“The dead hand of the coal industry is an assault on Australian democracy”

Coal is the biggest cause of climate change and yet it is still Australia’s largest energy resource, accounting for around 60% of its electricity. The burning of coal, along with oil and gas, is driving up global temperatures, leading to hotter Australian conditions which exacerbate bushfires. As a result of the bushfires that raged across Australia in 2019 and 2020, 3 billion animals were killed or forced from their homes.

And yet the Australian government is still in the grips of the coal industry, corrupted by its vested interests. Prime Minister Scott Robinson loves it so much that he brought a lump of it into Parliament in 2017 saying “don’t be afraid”.

Such free reign the industry has had, that researchers from Environmental Justice Australia found that some coal-fired power plants in New South Wales were allowed to emit 666 times what would be allowed in the US, and 33 times what is allowed in the EU and China. The serious health issues that arise from the toxic air from this industry are responsible for an annual health bill of AU$2.6 billion (£1.4bn).

While the Australian government has said, like the rest of the world, it will “transition” away from coal, its planned replacement is still a fossil fuel: gas. The Prime Minister has even selected someone who has strong links to the gas industry to chair Australia’s COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission.

But the grip of the fossil fuel industry can be broken, according to CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, David Ritter. Ritter told The Skylark that within 10 years, Australia could unleash itself as a “clean energy superpower”, but pressure must be applied from all angles – businesses, citizens, the media – to break the industry’s hold. For Ritter, it is nonsensical that a country so abundant in sunshine and wind should not be pursuing clean energy.

Australia must come across as a bit of puzzle to the rest of the world because we’re a developed country; we’re very lucky and we have a beautiful natural environment. But we’ve had this incredible run of severe climate damage with almost 20 million hectares of the country destroyed by fires over this spring and summer, it’s completely unprecedented.

To give an idea of scale, it’s like five European countries destroyed by fire. Our Great Barrier Reef has now experienced its third and most extensive bleaching in the last five years, again completely unprecedented. And there’s been terrible damage to our World Heritage forests. Our cities, which had a reputation for being beautiful, blue-skied and clean, recently took a turn at being the most polluted cities in the world from the fire smoke this summer.

But we’re also infamous for being really backwards when it comes to introducing the clean energy solutions, which are there to take us on a path to a clean energy future and to a regenerated planet.

We’ve got to get off the addiction to coal

Let’s answer that puzzle of what’s holding us back and grab the solutions. Because the solutions for Australia should be absolutely amazing. They should be creative, they should generate jobs and they should lead, not only to an end to the climate change challenge, but also to the resurgence of the natural world – our reefs, our forests. So, there should be good all round.

The number one thing we need to solve in this country is we’ve got to get off the addiction to coal. Australia, over the last ten years, has been vying with Indonesia over the top two coal exporter spots. We still generate a lot of our power from 20-year-old dirty, ageing, coal burning power stations which, by the way, have pollution standards on them that are laxer than those in the EU, China and the US.

The only argument is not if, but how many people are the invisible airborne particulates from these coal plants killing in Australia. So, we’ve got to kick this habit because coal is the number one driver of global warming, the number one driver of the global climate emergency. Plus, we’ve also got to kick oil and gas. So how do we do it?

100% clean energy sources within ten years

There are multiple expert studies that show that Australia can generate all of its electricity needs from 100% clean energy sources within ten years. We can make the timetable that gives us a really decent shot at keeping global warming under 1.5 °C. If we do that it will generate jobs, bring the country together and create the opportunity to go beyond getting rid of Australia’s addiction to dirty coal power. It puts Australia in a position to become a clean energy superpower and become an exporter of clean energy to the countries of Southeast Asia. It’s a massive win.

And we have the resources: we are rich in sunshine. If there’s one thing my friends and family in the UK know about Australia, apart from Neighbours and the sporting rivalry, it’s the sunshine! We have all that sunshine, all that wind, all these resources, a highly-educated population. There’s nothing holding us back except, I hate to say it, the dead hand of the coal industry on our democracy.

“I once heard Naomi Klein say, the first thing you can do as an individual is to stop thinking of yourself as an individual.”

So, let’s think about that and let’s flip that too. If we can sort out those fossil fuel-vested interests then we also get our democracy back! Whichever way you look at it, we get clean energy, we have a better country, we create jobs, nature comes surging back and our democracy is improved and we can deliver something useful to our neighbours in Southeast Asia. So, if all of that doesn’t constitute a solution then I just don’t know what does.

Creating pressure for change from within businesses

There are some vested interests out there that are keen to make the last dollar they can out of this before it’s not possible for them anymore. That’s a dreadful, cynical short-term view of things, but it’s real. So, what do we do?

Well, we put pressure on from all angles to break their hold. That means businesses saying they won’t buy or supply to fossil fuel companies and saying why they’ll do that. We’ve seen a surge of big businesses in Australia signing up to 100% renewable energy by 2025. We just had Telstra, our largest telecommunications company, sign up to a 2025 commitment this year. That’s great because it’s pressure, it’s demand, it’s pressure from the market but it’s also shifting the political economy. It’s creating pressure for change from within businesses.

When you listen to experts you can accomplish extraordinary things

Of course, citizens need to organise. And we saw a surge in local councils declaring climate emergencies in the second half of last year. The climate emergency declaration – I’m very proud of it because it is an Australian democratic innovation – came first from Darebin Council in Victoria. So, we’re happy to claim that one, although I wish it wasn’t necessary.

We’re seeing that kind of citizen generated pressure making demands on our elected representatives at all levels. We’re seeing continuing pressure from experts and independent journalists who are continuing to bravely tell the truth. For every one of us, there is the opportunity to step up and to make that demand on decision makers and to hold them accountable.

Right now, the real focus is coming back stronger after the Covid crisis. What Covid showed in Australia is that there is a real appetite for the community to work together for the common good. It showed it was also possible for governments to let go of years of false logic and junk economics about austerity and actually invest in the common good. And that when you listen to experts you can accomplish extraordinary things.

A better, brighter future is still possible

So, all that learning, remembering and energy can be channelled into building back better with a kind of recovery that delivers the greatest outcome for society and enables the recovery of nature. But the contest at the moment is that vested interests are back again.

Australia has got this so-called Covid Commission, which our government hacked full of people with backgrounds in the fossil fuel industry who won’t even declare their conflicts of interest. I mean it’s really quite extraordinary. But the opprobrium that’s being heaped on them means that they simply can’t go on with business as usual. We all have to be chipping in and demanding that a better, brighter future is still possible.

“If we can sort out those vested interests then we also get our democracy back”

I think there is the opportunity in every disruption to ask ourselves how do we care for people best in this moment and how do we serve our society as well as we can for the future. With our fires too, our job was to care in that moment for our own and our wildlife and look after our first responders. But it also prompted us to ask how we build forward so we can build a better country for the future. I think we have to do that in every moment of disruption and there will be more of them because of the climate damage that is already baked into the system.

Treat the fossil fuel industry as apartheid was treated

I once heard Naomi Klein say, the first thing you can do as an individual is to stop thinking of yourself as an individual. Together we have enormous power and each of us can think of how that power can extend. We all have our network of friends, family, contacts and institutions that we are part of. Maybe it’s a church group, a workplace or a union. Maybe it’s a sports club. We all have our ways in which we can have shared impact as well as all those individual things too.

I see things like engineers or large communication firms declare they won’t do work for the fossil fuel industry anymore. I see newspapers say they won’t accept advertising from the fossil fuel industry anymore. I see an actor of the quality of Mark Rylance saying he can’t perform anymore for a company that accepts sponsorship from fossil fuels. This is how we make change. When Desmond Tutu, some years ago, said we must treat the fossil fuel industry as apartheid was treated, this is the way we make change. And we do it with speed and we do it with all the vigour that we can muster and just a confidence that we can do this. That if there is one thing we know, it is that when people work together we can achieve practically anything. So, we need to get on with it.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 2nd July 2020

Ritter’s most recent book is The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters and Reclaim our Democracy

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Democratising the conversation on climate

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