The coal rush, and beyond Comparative perspectives

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  • The coal rush, and beyond Comparative perspectives

Globally, coal extraction and burning is booming. The burning of coal has released unprecedented quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbated anthropogenic climate change. This Workshop investigates this ‘coal rush’ in socio-political terms, asking how it can be superseded. We seek explanations of why new coal facilities are constructed, investigate social conflicts that are centred on the facilities, and analyse what factors may enable transition from coal. Specific sites, national contexts and international frameworks will be analysed compared to develop a global understanding of dependence on coal, and how it may be overcome.

Coal laid the foundations for the industrial revolution, and rivals oil as the world’s main source of energy. Unlike oil, coal remains plentiful and accessible. Reflecting this, a ‘coal rush’ is currently underway. The demand appears insatiable, with mines once thought uneconomic coming on stream, and untapped reserves of coal seam gas offering prospects for a new energy sector. Despite a 64% growth in coal extraction between 1990 and 2010, to almost 5 bln tonnes, there was an ‘unprecedented’ three-fold increase in world coal prices between 2007 and 2008 (IEA 2012: 157). Following the financial crisis coal prices have recovered to remain at more than double their 2006 levels (DRET 2012:65).

Yet coal is also the main industrial cause of climate change. Crutzen proposes a new geological era, the ‘Anthropocene,’ dating from when humankind began to re-model the planet’s ecosystems with the invention of the coal-fired steam traction engine (Crutzen 2002). Coal is especially rich in carbon: when black coal is burnt it produces close to triple its weight in carbon dioxide (Co2). Since 1970 the burning of coal for electricity has grown faster than any other source of greenhouse gas emissions, and now accounts for more than half of world emissions from stationary sources (Gale et al 2004:81: IPCC 2007). With global emissions growing by 39% between 1990 and 2008, there is now a solid consensus on the need for a transition beyond coal.

The dilemma that we address in this project could not be starker. The world cannot make any real progress towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the rate of global warming without dramatically reducing its coal consumption. In 2012 the International Energy Agency stated that keeping global warming below 2°C would require leaving two-thirds of proven coal reserves in the ground. Global coal consumption would have to fall to 3.3 billion tonnes by 2035, a remarkable 4.5bt below the projected growth scenario of 7.8bt (IEA 2012:157). Clearly, global reliance on coal will have fatal consequences for coming generations if it continues unchecked: leaving coal in the ground has become a global imperative.

As the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia is at the centre of this global dilemma. 75% of the coal mined in Australia is shipped offshore and export coal has driven Australia’s coal boom: in 2005 Australian coal production stood at 306m million tonnes, rising to 420mt in 2010 (WRI 2012). With growing export demand the Government expects an increase up to 689mt by 2025, mostly in thermal black coal for generating electricity (DRET 2012: 67). The World Resources Institute now states Australia’s coal production could reach 900mt, with shipment capacity rising to 1200mt by 2020 (WRI 2012:14).

The workshop addresses the following questions:

  1. How is coal dependence maintained in the face of climate change?
  2. What are the societal barriers to achieving a future beyond coal?
  3. What factors may be emerging to support a transition from coal?
  4. How are these questions answered for contrasting localities in the global coal chain?

In framing these questions we start from two basic premises. Our first premise is that no country is an island when it comes to climate change or emissions reduction. Individual countries, their coal and energy industries, and the localities where coal is mined and consumed, are deeply enmeshed in transnational divides, in particular between early and late industrialisers, and between coal consumers and producers.

Our second premise is that ending our dependence on coal is not simply a technological question; it is also a sociopolitical question. As the environmental sociologist Ortwin Renn writes, ‘a better understanding of the human drivers for initiating, promoting, or hindering political change in this arena is as crucial to effective decision-making as are the findings of the natural and climate sciences’ (Renn 2011:154).

In order to capture and address these linkages and divergences, the workshop compares Germany, an early industrialiser now planning a phase-out of coal mining and coal-fired power, with India, a late industrialiser where coal-fired power is expanding exponentially, and Australia, where efforts to reduce dependence on domestic coal-fired power are more-than offset by a dramatic rise in coal exports. The comparison seeks to exemplify and model global divides on coal and climate: Germany is planning the world’s biggest shift to renewable energy; India is planning the greatest quantitative increase in coal-fired power; Australia is planning to expand on its status as the world’s largest producer of export coal. Comparison of these contexts offers the possibility of a grounded and truly global apprehension of challenges posed by the need for a post-coal future.

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

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Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

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  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
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