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Shifting our nation past the fossil fuel era

10 February 2021 at 5:48 pm
David Ritter
The newly-launched Coal Impacts Index is an example of powerful teamwork from separate organisations acting together to achieve a common goal for the good of the country, writes David Ritter.  

David Ritter | 10 February 2021 at 5:48 pm


Shifting our nation past the fossil fuel era
10 February 2021 at 5:48 pm

The newly-launched Coal Impacts Index is an example of powerful teamwork from separate organisations acting together to achieve a common goal for the good of the country, writes David Ritter.  

There is immense power for social change in effective collaboration. Organisations, movements and institutions working collectively have the capacity to drive non-linear historical transformations. Together, we can lift the world. 

A new resource launched this week – the Coal Impacts Index – a major project from the Australia Beyond Coal campaign is an example of powerful team work from separate organisations acting together to achieve a common goal for the good of the country. My own organisation, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, is very proud to be part of this collaborative effort with all of the opportunities for maximising our shared impact.

In Australia, it is essential to our future flourishing and prosperity as a nation that we stop burning and mining coal as quickly as possible. Australia Beyond Coal is a committed alliance of seven organisations, each bringing different and complementary strengths, dedicated to shifting our nation beyond the deadly pall of the fossil fuel era.

Coal is inherently dirty and dangerous. It is more than 10 years since Professor James Hansen wrote that, “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death,” and testified to that effect before an English court of law.

In the deliberate inaction of the Morrison government to do anything meaningful to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the glaring lack of any national coal phase out plan stands out as conspicuously egregious. Coal is the number one driver of global warming globally. Coal is the number one driver of fossil fuel pollution in Australia. Australia’s biggest operator of coal burning power stations is AGL

But coal is also filthy and hazardous for reasons unconnected with climate change. Multiple reports have now documented the gross health impacts from coal burning power stations, including on the brain and lungs, with particular impacts on asthma sufferers. Invisible particulates from coal burning power stations can even reach inside the womb, getting at the unborn.

Shockingly, Australia has weaker coal burning pollution laws than the EU, the USA and China. Our legal protections are far too weak to safeguard public health and the environment, but even so, there are still numerous breaches of the standards that do exist.

The Coal Impacts Index is a ground-breaking new web platform that tracks breaches, pollution reports and other incidents at the coal burning power stations on Australia’s eastern seaboard, which comprise the National Electricity Market (NEM). The incidents in question – and there are more than 1,000 of them in the database – are drawn from government sources, but are aggregated and explained in user-friendly form for the very first time. 

Numerous individuals have contributed their labour to assiduously compiling and checking all the data, so that anyone can now check the pollution impacts of coal burning in their local area. 

The overall picture is dismal and compelling. The hard data gathered in accessible form in one place, demonstrates in granular detail that coal burning power stations are polluting, unreliable and non-compliant. In the five years under study, there were more than 150 breaches of environmental protection licences. AGL has the worst record, responsible for around three quarters of licence breaches reported by EPAs in NSW and Victoria over the period in question.

The picture that is painted raises serious questions around non-compliance and corporate governance. The very least that the operators of coal burning power stations owe the local communities near them is strict compliance with the law and complete and easy disclosure. And just because our national legal and regulatory system is lagging behind the world, there is no reason why the coal burning corporations should not themselves insist on international best practice.

A failure to adopt the kind of pollution mitigation that is mandatory in many places overseas is a cynical and amoral decision by Australian coal corporations to put business profits ahead of the health, safety and wellbeing of the communities in which they operate. The result is coughing kids, polluted creeks, underweight babies – and that’s before you even get to the incalculable impact of severe climate damage. 

The transition to cheap, clean, safe, reliable and endlessly renewable energy should be underway, full steam. The commitments of state governments are showing the kind of leadership sorely lacking at federal level; in NSW, 12 gigawatts of clean energy (almost equivalent to the entirety of Australia’s current large-scale renewable capacity) plus energy storage will be built over the next decade, while the Victorian government’s late-2020 budget allocated $543 million to develop six renewable energy zones. One very recent study has concluded that Australia could reach net-zero by 2035.

Australia Beyond Coal is dedicated to securing a safer, cleaner, flourishing country. The Coal Impacts Index is a vital contribution to further demonstrating why this project is so urgent and essential. 

David Ritter  |  @ProBonoNews

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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