No New Coal Mines: new hope for effective climate change activism

Anna Chang, Director of Communications at The Australia Institute, dissects the new campaign No New Coal Mines.

Anna 1.jpg

Put simply, the cold hard truth is if the world wants to tackle climate change, and if Australia wants to double its coal exports, somebody’s going to lose.

To put Australia’s coal exports into context, if you think Saudi Arabia has some price setting power in oil, then economically Australia has more price setting power in coal.

Meanwhile, proponents of new coal mines want to lead Australians to believe that when it comes to global emissions, we’re just a very small country who emits such comparatively small amount of emissions that we’re just a very small part of the story. In short, don’t worry about Australia and what we’re doing over here, we just have coal export plans that will ruin the Earth and our politicians are not going to stop it. 

For example, let’s just look at one mine: the Adani coal mine.

For starters, here’s a whole list of statistics that you probably won’t care to remember:

  • The Adani mine would be the biggest coal mine in Australia and one of the biggest coal mines in the world.

  • The project includes six open cut and five underground mine pits, together 40 kilometres long and 270 square kilometres in area within an even larger mine site. 

  • The proposed mine is big as many capital cities. The broader industrial area taken up by the project is almost twice as big.

  • Adani hopes to produce 60 million tonnes of coal each year, over 60 years and 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over its lifetime.

To put this in context:

  • Packed tight, that’s enough coal to give every household in Australia a solid 5m cube of coal, filling a double garage and then some.

  • It would be 100 tonnes  of coal for every single Australian.

You can’t even really imagine the scale. Even with a picture.

Anna 2.jpg

That’s how big the Adani coal mine is, and that’s why we need a moratorium on new coal mines.

But how do we bring people along with us? Because now we’re talking about energy policy, and everyday people think it’s all really very hard and really complex and you need to be an energy expert to understand it.

 Except the trick is that you don’t.

While fans of renewables are worried about whether they have enough expertise to wade into a debate about how best to transition our energy from coal to renewables, any loudmouth in a hat is more than happy to talk about how we need coal-fired power for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. 

And the secret is, most people who are so passionately fighting for new coal mines and new coal power plants to allegedly safeguard our electricity system don’t even know how electricity is made.

So let’s just take a look at the absurdity of how we still make electricity in 2018.

Because why do we burn coal? To make electricity.

The biggest use of electricity in Australian households is heating water.

And the most common method of heating water is an off-peak hot water system.

Now how do we heat that up?

Anna 3.jpg

First, we dig up some coal.

Then we transport it to a coal fired power station.

We burn the coal.

Use the heat from the coal to turn water into steam.

The steam spins a turbine.

The turbine spins magnets inside a wire coil -- and we’ve got electricity.

We’ve also lost about half the energy in that process.

Then we send the electricity hundreds of kilometres along copper wires networks losing 10-15% along the way.

The electricity comes into your off-peak hot water system and it heats half a tonne of water up to a temperature that’s just hot enough to burn your kids but not hot enough to make a cup of tea.

And then, when you step into the shower in the morning, you turn the hot water tap on and the water’s too hot, so you turn on the cold tap and add cold water to it. 

It is almost inconceivable that you could come up with a less efficient way to have a warm shower. But here we are.

That’s right, so let’s just look at how we make electricity again: we burn coal, to boil water, to make steam, to spin a turbine.

And now suddenly we’re all just fighting about how we boil the water. 

Do you think we’ve found better ways to boil water than Thomas Edison in 1800s? You’d hope so.

In fact, the future’s already here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.

But the fear that we might actually tackle climate change, or settle on a new way to boil water, is driving rational owners of coal mines to do anything they can to dig it up and sell it now. 

These aren’t stupid people.

It’s like if you were the owner of an ice-cream truck, and your freezer broke down in the middle of a 30 degree day.

You would sell your ice-cream as quickly as you could, for as cheap as you could because some money now is better than no money later.

Or rather, if you owned a billion tonnes of coal in 50 years time, good on you, how’s that rock collection going?

But the thing is, these coalmineres are winning.

 In the 21 or so years of UNFCCC processes the word coal has never been used in a decision.

And in that time, while the world has met at COPs to make commitments about stopping climate change, world coal production has increased by over 72%.

In 2015, in the lead-up to Paris COP then President of Kirbati Anote Tong initiated the call for a moratorium on New Coal Mines.

Anna 4.jpg

Because you can't start moving forwards until you stop going backwards. 

And a reminder that Australia  wants to build coal mines the size of entire cities.

Anna 6.jpg

With campaigns, what you find is you push and push and push and then suddenly you’re on a roll.

One voice calling for No New Coal Mines turns into many voices. It turns into media.

And it turns into people power. From people just like you.

Because at the end of the day, to bring people together to solve a problem, people need to believe that the problem is big enough that their efforts are needed, but small enough that it feels like you – just one person – could possibly make a difference.

So while we’re talking about stopping a coalmine the size of Sydney, we’re also just talking about how we’re going to boil some water to spin a turbine.

Anna 7.jpg

This is an edited extract of a presentation from Renewing Disruption: Energy for change across the Asia-Pacific as part of the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) Disruption series of seminars.

Anna Chang is Communications Director at the Australia Institute. @annachang