For Australia, the need to get away from coal regularly finds its way into the too hard basket – leaving us with one of the world's most pollution-intensive energy sectors and an economy that is rapidly falling behind as the world commits to a decarbonised future.

Australia's political leaders act as though they are permanently shackled to coal, when really, Australia has other excellent options including some of the best solar and wind resources in the world.  This connection to coal becomes less surprising considering the Minerals Council influence on government, including the Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Brendan Pearson reportedly attending a backbench policy committee meeting on the issue earlier this week.

What we need, and what has again revealed itself in Paris, is leadership that understands how critical it is to unshackle Australia immediately from coal and grab hold of the energy transformation that is speeding ahead globally. 

What we need, and what has again revealed itself in Paris, is leadership that understands how critical it is to unshackle Australia immediately from coal and grab hold of the energy transformation that is speeding ahead globally.

However, that's not what we are seeing. Speaking at an OECD side event on different governments' climate policies, Mr Hunt was asked why Australia was  approving massive new coalmines at a time when the rest of the world is desperately trying to move away from fossil fuels. 

"This is not an Australian government project," he responded, referring to the Indian company Adani's proposed Carmichael mine adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.  "It is a private sector firm from India and ... I thought we were over the neo-colonial moment where the wealthy decide what happens to the poor."

According to this rhetorical sophistry the Australian government is being guided by altruism and wanting to give India's poor a fair go.  Somehow Australia has an obligation to provide India with our coal so that poor people in India that are currently without electricity can have a better life.  But this reasoning is flawed on many levels. 

Is it possible that  Mr Hunt truly believes it would be neo-colonial of us to not supply dirty dangerous energy to our neighbours at a time of dangerous climate change – even when their own governments are trying to shift to a clean energy future?

While Mr  Hunt was making his neo-colonial flourish and defending the massive Carmichael coalmine which, if built, could help derail global efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande were launching a massive international solar alliance to expand energy access and accelerate solar power deployment backed by $1 trillion in investment and more than 100 nations. 

The call to move away from fossil fuels in Paris is not coming from radical fringe groups – it has most recently been supported by UN Climate Change head Christiana Figueres and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. They agreed to support reform of fossil fuel subsidies on the first day of the Paris summit – a deal that Australia ultimately refused to sign.

The call to move away from fossil fuels in Paris is not coming from radical fringe groups

 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was actively encouraged by other national leaders to sign a "fossil fuel subsidy reform communique" as part of the international effort to keep the increase in global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. The reasons this is important are clear – globally there is a recognition that we need to stop subsidising big polluters to pollute.

Research by the Australian Conservation Foundation earlier this year revealed the five companies that are the biggest coal industry recipients of taxpayer-subsidised diesel through the fuel tax credit scheme: Glencore Xstrata, BHP Billiton, Peabody, Rio Tinto and Anglo American. These five companies were estimated to have made about $24 billion in revenue from Australian coal operations per year and despite being some of the world's largest and most profitable resource companies, were still receiving fuel tax credits.  For example, in 2012-13 Australian taxpayers provided the coal mining industry with about $767 million in fuel tax credits.

One would think the issue would take on extra resonance in Australia given our proximity to Pacific nations who are literally fighting for their future survival against the encroaching spectre of rising sea levels. Recently the Kiribati President Anote Tong has been in Australia reiterating his call for a moratorium on approving new coalmines or expanding existing ones to be considered as part of a new global climate change agreement.

"The challenge that we are facing is threatening the very fabric of our lives and community and as a people," said Mr Tong. "I have been talking about these challenges for the last 10 years and I am continuing to ask myself why am I not being heard? Am I saying it the wrong way?"

But as Australia has once again demonstrated during the opening days of the Paris climate summit – it's not so much that our Pacific neighbours are saying it the wrong way, but simply that Australia is refusing to listen.

Indeed, the rest of the world knows that the climate and health impacts of continuing to export old, dirty technology are already too great, but in Australia senior ministers seem betrothed to dying industry that keep waving their flags and lining their pockets.

We can only hope that as the Paris climate talks continue Australia's position on approving new coalmines is thrown into sharp relief and over-ridden by a more clear-eyed and conscientious push to secure a clean energy future.


Suzanne Harter

Climate Change Campaigner