Australia’s climate change fight is doomed as long as it remains China’s top coal supplier

A coal-ilition of the willing.
A coal-ilition of the willing.
Image: Rob Griffith/AP
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The newly elected conservative government of Australia, led by incoming prime minister Tony Abbott, has promised to scrap the country’s carbon tax on industrial polluters. That has promoted much teeth-gnashing among environmentalists, but the issue is trivial compared to how much coal Australia exports.

Australia’s year-old tax on carbon was to be a prelude to a greenhouse gas emissions trading market set to launch in July 2014. It would have been the one of the largest carbon markets outside the European Union. Given that Australia ranks among the world’s highest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide, going it alone seemed to be a bold move. Especially since the US has cited the absence of a similar commitment from China, the biggest carbon polluter, for its own inaction in the face of accelerating climate change.

The carbon tax dustup, though, is a side show. Australia’s outsized contribution to climate change comes not from the carbon spew of its 22.7 million people—less than half the population of California—but from the export of its vast stores of coal to China and other Asian countries. The island continent, which possesses the world’s fourth-largest coal reserves, is the fourth biggest coal producer and the number-two exporter, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Over the past decade Australia’s coal exports have doubled, largely to fuel China’s economic boom. It is now China’s biggest coal supplier and shipments to that country alone doubled between 2008 and 2010 though they have slowed recently. (Japan, however, remains Australia’s top coal customer, accounting for nearly 40% of exports.)

Mining is a dirty business, and the coal boom has also contributed to Australia’s rising domestic carbon emissions. Those emissions reached 19 million metric tons per person in 2011, a 19% spike since 1990. (In contrast, emissions per capita in the US dropped 12%, to 17.3 million metric tons, in 2011 while EU emissions fell 18%, to 7.5 million tons per person.)

Australia exported 293 metric tons of coal ­in 2012, more than 70% of its total production. When burned, that coal emitted 762 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s 34 million metric tons per Australian or nearly double the country’s domestic per capita emissions.

Digging stuff out of the ground kept Australia, a developed country with an unusually commodity-dependent economy, booming throughout the global recession. And no political party—left or right, save the Greens—has shown any inclination to put the brakes on coal development in the name of slowing climate change, even when a series of planned coal ports threatens the iconic Great Barrier Reef. In the state of Queensland, for instance, two-mile-long coal trains run continuously from the mines to the Gladstone, one of the world’s largest coal-exporting ports, where Chinese ships are often stacked offshore by the dozens.

But the carbon tax isn’t quite dead yet. Leaders of the outgoing Labor Party, which lost the September 7 election in a landslide, have vowed to fight Abbott’s attempts to repeal the tax. And the new conservative government faces obstacles in the Australian Senate, where the balance of power is currently held by the Greens.

One thing is for sure: The coal trains will keep rolling.