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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal Down Under

Air Date: Week of

An open pit coal mine, Goonyella, Queensland, Australia.

A group of the influential climate scientists told the Australian coal industry that they need to get out of business. Professor David Koroly of Melbourne University is one of those scientists. He tells host Steve Curwood that Australia will be in serious trouble if they don’t move quickly against coal.


YOUNG: Just ahead, finding the right hook for anglers-- with country music. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Some of Australia’s most prominent climate scientists have written a letter to the country’s coal industry with a simple message: get out of the coal business.

Professor David Karoly of Melbourne University helped write the open letter and he’s on the line.

Professor Karoly, now, I’m looking at your letter—you and your colleagues say coal fired power stations are doomed. Not only that – you say that government investment in carbon capture and storage will likely waste time and money.

KAROLY: That’s part of the story. I mean what we’re really saying is that Australia cannot meet its obligations in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding or minimizing dangerous climate change under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change by continuing with coal fired power stations. So what we were really trying to do is, first of all, alter the owners of the coal-fired power stations to their responsibility in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for adverse impacts in many different areas around the world. Secondly, we wanted to alert them to the urgency needed in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

CURWOOD: When the Rudd government just before the Bali meeting of the Kyoto negotiations, that was in December of 2007, there was quite a flourish that – yes, Australia is going to take part now in the Kyoto Protocol, it had been a holdout along with United States and that things had changed in terms of the Australian government’s approach to climate change. What has the government said to you in response to this letter?

David Koroly

KAROLY: The government has said absolutely nothing to us in response to the letter. And you’re absolutely right, I mean, the Rudd government came in, ratified the Kyoto Protocol, then sponsored a comprehensive review of climate change science, climate change impact, the costs of climate change. And then they’ve introduced legislation in the Australian parliament for what they’re describing is a carbon pollution reduction scheme, an emission trading scheme. However, legislation provides very, very substantial free permits to coal fired power stations and there is little incentive for the coal fired power stations to reduce their emissions.

CURWOOD: Professor, what’s been the public response to your letter?

KAROLY: We’ve had a very positive response from a number of groups, although there have also been a few people that have described our letter and the need for 90 percent emission reductions in Australia by 2050 as we’re living in fairy land.

CURWOOD: In terms of your letter, you point out that more than 80 percent of Australia’s electricity comes from coal fired power plants. So, getting to the kind of reductions that you’re talking about here is really going to turn the whole electricity industry upside down in your country.

KAROLY: That is exactly the reason that we wrote the letter and sent the letter because it is impossible to meet Australia’s emission reduction targets without turning the energy production system in Australia completely upside down. And that needs to happen urgently. There are existing technologies available within Australia including solar power, wind power, geothermal power and wave power. However they are being under resourced because of the ongoing pressure from the coal industry in Australia to continue to use coal as the major source of fuel.

CURWOOD: What are the odds of Australia renegotiating its energy trajectory and responding to what you want?

KAROLY: Well I think that’s already happening in the sense that Australia is already introducing legislation. And on the fourth of May the Australian federal government revised the targets for its carbon pollution reduction scheme increasing the reduction levels from a previous fifteen percent maximum reduction in 2020 to now a twenty five percent emission reduction by 2020 relative to 1990 levels.

CURWOOD: Had nothing to do with your letter?

KAROLY: Well, we’ve had no communication from the federal government, so I would have to assume that its purely coincidence, but I don’t really know. Of course it needs to be born in mind that Australia has about the highest per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world, and therefore in any sort of contract and converge approach or equitable allocation of emissions reductions per capita around the world, Australian emission reductions needs to be higher in a percentage way than almost any country except perhaps the United States and Canada.

An open pit coal mine, Goonyella, Queensland, Australia.

CURWOOD: Professor, before you go – are we doomed? Is it too late to do anything as some say?

KAROLY: No, no, we are not doomed. We are committed to significant climate change. But the sooner we act, the less will be that climate change and the quicker we’ll be able to stabilize the climate system. The longer we wait the worse will be the climate change that we will be impacting on ourselves and our children.

CURWOOD: And our children’s children.

KAROLY: Exactly.

CURWOOD: David Karoly is a professor at the University of Melbourne and one of the lead authors of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report and also an author of a letter to the Australian coal industry telling them that its time to get out of the coal fire power plant business. Thank you so much, sir.

KAROLY: Thank you.



Read the open letter to the coal industry.


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