• Australian coal exports: a climate change boomerang

    Blogpost by Aaron Gray-Block - February 27, 2013 at 8:32 Add comment

    The Australian continent might be about 4,000 km wide from east to west, but even the far west coast cannot escape the winds of Cyclone Rusty and the alarming impacts of climate change caused by coal mining, such as the planned Galilee Basin project, in the nation's east.

    Cyclone Rusty, a category 3 tropical cyclone, hammered into the West Australian coast today, packing a punch with gale force winds expected to hit 200 km per hour and forecast to bring heavy rain and major flooding.

    Australia's Bureau of Meteorology issued a warning for "an extended period of destructive winds" and rainfall "heavier than that associated with a typical system."

    In coming hours, the storm is expected to intensify into a category 4 storm – on a category of one to five – equal to Cyclone Tracy which obliterated Darwin in Australia's north in 1974.

    Perhaps aptly named Rusty, the storm could cause a major disruption in world iron ore trade. It has already shut port terminals used by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton and handling nearly half the global supply of the steel-making raw material.

    The State Emergency Service says communities in the path of the storm, including Port Hedland which has been closed, are on a red alert and people need to go to shelter immediately.

    And this cyclone is the latest extreme weather event to have hit Australia in recent weeks, already tested by a record heatwave and dangerous bushfires, followed by storms and flooding in the north and east.

    Fresh in the country's memories are the devastating floods that hit the state of Queensland in late 2010 and early 2011. Apart from the tragic deaths, those floods also paralysed much of the state's coal mining capacity.

    Why is this happening? Because our climate is changing.

    Cyclone Rusty

    Carbon dioxide emissions reached a record high last year, as we jointly pumped out 31.6 gigatonnes of the greenhouse gas responsible for global warming into the atmosphere, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

    And yet, the Australian government is considering expanding the country's coal mining capacity in Queensland in a bid to export more of the climate-destroying coal to energy-hungry countries such as India or China.

    Greenpeace Australia released a report in September revealing that if the coal in the untapped Galilee Basin in Queensland is mined, Australia could create more carbon pollution than the entire emissions of the United Kingdom or Canada.

    That's a lot of global warming.

    And it means a hotter heatwaves, more flooding, more cyclones (hurricanes), heavier snowfalls and persistent droughts. Extreme weather is already gripping the planet and is likely to get worse unless governments take action and cancel the fossil fuel projects they are planning and embrace renewable energy.

    But it is not only Australia. Greenpeace International published last month a report, Point of No Return, identifying 14 major coal, oil and gas projects that will add an extra 6.34 gigatonnes of global CO2 emissions annually by 2020.

    Cyclone Rusty, formed in a region known as "cyclone alley", is not evidence of climate change alone. But it is the latest incarnation of the kind of extreme weather that our fossil fuel addiction is causing.

    Ironically, a new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, quoted by Reuters, said global warming may have caused extreme events such as the 2011 drought in the US and a 2003 heatwave in Europe by slowing vast, wave-like weather flows in the northern hemisphere.

    And as the evidence of climate change stacks up, mining companies are getting scared also.

    BHP Billiton said last December that the potential for rising sea levels and more cyclones due to climate change played a key role in the company’s decision to replace a jetty at its Hay Point coal export terminal in the north-east of Australia.

    So instead of embracing renewable energy, companies like BHP are preparing for the worst.

    The absurdity of this is staggering. Australia might be able to export its coal, but the climate change it will cause is like a boomerang – it will always come back.