In quotes: Australia’s contentious environmental debate

Molly Lempriere 10 June 2019 (Last Updated June 14th, 2019 11:59)

There’s been no shortage of mud-slinging between Australian environmental campaigners and the mining sector and government in few years. As the debate over Australian resources and mining sustainability continues to rage, we tell the story using quotes from both sides.

In quotes: Australia’s contentious environmental debate
Australia has struggled to balance mineral production and environmental protection, producing 297 million tonnes of oil equivalent coal in 2018. Credit: Jeremy Buckingham

Australia faces a number of unique challenges, in particular the strength of the coal mining sector in the country. This has split politicians, with Tony Abbott, Australian Prime Minister from 2013-2015 being a very vocal supporter of coal, even dismantling the carbon tax during his time in office. This was a key milestone in Australia’s tumultuous energy politics, helping Abbott to secure power but dramatically affecting the country’s ability to meeting the targets it agreed to in the Paris Agreement.

While his successors have pushed for more renewables, their promises have often been contradictory. In 2018, the Malcolm Turnbull-led government put forward the National Energy Guarantee (Neg) in an effort to secure an energy policy. It included two key points, that energy providers had to have sufficient quantities of “reliable” power and that they had to reduce their emissions.

It was widely criticised by environmental groups, who claimed that it would not lower emissions.

Following an election in the summer of 2018, Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison as Prime Minister who made it clear that the Neg was dead.

The political infighting around the Neg is exemplary of the wilder energy debate in Australia, which has meant progress has stagnated as investment has been tentative. Often the debate is seen as between those backing coal to generate export income and those backing renewables due to environmental concerns.

Those within the National party and the Liberal party Coalition currently in power, often support the coal sector due to its ability to create long-term sustainable jobs. Turnbull came under fire for his support of the controversial Carmichael thermal coal mine, claiming it would create “tens of thousands of jobs”.

The importance of coal mining for jobs in Australia however, is a belief shared by many, including resources minister Matt Canavan, one of the most vocal critics of energy policy in the country.

The role of coal in Australia, a major exporter set to become the world’s largest exporter of coal by the late 2020s, is potentially the most contentious aspect of the energy debate.

Critics of the government, particularly those on the political left, highlight the large number of miners who are donors to the party. This includes former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, who in a radio interview last year said those who “own a lot of coal in the Galilee Basin (Queensland)” were exercising “undue influence on Liberal Party policy”.

But there are also ideological differences within the Australian House of Representatives, which have contributed to the stalling nature of the debate.

“There are a significant number of members who do not believe in climate change, who would like to get out of Paris and who would rather build a new coal-fired power station,” said Turnbull speaking at an event in December 2018. He said that the MPs pushing for coal power stations were driven by ‘ideology and idiocy.’

Beyond political infighting, a major challenge for the country is just how high electricity prices are. Wholesale electricity prices rose  by 130% between 2015 and 2017, leading the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to call the energy market ‘unacceptable and unsustainable’ in a report published in July 2018.

Exactly how to lower electricity prices has created almost as much political sniping as coal has.

How to balance lowering energy prices, lower emissions and protect Australian jobs remains a huge challenge for Australia. But the argument for renewables appears to be growing, as they increasingly become the economical option, appeasing those concerned with emissions and those with high electricity prices.

Just like any nation, switching to increased renewables will mean that Australia will have to balance its grid. The intermittency of solar and wind power is one of the most common criticisms of the technology.

Australia has already had great success with battery technology however, most notably the Tesla mega-battery built in South Australia. The battery was activated in December 2017, within the 100 days promised by Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet.