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Australia’s next government needs to talk about a just transition’ from coal. Here’s where you can start.

Australia’s next government needs to talk about a just transition’ from coal. Here’s where you can start.

Girl in raincoat holds sign

At last year’s Glasgow climate conference, countries lined up to increase their ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Even Australia brought a new target of net-zero emissions by 2050, and signed the final agreement which called for a global “phase down” of coal.

This leaves Australia with two very important tasks. First, our power grid – reliant on coal for About half our electricity – must shift to renewable energy. Second, we must dramatically reduce coal exports, which produce about 3% of global CO₂ emissions when burned overseas.

Australia needs to have a serious dialogue about what the transition away from coal means and how it can be fair. This shift is often called a “just transition”. This is our Recent studiesWe looked at how the idea is understood in Australia.

We found several barriers to a productive conversation about the just transition – not least, an almost complete absence of the federal government in talking about or planning for it. This is a failure that the next government must avoid.

Girl in raincoat holds sign
Under enormous public pressure, countries agreed at Glasgow to phase down coal.
Jane Barlow/AP

Two coal industries tell a story

First, it’s important to define “just transition”. Although there are many definitions of “just transition”, the most important feature is that no-one should be left behind when making changes to energy or economic systems.

This means sharing the benefits and costs of the changes fairly, supporting workers through retraining or new jobs, and supporting communities through larger economic changes.

Our research into the just Transition in Australia involved reviewing academic literature, interviews and analysis of hundreds media articles.

Interviewees said that there is very little discussion in Australia about a transition. focusesespecially after the sudden and high-profile events in the electricity industry Closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood Power Station in 2017. Discussions about winding down coal exports were deemed too difficult.

Australia’s electricity sector is on the road to decarbonising, and coal-fired power stations are closing faster than expected. Origin Energy, for instance, was founded in February. Announcement it would close its massive Eraring Power Station in three years – the soonest timeframe allowed under national rules.

But Australia’s coal mining industry dwarfs the power industry. Around 90% of Australia’s black coal is exported. Most end up in Asia, either in power plants producing electricity or blast furnaces producing iron. Australian coal contributes more to CO₂ emissions overseas than at home.

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A coal terminal at seaport
Australia’s coal mining industry dwarfs the power industry.

Transition is a dangerous term

Our study revealed how “just transition” is a problematic term in Australia. This is largely due to politicians and parts of the media that equate transition with job losses.

This “jobs versus environment” narrative has been cultivated throughout the so-called “Climate wars” plaguing federal politics over the past 15 or so years.

The story was This is an exampleBarnaby Joyce, Nationals leader, late last month. Asked if the government planned move away from coal, he said “we’re not going to be saying to people the word ‘transition’ because that equals unemployment”.

According to our interviewees, the argument resonates in regional communities because of two main reasons. First, most people calling for a “just transition” They are not locals and there is a perception they don’t understand the needs and aspirations of coal towns. Second, many communities have had bad past experiencesPrograms for economic restructuring

Many interviewees said it’s important to discuss the just transition, but they avoid using the term explicitly because of the negative connotations.

The government leadership is crucial

Just transition is not something that environmentalists or union activists only want. Our research revealed almost all key stakeholders are willing to plan for it – from industry to community groups, investors and some state and local governments – even if their motivations differ.

These groups also agreed that the greatest barrier to action was a lack leadership from the government. The federal government is the most absent from discussions.

Whatever side wins the May 21 elections, they must start planning and talking about a just transition. This means policies that encourage coal power generation and exports to end, as well as supporting new industries and helping communities to manage the transition.

Because the transition away from coal has a major impact on society, federal government support is essential. To support state and local transition efforts, governments can create stable, long-term institutions as well as policy mechanisms.

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man holds lump of coal
Scott Morrison, the Treasurer of Australia, said that Australians shouldn’t be afraid to use coal.
Lukas Coch/AAP

How to have productive conversations

Our research revealed ways that the federal government and other stakeholders can have productive discussions about the transition away from coal.

Regional communities should be visited by outsiders Listento help people understand their fears and aspirations.

Explain that the transition from coal is already underway. Also, be specific about what a fair transition looks like: reducing production of coal, increasing other energy sources, diversifying regional economics.

Make it clear that the transition offers an opportunity for regional people to acquire skills that society requires as energy systems change. Also, explain the Practical actionsAvailable to assist communities going through major changes

Finally, it is important to focus on livelihoods and communities and not workers and wages. Everyone is needed to make the transition just.

two men wearing high vis in industrial setting
Coal workers are not an independent part of their communities.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Which way do you prefer?

Without a strong government, progress towards a just and peaceful transition is impossible. challenging. Despite this, we are witnessing change.

Australia’s power generation industry is already transitioning away from coal. And Australia’s two largest export-oriented coal miners, GlencoreAnd BHPAlso, there are clear limits on coal exports.

The shift away from coal seems inevitable. However, if the transition isn’t managed well, it could be chaotic and not just. This will damage not just coal communities, but Australia’s economy and international standing.

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