Over 200 people attended the Climate Action Conference in Sydney on 29 July. Below are some of the highlights of the speeches
Polly Hemming is Director of the Australia Institute’s Climate and Energy Program
First off, I’m going to give you a quick lesson in emissions accounting. When the Government talks about progress in reducing emissions, it will say that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by roughly 25 per cent since 2005. Our climate targets are 53 per cent reduction by 2030.
So if the government’s right, we’re about halfway to meeting our target already. But this figure in no way accurately captures Australia’s emissions.
Back in the 1990s, Australia set up a way of gaming emissions accounting at international negotiations and we’re still benefiting from it now.
Emissions may have fallen a bit, but we haven’t decarbonised. We just set up an accounting system to benefit us, and got really lucky with the weather.
When Australia reports its greenhouse gas emissions, it does so in the form of an inventory. It’s a list of all the human managed sources of emissions as well as what are called sinks, that suck emissions out of the atmosphere. Sinks are mostly plants.
Our inventory is like a big bank statement. You’ve got credits, what you’ve put in, and debits, what you’ve taken out, and then you work out the overall balance.
When it was deciding what year to use as a baseline for the Paris Agreement, it chose 2005 deliberately because we had really high emissions from land clearing in that year.
After that there was a state policy that stopped land clearing in Queensland temporarily. It was also during the millennium drought. After 2005 we had rain from La Nina that caused trees to grow. And we stopped travelling during COVID. And that’s been our climate policy.
If you take away those incidental drops, Australia’s emissions have only fallen by about 2 per cent since 2005 and that’s mainly in the electricity sector. We haven’t decarbonised transport, industry, manufacturing, waste, or agriculture.
The government also releases emissions projections for the future. The projections they released at the end of last year have transport, industry, and fugitive emissions from fossil fuel production all staying steady through to 2030. Fugitive emissions are the gases that leak out when you extract gas and coal. Coal mines are actually a huge source of fugitive emissions.
Does Australia have any policies to address this? The answer is not really, no.
According to government projections, emissions will drop in the electricity sector. There’s a bit of a drop in other sectors, but the government won’t say where or how that’s going to happen. Department officials in a recent Senate inquiry said they hadn’t actually modelled where the other reductions were going to come from.
We do have an ambitious renewables target, but it’s more a goal. It’s not a renewable energy target like the previous policy we had, which required certain entities to buy renewable energy and drove investment.
The government has no convincing plan to decarbonise transport emissions. It recently released an electric vehicle (EV) strategy that doesn’t include any actual policies or incentives to get people to buy EVs and no fuel efficiency standards. There were some vague noises made about a plan for fuel efficiency standards.
We’ve got no policies to increase public transport, or decarbonise other means of travel.
The government’s Safeguard Mechanism is Labor’s flagship emissions reduction policy, meant to tackle emissions from our biggest polluting industrial facilities, which are predominantly gas and coal projects. But they don’t have to reduce their emissions, they can just purchase carbon offsets. This is how the Government is able to say that we’re going to meet our climate targets while continuing to dig up and export gas and coal. It’s just more creative accounting.
We’re the world’s third largest fossil fuel exporter. Australia has no plans to stop approving new gas or coal. In fact, Minister Chris Bowen has said a ban on new gas and coal projects would be irresponsible.
There is no indication either that the government is going to stop the $11 billion in subsidies it gives to fossil fuels every year.
Since the election the government has approved three coal mine projects, approved drilling for 116 gas wells, endorsed large scale gas extraction in the Northern Territory, and given $1.5 billion directly to infrastructure for a gas processing and export hub in the NT for the Beetaloo basin. And it has over 100 new gas and coal projects listed as in development on its major resources project list.
The Australian Government’s own data says that coal exports are going to increase through to 2028.
We stopped whaling and mining asbestos. We don’t sell alcohol to kids even though kids want to buy it. No one is saying shut it down overnight. The IEA, the UN, the IPCC all say stop approving new fossil fuel projects.
The government suggests that its climate policies and programs are going to drive economy wide decarbonisation.
Our electricity system is getting more renewables and we’ve got plans to develop green hydrogen. But if our government’s not doing anything to address the number one thing that’s driving climate change—fossil fuel expansion—then it doesn’t matter how many good things you add to the mix.
‘Fracking and mining leaves toxic waste right across the land’
Gadrian Hoosan, Garrwa community leader from the Gulf Country, Northern Territory
I come from Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, right next to the Queensland border. My people from the Garrwa, Yanyuwa, Gudanji and Marra people.
We’ve been facing a lot of mining damage in our country. We got the McArthur River mine. If you drive past it, you’ll see the waste rock burning. It reminds me of the Lord of the Rings movie.
We can see our country drying up. All our groundwater is gone. Our flowers on the trees used to be our bush calendar.
We used to look at bush flowers blooming, and that used to tell us animals were fat and the best time to eat. Lately they’re not flowering anymore because all the ground waters are drying up.
All the plants are dying. The mining company sucked a lot of water out of there.
They’re fracking for shale gas, not coal seam gas, up in our area. We got the Imperial company up there and Santos too.
We’ve got mega fracking now over in the Betaloo. But it’s not only going to affect the Beetaloo, it’s going to affect the McArthur Basin, too. The McArthur Basin runs right past the Queensland border and up to central Arnhem Land. It’s going to affect the groundwater for us up there.
We’ve got the gas companies, the McArthur Mine and we’ve got the copper mine over at Redbank mine. They left toxic waste running down on the big beautiful spring waters during the wet, running right across the land.
That’s what we’re worried about up in the Northern Territory, because governments can find the money to destroy the land, but they can’t find the money to fix it.
I only feel power when we all stand together.
It doesn’t matter what color we are, we need to stand together because this is our country. We need to stand up for it together.
‘Just going in and saying, we want to shut coal down is not going to work’
Allen Hicks is the NSW Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union
I did my apprenticeship in the coal mines in Queensland. My dad was a coal miner, so for the first 22 years of my life, I lived and worked in coal mining communities.
So I echo the sentiment that if we’re going to win this campaign, we’ve got to bring people in the coal communities along with us. Just going in and saying, we want to shut coal down, is not going to work.
People in the coal communities have probably three, four or five generations of families there. And when they see no alternative, no plan, that’s why there’s resistance with respect to what we’re trying to achieve.
It doesn’t mean to say coal pits won’t shut. It doesn’t mean to say power stations won’t shut. They will. The issue is how we transition those workers. What plan do we have for them? What job security do we have for them?
In Germany, they shut their coal mining industry, and did it very successfully. They renationalised, purchased all the coal pits and shut them all down. But no miner lost their job during that process.
Most of these coal communities have great infrastructure. Over many years they’ve developed rail networks, port networks, high voltage infrastructure networks that are perfect place for renewable energy hubs.
The majority of members work in coal because they’ve got job security, they’ve got good wages and conditions.
With respect to renewable energy projects, we want more and more of them. We would much prefer that they were publicly owned, so we control it, look after it and we maintain it.
But we have a lot of private investment in solar, in particular in NSW. Every day of the week, we’re out on solar farms trying to organise those workers, trying to make sure it’s safe, good wages and conditions. There’s a lot more work to be done because of corporate greed trying to drive down wages and conditions.
If we’re successful, it becomes more attractive for people that work in coal or emissions intensive industries to work in renewable energy projects.
We’ve got to do everything we can at a local, state and federal government level to convince politicians to look after workers in emissions intensive industries, to make sure that we do have good, secure jobs in renewables and do everything we can to convince the community to get on board, because new thermal coal mines or gas peaking plants are definitely not the answer.
Nathan Clements is an activist with the Hunter Jobs Alliance and an AMWU delegate
I work for a company that manufactures mining equipment, so my employment is tied directly to the mines.
The mining companies work very hard to convince their workers and local communities that they are on the same side. They sponsor local sporting teams, they donate to charities.
In the lead up to the 2019 election the climate movement went to coal communities and told them to support climate action without a plan or alternative to support them and their families.
This empowered our active opposition to play on the fear and unease of the community. We need to avoid repeating this mistake by showing solidarity with workers. A just transition is the path out of this to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods.
You can view videos of the speeches from the conference here.