting iron from iron ore. However there exists plenty of scope for the scaling back of steel production to eliminate non-essential use of the resource, as well as expanded recycling. The Socialist Alliance calls for an expanded program of steel recycling using renewables powered electric arc technology, research into low or zero emissions smelting of iron ore, and the prioritisation of steel production for socially necessary purposes. However given that as yet coking/metallurgical coal is a necessary element of steel production, the Socialist Alliance calls for coking coal exports to be reduced as much as possible but not necessarily eliminated altogether. The profits from any ongoing coking coal exports should be used for further research into (and implementation of) low or zero emission steel production, i.e. the industry should be publicly owned, not run for profit. For more information see the Socialist Alliance draft policy on steel industry and of mining coking coal.
Japan receives special mention as it is the major importer of Australian coal (both steaming and metallurgical). The Socialist Alliance wishes to develop ties with climate activists, environmentalists and trade unionists in Japan with a view to working together on climate and coal campaigns. The other two major importers are Taiwan and South Korea. Japan has an advanced manufacturing sector which is particularly well placed to move to renewables development and manufacture. Japan's reliance on Australian coal exports ultimately presents the climate movement in each country with an opportunity to collaborate on a more effective campaign for climate action.
A Just transition
Trade unions in the mining industry have fought hard for improved wages over the past ~100 years and unionised workers in the industry enjoy good wages. Some coal mining communities would be economically (and socially) decimated if the coal industry was to leave without the creation of robust sources of alternative employment. The Socialist Alliance calls for state and federal governments to nationalise the export coal industry and use the revenues to establish alternative industries in communities currently reliant on the coal industry. Given that Australia needs to embark on a major renewables manufacturing program to decarbonise our energy sector, it is logical that major elements of the new renewables manufacturing industry could be intentionally established in coal communities to provide alternative jobs for coal workers. It should be noted that renewables manufacture is by no means the only alternative industry that could be stimulated in mining communities. The Socialist Alliance calls for retraining of coal workers on full pay. The Socialist Alliance congratulates the Latrobe Valley CFMEU for developing a transition plan for workers in the coal fired electricity sector and calls upon the union to develop such a plan for workers in the export coal industry, and in particular the steaming coal export industry based mainly in the Hunter valley.
Elements of the grassroots' climate movement in Australia have expressed concern that a phasing out of Australian coal exports could result in developing nations being deprived of access to a cheap energy resource necessary for their economic development. It is important to remember that Japan is the major buyer of Australian coal and that Japan is not a third world country. The other two major buyers of Australian coal, Taiwan and South Korea, are not economic superpowers like Japan however they both possess advanced manufacturing capacity and are thus well placed to produce renewables to replace their coal-fired power stations.
The Socialist Alliance wishes to reiterate that as Australian coal exports are phased out, a publicly-owned export industry could ration remaining exports to those least able to afford a transition to renewables. Perhaps more importantly though, the socialist alliance believes that as a rich country and historically a major polluter, Australia is obliged to provide free or highly subsidised renewable generation infrastructure to developing countries to assist in achieving a rapid transition to a low or zero-carbon economy.
Stop the expansion
Australia is currently experiencing a massive expansion in its coal export industry, with vast new government subsidised rail and port infrastructure being built to facilitate the expansion. The Socialist Alliance calls for all subsidies to the coal industry to be cut. Local community campaign groups such as the Rivers SOS network are fighting against the expansion, largely due to concern over the damaging effect the new mines will have on water resources and air quality. The Socialist Alliance recognises that the first step towards phasing out coal exports is in fact preventing any further expansion in exports, and supports those campaigning against the expansion.
A 'Green ban' for Caroona?
A group of farmers at Caroona, near Gunnedah in NSW, are currently fighting to protect their farmland from being mined. This is the "frontier" of the current massive expansion of coal exports. Caroona is home to a giant flat valley with deep, rich soil and vast underground aquifers, meaning the land is extremely productive and ostensibly drought proof. The farmers at Caroona are quite wealthy and are not what one would think are natural allies of socialists. However the Socialist Alliance believes that the spectre of the destruction of this extremely productive farmland by mining, in the context of climate change causing crop failure and drought, is an issue which transcends class.
The Socialist Alliance calls upon the CFMEU to place a "green ban" on Caroona, in defiance of laws legislated by the former Howard government which would technically allow mining companies to sue (and possibly even bankrupt) the union. The Socialist Alliance believes that if a union cannot strike/ declare a green ban to save such a priceless agricultural resource from the rapacious greed of a mining company, then the laws are clearly unjust and should not be adhered to. A green ban at Caroona, which is something the membership of the union may well support, would set an important precedent. The socialist alliance also calls upon the ACTU and the Farmers Federation Fighting fund (currently being used to bankroll the farmers legal team) to indicate a willingness to use their resources and industrial strength to defend the CFMEU if BHP Billiton or Shenhua coal did attempt to sue the union.