Last month, NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, visited the Mount Thorley/Warkworth open-cut near Singleton to release a strategic statement on coal exploration and mining in NSW.
The statement, in its words, shows "how the NSW Government is taking a responsible approach to the global transition to a low carbon future, consistent with Australia's ambition under the Paris Agreement, and is planning to manage the impact for coal-reliant communities".
Standing alongside Mr Barilaro was Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen. He is pleased with the cash splash that came with the announcement - $50 million for a round of Resources for Regions grants, the annual pittance that mining-affected communities get back from the $2 billion or so in royalties they gift to government every year.
Also present was Stephen Galilee, chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, the coal lobbyist. Mr Galilee was also smiling. He's liking Mr Barilaro's colourful maps that show the next frontiers for coal expansion across the Hunter, on land adjoining existing mines, and in new tracts stretching from Ulan to Rylstone, and from Wollombi to Broke. Mr Galilee is liking, too, Mr Barilaro's commitment to legislative and administrative changes that will 'improve certainty for proponents of major projects'.
Coal marches on.
Mr Barilaro's strategic statement is a document of barely 2800 words, and is very thin on detail, given it purports to be the road map for NSW in a world-wide transition away from coal as an energy source. But at least NSW now accepts the inevitability of an end to thermal coal, and the need to manage the exit from mining for regions such as the Hunter that face economic, social and environmental trauma as a consequence.
Unfortunately, the strategic statement not only fails to suggest even the bones of a transition plan, it argues that any transition is at least a generation away, something we can leave to our children and grandchildren.
For the next two decades or more, according to the statement, the world is likely to continue to burn coal at current levels, at least, so it might as well be NSW coal that feeds the furnaces.
It's an argument that turns stomachs.
When has it been moral to argue that it's OK to ignore the damage of one's actions because everyone else is carrying on regardless?
It's an argument that turns stomachs.
But what if Mr Barilaro is wrong, what if enough of the world decides to exit coal-burning power stations well before the 2050s?
For Mr Barilaro, it's a scenario not worth planning for. In Mr Barilaro's crystal ball, the future is clear. His is a world where the consumption of thermal coal continues for considerable time. Mr Barilaro states one source for his view, the projections of global market analyst, IHS Markit. But the public cannot see this analyst's assumptions and calculations, hidden as they are behind expensive pay walls.
But, following my inquiry, a spokesperson for Mr Barilaro tells me that IHS Markit's prediction of steady demand into the future is supported by a number of reports, particularly World Energy Outlook 2019, a report from the International Energy Agency. The IEA is a consortium of 30 OECD nations, including Australia, which seeks pathways to energy security and efficiency.
And so to the IEA document. Conveniently, the IEA's World Energy Outlook report is analysed in detail in a recent Reserve Bank of Australia publication, The Changing Global Market for Australian Coal. Sure, says the RBA, two IEA scenarios forecast little change in demand for thermal coal in Asia before 2050. But, says the RBA, there is a third IEA scenario. In this forecast, nations better align their energy policies with the Paris Agreement such that coal's share of world electricity generation declines from around 40 per cent currently to around 5 per cent in 2040.
Unlike the reserve bank, Mr Barilaro cannot foresee a situation where the world more aggressively counters the planet's rising level of greenhouse gases, where Australia joins with other nations to steer energy generation away from coal, allowing NSW to get on with the clean-up of the Hunter and re-build its economy - where the mess isn't left until 2050 when Mr Barilaro's government is long gone.
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University
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