Many Australians associate our coal industry with a vibrant economy, vital jobs, and affordable electricity. Coal provides significant revenue for Australia and a cheap source of energy for domestic consumption. Although we are becoming uncomfortably aware that the price of coal is in fact artificially cheap, because in addition to being heavily subsided it doesn't account for the cost to the climate, we are reluctant to turn our backs on the industry we feel indebted to for strengthening our economy and supporting working families.
A report released this week by Greenpeace and the Centre of Full Employment and Equity shows just how mistaken Australians are in believing we can't get along without coal-fired power. The Just Transition report is the first of its kind to model the economic and employment effects of restructuring a region heavily reliant on the coal industry to become a hub of renewable energy, and the results put paid to any notion that tackling climate change is a case of jobs versus the environment.
The report focuses on the Hunter Valley area of New South Wales, home to six of the state's eight coal-fired power stations. It finds that a shift from coal-fired power generation to a renewable technology "Silicon Valley" in the Hunter region would enable the region to become a major source of renewable energy for NSW, providing up to 40 per cent of the state's electricity from renewable technologies.
This would create up to 14,300 new jobs: a net gain of up to 10,700 jobs when losses from the coal-fired electricity sector are factored in. These would be secure and well-paid jobs in the research, design, manufacture, installation, maintenance and export of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The region's manufacturing industry would also be revitalised, creating many thousands of positions.
The number of quality, high skilled employment opportunities identified in the report makes a transition from coal-fired power to renewable energy an attractive solution for coal industry workers. Phasing out coal will inevitably mean that people currently working in coal-fired power plants will need to be moved to other jobs. But there is no reason why employees in the current coal-fired power sector cannot be employed in a renewables-dominated energy sector. A "just transition" plan that identified those at risk of losing their jobs and helped to make sure there were new, sustainable jobs available would support affected workers to move into the new industries.
Like the development of a thriving renewable energy industry, a just transition for coal communities is dependent on federal government support. In particular, measures such as regional investment in renewable infrastructure and manufacturing in the areas most affected by the transition away from coal would assist in their transformation to “green” industry hubs. Forward planning in the development of training and re-skilling programs is also required to build the skilled workforce for new industries and ensure that opportunities are in place for affected workers to make the transition.
It was to highlight these issues that Greenpeace locked down the Eraring Power Station in the Hunter Valley this week, halting its greenhouse pollution for five and a half hours. Twenty-seven activists occupied the plant and prevented 10 000 tonnes of coal from being burnt by chaining themselves to coal conveyor belts. Eraring Power Station is one of NSW's oldest coal-fired power plants and the single biggest polluter in the country, emitting 18 million tonnes of CO2 each year.
It is among the first that should be phased out, and with adequate political will this could be achieved in the next few years. Even without a substantial installation of renewable infrastructure, effective energy efficiency regulations could quickly reduce NSW's energy demand and make Eraring Power Station redundant. With effective government management, the workers can move to jobs in the renewable energy industries that replace Eraring.
Whatever you think about Greenpeace's tactics, the point made is a valid one. A gradual phase-out of coal-fired power and transition to renewable energy is not pie in the sky. Recent modelling shows that 40 per cent of Australia's electricity can be provided by renewable sources by 2020, and coal can be eliminated from our energy supply mix by 2030. This would see as much wind capacity installed in Australia over the next 12 years as will be added in the US in the next 18 months, and only half the solar thermal capacity in Australia by 2020 as Spain is installing by the end of next year.
Having lived with such paucity of policy support for renewable energy for over a decade, it is easy for Australians to have the wool pulled over their eyes by a coal-lobbied government when renewables are proven technologies that are currently delivering stable, affordable energy in many parts of the world.
However, the tide is turning even within coal affected communities. Two coal miners supported Greenpeace's action at Earing whilst a poll last week by the Newcastle Herald found nearly 85 per cent of voters wanted to see the Hunter turn its focus from coal to renewables and gas.
2008 is a critical year for climate policy in Australia. While current political debate focuses on Garnaut's draft report and the scope of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), the fact remains that according to the IPCC, developed nations' carbon emissions need to peak in the next eighteen months.
We cannot rely on a market-driven ETS to deliver the necessary deep cuts in such short a time-frame, and therefore wait expectantly for the Rudd Government to deliver its election promise to seriously tackle climate change by legislating a high emissions reduction target alongside other policy mechanisms to drive investment in renewables and energy efficiency technologies.
The end of the coal era is upon us, and the more maturely we handle this inevitable (r)evolution, the greater the potential for maximising the economic opportunities for Australia and ensuring the security of our coal communities during the transition.
The Greenpeace vessel the Esperanza is undertaking an Energy (R)evolution tour of Australia's east coast and Greenpeace is running a campaign to recruit supporters, or Energy (R)evolutionaries.