If we get it right, a future beyond coal will mean cleaner air, and healthier people. It will mean renewables powering our towns and cities, and good jobs in regional communities. It will be a future in which we've avoided devastating impacts of climate change — and instead protected people, water, food supplies and natural places.
There’s a growing body of research into the risks of coal power, and why we need to replace it with cleaner options. Here’s what we know:
Xthat cause climate change. In order to meet our international obligations to combat climate change, Australia needs to rapidly decrease coal power.
XThey’re old, expensive to run and increasingly unreliable.
XSulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, mercury, and small particulate matter have all been associated with coal-fired power stations.
As ageing coal power stations become more expensive to maintain and renewables become even cheaper to build, the transformation from coal-fired power stations to clean, renewable energy is underway — but currently, there’s no plan for how this shift will take place.
Right now, we have a huge opportunity to shape the future. We can ensure the renewable sector develops in a way that empowers regional communities, ensures good pay and conditions for workers, and delivers clean energy for everyone. We can develop strong, thoughtful plans in the communities around coal-fired power stations, and provide certainty about when power stations will close. We can map paths to diversify local economies and create good job opportunities for people who have worked hard to supply our energy to date.
A future beyond coal power could benefit all of us, if we plan it right - and so these conversations need all of us taking part. The sooner we start making plans to support communities as our energy system transforms, the better off everyone will be.
National greenhouse gas data from AGEIS.
Data from Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)
Suboptimal Supercritical Report, The Australia Institute, 23 January 2019.
Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy, Environmental Justice Australia, July 2019.
National Pollutant Inventory database.
Bushfire season across southern Australia used to start in spring; now, it’s mid-winter. Each summer, elderly Victorians and South Australians must now prepare for heat waves that last weeks on end. For many regional and remote Aboriginal communities, water supplies are running out and soaring temperatures are making day-to-day life unbearable.
The impacts of climate change are felt everywhere. Climate change is expected to drive more than 100 million people into extreme poverty across the world over the next decade
X. Our Pacific neighbours face a terrifying future - Tuvalu is set to be uninhabitable by 2050, and by the end of the century, Kiribati is expected to be submerged entirely by rising seas caused by climate change.
Scientists say that extreme weather events and the impacts of climate change will become even more severe unless we act now to significantly reduce our carbon emissions. But right now, Australia is heading in the wrong direction: our emissions are still going up.
Coal power generation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, responsible for over one quarter of total emissions.
X Given that burning coal is our leading contributor to climate change, moving our electricity supply away from coal is one of the quickest, most efficient ways to act.
There is a pathway to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and avoiding a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. Retiring every coal-burning power station over the next decade — and replacing them with clean energy generation and storage — is the simplest and most effective way for Australia to do our fair share of reducing greenhouse emissions to a safe level. It's our best shot to tackle climate change, protect people, and protect our planet's natural places.
X. In order to stay healthy, we need the air we breathe to be clean. But right now, coal-burning power stations are fuelling big problems for Australia's health.
In the process of producing energy, coal power stations produce large amounts of toxic substances like mercury, sulfur dioxide and other particle pollution. When dangerous amounts of these pollutants get into our air, even small amounts can make people sick.
As well as emitting air pollution, coal power stations produce toxic waste in the form of coal ash. The transport and storage of this toxic waste product can also pose a serious risk to communities. Australia’s coal-burning power stations produce 10-12 million tonnes of toxic coal ash every year
X, with more than 400 million tonnes of coal ash stored in ash dumps across the country.
A growing body of research has tabulated increased health risks from coal-fired power stations:
XA recent epidemiological study estimated air pollution from five coal-burning power stations in New South Wales causes hundreds of premature deaths every year.
XIn 2018, Doctors for the Environment Australia linked abnormally low birth weights in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley to the air emissions produced by the region’s three large coal-fired power stations.
X. In 2019, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW obtained and released industry air pollution data from NSW’s Vales Point power station, showing sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution exceeded World Health Organisation standards on six occasions.
X. Around 200,000 people live near Lake Macquarie and the lake is popular for fishing and recreation amongst locals and tourists alike.
X. Tighter regulations could make a bit difference: after putting strict air pollution limits in place, 74 cities in China have reduced the presence of dangerous PM2.5 particulates by almost a third.
XThe International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has published a review of research showing that children’s health improves when exposure to chemicals from coal-burning power stations was decreased.
For the sake of our health, closing coal-burning power stations — and properly remediating their sites — could be the best choice for our future. The sooner we move away from coal power, the better the health outcomes will be.
State of Global Air Report 2019. Health Effects Institute Special Report. Boston, MA.
Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy. Environmental Justice Australia, 1 July 2019
Mannucci, PM. Airborne pollution and cardiovascular disease: burden and cause of an epidemic. European Heart Journal vol 34(17), 2013.
The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW, Dr Ben Ewald report for Environmental Justice Australia. November 2018.
Submission on the Victorian brown coal-fired power stations licence reviews. Doctors for the Environment, February 2018.
Out of the Ashes. Hunter Community Environment Centre, March 11 2019.
Port Augusta feared power station pollution put lives at risk. The Advertiser / News Corp. 22 March 2019.
Read more at: NSW EPA gives coal-fired power stations a licence to harm communities. Environmental Justice Australia. January 30 2019.
State of Global Air Report 2019. Health Effects Institute Special Report. Boston, MA. See page 9.
Impact of Coal-fired Power Plant Emissions on Children’s Health: A Systematic Review of the Epidemiological Literature, April 2019, Amster, E. & Lew Levy, C.
X. Australia is the only G20 country in the OECD that still relies on burning coal for the majority of its electricity generation
X— but it doesn’t have to be this way.
With more than two and a half million rooftops already fitted with solar PV, homegrown renewables just keep getting more popular. Thanks to a surge in investment, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are now also cheaper to build.
X This means a large-scale rollout of renewables is the cleaner, more reliable and cheaper option to meet Australia’s energy needs. Big companies like BlueScope, Telstra and Aldi are getting involved too, making some of the largest solar power purchasing deals ever
Australia is on track to source 30% of its power from renewable energy this year.
X Even more could be possible across the whole energy system with some policy leadership and certainty at the national level. With the renewable resources we have, we could go beyond powering our country with clean sources — we could be exporting renewable energy to the rest of our region. Leading economist Professor Ross Garnaut has said that Australia could become a clean energy superpower, if we set our sights on it
X — but we’ll only be able to reap these opportunities if we act before other markets do. To harness our energy potential, we need to upgrade our electricity grid, set our clean energy sights higher, and make the most of our plentiful wind and solar resources.
As more large-scale renewable projects are built, there’s been a surge in jobs for construction workers, electricians, transport and machine operators, general labourers. The Clean Energy Council estimated that the renewable energy industry was responsible for more than 25,000 jobs across the construction, operations and maintenance and rooftop solar installation sector in 2019.
As Australia’s energy system diversifies, so too will the jobs available in the sector. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, investing in relatively new technologies — like battery storage, battery storage, hydrogen, lithium and rare earths — could be one of our best opportunities to create regional jobs and grow industry hubs
X. In Victoria, the proposed Star of the South offshore wind farm is expected to provide 12,000 jobs in construction, and 300 ongoing jobs - and could provide up to one-fifth of the state’s electricity needs
This isn’t just happening at a national scale, it’s happening at a local scale too. About 2.5 million homes are now powered by rooftop solar, creating more than 13,000 full-time jobs
X and a thriving industry for small businesses working on solar installation and servicing. And when local businesses go solar, the flow-on effects include an even more productive local economy: lowering costs means freeing up cash to make more investments, grow their businesses or hire more people for their core business.
Renewable energy industry is growing fast, and it will continue to surge if we scale-up to meet demand
X. After more than a century of coal-fired power, the boom in renewables in recent years means that clean energy is set to provide about 30% of our energy needs this year
X. The head of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has said that over the next decade or so, renewable hydrogen energy could emerge as “the Netflix of the energy sector”, a groundbreaking technological step-change, delivering a massive new export market for renewables and cheaper electricity for Australian consumers
To make the most of this emerging market opportunity it’ll take businesses, communities and government working together and planning how we can all benefit. If we do it right, clean energy will surge -- and permanent, stable, well-paid jobs will too.
Investing in renewable energy infrastructure can build engineering and scientific capacity, leverage financial capacity, and create thousands of high value, sustainable jobs regionally.”
Tim Buckley, Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis
Australia’s ageing coal-burning power station fleet is increasingly unreliable
X and incompatible with a credible pathway to preventing runaway climate change. Careful planning and preparation is urgently needed to retire and replace these power stations in a fair and just way.
The Port Augusta community in South Australia is still recovering from the unplanned closure of their local coal-burning power station, in which the power station owners gave workers inconsistent closure schedules and limited certainty. Similarly, the Latrobe Valley community, around Hazelwood power station in Victoria, faced serious challenges when workers were given only five months notice of the power station’s closure. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
X. Similarly, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy has written extensively about how a true 'just transition' must be more than just a safety net for workers. A true just transition means re-imagining our economy, re-organising our approach to transition with greater emphasis on planning and cooperation, and making a commitment to social and political transformation. In their words, this transformation is "both possible and absolutely necessary".
X. Importantly, we can learn the hard lessons from unplanned energy transitions we've seen in coal regions like the Appalachia in the United States and make sure impacted communities in Australia are supported. Done right, a fair transition will mean more stable, permanent, long term jobs — with good conditions, and good pay.
We must confront the challenging of moving Australia beyond coal together. It will take all of us pulling together to support one another, collaborate on building diverse new economies, and cleaner and healthier communities — where nobody is left behind.