Floods, climate and a “tiny” bit of coal outrage

AS the floods in Queensland and Victoria gushed through homes, businesses and streets leaving tragedy behind, all of that murky water and grime sent moral compasses and other measures of taste and decency spinning and covorting in all directions.

What outrages you, or anyone else, depends on which way your moral, political or ideological compass tends to point. Talking about building dams or the role of climate change while people are suffering could enrage some people while for others, it could simply drift by unnoticed on the media floodwaters.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown’s assertion that the floods in Queensland were caused in part by the coal industry is a classic case in point. He made the statement on Sunday 16 January, well after the majority of floodwaters in Queensland had subsided but before the communities of Toowoomba and Grantham had begun to bury their dead. Brown said the coal industry should be picking up some of the clean-up bill for future extreme weather events.

Ralph Hillman, executive director the Australian Coal Association (ACA), responded by saying that in any case, the emissions from domestically-mined coal in Australia made only a “tiny” contribution to world emissions of greenhouse gases. If tiny is a postulated 2.5 per cent of the world’s entire emissions from fossil fuels, then tiny it is. But more on that later.

Brown was accused by some, including Resources Minister Stephen Robertson, of using the floods to make a political point. Several mining companies and industry groups including Macarthur Coal, Xstrata, the ACA and the Minerals Council of Australia expressed outrage but some could not pass up the chance to make a political point of their own. Chairman of Macarthur Coal Keith DeLacy branded Brown as “irrelevant to mainstream Australia”.

It was time to pull together, commentators said, rather than start pointing the finger of blame or making political points. Yet in the days preceding Senator Brown’s comments, there had been plenty of wagging fingers.

We heard and read open discussions about the virtues or otherwise of more dams, the ability of the home insurance industry to help flood victims, the wisdom of allowing development on flood plains and discussions of early warning systems.

Before tragedy hit Toowoomba and Grantham (but while residents in areas around Rockhampton and Bundaberg were still underwater) Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce both took the opportunity to push the idea of building more dams as an answer to future flooding woes. Mr Abbott had also previously suggested the Gillard Government should scrap the National Broadband Network and instead use the funds to help the recovery.

Except in the case of Sentaor Brown, the two “c” words (climate change) had not been taboo to everyone. International news agencies, including Associated Press and Reuters, published stories discussing the link between climate change and the floods. I wrote one too earlier this week. Some climate scientists are willing to apportion some blame for the floods on climate change while others are not. But few are willing to rule it out.

As the Fitzroy River peaked, Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter told reporters

The thing that we need to appreciate is that we are starting to see the impact of climate change in this region.

There was no political outrage over the mayor’s statement. No line-up of resources companies bearing condemnation. This could lead some to believe that it’s not what you say about the Queensland floods, but who says it.

And what is the cause of climate change? You could of course go to any source for a summary of this, including the website of the Australian Coal Association which states

Human activities such as agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) produce additional greenhouse gases, which are accumulating in the atmosphere.

Many observers, myself included, feel that Premier Anna Bligh has displayed some great communication skills and leadership over the last two weeks. This, in my view, is what happens when someone stops seeing themselves as the head of a political party and instead decides to be a leader.

Premier Bligh has not mentioned climate change either and her Royal Commission hasn’t been asked to consider it. On Thursday 13 January as flood waters were just receding in Brisbane, Premier Bligh – or her advisors – did decide it was appropriate to thank the backers of a $16 billion coal seam gas project for their decision to go ahead.

The millions of dollars in state royalties this project will generate will help bolster the State’s economic recovery after the devastating floods. At times like this we need to be able to look to the future with hope and optimism and the LNG industry will play an important part in our State’s recovery from this flood crisis.

You have to wonder whether Premier Bligh shares the view of Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter that climate change played some role in the floods. The GLNG gas project, a project being managed by resources companies Santos, PETRONAS, Total and KOGAS, is huge in scale with 2650 exploration wells and more than 2000 kilometres of pipeline. According to GLNG, the project will emit between 11 million tonnes and 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year (this also includes the burning of the gas for energy).

Queensland’s annual emissions currently stand at about 160 million tonnes, although this does not include emissions from the coal and gas extracted in the State but burned abroad. Australia’s total emissions of 549 million tonnes similarly does not account for what’s dug here but burned overseas.

Which brings us back to the ACA’s Ralph Hillman and his statement (which went unquestioned) that emissions from domestically-mined coal in Australia were “tiny”.

So just how tiny is “tiny”?

Steven Davis, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy at Stanford, California, is a climate energy specialist. In research currently in peer-review, Davis has been mapping the sources of emissions of different countries around the globe to see how footprints look when you include emissions caused by fossil fuels, regardless of where they’re burned.

Davis tells me that Australian coal exports represented about 511 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2004 with domestic coal emissions of about 191 Mt CO2.  Aussie coal, says Davis, accounted for 696 Mt or about 2.5 per cent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.

A “tiny” contribution which seems to add up to quite a lot.

You can donate to the Queensland flood appeal here.

Author: Graham

Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist. Go to the About page in the top navigation for more information.

4 thoughts on “Floods, climate and a “tiny” bit of coal outrage”

  1. When people are suffering, before people are suffering, after people are suffering…there is no ‘wrong’ time to tell the truth about the damage that self-serving and short-sighted resource/environmental policies are doing to our planet and our species’ future. The fact that people are ignorant of, or don’t care, where food comes from, or how flood plains work, or how much forest is need to ensure biodiversity, or that riparian zones are more important than ‘river views’ doesn’t change the truth of those things – the fact that people don’t want to hear it when they’ve been bitten in the arse by their ignorance doesn’t mean there are suddenly ‘timing rules’ about when it’s okay to talk about it. For example, in a generation from now, when our already fairly crappy farmland has been irrevocably damaged by salt spills from coal seam gas mines which our State and Federal Governments are whoring our futures for, when our river ecosystems are poisoned with heavy metals from mining effluent because Governments have prioritised revenue and growth economy over human and environmental safety, should we wait until we have starved to death before we mention it, or should we speak up after the first few have starved? Or is it better to discuss it during the peak starvation period? My point is that it’s so incredibly stupid to be talking about when to talk about something that is killing the planet at a rate of knots that it’s almost laughable to have to point that out.

  2. Hi Graham. Doing my own rough calculations, I came to roughly the same figure as your friend Davis for Aussie coal’s contribution to global man-made GHG emissions. This being in the context of the present controversy over Brown’s attribution of ‘liability’ to Aussie coal for Qld flood damage. Tim Blair worked out that ‘liability’ to be $9,749.99, while I arrived at an equally meaningless figure of $342,171,231.

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