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Australia’s next government must start talking about a ‘just transition’ from coal. Here’s where to begin

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.

That leaves Australia with two particularly 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.

Clearly, Australia needs to have a serious conversation about what the move away from coal means, and how to make it fair. This shift is often called a “just transition”. In our recent study we examined 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 failing the next government must not repeat.

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

A tale of two coal industries

First, it’s important to define “just transition”. Many different definitions are used, but include as a key feature that no-one is left behind when making necessary changes to energy and economic systems.

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

Our research into the just transition in Australia involved reviewing academic research and other literature; interviews with key people from civil society, government and industry; and analysis of hundreds of media articles.

Interviewees reported that the limited discussion in Australia about a just transition has focused on the electricity sector, particularly after the sudden, high-profile closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood Power Station in 2017. Discussion about winding back coal exports was considered too difficult.

Australia’s electricity sector is on the road to decarbonising, and coal-fired power stations are closing faster than expected. In February, for example, Origin Energy announced 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. Some 90% of Australia’s black coal is exported. Most ends up in Asia, either in power stations producing electricity or blast furnaces producing steel. Australian coal contributes more to CO₂ emissions overseas than at home.

Read more: How do the major parties rate on climate policies? We asked 5 experts

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

Just transition is a toxic term

Our study revealed how “just transition” is a problematic term in Australia. This is largely driven by parts of the media and some politicians who equate the 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 narrative was exemplified by Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce 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”.

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

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

Government leadership is sorely needed

A just transition is not just something environmental or union campaigners are calling for. 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 a lack of government leadership was the biggest barrier to action. In particular, the federal government has been almost completely absent from discussions.

Whichever side wins the May 21 election needs to start talking about, and actively planning, a just transition. That means introducing policies to encourage coal power generation and coal exports to wind down, supporting new industries and helping communities manage the change.

Federal government support is crucial because the transition away from coal affects all of society. Governments can set up the stable, long-term institutions and policy mechanisms to support state and local transition efforts.

man holds lump of coal
As Treasurer, Scott Morrison said Australians should not be afraid of coal. Lukas Coch/AAP

How to have productive conversations

Our research highlighted ways the federal government and others can have productive conversations about the just transition away from coal.

Outsiders going to regional communities should listen to people to understand their aspirations and fears.

Explain that the transition away from coal is already underway, and be explicit about what a just transition means: reducing coal production, but increasing other energy sources and diversifying regional economies.

Make clear that the transition is an opportunity for regional people with skills that society needs as our energy systems change. And explain the practical actions available to help communities undergoing major change.

Finally, centre conversations on livelihoods and communities, rather than wages and workers. The transition will only be just if it involves everyone.

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

Which way now?

In the absence of strong government policy, progress towards a just transition has been challenging. Notwithstanding this, we are seeing change.

Australia’s power generation industry is already transitioning away from coal. And Australia’s two largest export-oriented coal miners, Glencore and BHP, also see clear limits on ongoing coal exports.

The shift away from coal is now inevitable. But if not managed effectively, the transition will be disorderly rather than just. This will damage not just coal communities, but Australia’s economy and international standing.

Read more: The world doesn’t care about swings in marginal seats. Climate action must spearhead a new Australian foreign policy

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