Prime Minister Abbott can expect to be pilloried by the usual suspects for his comments that the recent court ruling against the massive Adani coal mine in central Queensland is 'tragic for the wider world'. But take a look at the video accompanying the SMH story on this issue, and you will see that this quote comes right after Abbott's claim that the coal to be dug out at Carmichael will 'power up the lives of 100 million people in India', which is where the coal will be exported.
In that context, Abbott's 'tragedy' statement looks a lot more defensible.
This is not to say Abbott's claim about 100 million Indians should be taken at face value, given that he is evidently playing somewhat loose with the truth when he claims the Adani mine will create 10,000 jobs. But the broader point stands: the electricity generated from cheap coal has been enormously beneficial to the developing world, and has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and misery. Given India's massive energy demand, coal will continue to play that role in the future.
Inevitably, the SMH story also recycles Abbott's October 2014 statement that coal is 'good for humanity'. That statement can also be defended on the grounds that electricity generated from coal has alleviated a lot of poverty. Nevertheless, given the damage coal does to the atmosphere, it's necessary to modify Abbott's claim. It's not coal that is good for humanity, it is cheap energy that is good for humanity. The trick is to generate energy in such a way as to not warm the earth through carbon emissions, and on that front, the Abbott Government can certainly be criticised, as Fergus Green argues in his latest Interpreter piece.
Abbott's critics also need to grapple with the fact that coal is not on its way out. Despite the impressive growth of renewables, these technologies can't quite compete yet, which is why developing countries such as India are still investing in coal. As the FT's energy correspondent Nick Butler writes:
The coal industry is growing. Demand was up last year despite the slowdown in China, and globally almost 30 per cent higher than a decade ago. Coal will soon (perhaps as soon as next year) overtake oil as the world’s most substantial single source of energy, regaining some of the market share it has lost to oil and gas over the last half century.
The first era of coal began with the industrial revolution and extended through the 19th century, thanks to the development of railways and shipping across the world. The second era has its origins in the economic transformation of China which began in the last two decades of the last century, followed now by that of India. The next 50 years are likely to see more coal burnt than in the whole of the 20th century.
These are not random predictions or assertions put out by the coal industry lobby. They reflect the considered conclusions of all the serious long-term forecasts of the global energy market, including those published by the most reputable and neutral public agencies such as the International Energy Agency.
Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Buckingham.