This speech was delivered on 12.10.2016 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the original contribution here.
It is one year since the Paris climate agreement. One year ago we saw 195 countries, including Australia, make an historical commitment to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees by the end of this century. There is enough carbon and methane in the coalmines and oil and gas fields that have already been approved to take us past the tipping point of two degrees of warming. In other words, if we are to avoid climate catastrophe we cannot approve a single new fossil fuel project.
The Paris commitment will require action at all levels of government in Australia. But what has the Baird Government done? It has already expanded existing coalmines and has proposed new open-cut mines on top of the already disastrous rates of fossil fuel extraction in this State. Those expansions since the Paris agreement account for an additional 17 million tonnes of coal each year for the next 24 years over and above the 196 million tonnes that were already pulled out in 2014-15. If we accept that climate change is real and if we want a planet with a liveable climate we must stop approving new coal projects. It is well past the time our planning laws did their bit to save the planet.
How is the community to reconcile Australia’s international commitments with New South Wales’ persistent approvals of new mining projects? It turns out that both the New South Wales and Australian governments have a tricky way of avoiding their responsibility by saying that someone else is responsible for “owning” the greenhouse gas emissions of the coal we dig up, sell and export. It works like this: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change requires nations to count emissions produced within their borders in order to stop double counting of emissions. Under those rules, the country in which a coalmine is located counts the greenhouse gas emissions involved in mining the coal, but if the coal is exported and burnt in another country that second country is held responsible for counting the emissions of burning the coal.
Under those rules, Australia is held responsible for less than 5 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the coal it exports. Australia profits from the sales and forces our customers to pay for the inevitable damage. That is the basis of Australia claiming that its export of coal is “good for developing countries”. It is a convenient way to make a lot of money exporting coal, but then to wash our hands of the global atmospheric impact. But there is a very important distinction between the conventions in place to ensure an accurate inventory of greenhouse gases and the responsibilities of a decision-maker in the planning process when considering the environmental impact of approving a new coalmine.
In fact, a review of New South Wales Government decisions for mining approvals since the Paris agreement shows almost no assessment of the environmental impact of greenhouse gases from new mining proposals. In the case of the Ashton mine extension, which was approved in August 2016, the New South Wales planning department noted that the additional greenhouse gas emissions from mining and burning the coal would be more than five million tonnes per year. Yet it put this issue to one side because, in the words of the New South Wales planning department, “If Ashton did not produce the coal someone else would”. But at least climate change got a nod from the planning system when it approved Ashton. When the NSW Planning Assessment Commission approved the extension of the Moolarben and Mandalong coalmines, climate change did not even rate a mention.
New South Wales is clearly not committed to honouring its responsibilities under the Paris climate agreement. As a country, Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions are the twelfth highest in the world. Our per capita emissions are amongst the highest in the world. That sounds pretty bad already, but if one adds the actual climate impact of our national coal exports, our overall contribution of CO2 to the world’s greenhouse gas budget is more than one billion tonnes per year. It is simply unacceptable for the Baird Government to ignore the impact of the greenhouse gas emissions from new coalmines. We accept that climate change is real. We want a planet with a liveable climate. So we must, together, stop approving new coal projects. The words in Paris demand action in Sydney and in Canberra. For New South Wales, that starts with a planning system that at least tries to account honestly for the climate change inherent in every single new fossil fuel project.