Australian coal exports to China plummeted last year. While this is due in part to recent trade tensions between Australia and China, our research suggests coal plant closures are a bigger threat to Australia’s export coal in the long term.
China unofficially banned Australian coal in mid-2020. Some 70 ships carrying Australian coal have reportedly been unable to unload in China since October.
This is obviously bad news for Australia’s coal exporters. But even if the ban is lifted, there’s no guarantee China will start buying Australian coal again – at least not in huge volumes.
China is changing. It’s announced a firm date to reach net-zero emissions, and governments in eastern provinces don’t want polluting coal plants taking up prime real estate. It’s time Australia faced reality, and reconsidered its coal export future.
In May last year, China’s government effectively banned the import of Australian coal, by applying stringent import quotas. As of last month coal exports to China from Newcastle, Australia’s busiest coal exporting port, had ceased.
In 2019, Australia exported A$13.7 billion worth of coal to China. This comprised A$9.7 billion in metallurgical coal for steel making and A$4 billion in thermal coal for electricity generation.
The latest official Australian data shows these export levels fell dramatically between November 2019 and November 2020. Comparing the two months, metallurgical and thermal coal exports to China were down 85% and 83% respectively.
Several Chinese provinces experienced power blackouts in late 2020. China’s state-backed media said the shortages were unrelated to the ban on Australian coal. Instead, they blamed cold weather and the recovery in industrial activity after the pandemic.
We dispute this claim. While Australian coal accounts for only about 2% of coal consumption in China, it helps maintain reliable supply for many power stations in China’s southeast coastal provinces.
Coal mining in China mostly occurs in the western provinces. Southeast coastal provinces are largely economically advanced and no longer produce coal. Instead, power stations in those provinces import coal from overseas.
Experience suggests trade tensions between Australia and China will eventually ease. But in the long run, there is a more fundamental threat to Australian coal exports to China.
Data from monitoring group Global Coal Tracker shows between 2015 and 2019, China closed 291 coal-fired power generation units in power plants of 30 megawatts (MW) or larger, totalling 37 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. For context, Australia decommissioned 5.5 GW of coal-fired power generation units between 2010 and 2017, and currently has 21 GW of coal-fired power stations.
The closures were driven by factors such as climate change and air pollution concern, excess coal power capacity, and China’s move away from some energy-intensive industries.
Our recently published paper revealed other distinctive features of the coal power station closures.
First, China’s regions are reducing coal power capacity at different rates and scales. In the nation’s eastern provinces, the closures are substantial. But elsewhere, and particularly in the western provinces, new coal plants are being built.
In fact, China’s coal power capacity increased by about 18% between 2015 and 2019. It currently has more than 1,000 GW of coal generation capacity – the largest in the world.
Second, we found retired coal power stations in China had much shorter lives than the international average. Guangdong, an economically developed region of comparable economic size to Canada, illustrates the point. According to our calculation, the stations in that region had a median age of 15 years at closure. In contrast, coal plants that closed in Australia between 2010 and 2017 had a median age of 43 years.
This suggests coal power stations in China are usually retired not because they’ve reached the end of their productive lives, but rather to achieve a particular purpose.
Third, our study showed decisions to decommission coal power stations in China were largely driven by government, especially local governments. This is in contrast to Australia, where the decision to close a plant is usually made by the company that owns it. And this decomissioning in China is usually driven by a development logic.
Coal plant closures there have been faster and bigger than elsewhere in the country, as governments replace energy- and pollution-intensive industries with advanced manufacturing and services.
And as these regions become richer, the value of land occupied by coal power plants and transmission facilities grows. This gives governments a strong incentive to close the plants and redevelop the sites.
In coming years, southeast China will increasingly shift to renewable-based electricity and electric power transmitted from western provinces.
Coal power stations in China’s eastern coastal regions will continue to close in coming years, and power generation capacity will be redistributed to western provinces. For reasons outlined above, that means power generation in China will increasingly rely on domestic coal rather than that from Australia.
China’s coal exit is in part due to its strategy to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2060. Australia must realistically appraise its coal export prospects in light of the long-term threat posed by shifts in China and other East Asian nations.
The Morrison government, and industry, should re-double efforts to rapidly expand renewable energy in Australia. Then we can leave coal behind, and emerge as a renewable energy superpower.
Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University
China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.
The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.
All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?
Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.
China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.
The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”
However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.
As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.
Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.
Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.
A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.
Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.
These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.
Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.
Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.
Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.
In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.
The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.
China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.
Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University
It’s been a busy couple of months in global energy and climate policy. Australia’s largest trading partners – China, South Korea and Japan – have all announced they will reach net-zero emissions by about mid-century. In the United States, the incoming Biden administration has committed to decarbonising its electricity system by 2035.
These pledges have big implications for Australia. With some of the best renewable resources in the world, we have much to gain from the transition. And this week, the New South Wales government embraced the opportunity.
Its new A$32 billion Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will, among other things, support the construction of 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is six times the capacity of the state’s Liddell coal-fired power station, set to close in 2023.
The roadmap was developed by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean through extensive consultation with industry and others, including ourselves. While we believe a national carbon price is the best way to reduce emissions, the NSW approach nonetheless sets an example for other states looking to increase renewable energy capacity. So let’s take a closer look at the plan.
The roadmap acknowledges that within 15 years, three-quarters of NSW’s coal-fired electricity supply is expected to reach the end of its technical life. It says action is needed now to ensure cheap, clean and reliable electricity, and to set up NSW as a global energy superpower.
The plan involves a coordinated approach to transmission, generation and storage. By 2030, the government aims to:
deliver about 12 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through so-called “renewable energy zones” in three regional areas by 2030. It would most likely be generated by wind and solar
support about 3 gigawatts of energy storage to help back up variable renewable energy supplies. This would involve batteries, pumped hydro, and “hydrogen ready” gas peaking power stations
attract up to A$32 billion in private investment in regional energy infrastructure investment by 2030
support more than 6,300 construction and 2,800 ongoing jobs in 2030, mostly in regional NSW
reduce NSW’s carbon emissions by 90 million tonnes.
The plan also aims to see the average NSW household save about A$130 a year in electricity costs, although this might be hard to achieve in practice. And regional landholders hosting renewable projects on their properties are expected to earn A$1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.
One of the most innovative aspects of the NSW proposal is that generators will have two options when it comes to selling their electricity.
First, the government will appoint an independent “consumer trustee” to purchase electricity from generators at an agreed price – giving the generators the long-term certainty they need to invest. The trustee would then sell this electricity either directly to the market, or through contracts to retailers.
But the trustee will encourage generators to first seek a better price by finding their own customers, such as energy consumers and other electricity retailers.
This system is different to the approach adopted in Victoria and the ACT, where government contracts remove any incentive for generators to participate in the energy market. Over time, this limits market competition and innovation.
The NSW plan improves on existing state policies in another way – by aligning financial incentives to the physical needs of the system. The Consumer Trustee will enter into contracts with projects that produce electricity at times of the day when consumers need it, and not when the system is already oversupplied.
While this won’t be easy for the trustee to model, this approach is likely to benefit consumers more than in other jurisdictions where lowest-cost projects seem to be preferred, irrespective of whether the energy they produced is needed by consumers.
One shortcoming of the roadmap is it does not financially reward existing low-emissions electricity generators in NSW, nor does it charge carbon-heavy electricity producers for the emissions they produce. This could be corrected in the future by integrating the policy into a nationally consistent carbon price, which transfers the cost of carbon pollution onto heavy emitters.
NSW’s ageing coal-fired power stations are chugging along – albeit with ever-declining reliability. But it’s only a matter of time before something expensive needs fixing. This was the case with Hazelwood in Victoria: the old walls of the boilers had thinned to less than 2 millimetres. The repair cost was prohibitive and the station closed with just five months’ notice. Electricity prices shot up in response to unexpectedly reduced supply.
In NSW, the consumer trustee will be tasked with helping ensuring replacement generation is delivered in a timely way. This means developing new generation capacity well ahead of announced coal plant closures.
This is a helpful development. But ultimately a stronger measure will be needed to ensure coal plants give early notice of their intention to exit the market. The Grattan Institute has previously suggested coal generators put up bonds that are forfeited if they close early. We think this model is worth considering again.
As the world’s largest exporter of coal and LNG, Australia has much to lose as global economies shift to zero emissions. But our renewable energy potential means we also have much to gain.
Australia needs a durable, nationally consistent policy framework if we’re to seize the opportunities of the global transition to clean energy. The NSW roadmap is a significant step in the right direction.
The August 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was one of the deadliest volcanic explosions in modern history. The volcano, found in the middle of the Sunda Strait in between two of Indonesia’s largest islands, was on a small island which disappeared almost overnight. The eruption was so loud it could be heard in Reunion, some 3,000 miles away.
As the volcano collapsed into the sea, it generated a tsunami 37m high – tall enough to submerge a six-storey building. And as the wave raced along the shoreline of the Sunda Strait, it destroyed 300 towns and villages, and killed more than 36,000 people.
Nearly 45 years later, in 1927, a series of sporadic underwater eruptions meant part of the original volcano once again emerged above the sea, forming a new island named Anak Krakatoa, which means “Child of Krakatoa”. In December 2018, during another small eruption, one of Anak Krakatoa’s flanks collapsed into the ocean and the region’s shorelines were once again hit by a major tsunami. This time, 437 were left dead, nearly 32,000 were injured and more than 16,000 people were displaced.
Even though Anak Krakatoa had been active since June that year, local residents received no warning that a huge wave was about to hit. This is because Indonesia’s early warning system is based on ocean buoys that detect tsunamis induced by submarine earthquakes, such as those that struck on Boxing Day in 2004, in one of the most deadly natural disasters of all time.
But tsunamis caused by volcanic eruptions are rather different and, as they aren’t very common, scientists still don’t fully understand them. And Indonesia has no advanced early warning system in place for volcano-generated tsunamis.
At some point in the future, Anak Krakatoa will erupt again, generating more tsunamis. Since it is difficult to predict exactly which areas of the Sunda Strait will be affected, it is of paramount importance that residents in coastal villages are well aware of the danger.
An advanced early warning system could be installed. It would involve tide gauges to detect an increase in water levels, satellite imagery and drone mapping, and a tsunami numerical model run in real time. When this system triggered a warning, it would be fed direct to residents who live in the coastal belt. Until such a system is in place, it will be vital to get the local community involved in disaster risk management and education.
But preparing for future disasters isn’t just about building breakwaters or seawalls, though these defensive structures are clearly vital for preserving beaches for tourism and local businesses like fishing. It is also about educating people so that they feel psychologically healthier, more resilient and less anxious about facing the mega tsunamis of the future.
I have previously highlighted two examples of proactive community participation in disaster-prone villages in the UK and Japan. In both cases, residents know how to act in case of a natural disaster without depending on the authorities. It is certain that the decimation of the land and deaths could be reduced if the local communities are well prepared for natural disasters like tsunamis.
Following the December 2018 Anak Krakatoa tsunami, local researchers and I conducted a detailed field survey of the coastline of Lampung province, on the north side of the strait, and some of the smaller nearby islands. We found a lack of proper tsunami defence structures or any early warning system, and houses and businesses built very close to the coast with no buffer zone. We identified high ground where residents could run to in case of a tsunami and put up signs with evacuation routes.
During this survey, I conducted a series of focus group meetings with local residents and businesses in order to make the communities more resilient and reduce their anxiety about future mega tsunamis in the area. I developed a tsunami wave propagation model to replicate the 2018 tsunami and most plausible future tsunami events, and to identify the most vulnerable coastal stretches, such as the village of Kunjir on the Lampung mainland.
I also combined field survey results, numerical model outputs and published information to make some recommendations for local communities. I suggested active collaboration between government departments and local institutions on the issue, and the formation of disaster preparedness teams for every village in Southern Lampung. The planning criteria for development of infrastructure along the coasts should also be put under review, and there should be a trauma healing programme for the victims of the 2018 Krakatoa tsunami.
We don’t know exactly when Krakatoa will next erupt, or if any future eruptions will match those of 1883 or even 2018. That’s a question for volcanologists. But we should do what we can to prepare for the worst.
China’s President Xi Jinping surprised the global community recently by committing his country to net-zero emissions by 2060. Prior to this announcement, the prospect of becoming “carbon neutral” barely rated a mention in China’s national policies.
China currently accounts for about 28% of global carbon emissions – double the US contribution and three times the European Union’s. Meeting the pledge will demand a deep transition of not just China’s energy system, but its entire economy.
Importantly, China’s use of coal, oil and gas must be slashed, and its industrial production stripped of emissions. This will affect demand for Australia’s exports in coming decades.
It remains to be seen whether China’s climate promise is genuine, or simply a ploy to win international favour. But it puts pressure on many other nations – not least Australia – to follow.
Coal is currently used to generate about 60% of China’s electricity. Coal must be phased out for China to meet its climate target, unless technologies such as carbon-capture and storage become commercially viable.
Natural gas is increasingly used in China for heating and transport, as an alternative to coal and petrol. To achieve carbon neutrality, China must dramatically reduce its gas use.
Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles must also come to dominate road transport – currently they account for less than 2% of the total fleet.
China must also slash the production of carbon-intensive steel, cement and chemicals, unless they can be powered by renewable electricity or zero-emissions hydrogen. One report suggests meeting the target will mean most of China’s steel is produced using recycled steel, in a process powered by renewable electricity.
Modelling in that report suggests China’s use of iron ore – and the coking coal required to process it into steel – will decrease by 75%. The implications for Australia’s mining industry would be huge; around 80% of our iron ore is exported to China.
It is critically important for Australian industries and policymakers to assess the seriousness of China’s pledge and the likelihood it will be delivered. Investment plans for large mining projects should then be reconsidered accordingly.
Conversely, China’s path towards a carbon neutral economy may open up new export opportunities for Australia, such as “green” hydrogen.
Solar and wind currently account for 10% of China’s total power generation. For China to meet the net-zero goal, renewable energy generation would have to ramp up dramatically. This is needed for two reasons: to replace the lost coal-fired power capacity, and to provide the larger electricity needs of transport and heavy industry.
Two factors are likely to reduce energy demand in China in coming years. First, energy efficiency in the building, transport and manufacturing sectors is likely to improve. Second, the economy is moving away from energy- and pollution-intensive production, towards an economy based on services and digital technologies.
It’s in China’s interests to take greater action on climate change. Developing renewable energy helps China build new “green” export industries, secure its energy supplies and improve air and water quality.
It’s worth considering what factors may have motivated China’s announcement, beyond the desire to do good for the climate.
In recent years, China has been viewed with increasing hostility on the world stage, especially by Western nations. Some commentators have suggested China’s climate pledge is a bid to improve its global image.
The pledge also gives China the high ground over a major antagonist, the US, which under President Donald Trump has walked away from its international obligations on climate action. China’s pledge follows similar ones by the European Union, New Zealand, California and others. It sets an example for other developing nations to follow, and puts pressure on Australia to do the same.
The European Union has also been urging China to take stronger climate action. The fact Xi made the net-zero pledge at a United Nations meeting suggests it was largely targeted at an international, rather than Chinese, audience.
However, the international community will judge China’s pledge on how quickly it can implement specific, measurable short- and mid-term targets for net-zero emissions, and whether it has the policies in place to ensure the goal is delivered by 2060.
Much is resting on China’s next Five Year Plan – a policy blueprint created every five years to steer the economy towards various priorities. The latest plan, covering 2021–25, is being developed. It will be examined closely for measures such as phasing out coal and more ambitious targets for renewables.
Also key is whether the recent rebound of China’s carbon emissions – following a fall from 2013 to 2016 – can be reversed.
The 2060 commitment is bold, but China may look to leave itself wriggle room in several ways.
First, Xi declared in his speech that China will “aim to” achieve carbon neutrality, leaving open the option his nation may not meet the target.
Second, the Paris Agreement states that developed nations should provide financial resources and technological support to help developing countries reduce their emissions. China may make its delivery of the pledge conditional on this support.
Third, China may seek to game the way carbon neutrality is measured – for example, by insisting it excludes carbon emissions “embodied” in imports and exports. This move is quite likely, given exports account for a significant share of China’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
So for the time being, the world is holding its applause for China’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Like every nation, China will be judged not on its climate promises, but on its delivery.
Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University
This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.
In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.
When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.
I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.
The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.
The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.
It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.
When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.
But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.
Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.
By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.
The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.
The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.
Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.
Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.
In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.
Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.
The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.
In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:
I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.
They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.
The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.
The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:
We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.
While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.
We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.
This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.
A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.
And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.
This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.
The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.
Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.
It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.
Scientists have been interested in the flora of New Guinea since the 17th century, but formal knowledge of the tropical island’s diversity has remained limited.
To solve this mystery, our global team of 99 scientists from 56 institutions built the first ever expert-verified checklist to the region’s vascular plants (those with conductive tissue).
We found there are 13,634 formally described species of plants in New Guinea, of which a remarkable 68% are known to occur there and nowhere else. This richness trumps both Madagascar (11,488 species) and Borneo (11,165 species), making New Guinea the most floristically diverse island in the world.
From tarantula-like orchids to giant bananas, here we reveal some of the more mysterious plants on our checklist. Sadly, unsustainable logging and climate change threaten the conservation of many New Guinean species, and we highlight urgent solutions.
New Guinea is a land of evocative contrasts. As the world’s largest tropical island – made up of Papua New Guinea to the east and two Indonesian provinces to the west – its biological diversity spans habitats from fringing mangroves to alpine grasslands.
The flora is diverse, filled with the majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre. However, very little is known about the conservation status of many species in New Guinea, which remains relatively unexplored by scientists.
There are the few remaining forests of 60 metres high hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and klinkii pine (A. hunsteinii), that tower majestically up to 30 metres above the already tall rainforest canopy.
Figs, with their copious sap, are present in diverse forms, from small shrubs to vines, or large canopy trees.
And the strongly irritant black sap of the Semecarpus tree, a distant relative of the American poison ivy, causing severe dermatitis, is something naive botanists must learn to avoid!
Then there’s the Ryparosa amplifolia, a rainforest tree that provides swollen hollow stems for ant colonies to live inside. The tree also produces energy rich “food bodies” – granule-like structures on the leaves that mimic animal tissue and provide the ants with sustenance. In return, the ants act as bodyguards, chasing away insect herbivores, and leaf cleaners.
Some of our most popular foods were domesticated from New Guinea, including sugarcane and bananas. But the giant banana, Musa ingens is a a highlight in montane forests. Its leaves can stretch to a length of 5 metres, the tree can grow more than 20 metres tall, and its fruits are massive.
With more than 2,400 species of native orchid species, New Guinea is one of the most spectacular floral gardens in the world. It includes fascinating species such as Bulbophyllum nocturnum, which is the first and only known example of a night-flowering orchid, and Bulbophyllum tarantula, with appendages that resemble the iconic spider.
Despite New Guinea’s seemingly high number of plant species, at least 3,000 species remain to be discovered and formally described. This estimate is based on the rate of description of new species in the past decades.
Much of New Guinea, particularly the Indonesian part, has been extremely poorly studied, with very few plant species collected. Even within Papua New Guinea, the distribution of many species is inadequately known. This means our findings should be viewed as a baseline upon which to prioritise further work.
The biggest impact on forest conservation is from logging, both clear-felling and degradation. As land is predominantly under customary ownership, addressing subsistence-related forest loss is a long-term challenge. Climate change adds yet further threats, including increased burning of degraded forest due to drier weather.
This means there’s a high risk of the world losing entire species before they are even known.
To this end, in 2018 the governors of Indonesia’s two New Guinea provinces announced the Manokwari Declaration, a pledge to conserve 70% of forest cover for the western half of the island.
Our work builds on many decades of effort by plant collectors whose countless nights under leaking canvas, grass huts and bark shelters have led to thousands of plant discoveries.
Their stories are astounding. These fearless adventurers have sampled water plants by jumping from helicopters hovering low over Lake Tebera, swam in the Purari River rapids to haul a disabled dugout canoe full of botanists and cargo to safety, and have fallen into beds of stinging plants in the mountains of Wagau without subsequent access to pain relief.
Taxonomy – the discipline of identifying, classifying, and understanding relationships between plants – is the key to unlocking the value of this collecting effort.
Future opportunities for botanical research with local New Guineans at the helm is also vital – only 15% of the scientific publications on the New Guinean flora over the past 10 years involved local co-authors.
Improved collaboration between taxonomists, scientific institutions, governments and New Guinean scientific agencies could address these critical urgent priorities.
Undoubtedly, the conservation of New Guinea’s unique flora will be challenging and require work on many fronts that transcend single disciplines or institutions. From what we know already, a world of botanical surprises awaits in the last unknown.
After all, as 19th century naturalist J.B. Jukes wrote:
I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results […] and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea.