The Politics    Thursday, July 21, 2022

At the coalface

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Melbourne yesterday. Image © Diego Fedele / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Melbourne yesterday. Image © Diego Fedele / AAP Images

Anthony Albanese has revived a ludicrous Coalition talking point about Australia’s “clean” coal

Formal climate negotiations between Labor and the Greens have begun, with the Greens yesterday having “empowered” leader Adam Bandt to enter negotiations over the government’s bill on an emissions-reduction target. The Greens preference is to “improve and pass” the bill, as Bandt said yesterday, adding that Labor must be prepared to negotiate to improve its “weak” 43 per cent target, potentially with a ratchet mechanism (an idea that has now been endorsed by the Australian Conservation Foundation). It does not look as if the PM is keen to move on the target, however, nor on coal. Speaking on ABC radio this morning, Anthony Albanese repeated the stock standard lines about Labor’s “mandate”, echoing Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen in saying the government would only accept “sensible” amendments. But it was Albanese’s comments to The Australian overnight that were the most concerning. Banning new fossil-fuel projects, as the Greens are advocating, would do nothing to lower global emissions, Albanese claimed, and doing so may even increase emissions if our trading partners source “less clean” coal from elsewhere. It’s a laughable line that is straight from the Coalition playbook.

It is deeply depressing to see Albanese now employing the “clean coal” argument – one much loved by coal-hugging former resources minister Keith Pitt – to argue that Australia must keep exporting fossil fuels because other countries’ coal is worse. (Former PM Malcolm Turnbull also employed it when it suited him.) It’s a convenient lie that governments use to argue that they aren’t contributing to global emissions, and that they are in fact preventing them. This is an argument that writer Jeff Sparrow today compared to drug dealer logic: “If I don’t sell it, someone else will”. It’s a logical fallacy, of course, and one that hardly needs rebutting. Alas, since the PM has said it, this bears repeating: by keeping coal in the ground, Australia will decrease the amount of fossil fuels in the market, thereby raising prices and hastening the transition to renewables, while also lending itself credence to lead on this issue, to call out other countries and become a global leader on renewables. As Saturday Paper cartoonist Jon Kudelka keeps saying, it’s really not complicated. Except apparently that it is, especially when the trade minister is so eager to resume selling our coal to China.

Is this where the debate is headed? Albanese reviving old Coalition talking points on coal and emissions? (The “floor, not a ceiling” line, as many have observed this week, is not all that far from “meet and beat”, when you’re talking about setting a target.) It’s even stranger to watch the Labor leader try to pull this one just days after declaring a “climate emergency” alongside Pacific leaders. Tuvalu Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Kofe has today penned a forceful op-ed in the Nine papers, calling for a global fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty. “The new Australian government must do more to align itself with the rest of the Pacific family, and we are confident it realises this,” he wrote pointedly. “Movement must be made away from the expansion of coal and gas production if we are to remain in alignment with Paris commitments, regional efforts and our stated goal of overcoming the single greatest existential threat to our region’s security and prosperity.” It’s hard to imagine Pacific leaders swallowing Albanese’s claim that it’s important for Australia to open a few more coalmines because our coal is “cleaner”.

It seems we may soon have some kind of resolution to this painfully drawn-out stoush on an emissions target. While both sides are beating their chests in the media ahead of next week’s showdown, the Greens do appear to want to reach a compromise – if Labor will give them a concession on a ratchet mechanism and some kind of commitment on floors and ceilings. But Albanese’s comments on “clean” coal remain of deep concern, and are a sad reminder that we still have a PM willing to make farcical claims about Australia’s apparently magical, science-defying fossil fuels. It’s not quite “This is coal, don’t be afraid”, as our last PM famously said, brandishing a lump of the stuff in parliament. But Albanese is clearly still willing to say whatever it takes, no matter how illogical, to keep digging it up out of the ground.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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