Finance Finance News Alan Kohler: The whaling industry shows us the future for coal
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Alan Kohler: The whaling industry shows us the future for coal

coal alan kohler
Coal has no future in a world without catastrophic climate change, writes Alan Kohler. Photo: AAP
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In his pre-election speech in September 1946, Ben Chifley talked about The Coal Problem, as he called it – “a social and technical problem of complexity”.

Fair chance Scott Morrison will be talking about the coal problem again in his pre-election speech 75 or 76 years later, or at least he should be, and this time it’s both different and the same.

He got the National Party over the line on net zero by 2050 on Sunday, but only just, and the opposition to it is all about coal.

In 1946, the problem was a dire shortage of the stuff caused by the inefficiency of the mining industry and terrible working conditions leading to scarcity of labour. It was described by one MP as a “chronically sick industry”.

Mr Chifley won that election, beating Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party, and the Labor government fixed the coal problem by establishing the Joint Coal Board with the NSW government and basically taking control of the industry.

Today there’s too much coal, not too little, because many decades of burning it for energy and steel, as well as oil and gas, is turning the planet into a greenhouse.

But like the one in 1946, the Coal Problem of 2021 is socially and technically complex.

Coal exports were $5.5 billion in August, up 13 per cent in a month and almost double the previous August.

A lot of people are engaged in mining and shipping it, directly and indirectly, and the towns they live in rely on coal.

There’s no need to recite all the statistics: Coal is an important industry for Australia, especially New South Wales and Queensland, and our national power grid is geared to it.

It’s also doomed.

ben chifley 1945
Like Scott Morrison, Ben Chifley also faced a problem with coal. Photo: AAP

The International Energy Agency, among other expert and scientific bodies, is clear that there is no place for coal in a world that holds global warming to something less than catastrophic.

There is a clear choice between burning coal and having a liveable planet, and anyone leaving Glasgow next month, possibly even including our Prime Minister, will be in no doubt that the clock is ticking for the industry.

The sooner the coal industry dies, the better off we’ll be.

So the heading on Resources Minister Keith Pitt’s press release dated September 6 – “Coal industry has a strong future in Australia” – was not true.

To assist that “strong future”, the ludicrously titled Environment Minister Sussan Ley has recently approved three new coal mine extensions: at Whitehaven’s Vickery mine, at Glencore’s Mangoola mine, and at Wollongong Coal.

At the same time, Ms Ley knocked back a big renewable energy project in Western Australia.

Little wonder those companies want to dig up more coal as quickly as possible: The thermal coal price has more than quadrupled this year from $US50 ($67) a tonne to more than $US220 ($295) and there is money to be made.

But I can’t help being reminded of the scenes in The Godfather Part 2, of partying in Havana in 1958 before the Cuban revolution.

It is not a question of whether coal assets will be stranded, but when, or as Scott Morrison has put it, without thinking of coal: “For Australia, it is not a question of if for net zero, but how.”

Whaling industry shows us coal’s future

The whaling industry faced a similar fate in the 1860s after oil was commercialised in Pennsylvania in 1859.

Whale oil had lit streets and homes and lubricated machinery for a hundred years, enabling the industrialisation of Europe and the US.

It was a massive industry, supporting many thousands of families and communities, but it ended because it was both horrible and replaceable by kerosine.

Likewise coal.

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison is trying to have it both ways: Talking up the technology that will replace coal while also appearing to support the industry’s continuation.

It’s true that there is a lot of good work being done on technology in Australia, ably led by the former chief scientist Alan Finkel, as well as by entrepreneurs like Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and Michael Cannon-Brookes.

And the benefits from technology are going to be immense.

A team of mathematicians at Oxford University has just completed a study of the economic windfall to be gained from decarbonisation, based on known technology.

They estimate the net gain at $US26 trillion ($33 trillion). The faster it happens, the bigger the gain.

Faster transition pays for itself

It comes about largely because of pricing differences: “The prices of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas are volatile, but after adjusting for inflation, prices now are very similar to what they were 140 years ago, and there is no obvious long-range trend.

“In contrast, for several decades the costs of solar photovoltaics (PV), wind, and batteries have dropped (roughly) exponentially at a rate near 10 per cent per year. The cost of solar PV has decreased by more than three orders of magnitude since its first commercial use in 1958.”

The main insight of these mathematicians is that the “the Fast Transition is likely to be substantially cheaper” (their italics).

Technology is the answer, but Scott Morrison and his colleagues can’t keep playing both sides. They will have to choose.

You can’t credibly foster disruptive technology while also promoting the thing it’s disrupting.

You’ll get credit for neither.

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news