Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently



AAP/Lukas Coch

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Because we are rich in coal and gas, Australia has been plagued with two decades of wars over climate policy. The wars have claimed three prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. They have also, in the words of journalist Alan Kohler,

ruined Australia’s ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything.

The response to the pandemic shows that consensus and effective, evidence-based policy are not impossible for Australia’s politicians. Faced with a crisis of life and death, they can put aside ideology and stare down vested interests.

The optimists among us hope they can do this with the life and death crises humanity is facing as the planet heats, and that the terrible fires last summer will have convinced our leaders climate change is real, and effective action urgent. So far, the calls for urgent action are louder from business than from political leaders. Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, has linked restoring growth after the pandemic to the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The federal government, by contrast, is championing gas as a “transition fuel” between coal and renewables. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked chair of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission, Nev Power, has strong links to the gas industry.

Calling gas a “transition fuel” at least admits the need for a transition. But gas also contributes to the planet’s heating, and the federal government has no plausible plan to meet Australia’s Paris target, nor to ramp it up, which must be done for a safe future.




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A single mega-project exposes the Morrison government’s gas plan as staggering folly


The grip that coal and gas has on our political elites goes back to the 1960s, when minerals replaced wool as the mainstay of our commodity exports. Iron ore and coal led the way.

About the same time, mining’s social licence was being challenged by Indigenous Australians, who objected to mining on their traditional lands, and by environmentalists concerned about mining’s destructive impact on natural habitats. The miners’ response was a concerted public relations campaign to align their interests with the national interest by convincing Australians their prosperity depended on mining and should not be curtailed.

In this, the miners have been spectacularly successful. First, in the 1980s, they stymied the implementation of the Hawke Labor government’s plan for uniform land rights legislation, which would include protection of sacred sites, the right to royalties and a veto over mining on Indigenous land.

In Australia, unlike other common law countries, the Crown owns the minerals, so the veto would have given Indigenous owners more rights than freehold owners. Miners launched a furious public campaign centred on the argument that Indigenous Australians should not have special rights.

A decade later, after the High Court determined in the Mabo and Wik judgements that forms of native title had survived European settlement, the miners fought again to make sure the resulting legislation did not include any veto over mining; and it didn’t.

Second, they have delayed effective government action on climate change. At the end of the century, as pressure mounted for a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, Australia’s coal producers organised to prevent the federal government from signing international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Their core argument was that mining underpinned Australia’s wealth, but they also spread scepticism about climate change amongst conservative elites, turning it into an identity marker for the Australian right.

Under John Howard, fossil fuel advocates gained extraordinary access to government decision-making on climate and energy policy. This access was not given to environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) or climate scientists. So much for balance.

The power of the fossil fuel lobby was weaker after Howard lost the 2007 election. Later, it was unable to prevent the Gillard government from implementing a price on carbon and establishing a series of agencies to advance action on climate change.

But with Tony Abbott as prime minister, the industry’s power was back. Scepticism about climate science spread to science and expertise generally, undermining the federal government’s commitment to innovation and research. The fossil fuel lobby is not solely to blame for the Coalition’s philistinism under Abbott, but it bears some responsibility for its self-interested spreading of climate scepticism.




Read more:
Morrison government dangles new carrots for industry but fails to fix bigger climate policy problem


The mining lobby’s third success has been to capture the National Party and turn it into the party of coal and coal seam gas, even when extracting these destroys the good agricultural land on which our food security depends. This is an astonishing achievement.

In March 2019, on Network 10’s The Project, Waleed Aly asked Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict?

Off the top of his head, McCormack could not name one. Mining has so successfully aligned itself with perceptions of the national interest that the National Party now champions the jobs of miners more energetically than the livelihoods of the farmers it once regarded as the heart of the nation.

The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that governments are our risk managers of last resort. Ours, both state and federal, have been prepared to inflict massive economic pain on businesses and individuals to protect our health, and we are grateful.

As we face the much larger but more slow-moving crisis of the heating planet, governments must stare down the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, for all our sakes, even if this inflicts on them some economic pain.

If they can do it for the pandemic, they can do it for climate change.

Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is out today.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go



Phil / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

This month, federal authorities finally announced an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia. We are one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages human health and the environment, even in low concentrations. In humans, mercury exposure is associated with problems such as kidney damage, neurological impairment and delayed cognitive development in children.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


The ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year.

But Australia is yet to ratify an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions from other sources, such as the dental industry and coal-fired power stations. This is our next challenge.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visiting a sugar cane farm in 2019. Mercury-containing pesticides will be banned.
Cameron Laird/AAP

A mercury disaster

Mercury became a popular pesticide ingredient for agriculture in the early 1900s, and a number of poisoning events ensued throughout the world.

They include the Iraq grain disaster in 1971-72, when grain seed treated with mercury was imported from Mexico and the United States. The seed was not meant for human consumption, but rural communities used it to make bread, and 459 people died.

In the decades since, most countries have banned the production and/or use of mercury-based pesticides on crops. In 1995 Australia discontinued their use in most applications, such as turf farming.

Emissions of the element mercury are a threat to human health and the environment.
Wikimedia

Despite this, authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease.

But this month, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority cancelled the approval of the mercury-containing active ingredient in Shirtan, methoxyethylmercuric chloride. The decision was made at the request of the ingredient’s manufacturer, Alpha Chemicals.

Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned.

Workers and nature at risk

Over the past 25 years, Australia’s continued use of Shirtan allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown.

What is known is that mercury can be toxic even at very low concentrations, and research is needed to understand its ecological impacts.

The use of mercury-based pesticide has also created a high risk of exposure for sugar cane workers. At most risk are those not familiar with safety procedures for handling toxic materials, and who may have been poorly supervised. This risk has been exacerbated by the use itinerant workers, particularly those from a non-English speaking background.

South Sea Islanders hoeing a cane field in Queensland, 1902. Cane workers have long been exposed to mercury.
State Library of Queensland

Further, in the hot and humid conditions of Northern Australia, it has been reported that workers may have removed protective gloves to avoid sweating. Again, research is needed to determine the implication of these practices for human health.

To this end, Mercury Australia, a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, has formed to address the environmental, health and other issues surrounding mercury use, both contemporary and historical.

Australia is yet to ratify

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to control mercury use and release into the environment. Australia signed onto the convention in 2013 but is yet to ratify it.

Until the treaty is ratified, Australia is not legally bound to its obligations. It also places us at odds with more than 100 countries that have ratified it, including many of Australia’s developed-nation counterparts.

Australia’s outlier status in this area is shown in the below table:

Accession, acceptance or ratification have the same legal effect, where parties follow legal obligations under international law.

Mercury-based pesticide use was one of Australia’s largest sources of mercury emissions. But if Australia ratifies the convention, it would be required to control other sources of mercury emissions, such as dental amalgam and the burning of coal in power stations.

The three active power stations in the Latrobe Valley, for example, together emit about 1,200 kilograms of mercury each year.

The coal-burning Mount Piper Power station near Lithgow in NSW. Government efforts to reduce mercury emissions should focus on coal plants.
David Gray/Reuters

Time to look at coal

If Australia ratified the Minamata Convention, it would provide impetus for a timely review and, if necessary, update of mercury regulations across Australia.

Emissions from coal-fired power stations in Australia are regulated by the states through pollution control licences. Some states would likely have to amend these licences if Australia ratified the convention. For example, Victorian licences for coal-fired power stations currently do not include limits on mercury emissions.

Pollution control technologies were introduced at Australian coal plants in the early 1990s. But they do not match state-of-the-art technologies applied to coal plants in North America and Europe.




Read more:
Why won’t Australia ratify an international deal to cut mercury pollution?


Australian environment authorities have been examining the implications of ratifying the convention. But progress is slow.

The issue of mercury emissions does not attract significant public or political attention. But there is a global scientific consensus that coordinated international action is needed.

The pesticide phase-out and ban is an important step. But Australia still has a way to go.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.