Magazine article New Internationalist

From Coal to Sunrise: When Jobs Are at Risk, Can You Match Fairness for Workers in Polluting Industries with Planetary Justice? Danny Kennedy Explores

Magazine article New Internationalist

From Coal to Sunrise: When Jobs Are at Risk, Can You Match Fairness for Workers in Polluting Industries with Planetary Justice? Danny Kennedy Explores

Article excerpt

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.

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! …

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