Where to from here?
I've never been one for New Year's Resolutions. In Australia, they seem even more doomed to failure since everyone's on the biggest holiday of the year. There's no change of behaviour required of climate activists or environmental protectors, however. Regroup and make plans; the issues haven't gone away during the summer.
Following the excitement of the Paris Climate Conference at the start of December – and if you believe all remaining coal reserves should stay in the ground then it was not a good outcome – the focus now becomes this year's federal election here. Australia's poor climate-action rating in the planetary scheme of things, charted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 December (see here), was exemplified by the December 2015 quarterly emissions report (to June 2015) released extremely quietly on Christmas Eve, always a good day to bury bad news. It showed Australia's emissions rose by almost one per cent 2014-15, compared with the previous year (see here).
Things are unlikely to improve unless there is a change of government. Minister 'for' the Environment Greg Hunt has recently been sitting in his office striking out conditions previously attached to coal mine approvals, making it easier for proposals to get off the ground and for resource companies to make profits. Wouldn't his energies be better employed working out how to make mining companies ultimately responsible and accountable for the rehabilitation of their mine sites? This is a huge problem in this country, and the public should pressurise the federal government to make polluters pay.
Clive Palmer's Queensland Nickel refinery is a fine example of how companies extricate themselves from their environmental obligations, if we are to believe the Australian Financial Review. As QN totters on the edge of the precipice, taxpayers in this cash-strapped state are least likely to be able to pick up the bill when 'financial assurance schemes' prove massively inadequate. (See Post script below.)
There are more than 50,000 abandoned mines across Australia, where, in the early days, mining companies just upped and left when profits dried up. Has anything changed? When a company obtains an approval to mine these days, it pays a woefully inadequate rehabilitation security and the terms of clean-up are woolly and protracted. Stringent measures are required to ensure that pollutants cannot contaminate land or water; that the landscape is stable and safe for grazing animals and cropping; and that land is rehabilitated sustainably.
In mid-December, the environmental ministers of those states beholden to the coal industry – namely Queensland and New South Wales – ensured that Australia's National Clean Air Agreement did not embrace World Health Organisation clean air recommendations. Victoria and the ACT independently adopted WHO's pollution guidelines, but it doesn't look likely that we'll be getting covers for coal trains trundling through Southeast Queensland any time soon. That fight continues.
Last November, an Asian partnership won the tender to build a gas pipeline across the Northern Territory from Tennant Creek to Mount Isa in Queensland. This will serve the NT's shale gas industry, bringing fracking to the region and constructing a pipeline across 622 kilometres of arid lands where, so far, no ecological field surveys have been conducted. Job opportunities blind state governments to conservation concerns.
The pipeline plan is in addition to the Queensland government offering 11,000 square kilometres of Channel Country for exploration by international oil and gas companies (in May last year), allegedly without prior consultation with Traditional Owners of the land. Native Title rights cannot be swept under the carpet in the pursuit of profit. Neither should limited and ephemeral water supplies be compromised. Water, in fact, must be placed at the top of the list of priorities across all economic sectors.
Despite a poll last October than indicated the Australian public had got a sense of perspective about the coal industry and its environmental damage, a poll published last Friday showed that PM Malcolm Turnbull's popularity has increased against that of Opposition leader Bill Shorten, despite Turnbull's lack of action – apart from smugly smiling, that is.
So, I'm opening my election campaign with this thought. I know the Australian Labor Party and the LNP are almost indistinguishable when it comes to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, and I support neither for this reason alone. But I believe Labor will be quicker than the self-aggrandising Liberal Coalition to grasp that we have no alternative course of climate action.
Post script 29 January 2016. I wake this morning to a report in The Guardian (read here) about an opportunistic 'mining minnow' buying an Anglo American cast-off (the Callide mine in Queensland's Bowen Basin) for a pittance. The $640,000 question – that's a saying, the cost of rehabilitating the mine would be at least $120 million – is how will they raise sufficient funds to clean up? This will present an ever larger and more widespread problem as coal becomes an ever dodgier commodity.