New Internationalist

From coal to sunrise

Issue 357

When jobs are at risk, can you match fairness for workers in polluting industries with planetary justice? Danny Kennedy explores.

Australia has a problem: we have plentiful coal and are hugely dependent on it. Not only is over three-quarters of our electricity supply coal-fired, but we are the largest exporter of black coal in the world.

The three main eastern states – New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – are built on the back of the coal industry. Three-quarters of the approximately 250 million tonnes of coal we dig up is sent overseas, making it our largest export earner by a mile.

Domestically, 24 power stations are the major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. These power stations emit more carbon dioxide than the workings of entire countries’ economies including Argentina, Malaysia, Ireland and Sweden.

Even so the coal industry is a relatively small employer with job numbers falling fast as mines are more mechanized and as companies like Rio Tinto pursue worker-unfriendly policies.

Despite this, the industry’s strongholds – places like the La Trobe valley in Victoria, the Hunter region in New South Wales (NSW) and the Bowen Basin in Queensland – continue to exert incredible influence on the political, cultural and economic landscape of a country which is otherwise largely urban. It has long been said, despite our standing as one of the most ‘developed nations’ in the world, that our economy is that of a quarrying colony.

‘We saw that it would be local actions in cities and towns that would make the long-term gains in environmental sustainability’

From a greenhouse perspective, this means we have the highest per-capita emissions profile in the world. Also our economic growth is reliant on continued export of carbon. No wonder that Australia stands out of the Kyoto Protocol as the only ‘Annex 1’ country unwilling to ratify other than the US.

But business-as-usual is not something we can bank on in a carbon-constrained world.

Some, even within the heartland of Australia’s coal country, see the writing on the wall and are pursuing ways out of our current predicament. Critical to the success of this transformation will be how we take care of the workers and communities who have grown up on and been underpinned by the coal industry.

This concept of a ‘just transition’ for workers and others dependent on a fossil-fuels economy is a strange kind of reversal of a dream that the labour movement in Australia long held dear. All the major Australian states have tried to convert our base of cheap and plentiful energy into value-adding, manufacturing industries.

None has really succeeded, apart from small manufacturing centres. The reality is we dig up the coal and ship offshore what we don’t burn for our own consumption. Despite such failures to deliver meaningful secondary economic development, many in the climate protection movement recognize that if we are to wean Australia off coal we will have to create plenty of good jobs and business opportunities in the sunrise clean power industry.

This is starting to happen in Newcastle, NSW’s second city at the mouth of the Hunter River and its main manufacturing base. In recent years it has seen much of its heavy industry shut down. Broken Hill Plc (BHP) – the so-called ‘Big Australian’ which was once a more diversified conglomerate than just a mining transnational – closed its Newcastle steel plants in the last decade and appeared to be condemning the town to become a rust-belt.

The good news is this has not happened. Instead, Newcastle has been undergoing a kind of renaissance with fledgling industries like tourism, vineyards (the Hunter Valley is also home to some of Australia’s finest plonk!) and filmmaking coming to the fore. More importantly, the Newcastle City Council has championed an explicit plan to turn the city into a clean-energy centre of excellence in coming decades.

According to the Mayor, John Tate, Newcastle learned a lot from a conference it hosted in 1997 called Pathways to Sustainability. ‘We saw that it would be local actions in cities and towns that would make the long-term gains in environmental sustainability.’ Newcastle then moved quickly to become more accountable for its own operations in terms of energy and resource consumption. This was supported by the development of a Green Energy Project. Since that time the Council has managed to bring its 2002 electricity bill down to just over half of what it was in 1995. Newcastle even set up a pioneering website that reports city-wide emissions caused by actual energy consumption and waste sent to landfill (see it created a self-standing business- unit of the City Council called the Australian Municipal Energy Improvement Facility to take the gospel of energy efficiency and renewables to other Australian cities. Known as AMEIF it is ‘quietly creating a green revolution in Newcastle and the Hunter Region, and carving out a path to sustainability Australia-wide’ – even if they say so themselves.

Local unions and some politicians are seeking ways to ‘make coal sustainable’ – however implausible that may seem

Apart from sparing Newcastle a huge chunk of its city budget with energy savings, AMEIF has helped spawn a resource-efficiency consulting enterprise for industry which it now contracts to other cities. This demonstrates how to take profitable government, residential and commercial sector greenhouse action.

But Geoff Evans, a member of the Board of Australia’s Mineral Policy Institute who also teaches ecologically sustainable development at the University of Newcastle, points out that there is ‘no consensus’ on the vision of a clean-energy future. In spite of the actions of AMEIF, local unions and some politicians are seeking ways to ‘make coal sustainable’ – however implausible that may seem.

They are up against Minewatch, a group of residents in the Upper Hunter valley organizing against the expansion of some of the mines which export 70 per cent of their product to the dozens of ships waiting at Newcastle Harbour daily. Minewatch has found allies in the local wine-based tourism industry, which does not want to see its booming business wither on the vine due to coal dust and air pollution from coal plants producing electricity for distant cities.

The potential for Australia’s green-energy industry is exciting. By making a just transition to a sustainable future we could create an industry rich in good jobs, with organized labour winning decent wages and conditions in the manufacture and maintenance of wind- and solar-power systems. What’s more – and this appeals to Australians – the scale and distributed nature of clean-power generation lends itself to plants and installations in rural and regional Australia as well as in many of the smaller, more depressed cities. If we support the fledgling industry here and now we could ultimately become a hub for a clean-energy export industry to the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Right now dozens of ships a day wait off Newcastle Harbour to load up and flog coal to Asia. Wouldn’t it be great to see those same ships laden with solar cells or wind turbines?

Danny Kennedy is the co-ordinator of the Climate Action Network Australia,


  • Unfair subsidies The critical barrier to the success of a ‘just transition’ for workers into the clean-energy industry is government support for entrenched fossil fuel industries. In the case of Australia the Government subsidizes coal to the tune of US$5.3 billion per year.
  • Corporate clout
    Established energy, oil and car companies tend to be large corporations with considerable political clout – and determination to keep to business as usual.
  • Job fears
    The false perception that renewable energy will mean fewer jobs. Current evidence suggests the opposite.
  • Union resistance
    Traditionally minded trade unions are resistant to ‘just transition’. Initiatives in the US have hit impasses due to the difficulty of reconciling ‘red’ with ‘green’.
  • Dirty development
    Financial institutions such as the World Bank still fund coal-fired power station projects in the South.
  • Greenwashing
    Fossil-fuel energy companies (such as BP and Shell) are creating a false impression of the scale of their commitment to clean power.


  • Demand government targets for renewable energy In Australia environmental groups, the Australian Medical Association and the Electrical Trades Union are calling for a mandatory renewable-energy target of 10 per cent of energy demand by 2010 (it’s currently less than 2 per cent). People worldwide can support this by sending an automated email submission to the review panel considering this legislation on the 10x10 campaign website and inform themselves of the action they can take on or on
  • Organize unions around climate-change policy.
    The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) in the US made some progress in this area during the 1990s.
  • Promote ‘Just Transition’ to fund worker training
    into sustainable employment such as hydrogen production, supply and distribution, solar and wind energy. Such ideas have support in progressive unions but without a consensus they are doomed to failure. Andrew Hoerner at the US Center for a Sustainable Economy and Jim Barrett of the Economic Policy Institute have laid out a tax system that would lead carbon-intensive industries to reduce carbon emissions while creating a funding mechanism to assist workers to make the transition.
  • Join forces
    Local people concerned about pollution, workers in hazardous fossil- or nuclear-energy industries, unions and environmentalists may share the same goals for clean, healthy, productive environments.

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This article was originally published in issue 357

New Internationalist Magazine issue 357
Issue 357

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