The rise and fall of the coal economy

Published as Coal hard facts, Geelong Advertiser, Monday, 12 February 2007, p. 15.

What should be do about coal? For the last 300 years coal has been the critical mineral of the industrialisation of the world which has underpinned the living standards we enjoy today. It was always the cause of pollution, ‘the monster nuisance of all’ as it was described in the nineteenth century. But now it may the death of us, since the strong consensus of the scientists who produced the latest United Nations report on climate change is that greenhouses gases are almost certainly the major contributor to global warming and coal is the source of a significant proportion of these gases.

For a country like Australia which relies heavily on coal for its domestic energy needs and is one of the world’s largest exporters of the mineral how we tackle the future of coal may determine our own future. The short-term options are not promising. We simply cannot stop using coal to generate electricity since it accounts for about 80 per cent of the base load of national consumption. Clean coal burning technology or carbon sequestration—capturing the carbon burned in the process and burying it underground—as alternatives are a decade or more away. Alternative mineral based energy sources like uranium for nuclear power plants have their own problems. Though widely used overseas and touted for consideration once again in Australia, nuclear power plants raise almost as many greenhouse and other more political problems than they solve.

Renewable energy sources including wind, water, solar and wave power are promoted by the Greens and other environmentalists. Australia is well endowed with most of these resources but has fallen behind in their development, both technologically and in bringing them on stream as practical sources. This is one of major opportunities we have missed in the last couple of decades and it will not be easy to catch up. Even if we seriously go down that road it will be a long time before we can produce enough steady supply of energy to replace a fraction of the current coal-based load.

What has probably not been emphasised enough is the possibility of the more efficient use of energy and the reduction of our energy consumption. Most modern Australian houses are not energy efficient buildings, though we know already how to build them. Building regulations are improving, with the insistence on standards of insulation and passive energy retention, but there is a long way to go.

Looking back to the nineteenth century there is a glimmer of hope. Various forms of pollution had reached life-threatening levels when governments in the advanced countries introduced legislation to curb them. In the twentieth century clean air acts ended the pea-soup fogs that used to envelop British cities where I grew up. I always thought Glasgow had been built with black bricks, but when the coal-fired pollution was ended and the buildings were sand-blasted I found they were actually constructed with warm red sandstone. The original beauty of the tenements was restored. The lesson is that despite the unpromising scenarios outlined above, we can do something if we put our mind to it and have the political will to carry out what we want to do.

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