Coal and Climate Change

Buring of fossil fuels, such as coal, is forcing our atmosphere to trap more heat. The heat escaping into space is less than the energy that comes in from the sun. Measurements of the trends are very clear, we are ruining this planet for the next 50 generations.

So far we have put more than 500 billion tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere. A lot of this has been absorbed into our water, causing an increase in acidity in our oceans that threatens sea life. The remainder has built up in our atmosphere and raised the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm (40%). At the current rate we will be at 410 ppm by 2020.

Scientists have estimated that we have approximately another 500 billion tonnes CO2 in the budget before we will push the climate past the nominal 2 degrees of increase. Every year we increase our emissions from the year before. At current rates we will reach the ‘budget’ around the middle of this century.

By far the most rigorous assessments of the science are the IPCC reports issued every 7 years or so. Unfortunately, as these have to be signed off by all the 178 countries involved (such as the oil giant, Saudi Arabia) the reports tend to be stripped back to the most conservative statements. Yet, the 2007 report essentially said we are responsible and we need to draw down green house gas emission so that we peak within the next ten years and reduce to around zero by 2050.

So far we have ignored the warnings and are currently heading towards a 3C to 6C degree rise by 2100. There seems little international action to change our course. New power stations (including coal fired power) are being rapidly built all around the globe. This is why there is so much demand for coal. Instead we should be building wind and solar power stations.

This is not just pie in the sky. There are many such power stations already built and providing huge amounts of electricity. The Beyond Zero Emissions project sets out how Australia can change to fully renewable energy for all of our electricity. The plan includes increases for larger population and higher demand and also the electricity needed for electric vehicles.

The outcome of climate change for coal is that we must leave most of it in the ground. It has been deposited there over hundreds of millions of years and we are burning it all in a couple of centuries. Geologically, the earth has not seen such rapid changes in its atmosphere before.

Quite simply, we have to stop burning fossil fuels. It will take strong political will to make it happen. Stong communities with loud voices. Stopping the Kores coal mine is one important step towards a rational response to the threat of climate change.

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Kores wants to take out 37.5 km2 of coal from under Dooralong and Yaramalong Valleys – hundreds of millions of tonnes of it. They say the burning of coal brings us cheap and plentiful energy. Australian industry has benefited and Australia has grown because we had cheap and plentiful coal for making steel and fueling our electricity generators.

Over the last 3 decades, scientists have been warning us that we are pushing our climate into rapid change, mostly by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal. The science has been proven as predictions made in the 1980’s have turned out to be accurate. 

If we allow mines like the Kores mine to go ahead, we are creating a bigger problem for our children and their children. The more intense storms, heat waves, rising sea level, etc. that we see now are only a taste of what is to come.

So how do we stop the burning of fossil fuels? A price on carbon is the first small step but not enough. Scientific reports generally tell us that we have to do everything we can to tackle this problem.

We need to replace our energy systems, reduce transport, change our use of energy intensive materials (e.g. concrete) increase our efficiency and change our personal habits. Technology is available now including LED lighting, solar hot water and electricity, wind power and electric vehicles. The Beyond Zero Emissions Project developed a detailed report on how Australia can replace all fossil fuel power stations at a cost of $135 billion over 10 years.

The cost of business as usual is much more than this. Keeping coal in the ground is a great place to start.

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