As the call for action on climate change was put in the spotlight last week with the United Nations Climate Summit, climate groups and political individuals focused their attentions once more on the Australian government, which remains seemingly unsympathetic to the cause.
Since the Abbott government was voted into power in 2013, it has repealed its carbon tax and undone a number of projects, organizations and commissions that once aimed to reduce climate change and environmental damage in the country.
Coal and Gas
Currently, the Australian government has approved or is considering approval of nine mega coal mines in Queensland. Three large-scale gas projects have been planned for development in Western Australia and, in New South Wales, the development of Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Coal Mine has been temporarily halted due to a court injunction.
The coal and gas issues were at the center of the Sydney climate change rally on September 21, where over a thousand people participated in the construction of a human sign that read “Beyond coal + gas.”
The rally was held simultaneously with rallies across the country and around the world. Blair Palese, CEO of one of the organizers, 350 Australia, said that survival would depend on stopping the doubling of coal exports over the next decade.
“Coal and gas are the two biggest threats that Australia faces,” Palese told Planet Experts. “Australia is also a decision maker globally on whether we go ahead on these projects despite all we know about climate change and how fast it is all happening.
“There are huge plans to develop all kinds of gas and the style of getting it. Fracking along with other methods will not only have implications on the climate and the environment but for all the people that depend on clean water and water in our farming areas.”
In terms of coal mining, Palese said that there are large impacts for the environment as well as health impacts on local residents.
“Anyone in the vicinity will be exposed to coal dust, which means huge increases in rates of asthma and respiratory problems and there has been evidence of all kinds of increased heart disease and other issues,” she said.
Speaking at the Sydney rally, fifth generation Maules Creek farmer Rick Laird called the government “climate change deniers,” which was greeted by cheers from the protesters.
Maules Creek, where Laird’s farm is located, is just one of three open cut coal mines in the Leard State Forest. The forest is home to 396 species of flora and fauna, 40 of which are endangered.
“This Maules Creek mine is a mega mine with 13 million tonnes of coal a year… We have an alarming level of noise coming from the mines. Dust and dangerous blasts occur from time to time as these projects develop and the impacts are increasing,” Laird said.
Combined, the three mines in the Leard State Forest will produce 23 million tons of coal a year.
The two largest mines in the forest, the Maules Creek Project and Boggabri Coal, will jointly produce an estimated 30 million tons of CO2 per year. This figure is same amount of emissions New Zealand produced in 2007, according to retired professor of science, technology and society Ian Lowe.
“It’s interesting that the government now is quite honestly a mouth piece for the coal and mining industry,” Palese said, commenting on how easily mining companies were able to gain approval for projects.
Backward Steps for the Environment
Along with this, if the Mineral and Energy Resources (Commons Provision) Bill 2014 becomes law, it will remove the rights of communities and landholders to object to mining projects.
Communities with no money, resources or access to lawyers are already struggling to have their voices heard since the government cut A$10 million in funding from the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) last year. The eight EDOs around the country are committed to protecting the environment in the public interest.
“To remove those kinds of things is a hand over to say that they [the Abbott government] do not care about democracy,” Palese said.
Palese advocated the rapidly developing renewables industry as as an alternative to coal and gas.
“They certainly won’t solve everything or everything right now, but we do have the technology, by and large, to move very quickly. It is really the political will that is holding us back,” she said.
Palese also said that the renewable energy industry has been given a hard time due to the ever-shifting legislation and the lack of a clear-cut approach to development.
However, there may still be hope for Australia’s renewable energy sector, as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) managed to escape the government’s axe earlier this year.
The CEFC mobilizes investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low emissions technologies. Despite the government’s proposed abolition of the Commonwealth Authority, it generated more than A$3 billion in investment for the country.
Promised Actions by the Government
Prime Minister Tony Abbott consciously made the decision to not attend the U.N. Climate Summit on September 23 despite already having plans to address the U.N. Security Council on foreign terrorist fighters a day later.
He instead sent Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who only addressed one event during the summit. During her address, she said the government would spend A$2.55 billion on the emissions reduction fund. This includes incentives for emission reduction technologies and activities.
“Projects in these sectors and others will provide real and immediate benefits. The fund will release innovation in the economy and new opportunities for economic growth,” Bishop said.
Meanwhile back in the House of Representatives the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, spoke about the previous government’s problems with the widely debated carbon tax. The Abbott government subsequently repealed the tax in July this year, which critics view as a major step backwards for the environment.
During his address to parliament the minister also provided insight into what action the government would be taking to reduce climate change.
“We are going to ensure that there is an emissions reductions fund and a carbon purchasing fund which uses the existing Carbon Farming Initiative, which cleans up waste coal mine gas, cleans up power stations and cleans up waste landfill gas – real things which will actually reduce emissions,” he said.
“I will claim responsibility for the Emissions Reductions Fund, for the Asia-Pacific rainforest recovery plan, for the 20 Million Trees plan, for the Green Army plan [for riparian recovery]. These are real things that do real things.”
Despite pledging the regeneration of urban forests through the 20 Million Trees Program, earlier this year the government sought approval from the U.N. World Heritage committee to unlock Tasmanian forests for logging. After a seven minute deliberation, the committee rejected the request.
The Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit will take place in Sydney on November 12 and will be a parallel event to the World Parks Congress, also in Sydney, that will run from November 12-19.
The huge momentum the People’s Climate March garnered around the world has given Palese hope for an era of change.
“Sadly in Australia that’s not happening, but I’m hoping we’re going to leapfrog ahead of the next election because I think people are horrified by what has been happening.”
Images Courtesy of Jassmyn Goh © 2014